Wednesday, 28 December 2011
Although billed as a Cold War thriller, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is anything but thrilling. That is to say, not in the action sense of the term. Tinker Tailor may not have you on the edge of your seat or your pulse racing, but it will have your cerebral cortex working over time in an attempt unravel the film's labyrinthine plot.
Adapted by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan from the classic bestseller by John le Carre, that plot centres around the uncovering of a Russian mole in the upper echelons of British Intelligence in the early 1970s.
And that task falls to George Smiley (Gary Oldman), called out of a retirement he was forced to take when his superior and mentor, Control (John Hurt), botched a mission in Hungary (events of which are detailed in the film's opening sequence).
As his mission involves investigating his former colleagues at Intelligence headquarters, colloquially referred to as The Circus, Smiley enlists relative newbie, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), to help root out the traitor. The prime suspects? Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy boasts arguably the best (British) ensemble - Oldman, Hurt, Firth, Cumberbatch, Jones, Hinds, as well as Tom Hardy and Mark Strong, and a brief but lively Kathy Burke - of any film made in 2011.
It also features across-the-board consummate filmmaking: the screenplay by O'Connor and Straughan; the sepia-like cinematography by Hoyt Van Hoytema; the score by Alberto Iglesias; and the period perfect production design and costumes by Maria Djurkovic and Jacqueline Durran, respectively. It's a film that's hard to find fault with. And yet.
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (helmer of 2008's superb vampire film, Let The Right One In) brings such a coolness to the proceedings in Tinker Tailor (aided greatly by said cinematography and production design), that while I wouldn't call it distancing or difficult to engage with, there is a sense of events happening within a hermetically-sealed world.
True enough, British Intelligence during the height of the Cold War was no doubt a cloistered, secretive world but I could have used a little more heat. No Bond or Bourne theatrics, mind, but a little more pulse to offset the British reserve. Watching Tinker Tailor, my brain was pumping; my heart, not so much.
Still, intelligence and reserve are traits not to be sneezed at in this day and age of filmmaking, where the tastes of 14-year-old boys seem to dictate the majority of Hollywood output. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is very much a film for grown ups, something to be thankful for and to be savoured, even as you puzzle through it.
20th Century Fox Films
To paraphrase Matt King's opening narration of The Descendants, "Just because I live in paradise, doesn't mean everything is perfect". Matt (George Clooney), well-to-do lawyer and family man, may indeed live in Hawaii, but he's about to have one of the worst weeks of his life.
Matt's wife is in a coma following a waterskiing accident, and his rebellious teenage daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), not only refuses to play nice when she's brought home from private school to help out with her younger sister, Scottie (Amara Miller), but drops a bombshell about her mother.
And then there's the land deal involving a vast tract of Hawaiian real estate, passed down from generation to generation following Matt's great-great grandfather's marriage to a native princess. Potentially worth hundreds of millions to his extended family, Matt can't decide if he wants to sell it off, to be torn up and redeveloped as another island resort with a golf course, or hold on to it out of some sense of familial honour and a little bit of pride.
Whether you consider The Descendants as a drama with comedic elements or a comedy with dramatic moments, it is unmistakably the work of director Alexander Payne. Making his first film since the critically acclaimed Sideways (2004), Payne, working from a screenplay co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, and adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, once again displays his knack for mining the laughs from pain and vice versa.
And Payne is assisted greatly in the casting of George Clooney. Even without the facial hair and extra pounds he sported for his Oscar-winning turn in Syriana (2005), Clooney's Matt King is the closest to a schlub he's ever played. Matt might be a lawyer and wealthy land owner but he's several degrees removed from Clooney's more polished roles in Up In The Air (2009) and the Ocean's trilogy.
The events of the week as they unfold in The Descendants prove how little this man knows about everything that constitutes his life, and Clooney walks the fine line between comedy and drama as Matt King slowly unravels, never playing either extreme for effect (although one final scene seems like a misjudged attempt at tear-wringing - or Oscar votes).
