War Horse – Review

War Horse (2011) 

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Jeremy IrvineEmily Watson, Niels ArestrupPeter MullanDavid ThewlisBenedict CumberbatchCeline Buckens.

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

War Horse has probably some of the best Spielberg we’ve seen in a while, but unfortunately it has some of the worse too. The result is a strange hybrid of a film that at times showcases true mastery in Film-making (some real craftmanship that very few directors have these days) but other times falls flat (and almost into self parody) with some incredibly misjudged moments and, worst crime of all, (especially for a Spielberg’s film) is actually devoid of any real emotional drive: each set piece works as an individual piece in itself, but as a whole film “War Horse” lacks a certain narrative unity which in the end prevents one for getting completely swept away despite the glorious score by John Williams.

I was ready to let myself go on this one: on paper this is the ultimate weepy! But strangely while I was left admiring the nicely composed frames and the beautiful cinematography, I found myself emotionally detached from the actual story. Whatever happened to that great manipulator of emotions that still makes me cry every time I watch ET? Why was I so underwhelmed and not reduced to tears as I should have been?

Spielberg films his horses just like he would film a human being: close-ups, tracking shots and all sorts of filmic tricks bring them alive as their faces turn to camera and their eyes reflect the light from yet another great vista. He’s so good at making us see what the horses are actually feeling at any point in the film, that he almost forgets to make us care for the actual human beings the populate the rest of the film.

Human characters come and go in this film like bell boys in a hotel and yet few of them really leave any mark. Rarely you really feel sorry for these people when they die (crucially some of them die off camera too!), maybe because they’re so many of them, or maybe because most of these are slightly two-dimensional or maybe because there isn’t enough time to get close to them (However look at  Pixar’s “Up”: we were all crying during that 5 minutes montage scene!). Let’s face it, the real star of the film is the horse and that’s it. We don’t really care about the humans…

I’ll give you an example: At the end of the film (watch out… spoiler ahead) there’s a big reunion moment between our hero, Joey, (and his horse) and his family. It’s supposed to be a bit climatic moment, as the music swells and the cinematography pays tribute to Gone with the Wind itself. The old parents are finally able to hug their son who’s just returned from war. Potentially this is a heartbreaking moment unravelling under our eyes and yet I was coldly thinking to myself: “Oh… I didn’t realise the parents were actually worried and waiting for him… because I’ve never actually seen them being worried while the kid was away. In fact I don’t think I ever even seen the kid being in difficulty during the war. Was he suffering? Was he missing his parents? All he seemed to care about was the horse, and that one seems fine to me”. How could that be the big climatic moment of the film, if I wasn’t really prepared for it by anything I’ve seen so far.

And what about all those people dying? Was I meant to feel something for them? I really didn’t, because I was only given the point of view of the horse. It looked like I was only meant to care about the horse.

Are we all basically just supposed to feel sorry for people dying, simply because they just… erm… die, even if the film hasn’t really made care about them?

The beginning of the film is probably the worst part. It’s a very lengthy first act, which despite continuous nods to Spielberg’s intellectual mentors like John Ford (just to mention one) feels cheap, corny, cheesy, slow and just dated in the worse possible sense. Spielberg may call it old-style film-making, but those words actually disguise some pretty bad and indulgent sequences, with some caricature acting that makes it all look more like a bad episode of “The Little House in the Prairie” than “How Green Was My Valley”.

Especially considering what’s coming later on, this first part feels like a totally different film. It is all plastered with a constant unsubtle soundtrack, without a single moment of silence, that tells us what we are supposed to think at each given point. Worst of all are the more comical-moments in this first part, which are really unfunny and yet the music make them sound almost as if they belonged to a Lauren & Hardy film.

But just when you think this is getting so predictable and really beyond bad, finally war breaks and the film becomes something completely different, and actually quite good one.

This is the best Spielberg of the best moments Saving Private Ryan (and to a degree the one behind the scenes of both Band of Brothers and the Pacific). There are hints of his genius popping up every few minutes

There are some absolutely beautifully and impeccably crafted and choreographed sequences: some thrilling battle scenes, some great memorable moments (a massive crane reveals the aftermath of a battle and shows us that the casualty of war are not just humans. An execution sequence, seen through a windmill chilling in its beautifully timed production), there are some breathtakingly locations, some wonderful cinematography, and of course a heartfelt score by John Williams (more successful here where it has more time to breathe than it did in Tintin.

