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.
Part Mean Girls part Heathers—hell there’s even a little bit of Hilary Duff’s ridiculously stupid The Perfect Man thrown in there—John Tucker Must Die fits the genre nicely. But the word “die” is a little harsh. Actually when three high school girls—wannabe journalist Carrie (Arielle Kebbel) head cheerleader Heather (Ashanti) and vegan activist Beth (Sophia Bush)—find out they are all dating the delectable John Tucker (Jesse Metcalfe) the school’s basketball star they decide to get even. After several embarrassing tactics backfire the girls come up with the perfect idea. They’ll recruit pretty but anonymous new kid Kate (Brittany Snow) doll her up and get Tuck to fall in love with her so she can ceremoniously dump him. Wow I can’t see anything going wrong with that plan. Not at all. Talk about some pretty people John Tucker has got them in spades starting off with the insanely handsome Metcalfe who literally had women weak in the knees as the hot gardener who woos Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria. It’s not a big stretch to see him as the sexy Tuck the most popular er player in school. Then there’s the trio of revengeful hotties: tall lean and blonde Kebbel (Aquamarine) as the “smart” girl; curvy singer/actress Ashanti (Coach Carter) as the bring-it-on “cheerleader”; and luscious and exotic Bush (TV’s One Tree Hill) as the “experienced” one. But really its the perky Snow’s (The Pacifier) show effectively playing the “invisible” girl no one knows or even cares to know who moves around a lot whenever her mother (Jenny McCarthy in a nice bit part) breaks up with a “John Tucker” herself. What’s wrong with these single moms dragging their daughters all over the place after their hearts get broken? Betty Thomas best known for her turn as Sgt. Lucy Bates on Hill Street Blues doesn’t have the best track record in town as a director (I Spy is hers for example). But she’s helmed enough passable comedies (The Brady Bunch Movie Dr. Dolittle) to grant her admittance into the club. Problem here is Thomas isn’t teamed up with a sharp writer like Saturday Night Live alum Tina Fey whose Mean Girls script simply zings. John Tucker is pretty standard fare taking bits and pieces from the already established high-school formula. Still the coveted teen market will more than likely enjoy all the antics in the film—especially the whole “thong” bit in which Tuck caught wearing a thong in one of the girls’ schemes makes it cool for guys everywhere to wear thongs. Yeah you get the picture.
A “bedtime story” is a fairly succinct way to describe Lady. Of course a bedtime story being told by M. Night Shyamalan can go into any number of weird and wild directions. The writer/director says the idea for Lady was based on a story he’d told his kids which began with “Did you know that someone lives under our pool?” and revolves around Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) a lowly superintendent for an apartment building who inadvertently finds Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a mysterious nymph-like “narf ” living in the pool. She’s there to complete a task and now that it’s done she needs to go home back to the Blue World. But that’s easier said than done. She only has a small window of opportunity and apparently there’s a ferocious beast called a “scrunt” lurking in the grass around the pool waiting to kill her if she tries to leave. Now Cleveland and a few of the other tenants—who find themselves intricately tied to Story’s plight—must help her escape to freedom. Thank god for Sideways. Without it Giamatti would have gone on playing under the radar without the recognition—and juicier parts—he deserves. He is truly a wonder as Cleveland a sad little man with a stutter who is quietly trying to hide from a tragic past. It’s only when Story comes into his life does he face his personal tragedy and learn to live again. Howard on the other hand who wowed most of us with her stunning performance in The Village doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as the pale water nymph. The mystical character is fairly one note—befuddled and cheerless. But the rest of the apartment tenants shine: Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as a single dad who has a penchant for crossword puzzles; Freddy Rodriguez (HBO’s Six Feet Under) as a weight builder who only lifts weights on one side of his body; Bob Balaban (A Mighty Wind) as a pompous film critic (and as a critic I’m not at all offended when he gets his comeuppances); Cindy Cheung as a Korean college student who is key in telling the epic bedtime story; Sarita Choudhury (She Hate Me) as a quippy young woman looking for her mission in life and Shyamalan himself as her brother the person Story is meant to inspire to write something extraordinary. There’s never a dull moment with this crew around. In a way M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy having to live up to this reputation as a master of suspense and surprise twists. His last effort The Village left many of his fans feeling unsatisfied—and unfortunately he may alienate more with Lady in the Water. But the fact of the matter is he is still one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality who has an innate talent for crafting ingenious stories filled with genuine human emotions. So maybe this time around he’s made a movie more for those most ardent of his fans who simply revel in the way his mind works no matter how incomprehensible and frivolous it may seem. So what? The diehards might feel compelled to defend Shyamalan’s choices with Lady—how he has come up with an entire universe where things like “scrunts” and the “Tartutic” (simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in the Blue World) and “Madam Narfs” interact with humans in the real world. If the story actually took place in the Blue World then maybe it’d be easier to swallow. But that’s sort of the genius of Shyamalan. It’s as if with Lady in the Water he’s crafted a child-like movie for those adults who remember being told wildly creative bedtime stories who then in turn tell the stories to their kids.