Good, too, are the support cast. Shailene Woodley perfectly captures the spitefulness of the rebellious teen, not about to give her parents a break even with one on their death bed, and young Amara Miller provides innocent and inappropriate laughs.
Nick Krause as Sid, Alexandra's borderline Neanderthal boyfriend, will either amuse or annoy, much as he does all those he meets in the film, but Robert Forster may break your heart as Matt's disapproving father-in-law, hitting out, figuratively and literally, in defense of, and grief for, his daughter.
The Descendants has been winning plenty of plaudits in the current Hollywood awards season, and is one of the favourites for the Oscars. It's a perfectly fine comic-drama which many people will find quite emotional. I didn't.
That failure to be moved - along with the seemingly unnecessary land sale sub plot - are perhaps the two major reasons why I liked but did not love The Descendants. It's no masterpiece, and it certainly doesn't surpass Sideways as Alexander Payne's best work.
A family film directed by Martin Scorsese and shot in 3D seems as unlikely as, well, just that. But given that Hugo, based on the Brian Selznick book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and adapted by John Logan (Rango), is a love letter to early cinema and a rallying cry for its preservation - one of the passion projects of Scorsese - this latest venture by the veteran director makes perfect sense.
The character of Hugo (Asa Butterfield) wouldn't be out of place in a Dickens novel. Orphaned following the fiery death of his father, the young boy is left in the care of his alcoholic and absentee uncle, Claude (Ray Winstone), making his home within the walls of a Paris train station in 1931, and passing his time ensuring the station's clocks keep theirs.
From his hidden vantage point, Hugo observes the daily rituals of the station regulars - florist Lissette (Emily Mortimer), cafe owner Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour), and her shy suitor Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) - whilst avoiding capture by the station's inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), a Clouseau-esque cop (with shades of Chaplin and Keaton) with a Doberman, a pronounced limp and an even more pronounced mean streak.
Also working in the station is the mysterious toy shop owner, Monsieur Melies (Ben Kinglsey), or Papa Georges as he is known to his young ward, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Hugo befriends Isabelle, a girl in love with books and longing for an adventure, and enlists her in his bid to uncover the secret he believes the automaton, bequeathed to him by his father, holds.
That secret involves the true identity of Papa Georges, and this revelation in the second half of Hugo sees the film's pace pick up (the set-up takes far too long), the magic kick in, and a patient, film literate audience rewarded. A family film it may be, but Hugo will delight film buffs and cineastes more than it will children.
There are a myriad of film references throughout Hugo, as well as clips from actual early silent films, the most exhilarating of which is Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon (1902). The history lesson aspects of Hugo are elivened by these delightful snippets and Scorsese's obvious passion for the subject.
I'll readily admit I'm more a fan of Scorsese's less testosterone-fuelled films. The Age of Innocence (1993), Kundun (2007), and even The Aviator (2004) do much more for me than his most recent films, Shutter Island (2010), and, for mine the highly overrated, The Departed (2006).
And I much prefer Hugo to those latter films, too. While no masterpiece, it's lovingly crafted - Robert Richardson's cinematography and Dante Ferretti's production design are beautiful - and the 3D, while not necessarily essential, enhances far more than it detracts from the visual splendour.
But if for no other reason, Hugo succeeds for its celebration of film and the imaginative, immersive and redemptive power of cinema. A master like Scorsese knows better than to suggest that films were better 'back then', but with Hugo he reminds us of some of the simple pleasures we may have lost in this, the blockbuster age, where accountants not artists are in control, and magicians, such as Georges Melies, are few and far between.
Walt Disney Studios Films
Unless parents have been paying due diligence in their caretaker roles, then the underlying premise of The Muppets - that Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo et al have faded from public consciousness - is a perfectly solid one, no matter how much Frank Oz, long time Jim Henson collaborator and the original voice of Miss Piggy, doth protest.
