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

NEDS – Review

Neds (2010) 

Directed by Peter Mullan. Starring Conor McCarronLinda CuthbertDavid McKayMarianna Palka

I don’t know much about Peter Mullan, but judging by his body of work, he must have had a seriously troubled childhood (to say the least), though he’s been reported saying that the film is “personal but not autobiographical”.

Neds is his third feature as a director, after Orphans (About four siblings who have to cope with the death of their mother) and The Magdalene Sisters (About young women suffering oppression and brutality at the hands of some over-zealous nuns). This one is essentially the story of teenage boy’s coming of age in the Glasgow of the 1970s and his descent from a potentially good boy to a ned

Neds is short for “Non-Educated Delinquents”  in Scotland. The stereotypical view of a ned is a white adolescent of working class background engaging in hooliganism, petty criminality, vandal behaviour, fighting, underage drinking, smoking and general anti-social behaviour

There are obvious comparisons with This is England by Shane Meadows but this time we are in Scotland. Incidentally, some people may find the thick accent in certain scenes a big obstacle. I heard that in some festivals the film was even shown with subtitles.

Right now the film is being pushed for various Awards here in the UK (BAFTAs and so on), so I came in expecting to like it quite a lot… And unfortunately that is always a recipe for disappointment.

NEDS is well shot with its grim look and the art direction seems to be spot on, setting up the 70s without overdoing it. It all looks and feels real.

The score of the film, mainly made up with low drones and moody strings, is pretty bland and forgettable and the incidental was often used in contrast with the pictures, for example Irving Berling’s Cheek to Cheek played under a fight sequence among 2 rival bands: that wasn’t very subtle, nor, to be honest, very original either  (I suppose he probably did it to distance the audience from the brutal violence of the scene, but we’ve seen this device used many many times before).

I’ve been reading few reviews praising Conor McCarron’s performance, but I actually thought he was quite miscast for the part. I didn’t really find him sympathetic, nor likable enough to care about whether he’s kill anyone or not. He seemed to lack that charisma that a lead actor should have.

Also I didn’t find his change from goody-goody to a ned quite unbelievably abrupt; then again, I am not sure whether that was a problem with his performance or with the script itself. On one hand I felt the shift happened to quickly, one the other hand it was obviously telegraphed from the script right from the start.

However I did like all the secondary characters in the film. Apparently the cast was largely  made of untrained people, and they all added extra injection of realism to the grim story.

To be completely honest I found “NEDS” way too long and fairly messy in its episodic structure. I’m also beginning to find the brutal violence of films like these a bit too repetitive and pointless. In a way I felt like I’d seen this film even before I actually saw it for the first time. And although it started off quite promisingly, it then fell quickly into predictable clichés.

There were only few surprises here and there: the ending (with the non-too-subtle metaphor with the lions) and a scene with a crucifix (which I personally found of poor taste)  being the only two worth mentioning and not necessarily in a good way.

Just because a film talks about serious issues in a serious way, it doesn’t necessarily make it a good film. There was very little in NEDS I haven’t seen before and despite some good individual scenes, but on the whole I felt that the film had said everything it had to say after the first 30 minutes, the rest was just pretty gratuitous and the open ending was just a bit disappointing.

I much prefer Peter Mullan‘s first two films, in fact I loved the The Magdalene Sisters, another tough film, for sure, but at least a more original one with more of grip on the story, the style (NEDS was a mish mash of styles) and and actual ending!

6/10

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