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.
Much as I enjoyed X-Men: First Class Fox’s exuberant prequel/reboot (preboot?) of the fabled Marvel Comics series I was a bit disoriented by its opening sequence in which a Mengele-esque Nazi scientist played by Kevin Bacon attempts to coax a terrified young Erik Lensherr a death camp inmate into demonstrating his newly discovered mutant powers. As the interaction transpires the camera does something odd: It remains static holding its gaze on the characters’ faces affording us the rare treat of being able to scrutinize their expressions without the distraction of rapid-fire cuts or circling dollies or palsy-cams or any of the other myriad tools preferred by Hollywood’s increasingly ADD-addled action directors.
Restraint? In a comic book film? Strange but true. Even stranger is that it comes courtesy of director Matthew Vaughn whose previous comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was so over-adrenalized it should have come with a complimentary shot of insulin. Here Vaughn shows greater confidence in his material his actors and most admirably his audience letting the story hold sway unhindered by gimmicky enhancements. First Class is hardly a throwback mind you – it features all of CGI accoutrements one expects from a proper summer blockbuster – but it has a stylish retro sensibility to it that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In fact were it not for all of its superhuman characters one might not be able to tell that it’s based on a comic book. Whilst devising an approach suitable for his film’s early ‘60s Cold War setting Vaughn a Brit clearly found inspiration in his country’s most enduring film franchise. First Class bears far more in common with The Spy Who Loved Me than with any of the previous X-Men installments or any other comic book flicks for that matter and is all the better because of it.
Playing Vaughn’s Stromberg is Bacon whose character has graduated from death camp atrocitier to swaggering supervillain in the intervening years since the war’s end. Ensconced in his underwater lair aboard a well-appointed submarine Sebastian Shaw as he has re-christened himself (only in the comic book world does a fugitive Nazi war criminal choose an alias with the initials “S.S.”) is secretly conspiring to ignite a fatal MAD-provoking nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
No Bond-inspired film would be complete without a dose of benign sexism embodied ably by Mad Men’s January Jones in the role of Shaw’s right-hand woman Emma Frost. A mutant who can read minds and manifest diamond-plated armor Emma’s greatest gift the filmmakers make abundantly clear is her superhuman rack which when activated turns her into a walking honey trap no soldier or government official can resist. (It’s also the movie's most potent marketing weapon.)
Even our hero Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has got a bit of 007’s DNA in him. Cheeky rakish given to funneling beers and hitting on Oxford co-eds McAvoy’s Xavier is a far cry from Patrick Stewart’s stuffy avuncular version of the character. Though his mutant telepathic abilities are highly developed his human intuition isn’t as he scarcely notices the insecurity metastasizing in his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a blue-skinned shape-shifter in desperate need of validation.
She eventually finds that validation in Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) whose cynical view of humanity bred by prolonged exposure to its more sinister aspects places him at odds with Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between mutants and their unenhanced counterparts. Nevertheless Xavier and Lensherr become fast friends and they agree to collaborate in the recruitment and training of a clandestine force of superhumans capable of stopping Shaw. Shortly thereafter the first-ever mutant all-star team is born.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the comic book knows how this relationship turns out. But Vaughn’s fresh approach to the characters and their underlying motivations helps ameliorate some of the predictability of film’s plot and its inevitable resolution. Like Batman Begins First Class is bound to pursue a pre-determined outcome but it makes brief detours here and there that refresh the franchise without jeopardizing its sacred canon. Vaughn takes great care to appease the film's fanboy base without alienating the broader audience. Though I couldn’t care a whit about Torso-Beam Boy Winged Stripper Girl or a handful of other extraneous characters devotees of the comics will no doubt rejoice in the screen time allotted to their respective backstories.
There are a handful of moments when Vaughn’s ambitions exceed his effects budget but for the most part he proves a dexterous purveyor of popcorn theatrics. Some of the best bits including a spectacular sequence in which an anchor tears through the deck of a luxury yacht have been spoiled by the film’s trailers but they still impress when writ large on the big screen. And there are a few surprises in First Class that remain thankfully unspoiled. Better see it quick before the next ad campaign debuts.
