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

True Grit – Review

True Grit (2010) 

Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

Oh dear, I am not going to be very popular with what I am about to say. Because somehow the unwritten rule about movie reviews of the last few years seems to be that you’re not supposed to speak evil about the Coen Brothers: “they can do no wrong” in the eyes of movie critics and cinema lovers everywhere, and even when they do take a misstep, somehow that gets quickly erased from everybody’s memory as if  it was only a bad dream (like in the case of Intolerable Cruelty for example, or The Ladykillers).

My  relationship with the Coen brothers has been one of love and hate throughout the years. I have seen every movie they have made but  I have got a few confessions to make: I am one of the few people who thought the last 20 minutes of No Country for Old Men were a bit indulgent (though the previous 100 minutes very so good and cinematically perfect that in the end I forgave them for everything) and I was one of those who thought Burn after reading was just simply idiotic. I am also one of the (apparently) few people who didn’t really get A Serious Man, but having said that I loved The Big LebowskiRaising Arizona and still think that with Fargo they reached perfection (Oh, I do love that one!).

Yet, “True Grit” has very little of the Coen’s finger prints on it: a few cold jokes towards the beginning maybe, some beautiful visuals, but that’s pretty much about it. The movie is a pure and simple Western, just like the ones they used to make in the 50s and 60s, and probably just like the one they have been remaking. “True Grit” was also the 1969 movie for which John Wayne won his only Oscar. Though Ethan Coen said that the film was more a faithful adaptation to the novel with the same title written in 1968 by Charles Portis.

But enough history also because I haven’t seen the previous version and I haven’t read the novel, so I am just judging this 2010 “True Grit” on its own merit.

For a start, I have some real problem with the main character of the piece: the girl played by Hailee Steinfeld who’s supposed to be 14 and yet somehow speaks and acts like somebody who’s experienced a full life. You’re supposed to take that for granted right from the start, without any real reason behind it, or without being given much background. Well, I just couldn’t quite buy it, and was never quite comfortable with her character throughout the movie. As a result I ended up not caring about her at all. I’m not criticising Hailee Steinfeld’s performance (which was actually rather good), but more the character herself.

Then we have Matt Damon whose performance is probably masked by his fake mustaches and the big hat, because it wasn’t very apparent to me. His character (like many others in this movie)  is pretty much a one-dimensional one, and even his changes of heart are all so predictable that actually they end up being part of his “one-dimensionality”. Josh Brolin who in the last few years is having the time of his life and is enjoying a great comeback, is in for about 10 minutes, so it’s not even worth talking about him. Same goes for Barry Pepper.

Most of the dialogue in the movie has apparently been lifted from the pages of the original novel, which proves once again that something that works on paper doesn’t necessarily work on a movie (a vice-versa or course). Some of the best lines or jokes belong to Jeff Bridges. However most of them felt quite flat to me, nor particularly clever  or surprising. Also I have to confess that between Jeff’s mumbling (erm… sorry, acting) and the thick accent, I must have missed quite a few of them. And it looks like I wasn’t the only one in the theatre where I was.

Not that it matter a lot. Ultimately the film has a very familiar story, with very familiar characters in a very familiar setting. All too familiar in fact, thus without much emotional drive or drama. It all feels rather cold and it really shouldn’t, because this is certainly not an action film, so it should at least been a character piece.

Maybe my tastes are not refined enough, maybe it’s my slight ignorance for John Ford’s movies and my lack of love for John Wayne and Westerns in general, however I can safely say that this is not a movie for everyone. Some people will love it for what it is “a cold and mannered art western” (as the Hollywood Reporter called it), but it is definitely for a more grown up type of audience, certainly not a crowd pleaser in my view.

On its defense I have to say that the movie does look absolutely beautiful which is why I am feeling almost a bit guilty in saying that I didn’t like it . It’s almost  like saying that I don’t like John Ford.

Roger Deakins‘s cinematography rarely disappoints, and certainly in this one it is a work of wonder: from the cold snowy landscapes, to the great wide sunsets.

Carter Burwell’s score contains one of the most memorable and hummable tune  I can remember this year: it alternates understated cues, emotional piano moments, and grand sweeping themes (to match the widescreen vistas) and yet that too feels like it mainly belongs to a different film. Somehow the emotion that the music tries to raise don’t quite match the stark cold approach to the film.

The editing and pace of the movie is all rather slow, once again paying homage to the old Westerns our fathers probably grew up with. It does pick up a bit towards the very end, but to at that point, it is all just too late.

Unfortunately as we all know beautiful visuals, big names and a lovely tune can only take you so far, after a while if you’re not engaged with the story or the characters you’ll just find yourself looking at your watch more times than you should, and that’s never a good sign.

I must confess I was a bit bored.

6/10

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