One of the most beautiful scene which obviously everyone will remember is when our horse gets trapped in big cluster of barbed wire (amazing special effects by the way. Surely that must have been some CGI work, though I couldn’t quite tell how it was done) and then is saved by two soldiers from two opposite armies: it’s an almost poetic moment which gets away from being panned as a cheap trick and manages to be funny, sad, poignant and tense all at the same time.

There are some great new characters too peppered throughout and there will be moments to leave anyone speechless for their powerful honesty and epic scope.

But unfortunately, despite all these elements and all these little stories, the overall arching narrative  still feels bitty and choppy and even though what’s actually happening under our eyes is so powerful that we could almost forgive anything, the ultimate emotional journey of the main human character, Joey, is not as strong or compelling as the sum of all the other parts and eventually I couldn’t quite connect to him.

What we are left with is a very uneven film which wants to reach everyone (never the terms “a film for the whole family” has been more appropriate and I’m sure everyone will enjoy if not love parts of it) and yet I can’t quite help feeling that if it hadn’t tried so hard to please everyone it probably would have been a stronger film. There were moments I loved and moments I really hated, and if my rating may seem a bit high is probably because after 3 weeks since i saw the film, those great moments in it are still imprinted in my mind.

7/10

J. Edgar – Review

J. Edgar (2011) 

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dustin Lance Black. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprioJosh HamiltonGeoff PiersonNaomi WattsJudi DenchJeffrey DonovanDermot Mulroney

I am finding really hard to find something good to say about this latest dull dull dull film by Clint Eastwood. I am actually even beginning to think that it’s probably time for Clint to enjoy his retirement, instead of giving us every year a film which borders between the cheesy, the flat and most crucially the rhetorical propaganda! I am sorry to say this, because I love the guy as a person, but let’s face it, both Invictus  and (especially) Hereafter were real stinkers

As far as J. Edgar is concerned behind the thin patina of gloss, the actual true fascinating story and an impressive cast, there is otherwise very little to enjoy.

Eastwood directs it all almost by numbers, as if he wasn’t even there, without any visual flair, any care or attention for details, any subtlety, or  worse any real ideas or anything to say.

Every decision behind the making of this film seems to have been wrong one: the decision to break the film up, flashing backwards and forwards makes it too complicated to follow and keeps the audience emotionally detached for at least the whole first half. The decision to allow Eastwood to recycle his usual plain piano notes soundtrack, which sounds exactly the same as every other one of his films and actually here is used in the most cheesy possible way to its worse effect. The decision to have J Edgar Hoover telling the story of his life to a biographer (my God, can it all be a bit more obvious please!?), but most crucially, the decision to have Di Caprio & Co acting with (not very good) prosthetics for half of the film thus forcing the audience to get constantly distracted by the bad hair lines, the dodgy fake wrinkles and the rubbery feel on people’s faces. I must have spent half of the film looking at the make-up thinking “God, this is bad” and even when sometimes I though “mmm, this is a bit better…” I was always aware of it. Even when you look at the publicity stills from the movie (the picture above this review) you can see tell how fake the hairline is. In an age of seamless CGI (look at the ageing effects of Benjamin Button!!) I am surprise to see such shoddy  work (hopefully it’ll look alright on DVD, but on the big screen I saw this, digitally projected, it all looked incredibly ropey).

I am usually a huge fan of Di Caprio: I loved him since  “A Boy’s life” when he upstaged even Robert DeNiro (in a time where DeNiro was actually still good), he was absolutely amazing in “What’s Eating Gilberg Grape” (to this day one of my favourite films), I thought he was one of the most mesmerizing Romeo in  Baz Lurhman’s “Romeo + Juliet“, I even liked him in Titanic (in fact, I think, special effects aside, some of the success of that film was because of his ability to draw us in.. and to draw millions of little girls back to see the film over and over again). He was great in the Aviator, the Departed and he even managed to bypass the fact that he had a baby-face in both Catch me if you Can and Revolutionary Road, just because he was so good in both! But on “J.Edgar” Di Caprio is forced to spend half of the film covered in that damn thick prosthetics which prevents him to convey any real emotion to his character. I felt like I was always watching Di Caprio in a fat-suit as opposed to J.Edgar.

