(On Cable TV, September 2015) At 45 minutes, this HBO sports mockumentary barely qualifies as a feature film, but to its credit, it doesn’t try to outstay its welcome. The joke seems simple enough: In 2000, two tennis players end up playing a seven-day match at Wimbledon. But from a Very Serious introduction featuring a mixture of comedians and real-life sport personalities giving mock interviews (and being inspired by the real-life 2010 three-day Isner-Mahut Wimbledon match), 7 Days in Hell soon turns sillier and sillier, leaving reality far behind as it portrays fantasy portraits of Sweden, raunchy streakers, an aggressive Queen Elizabeth II and more deadly violence than you’d expect in tennis matches. It’s not always even nor focused (there’s a curious diversion about Swedish courtroom cartoons that’s not unfunny, but seems completely out of place) but it’s decently amusing, even as it turns darker toward the end. Andy Samberg is pretty good as a wild-man of tennis, while Kit Harrington has a remarkable turn as his dim-witted opponent. Sports personalities such as Serena Williams and Jim Lampley (this is an HBO production after all) help blur the line between reality and mockumentary, but both John McEnroe and David Copperfield get a few good laughs on their own. The absurdity of the humor is only topped by its crudeness, but it works and at 45 minutes 7 Days in Hell feels like something that will get a few more re-plays than longer traditional films. Best of all; you don’t need to know much about tennis to enjoy it.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) A quick look though this site will show that I have nothing against Paul W.S. Anderson’s blend of action theatrics and simplistic screenplays. It doesn’t always work (Soldier, ugh), but then again it sometimes does in carefully controlled doses (Event Horizon, the Resident Evil series). So it is that his Pompeii puts fancy CGI makeup on the familiar body of a catastrophe film and produces something far blander than we’d hoped for. It’s clear that, for all of the usual hollywoodization of the true story of Pompeii’s volcanic destruction, a lot of work has been spent making the film historically credible. The re-creation of a roman city is impressive, and publicity surrounding the film assures us that the city’s geography is as historically faithful as modern research allows. Still, that level of attention to detail doesn’t amount to much when the film’s broad dramatic plot seems lifted from so many familiar sources. Here’s the brave low-class hero; here’s the forbidden love interest; here’s the despicable villain. (Kit Harrington is just boring as the hero, while Emily Browning goes through the motion as the re-rigueur heroine. It’s Keifer Sutherland who gets the best performance as a delightfully villainous senator) Much of the first hour is interminable as the plot pieces (as thin as they may be) are brought on the table and placed to dramatic effect once the volcano starts erupting. Things do predictably pick up once the catastrophe starts, and there’s some undeniable visual interest in seeing a city being destroyed with fiery rocks once Vesuvius shows what it’s capable of doing. The action sequences are staged with skill, making Pompeii fitfully entertaining. There’s a bit of unusual audacity in the ending, but it doesn’t come with the emotional punch that the filmmakers were hoping for –I’m not sure you can combine camp and pathos in the same vehicle. Pompeii may come complete with a 3D version, but it’s a surprisingly old-fashion sword-and-sandal catastrophe film, built from familiar plot templates and boring until the destruction starts. There’s worse out there, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find better.