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 first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Set in a seaside English town in the '80s this small heartfelt tale centers on the relationship between Edward a 10-year-old boy whose parents run a retirement home and Clarence an aging magician and recent widower who is one of the new residents. Lonely and curious Edward has a habit of befriending the old folks only to search for their ghosts after they die. When Clarence comes in both learn new life lessons as the older one comes to terms with his past while the younger boy finds reason for optimism as he faces the future.
WHO’S IN IT?
Michael Caine is wonderful in a startling character role in which the 76-year-old movie icon allows himself to look older drawn and beaten in parts of the film. Although the career of the two-time Oscar winner has been full of memorable performances ranging from Alfie in 1966 to The Dark Knight last year it’s this kind of realistic and moving portrayal that has marked the best of his work. and he’s never been better than in this memorable portrait of a forgotten magician who still manages to discover a couple of new tricks late in life. Matching him every step of the way is the engaging Bill Milner (Son of Rambow) who manages to go toe-to-toe with a screen legend without coming off as a too precocious of a child actor. He’s haunting and extremely natural in a pivotal three-dimensional role that never seems forced. Helping matters immensely is a great ensemble of splendid British stars who play the other residents including the great Rosemary Harris Leslie Phillips Sylvia Syms and Peter Vaughan.
Director John Crowley (Boy A Intermission) wisely lets his actors off the leash to create a chemistry that makes the modest story work its own kind of movie magic. Reminiscent in certain ways of the kind of British kitchen-sink dramas popular in the '60s Crowley resists any opportunity to let directorial flash overwhelm this poignant character-driven tale thereby letting it thrive on its own terms.
With such a superlative cast of British-acting royalty in the supporting roles you almost wish there were a few more scenes showcasing these characters in the film’s trim 91-minute running time.
Clarence rallies his talents to put on a magic show for the home’s residents. Caine pulls this off seamlessly and the sequence is pure delight.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
This quaint film won’t lose anything on TV screens and may be hard to find in wide release so take the opportunity to see it any way you can.
As the opening song belts out fast cars champagne and caviar are what professional basketball player Jamal Jeffries (played by Miguel A. Nunez Jr.) is all about. In fact Jeffries is so taken by his own success that he doesn't sign autographs but uses a stamp. His Dennis Rodman-style antics however reach a breaking point when he strips during a game in front of millions of fans and flings his jock strap into the seats. The stunt gets him thrown out of the league and before he can say "slam-dunk " Jeffries loses his house his cars and his girlfriend. Desperate to work again at the one thing he does best Jeffries comes up with the mother of all schemes: He shaves his legs dabs on mascara and tries out for the women's league--and it works. But as he builds friendships and gains the trust of the women on his team he feels torn between his obligation to his team the Banshees and his need to return to a normal life. If you've seen the 1982 comedy Tootsie you know exactly how this film plays out. Surprisingly Juwanna Mann is not crammed with bad slapstick humor but is an entertaining twist on an old classic with a delightfully sweet storyline.
Nunez (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) not only pulls off the Jamal/Juwanna character with ease but he pretty much steals the show here. His character comes off as endearing rather than obnoxious because he takes his role as a woman seriously and is never condescending about playing in the women's league. Nunez also delivers some great one-liners the best being when he is fighting off advances from the gold-toothed Puff Smokey Smoke. Vivica A. Fox (Two Can Play That Game) plays Michelle a fellow player whom Jeffries develops feelings for. Although it's hard to buy the sweet and almost delicate Fox in such an athletic role she pulls it off--but there is not all that much chemistry between her and Nunez. As Jeffries' crass sports agent Lorne Daniels Kevin Pollak (3000 Miles to Graceland) is seedy with just the right touch of humanity so his character is not completely despicable. The most cartoonish and unlikable character is Tommy Davidson's (Bamboozled) Puff Smokey Smoke. He has some funny lines but is too far-fetched to be believable.
Jesse Vaughan who directed a season of In Living Color makes his directorial debut with Juwanna Mann. Judging from the trailer I thought the film would be a low-brow comedy with a lot of overdone men-in-heels humor. I was instead pleasantly surprised by the film's storyline which--although it is a complete take on Tootsie--is short sweet and non-offensive. While some characters like Puff Smokey Smoke are a bit over the top Nunez's Jamal/Juwanna character is never clownish and well developed enough that you can't help but feel for his/her predicament. Some scenes appear to have a Klumps influence like the scene in which Jeffries is playing cards with his aunt and a gang of her senior friends but the overall effect is a moderately funny film peppered with some slightly funnier moments. Newcomer Bradley Allenstein had the sense to deliver a sweet comedy screenplay that was short enough and knew when to quit.