The Guard


In Ireland, fighting crime starts when they're young.

In Ireland, fighting crime starts when they’re young.

(2011) Comedy (Sony Classics) Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, Fionnula Flanagan, David Wilmot, Rory Keenan, Pat Shortt, Katarina Cas, Declan Mannlen, Dominique McElligott, Owen Sharpe, David Pearce, Wale Ojo, Sarah Greene, Darren Healey, Michael Og Lane, Laurence Kinlan, Gary Lydon, Laura Hitchings. Directed by John Michael McDonagh

Offshoring

In a cop buddy film, it always helps if you get complete opposites as partners – check. There needs to be terrific chemistry between the two partners – check. They need to have some pretty nasty baddies to go up against – check. Fun to watch? Read on…

Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) is a member of the Garda (the Irish State police) in the tiny village of Connemara in County Galway. He is liable to drink on the job, spends time with hookers (Greene, McElligott) and his mom (Flanagan), dying in a senior home, in about equal quantities. He spouts off vaguely racist epithets when boozing in the pubs – which is often.

When a body is discovered (with pages of the Bible stuffed in his mouth and a message written in blood on the wall), Gerry doesn’t think too much of it. He honestly doesn’t believe he’ll ever get the resources to solve the crime – on that count he’s wrong, however.

A stick-up-his-ass FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Cheadle) is assigned to the case as it is believed that it is the work of a major drug operation working in the area. Boyle, as one of the senior Garda officers in the region, is assigned to Agent Everett because of his knowledge of the locality. Gerry reacts to this with the same enthusiasm as he might drinking a Slovakian whiskey. It might be good, but it’s not Irish.

The two bicker like an old married couple with Gerry constantly testing Agent Everett’s laid-back demeanor with outrageous statements or questions. Apparently he thinks, or at least to Agent Everett’s perspective, that because Agent Everett is an African-American that he’s an expert on all things ghetto as seen on the American television shows that have made their way to the Emerald Isle.

Still, the triad of drug runners – O’Leary (Wilmot), Sheehy-Skeffington (Cunningham) and their leader Cornell (Strong) are especially vicious and not opposed to burying an FBI agent or a Garda in a shallow unmarked grave if need be. Both men will have to learn to trust and depend on one another if they are not only to survive but to in fact solve the case.

There’s a lot to like about a film like this. McDonagh gives the movie an easygoing Irish charm. There is a lot of sniping back and forth in a way that feels familiar and comfortable, much the way barflies do “take the piss” out of each other. To that end he has done a great job in casting, starting with Gleeson, a gruff and tumble character actor who has that Irish charm that can’t be taught. Making matters even better is the addition of Cheadle, one of the more capable actors working today, who can do drama and comedy with equal precision. The two pros work exceedingly well together and create a partnership that is believable and fun to watch.

The rest of the cast is just as strong, much of it Irish and local to County Galway. There isn’t a performance wasted here and everyone not only knows what’s expected of them but delivers. This is as fluid an ensemble as you’re likely to get, with everyone working well together, even the extras.

Granted, if you’re looking for innovation in cop buddy movies, you won’t find it here. The plot is pretty standard and predictable and despite the lovely Irish edge that the production has, it doesn’t cover up that this is a pretty unremarkable story that most cop film lovers will see what’s coming in throughout. There are also a few slow spots in which not a lot happens, which could easily have been edited out.

That notwithstanding, this is still a pretty damn good film which slipped under a lot of radars here in the States, undeservedly so. If you like cop buddy films and haven’t seen this, by all means do. In fact if you haven’t seen this film, by all means do. The movie is more than entertaining enough for any audiences, but if you’re sensitive to certain words (the one that the Irish pronounce that rhymes with “kook”) be warned that the F bomb is dropped repeatedly to the point that fifteen minutes into the film you become numbed to it as it is used like Americans use “umm” or “err.” Otherwise this is one of those overlooked gems you’ll thank me for hooking you up with.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent chemistry between Gleeson and Cheadle, and also Gleeson and Flanagan. A laconic Irish charm.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing really daring or innovative plot-wise. Drags in a couple of places.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language (nobody curses like the Irish), a little bit of violence, some drug use and a wee bit of sexuality here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh, director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a few outtakes and the short The Second Death by McDonagh which includes several cast members from The Guard and introduces an early version of Gerry Boyle. There’s also a festival Q&A with Gleeson, Cheadle and McDonagh.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.6M on a $6M production budget; this constitutes a minor hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hot Fuzz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 4

