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Daily Briefing. Spielberg’s “War Horse” and Crowe’s “Zoo”

Also: Reitman’s Young Adult. Masters of Cinema’s Touch of Evil Blu-ray. Teaser for Miike’s Ai To Makoto.
The DailyWar Horse

"Damn you, Spielberg, for getting me choked up with your AU HASARD BLOCKBUZTAR," tweets Aaron Hillis. Search for "War Horse" on Twitter and you could spend quite a while combing through the results before you'll find one that doesn't mention tears, weeping or outright blubbering. Though it doesn't open until Christmas Day, Steven Spielberg's War Horse is being shown to the media and industry now because, suggests Anne Thompson, the New York Film Critics Circle, like a state eager to draw early attention to its Republican primary, has moved its day of voting to this Tuesday. In other words, the NYFCC will be announcing its awards for the best film of the year, performances and so on, with a full month of 2011 yet to go.

But at Deadline, Pete Hammond suggests that the "unusual strategy" Dreamworks and distributor Disney are pursuing isn't hinging on a single band of critics. After all, "War Horse is probably too emotional and traditional to earn much love on the hardcore unsentimental critics awards circuit." A series of "surprise 'pop up' screenings Nov 1-10" followed by "public sneaks in NYC and nine other cities" today suggest that the studios are aiming to take War Horse to The People before those damn hardcore unsentimental critics get a chance to take a well-considered whack at it.

Hammond's job, though, is to weigh the film's chances at scoring awards: "Spielberg is known to be a great admirer of David Lean and with its sweeping vistas, deliberate pacing and epic story of one horse's remarkable journey through the front lines of World War I, the film could almost be a tribute to the great director of such classics as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Just for the craft alone Oscar nominations would seem to be assured for Best Picture and Director, John Williams's score, Rick Carter's production design, Michael Kahn's editing, the sound work and Janusz Kaminski's striking cinematography. Although there hasn't been much buzz about the cast, which includes Jeremy Irvine, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Peter Mullan, they don't strike any false notes delivering fine performances, and Tom Hiddleston's Captain Nichols could even merit some Best Supporting Actor talk though that category is almost impossibly tough this year." At Hitfix, Gregory Ellwood does a little awards season predicting as well.

The Telegraph runs a review by one Joe Marino (who finds that the film "has all the hallmarks of the Spielberg we've missed so much: powerful, gutsy, honest, and effective") and sends Philip Sherwell out to round up quotes from the audiences at these "pop up" screenings and from the usual online suspects (Jeffrey Wells and so on). Sherwell reminds us that War Horse "began as an extraordinary children's book [by Michael Morpurgo] about the brutality of the First World War, seen not through the eyes of a combatant but of a horse. A quarter of a century later, it was adapted [by Nick Stafford] for the stage in a production that took puppetry to a new level, and is still playing to packed houses in London and — since earlier this year — on Broadway, where it won several Tony awards." Richard Curtis and Lee Hall have written the screenplay and: "Some have criticized the film as too sappy and sentimental. Others complained about the slow-paced start on a Devon farm, where Albert [Irvine] forms a powerful bond with the animal bought by his father at auction before the British Army conscripts the horse when hostilities break out."


Cameron Crowe's We Bought a Zoo opens two days before War Horse, but early reviews are appearing for this one, too. In Variety, Rob Nelson finds it to be "an odd bird, warm-blooded but largely lifeless. Adapted from Benjamin Mee's autobiographical account of his experiences as the new owner of a fixer-upper menagerie, Cameron Crowe's overlong pic works hard to deliver intermittent pleasures, most of which derive from Matt Damon's affable lead turn. Animal action, as well as comedy of any variety, remains curiously sparse as Crowe strains to make a tribe of his human characters, including a ragtag zoo-keeping team and the widowed Mee's two kids."

Drew McWeeney at Hitfix: "Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) has made a career as a reporter out of taking part in life-threatening adventures, and that danger junkie personality has served him well. That's stopped cold, though, when his wife takes ill and passes away, leaving him to raise his kids Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Dylan's old enough that the death of his mother tears a hole in him, and he sinks into a sullen teenager routine while his little sister simply tries to keep her father afloat. Sensing that he's doing everything wrong, Benjamin takes it as a sign when Dylan is expelled from school, and he decides to move them away from Los Angeles so they can get a fresh start. As the title promises, they find a property that features a real working zoo, but that needs a new owner to keep it from being closed down for good. More importantly, someone needs to keep the animals from being destroyed, which is the state's only real option if they can't find a buyer."

The Playlist: "As his older brother Duncan Mee, Thomas Haden Church is a good soulful comic-relief counterpoint to Damon's deep and serious lead trying to jump headfirst into a new 'adventure' he knows nothing about…. Scarlett Johansson plays Kelly Foster, the tough, no-nonsense lead zoo keeper, and potential object of affection for Benjamin, and while their romance is charmingly skirted around and flirted with, it's also wisely not very consummated. The zoo groundskeepers are rounded out by Patrick Fugit, Carla Gallo, Angus Macfadyen and Elle Fanning. John Michael Higgins plays a rather cartoonish and fey villain as the inspector who may or may not give them their license for their intended July opening. Fortunately his character only appears sparingly. While broadly drawn in story and fairly predictable, even banal at times, where the film counts and scores major emotional points is in the details that are unmistakably Crowe's."

