Anticipation – Summer ’14

Rather than make a long list of movies for my summer preview blog this year, I’ve decided to focus on the films I’m excited about seeing. These are the movies I’d line up to watch on their opening day over the course of the next four months, in the order of their release dates. At the end I’ve included the titles of some movies I may also see, as well as a few that strike me already as turkeys.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2)

With the reboot of Spider-Man two years ago starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, director Marc Webb cut out the camp of the Sam Raimi films and replaced it with a harder edge. This time you have three excellent actors – Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, and Dane DeHaan – as the bad guys Spidey must defeat. DeHaan was excellent in Chronicle, which was something of a deconstruction of the genre – super powers won’t solve your problems, it will just super-size them. He’s an actor to watch.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23)

After the classic The Usual Suspects, director Bryan Singer made the first two X-Men movies, which were wonderful. His recent oeuvre (Valkyrie, Superman Returns, Jack the Giant Slayer) hasn’t done well. After Singer, the X-Men series made a bad misstep (“Curse you, Brett Ratner!”), but came back strong with X-Men: First Class. Now we have the best of both worlds, with Singer directing members of his original cast as well as their earlier versions from First Class. Days of Future Past is based on a classic story line from 1980, so it has a strong plot as a starting point. The first trailers look like it’s a winner.

Maleficent (May 30)

This movie does a “Wicked” twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale by giving us some sympathy for the Devil – or at least the delightfully devilish Angelina Jolie. It gives backstory that makes the cursing of Princess Aurora more understandable than simply an overlooked birthday shower invitation. Elle Fanning plays the teenaged Aurora, while Jolie’s daughter Vivienne Jolie-Pitt plays the princess as a toddler.  Vivienne had to take the role since all the other children who auditioned for it were completely freaked-out by Angelina in full Maleficent mode. Audiences may be as well.

The Fault in Our Stars (June 6)

One of the pleasures of The Descendants was Shailene Woodley as George Clooney’s eldest daughter. Woodley not only held her own with Clooney, but matched him in magnetism on screen. Now she’s starring in this movie, based on the Young Adult bestseller. Usually in the summer there’s a movie that breaks the blockbuster format for releases, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel three years ago. The Fault in Our Stars may be the movie for this summer.

Begin Again (July 4)

And if The Fault in Our Stars isn’t the antidote to movies filled with explosions, then this one might be it. Director John Carney scored a few years back with the movie Once, that has now become a hit as a musical on Broadway. Here he again explores music and the effect it can have on people. (The original title for the film was “Can A Song Save Your Life?”) He has a wonderful cast to work with: Kiera Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, and “Maroon 5” frontman Adam Levine.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11)

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes successfully rebooted the series, after Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes crashed and burned. The advances in CGI, as well as Andy Serkis’ incredible ability with performance-capture special effects, made Caesar believable as an ape with enhanced intelligence. In this sequel, humanity has been decimated by a pathogen. The survivors in San Francisco, led by Gary Oldman, come into conflict with Caesar’s clan of intelligent apes.

A Most Wanted Man (July 29)

This thriller is based on a John le Carre novel and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last roles. That’s enough to make me to want to see this film, though it also stars Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Daniel Bruhl. One caution, though, is that it’s directed by Anton Corbijn, who made the George Clooney misfire The American. Hopefully Corbijn learned from that experience.

Get On Up (August 1)

The trailer for this bio-pic of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, is reminiscent of Ray and Walk The Line, but with better dancing. It stars Chadwick Boseman, who had a star-making turn in the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42 last year. The movie also has The Help of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as Brown’s mother and aunt respectively.

What If (August 1)

This movie was originally titled “The F Word” and was shown at some festivals last year, but is only now being released. It stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as two people who form a platonic bond of friendship. Radcliffe moved on from the Harry Potter series with an effective performance in The Woman in Black, but the real attraction here is Zoe Kazan. The granddaughter of Elia Kazan wrote and starred in the excellent and inventive film Ruby Sparks. Apparently much of the dialogue for What If was improvised on the set, which with Kazan could be a strength.

Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (August 22)

The original Sin City opened the door for semi-animated movies both good (300) and bad (Sucker Punch). Now co-directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez have returned to town to deliver another story from Miller’s series of illustrated novels. Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba reprise their roles from the original movie, and are joined by Eva Green, Lady Gaga and Josh Brolin.