Centurion


 

Centurion

Michael Fassbender runs for the nearest X-Men movie.

(2010) Swords and Sandals (Magnet) Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, JJ Field, Liam Cunningham, Imogen Poots, Andreas Wisniewski, Paul Freeman, Ulrich Thomsen, Rachael Stirling, Eoin Macken. Directed by Neil Marshall

War can be boiled down to a basic truth – one group, who want the other to leave, against the second group, who only want to go home. I suppose a lot of wars would end with much less bloodshed if the second group just did what the first wanted – and what they wanted to do anyway.

Quintus Dias (Fassbender) is a centurion of the Roman army (which means he commands 100 men) who survives a massacre in Caledonia (ancient Scotland) where the Picts hold sway. He joins up with the Ninth Legion, commanded by General Titus Virilus (West). Virilus is the commanding officer that Quintus always wanted to have. Brave, bold and every inch a Roman.

But as things will sometimes do even in the best-led of armies, things go wrong. The Ninth is ambushed by the clever Picts who kill the bulk of the army and capture Virilus. Quintus knows his duty is to rescue his commanding officer and his friend but with only a handful of soldiers whose devotion to duty varies wildly from man to man to battle an entire army of vicious Picts, the prospects are grim.

Still, Quintus has to try but in the end the existence of their merry little band is discovered and the Picts send out Etain (Kurylenko), a beautiful, mute and remorseless hunter who hates everything Roman and for good reason. When the remaining Romans take refuge in the home of Arianne (Poots), a healer, things fall in place for a showdown. Will the Romans make it back to Roman lines, or will they fall alone and forgotten in a cold, harsh place far from home?

This could well be seen as an allegory for all war. Put U.S. Soldiers in Iraq, or Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, or French soldiers in Russia and it’s all interchangeable. Neil Marshall, who was responsible for one of the better horror movies of recent years with The Descent has a penchant for realistic looking gore, and his fight scenes show people getting hacked to death and it’s not pretty.

Although there are way too many shots of CGI blood jetting into the snow like a gruesome fountain – the practical blood seems far more realistic – there is a beauty to the bright red of the blood on the white and grey dismal landscape of the Inverness Mountains. There is a stark beauty to the movie that captures how those Romans must have felt – they may as well have been on the moon, so alien was the landscape to them.

Fassbender made this just as he was starting to get some key roles (to this point he was best known for Hunger and for his brief but memorable turn in Inglourious Basterds) and this was certainly a warning shot across the bow that here was a talent to be reckoned with. This is his movie to carry (although initially it doesn’t seem to be) and he does so quite nicely. He shows some charisma and acting skills; you can see why men would follow Quintus into battle.

Kurylenko was best known for her stint as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace but she’s totally badass here. She kicks a lot of ass and because her character is mute, her ferocity is mainly in her body language and her eyes. Another reviewer compared her character with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as far as ass-kicking women go and he was right on the money. Etain is nobody to be trifled with.

I like that Marshall tried to make this as historically accurate as possible. What I don’t like is that the CGI was disappointing, and that there were scenes that simply didn’t work very well. The thing I liked the least was that after Quintus and Virilus the Romans were really indistinguishable from one another and all kind of blended together, making them all spear fodder and really giving the viewer no reason to identify with them or feel any connection with. That hurts the film overall in my opinion.

I’m a sucker for a good swords and sandals movie and this one is pretty solid, even if it isn’t as spectacular as something like, say, 300. Fassbender gives a good performance and even if it is essentially one gigantic chase sequence, it still gives you a little insight into the soldiers and what they’re fighting for. That’s an insight that serves military sorts from any era.

