Tommy’s Honour


Father and son have a conversation.

(2016) Sports Biography (Roadside Attractions) Jack Lowden, Peter Mullan, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill, Max Deacon, Peter Ferdinando, Kylie Hart, Benjamin Wainwright, Ian Pirie, James Smillie, Paul Reid, Seylan Baxter, Therese Bradley, Christopher Craig, Andy Gray, Colin MacDougall, Brett Alan Hart, Gareth Morrison, Paityn Hart, Jim Sweeney, Paul Tinto. Directed by Jason Connery

 

Golf wasn’t always the game it was today. It was developed over a long period of time, codified and eventually turned into a game which is played all over the world. It is, in many ways, a game that belongs to Scotland.

Old Tom Morris (Mullan) was one of the great names of golf in the mid-19th century. As the course greenkeeper at historic St. Andrew’s, he was a custodian for one of golf’s most hallowed institutions. As a caddie and a player of some renown, he helped set the standard for the game at 18 holes; he also designed a fair number of historic courses throughout the United Kingdom and was himself an Open Invitational champion, one of the first.

It was his son Tommy (Lowden), sometimes known as Young Tom, who was truly the shining light as a player. He became one of the first touring professionals and one of the first players who would be paid in advance rather than at the finish of his appearance. Young, handsome and charismatic, he became one of the first superstars of the game.

But Tommy chafed at the class distinctions that kept him from making something of himself. His father came from humble origins and remained so; Old Tom expected Tommy to do the same and be content with it. The arrogant Major Boothby (Neill) agrees with Old Tom and tells Tommy in no uncertain terms that he will never be a gentleman.

Tommy, not unsurprisingly, disagrees. What alienates him from his mother (Bradley) is that he’s fallen in love with Meg Drinnen (Lovibond) who has some skeletons in her closet and is somewhat older than he. Despite her own humble status, mom feels that Tommy could do much better when it comes to a marriage. She changes her mind however after a heart to heart with her daughter in law and finds out the circumstances of those skeletons. It is one of the most moving moments in the movie.

But Tommy and his dad unite for one more challenge match, one that will end up having a terrible impact when Old Tom makes an error in judgment. Thereafter, Old Tom will spend the rest of his days trying to reclaim his son’s honor.

This is a nice recreation of the early days of golf. The manicured links of today are much different than what golfers contended with back in the day. That much will be fascinating to students of the game which is where the primary appeal of the film will lie. However, the golf sequences themselves aren’t quite as convincing as athletic sequences in other films.

Mullan with his impressive beard jutting out makes for a kind of stereotypical Scot; aggressive and opinionated but deferential when needed. The red-headed Lowden gives Tommy a temperamental edge but is occasionally on the bland side. Lovibond as the fiery Meg nearly steals the movie out from under everybody.

The pace is pretty slow throughout but particularly during the middle portion of the film which may be okay with golf fans but perhaps not so much with film buffs, particularly the younger ones. More seasoned sorts will appreciate the attention to detail in the film. Looking up the lives of the Morris men, the movie appears to stick pretty close to the facts, another plus.

It is somewhat ironic that this film which is told from a poverty class point of view also celebrates a game that is a symbol of the elitist 1%. That might stick in a few progressive craws a bit. Still in all, the movie has some appeal, particularly to golfers (not all of whom are billionaires) and for those who can’t get out to the multiplex can enjoy the movie when it’s broadcast on the Golf Channel later this year.

REASONS TO GO: The mid-19th century environment is nicely recreated. There are some fine performances, particularly from Mullan and Lovibond.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is slow, particularly through the middle. The golf sequences are unconvincing.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are not for small children; there is also some profanity and a bit of sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Connery is the son of Sean Connery and played the title role in the British TV series Robin of Sherwood for a season.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Bagger Vance
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

New Releases for the Week of April 14, 2017


THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS

(Universal) Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron, Kurt Russell, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. Directed by F. Gary Gray

After the events of Furious 7, the team has been exonerated from their crimes and have settled down for more or less normal lives. However Dom Toretto just can’t seem to stay away from trouble and he hooks up with a cyberterrorist who has plans to unleash chaos on the world, betraying his team – his family – in the process. Now they will have to take down the woman who seemingly has Dom under her thumb and in order to do that they’ll be adding someone new to the team – a former adversary who almost took them all out.