Others movies that I’m on the fence about: Godzilla, Jersey Boys, Edge of Tomorrow, A Hundred Foot Journey, The Giver, Guardians of the Galaxy, Lucy, and If I Stay.

And there are some movies this summer that you’d have to pay me to see: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Haven’t they reached their twenties yet?), Transformers: Age of Extinction (This franchise should have reached the age of extinction two movies ago), The Expendables 3 (More expendable than ever?) and Hercules (The Rock should have rolled past this one).

Agree? Disagree? Are there other films on your list? Please feel free to leave a comment.


The Pogo Conundrum

One of the most famous quotes from the classic comic strip Pogo didn’t actually appear in the strip originally. Cartoonist Walt Kelly used the corruption of Commodore Matthew Hazard Perry’s famous quote on a Pogo-themed poster for the first Earth Day in 1970, then later on used it in a panel for the comic. While many today might not know Pogo, most have heard that phrase: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” That conundrum is at the heart of the newest Marvel Superhero movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), better known as Captain America, is now located in Washington, DC, working out of SHIELD headquarters. While running laps on the Mall, he meets and bonds with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former para-rescue soldier now working with vets at the VA hospital. Like Rogers, Wilson lost a close friend on a mission. Rogers is interrupted by a call from SHIELD, a rescue mission after one of their surveillance ships is hijacked. Also on the mission is Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). While the mission is a success, it’s jeopardized when Rogers finds Black Widow is working at cross purposes from him. When he complains to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the Director of SHIELD reveals a new project – three next-generation air battle cruisers. When Fury tells him that they’re to protect freedom, Rogers responds “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.”

Fury goes to the head of SHIELD’s board of directors, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), and asks to delay the project. Romanoff suggests Rogers get together with the nurse who lives next door to him (Emily VanCamp), but instead he goes to the Smithsonian where they’re hosting an exhibit on Captain America and his service during WWII. (In a nice touch, they have Gary Sinise provide the narration at the exhibit.) While driving in town, Fury is ambushed. He fights his way out of it and almost gets away, but then he comes face to face with the Winter Soldier, a one-time Soviet assassin with a metal arm who’s been tied to killings for fifty years.

As a comic superhero, Captain America is an oddity. He was the first hero in the Marvel Universe – before there was a Marvel Universe at all. During the dark days of March 1941, when the Nazis controlled Europe and were blitzing England, he made his first appearance in Timely Comics, a predecessor of Marvel. The Captain was tremendously popular at that time, but after the war his popularity waned and the comics were discontinued in 1950. Then, in the 4th Avengers comic in 1964, he was awakened from suspended animation in a glacier to lead the Avengers in the modern world. The movies Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers basically play on these stories. Captain America could have been a jingoistic anachronism – his name alone skirts close to that – but good writing and Chris Evans’ fine performance use the man out of his own time as a reminder of the sacrifice of the “Greatest Generation.”

Winter Soldier goes well beyond that, thanks to a script that is much more complex, and contains more plot twists, than you’d normally find in a superhero movie outside of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The movie harkens back to movies from the early 1970s such as Three Days of The Condor, which starred Redford. In the wake of revelations on domestic spying at that time, the movies had a jaundiced, even paranoid view of the government and intelligence agencies. With the new revelations of spying on a massive number of individuals by the NSA, this is a movie that is topical while still conforming to the superhero genre. It’s a brilliant choice to pair straight arrow Captain America with Black Widow, who’s morally compromised even as she tries to make amends for her earlier actions. At one point, Captain America and Black Widow have a low-level bad guy on top of a building, trying to get information out of him. When he says the threat to throw him off the building won’t work because he knows Captain America wouldn’t do that, Rogers says, “No, I wouldn’t – but she would.” They get the information.

Evans, Johannson and Jackson are known commodities now after their multiple appearances in the interconnected Marvel world. Winter Soldier marks the introduction of Condor, the first African-American superhero. Mackie is a welcome addition, and provides balance between Black Widow and Captain America. The movie was directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, who’d worked mostly on TV shows such as “Community” in the past. At two and a quarter hours, Winter Soldier may be a tad too long, but for the most part the Russo’s keep the story rushing ahead. This is one of the better movies in this genre, with more emotional resonance than the Iron Man or Thor pictures.

