As a director, Steven Spielberg can be a deeply sentimental guy. Think Empire of the Sun, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan. In these films, Spielberg’s mix of high seriousness and firm hold on the heartstrings can be very effective if sometimes a trifle stodgy. In War Horse, Spielberg steers clear of political themes and lets rip with a poem to the power of the human spirit to triumph over adversity. But the film’s background, World War I, is largely ignored. Boy meets horse, horse gets appropriated by the army, boy joins up, both endure untold horrors of a world in chaos, both survive and are eventually reunited by small acts of compassion by a wide range of characters. You can give yourself over to the director, who will have you weeping rivers, or you can curse his manipulative sentimentality. The cast is exemplary and the production top-notch. Whatever you think about the story, it is a beautiful work of cinematic craftsmanship.
George Clooney has emerged as one of Hollywood’s most thoughtful actors and filmmakers, and with The Descendants, he has critics raving at what must surely be one of the strongest entries in the Oscars this year. Working with Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt), who has both director and writer credits for this picture, Clooney provides a highly nuanced portrait of Matt King, a workaholic lawyer living in Hawaii who discovers that all the cliches about living in paradise don’t add up when you are busy creating your own hell-on-earth. Matt’s efforts to reconnect with his two daughters after the death of his joyrider wife manage to mix the comic and tragic in ways that are very rarely successful, but when they succeed, as they largely do in The Descendants, it creates one of those classic takes on the human condition that is likely to be referenced for many years to come. High-class entertainment that also provides a window into deeper issues of love, loss and living with family.
Debut feature for director Nick Murphy, The Awakening owes a little too much to films like The Others and The Orphanage in creating its creepy atmosphere, and despite a few well-constructed scares, it follows a well-trodden path. The includes Dominic West, Imelda Staunton and Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart, a ghost-buster who after some success breaking up a hoax, finds herself face-to-face with some real nastiness when investigating ghostly manifestations at a boy’s boarding school. A lack of any real commitment to the period background and weak dynamics between the characters wastes the talents of the cast.
Machine Gun Preacher
Starring Gerard Butler as a drug-dealing biker who finds god and becomes a crusader for Sudanese children, Machine Gun Preacher is billed as being based on a “true story.” Unfortunately, despite seemingly noble intentions to tell an inspiring story, the film veers off into action movie territory, skewing what is clearly a fascinating tale. Butler does his best, but his acting range isn’t broad enough to encompass the complex character of Sam Childers, who exchanges violence on the streets of Pennsylvania for even more violence in the wilderness of East Africa.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
Nicolas Cage is back as Johnny Blaze, burning up the highway and shooting things. Reviews of the first film in the Marvel comic franchise, Ghost Rider, released in 2007, received mixed reviews at best, and it is safe to say that Johnny has a long way to go before achieving the kind of appeal of Spiderman, aka Peter Parker. Clearly directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are aiming for a kind of high school schlock vibe, but the film is undone by its aspirations to deeper, darker subtexts about evil, the devil, and other cool stuff. It’s probably a good thing that Old Horse Face spends a good deal of time in a CGI blaze, for the explosions are about the only real sparks that the film generates.