See the trailer, clips, promos and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged scenes of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language)

Altitude

(Lionsgate) Denise Richards, Dolph Lundgren, Jonathan Lipnicki, Greer Grammer. When an airplane is hijacked, the FBI agent who happens to be aboard is content to wait things out and not endanger any lives. But when she discovers that the ulterior motive for the hijacking was the presence of a thief who offers her millions to protect him – well, who could resist that?

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: R (for language and some violence)

Frantz

(Music Box) Pierre Niney, Paula Beer, Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber. An elderly German doctor and his wife grieve for their son who had died during World War I which had recently ended. His fiancée is living with them, bringing them comfort. One day she sees a mysterious man laying flowers on her beloved’s grave and strikes up a friendship with him. It turns out that he and her fiancée were friends before the war. Soon he has become part of all their lives but he hides a secret that could turn out to be devastating to all concerned.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including brief war violence)

Gifted

(Fox Searchlight) Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer. A single man is given the responsibility of raising his niece when his sister passes away. As it turns out, she’s a math prodigy with infinite potential but rather than sending her to a specialized school where her talent can be developed at the expense of her childhood, he chooses to keep her in a normal school where she can have a normal childhood as her mother wished her to have. However, her grandmother won’t hear of it and sues for custody of the child, threatening to tear the two of them – who have formed a strong bond by now – apart.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material)

Spark: A Space Tail

(Open Road) Starring the voices of Jessica Biel, Susan Sarandon, Patrick Stewart, Hilary Swank. On a distant planet a young boy is forced into hiding after his family is massacred by a power-hungry General. He and his friends discover that the General is about to unleash a fearsome weapon that may destroy the universe – and only they can stop him.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace

Rating: PG (for some action and rude humor)

Tommy’s Honour

(Roadside Attractions) Jack Lowden, Peter Mullan, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill. This is the story of father and son, both titanic figures in the beginnings of the modern game of golf. Old Tom Morris is the groundskeeper at St. Andrew’s, the most prestigious golf club in Scotland; it is he who standardized the game at 18 holes and founded the first Open Championship. However, his son Tommy, a young and handsome lad, threatens to outshine his father as the first touring pro. Tom seems content with that but when Tommy marries beneath his station by Old Tom’s way of thinking, the two are on a collision course that leads to severe consequences – and leads Old Tom on a quest to honor his son.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Biography
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some suggestive material, language and smoking)

Children of Men


Clive Owen isn't a swinger anymore.

Clive Owen isn’t a swinger anymore.

(2006) Science Fiction (Universal) Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston, Charlie Hunnam, Maria McErlane, Michael Haughey, Paul Sharma, Philippa Urquhart, Tehmina Sunny, Michael Klesic, Martina Messing, Peter Mullan, Pam Ferris, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Gary Hoptrough, Maurice Lee, Dhafer L’Abidine, Bruno Ouvard, Denise Mack, Jacek Koman, Joy Richardson. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

]If the world is indeed going to hell in a handbasket, it follows that it will end with a whimper rather than a bang. Worse than everything ending in a moment is the thought that humanity will die a slow, lingering death.

In 2027, that seems to be the case. It has been 19 years since a human baby has been born and the world teeters on the edge of anarchy and chaos. Only England has a functioning government and it is barely holding on with its fingernails, resorting to a brutal totalitarian government that has banned any immigrants from entering the country, a chilling thought that resonates even more in 2015 than it did when this was made.