Do stay through the credits. As with The Avengers, there are two teasers, both of which set up the next Captain America film scheduled for 2016. I’ve already marked my calendar.

A Tempest in a Mud Puddle

The rule of thumb is that a movie is almost never as good as the book it’s based on. When it comes to the Bible, remove the “almost.” Screenwriters have always taken liberties with the text. One I remember from my youth is The Story of Ruth, which the screenwriter embellished the story by having Ruth be a Moabite priestess who marries the son of Naomi in secret. Even a movie like The Passion of the Christ took liberties by having children stoning Judas on his way to commit suicide. Of course, the real world has plenty of examples of misrepresenting the Bible. In South Africa, the white Dutch Reformed church mistranslated passages from the story of Noah to read that Ham, Noah’s son, was cursed to be the servant of others because of his darker skin, and used that to justify 50 years of apartheid. Compared to that, any embellishments in a movie are quaint. Passions can get inflamed, though. About 25 years ago, there were protests and picketing of theaters that showed Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. While it isn’t as intense, there’s now a movie that has stirred the anger of some Christian groups: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.

The blogosphere has been bubbling with people condemning the movie as being unbiblical, and for portraying God as angry and vengeful. Some are upset that the movie doesn’t actually use the word “God,” substituting “Creator” instead. (That one betrays a lack of knowledge, since the name of God used in Genesis – Elohim – means “Creator God.” It actually appears 2570 times in scripture.) There’s a sixteen-minute movie on YouTube that goes on breathlessly condemning the film and saying its part of a conspiracy by Hollywood to turn people into atheists. But one thing that’s pretty common throughout is the people condemning the movie haven’t seen it and are instead basing their statements on 2nd or 3rd hand sources. I think that a movie should be judged on its actual merits.

So my verdict on Noah is it’s a glorious mess – an attempt to de-sanctify the story to make Noah understandable and therefore relatable to our own lives, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. However, Aronofsky’s indulgent video style and the fantastic elements he adds to the story defeat the purpose. If you want to look, there’s a decent moral that affirms the grace and mercy of God, but it’s not really worth the effort to get to it.

Anyone who’s attended Sunday School has likely learned the story of Noah – bad men, good Noah, God decides to flood the place out, Noah builds the ark, cubits, 2 by 2, rains for 40 days, dove with an olive branch, ark comes to rest on mountain, cue the rainbow! The embellishments start early, with Aronofsky having the descendants of Cain overpopulating the earth like rabbits, while the Seth side of Adam and Eve’s family seems to only have one child per generation. According to the Bible, along with the first-born descendant, each of the generations after Adam had plenty of children. For a movie, it simplifies the narrative so you don’t get confused by thousands of relatives, but it wasn’t only the descendants of Cain who incurred God’s wrath with their violent ways.

Aronofsky has also added a group of fallen angels who protect Noah and help build the Ark. There sort of is a basis for this in the Flood story, since it includes a section on the Nephilim. They were called sons of God, which was one way angels were referred to in the Old Testament. The verses in the Bible have more in common with the Greco-Roman deities than the rest of the Bible. It’s one of those sections that make readers go “Huh?” and it could have been interesting since no other movie has dealt with it. However, Aronofsky has turned the Nephilim into prototypes of the Transformers – rocks that come to life, so the portrayal becomes pretty silly. (Interestingly, the one verse from the section on the Nephilim that is often quoted is that God has set a limit on the age of man at 120 years, though it’s in between the genealogy of Adam, when his descendants live for 700 to 900 years, and Noah’s story, with him being 600 years old at the time of the Flood.) Another visual flourish is that when Noah sees visions several times in the course of the movie, they’re prefaced by an image of the snake in the Garden of Eden, and of Cain killing Abel with a rock. The image quickly becomes repetitive and boring.

Russell Crowe does a decent job as Noah, given the script he’s working with, as does Jennifer Connolly as his wife and Emma Watson as the wife of Shem. Anthony Hopkins portrays Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, and Ray Winstone is the King of Cain’s descendants. The most developed character among Noah’s sons is Ham (Logan Lerman), who has his conflicts with Noah. Lerman was excellent in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which also starred Emma Watson, and he has a face that the camera reads well.