WHY RENT THIS: Fairly realistic from a historical point of view. One of the first instances where Fassbender shows his leading man potential. Kurylenko makes a formidable opponent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is uneven in quality. CGI battle sequences are unconvincing. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of characters we’re unable to even tell apart.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it is thought that the Picts wore no clothing, the harsh condition on the location shoot made the filmmakers give in to necessity and design warm clothing for the actors to wear on the shoot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on a $12M production budget; unfortunately this was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Eagle

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Life

Dog Soldiers


Dog Soldiers

Never wolf down your food.

(2002) Horror (Artisan) Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby, Liam Cunningham, Thomas Lockyer, Darren Morfitt, Chris Robson, Leslie Simpson, Tina Landini, Craig Conway, Bryn Walters, Brian Claxton Payne, Ben Wright. Directed by Neil Marshall

 

If you were in the woods far away from civilization, where would the safest place to be? You would think among a troop of soldiers on training exercises. There are some things though an entire army wouldn’t even be able to protect you from.

Private Cooper (McKidd) looks to join the elite SAS unit and looks to have the skills to do it. However when he is ordered to kill a dog, he refuses. The commanding officer, Captain Ryan (Cunningham) shoots the dog himself and sends Cooper back to his unit.

A month later, Cooper’s squad, commanded by Sgt. Wells (Pertwee), is dropped into the Scottish highlands for training exercises. They’re supposed to attack a squad of SAS commandos but when they reach their encampment, the place has been torn to shreds. There are no bodies but plenty of bodies and bits of flesh and organ strew about. It looks like the scene of a massacre. There is just one survivor – Captain Ryan, who is grievously wounded and keeps muttering “there was only supposed to be one.”

Right about then the soldiers are attacked by unknown assailants. Corporal Bruce Campbell (Lockyer) is impaled on a tree branch and the rest of the squad make their way to an abandoned farmhouse with the help of a zoologist they encounter on the road, Maggie (Cleasby). They hole up there, thinking if they can hold out until morning the werewolves will revert to human form and they’d be safe.

Soon it appears that won’t be happening. One of the soldiers, Private Terry Milburn (Simpson) is abducted and their ammo is running low. It becomes obvious that they will need to find a way to escape before dawn or they just won’t survive.

Marshall has crafted an old-school kind of werewolf movie that eschews CGI for practical effects and with a script clever in its references to all sorts of movies, from Zulu to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to Night of the Living Dead. That sounds like a bit of a mishmash (and it is in a way) but it actually works really well. The movie has a clever sense of humor that is going to appeal to not just the fanboy but the casual horror fan as well.

Marshall apparently has a pretty good sense of how military units operate – he’s gotten praise for getting that aspect right. He also has a good sense of how soldiers talk – not like cliché machines but with a wide swagger, a hefty dose of macho but also a sense of precision. Military units thrive on precise communications; they would be pretty unsuccessful if they weren’t efficient that way.

The movie was produced on the cheap; in that sense from time to time the lack of a budget shows through although for the most part the movie looks more expensive than it was. The cast is solid and talented (although Jason Statham was offered a part in the movie he had to decline to commitments to other films) and gets the military jargon down, not to mention the swagger. There are a few twists and turns (although you should be able to guess what the “mission” of the SAS really was, what the significance of the farmhouse is and what the secret of the werewolf clan is) and even better, plenty of visceral thrills to deliver the discerning horror film fan to hog heaven.

The movie failed to get theatrical distribution in the United States as distributors labeled it as “too British” which just goes to show you how stupid distributors can be (just check the box office receipts for Shaun of the Dead if you don’t believe me). It was initially shown on the SyFy Channel (and it still turns up on cable regularly) before getting a home video release, including a bare-bones Blu-Ray release a couple of years ago. That’s a shame; I think someday this will be recognized as a classic in the genre and given the respect and treatment it deserves. Until then, it can be our little hidden gem.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best werewolf films of recent years. Practical-effect werewolves rock. Reminiscent of Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in London in tone. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cheap production values sometimes show through.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, lots of gore and lots of bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is set in Scotland it was actually filmed in Luxembourg.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Ledge

Safe House


Safe House

Denzel Washington is having a Morgan Freeman moment.

