Early reviews are in on Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," and Anjelina Jolie's "In the Land of Blood and Honey," three of the latest-breaking movies hitting theaters this Christmas. A sampling of reviews of all three movies are below.
One tried-and-true awards strategy is to wait for the last possible minute to screen movies so that they are fresh in voters' minds. While it's a tough slog for early releases such as Sundance hits "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Win Win" or Woody Allen's long-chugging box office train "Midnight in Paris" to stay front and center through award voting, often the last picture out of the box grabs Academy hearts, from "Shakespeare in Love" and "Traffic" to "Million Dollar Baby."
It helps to be a big-name must-see (Spielberg, Hanks & Bullock) if you wait for the last minute. That's because you can assume that your movie will be on the top of the deep screener pile that Academy voters are packing for Aspen, Maui and Sun Valley. Little movies need time and critics' buzz to build Oscar momentum--which is why money-saving late December qualifying runs are so risky. This year ten films are taking this route, including "Rampart," "We Need to Talk About Kevin," "Flowers of War," "Albert Nobbs," "W.E.," "In Darkness" and "Coriolanus."
Disney and DreamWorks managed to screen "War Horse" in time for critics and guild groups. Even though the resolutely old-fashioned Spielberg World War I heart-tugger did not get much love from Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes voters, it's playing better so far for Rotten Tomatoes' (older) top critics (80%) --and, judging from the sniffling at my Sneak Previews screening, will wow audiences and Academy alike. It will be a box office powerhouse that makes it into the top tier of Oscar contenders, even without acting nominations, because it will be admired by the crafts as well as mainstream Academy voters.
Stephen Daldry held onto "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" until the last possible minute, notoriously missing the deadline for the New York Film Critics. This is a film that needs critical support to help set up what audiences are going to see. It's easy to understand why Daldry wanted to tinker with this, because the film is a delicate balancing act. What works well on the page in Jonathan Safran Foer's artful novel about a super-smart obsessive-compulsive kid (Thomas Horn) acting out his distress at the loss of his beloved father (Tom Hanks) in the World Trade Center on 9/11 requires careful calibration on the big screen.
Some see the kid --who is in virtually ever scene-- as a badly parented pain-in-the-ass, others as an obnoxious talky know-it-all, some think Jeopardy-winner Horn delivers a tour-de-force performance. The range of reactions from industry watchers and press is all over the map. Audiences have applauded at some screenings (with cast and crew on hand). Eric Roth has masterfully adapted the screenplay, but the question of whether Daldry successfully found the right tone for a movie that is designed to help us channel our lingering grief after 9/11 is hard to gauge until we see reactions from press and audiences. UPDATE: So far critics are not upbeat.
For SAG and the Golden Globes to ignore such a stellar ensemble--Horn, Hanks, Bullock, Max Von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright--suggests that the movie was screened too late. My best guess Oscar-wise is that the movie is an also-ran, as impeccably produced and directed as it is. Yet it could yet pick up steam. The film's standout is another silent actor: Max Von Sydow. Without speaking, he carries much of the film's emotion as he tries to staunch this anguished kid's open wound. A supporting actor career nomination is still a possibility.
Angelina Jolie's subtitled drama "In the Land of Blood and Honey" not only landed the Producers Guild's Stanley Kramer Award, but a foreign film Golden Globe (it's not a foreign submission for the Oscars). Trade reviews are respectful, as it's tough to imagine that the hard-hitting expose of Bosnian war crimes against women will play broadly. I hope people will check the film out, because debuting director Jolie, her top-flight team and local actors deliver a disciplined, well-acted, eye-opening drama.
A sampling of "War Horse" reviews:
Here's the thing about world wars, though: They level the playing (and dying) field for the villainous ruling class and virtuous working class alike. In the end, all who hate war are united as Steven Spielberg's War Horse unspools to its stirring conclusion. While the book plows ahead on the simplicity of its sentences and the play thunders along on the spectacle of its stagecraft, Spielberg expertly harnesses light, shadow, and landscape in the cause of peace.
Steven Spielberg ambitiously attempts to merge his talents as an entertainer of children and a chronicler of mass devastation in "War Horse." Conveying all manner of noble ideas about the savagery of war and the essential decency of mankind through one steed's dramatic WWI journey, this beautifully composed picture brings a robust physicality to tried-and-true source material, but falls short of the sustained narrative involvement and emotional drive its resolutely old-fashioned storytelling demands. Nonetheless, impeccable craft, pedigree and unique appeal to heartland and overseas audiences will give DreamWorks' year-end prestige release strong theatrical and ancillary legs.