Shedding many of those trappings that make a James Bond movie well a James Bond movie Quantum of Solace is really the first sequel ever in the long-running series. While it’s always exciting something gets seriously shaken and stirred in the translation. Picking up exactly where the brilliant Casino Royale left off we see Bond (Daniel Craig) trying to get to the bottom of why his love Vesper Lynd had to die jumping right into the first of many MANY chases as he traverses six countries. Still on rogue patrol Bond then inadvertently meets the crafty and gorgeous Camille (Olga Kurylenko) who introduces Bond to the evil Dominic Green (Mathieu Amalric) the head of an eco-phony stealth operation angling for some prime desert land while financing a crooked Bolivian general’s planned coup. With the ever resourceful M (Judi Dench) trying to keep him in line at all times Bond must put his revenge plans on hold as he crosses paths not only with Greene and his fake pro-environment front but also the intriguing and mysterious group known as Quantum. In this outing Daniel Craig -- leaner and meaner than any previous Bond -- really becomes a man of single-minded determination and grit. He’s less like the James Bond we know and love and more a humorless killing machine like Jason Bourne (those two should really get together). Still Craig is such a compelling actor that we are with him all the way even if he doesn’t go for the suave Bond moves. Olga Kurylenko is a great foil but not totally in the tradition of a Bond girl. A later encounter with Gemma Arterton as a British agent in Bolivia does however briefly recall the heyday of Goldfinger. Judi Dench has taken the perfunctory role of M and turned it into a full-blown supporting role. Her dry wit and take-no-prisoners attitude is welcomed every time she shows up on screen. French star Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) doesn’t really pull off his villainous alter-ego ecologist while Jeffrey Wright is pretty much wasted as U.S. agent Felix Leiter. At least Giancarlo Giannini returns for some nice moments with his Craig. Although they usually leave the challenging job of steering the Bond ship to an English director oddly this time the baton was handed to Marc Forster known more for his intimate dramas such as Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball. His grip on the action sequences is secure but he never really seems to have a handle on what distinguishes this legendary movie spy from everyone else. There’s a reason Bond has survived as a screen icon for almost half a century but the sort of workman-like filmmaking Forster displays here does not represent 007’s finest hour. It’s almost like the producers had a checklist: car chase on winding roads; boat chase; airplane chase; rooftop chase -- all check. Quantum of Solace is definitely worth checking out however. I mean it IS Bond and we wait for these movies on bated breath. Just maybe next time a little less Bourne please.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.
Pretty people just don’t understand—you’re not safe anywhere and all the sadists are after YOU! As the two geniuses in The Hitcher Grace (Sophia Bush) and her boyfriend Jim (Zachary Knighton) learn real quickly a cross-country trek to New Mexico in a beat-up car is especially risky. During their first night out on the open road it’s raining cats and dogs when they almost run over a man (Sean Bean) who’s standing aimlessly in the middle of the street his car apparently broken down. The young couple decides against lending him a helping hand with it pouring down rain and all. Bad move. When they stop for gas later Jim and Grace cross paths with the man who goes by the name of John Ryder. He asks the couple if he might hitch a short ride with them to a local motel. This time they oblige. Bad move. One aspect the studio must’ve loved about The Hitcher: Being shot primarily in a car the cast cannot feasibly be more than three deep—four tops. That also means that said cast must wear the tension well if the camera is to be on them throughout. Bush (TV’s One Tree Hill) the movie’s biggest asset as far as its target audience is concerned shrieks well and most importantly is smokin'. And when it comes time to fight back she doesn’t look so bad doing it even if there’s scant giggling in the theater at the now clichéd image of a weapon-wielding hot chick. As the hugely sadistic villain Bean (GoldenEye the LOTR movies et al) is more than adequately creepy. There’s something to be said with most of The Hitcher’s viewers’ inability to recognize him because an A-list movie star just wouldn’t work in this role. Obscurity aside Bean his face lurking around every corner will simply creep the crap out of the young audience. As for Knighton he seems and looks like the garden-variety up-and-comer and try as I might there’s nothing wrong with his biggest role to date—except a scene of um tug-of-war that is tough to watch or look away from. Veteran actor Neal McDonough also pops in with a brief role as a sheriff caught in the proverbial crosshairs. These days it’s tough to come up with anything new in a horror film—so directors just don’t bother. Save for neo-horror maestro Eli Roth there’s no originality to be seen especially when seemingly 99 percent of horror movies are remakes and when they’re not remakes they’re Primeval or Turistas. The Hitcher is much better than those two but director Dave Meyers truly eliminates most of the psychological aspect of the original 1986 Hitcher in exchange for a polished contemporary feel. Of course Meyers is one the most renowned music video directors of the past several years so it's no surprise when he mistakes volume for thrills; in fact the decibels will be the chief reason for almost all of the audience’s screaming. Not that there aren’t scary moments however. The writers Jake Wade Wall (When a Stranger Calls) and Eric Bernt (Romeo Must Die) actually get the film off to a brisk smooth start but they ultimately turn John Ryder into more of a Terminator-like character and ask for too many leaps of faith and suspensions of disbelief—again not that their intended audience won’t indulge them. At least the studio had the guts to retain the intended 'R' rating!