We meet the two very unlikely sisters while each are having sex. Rose Feller (Toni Collette) is a successful lawyer who is sleeping with her boss and thinking of ways it can improve her career. Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz) is a party girl and at her 10-year high school reunion--after trying to have a fling in a bathroom stall--she ends up puking instead. Inevitably Maggie gets kicked out of her dad and stepmother's house and winds up on the doorstep of her sister. The Feller girls were close once when they were young girls especially after their mentally unstable mother died. But now their grown-up personalities clash rather dramatically. And when Maggie seriously crosses the line by seducing Rose's new boyfriend the straw is broken. Forced out Maggie stumbles upon some birthday cards from a long-lost grandmother and decides to go hit her up for cash. Turns out Grandma Ella (Shirley MacLaine) lives in a senior citizen's community in Florida that gets its humor from Golden Girls re-runs. Maggie may ingratiate herself within this new environment but isn't any more redeemed by reconnecting with Ella. She still acts like a petulant child. But rather than throwing her out Ella along with the gang of old folk forces Maggie to take some responsibility.
Collette (The Sixth Sense) is fantastic as the frumpy pudgy Philadelphia lawyer who gives up everything so she can walk dogs and lead a simpler life. But she's done this many times before--and honestly is so much better than Muriel's Wedding. Diaz (my personal favorite Charlie's Angel) doesn't need to stretch too far to play a conniving ditz with a heart. This is her There's Something About Mary role albeit a tad more screwed-up with a sister and lost grandma. So that leaves MacLaine as the saving grace for any worthwhile acting in this movie. Despite the obvious shuffleboard clichés--and the occasional leers at Diaz by the old guys around the pool--when the old folk are around the film gets lively and tolerable believe it or not. MacLaine leads the way with the quips and barbs but in a more subtle way than we are used to from this usually eccentric actress. The supporting cast of cranky cronies have some great moments especially veteran actor Norman Lloyd as the blind professor who teaches Maggie a thing or two about manners trust and family.
If this were Nora Ephron directing that would have been one thing but coming from Curtis Hanson the Oscar-winner who gave us L.A. Confidential it just doesn't mesh. Hanson can do quirky (Wonder Boys) he can do adventure (The River Wild) he can do hard-hittin' rap stories (8 Mile) and he can even do scary (Hand That Rocks the Cradle) but why in the world would he attempt a saccharine-soaked female family story that threatens to be a Crimes of the Heart tear-jerker? Screenwriter Susannah Grant who adapted In Her Shoes from Jennifer Weiner's popular bestseller of the same name also wrote Erin Brockovich and 28 Days. She understands strong female characters but there's still a major layer of sugar coating that Hanson can't scrape off. He doesn't tone anything down from Grant's script--not the overly cute dogs nor the embarrassing bridal shower nor the expected moments of guilt-tripping between the ladies. Instead he plods through the paint-by-number script and wraps it all up nicely into a crowd-pleasing film that is ultimately forgettable.