Theo (Owen) works at the Ministry of Energy in a London that is beset by terrorist attacks and open revolt. Immigrants are captured by draconian police, put in cages and forcibly deported. Plagues and famine have made things even worse. One morning he barely escapes a bombing in a cafe that shakes him to the core. He is then kidnapped by the Fishes, a radical Immigrant’s rights group that is led by Julian (Moore), Theo’s ex-wife from whom he separated when their child died 20 years previously.

She offers him a large sum of money to use his connections to get transit papers for Kee (Ashitey), a refugee. He obtains these from his cousin Nigel (Huston) but the papers require someone to accompany her, so Theo is paid to do this. Accompanied by Kee, Julian and her right hand man Luke (Ejiofor), they head for the coast but are attacked. In the chaos, Theo gets Kee to the home of his old friend Jasper (Caine), a former political cartoonist living out his days in isolation, caring for his wife who was left catatonic by government torture.

Pursued by both terrorist forces and the government, Theo and Kee must make their way to the coast and meet a ship from a group of scientists calling themselves the Human Project who would take Kee to safety. Getting there, they must run a gauntlet of hatred as armed conflict breaks out between the government and the refugees with Kee and Theo both caught in the crossfire. Kee however carries a secret that may mean the revival of hope, something that has been thought completely lost.

While the movie was an unabashed critical success (many ranking it on their ten best lists that year), it only received three Oscar nominations mainly for the technical end. That’s a shame, because Owen gave what is to date the best performance of his career. Far from being a typical action hero, he careens from situation to situation, often frightened by what was happening to him, trying to survive by his wits in a situation that was rapidly disintegrating. It is to be noted that while bullets fly in the movie, Owen never even touches a gun.

Moore, a perennial contender for Oscar gold, showed why she continually is in the mix for Best Actress or Supporting Actress. Julian is a strong leader with an iron will, not above manipulating someone she once cared about for the greater good of her cause. Still, the movie does reveal a softer side to the character and Moore plays both well. Caine gets a meaty role as a hippie-like character who smokes a lot of strawberry-flavored pot and has removed himself from society, yet brims with wisdom. It’s as charming a role as Caine has ever played and he’s played some good ones.

The tone here is almost uniformly grim, although the movie really is about hope. Its absence is what plunged the world into chaos; the merest glimmer that it might reappear leads people to sacrifice everything. The ending is open-ended and leaves the viewers to decide whether the ending is bleak or the opposite; I suppose that how you interpret it will largely depend on whether your outlook tends towards optimism or pessimism.

The production design is one of decay, crumbling buildings and streets of fear. There isn’t a lot of gleaming, futuristic set design here; this is a world that is falling apart and the sets show it. The fact that it looks real and familiar is a testament to the production design team and Cuaron. Also, some of the action sequences here are absolutely scintillating, particular the attack on the car alluded to earlier and a final battle between the government and the rebels. They are realistic and for the most part shot with a single camera, lending even more of a “you are there” feel to the film, which many have described as a documentary of things that have yet to happen. There is definitely that kind of feel here.

This is not a masterpiece in my opinion; the mood can get oppressive and considering the state of the world, it can truly make you question whether humanity is worth saving. But questions like that are important to ask, even if we all agree the answer is “yes” (which most of us, I would hope, do). This is a truly impressive movie that may not necessarily be the sort of thing you’ll want to watch as light entertainment, but it’s one that will give you pause. Movies like this are what make science fiction a compelling genre, particularly when it rises above space battles and monsters. Here, the only monster is ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Smart and chilling. Fine performances by Owen, Moore and Caine. Extraordinary action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too dark and dystopian for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, brief nudity, some drug use and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.D. James, author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as the old woman in the cafe with Theo in the opening scene.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the questions raised by the movie, some of which also appears in the featurette The Possibility of Hope which examines how the current global situation (circa 2007) was leading to the future of Children of Men.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $70.0M on a $76M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Chaperone

Hercules (2014)


All these guys can smell what the Rock is cooking.

