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.
Writer and director Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd The Mighty Boosh) claims copious influences for his feature debut and the film can’t help but remind us of other indie-flavored coming-of-age flicks like Rushmore and Harold and Maude but Submarine is a decidedly and endearingly unique film. In a season where most of the films we flock to see merit descriptors like “super ” “action-packed” and various forms of the word “huge ” Ayoade’s little dark comedy creeps along below the water line ready to pop up and deliver a delightful surprise for summer movie goers.
Adapted from the novel by Joe Dunthorne Submarine tells the story of Oliver (Craig Roberts) a rather strange highly-intelligent 15 year-old boy who’s determined to lose his virginity by his next birthday rescue his parents’ ailing marriage and to see it all retold in an epic New Wave-y cinematic tribute. This idea that his life will be retold on film flows throughout the film contrasting Oliver’s grandiose retelling of his life against its stark realities. Ayoade allows us to see how unreliably Oliver tells his own story but as the plot thickens we tend to get almost as lost in Oliver’s fantasies as he is.
Oliver’s virginity-ending quest leads him to his girlfriend an eczema-riddled pyromaniac named Joanna (Yasmin Paige). He’s picked her out as being most likely to acquiesce to his proposal thanks to various calculated social factors and thus their adolescent romance begins. While Oliver is exploring his relationship with Joanna – greatly consisting of her burning the hair off his legs with matches while he reimagines their romance as captured idyllically on super 8 film – Mr. and Mrs. Tate’s (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) relationship is slowly crumbling. Jill Tate’s old flame Graham a new age life coach with a useless theory about colors (Paddy Considine) moves in across the way sending Jill into a bout of reminiscence and a longing for her youth that stands to threaten her marriage. Oliver being the precocious young man he is is determined to barrel in headfirst to fix his parents’ ailing marriage which he’s been monitoring for months using the dimmer switch setting in their bedroom. (And it’s been on the sex-less setting for quite a while.)
Of course the most obvious reason this film works is Ayoade’s tight script and meticulous direction but the lynchpin is certainly the fantastic cast. Roberts and Paige though both very young fill the screen like two adults trapped in adolescent bodies. Tayor is fantastic as always but Hawkins ably treads the wafer-thin line between goofy hilarity and the complete and total sincerity of a housewife in crisis. Considine’s Graham gets a little cartoonish at times but those moments are reigned in with a little help from Hawkins.
Ayoade lends a sort of film-brat aesthetic to Submarine playing with French New Wave elements and giving nods to films like Love in the Afternoon. Of course the fact that Oliver is so inclined to remember his life in film scenes helps to unleash the techniques in Ayoade’s repertoire. In other settings this combination may have felt a little jumbled but the story almost begs for it here. Bolstering Ayoade’s plethora of techniques is the style he chose for the film. It’s a bit retro but not overly so. Ayoade situates Oliver’s gloomy seaside town in a timeless space that feels simultaneously old fashioned and completely fresh.
Finally tying all the elements together with a big bow is the soundtrack comprised of original songs by Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys. While he had some of the tunes composed before Ayoade brought him in to work on the film the tracks perfectly complement Submarine’s style providing the cinematic drama that Oliver would approve of without undermining the understated reality that he’s so determined not to see.
It certainly doesn’t feel like Submarine is Ayoade’s debut. He’s done his fair share of writing and directing getting behind the scenes on a few British television shows and directing music videos for The Arctic Monkeys and Yeah Yeah Yeahs but this film feels like it comes from someone who’s been in the feature film business for years. It’s seemingly without glaring rookie mistakes or hiccups. And while the retro indie dark comedy vein often lends itself to overdrawn quirk Submarine doesn’t.
Film-brat elements aside at its heart Submarine is a fiercely genuine slightly complicated and completely lovable film.
Animated films may come to dominate the family-film genre but they’ll never entirely edge out their live-action counterparts -- not so long as there exist characters like Nanny McPhee whose charms could never be properly rendered in a computer. After a half-decade away from the big screen Emma Thompson’s magical governess is back to take on a new batch of recalcitrant children in Nanny McPhee Returns. She's gotten better with age.