To be completely honest, it’s not all his fault. Eastwood ‘s direction jumps from scene to scene, sometimes quite randomly, trying to cover as much ground as possible from the undoubtedly intriguing real life. There are way too many characters, too many story lines, most of which are left hanging without a real sense of place and eventually the emotional focus of the film gets diluted and any understanding of his character gets lost.

There are some potentially very strong moments: for example the relationship between J.Edgar and his domineering mother (the always very watchable Judi Dench) and the sexual tension between Di Caprio and Armie Hammer, are both potentially very strong, however in the hands of Eastwood they all fall into schmaltzy and clichés as those cheesy piano notes tell us “a now, watch out… this is going to be emotional”. It’s all handled so badly that it even kills a potentially good performance like the one by Di Caprio.

The rest is just a hollow mess where characters come and go without leaving any real mark: we never really know why Naomi Watts‘s character decides to stick with J. Edgar right until the end, we never really get a grip on the procedures that made finger prints database possible, we never really get a sense of what could have happen if the real J.Edgar had been exposed and while all sorts of lawyers and politicians appear and disappear in a seemingly random succession we are getting more and more lost in irrelevant subplots.

It could have been a fascinating story: a closeted gay, the first director of FBI, a man who lived through presidents like Truman, Kennedy and Nixon. There could have been so much here and yet it’s all wasted in bad storytelling, staging and wrong choices at every turn.

I blame the direction, the script (surprisingly the same person who had penned the quite gentle and a lot more subtle Milk),but also the editing: obviously a lot has been cut out trying to condense 50 years into 137 minutes. But instead of loosing entire subplots and deciding to make it all more focused, somebody made a terrible decision to actually have it all in. The first 20/30 minutes are some of the most disjointed and messy I’ve seen in any film recently.

It would probably deceiver even less than a 5/10 rating, but some of central performances are quite good, despite everything else around them.

5/10

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) 

Director: David Fincher. Writers: Steven Zaillian. Cast: Daniel CraigRooney MaraChristopher PlummerStellan SkarsgårdRobin Wright

Your appreciation and enjoyment for  this film mainly comes down to whether you buy into the story or not and whether you are you a fan of the original book (I should probably say books, since this is the first part of a trilogy). Unfortunately my answer to both questions is quite a drastic no: I know I am going to be quite unpopular with this statement, but I’ve never really fallen in love with the book and I in fact just don’t seem to be able to  find the appeal for the actual story itself. I find it quite derivative, exploitive, contrived and a bit heavy-handed to be honest. These exact same problems are translated (in fact even enhanced) into both film adaptations.

It’s probably unfair to draw comparisons with Niels Arden Oplev‘s 2009 version, but also unavoidable. There are of course similarities, but given the fact that David Fincher is directing, the US version is a lot more slicker and cinematic. It is also closer to the original book in many places, but, as always in condensing it all into a movie, it has lost some of its more polemical thrusts from Larsson‘s story and some of the details which made the characters so compelling. All for the sake of the actual crime/mystery plot (which let’s face it, it’s pretty bland for today’s standards and brings very little new to the genre). So in the end, not only the film suffers from the same problems of the book but by shrinking it all it has lost some of its more subtle subtext too.

I am not really saying anything new here: what works in books doesn’t necessarily work movies. For example, the film spends a long time setting up the two main characters who don’t meet until a good hour and 20 minutes into the story. And yet despite all this time Daniel Craig‘s character is just as elusive to the audience as it was at the beginning. That is an ongoing problem with Fincher’s movies. His usual cold approach to film-making and detachment from his characters makes it always very hard for anyone to empathise with anyone on the screen. Craig does bring some unexpected charm and a slight sense of humour to his character (something which was completely absent in the previous version), but it’s really not enough to make you care for his character, let alone for making you want to watch him again for the next couple of sequels (Fincher has recently announced his interest to direct both sequels back to back… But no official announcement will be made until this one get released, of course).

