As awards season comes to an end (finally) and Christians prepare for Lent to begin, many are focusing on ashes, specifically those that will be smudged on their foreheads this Ash Wednesday by penitence-prescribing clergy. More religious moviegoers may feel inspired to see Son of God, the new theatrical feature whittled down from TV’s ratings-busting The Bible last season. When I think of ashes and current movies, though, I can’t help but mention Pompeii... even if I can’t recommend it very strongly.
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (best known for the Resident Evil series) with some style but no particular flair, Pompeii has at its heart an overly-familiar story about a poor, enslaved gladiator named Milo (played by Kit Harington, who is blessed with abs to spare but little aptitude for facial expressions) and the privileged but reform-minded daughter (Sucker Punch’s Emily Browning) of the coastal title city’s leading citizens. Things heat up dramatically when the vicious Roman senator responsible for the death of Milo’s parents shows up, and they heat up literally once Mount Vesuvius begins to smolder and belch.
As the villainous Senator Corvus, Kiefer Sutherland seems to be having fun doing his best Laurence Olivier impression. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, so memorable from TV’s Oz and Lost, gives the most credible performance in the film as a fellow fighter who serves initially as Milo’s adversary but eventually becomes his best bud. However, Pompeii is a slog until Vesuvius blows its top in the second half, but then the digital mayhem quickly becomes routine and boring. Continuity problems also abound, i.e. one shot of the volcano with lava flowing down its slopes is followed a short time later by a lava-free shot, and when Corvus’ right-hand man Proculus (played by the hot Sasha Roiz, who played gay Sam Adama on Caprica) is seemingly left to die at the hands of enraged gladiators only to appear in the next scene without a scratch on him. Hardcore fans of Spartacus may find Pompeii enjoyable but few others will.
A much better new release dabbling in Lenten themes of death, sacrifice, sin and redemption is Stephen Sommers’ lively adaptation of Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. Koontz hasn’t had much success on the big screen, unlike fellow suspense novelist Stephen King. This film could change Koontz’s cinematic prospects if it gets a wider release.
Anton Yelchin, best known as Chekov in the new Star Trek movies, stars as a young man who can see ghosts and subsequently helps the police in his suburban California town solve the deceased’s previously-unsolved deaths. Thomas, understandably viewed as odd by his neighbors (hence the book and film’s title), begins to notice an increase in the local number of creepy, mostly invisible demons drawn to death known as Bodaks and soon deduces that a terrorist attack by a secretive satanic cult is in the works. “I may see dead people,” OT declares, “but then, by God, I do something about it.”
With his devoted girlfriend, Stormy (the pretty and engaging Addison Timlin), and sympathetic police chief (a nice turn by Willem Dafoe) on his side, Thomas hunts the would-be assassins down. In the process, though, he has to battle a zombie dubbed “Fungus Bob” (played by Broadway musical vet Shuler Hensley) as well as those hordes of Bodaks.
Director Sommers is best known for The Mummy franchise and, more recently, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. He is a master of special FX mayhem but here his style is, to the film’s ultimate advantage, up against a more limited budget. Pierre Buffin’s visual effects are still very impressive and I only detected a few instances of sloppy editing worthy of criticism. Odd Thomas features the best combination of scares, comedy, romance, eye-popping special effects and good ol’ sass since 1990’s Ghost. At any rate, it’s a lot better than 1996's The Frighteners. See it and enjoy.
The movie version of playwright Del Shores’ religion-tinged classic (at least in gay circles) Southern Baptist Sissies is also hitting theaters in Los Angeles and other US cities this week as Lent gets underway. To call it stagey is an understatement, since it is simply a filmed version of a performance of the play. As such, it is also overlong at 138 minutes without the benefit of an intermission and comes across as preachy and pedantic, the very things Shores is criticizing.
His semi-autobiographical plot centers on four young men growing up gay in their conservative, Southern Baptist church and their struggles to reconcile their sexuality with the church’s anti-gay teachings. Leslie Jordan and Ann Walker, veterans of Shores’ previous play and movie Sordid Lives, are on hand occasionally in funny but also extraneous scenes set in a gay bar.
Southern Baptist Sissies, the movie, has won a fair number of audience awards to date at various film festivals so I may be in the minority in terms of my less than enthusiastic opinion of it. I think I would actually prefer to attend a traditional Southern Baptist church service than have to sit through the film again. Consider it my penance.
Odd Thomas: A-
Southern Baptist Sissies: C-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.