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.
Those weeks between mid-December and mid-January can hold lots of holiday joy, but they are a veritable wasteland of TV reruns (I know, I know…the dreaded r-word). We’ve got to wait until January 15 for most of our favorites to come back to the small screen with new material, but what about our TV rituals? I expect to settle in and watch my favorite sitcoms on Thursday nights; whatever am I to do? Well, thanks to the magic of Hulu, Netflix, and other video on demand services we can travel through past Christmases instantly when those reruns start to feel a little stale.
Ludachristmas (30 Rock Season 2)
There’s nothing like Christmas in New York and there’s nothing like a New York Christmas on 30 Rock. Travel back to Liz Lemon’s first Christmas-themed escapade (Season One’s was decidedly non-festive) which includes Tracy with a Lindsay Lohan style ankle bracelet to keep him from consuming Christmas spirits, a visit from Liz’s brother, who, thanks to a traumatic accident, is still stuck in 1985 and thinks he’s 17 when he’s actually 40, a plot by Jack’s mom to drive the “perfect” Lemon family insane and Kenneth’s attempt to teach the TGS staff by taking away their annual drunken Ludachristmas celebration and replacing it with bible study.
Find it on: Netflix, Amazon Downloads or iTunes ($1.99), Hulu Plus
Christmas Party (The Office Season 2)
This is what started it all; it’s the reason we wait all year for mid-December when we can see yet another office party gone awry. It’s the first ever The Office Christmas Party. Back when Michael was the craziest one in the building he turned Secret Santa into Nasty Christmas and that special brand of face-palm awkwardness was our reward. We get our first glimpse at just how crazy Jim was about Pam (aww) and Meredith gave Michael a very unwanted Christmas present.
Find it on: Netlfix, Amazon or iTunes ($1.99), Hulu Plus
Christmastime in South Park (South Park, various seasons)
It’s a smorgasbord of South Park Christmas “cheer.” The collection includes seven South Park Christmas specials including episodes that give us Santa double fisting machine guns, Kenny’s resurrection from Season 5, a murderous, yet cuddly cute Woodland Critter Christmas, and of course, adventures with Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo. (Hiiiiiiiie-dee-ho!)
Find it on: Netflix, Amazon Downloads (for a fee), South Park Studios
Afternoon Delight (Arrested Development, Season 2)
Ah, Arrested Development. If I could have one Christmas wish (okay, one TV related Christmas wish), I would wish for more Arrested Development. Since that’s not an option as far as I know (although those swirling AD movie rumors are always fun to believe), we must resort to a few classic episodes and, in this holiday season, there’s only one episode that captures that old-time holiday tradition: awkward encounters with your relatives. When George Michael ditches his dad and their Christmas tradition, Michael and Maeby spend the afternoon together and sing a duet that makes just about everyone feel like throwing up in their mouths a little bit.
Find it on: Netflix, Amazon or iTunes ($1.99), Hulu Plus
Undeck the Halls (Modern Family, Season 1)
It was our first Christmas with Modern Family, and it’s totally representative of the show’s dynamic; the Dunphy's are threatening to take Christmas away from the kids, Manny and Gloria test Jay’s patience with the culture clash of including their Colombian traditions in Christmas and Cam gets a mall Santa fired. Merry Christmas, right?
Find it on: Amazon or iTunes ($1.99), Hulu Plus
Comparative Religion (Community, Season 1)
Of course, it’s hard to top this year’s “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” episode, but in case you’ve already watched it 15 times and are looking for something more vintage, last year’s Christmas episode was pretty damn good too. We saw the potpourri of the study group’s religions reach a head, Jeff challenged a school bully and the whole thing ended with carols and friendship (but of course not without a massive bully smack-down in piles of fake snow). Try to remember that just because this year was AWESOME, it doesn’t refute previous season’s perfectly hilarious and lovely holiday episodes. Plus how can you not love 'Oh, Christmas Troy?'
Find it on: Amazon or iTunes ($1.99), Hulu Plus
MythBusters Christmas Special (Season 5, episode 1)
It’s been long enough that you’ve probably had time to forget which way these Christmas and New Year’s Eve themed myths busted on this classic episode. Take a look back and figure out if reindeer could really hold Santa’s sleigh, how to keep the needles from falling off your Christmas Tree and how much you’d have to yodel to start an avalanche in some wintry wonderland. Ahh, science.
