Monday, January 9, 2012

War Horse

Of the Oscar Bait movies I've seen from the 2011 Oscar Fishing season, "War Horse" is easily the best.  And luckily for you readers, that means there's only one movie I need to see before I'm ready to announce my glorious 'Best of 2011' List.  This will not be on it, unfortunately.  But fortunately, compared to "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" this was not a movie that made me want to stand up out of my seat, tear my cloths off, cover my body with popcorn butter, and run naked and screaming out of the theatre.

Let's meet Stephen Spielberg.  Ever hear of him?  Probably not.  He's something of an obscure director, coming from the far-away land of Ohio, which I believe is a nation in the Middle East.  Surprising for such a minor figure in movies, he's made tons of movies, none of which the average person has ever seen.  Those include such bits of arcane filmmaking like "E.T.", "Jaws", "Jurassic Park", "Saving Private Ryan", and a whole series of movies about some dude named "Indiana Jones".  I haven't seen those movies, you haven't seen those movies, let's just assume they were decent enough for the small Indie off-brand movies of this small scale.  A few of them, I think, have actually been lost to history entirely.  Making movies has always been a hobby for Mr. Spielberg, I think he works at a gas station in between his tiny productions to pay for his bills. "Jurassic Park" was a cheesy B-movie about dinosaurs, and "E.T." in fact was a porno, that's a real tell of what kind of movie maker we're dealing with here.  But for once, "War Horse" is finally making an impression of the larger world, and is probably on its way to getting nominated for Best Picture in a few months.

Shockingly for such a small name director, "War Horse" is actually really good.  If you're looking for a feel-good movie about a horse and a lot of people who love it, here you go.  If you're a cynic who doesn't want to ever be happy, I guess you can point out that Spielberg is obviously pulling your emotional strings and that WWI really sucked.  Its not a perfect movie, its a little too long and a little too sappy, but it is a beautifully shot, stars a beautiful animal, and is probably the best war movie of 2011.  This is a perfect movie to show an elderly relative.

The basic plot of "War Horse" is the tale of a Colt named "Joey" that is initially bought by a drunkard farmowner and raised by his teenage son, Albert.  Albert and Joey fall desperately in love, work the farm together, ride along the beautiful Shire fields, and so on.  Then of course, World War I hits, and Joey has to be sold to the Royal Army as a cavalry horse.  Naturally, because this is the Western Front of WWI, the cavalry has a nasty run in with the Maxim Machine Gun.  So Joey passes from owner to owner, moving between all the sides of the war in small episodes before finally being separated by the horrific waste of humanity that is the trenches.  Then, to spoil the ending, he finds his owner again, the music swells, and everybody can walk home satisfied in a simple uplifting story.

If you don't like horses, I guess this won't be the movie for you.  I, naturally love horses.  I used to have a horse a while ago.  Her name was Epona, and we together rode the fields of Hyrule fighting orcs and saving Princesses, those were good times.  I miss Epona, I don't know where she's been the last few years, its been hard without her.  Joey kinda looks like Epona, and like Epona he responds to a very specific call of musical notes.

Now as for "War Horse" filmmaking, I have to say that this Spielberg guy, where ever he came from, is a true expert in the art of making movies.  "War Horse" is simply beautiful, its a film where every actor shines and the horse is the main star.  The best part, by far, is the moment that Joey finally says "fuck this" to all of WWI's endless cruel bullshit and dashes across No Man's Land.  Spielberg is also very good at directing war scenes, particularly the moment when the men go 'over the top' straight into the hellish landscape that four years of conflict helped create.  There are few places in all of history that I'd rather visit less than the space between the Allied and German lines in WWI, and Spielberg creates it beautifully.  Its almost as if the man has been a director of amazing movies for decades now, like he's a master of his craft.  But that's obviously not true, now is it?

One problem with "War Horse" has that other war movies do not is the rating.  Unfortunately, this is PG-13, and that was a really stupid idea.  In an early charge scene, the cavalry rush towards machine gun nests, the guns fire, and... all you see are horses without riders jumping over the guns.  At no point do you ever get to see the kinetic impact of those guns taking down the riders or the horses.  Its jarring.  At times Spielberg does it well with a pretty artistic effect of a spinning windmill covering up some violence, but at other times I'm like 'why can't I see this?'  The last battle scene (which is oddly the only real battle scene) is done very well, but its really just a retread of the opening of "Saving Private Ryan", done without blood.