(2012) Action (Universal) Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, Fares Fares, Liam Cunningham, Nora Arnezeder, Joel Kinnaman, Ruben Blades, Jenna Dover, Stephen Rider, Tracie Thoms, Sara Arrington. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

 

Some people are just naturally badasses. Take Chuck Norris for example. He’d kick you in the tush just as soon as look at you. Or how about Jet Li. Not only can he out-fight you, he can out-think you as well.

Tobin Frost (Washington) is a lot like that. He’s a legend in the CIA – a master manipulator, a world-class assassin and one of the guys you’re thankful is on our side. Except he isn’t on our side anymore. He left the Company and has spent the past 15 years selling our secrets to anyone who’ll buy them.

Matt Weston (Reynolds) wants to go places in the CIA but he’s stuck staring at four walls all day as the housekeeper for a CIA safe house in Cape Town. He spends most of his days making love to his girlfriend (Arnezeder) and lying to her about what he really does for a living, and nagging his handler David Barlow (Gleeson) about getting a field position which is what he really wants to do.

So when a team led by the gravelly Daniel Kiefer (Patrick) comes in bearing Frost, one of the most wanted men in the world, Weston is understandably surprised. He is even more surprised when a well-armed hit team led by the ruthless Vargas (Fares) blows in their doors and proceeds to execute everyone in the House – with the exception of Weston and Frost who have fled.

On the run with nowhere safe to go, Weston calls his superiors back at the CIA. Barlow knows that Weston is above reproach but Analyst Catherine Linklater (Farmiga) has her suspicions. Deputy Chief Harlan Whitford (Shepard) isn’t sure who to trust but seems to be giving Weston the benefit of the doubt.

Alone with one of the most dangerous men on Earth, chased by unknown assassins who want him dead and unable to trust the CIA since there had to be a leak that gave the Safe House away, Weston must figure out what’s going on, what secrets Frost is carrying with him that so many people want him dead and how to get out of this cluster fu…um, mess alive.

Frost is a part tailor-made for Denzel. He’s smart, he’s super-cool as well as super-bad, and enigmatic. He’s not the most likable guy you’ll ever meet but he is also disillusioned by some of the horrible things he has to do. To my mind, this is his best work since American Gangster – and not coincidentally, the most fleshed-out part he’s had since then.

Reynolds, known for being a touch on the light side, actually holds his own here which is a bit of surprise. This is really his first all-dramatic role (even his action hero roles have a comedic element to them) and he holds his own with one of the best actors of his generation. That’s a pretty impressive feat and watching this movie I really am re-assessing my opinion of Reynolds’ range and consequently the potential longevity of his career. This is not a star-making role for him so much as a star-potential declaration role. He is one role away from becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Espinosa, despite his Latin name, is actually Swedish and he has been one of those directors that is much better-known by studio people than by the American moviegoing public (although he is well-acclaimed in Sweden where he has a couple of highly regarded action films under his belt). He pulls off the action sequences very nicely, particularly a thrilling car chase through Cape Town and a rooftop chase through one of the ghettos of Cape Town.

With all this going for it, this should have been a big summer blockbuster but the reason that it’s sitting here in February is simply because the story isn’t anything to write home about. It’s all about deception and lies in the CIA with double and triple-crosses galore, every one of them telegraphed a mile off. It doesn’t keep you on your toes with its twists and turns so much as keep you on a familiar mountain road.

This isn’t a bad movie, don’t get me wrong – it’s just fairly predictable. It does what it does nicely without really taxing too much of your grey matter and there are some visceral thrills not to mention the opportunity to see one of the very best doing what he does best. For the record, I think this is an enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours at the movies – which may sound damned by faint praise but to my mind is a pretty decent compliment.