Serving as a wonderfully nostalgic dance down memory lane for those of us who grew up with Henson's creations, and a clever reboot of a dormant franchise (it's been 12 years since the Muppets graced the big screen), The Muppets succeeds as both old fashioned and post modern entertainment, and should have no trouble introducing/indoctrinating a whole new generation of devotees.
While Jim Henson passed away in 1990, and Frank Oz refused to be involved, director James Bobin, and star and writer, Jason Segel, whose pet project this was, have ensured that The Muppets has kept their legacy intact. And long time and hardcore fans will not be disappointed.
The plot of The Muppets is that hoary old chestnut of putting on a show - a telethon to save the old Muppet theatre property from falling into the hands of an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper) - and couched within a journey of self discovery.
That journey is Walter's. A life long fan of the Muppets (who seems oblivious to the fact that he appears to be one of them) who, along with his brother, Gary (Segel), and Gary's fiance, Mary (Amy Adams), heads to Los Angeles to visit the Muppets studio only to discover the studio in disrepair and the Muppets long since disbanded and gone their separate ways.
It becomes Walter's mission to bring the gang back together and before Tex Richman (Cooper) can lay the studio to waste; first by tracking down Kermit and then the rest of the gang, and then convincing someone to let the "has-beens" back on television.
But even harder to convince will be Miss Piggy (now voiced by Eric Jacobson). The porcine princess, now the Paris-based editrix of plus-size Vogue, is still a diva and still harbours mixed feelings towards the commitment-phobic Kermit.
Of course, the ending of The Muppets is never in doubt; even first-time youngsters will know it'll be happy ever afters all round before the curtains close on the Muppet theatre and the credits roll. But as they say, it's the journey not the destination that matters. And, oh, what a fun-filled journey it is.
And a great deal of that fun comes from the film's musical numbers; the stroke of genius was having Bret McKenzie compose the songs. McKenzie, one half of The Flight of the Conchords musical-comedy duo (director Bobin also directed episodes of that HBO program), brings an irreverent sense of humour to proceedings.
From the opening number, Life's A Happy Song (odds-on to win the Oscar for Original Song), to a rap ditty by Chris Cooper, and the somewhat risque girl power anthem, Me Party, McKenzie ensures you'll be giddily toe-tapping along even as he's winking and nodding at the more grown-up members of the audience.
But young or old, only the tiniest, blackest of hearts will fail - or refuse - to be charmed by The Muppets. 2011 may have been a wasteland for family-friendly films, but The Muppets ensures that 2012 is off to a great start.
Tuesday, 27 December 2011
I'm not sure if the Swedes have an equivalent term for deja vu but there's an overwhelming sense of “been here, seen that” when watching David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Then again, that's to be expected with a too-soon remake of the 2009 Swedish film which will still be fresh in many peoples minds, particularly those not perturbed by subtitles (the US version no doubt partly made for those who are).
Admittedly Fincher brings a greater directorial flare to the material, based on the bestselling novel by late Swedish author Stieg Larsson, than did Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev. But despite some minor tweaking (including the film's final moments), Fincher's Dragon Tattoo (penned by Steven Zaillian) doesn't do a whole lot to set itself apart (although the opening credit sequence is pretty darn impressive).
Of course, those who haven't seen the Swedish film, or read the first book in Larsson's Millennium trilogy, will find this Dragon Tattoo to be a very impressive thriller; a serial killer procedural that moves swiftly (despite its 158 minute running time) and with enough twists, violence and perversion to sate various appetites.
The plot (for those who don't know) concerns an investigation by disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) into the 40-year disappearance of Harriet Vanger; niece of the elderly Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who believes the then-16-year-old was murdered by one of the members of his wealthy family.
Blomqvist is later joined in his investigation by Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an anti-social computer hacker who has been a ward of the State since she was 10. Plenty pierced and tattooed (with the eponymous dragon), Lisbeth, abused and misused by the system, has little time for authority and a love-hate relationship (mostly hate) with men.
