Thursday, April 5, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: WAR HORSE (2011), COLUMBUS CIRCLE (2012)


Steven Spielberg considers his film version of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel and Nick Stafford's 2007 play to be his "John Ford movie," and that's pretty accurate. WAR HORSE is the kind of grand, majestic, unabashedly sentimental epic that simply doesn't get made any more.  Yes, it's maudlin and manipulative, but it's also beautifully made, with stunning imagery throughout, and a love of cinema that comes through in every scene.  The story of an exceptionally gifted thoroughbred named Joey, trained by young Albie Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), and sold by his loving but financially-strapped father (Peter Mullan) to the British Army at the start of the Great War is one that shamelessly tugs on the heartstrings.  It's easy to be jaded and cynical when it comes to cinema these days, but Spielberg pulls this off so well that if you aren't a believer by the end, then there's really no hope for you.  We follow Joey on his episodic journey through the chaos of WWI and a succession of brief masters like a military officer (Tom Hiddleston), a pair of German brothers (David Kross, Leonard Carow), a young French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and so on.  When an injured Joey is trapped by barbed wire on a battlefield, he even manages to make a British soldier and a German soldier emerge from their respective trenches, setting aside the war for a few minutes as they work together to free him.  Albie, meanwhile, has enlisted and is fighting in the trenches.  Will he and Joey find each other?  Of course they will.  You know that already.  And even when you know it's coming, Spielberg films it just right, with the John Williams score swelling at just the right time...not a dry eye in the house.

There have been times where Spielberg's sentimental streak has worked against him (the last half hour of A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE comes to mind), and there are countless different ways this could've been a laughable disaster in the wrong hands, but Spielberg is at the top of his game here, and in scene after scene, WAR HORSE serves as yet another reinforcement of why Spielberg is Spielberg.  By his lofty record at the box office, this wasn't a huge hit, topping out at just under $80 million in the US, but along with 2005's MUNICH, it's probably his best film since SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.   The terrific cast also includes Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Toby Kebbell, Liam Cunningham, Eddie Marsan, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  (PG-13, 146 mins)


Universal dumped this minor-league suspense thriller directly to DVD after two years on the shelf and it's not hard to see why.  It's not that it's bad, but that it's entirely too predictable, with the twists telegraphed far too early and obviously by director George Gallo, who co-wrote the script with co-star Kevin Pollak.  Gallo (who gets a lifetime pass for scripting 1988's MIDNIGHT RUN) and Pollak are both known more for their comedic skills and don't really demonstrate a knack for Hitchcock knockoffs.  The film has an admirably old-fashioned feel to it, but the script is utterly lacking in any of the wit either of these guys have demonstrated in their past work, as well as any kind of central mystery.  There's a couple flashes of inspiration in the last 20 or so minutes, but it's not enough to lift this above the level of an uninspired LAW & ORDER episode.  All of that, in addition to a capable, perfectly acceptable, yet not exactly A-list cast that would've carried more marquee weight in 2002 instead of 2012, is ample evidence why this skipped theaters altogether.  COLUMBUS CIRCLE centers on an agoraphobic heiress (Selma Blair) who hasn't left her NYC penthouse apartment in 18 years.  When her neighbor dies in a fall that detective Giovanni Ribisi thinks might be a homicide, that apartment is rented by rich asshole Jason Lee and his abused wife Amy Smart.  Blair, hiding from a mysterious past, trusts only the concierge (Pollak) and her doctor (Beau Bridges), but cautiously forms a friendship with Smart, even though the sinister Lee clearly has something up his sleeve.  From the opening scene with a photo on the neighbor's bedside table, Gallo and Pollak seem all too eager to make this mystery as flimsy as the wobbly door going into Blair's penthouse.  Remove an F-bomb and this is weak TV-movie material from start to finish as Gallo and Pollak use every means short of spotlights and an air horn to point out every twist long before they happen.  Did Pollak learn nothing about plot twists and story construction when he co-starred in THE USUAL SUSPECTS?  Also with the venerable Robert Guillaume in a small role as a bookstore owner with an intricate knowledge of obscure family crests, rewarded for his time and effort by having his name misspelled "Giullaume" in the closing credits. (PG-13, 86 mins)

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