Wait a second... I never saw "Saving Private Ryan" it was an obscure movie that... Oh screw it.  I'm done with that weird gag.  I don't even know what I trying to do there.  Let's move on.

Another issue is that even though the acting, writing, and cinematography are all top-notch, the episodes of Joey's life are all very disconnected and often disjointed.  They really do not mold into a singular movie.  Like, I think the story of the little French girl with some unknown bone disease was very well done, but it just didn't match up with Joey's life on the English farm or the WWI story.  The little girl, despite her accent, was probably my favorite character in the movie, which makes it all the weirder when its revealed in the last five minutes that she died off-camera sometime in the last half hour when we haven't seen her.  The fact she's one of two female characters in this entire movie makes her more distinctive as well.  Then there's a really short episode with two German child-soldiers deserting with Joey*, which lasts all of seven minutes and should have been cut entirely I think.  So "War Horse" is like watching three or four different short movies, all of which are decent enough, but they do not really coalesces into a single whole.  Not to mention, the timeline of this movie seems to have a few issues, I don't know how four years passed, from what I can tell at most a year could have occurred all in all.

It might have helped if Joey were a more charismatic leading man, but unfortunately he's a horse.  He can't talk.  I don't know what I'm expected out of a horse, its not like the creature could ever make an Academy Award winning performance, as intriguing as the idea is.

By the way, everybody speaks English in the movie.  The English, the French, the Germans, they all speak perfect English just with an accent.  This leads to a funny moment late in the film when a British soldier meets a German and to avoid the language dispute, the German mentions that "I speak English very well".  Of course he does, nobody speaks a language other than English in "War Horse"!  I guess the average Americans just can't deal with a movie that's halfway subtitles.

The final scenes I think are a little overdone, just a little too sappy.  Spielberg is the ultimate crowd-pleasing director, he's a director for the people, so it can be a little easy to be turned-off by the fantastic reunion of boy-turned-man and horse, but I'd prefer a movie be overplayed than underplayed.  After "Dragon Tattoo", I'm sick of subtly and slow intellectual filmmaking.  I feel bad for hating on a movie that everybody on Earth seems to love, including all my favorite critics for being too boring.  Maybe I've become a blistering idiot who just wants instant gratification... I have no idea who I am anymore.  At least I still hate Michael Bay, so I haven't completely fallen to the dark side.  But anyway, if you just want a fun movie, "War Horse" is the movie to see.

Fanwank Corner:  In all honestly, "War Horse" is taking place on the wrong side of Europe.  In the chaos that came with the collapse of the Romanov Empire, Eastern Europe was home to true chaos as the whole of society came apart into tons of factions where the most brutal side held the advantage.  It was also the last war in which mounted cavalry played any major strategic importance, so that would make Joey even more important to the movie.  Also, there aren't enough movies made about the Russian Revolution.

* One of the German kids was played by David Kross, best known for appearing in "The Reader", one of the worst Best Picture nominated movies I've ever seen.  Like "Dragon Tattoo" it was a really slow humorless movie, but even worse in that the characters are even more miserable.  Kross has a weird nose, so he's impossible to miss.


  1. I like the play better then the actual movie. It wasn't as padded as it was on screen. By the way Blue do you accept requests? If you do can review the World Ends With You? I really love that game and I want to see what you think of it.

    -The 1 & only Uzuki

  2. @Uzuki: (I don't know if I take requests, probably not.) The World Ends With You is currently on my list of games to beat. Unfortunately, that's a very long list. I'll have to play it before Kingdom Hearts 3D, so there's that.

    Also, the stage play sounds much better than the movie. I hear the effects are phenomenal.

  3. Somewhat interestingly, Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, originated the role of Albert in the stage version.

  4. @Uzuki: He doesn't take requests. I spent half a year trying to get him to watch the anime Noein, and he still hasn't seen it.

  5. Damn thats a shame. Oh well at least you'll play it at some point. Kingdom Hearts 3D is going to be EPIC! We're one step closer to the end of the Xemnes Saga. I'm contemplating with my 13 year old self on weither to buy Japanese 3DS just to play it a few months earlier then everyone else.

    -The 1 & only Uzuki

    BTW War Horse the play IS phenomenal. I was afriad that the horse was going to look like one of those two people costumes, but they pulled it off ok.