When the pair uncover a serial killer whose crimes pre-date Harriet's disappearance, more than a shameful family affiliation with Nazism is found to be lurking in the Vanger family closet.
Wisely casting a relative unknown in Rooney Mara (best known for that brilliant opening scene in Fincher's The Social Network), is one of the smarter choices the producers of the remake have made.
So good was Swedish actress Noomi Rapace's interpretation of Larsson's anti-heroine, an A-list actress in goth-punk drag just wouldn't have cut it. Mara's Lisbeth is smaller and seemingly more vulnerable than Rapace's but she gives as good as she gets, verbally as well as physically.
And surprisingly, the casting of Daniel Craig also works. Initially I had thought the presence of the current James Bond would be a distraction but he is effective as the non-action half of the duo. One quibble though: while the rest of the cast (including Stellan Skarsgard, Joely Richardson, and an under used Robin Wright) speak English with soft Swedish accents, Craig doesn't even attempt one.
But, as I say, that's a minor quibble for a film that is coolly and crisply shot (by Jeff Cronenweth, and on location in Sweden), uniformally well acted and a slick entertainment overall.
While I don't feel there is any reason (other than commercial, of course) for US versions of the remaining two Millennium films, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest, apparently Sony will go ahead with them and, more surprisingly, they are rumoured to be directed, back-to-back, by Fincher.
The upside of that scenario is, given the deteriorating quality of the subsequent Swedish versions, Fincher's take on 'Fire' and 'Hornets' Nest' will more easily stand apart as his own creations.
Monday, 26 December 2011
Warner Bros. Pictures
Given the amount of gunfire and explosions in the trailer for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, one could be forgiven for thinking that director Guy Ritchie had succumbed to the “bigger is better” maxim which plagues many a sequel; in this instance, Ritchie's surprisingly enjoyable (if not entirely faithful to Sir Conan Arthur Doyle's literary creation) Sherlock Holmes (2009).
And that's partly the case. For what was fresh and fun the first time around, including the homoerotic banter between Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey jnr) and his loyal though exasperated sidekick, Dr John Watson (Jude Law), seems less so in A Game of Shadows.
But it's not all bad. Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler (an unnecessary inclusion in the first film; one suspects to counter said homo-eroticism) is killed off early in this sequel, at the hands of Holmes' arch nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (Mad Man's Jared Harris).
That's who the bullets and bombs belong to. A man of equal intellect to the Baker Street detective, Moriarty is also in possession of a dark side. But he's not so much a psychopath as a profiteer; buying up both weapons and bandage manufacturers ahead of utilising political unrest to spark a world war in Europe well ahead of time (it's only 1891).
It's up to Holmes and the newly-married Watson to prevent Moriarty's plans from coming to fruition, hopping across the continent to France, Germany and Switzerland (via Middle Earth, it often seems), aided by Holmes' politically-attached brother, Mycroft (a comic Stephen Fry), and Madam Simza Heron.
That's the original (and best) Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace, who's decidedly less kick-ass (and in an even more asexual role than McAdams) making her Hollywood debut as Simza, a gypsy woman whose brother may be Moriarty's secret weapon in undermining the European peace process.
If all of that sounds convoluted, A Game of Shadows often is. But it's also intermittently fun, even if more forced than organic. Downey jnr and Law once again make for the perfect odd couple pairing, even if we only get snippets of their bromantic repartee between the running and the explosions; Ritchie brings a lot more of his 'Lock, Stock' directorial flourishes to this second outing.
And Harris's composed Moriarty makes for a perfect foil to Sherlock's cocky sleuth, although he doesn't really come into his villainous own until the third act, where the pair's intellectual game of chess climaxes above a waterfall.
Readers of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories (I'm informed that two or three have been cobbled together here) will know this is a significant event in Holmesian lore, but Ritchie and his writers, Michele and Kieran Mulroney, seem to have hedged their bets with the outcome; no doubt dependent on the box office success of A Game of Shadows.