One worthwhile aspect of the movie is its portrayal of the conflict between two attitudes towards Creation – Subjugation, which holds that mankind was given the earth by God and we can do what we like with it, and Ecotheology, which posits that God entrusted man with the earth and we must be responsible in our use of its resources. That’s led some in the media to brand this Noah as the first eco-terrorist, though that’s a hyperbolic overstretch. The portrayal of the flood is interesting, since it incorporates the image of the world held by man in those days, that God had created the world by separating the waters above it and those below it to form the dry land. When the flood came, the waters both rose from underneath as well as fell when the firmament was opened.

Does the movie justify the campaign against it? The answer is no. No one with even a minor knowledge of the story is going to think this is anything but a Hollywood fantasy, and not a very good one at that. Noah would have sunk under its own weight when the first audience reactions started to spread. What the campaign of condemnation did accomplish was to boost Noah to an opening week box office win, raking in more than 40 million dollars. Without the loud, negative campaign against the movie, it’s unlikely that would have happened. It’s been said there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Noah proves the truth of that statement.


A friend directed me to an interesting article about the possible source for the imagery in Noah. It seems to have its base in Kabbalah, a form of Jewish Gnosticism. Gnosticism basically means a belief in “special knowledge” that common people aren’t privy to, and it shows up regularly in religion. Christianity has had many Gnostic splinters over the years. The Nicene Creed that many liturgical churches recite weekly was written to combat a 4th Century Gnostic belief about Jesus. To read the full article, click here.

A Graceful Story

One of the blessings of Academy Awards is that films that had completed their run will be re-released to take advantage of the Oscar publicity. This year 12 Years A Slave was brought back after it won best picture so more people could see it, and Dallas Buyer’s Club went from limited release to wide thanks to Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s winning performances. One other film that made it into wider circulation, even though it was shut out on Oscar night, was Philomena.

The movie is based on “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” a book by Martin Sixsmith. Sixsmith had been a foreign correspondent for the BBC in both Russia and the United States before becoming Director of Communications for the Labour government of Tony Blair in the late 1990s. In 2002, he became embroiled in a scandal at the Ministry of Transportation when he sent an email to the Minister in charge, criticizing the department for releasing bad news in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to bury it under the larger story. The email was edited and leaked to embarrass the minister, and the government in response tried to “resign” Sixsmith. Eventually they would be forced to publically apologize to Sixsmith for their actions.

When the story begins, though, that apology is nowhere on the horizon. Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) isn’t quite sure what to do with himself in the wake of his forced resignation. At the same time he’s come to doubt his religion, so there’s no solace for him there. When asked what he’ll do, he responds that he’s considering doing a book on Russia (the real Sixsmith wrote several on that country), but an editor he meets at a dinner party suggests he do a human interest story instead. Sixsmith isn’t enthusiastic as he finds them mawkish. Then Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), who’s working as a server at the party, approaches him with a story that she’s just recently heard from her mother Philomena (Judi Dench).

When she was a teenager in Ireland, Philomena (played in flashback by Sophie Kennedy Clark) had gotten pregnant by a lad she met at a carnival. When he learned a baby was on the way, her father basically gave her to the Church so they could deal with it. Girls in that condition became indentured servants to the nuns for four years to pay for their child’s delivery, often working in commercial laundries at the abbey that provided income for the sisterhood. Philomena went to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland, and endured a breech birth, during which one of the nuns piously says it’s her punishment for her sins. While working for the sisters, she was allowed to see her son, whom she named Anthony, for an hour a week. But one of the conditions imposed on the girls was they had to sign away their parental rights. When Anthony was about two he was adopted, and Philomena never saw him again. All she had left was a picture of him. Philomena became a nurse after she left the abbey and had another family, but she always wondered what happened to Anthony. When Jane comes upon her mother looking at the picture on Anthony’s 50th birthday, Philomena tells her the story of her lost half-brother.

Sixsmith meets Philomena, whose guileless graciousness begins to win him over. They travel to Roscrea to meet with the sisters now in charge of Sean Ross Abbey. Philomena had contacted them several times before, trying to find Anthony, but the sisters explain the adoption records for the Abbey were lost in a fire. Sixsmith finds there’s more to that story, and a lead sends them off in an unexpected direction.

Coogan not only stars in the movie but is one of its producers and did the screenplay adaptation along with Jeff Pope. The story takes several unexpected and heartbreaking turns – it’s recommended that you have Kleenex handy while watching it – but these are handled beautifully, without telegraphing what is to come or playing for cheap sentiment. (The movie has been criticized for some scenes that didn’t follow the actual events, though the scenes in question help provide the viewer with an emotional resolution to the story.)