All these guys can smell what the Rock is cooking.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (Paramount/MGM) Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, John Hurt, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson, Isaac Andrews, Joe Anderson, Stephen Peacocke, Nicholas Moss, Robert Whitelock, Christopher Fairbank, Irina Shayk, Barbara Palvin. Directed by Brett Ratner

Being a legend isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You have this high bar to live up to and the tales of your accomplishments can take on a mythic quality. When you’re Hercules, the son of Zeus, that can be doubly aggravating. It can also send you on a retreat from life.

Hercules (Johnson) has been living with his reputation most of his life. Freakishly strong, he wears a lion skin supposedly from the Lion of Nemea whom he slew as one of his twelve labors performed to get Hera off his back (Hera, the wife of Zeus, was none too pleased with the nascent godling from her husband’s loins). However, he employs his nephew Iolaus (Ritchie) to spread the tales of his legend – which makes his enemies fearful of what he can do. That can come in useful when you’re a mercenary.

Which is what Hercules has become. He was once under the employ of Athenian King Eurystheus (Fiennes) with a wife (Shayk) and children but after they were slaughtered and Hercules himself blamed for the heinous crime – which he can’t remember whether or not he had done – he was banished and wanders Greece accompanied by Iolaus, his right hand man Autolycus (Sewell), the prophet Amphiaraus (McShane) who is also a skilled fighter in his own right, the Amazon warrior Atalanta (Berdal) and the mute berserker Tydeus (Hennie). They make a formidable bunch.

They are given a job by Lord Cotys (Hurt) of Thrace whose land is in the midst of a bloody civil war. The dark, nefarious sorcerer Rhesus (Santelmann) has raised an army of demons and centaurs, burning down villages and massacring the inhabitants and bewitching the survivors to fight for him. Cotys’ daughter Ergenia (Ferguson) and her son Arius (Andrews) beseech the warrior for his help and he, taken by Ergenia’s giving nature, agrees to train the Thracian army to stand up to the rebel, with Cotys’ bemused General Sitacles (Mullan) somewhat skeptical about his success.

However, nothing is ever as it seems in Hercules’ world. He will have to become the hero of legend to save his crew and Thrace, and not just the legend invented by his nephew. In short, he must become Hercules, son of Zeus.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about the casting of Johnson as Hercules. He always seems to have a twinkle in his eye and a fairly laid back attitude as an action hero and I have always thought of Hercules as much more serious. No need to worry – Johnson makes an excellent Hercules. While I question the decision to have him wear a wig and fake beard, he certainly has the physique and he is a much better actor than most of the ones that have played Hercules in the past (although Kevin Sorbo was and is a terrific actor). I’d say that Johnson really carries the movie.

While the trailers show giant boars and lions and hydras and such, there is surprisingly little in the way of those sorts of special effects. That’s mainly because the graphic novel that the film is based on eschewed much of the mythological elements of Hercules’ story in favor of a more down to earth telling of his tale which is an original one.

I have to say that the movie is much more entertaining than I expected. Johnson’s natural charisma helps on that score, but Ratner, a director not known for subtlety, has a sure hand here and allows the characters to develop and make some headway. McShane, always dependable, is something of a mentor to Hercules and seems to be alone in knowing the truth of his tale. Sewell who often gets cast in villain roles gets a rare opportunity in a heroic cast and makes the most of it.

The fight scenes are well done and Hercules’ feats of strength are mostly believable here. It’s all mostly brute strength rather than agility and grace, but we get those from Bolso and Sewell in their sequences so it isn’t all skull crushing and horse throwing.

While the plot here is predictable (the plot twist that drives the last half of the movie is one you’ll see coming a mile away and the second half of the movie suffers as a result) and the dialogue tends towards the bombastic, this isn’t the kind of movie you go to see for the story. You go for the spectacle. You go for the action. And you go for the Rock. Finally, the Rock has come back to Thrace…

REASONS TO GO: The Rock is more cut than ever! Some nifty battlefield sequences. McShane and Sewell are entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Some of the dialogue is a bit creaky.

FAMILY VALUES:  Battle violence, occasional expletives, some disturbing images and brief sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Johnson, his fake beard in the film is made of yak testicle hair.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clash of the Titans

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies begins!