That success will very much depend on whether those fans of the 2009 film find the sequel to be of equal or greater entertainment value. Despite my disappointment with A Game of Shadows, I'm not yet prepared to declare case closed on Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes franchise, but here's hoping there's more time and care taken with any third mystery. Less explosions and more fireworks between Messrs Holmes and Watson would be an elementary place to start.
Tuesday, 13 December 2011
And with some of those, I've mentioned another film which shares similarities and I'd suggest checking out, as well as an Honourable Mentions list for films that I also enjoyed but just missed out on a place in the 10.
As always, feel free to question my choices but also to provide a list (not necessarily as many as 10) of your own favourite films of 2011.
*Note: lists are compiled from films released in Australian cinemas between January 15, 2011 and January 15, 2012.
For mine, the funniest film of 2011. Yes it’s overlong but then what wedding isn’t? Writer-star Kristen Wiig’s female buddy comedy put the men to shame this year, disproving the ridiculous theory that women aren’t funny. Bridesmaids was also a terrific showcase of female talent, with Melissa McCarthy the standout.
Special Mention: The Help. Not a comedy but a wonderful female ensemble which I'm not ashamed to say, brought me to tears both times I saw it. Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis all deserve awards attention.
Arguably the coolest film of the year, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s homage to the cars and heist B-films of the ’80s was assisted greatly by Cliff Martinez’s score and Ryan Gosling’s intensely quiet performance.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Rejuvenated by a change of locale, Woody Allen’s delightful paean to nostalgia, as well as the titular City of Lights, was one of the year’s gems. An impressive cast – Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Corey Stoll, and a luminous Marion Cotillard – brought Paris, of 2011 and the 1920s, to wondrous life.
Only the tiniest, blackest of hearts will fail to be charmed by the big screen return of The Muppets. Using that hoary old chestnut of “putting on a show”, Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of the gang sing, dance and joke their way through a film that will have adults regressing into childhood and leaving the cinema with a smile on their face and a song in their heart. Opens January 12.
My favourite documentary of 2011 looked at the relationship between man and beast, and found man to be seriously lacking. A 1970s experiment to teach chimps sign language went from good to bad to nightmare for Nim Chimpsky, the chimp involved, when his humans ignored his inherent nature and then abandoned him when it outed and the funds expired. James Marsh's doco was an eye-opener and a heartbreaker.
Special Mention: Rise of the Planet of the Apes. One of the year's biggest surprises, this prequel/reboot was smarter than expected, helped greatly by one of the best performances of the year: Andy Serkis's Caesar.
Easily the best animated film of 2011, Gore Verbinksi’s tale of a chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) suffering an identity crisis was a film buff’s delight. Owing a great debt to Polanski’s Chinatown, and a great many Westerns, Rango boasted a distinctive look and a structure as ornery as many of its characters.
A serial killer film made all the more scary for being based on fact: the infamous 'bodies in the barrels' murders in South Australia. Debuting director Justin Kurzel created a sense of dread and foreboding, while Daniel Henshall's chilling portrayal of killer John Bunting was one of the year's best performances and the stuff of nightmares.
Special Mention: We Need To Talk About Kevin. A similar sense of dread pervades Lynne Ramsey's nightmare of a domestic nature, starring an as-always terrific Tilda Swinton. Kevin made one seriously rethink their views on parenthood.
The best Steven Spielberg film of 2011 wasn’t by that director at all but by fan and one-time assistant, J.J. Abrams. A smartly crafted homage to the early works of Spielberg (particularly E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Super 8 was a kids-and-aliens film with a lot of heart – and a helluva lot of flare lensing!
Special Mention: Attack The Block. The other kids-and-aliens film of 2011, Joe Cornish's debut feature was made on the catering budget of Super 8 but was super impressive just the same.