Philomena was directed by Stephen Frears, who dealt with creating a story around a historic event in The Queen. Frears is excellent at letting the camera tell the story and capturing small details that speak volumes. He’s also an actor’s director who assists the performers in pulling off their performances. Of course, when your main actor is Judi Dench, you’re already assured of a consummate performance. Dench uses the softest brogue with Philomena, giving her speech the subtlest taste of Ireland. The relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith is a complicated one, and Dench and Coogan make it compelling.

But while on the surface the story is about the search for a lost child, the deeper message is one of grace triumphing over legalism. Despite being sorely used by the sisters in Roscrea, Philomena remains a devout Catholic, though hers is not the paternalistic, judgmental religion of the nuns who tormented her, but rather the grace-filled mercy of a compassionate savior. In the end her faith puts Sixsmith’s agnosticism to shame.

If you missed seeing Philomena in the theaters, I recommend that you buy or rent this stunning film. It is a story that will remain with you long after the credits have rolled.

Small Box to Wide Screen

The first two seasons of the TV series “Veronica Mars” earned the show a rabid fan base. It took the Private Eye genre that was popular before “Law and Order,” “CSI” and their clones dominated the broadcast TV schedules, and turned that genre on its ear by having the hero be a female High School student who helps her P.I. father. It helped that the show had a sharp wit and the sacasm of hard-boiled dialogue rolled well off the tongues of teenagers. The series also blended its humor with a strong dose of adult themes to which teens could relate. One case was broke because of an STD infection. The show ran on the small United Paramount Network (UPN) for those first two seasons, but then UPN and the other small network at that time, the WB, went belly up. The remnants of the two became the CW network. VMars had a lackluster third season after the characters graduated and went to college, and it was canceled following that season. It lived on in DVD sales and reruns that you can still find on some of the cable networks. But the fans, who call themselves Marshmallows, held out hope that the series would make the jump to the big screen.

The two notable jumps have been “Star Trek” and “Firefly.” After its cancelation 1968, after three seasons like VMars, “Star Trek” found a much wider audience through reruns – no DVDs or videos in those days. The conventions began as fans came together, and they later grew into general Sci-Fi and Fantasy gatherings like Comic-con. Thirty-five years ago, with fans clamoring for a movie spinoff, Paramount green-lit Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It had a first-class director in Robert Wise (The Andromeda Strain, West Side Story, The Day the Earth Stood Still) and all the main cast members returned. However, it was not that good of a movie. The script basically was a re-write of an episode from the TV series – and it wasn’t even one of the better episodes. The good news was the fans, hungry for a new Trek, flocked to see it. It was successful enough that the studio green-lit Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, which was written and directed by Nicholas Meyer. That movie secured the franchise, and all the later movies and TV shows in the Star Trek universe owe their existence to Khan’s success.

“Firefly” only lasted eleven episodes on Fox, mostly because the Fox executives bungled the show. They bypassed the two-part pilot which introduced the characters and situation and began with the third episode, leaving people scratching their heads about what was happening (Old West, Spaceships, huh?). They then put the series on the deadly Friday night, and pre-empted it repeatedly before canceling it mid-season. But its creator was Josh Whedon, who’d already become a geek demi-god thanks to “Buffy the Vampire Killer” and “Angel.” When the series was released on DVD, it found its fans. Whedon managed to put together a movie version at Universal and gathered the original cast along with new characters (including one played by this year’s best actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor). But rather than continuing the saga, he gave fans a satisfying resolution for the series. At the box office, the film recovered its $40 million budget, and then did well on DVD. Star Nathan Fillion has referenced “Firefly” multiple times on his current hit show ‘Castle’ – in a Halloween episode his costume was a “space cowboy” – but the actors and Whedon moved on. Serenity was the first motion picture Whedon directed; the second one was The Avengers. He’s a fast study.

With Veronica Mars, series creator Rob Thomas was able to convince Warner Brothers of the viability of the project through a Kickstarter campaign for crowd-source funding. Rather than through conventions or DVD sales, fans this time showed their support for the project by ponying up actual money. The goal was $2 million; by the time the campaign ended, they’d almost tripled that amount. Warners took on publicity costs, and rather than an art house release, the campaign convinced AMC Theaters to book the film.

