Warner Bros Pictures via Everett Collection
Even without having read Mark Helprin's novel Winter's Tale, I have the unshakable feeling that Akiva Goldsman's film adaptation does not do the story justice. Speckled throughout the moreover colorless movie are hints of an intriguing idea — a fantasy epic about an angel-demon bureaucracy coexisting with the human race throughout the span of 20th century New York City, operating within the parameters of a didactic miracle-granting system — an idea that doesn't come close to its full potential. In 118 minutes, we barely scratch the surface of the world in which an apparently immortal Colin Farrell finds himself. We see him cavort with Russell Crowe, a malicious gang-leader with netherworld origins, seek guidance from a mystical Pegasus, and carry out his destiny as the savior to a mysterious red-haired girl. But we never truly understand why any of this is happening. Not that it gets particularly confusing; on a plot level, it's all quite simple. But that's the problem — it shouldn't be.
The central conceit of the film is that everyone is put on this Earth with a divine "mission" to uphold. Farrell's gives us the narrative of Winter's Tale, introducing the various rules and officers of the supernatural regime along the way. Abandoned as a baby and brought up under the criminal regime of a Manhattanite from Hell (Crowe), Farrell ascends from orphan to petty thief to horse whispering renegade to whimsical lover of a dying Jessica Brown Findlay to ageless messiah... all without much clarity on the nature of the story (or stories) he's occupying, save for two ham-fisted scenes of exposition — one with Graham Greene (not the dead author) and one with Jennifer Connelly, who shows up halfway through the movie for some reason.
Warner Bros Pictures via Everett Collection
The world that Farrell is woven into has so many bright spots: we're on board for miracle quests, a magic-laden New York City, flying horses, and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood giving a cameo as the epitome of evil. Everything we see is fun, but it all flutters away as quickly as it arrives. We don't want quick bites of the way angels and demons do business with one another on the streets of Manhattan, we want the whole meal. A more thorough exploration of Helprin's world wouldn't just be doubly as interesting as the thin alternative we're offered in Goldsman's adaptation, it'd also fill in all the comprehensive gaps in Farrell's emotional throughline
We don't really understand so much of what happens to Farrell. Even when we're offered tangible explanations, we have no reason to understand why the Winter's Tale world works in such a way that Farrell might survive a 300-foot fall, develop amnesia, or sustain youth for a full century. What's more, we don't understand why Farrell's tale as a cog in this mystical machine is any more important than anyone else's. Or, if it's not, and we're simply asked to watch him carry out his quest as a glimpse into the vast, enigmatic system that Winter's Tale is ostensibly founded upon, we ... we don't understand enough of that world itself.
Warner Bros Pictures via Everett Collection
We're never invited close enough to any of the movie's attractive features for them to matter. So even when the movie does offer entertaining bits — in its fantastical elements, its detail of New Yorks old and new, or Farrell's admittedly charming romance with Findlay — we're not engaged enough to really connect with any of them.
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Still, the flying horse is pretty cool.
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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.
We live in an age where six-year-olds have iPhones most of our possessions live in a "cloud" and even the refrigerator connects to the Internet. Like it or not technology has infused itself into every aspect of our lives—so it seems appropriate (and terrifying) that even Santa Claus' gift delivery operation would upgrade to the 2.0 world. Arthur Christmas the latest film from Aardman Animation (the Wallace & Gromit films Chicken Run) introduces us to the newfangled operation. These days Santa (Jim Broadbent) is just a figurehead for a full-scale war game run by the militant Steve (Hugh Laurie) and his band of black ops elves who cruise the December skies in their souped up spaceship sleigh. Business is conducted in the most controlled manner with each elf equipped with dog food launchers and back-up tape dispensers in case of any on-ground mishaps. On the sidelines is Arthur (James McAvoy) a bumbling black sheep who outweighs the entire force in Christmas spirit but can barely stand on two feet.
The opening deliver sequence is expertly directed by Sarah Smith whose action is reminiscent of the highly energized Ratatouille injected with the quirky British humor one would expect from Aardman. But the dazzling setup doesn't turn Arthur Christmas into a bombastic holiday riff instead using its lead to dig underneath the 2.0 landscape to find true magic. When one present goes undelivered Arthur stands up against his complacent family members to right the holiday wrongs. The anxiety-ridden younger son teams up with his Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and an eager wrapper elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) hitching up the classic sleigh and venturing into the great unknown all in the name of a young girl who might wake up gift-less.
The trio's adventure takes them around the globe from the busy streets of Toronto to a colorful Mexican town to the planes of an African wildlife preserve. With each wrong turn and each obstacle to overcome (outrunning a pack of lions while wearing reindeer slippers is no easy feat) Arthur's belief in the greatness of Santa and the wonders of the Christmas are tested. For kids it might be a familiar existential crisis but the warmth that accompanies Arthur's triumphant spirit should resonate with those young and old. That's an achievement in a Christmas movie but Smith's delicate balance of sentimentality and over-the-top humor blend and keep the movie moving at lightning speed.
The movie's 3D animation and stereoscopic display are top-notch but the real extra dimension comes from the cast. Aardman has a knack for realizing characters supporting or leads who feel fully developed—and Arthur Christmas is no exception. Smith and writer Peter Baynham (Borat Arthur) know when you trap the Claus family in the result will be brilliance: Steve commanding the floor Grandsanta telling "when I was young" stories Santa falling asleep Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) keeping the peace and Arthur reminding everyone that it's Christmas. That's as real as actual Christmas dinner gets. The elves of the North Pole are equally eclectic and odd—even with hundreds of workers scurrying around the ship each one gets their time to land a joke. Overlaid on the rousing tale his a whimsical score by Harry Gregson-Williams that much like his work on Narnia feels simultaneously fantastical and exhilarating (as any good sleigh ride should).