THE TREE OF LIFE
Did any other film polarise audiences so much this year? Most critics loved Terrence Malick's first film in seven years (and just his fifth in 40 years) but the general public were less enthused. Some walked out, others wanted to. But those who stayed – and stayed openminded – were treated to something beautiful and rare. In relating the creation of the universe and the meaning of life with a 1950s Texas family, Malick's grasp may have exceeded his reach but I'd prefer that to the alternative.
A remake of the John Wayne classic was made wholly original thanks to the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, and leading men Jeff Bridges (in the Rooster Cogburn role) and Matt Damon. But the real star was young Hailee Steinfeld, making her film debut as the determined Mattie Ross. One of the best LEAD performances of the year.
Barney's Version, Beginners, Bill Cunningham New York, The Fighter, Hugo, Oranges and Sunshine, Source Code, Submarine, Take Shelter, Win Win.
Sunday, 4 December 2011
Following the death of his wife, journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) understandably found himself in a rut. Work was no longer fulfilling (not helped by his boss and co-workers' constant sympathy) and his relationship with his children, particularly his teen son, had become strained. What the Mee family needed was a change. What they did was buy a zoo.
The premise for We Bought A Zoo sounds an awful lot like a high concept, family-oriented television series with cute kids and even cuter animals. But what it is, under the solid direction of Cameron Crowe (best known for Jerry Maguire (1996) and 2000's Almost Famous), and a screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, is a family-friendly, and highly engaging film - with cute kids and even cuter animals.
What Zoo has going for it, however, is the reliable star presence of Matt Damon, convincingly playing a work-a-day dad with every day problems and coping with grief, and a story based on fact: the real Benjamin Mee did indeed buy a small time zoo following the death of his wife.
That zoo, along with the Mee family, just happened to be English, but that geographical discrepancy has had little impact on We Bought A Zoo (adapted from Mee's own 2008 book), with the story losing none of its joy or heart in its transportation across the Atlantic to southern California.
Though it's doubtful that English zoo had a caretaker resembling Scarlett Johansson's Kelly Foster; no doubt an underlying reason why Benjamin persists with his mission of bringing the one-time operational zoo back up to code and in time for a summer re-opening.
That's in spite of the stress it places on both his finances (Thomas Haden Church providing an excellent comic foil as Benjamin's concerned older brother, Duncan), and his family. Eldest child, Dylan (Colin Field), hasn't been coping at all with the death of his mother. Expelled from school and constantly at loggerheads with his dad, it will take more than a backyard full of exotic wildlife, including Kelly's niece, Lily (Elle Fanning, playing daffy), to win him over.
Of course he eventually is, and you will be too. For it will take a hard heart to resist the charms of this inoffensive, almost too-sweet but never cloying family film.
Cameron Crowe, aided by a light score composed by Jonsi (of Sigur Ros fame), as well as some classic pop-rock tunes (as is the director's want), keeps the mood just right and the saccharine (for the most part) at bay. (The youngest Mee, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), will certainly test your cuteness tolerance: her latter appearance in a Bindi Irwin-esque uniform had me wishing I could dish out some corporal punishment.)
Matt Damon is also key to the film's success; very few Hollywood leading men could successfully pull-off the single dad-common man bit so convincingly. Even when the kids and the animals threaten to become too much, Damon remains our focus and ensures we buy into We Bought A Zoo.
With an acclaimed and popular stageplay as its source material (adapted here by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis), and a great director in Steven Spielberg at the helm (with regular collaborators - composer John Williams and cinematographer Januzs Kaminski - on hand), War Horse promised to be one of the films of the year.
That it's not, I'd suggest, has more to do with the talent involved rather than with audience expectations. For as much cinematic craft has been applied to the material - about the special bond between a boy and his horse, set against the backdrop of World War I - it is done in such a calculated manner so as to be more distancing than emotionally affecting.