The second chapter of the Nanny McPhee saga which marks a definitive improvement over the first sends the unsightly taskmaster to the English countryside where Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) the mother of three rambunctious tots (Oscar Steer Asa Butterfield and Lil Woods) has been left alone to raise her unruly brood and manage the family farm while her husband is away at war. (Though it’s never specifically mentioned the film is presumed to take place during World War II.) Harried but capable Isabel’s tenuous grip on her unfortunate situation begins to loosen when a pair of privileged London cousins (Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and a shady indebted brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) arrive to wreak fresh havoc in her already chaotic existence. On the verge of losing control of both her farm and her family she opens the door to find Nanny McPhee’s wart-covered visage staring back at her and not a moment too soon.
Though for the most part a breezy and whimsical fable Nanny McPhee Returns is unafraid to scatter a few dramatic bombshells amid its mix of lighthearted fantasy and practical life lessons trusting correctly that its youthful audience can handle a few bleak bumps en route to its happy ending. The biggest revelation of the film aside from director Susanna White and screenwriter/star Thompson’s bawdy comedic sensibilities (one of the film’s less pleasant lessons: kids never tire of scatological humor) is the proficiency of its child actors so often the weak link in even the best family fare. It’s their winning performances along with that of the always excellent Gyllenhaal that help make Nanny McPhee Returns not just an entertaining experience but an endearing one as well.
Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro) is one of the best assassins the Special Forces has ever seen but it seems "battle stress" has gotten the better of him. Taking off into the Oregon woods he dismembers four so-called hunters with his specially made knife in a short period of time quickly becoming public enemy No. 1. Hallam's expertise as a trained hunter far surpasses anything the FBI has had to deal with and frankly Special Agent Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen) is in over her head. Enter L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) a survivalist and tracking expert who once trained Hallam in the art of killing. When checking out the crime scene L.T. knows immediately who the culprit is. In fact Aaron had written letters to Bonham pleading for help as he began to slip over the edge of sanity but fighting his own demons L.T. ignored the pleas. Now the trainer feels responsible for the way things have turned out (well duh) and has to stop his former student. Or at least die trying.
In The Hunted Jones simply elaborates on the bounty hunter character he so indelibly created in The Fugitive. He is a little longer in the tooth this time around showing more conflicted emotions on his crinkled stony face. The circles under his eyes look a little more creased sagging with weight of the world. After all L.T. has to reconcile himself to the fact he trained men to become expert killing machines. Del Toro on the other hand initially seems out of place as a trained assassin but quickly proves himself as the tortured and extremely deadly Hallam. The Oscar-winning actor's eyes always have that faraway haunted look and he manages to convey a multileveled character who is more than just another soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder. Nielsen (Mission to Mars) unfortunately gets very little to work with as an FBI agent who can't catch her man. She's proven her mettle in dramas such as One Hour Photo but seems compelled to play the "female" in action flicks.
The Hunted could also be called Fun Things To Do With a Knife. Director William Friedkin pays meticulous attention to details especially when it comes to tracking fugitives and the art of making knives and using them to kill a very personal and intimate way to do someone in. At one point even I started to believe I could go out into the wilderness find an odd piece of metal mold it into a knife over the fire and then neatly dispatch my enemies. The film is too thick to be called an "action" film; watching it is like waiting for the molasses to come out of the bottle. Although interestingly the story doesn't follow a typical pattern of "the hunted" and "the hunter"--the lines are definitely blurred--there's still a tiresome back and forth. Hallam is caught escapes is caught again. Friedkin known for filming extended chase scenes such as in The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. uses his expert skills only once in The Hunted when Hallam escapes for a second time. As the wacked-out soldier moves out of the woods and into the city streets with his tracker close behind things pick up; it's exciting and fast-paced but unfortunately short-lived. The action soon moves back into the wilderness and not even the climatic battle of knife skill between the two main characters can raise the pulse.