REASONS TO GO: Washington is at the top of his game and Reynolds surprisingly keeps up. Some nicely done action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: The script is pretty rote and doesn’t really offer anything new to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally set in Rio de Janeiro but was switched to South Africa for security concerns.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are as bad as they get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bourne Identity

CHAMELEON DENZEL LOVERS: The actor adopts a Spike Lee look for some of the film and a clean-shaven look harkening back to “St. Elsewhere” for other parts of the movie, and even a bit of American Gangster thrown in.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Green Mile

New Releases for the Week of February 10, 2012


February 10, 2012

SAFE HOUSE

(Universal) Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Fares Fares, Robert Patrick, Liam Cunningham, Ruben Blades. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

One of the most decorated agents in the history of the CIA is Tobin Frost. He is also one of the most reviled, having turned traitor and is now selling his services to the highest bidder. He has cost untold millions of dollars and dozens of lives, directly and otherwise. Then one day he walks into a U.S. consulate. He is taken from there to a CIA Safe House where the House sitter is to take charge of him until he is picked up – and that’s when all hell breaks loose.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence throughout and some language)

Journey 2: Mysterious Island

(New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Josh Hutcherson, Vanessa Hudgens. In this sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth, .the annoying nephew now has a new stepdad who reluctantly accompanies him to an island where there shouldn’t be one to find the annoying nephew’s explorer grandfather who had been presumed lost. Yes that’s right – another lost relative in the family. Someone should get this family a cell phone plan.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard, 3D and IMAX

Genre: Family Adventure/Fantasy

Rating: PG (for some adventure action and brief mild language)

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 3D

(20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ray Park.  Because George Lucas needs the cash since he’s retiring.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and violence/disturbing images)

The Vow

(Screen Gems) Rachel McAdams, Channing Tatum, Sam Neill, Scott Speedman. A newlywed couple seem to have everything going for them, a perfect life together and a bright future but it all comes to a screeching halt on a rainy night when the car they are in is plowed into by a truck. At least they both survive but the groom discovers that his new wife has lost all of her memory of the past five years – including every memory of him. She believes she is still engaged to the man she was seeing before he came along. Determined to win her back, he pulls out all the stops to get her to fall in love with her all over again. Sound too good to be true? It really happened.

See the trailer and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for an accident scene, sexual content, partial nudity and some language)

War Horse


War Horse

Joey takes it to the trenches

(2011) War Drama (Touchstone/DreamWorks) Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross, Eddie Marsan, Liam Cunningham. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

The bond between man and horse rivals that between man and dog. For horse lovers, it is an almost mystical connection, one that exists at the very base of the soul. It is a connection that doesn’t break easily, even when divided by distance, time…and war.

Joey is a horse that is born in the bucolic countryside of Devon in England. He is more racing stock than the plough horse that the sensible farmers of Devonshire tend to prefer. But then, nobody ever accused Ted Narracott (Mullan) of being sensible. A veteran of the Boer War, he returned home a shattered man, his leg a mess and turns to alcohol for solace. When he spots Joey at an auction, for reasons even he couldn’t articulate he gets into a bidding war with his own landlord, Lyons (Thewlis) for the beast and winds up spending his monthly rent money on the horse who is clearly not suitable for farm work.

Nonetheless Ted’s son Albert (Irvine) takes to Joey like a duck to water and the two become inseparable. Albert teaches Joey to wear a harness and gets him to plough a particularly rocky and infertile patch of land for Ted to plant turnips in. Albert’s mother Rose (Watson) chides her son gently afterwards when Albert’s pride at accomplishing the impossible moves towards contempt for his own father who had put him in a position of having to save the family bacon. Rose shows Albert the medals and regimental pennant that Ted had wanted thrown out but Rose had saved.

But a new war is on the horizon, one that will bring more horrors than any that had ever preceded it – the Great War, the War to End All Wars but one which today in America is little remembered as The First World War. Today most Americans look at it as little more than a dress rehearsal for the USA’s brightest moment in the Second World War, which is revered here.