It’s Rooney Mara who really steals the show here (well, let face it, so did Noomi Rapace in the previous version. It’s a great part to play!). This is one of the performances of the year and there will certainly be nominations and awards for her coming left and right over the next few months. She even manages bring a certain realism to an otherwise over-the-top character by convey both fragility and an incredible strength, sometimes with pure simple looks.

However, did we really need that 1 hour and 20 minutes of preparation before these two characters meet? Did we really need to see the infamous rape scene? Yes of course, it’s that rape that gives her the motivation for wanting to solve the crime, but why couldn’t they just convey that with a quick flashback? Why was the audience allowed inside that room watching not only the rape but also her revenge to her rapist? Wouldn’t it have been just as effective and less exploitive if we had been left outside the door, maybe listening to the screams?

The problem is, if you take all that preamble out of the equation, you’re actually left with very little else because let’s face it, as a mystery this is a fairly derivative film.

As I said, these are all queries with the book and the story itself . Given the material Fincher has probably down the best he could. This is a handsome film, with some solid acting (Plummer once again is at his best!)  but in the end you’re left with a sense of “…so what?”.

I couldn’t help feeling that everything that Fincher did in this film, he had already done it before.

The dark tones of Se7en, the seedy  and multilayered atmosphere of Zodiac, the dark ominous  music (if we can call it that) by Trent Reznor from  The Social Network.

Finally it’s probably worth mentioning the impressive “James Bondesque” title sequence (again, Fincher has down beautiful title sequences before) to the notes of the cover version of  “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin which I found absolutely mesmerizing and yet somehow seemed to belong to a different film altogether.

In the end this film adds very little to the previous version, aside from giving us the wonderful Rooney Mara, and certainly adds nothing to what I already know about David Fincher. I just look forward to seeing him handling a script and a story worth of his craft, because I do believe he’s one of the best directors out there right now…

6.5/10

The Descendants – Review

The Descendants (2011) 

Director: Alexander Payne. Writer: Alexander Payne. Stars: George ClooneyShailene WoodleyAmara MillerNick Krause, Beau BridgesMatthew Lillard

 Once in a while a movie comes along and shows that Hollywood can do more than just cheesy rom-coms or big blockbusters with a tiny little brain. In the case of Alexander Payne, it seems we had to wait 7 years, which is the time he took him to make another new film after his previous Sideways. The Descendants not only shows us the same intelligence, nuance and bittersweetness from his previous work but actually manages to take it a step beyond.
It might not be the most original story ever seen on screen, but it’s treated with such maturity and honesty and in such simple and unfussy way that it’s hard not to fall in love with it. I certainly did.
I saw it a few weeks ago and unlike many other films seen recently, it sticked in my mind.
Clooney dresses down like rarely before (literally: he’s never been wearing worse clothes!) to play the part of  the the everyday man Matt King. In this film he looks as scruffy as ever, with a bad haircut and unshaven look. And as he abandons his trademark smirks and smiles he manages to give one of his best performance to date: best because he’s actually so normal, so understated and yet so powerful. It is actually the hardest role to pull off.
He’s funny at times and yet incredibly moving at others. I won’t give away the ending of the film, but his final speech, all shot in a tight close-up  was absolutely heart breaking and its sincerity and realism had me in tears like a baby.
It is an incredibly powerful film: a story about grief, betrayal and the breaking of a marriage, which manages to be funny at the same time. And it’s this careful balance between the sad and the lighter moments and its low-key approach that makes “the Descendants” so successful.
It’s a hard film to pigeonhole: nothing is really black or white.It’s not a comedy nor a drama. It’s set in the Hawaii Islands and yet there’s no sun (in fact it’s always raining and gray),  good people do bad things and bad people surprise us by showing an unexpected side of their personas. In that respect it’s a very realistic film, in a real setting, with real people; and just like in real life, people are rarely perfect and they’re not “always-good” or “always-bad” but nonetheless they can be surprising too
The pacing of the film is rather slow (that’s not a criticism, nor the film is boring) and somehow that allows us to get to closer and closer to the characters, understand them, learn about their imperfections and flaws and somehow fall in love with them, because despite the extraordinary situations, they really feel human.
So that by the time we get to the final emotional scenes with Clooney, it all really pays off beautifully.
I suppose this is probably one of those movies that will appeal to a much older audience or, dare-I-say, a more mature one, but if you’re willing to go with it, not only you’ll find the best Clooney ever, but also one of the best films of the year.
8.5/10

Hugo 3D – Review

Hugo 3D(2011) 

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Ben KingsleyAsa ButterfieldChloë Grace MoretzChristopher LeeSacha Baron Cohen.