The first segment of the episodic War Horse takes place on the Naracott's English farm, the kind of pastoral idyll that plays home to a goose which thinks it's a guard dog and has you half expecting Babe to trot into frame at any moment.
It's here that young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with the horse (which he names Joey) his father, Ted (Peter Mullan, in drunken asshole mode), unwisely, and much to the chagrin of his wife, Rose (a stoic Emily Watson), bought at auction.
But Ted soon puts the pony to work plowing the top paddock, a task Joey doesn't take to at first - he wasn't built to pull a plough - but which he succeeds at because Joey, as we're told repeatedly throughout the film, is a 'miraculous' horse.
Then World War I breaks out and Albert's miserable father sells Joey to the British army (a much better outcome for the horse if you've seen Mullan's animal-unfriendly turn in Tyrannosaur). Joey becomes the property of Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) who promises Albert he'll take care of Joey - or as much as one can when charging into the breach of German machine gun fire.
This is where Spielberg, who until this point has allowed John Williams' overbearing score to do all the work, comes into his own. Spielberg knows his way around a battle scene and this one, which begins in a wheat field and sees the British soldiers launching a futile ambush on an unsuspecting German platoon, is mighty impressive (although sans bloodshed; we're going for PG here).
Joey survives the bullets (he's miraculous!) and comes under the care of German soldier, Gunther (The Reader's David Kross), whose main concern is preventing his battle-eager younger brother from marching to the frontline and certain death.
Enlisting the horse in his failed escape bid, sees Joey and another horse (an equine pal he made while with the Brits) left in the care of a plucky young French girl, Emilie (Celine Buckens), and her doting grandfather (A Prophet's Niels Arestrup).
This sweet respite from the war doesn't last long, and Joey and his friend are soon sent to the trenches with the German forces, where the one horse will survive (miraculous!) but only to find himself entangled in barb wire in the middle of no man's land.
Simultaneously, young Albert has enlisted in the British Army and made his way to the Front only to come face to face with his own mortality. Will Albert and Joey survive their battlefield ordeals? Will boy and horse be reunited? Will Messrs Spielberg and Williams kindly stop poking me in the back in an attempt to elicit an emotional response?
The thing I minded most about War Horse was Spielberg's lack of confidence in the emotional power of the material, and the audiences ability to feel without being prompted (or pummelled, as the case may be). As a successful stageplay (based on the children's book by Michael Morpurgo), War Horse hasn't failed to reduce audiences to tears, but here, Spielberg requires every emotional moment be underlined by Williams' insistent (though, admittedly at times, beautiful) score.
On the plus side, War Horse is one of the most beautifully shot films of this, or any year; Januzs Kaminski adopting a painterly colour palette which, according to other reviewers with more film knowledge than myself, recalls the classic Westerns of John Ford.
I'll take their word for that (Mr. Ford's film oeuvre another I'm shamefully ignorant of), but what I did notice was the deliberate nod to Gone With The Wind in the film's final moments, a choice by Kaminski and Spielberg that comes across as laughable more than anything else.
Still, I'm under no illusion that what Spielberg has created in War Horse - a family film with lofty ambitions - will find an appreciative audience (among critics and the general public), one which will prove far more emotional ie tear-inducing, for them than it was for me.
Whether that is a natural, organic response or one akin to having your nose hairs pulled, will be up to the individual (I came closer to tears watching the film's trailer). For mine, War Horse proved to be less a noble beast than a failed campaign.
There's melodrama and there's camp, and then there's Pedro Almodovar. The Spanish auteur is one of modern cinema's best proponents of both melodrama and camp, often effortlessly melding the two as he also celebrates the beauty of women – very few male directors are so generous with their female characters and actors – and of cinema itself.
But even a master such as Almodovar doesn't always succeed in pulling it off, and his latest is a case in point. The Skin I Live In is a tale of revenge and obsession and as you'd expect, is rife with passion, murder, sex and more than a little kink. There's also one hell of a twist (which I won't reveal here) that will leave you flawed by its audacity but not necessarily moved by its implications.
