After decades of moviemaking years spent honing his craft and sifting through the industry's best collaborators to form a cinematic dream team Steven Spielberg is one of the few directors whose films routinely hit a bar of high quality. Even his more haphazard efforts are competently constructed and executed with unbridled passion reeling in audiences with drama adventure and big screen fun. There really isn't a "bad" Spielberg movie. His latest War Horse isn't in the top tier of the grandmaster's filmography but as a work of pure sentimentality and spectacle the film delivers rousing entertainment. Makes sense: a horse's heart is about eight times the size of a human's and War Horse's is approximately that much bigger than every other movie in 2011.
The titular equine is Joey a horse born in the English countryside in 1914 who triumphantly navigates the ravished European landscape during the first World War. A good hour of the 146 minute film is spent establishing the savvy creature's friendship with his first owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine). A farmer boy with a penchant for animal training Albert copes with his alcoholic father Ted (Peter Mullan) and their homestead's dwindling funds but finds much needed hope in the sprite Joey. After blessing Albert and company with a few miracles Ted makes the wise decision of selling Joey off to the war and the real adventure begins.
Like Forrest Gump of the animal kingdom the lucky stallion finds himself intertwined with an eclectic handful of persons. He encoutners the owner of a British Captain preparing a surprise attack. He becomes the ride for two German army runaways the prized possession of young French girl and her grandfather and the unifier of two warring soldiers in the battlefield's No Man's Land. From the beginning to the end of the war Joey miraculously sees it all all in hopes of one day crossing Albert's path again.
Spielberg avoids any over-the-top Mr. Ed techniques in War Horse but amazingly the horses employed to play Joey deliver a riveting muted "performance" that's alive on screen. The animal is the lead of the movie his human co-stars (including Thor's Tom Hiddleston The Reader's David Kross and Toby Kebbell of Prince of Persia) sprinkled around Joey to complicate his (and our) experience of war.
But even with a stellar cast working at full capacity War Horse falters thanks to its episodic nature. It is a movie of moments—awe-inspiring breathtaking and heartfelt—stuffed with long stretches of underdeveloped characters guiding us through meandering action. Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes the varying environments visually enthralling—from the dark blue hues of war to rolling green hills backdropped with stunning sunsets—and John Williams' score matches the film's epic scope but without Albert in the picture's second half War Horse simply gallops around in circles.
Spielberg is a master craftsman and War Horse a masterful craft but the movie lacks a necessary intimacy to hook us into the story's bigger picture. The ensemble's devotion and affection for Joey sporadically resonates—how could it not? Look at that adorable horse!—but even those emotional beats border on goofy (at one point Hiddleston's character decides to sketch Joey a moment I found eerily reminiscent of Jack sketching Rose in Titanic). War Horse really hits its stride when Spielberg pulls back the camera and lets his keen eye for picturesque composition do the talking. Or from Joey's perspective neighing.
The majesty of the Emerald Isle is on full display in Leap Year an opposites attract romantic comedy starring Amy Adams (Julie & Julia Enchanted) and Matthew Goode (A Single Man Watchmen). Director Anand Tucker (Shopgirl Hilary and Jackie) shooting entirely on location in Ireland takes us on a whirlwind tour of the country’s breathtaking landscape reveling in its fabled fairy-tale charm.
Pity then that such a magnificent setting is so mercilessly defaced by Leap Year’s unrelenting mediocrity. The film’s dubious premise testing the already loose limits of rom-com believability casts Adams as Anna a type-A career girl who flies to Ireland intending to pop the question to her feet-dragging boyfriend on February 29th aka Leap Day. Why Leap Day? Because according to some idiotic old Irish tradition that’s when women are allowed to do such things. (Click here to watch Adams herself try to explain the plot.)
Unfortunately for Anna weather problems force her plane to land far away from Dublin and her would-be fiance. Trapped in a tiny coastal town with no reliable transportation at her disposal she enlists the help of a scruffy abrasive barkeep named Declan (Goode) to drive her cross-country so she can reach her destination by the 29th. And thus begins the traditional rom-com mating ritual of sexually-charged bickering followed by moments of abrupt awkward intimacy.
While watching Leap Year I swear I could hear the Irish countryside quietly weeping as it witnessed Goode and Adams slog through the film's succession of trite misadventures the talented actors straining in vain to manufacture some semblance of romantic chemistry as an assortment of jolly Waking Ned Devine types futilely spurred them on. Oh if only Greenpeace could have intervened and put a halt to such wanton environmental desecration. It's the worst thing to come out of Ireland since The Cranberries.