Then again, America was a latecomer to the dance when it came to the Great War. It was fought in European fields and decimated the countryside; it also decimated the population. Nearly every family in France, Germany and Great Britain has a tale about that war involving a great-grandfather or relative who went off to war and never returned, or if they did return, did so with missing limbs, respiratory problems from mustard gas, or with a shattered psyche.

Joey is sold to the British army as a cavalry horse, much to Albert’s sorrow. He promises Joey that they’ll find each other, even as the kindly captain (Hiddleston) who takes the horse as his own mount has his doubts. Joey impulsively ties his dad’s pennant to Joey’s bridle and off Joey and the captain go to war.

The movie’s focus shifts from the Narracotts to Joey as he passes from hand to hand and side to side. He becomes the means for a couple of German deserters to escape, the hope for a dying French farm girl, a means of moving gigantic guns from one place to another and a reason for a temporary truce in No Man’s Land between the British and the Germans.

Spielberg has been more visible as a studio mogul these days than as a director, but here he  once again proves why he is the greatest director of our generation. This is visual poetry, thanks largely to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who in my opinion is the Oscar frontrunner) as well as composer John Williams who provides a score that alternates martial beats with heart-tugging strings.

In fact, this is a movie that leaves not a single dry eye in the house by its conclusion. This is based on a book by Michael Mopurgo which in turn became a stage play that is enjoying great success in London and New York City where it is running even as we speak; be warned that the movie hews closer to the book and less to the play which shifts the point of view from Joey to Albert by necessity. The play also includes a puppet horse who, while life-like, is still no match for the real horse (or horses) that is Joey in the film.

Irvine is guileless in the lead, a very typical Spielbergian hero who does the right thing motivated by love and is a stolid member of the working class. Irvine brings to life the heart that screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis provide the character and makes that heart real. His relationship with his father and his mother is occasionally rocky but there is clearly love there.

Of additional note is Arestrup as a French grandfather who is watching the war take everything from him. Arestrup who was amazing as a gangster in A Prophet is wonderful here as well, becoming a kind of archetype for how most of us view French country life and those who live it. There is an inner sorrow inside him as loss after loss piles up until he has nothing left but memories. It’s an amazing, affecting performance and is to me the one human performance you’ll remember most.

But of course this is Joey’s story and Joey is indeed a stand-in for the millions of horses that were butchered during the war, sometimes literally. Spielberg has stated that in most of the movies he’s directed, the horse was just something the lead character rode; here he has to get audiences to watch the horse and not the rider, something that he accomplishes for the most part.

Now, I have to admit that while I’m generally willing to stretch my disbelief for a movie, the final scenes in the movie really made that stretch mighty thin, almost to the breaking point. The very final scenes are poignant but over-the-top with a Western sunset worthy of John Ford but perhaps not so appropriate for Devon. A little more subtlety would have gone a long way here gentlemen.

Still, this is a movie that has gotten much praise and justifiably so – it’s certainly one of the best movies of the Holiday season and while it hasn’t gotten the box office attention of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, there are those who think it has an outside shot at the Best Picture Oscar; certainly it will get a great deal of nomination votes in that category.

This is a movie that is cathartic and thrilling in equal measures. Horse lovers will be appalled at the depictions of animal cruelty here (although please do keep in mind that the Humane Society was on hand closely monitoring the situation to make sure no animals were harmed in the making of the movie and from all accounts had glowing reports of how well the horses and other animals in the movie including a rather ill-tempered goose were treated). Military buffs will be impressed by the depiction of the trench warfare – a couple of scenes rivaled Saving Private Ryan as among the best depictions of war ever filmed. History buffs will appreciate that an era rarely visited by American filmmakers is finally getting its due by one of the greatest American filmmakers.

