Sunday, December 25, 2011

Spielberg's WAR HORSE--90 minutes, at least--proves a genuine holiday blockbuster

Ah, WAR HORSE! Well, 90 minutes of it, anyway. Because of being given the wrong starting time for the advance screening, and a prior commitment to interview French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch, TrustMovies simply had to leave with nearly a full hour left to view. Now that the film has officially opened -- today, in theaters everywhere, as they say -- he will certainly go back and catch that last hour (he did: see final paragraph below). So, consider the following not exactly a review but a recommendation -- because that first hour-and-a-half is supremely entertaining, beautiful to view and full of strong performances (from animals and humans) that pull you in and keep you there. (Post-screening, TM's daughter and ex-wife both claimed the last portion of the film to be even more powerful than the first.)

Steven Spielberg (shown at left), the film's director, is no stranger to blockbusters nor to family films. This one, rated PG-13, is not for the younger children (or any older ones or adults) who may grow upset seeing beautiful animals put in harm's way. For the rest of us, the movie works, as much because of this director's love of cliché and how to use it as anything else. Few filmmakers are so able to give us the tried-and-true as though it were new -- and then succeed in making it so. Much of the time, anyway.

In this tale of the love of a boy for his horse (adapted, from Michael Morpurgo's novel by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis), though we know just about everything that's going to happen from our consumption of so many earlier movies, this does not make most of what occurs any less engaging or lively.

Only the section involving a Frenchmen and his granddaughter (played by the ever-reliable Niels Arestrup, above, right, and newcomer Celine Buckens, at left) seems particularly heavy-handed and unbelievable. Fortunately, this ends rather abruptly, and we can get on with the show.

Once we finish with the necessary initial family scenes -- that's father (Peter Mullan), above right; son (Jeremy Irvine), center; mother (Emily Watson, center left) and their landlord (David Thewlis, seated left) and the procurement of the horse and its training, we then go to war, along with that horse and, eventually, the son.

As this is World War I, death is everywhere, but Spielberg manages to gloss it whenever possible. There's an initial strange, gung-ho attack (above) that begins in tall grass and ends with riderless horses as the main indication that the men are dead. Later, a pair of young deserters are executed, with the blades of a huge windmill obscuring their actual moment of death.

Other directors would do all this differently and might please a smaller section of the public, but Spielberg knows how to do it in a manner that will rake in the largest audience, giving it both what it wants and what he wants. My personal favorites among his films are the two least successful at the box-office: Empire of the Sun and A.I., but when I see something as accomplished as War Horse, I am able to appreciate what this director can do, even if the film may not be among my favorites of the year.

I'll have to see that final hour to know for sure. And I will. Meanwhile, consider this "sort-of" review a genuine recommendation. War Horse, a co-production of Touchstone Pictures and Dreamworks, opens today, Christmas 2011. Click here to find a theater near you.


As good as his word, TM did indeed head back to see that last hour of War Horse (on the heels of watching SHAME -- more on that movie later -- so thank you, AMC Empire 25for the chance to catch it gratis).  It's every bit as fine -- if occasionally too explicit (this is part of what you get, in exchange for Spielberg's thrilling film knowledge and ability, with each of his packages) -- as the first 90 minutes. I was moved to tears a few times by the beauty, joy and/or sadness of certain scenes (that horse, of course, and how it brings supposed enemies together on the battlefield; the German gas, sudden and overwhelming, causing one of our sweet characters to disappear within it). So stick this on your list -- in a theater, first, as it's on film, rather than hi-def video; or eventually on Blu-ray/DVD.


Joe said...

Maybe it's just me but I thought all films are meant to be manipulative one way or another. The whole point of movies are to entertain by making you feel some kind of emotion, be it horror, joy, or sadness. To fault a film for intentionally try to make you feel something is rather stupid.

James van Maanen, said...

I'm sorry, Joe, but did I anywhere call WAR HORSE manipulative? I don't think so. Over-explicit, maybe, but that's not the same thing. Perhaps you were referring to my review of A SEPARATION? I called that one manipulative, even though I liked it very much.

Anyway, you are right about movies entertaining us by making us feel something. But manipulative is something else, I think. Smart movie-makers are, of course, always manipulating us, but they do it well enough so that we don't see the strings attached to their puppets. When the audience sees those strings, then it starts to feel "taken for a ride."