Find it on: Amazon ($1.99)
Saturday Night Live (Season 24, Episode 9, Host Alec Baldwin)
Go back to that magical time when Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey teamed up on something other than 30 Rock (not to downplay the brilliance of their current alliance). Fey was head writer, Will Ferrell was still a cast member and the show produced a comedy classic in the NPR Delicious Dish segment that gave us Pete Schweddy’s Christmas balls. Mmm, balls.
Find it on: Netflix, Hulu Plus (Just the Schweddy clip)
A Very Special Family Guy Freakin’ Christmas (Family Guy Volume 2)
Do you miss the old days of Family Guy? Back when it was really offensive? Take a trip down Quahog's memory lane and watch the episode that gave us Stewie taking an Exorcist-style picture with a mall Santa, KISS saving Christmas from pterodactyls, Brian burning down the Christmas tree (and the house) and Lois going Ho-ho-horrifically insane on all things filled with Christmas joy.
Find it on: Netflix, Amazon Downloads ($0.99), Hulu Plus
She of Little Faith (The Simpsons, Season 13)
After the commercialization of the church scandalizes Lisa, she turns to Buddhism. She then suffers through a holiday season without being able to join her family in Christmas celebration because she’s no longer a Christian. Richard Gere makes the most tolerable guest appearance he’s ever made and convinces Lisa that she doesn’t have to renounce her family’s holiday traditions to be Buddhist. Ahh, remember back when The Simpsons actually shared wonderful little nuggets of wisdom like that?
Find it on: Netflix (Hard Disc only)
Based on a series of six Marvel Comics created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1962 The Hulk revolves around a scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) who following a laboratory snafu absorbs a normally deadly dose of gamma radiation. Bruce thinks he has escaped unscathed--until he gets mad ... real mad which causes him to turn into a huge rampaging green monster known as the Hulk. In order to make this 40-year-old gamma theory somewhat more believable for today's science-savvy moviegoers screenwriter James Schamus and his team decided to arm the script with a somewhat more convincing scientific rationale. The story follows Bruce's father David Banner (Nick Nolte) who as a young scientist conducted prohibited genetic experiments on himself thus changing his son's life before he was even out of the womb. While modernizing the scientific reasoning behind Bruce's transformation makes sense it's a pity it had to be done in such a heavy-handed way. By adding such an elaborate layer to the story The Hulk becomes more about Bruce and David's tormented past and any semblance of a plot is buried in melodramatic dialogue between the characters. The result is a comic book adaptation that is much too serious for its own genre.
Despite the theatrical discourse don't expect complex characters to emerge from The Hulk. Although Bana (Black Hawk Down) is a good choice for the lead of the nerdy scientist and reluctant hero his character is so busy pretending he doesn't have any problems that the audience never gets to see his emotional side. Bana's character grimaces convincingly as he represses his anger for example but he fails ever to open up on a personal level to his love interest in the film his co-worker Betty played by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). Betty is Bruce's old flame but the two are obviously still in love: she is obsessed with fixing whatever is broken about him. As the Hulk Bruce need only look at Betty once for his anger to subside and allow him to morph back into human form. They have weighty discussions about the significance of their dreams and Bruce's past yet they never seem to connect on any level. One of the film's best performances comes from Nolte (The Good Thief) in the role of Bruce's mad scientist father David. Almost Shakespearean at times Nolte--scraggly hair and all-- completely immerses himself in the role. The cast's performances however are muted by the general heaviness of this would-be actioner. Look for quick cameo appearances by Lou Ferrigno (from the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk) and Marvel legend Stan Lee.
For his follow-up to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Ang Lee has turned to bigger greener matters. The Hulk the director's visual effects-intense picture (with a little help from Industrial Light & Magic) is stunning and startlingly well done. The green beast's computer generated movements from his heaving chest to the single leaps that spring him well into a different zip code are convincingly real. Not only does the ground shake when this goliath lands but his momentum even throws him off balance at times sending his lumbering arms flailing. But while the CGI Hulk has been meticulously honed Lee's homage to the world of print comic books--using multiple screens to present concurrent storylines and alternate angles of the same scene--is off-putting: Rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) suspiciously walks out of the lab Betty reacts in one panel Bruce sits back in another. The simultaneous screens don't necessarily show anything pertinent going on making the far and wide close and medium shots of the character's reactions a distraction rather than a helpful storytelling technique. But the most disconcerting thing about the film is that in its leap from the four-color paneled pages to the big screen it lost its wit.