Viewers coming to the movie version might think it's no fair using real horses (seven played Joey), but Spielberg's team wrangled eloquent performances from all of them, and from the human stars Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan and Tom Hiddleston. In his most painterly film, Spielberg has appropriated the lavish visual palette of John Ford movies: The Quiet Man for the rural settings, The Horse Soldiers for the war scenes. Boldly emotional, nakedly heartfelt, War Horse will leave only the stoniest hearts untouched.
But what's appealing about the way Spielberg has made War Horse is the extent to which it recalls the way Hollywood used to produce movies for everyone. Whatever its missteps, this is a film that kids, middle-aged adults and grandparents can all see -- together or separately -- and get something out of in their own ways. There are precious few films that fit this description today and hats off to Spielberg for making one.
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close":
More than a decade after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, the time is right for a sensitively made studio picture that addresses the confusion, anger and emptiness those events forced upon New Yorkers. For some, Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" will be that movie; others will reject its approach as too implausible or manipulative to take seriously. With a heavy heart and even heavier hand, Daldry addresses the tragedy through the experience of a boy struggling to accept the death of his father. The divisive pic's prospects ultimately depend on how this late-arriving awards-season release sits with taste-makers.
Emotional fluency and literary pretense go hand in hand in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, an affecting, well acted tale of 9/11 trauma and a boy's effort to piece things together after his father's death. A self-conscious prestige project with weighty thematic elements, a tony literary pedigree and top-tier actors, director Stephen Daldry's fourth film is dominated by the performance of a 13-year-old with no previous acting experience, Thomas Horn, who enables his character's pinball intellect and inchoate emotions to pulse through every scene. While the subject matter will keep some prospective viewers away, many who do come will be emotionally wrenched by the treatment of loss and the interplay between parents and child, indicating good commercial prospects in most markets.
“Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” is paced like a funeral, which sounds like an insult, but its actually a testament to the tastefulness of Mr. Daldry, whose last film, the Oscar-nominated “The Reader,” featured a chesty, pedophilic, illiterate Nazi. While the Twin Towers are seen in glimpses, Daldry knows the difference between “explicit” and “graphic.” He also showcases the trauma of reaching a dead end in your grief - 'Extremely Loud' isn’t the best film this year to focus on grief and survivor’s guilt (that would be “Margaret”) but each dead end Oskar reaches is loaded with the weight of unanswered questions, of unfulfilled expectations, and the crushing loneliness of being wrong.
"In the Land of Blood and Honey":
Jolie deserves significant credit for creating such a powerfully oppressive atmosphere and staging the ghastly events so credibly, even if it is these very strengths that will make people not want to watch what's onscreen. All the director's decisions were taken in the interest of heightened verisimilitude, from working in the Bosnian language (an English-language version is available as well) to using as many authentic locations as possible (some in Bosnia, others in Hungary) and having cinematographer Dean Semler employ a combat-ready style.
Though sufficiently well made to suggest a viable career behind the camera for debutante writer-director Angelina Jolie, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" seems to spring less from artistic conviction than from an over-earnest humanitarian impulse. Centered around the sexually charged bond between two people on different sides of the Bosnian War, this alternately disturbing and titillating picture reps a dramatically misguided attempt to renew public awareness of the 1992-95 Balkan conflict. Jolie's name and do-gooder cachet should lend the film a modest commercial profile, though its horrors-of-war hand-wringing will do little to challenge the apathy of the mainstream.
Funneling not only her enormous celebrity clout but also her impressive resume as an actor in a constructive direction, Jolie, still evolving in her commitment to foreign affairs and social injustice, courageously takes on for her directorial and screenwriting debut the subject of the Bosnian war (1992-95). Her focus is principally on its impact on Muslim women who suffered unspeakable horrors in the Bosnian Serb rape camps.
"In the Land of Blood and Honey" breaks no fresh ground in the tradition of staid, grim war dramas from which it hails, but Jolie successfully capitalizes on a juicy premise that finds Bosnia woman Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) falling into an affair with Danijel (Goran Kostic), the Serbian head of a prison camp where she's held captive. Working from her own screenplay, Jolie churns out a steadily involving, competently dramatic tale. The movie also stands out as a strong technical feat: Shot on location with an entirely Bosnian cast speaking Serbo-Croatian (although an English version was alternately shot), it thoroughly inhabits the period setting with a consistent feel for the cold, brutal events of its backdrop.