Doctor Robert Legard (Antonio Banderas) is one of Spain's leading plastic surgeons. He lives in a villa on the outskirts of Toledo where a small staff are overseen by Marilia (Marisa Parides), while his attentions are focussed on his live-in patient, Vera (Elena Anaya): a young woman who is assisting in the surgeon's pursuit of creating the perfect artificial skin, impervious to insect bite, pain and burns.
One of the driving forces behind Robert's research, which is not sanctioned by the medical community, is the loss of his wife years earlier when she perished in a burning car. But another is the fate, six years earlier, of his teenage daughter, Norma (Blanca Suarez), which is revealed in extended flashback sequences.
Antonio Banderas, who came to Hollywood's attention through his early work with Almodovar, hasn't worked with the director since 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! And much like Penelope Cruz who, once scooped up by Hollywood has struggled to be utilized effectively (Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona the obvious exception), Banderas shines once more under his fellow Spaniard's direction, giving a quietly intense performance which trumps most anything he's done in Hollywood.
Elena Anaya impresses, too. Not only does she bare a passing resemblance to Almodovar muse, Peneleope Cruz (Vera amusingly gives herself that surname at one point), but she is also reminiscent of French actress Irene Jacob, best known for her work in the films of Polish director, Krystof Kieslowski. One of those films was The Double Life of Veronique, which is somewhat fitting (and perhaps deliberate?) given The Skin I Live In's themes of doubles.
The film makes a more obvious and intentional nod to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo – the transforming of one woman into the image of another – and owes more than a little debt to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but the intent and execution of The Skin I Live In (based on the novel, Mygale, by Thierry Jonquet) is very much Almodovar's.
And sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. But one has to admire the gusto with which the director goes about his art, and no doubt admirers of his work will be more enamored than not. One thing's for sure, you won't see anything like The Skin I Live In this Christmas.
Playing both Thatcher in her prime, governing Britain from 1979 to 1991, and the present day Baroness, grieving her husband and suffering from dementia, Streep is at the top of her game.
As the older Thatcher particularly, Streep is sublime. Aided by flawless "old age" make-up, the actress disappears inside the role of a once vital woman who has, for the most part thanks to the onset of dementia, disappeared inside her own mind; rattling around her large London apartment just as the ghosts of her past rattle inside her head.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia! (2008)), and penned by Abi Morgan (who also co-wrote the forthcoming Shame), The Iron Lady moves between the past and the present as the older Thatcher is haunted by both her career - from her youth as a shopkeeper's daughter to her dogged determination to be taken seriously in politics, and subsequent success - and the "ghost" of her late husband, Denis (a solid Jim Broadbent), dead some eight years when the film begins.
Morgan's screenplay veers more toward hagiography than hatchet job, preferring to highlight Thatcher's glass ceiling breaking feats rather than the political and social fallout of her time in office. Those with little or know knowledge of Thatcher's prime ministership won't learn much more here, with real and faux news footage revealing mere snippets of her time in power and even less about the effects it had on the British people.
Perhaps Morgan could have taken a leaf out fellow scribe and chronicler of British politics, Peter Morgan (no relation), and added some much needed shade to the film's "heroine", as he did so successfully with The Queen (2006), where he humanised without sentimentalising Elizabeth II. Or as he did with Frost/Nixon (2008), a film which also posits a former, and much despised conservative political leader, US president Richard Nixon, at its centre.
Political flaws aside, The Iron Lady has always been about Meryl Streep portraying an iconic historical figure. We all suggested, perhaps cynically, that Oscar nomination #17 was a fait accompli but I'd now suggest, sans cynicism, that a nod for Best Actress is almost a done deal - and deservedly so.
But will she win her third Oscar, her first since Sophie's Choice in 1982?! That remains to be seen, but regardless of the film's failings and my own political leanings, I'd happily Vote 1 Meryl Streep.