The good news is that, for the Marshmallows, Veronica Mars provides a much better ending than season 3. The movie is set nine years after the last season, so the characters can attend their High School ten-year reunion. Veronica (Kristen Bell), though, has put the town of Neptune, California, behind her. She’s in New York, about to land a job as a lawyer with a major Wall Street firm. Then she gets a call from Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the bad boy of Neptune with whom she’d had a close relationship. He’s been arrested for the murder of his current girlfriend, a rock star who’d only recently gotten sober. Veronica comes out to help with selecting a lawyer to represent Logan, but soon she slips into her old P.I. ways.

The bad news is that some of the weaknesses of Star Trek: The Motion Picture are mirrored in this movie. In ST:TMP, there is a long, lllooonnnnggg scene just to show the upgraded Enterprise. For Veronica Mars, the problem is the massive cast from the series that came back for the movie. There are so many that scenes seem to have been written for no purpose other than to give the peripheral characters lines. Also like ST:TMP, the plot feels like a retread. It’s not an expansion on the past episodes, like Wrath of Khan or Serenity. A subplot on police corruption involving the new sheriff of Neptune (newcomer to the series Jerry O’Connell), veers wildly from tension to caricature silliness. It could have helped give the story weight, but in the end it’s simply a distraction.

There are pleasures with the movie, such as hearing Veronica’s inner, snarky dialogue along with the witty banter of the characters. Also, James Franco has a self-parodying cameo that’s fun. Those who are familiar with the series will enjoy Veronica Mars, so in that way it does pay off the Kickstarter campaign. However, those who aren’t familiar with it may want Cliff Notes to help guide them through the Mars-ian landscape. Or they could binge-watch the first two seasons of the series before going out to the movie. If more people discover what captivated the Marshmallows when “Veronica Mars” was first on TV, that would be a pay off as well.

Historically Funny

When I was growing up, I loved the manic inventiveness of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” They even went a bit beyond the classic Warner Brothers cartoons with their wackiness and horrible puns. (The love of horrible puns remains, as any of my friends will attest.) One part of the show I always looked forward to was the adventures of Mr. Peabody and Sherman – the original dog and his boy – and their travels through history in the WABAC (way-back) machine. When I heard about the new Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie, I was both excited and a little concerned. Could the filmmakers expand the short segments of the original to make a full-length feature and not wear out the idea? The good news is, yes, they could – and did.

Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) was never adopted as a pup, but he grew up to use his startling intelligence to benefit mankind.  Along the way, he adopted Sherman (Max Charles), and has seen to his education. However, they reach a momentous day when Sherman begins regular school. While he finds some friends, Sherman immediately becomes a target for Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter, Burrell’s co-star on “Modern Family”). Frustrated and angered by her teasing that he must be a dog since his guardian is a dog, Sherman responds by biting her.

Mr. Peabody is called in to meet with the principal (Stephen Tobolowsky) and a representative of Child Services, Ms. Grunion (Allison Janey). Grunion is convinced that Peabody has no business raising a child. Peabody decides to out-maneuver Grunion by inviting Penny and her parents (Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann) to dinner. Sherman is horrified to have to spend time with Penny, and although Mr. Peabody has warned him to keep the WABAC machine a secret, he tells Penny about it. Soon they’re off to visit King Tut (Zach Callison), Leonardo DaVinci (Stanley Tucci), and Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton).

The voice work is excellent, especially by Burrell and Charles who closely match the original voices that were provided by Bill Scott (a writer on the show, who later co-created Dudley Do-Right) and Walter Tetley (who was in his mid-forties when he did Sherman). The screenplay was written by Craig Wright, with additional dialogue by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. This is Wright’s first foray into animated movies, having in the past produced and written TV shows such as “Six Feet Under,” “Dirty Sexy Money,” and “United States of Tara.” You wouldn’t expect it from that resume, but he both captures the essence of the original while expanding on it beautifully.

Director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) keeps the action moving at a fast pace. Some of the visual humor is definitely on a child’s level – guess where the trap door for the Trojan Horse is located – but he also highlights the wit of the story. For the most part, they also get the history correct. The only real jarring moment is when George Washington quotes Thomas Jefferson. But then Washington isn’t really known for his fine prose, so stealing from the erudite Jefferson is understandable.