While the movie has plenty to recommend it to kids, I’d think twice about bringing the younger kids to the film as some of the wartime scenes are pretty intense with casualties among both men and horses. However for older kids and adults, this is a return to form by Spielberg and certainly one of his best works of the 21st century. Just be sure to bring plenty of hankies along with your popcorn and soda.

REASONS TO GO: The trench warfare scenes are amazing. Not a dry eye in the house by the end of the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: A little far-fetched in places. Final sunset-lit scenes are a bit too over-the-top.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some war-time violence and some graphic depictions of animal suffering.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were fourteen horses used to play Joey, each doing their own specific action but the horse used most often in close-ups is Finder’s Key, the same horse that played the title role in Seabiscuit.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Black Stallion

ARTILLERY LOVERS: Very accurate portrayals of the moving of big German guns and how devastating they were once they got into position.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Harry Brown


Harry Brown

My name...is Michael Caine...punk!!!

(2009) Crime Drama (Goldwyn) Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Iain Glen, Jack O’Connell, Liam Cunningham, Amy Steel, Charlie Creed Miles, David Bradley, Sean Harris, Ben Drew, Jamie Downey, Lee Oakes, Joseph Gilgun. Directed by Daniel Barber

As we grow older, we sometimes find that the world is changing around us so rapidly it becomes virtually unrecognizable from what it’s been. Those changes can be confusing and even terrifying; sometimes we feel helpless in the onslaught of them. However, when the world grows out of control and violent, can we expect the elderly to stand up for themselves?

Harry Brown (Caine) is a pensioner grieving over his wife. He lives in a housing estate that has deteriorated rapidly, becoming rampant with crime and prostitution. He hangs out in a pub owned by Sid (Cunningham), playing chess with his old pal Leonard (Bradley). Leonard is terrified of the gang that runs their housing complex; they keep putting piles of dog excrement through his mail slot, going so far as to send flaming torches through as well. Fed up, Leonard takes a gun out to deal with the ruffians.

Predictably, Harry’s next visit is from Detective Alice Frampton (Mortimer) of the Metropolitan police, and her partner Detective Hicock (Miles) informing Harry that his friend has been murdered. Harry is of course bereaved, and expects the cops to bring those who murdered his friend to justice; however, it quickly becomes evident that the police can’t or won’t clean up the area or find the culprits.

However, when you’re Michael Caine, you don’t let details stand in your way. No, Harry Brown as it turns out is a former British soldier who served in Northern Ireland a.k.a. he’s seen some stuff. It means Harry Brown is Dirty Harry with a Cockney accent, and some punks are about to feel decidedly unlucky.

While there is a bit of an apt comparison with the iconic Clint Eastwood character, the film comes off more like Death Wish than Magnum Force. With first-time director Barber at the helm, the film moves at a kind of a jerky pace – fast and frenetic at times and a bit slow at others. It gives an overall feel of driving a car with a dying transmission in it.

Caine is utterly magnificent here. In one of his best performances in a decade, he imbues Harry with quiet reserve, inner steel and rage. He is a man with absolutely nothing to lose and is willing to die for his cause. He isn’t a super-hero – he doesn’t hit everything he shoots, he can’t run like a track star and he doesn’t knock out behemoths with a single punch. Instead, he relies on his own experience and military smarts. Caine gives the character dignity and a bit of a connection with the past; we can imagine a young Caine sweeping through Belfast, machine gun in hand, rooting out snipers.

Mortimer is a very good actress who tends to play mousy characters. Here she’s playing a cop who is frustrated with the system, knows that its corrupt and is completely sympathetic to Harry’s plight and those of his neighbors but is helpless to really make much of an impact.

The ending is pure cinematic poppycock and the script tends to plod through clichés that were old when Death Wish was new. Still, with Caine’s soaring performance, Harry Brown bears watching, even though the sight isn’t exactly a new vista.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Caine’s best performances of the last ten years.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable revenge thriller plotline. Ludicrous ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is very strong as is the violence. There is also some drug use and sexuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The woman singing “Gold” in the pub is actually the unit nurse for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $7.3M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Apollo 18