New Releases for the Week of July 25, 2014


HerculesHERCULES

(MGM/Paramount) Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson. Directed by Brett Ratner

Hercules the legend is also Hercules the man and the man and the legend don’t always coexist well. Haunted by the sins of his past, Hercules the man has turned his back on Hercules the legend and become a mercenary, using his reputation to intimidate those who oppose those who hire him. When the good King of Thrace and his daughter beg for help against an implacable warlord, Hercules finds that in order for justice to triumph he must once more shoulder the mantle of hero and let him embrace his legend – and perhaps at last put to bed the ghosts that haunt him. Assuming he survives, of course. Based on the revisionist take on the Hercules myth Radical Studios graphic novel.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Swords and Sandals

Rating: PG-13 (for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity)

A Most Wanted Man

(Roadside Attractions) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams. The arrival of a half-dead Chechen man on the run from mysterious forces brings the attention of the German secret service. They enlist an idealistic lawyer and a banker to discover what’s going on, with a top-ranked spy willing to go to any lengths to discover the truth, even if it means innocent lives. Based on a novel by master spy novelist John Le Carré.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Spy Thriller

Rating: R (for language)

And So It Goes

(Clarius) Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Frankie Valli, Frances Sternhagen. Oren Little has everything all mapped out. He’s going to sell one last house, retire from real estate and live a quiet life undisturbed by people. When his son drops off a nine-year-old granddaughter he never knew he had, his plans are thrown into chaos. Completely unprepared and ill-qualified to be a caregiver to a child, he at first foists the girl off on his extremely tolerant and patient neighbor but gradually he learns that being an obnoxious, curmudgeonly loner isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references and drug elements)

The Fluffy Movie

(Open Road) Gabriel Iglesias, Jacqueline Obradors, Ron White, Tommy Chong. Iglesias went from a contestant on Last Comic Standing to being kicked out of that competition for violating the competition’s rules for calling home and going on to become a cultural phenomenon. The performance footage here is taken from his Unity Through Laughter tour which spanned 23 countries and sold out nearly everywhere.

 

See the trailer, clips and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Stand-Up Comedy Concert

Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive material and sexual references)

Kick

(UTV) Salman Khan, Jacqueline Fernandez, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Randeep Hooda. When a young woman finally figures out that her fiancée who lives for thrills is just not responsible enough for marriage, she calls things off. She tells the story of her previous engagement to a new prospective suitor who happens to be a police inspector. He also happens to be chasing her ex who has become a notorious thief who is giving all his ill-gotten gains away to charities for children. Seems like kind of an extreme way to win your lover back.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood Action

Rating: NR

Lucy

(Universal) Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Analeigh Tipton. A young woman is caught up in forces beyond her control as ruthless drug smugglers put a bag of a revolutionary new drug in her tummy in order to smuggle it to the United States. The bag starts to leak and the drug enhances her brain to allow her to use 100% of it. She begins to change into something more than human, which not only makes her a danger to the drug smugglers but potentially to the whole human race as well.

See the trailer, interviews, featurettes, clips and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller

Rating: R (for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality)

She’s Dating the Gangster

(Star Cinema) Kathryn Bernardo, Daniel Padilla, Sofia Andres, Khalil Ramos. A Filipino teen and a rebellious friend start up a false romance in order to spite his ex-girlfriend. However, their feelings begin to get deeper and the relationship shows signs of growing into something greater, but the boy may be a part of a vicious Manila gang.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: NR

Willow Creek

(IFC) Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson, Peter Jason, Tom Yamarone. A Bigfoot enthusiast drags his long-suffering girlfriend to the place where the iconic Patterson-Gimlin film was shot years before to try and catch footage of his own. He gets a lot more than he bargained for and the couple discover the meaning to their horror of the term “forest bride.” A send-up of found footage horror films by comedian and director Bobcat Goldthwaite.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror Comedy

Rating: NR

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