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.
Three years since relieving ruthless Las Vegas hotel owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) of a large chunk of cash Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his crew--including detail man Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and novice pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon)--have tried to live modest legit lives. Sure it's hard to go straight but hey at least they got away with the heist of the century. Right? Not quite. Seems a mysterious someone has ratted the gang out to Benedict who demands his $160 million back or else. Strapped of most of their cash and too hot in the United States to pull off a job Ocean and company decide Europe would be the best place to score much to the chagrin of Danny's wife Tess (Julia Roberts). Once in Europe however they find out it isn't as easy as it used to be. They run up against the tough-as-nails Europol agent Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who once had a fling with Rusty and Europe's premier master thief the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) who seems to be one step ahead of Ocean's crew. Let the games begin.
Ocean's Twelve's crop of A-listers have way too much fun making these movies as they recapture that freewheeling spirit and good-ole-boy camaraderie from Ocean's Eleven. Even though sometimes it seems like they are a bunch of frat boys hazing each other the actors clearly are enjoying themselves tremendously--and so do we. Clooney and Pitt continue to be the suave ringleaders speaking to each other in code while Pitt's Rusty gets the love interest this time around. As Rusty's former flame Zeta-Jones holds her own with the boys but doesn't have nearly the chemistry with Pitt that Roberts and Clooney exude as marrieds Danny and Tess. Actually Roberts almost steals Twelve away from the guys: she gets to show off her comedic abilities in one of the film's most hysterical sequences which involves real-life movie stars and Fabergé eggs. As far as the rest of the gang they all are back and raring to go including Damon who comes off as even more green and eager as Linus and the hilarious bickering Malloy brothers played brilliantly by Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. As for the villains Garcia's Benedict has very little do leaving most of the malevolent posturing and stylish good looks to French actor Cassel (Birthday Girl) as the crafty Night Fox.
With one of the keenest eyes in the business director Steven Soderbergh is a pro at letting audiences experience what seem to be very personal moments in his films. Ocean's Twelve is no exception as we become privy to the locker-room antics of our favorite band of thieves. This makes you as much a part of the boys club as its rowdy stars. Soderbergh describes Twelve as a "movie in which everything goes wrong from the get-go " whereas everything went right in Eleven. This allows for some wonderful comic scenes such as Roberts' escapade and the quick-witted exchanges between the boys. Upon finding out that the gang is now called "Ocean's Eleven" safecracker Frank (Bernie Mac) exclaims "Who decided that? I'm a private contractor!" The film's inherent problems come from George Nolfi's screenplay which tries to incorporate the whole "greatest thief in America meets the greatest thief in Europe" idea. Suddenly Twelve becomes less about planning a heist and watching things go wrong than about a cock fight to see which thief can outdo the other thief. At the end when all the convoluted twists are revealed you're left wishing for simpler times.