It's "his most commercial picture to date," adds Hitfix's Gregory Ellwood. FirstShowing's Alex Billington is compelled to "mention of the score, written by Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi. I've been a longtime fan of Sigur Rós and while they do use 'Hoppípolla' in the film once, his original score written for We Bought a Zoo is just extraordinary."

Update: The Hollywood Reporter's running a cover story on Crowe and now has a review of Zoo as well from David Rooney: "Crowe said in interviews that his model for this movie was the Scottish director Bill Forsyth's minor-key 1983 charmer Local Hero; he pays homage by casting Peter Riegert as Benjamin's editor. What We Bought a Zoo has in common with that earlier film is a genuine depth of feeling…. The force that binds the disparate characters together and anchors the story in emotional truth is Damon's Benjamin. His struggle gives the movie a soulful pull, even at its most predictable. Whether he's pleading with an ailing Bengal tiger not to give up the will to live, lost in melancholy solitude or yelling in frustration at his son about a shared pain that neither of them can express, Damon brings integrity and intrinsic decency to a character just searching for the courage to emerge from grief."


Early reviews for one more, this one opening on December 9: "Long after the post-Juno glow has faded," writes Kate Erbland for Box Office, "director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody re-team with Young Adult, a darker and more accomplished outing about misdirected maturity and the destructive power of a woman made up of equal parts disappointment and Diet Coke. The film stars Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, glorified ghostwriter of a series of YA novels and wickedly great anti-heroine, who returns to her tiny hometown to reclaim her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) — paying no heed to the fact that his comfortable suburban life now includes a wife and infant daughter. Cody's snappy, spot-on writing and Reitman's clear-eyed direction should suit audiences looking for a black-as-night dramedy with bite."

At the Playlist, William Goss gives it an A-: "For 90 minutes, Young Adult doesn't flinch from deep-seated scars and long-lasting regret, and it's only funnier for exploiting and exploring the grand delusions of its utterly pathological, pretty-on-the-outside protagonist."

In other news. "An epic film about an aboriginal tribe's rebellion against Japanese colonial rulers and a sensitive domestic drama took the top honors at Saturday night's 48th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan," report Dean Napolitano and Aries Poon for the Wall Street Journal. "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, a sprawling, 4½-hour film from Taiwan, was named best feature film. The film, being shown in two parts, is based on the true story of Taiwan's indigenous Seediq tribes, which launched an armed uprising in 1930 against the Japanese occupation…. The night's biggest winner was the moving drama A Simple Life, from Hong Kong about a middle-aged man who looks after his family's life-long servant after she suffers a stroke. Ann Hui scooped up the trophy for best director, while Andy Lau and Deanie Ip won the awards for best leading actor and best leading actress, respectively."

Touch of EvilDVD. Masters of Cinema has released Orson Welles's Touch of Evil "in a limited edition 2 x Blu-ray release containing the 1998 Reconstruction Version in both 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 aspect ratios; the 1958 Theatrical Version in both 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 aspect ratios; and the rediscovered 1958 Preview Version in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Controversy has raged for some time around which aspect ratio constitutes the 'correct one' for the film; with this release, we've taken pains to present the film for the first time in all available presentations." Brad Stevens lists several ways in which this is a very, very good thing.

Also in Sight & Sound, Paul Tickell: "Although it gets the occasional screening and is available on DVD, Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) remains a neglected masterpiece. In its treatment of race and with its African-American star Harry Belafonte (who was also the film's executive producer), the film is ahead of its time. It is also a testimony to Wise's versatility — this is the director who gave us everything from The Curse of the Cat People (1944) to The Sound of Music (1965)."

Books. Luke McKernan presents an annotated list of "books published this year on silent film which might be the sort of presents you'd rather like to get for yourselves as opposed to those you can expect from the nearest and dearest." It's "an idiosyncractic selection of some of the publishing highlights of 2011."

Austin. Wiley Wiggins will introduce John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966) and lead a post-film discussion this evening at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz. The Chronicle's Marc Savlov asks him why: "Because it's a movie that could have just been an extra-long Twilight Zone episode, but it has some really amazing stylistic flourishes that make it stand out, even against other Frankenheimer movies of the same period."

Viewing. Two weeks ago, we took a look at the trailer for Takashi Miike's video game adaptation Phoenix Wright. Now Twitch is already passing along a teaser for another forthcoming film, Ai To Makoto (The Legend of Love & Sincerity). J Hurtado: "I know nothing about this manga, but a little bit of research shows that the film will be the fourth live action adaptation since 1974."

More viewing, this one requiring a bit more of your time, as it runs nearly 2½-hours. Catherine Grant posts a masterclass that took place on November 12 in which Boyd Van Hoeij spoke with Todd Haynes about his work.

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