Accompanied by a series of glorious reviews and voted Best Film of the year by the National Board of Review Hugo has finally hit our multiplex. Obviously the expectations are pretty high!

On paper this has got all the elements to be a true masterpiece. Loveable kids, Paris in the 30s, passion for old movies, a heart-melting story, magical sets, spectacular 3d, an amazing cast… and of course Martin Scorsese himself at its helm. How can it possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately despite all these potentials, the film itself  never really took off for me and for all its good intentions, its great heart and undoubtedly its mastery in film-making, in the end Hugo 3D cannot hide the fact that it’s all over the place and actually just a bit boring.

Yes some of the camerawork is astonishing and Marty certainly knows how integrate 3D into his story, making it more than just a gimmick: right from the beginning we can see the potential as we are treated with a one-shot-wonder which pushes the 3D effects beyond anything we’ve seen before (yes, even Avatar). The camera glides, twirls and swoops across a train station, then jibs up along ladders and flies through giant clock mechanisms. But even this first burst of energy gets a bit tiresome after a while and the film runs out of steam pretty soon after that and not even all those camera swoops, chases and constant music can raise the level of excitement.

The main problem seems to be that Scorsese is so concerned about the message of preserving old films, that he forgets about how to make it an involving and exciting story, and most of all, he forgets who central character should be: the film is called Hugo after all. In fact the most inspired scenes in the movies have nothing to do with Hugo himself but rather with Ben Kingsley’s character, the French magician/film-maker Georges Méliès (yes, the one from the 1902 “Le Voyage Dans La Lune, which you can see below). The scenes around him are probably some of the most inspired… and the best. There’s a certain pleasure in seeing the behind the scenes of such iconic moments in cinema history. There’s a great sense of nostalgia for that comes with them and Scorsese’s attention to details is definitely to be praised. However none of this will probably make any difference to the average viewer who will soon wonder where all this is going and surely will get a bit bored.

It’s hard to tell who is this film aimed at. It is definitely too slow for kids, too diluted for the average person, too rhetorical and over-explicit and a bit silly for the real cinephiles.

Scorsese might have made this film for his kids (or so at least he claims), but it’s clear that he has quite got that open-mindedness about children and that innocence  and sense of wonder (that for example Spielberg has) to tell a story about them which would ring true: both Hugo and Isabel (an unusually wooden Chloë Grace Moretz) speak a language which doesn’t quite belong to them (it’s as if Scorsese himself were talking). In the end it’s clear that the director is much more interested in telling a story about the restoration of old movies, rather than a fairy tale about a kid growing up and finding a family. Funnily enough, even the message about saving old films from the past loses a little bit of credibility (and honesty) the moment in which Scorsese decides to turn Méliès’ movies into 3D.

The fault at the core of all this is that Scorsese is just trying to be too clever and cram too much in it.

In a way he is even trying to make his own “Rear window“, by giving us little stories around the train station, as seen from the eyes of Hugo, just like in Hitchcock’s masterpiece we were treated to glimpses of lives seen through the eyes of James Stewart. However while in Rear Windows those stories where a representation of our character’s state of mind (his doubts and fears about married life) and always seen his own the point of view, here much too often we lose track of Hugo himself and the lives we get too see are completely irrelevant to the central story. Most them even feel a bit misjudged too. Sacha Baron Cohen’s turn as police inspector and his slapstick gags are never really as funny as they should be the romances between the various couples are as moving or even quirky as they should to be and in fact not only they seem to belong to a different film altogether but they also pull the film in too many different directions.

It’s surprising how a film so concerned about the art of storytelling could lose itself so much when trying to actually tell a simple story.

6/10

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