There are so many Christmas movies in the pantheon of the season that it's almost unimaginable that another could slip in without relying on a gimmick or cynical spin but Arthur Christmas is as warm fuzzy and hilarious as they come. Crafted with authentic joy performed by lively voice actors and subtly imbued with jokes for all ages (no frame goes by without at least one sight or pun gag) those who catch it this year may find themselves returning every season. It's just that nice.
As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.
As clever as it can be at times Flushed Away’s plot is still formulaically step by step. Step one: Introduce hero one Roderick St. James (Hugh Jackman) aka Roddy a pampered but lonely pet mouse who lives in a posh Kensington flat in London. Step two: Propel Roddy into the utterly foreign world of the city’s sewers by flushing him down the toilet. Step three: Hook him up with a cute renegade mouse named Rita (Kate Winslet) with a nifty boat who makes a pact with Roddy to take him back to his home in exchange for some riches she can use to help her extended family (32 brothers and sisters to be exact). Step four: Have the two of them then outwit the villainous Toad (Ian McKellen) mob kingpin of the sewer city Ratropolis after discovering his dastardly plan to rid the sewers of the rats. Step five: Happy ending. Not too complicated. We’ve got a mostly British A-list this time around and everyone sounds enthused to be indulging in the make-up free come-in-your-sweats fun of vocal work. Jackman infuses Roddy with the appropriate upper crustiness but who soon warms to his surroundings—and his new friend especially since he’s never really had any friends before. Winslet’s Rita is all pluck and spunk with a keen fashion sense and big mouse ears while McKellen’s malevolent frog is a big blowhard with a goiter. But as is the case with these animated films the side characters provide the laughs. There’s Toad’s main hench-rats—Whitey (a very deep-voiced Bill Nighy) an ex-laboratory rat who’s experimental shampooings have left him bald and an albino and Sid (Andy Serkis) a wiry weasel who is not nearly as tough as he purports to be. Toad’s French cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) a cross between Jackie Chan and Inspector Clouseau is also hilarious. The best part however are the sewer slugs who don’t say much but rather add any musical accompaniment deemed necessary. Aardman Productions and DreamWorks the same folks who gave us Wallace and Gromit movies seem to have perfected the clay animation techniques and incorporated a lot more CGI. Flushed Away is definitely more polished than the W&G’s but the big teeth and general sardonic British sensibilities are all still there. The sewer life is visually bustling using everyday items to create their world such as the bad guys riding hand mixers as wave runners to chase after Rita’s boat. Plus the film is loaded with enough funny pop culture references to keep the adults laughing (thank YOU Shrek!) For example when Roddy is zooming his way down the water pipes he sees a yellow striped fish who asks “Have you seen my dad?” Nope there really isn’t anything inherently wrong with Flushed Away save for an overdone plot. Kids and parents alike should enjoy themselves.
If animals could indeed view their surroundings intellectually and talk to each other it’s entirely possible they’d discuss how screwed up human beings are especially in the ridiculous way we waste food. But hey to RJ (Bruce Willis) a wily raccoon what we throw away today becomes lunch tomorrow. He tries to impart some of this wisdom to his newfound friends--a motley crew lead by Verne the turtle (Garry Shandling)--after they wake up after a long winter’s nap and discover most of their natural habitat has been turned into a housing development separated by a very tall hedge. Yep these woodsy folk are sure in for an eye-opening adventure as the manipulative RJ convinces the gang to start collecting boxes of cheese doodles Girl Scout cookies and marshmallows telling them there is little to fear and everything to gain from their over-indulgent new neighbors. Now if they can only get rid of that cat... If you’re an actor these days the chances to play a serious Oscar-worthy role are just as great as playing a squirrel. Or a hedgehog. Or a guy called the Verminator. Over the Hedge has a fine slate of voices starting with Willis as RJ the raconteur raccoon whose pretty savvy to the ways of the paved and pre-packaged world of suburbia. Shandling is the heart of the film as the mild-mannered Verne who just wants to take care of his little woodland family. They include a couple of married-with-kids hedgehogs (pitch perfect Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara); a hyperactive but tender-hearted squirrel (a hilarious Steve Carell); an overdramatic possum (William Shatner playing it to the hilt) and his embarrassed teenage daughter (pop star Avril Lavigne); and a snarky skunk with attitude (Wanda Sykes who else?). As far as the humans Allison Janney voices a shrieking but vindictive homeowner while the Thomas Haden Church is said Verminator a fat balding but ruthless pest exterminator. What fun! Over the Hedge keeps to the spirit of the popular comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis on which the film is based. The strip focuses on the travails of friends RJ and Verne as they exploit the human world for their own personal gain while sardonically commenting on how messed up it is. Hedge sort of shows how these two might have met and is just a hoot from beginning to end. The images of woodland animal-meets-modern-day people are spot on: RJ’s spiel on how humans get food (“That’s the receptacle to get the food [a phone]...and that’s the tone when the food comes [the doorbell]”); SUVs (“Humans are slowly phasing out walking all together”); the skunk seducing the stupid cat (“I like your smell.”). The best is when Hammy the squirrel getting so hopped up on caffeinated soda the whole world comes to a stand still for him. Side-splitting stuff. Again success in animation comes when you stick with a simple story and create characters everyone can relate to. Plus hilarious dialogue. It’ll work every time.