Taylor-made for those who love big CGI effects, Pompeii is a version of Dante’s Peak dressed up in sandals and togas. Throw in some of the beefcake and battles of the Spartacus TV franchise, and there you have it. Director Paul W.S. Anderson’s track record further emphasizes the preponderance of big-budget effects over anything so mundane as acting or storytelling: This is the man, after all, who brought us the Resident Evil franchise, AVP: Alien vs Predator and the truly appalling 2011 version of The Three Musketeers. In Pompeii, gladiator Milo (played by Kit Harington from Game of Thrones) finds himself in a race against time to save his true love from a forced marriage to a corrupt Roman senator and flee the city before it is engulfed in the eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Harrington battles his way through hordes of enemies as the city crumbles, dodging fire showers and tidal waves all the while fetchingly kitted out in leather. It goes without saying that the movie is in 3D, but the effects are all a bit tame, not nearly good enough to overcome the film’s complete lack of drama.
Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey has come a very long way indeed from the infinitely forgettable actor he was back in the days of Sahara and Failure to Launch. In Dallas Buyers Club he proves that he has established himself as a versatile and powerful actor able to take on melodramatic roles and imbue them with layers of tragedy and humor. As Ron Woodroof, a homophobic rodeo hustler who is diagnosed with AIDS, he manages to be appalling and appealing, tragic and pathetic all at the same time. Woodroof draws on his lifetime of scamming after he is told he only has 30 days to live in order to obtain the trial drug AZT and other unapproved drugs for himself, and subsequently for others. The background is a grim tale of the height of the AIDS epidemic, and the foreground a story of a little guy who takes on the pharmaceutical giants. It is refreshingly free of sentimentality, and McConaughey portrays Woodroof as a man with an overwhelming lust for life and is not subject to the humbling epiphanies that are the stock in trade of such films.
Saving Mr Banks
The novel and the Walt Disney film Mary Poppins have established themselves as classics of children’s fiction and musical cinema. Saving Mr Banks is the story of the transition of that classic from the page to the silver screen. The film features two greats of cinema, Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, who play Walt Disney and the author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers. It would be easy to play the rocky relationship between Disney and Travers as a collection of trans-Atlantic cliches, but both Hanks and Thompson are experience actors in top form, and they manage to build up a real chemistry that gives the attempts of each to understand the other real emotional depth. There is splendid support work from Paul Giamatti as a chauffeur who drives Travers around Hollywood. Colin Farrell, who plays Travers’ father in flashbacks to her childhood is more melodramatic, and is more or less appealing depending on how much one can stomach Farrell’s Irish rogue routine. The story is well told and consistently interesting, the period setting lovingly recreated, and the script tightly crafted if not particularly inspired.
A well balanced drama that deals with serious social issues with a light touch that never undermines the injustice at the heart of the film. In Philomena, a world-weary political journalist, Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan, who also has a writing credit) picks up the story of an Irish woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent. Sixsmith attempts to reunite mother and child after many years and discovers terrible things about the inhumanity of the convent’s sisters. On this journalistic exploration Sixsmith is accompanied by the title character, played with grace and impish humor by Judi Dench. Much of the film is carried by the splendid interaction between Sixsmith and Philomena, who are separated by a huge gulf of education, class and character. The development of the story also manages to defy expectations, sidestepping the pitfalls of what could have easily been a heavy-handed tearjerker. This film comes off the back of some rather lackluster efforts by director Stephen Frears, and is without doubt his best film since The Queen.