Listening to the audience’s reactions during the movie had its own pleasures. There was plenty to keep the children laughing, but you also had the adults in the audience laughing out loud. That’s a pretty good recommendation for the movie.

Dull Sword, Retread Sandal

The “Sword and Sandal” genre of films was the low rent version of Hollywood historical sagas. It began in Italy during the silent era, and often featured a historical event such as the burning of Rome with a simplistic story grafted onto it. The genre reached its pinnacle in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly with the Steve Reeves’ Hercules flicks. By 1964, it was all over, killed off by the six-guns of the Spaghetti Westerns. We’ve had an A-list version of the genre in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, but that was an anomaly – mostly because it was a good film – and Starz did the Spartacus series, another take on the genre.  Now there’s a new “Sword and Sandal” movie with the release of Pompeii. It serves to remind us why the genre had its deserved demise 50 years ago.

On the positive side, computer graphics allow the modern filmmaker to recreate the world of the Roman Empire in spectacular detail. Pompeii is brought to life in a way that’s a feast for a historian’s eyes. Kudos to production designer Paul D. Austerberry, visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi, and the film’s Art Department and SFX team for their work.

Apart from that, the rest of the movie is awful. The script is hackneyed and cobbled together from pieces of other films and the Spartacus series. The best part of it is the description that begins the film of Vesuvius’ eruption from Pliny the Younger’s account of the destruction of Pompeii. It’s downhill from there.

The plot begins with a rebellion by “Celtic horse tribes” in Britain, a gross mislabeling of the revolt led by Boudica, the Queen of the Celts. It’s like talking about the Napoleonic Wars without mentioning Napoleon. The Romans under the leadership of the Tribune Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his lieutenant Proculus (Sasha Roiz) destroy a Celt village. Milo, the son of the village leader escapes by playing dead, but he’s later captured by Roman slavers.

Flash forward to A.D. 79 and the grown Milo (Kit Harrington) is now a gladiator in Londinium who goes by the name the Celt. (Think of an ancient Roman version of The Rock.) He’s bought by a promoter who brings him to Pompeii to fight in the arena there. On the way he meets the noblewoman Princess Cassia (Emily Browning) when her carriage encounters a deep hole in the road and one of the horses breaks its leg. Milo put the horse out of its misery by snapping its neck, so of course Cassia falls in love with him.

The screenwriters, married team Lee & Jane Scott Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson, have little understanding of Roman culture beyond what they’ve seen in movies. At one point they have Cassia disparage the citizens of Rome and proudly proclaim herself a citizen of Pompeii. That’s a horn-honking, red-light-flashing mistake. Roman citizenship was a prized possession for all of Italy as well as certain outposts of the empire. For instance, Tarsus was the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia and its citizens were granted Roman citizenship around 65 BC. Thus the Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen because he was born there. Here the screenwriters assume citizens of Rome only means the residents of Rome.

Of course Milo’s nemesis Corvus, now a senator, comes to Pompeii to invest in a civil works project there that’s being proposed by Cassia’s parents, Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Severus (Jared Harris). Milo meets Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a huge Nubian gladiator who begins as a rival and then becomes a friend. And as this pot boiler action plays out, the mountain erupts.

Kit Harrington’s performance is like a watered-down version of his character in “Game of Thrones.” Emily Browning is winsome, but the script limits her to damsel-in-distress duty. Kiefer Sutherland chews the scenery with such relish it almost becomes fun, but like everyone else in this movie, his role is a one-dimensional cardboard cutout. Director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Mortal Combat) may have intended this as a prestige piece to burnish his reputation, but it’s just more of the canned video-game action that has marked his career.

The centerpiece of the movie, the eruption of Vesuvius, gets the generic volcano treatment with flying bombs of magna. In actual fact, it was an explosive eruption that ejected volcanic ash twelve miles into the atmosphere, enough to blanket 200 square miles to a depth of about fifteen feet. It turned day into night. There was also a pyroclastic flow, where superheated gas and pumice raced down the mountain at 70 mph and destroyed everything in its path. The eruption lasted for 24 hours, and at its end Pompeii had been wiped off the map, at the cost of 2000 lives. The ash preserved the bodies in the shapes as they fell, so when the site was rediscovered in 1748, it was a time capsule of Roman life.

There is a good movie to be made about the destruction of Pompeii, but Pompeii isn’t it.