Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Equus Rex

When the Golden Globe nominations were announced in December, there were more than a few surprises. Sure, I was happy to see nominations for the likes of George Clooney, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Ryan Gosling, all of whom deserved to be recognized. Sure, I was certain that most of the deserving nominees would get their just rewards (and with a few upsets, I was right), but there were still some interesting picks to ponder over. One of those was War Horse, nominated for Best Drama (won Sunday night by The Descendants). First brought to my attention by my equine-loving friend Adrianne, I was struck by the professionalism of the product, even if the content wasn't entirely to my liking (or comprehension, as the teaser had almost no actual plot information, only a horse running around WWI trenches and under fire). Then his name popped up, "Directed by Steven Spielberg", and it all made perfect sense. Only a few directors could center an entire film around one horse and get away with it, and even fewer could go the family-friendly route in doing so. Spielberg, who doesn't really make "amazing" movies anymore, still lives mostly off the nostalgia of yesteryear, and thoroughly okay to good movies like Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park are seen through rose-tinted glasses as classics. Because his movies are so successful, Spielberg is given massive budgets by film companies so he can continue to do the same mediocre things over an over again. That's what made his animated debut The Adventures of Tintin such a pleasant surprise, even if it didn't quite grasp the attentions of American audiences. So now I'm reviewing War Horse in the vain hope that it will at least compare favorably with Spielberg's other December release and, alongside producing the great Super 8, present a renewed sense of quality from this director during 2011.

"They can never know of our secret love..."
Devon, England in the early twentieth century is a boring place. It's apparently so boring a place that Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) has nothing better to do with his time than watch horses play in the fields near his home. When his drunken sot of a father brings home Joey, a young horse too small to do the plow work the farm needs, Albert trains Joey and the pair defy the odds, allowing their family to try and keep hold of their farm a little longer. Then England goes to war with Germany, Albert's father is forced to sell Joey to the Army, and an adventure is clinically rigged in place for Joey and Albert to find one another, over the war torn remains of Western Europe during World War I.

Enjoy your new owner Joey; he won't last long
If I sound a little cynical in my plot synopsis above, it's because War Horse brings out that reaction in me. "Best Drama" indeed; War Horse is a derivative tale of the human spirit and the torments of war, with the only unique characteristic being that it's largely told through the eyes of Joey. That would be remarkable enough IF it had been an original concept. No, the film is actually based on the 1982 children's novel by Michael Morpurgo and the 2007 Tony Award-winning stage play, both of the same name, meaning that any mental strain the filmmakers had to exert to bring this story to the big screen was minimal at best. Sure, there are some beautiful shots (Spielberg might be called lazy, but he's not blind), but for the most part even great cinematography can't help but be overshadowed by the fact that you're watching a movie in which a horse is not only the central character, but the most interesting one. Spielberg and company do what they can to "humanize" Joey as much as possible (including what I'm certain were especially bad CGI eyes in some scenes), but when you limit yourself so much, there's only so much to be done. Joey is easy to root for, but eventually you wish there was something else to distract you.

One of War Horse's better moments...
Don't get me wrong, there are a few scenes in War Horse so wonderful that they momentarily fool me into thinking that there's a better movie sitting just below the surface. As Joey and Topthorn (another horse) move from owner to owner throughout the course of the film, most are boring enough to dry up any of the potential emotion the scenes could have had. That's true until the pair wind up in the windmill of an elderly French grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and his precocious granddaughter Emilie (Celine Buckens, in her feature film debut). It's a sequence that is entirely too short, but manages to do everything right that almost the rest of War Horse gets dead wrong. One helpful aspect is the actual depth in character that these two possess, while their respective acting talents rise above many of those lesser in the cast. They are also helped by being in one of the few parts of the film not entirely shrouded by war and darkness, sometimes light-hearted and funny, with only a few emotionally down moments moving onto the next part of the story. Another great scene has Joey alone and trapped in barbed wire in the middle of no-man's land between the German and British trenches. In this one, a British and German soldier both brave the war zone to work together to free Joey, and their conversation powers the scene and drives home the point that there is very little difference between soldiers in war (or at least in this war). If every scene in the film could have lived up to these two standouts, War Horse would have been my #1 film of the year.

No, thank you, we don't need any horses right now...
Unfortunately, they don't, and the blame for that equally falls on the wooden character models and the creative directors who failed to accommodate for that. Most of the people depicted in the film, from German teen soldiers who go AWOL to the officers of a British cavalry brigade, have no personality beyond their basic motivations. Even the supposed human heroes are dull as dishwater, with Irvine playing Albert as a typical awe-struck teen and Peter Mullen playing his crippled, alcoholic father without stretching out even in the slightest. And if he's such a booze hound, why does the mother (Emily Watson), the strong leader of the family, even let him do ANYTHING? Tom Hiddleston, who wowed us with his talent in Thor, barely charms us here as a young cavalry officer. With the exception of a few people, most notably Arestrup and Buckens, there really aren't any standout characters who can help carry the story forward. Irvine is the worst, and when the story occasionally shifts to his narrative (which is thankfully kept to a minimum), it's among the worst War Horse has to offer. He's way too much Samwise Gamgee to Joey's mute Frodo Baggins, if you get my meaning.

Ah, soldiers of war, ready to die for their country. And then there's the men riding them.
Characters are not the film's only problems, naturally. While Spielberg has all the money in the world to create great sets and imagery, the story is as boring as it is pointless, as any number of films over the years could come up with similar tales. On top of that is the music of another legend, composer John Williams. Yes, Williams is a film score hero, with legendary themes to Star Wars and Jurassic Park on his resume. However, he never ventures far from what works, a fact especially true these days. You can always tell when he is scoring a film because the music you hear is unique to itself while at the same time annoyingly similar to his previous works.

Hey, no peeking!
When War Horse was nominated for Golden Globes, I wondered what made this title so awesome that it attained that honor. Today, I still don't get it. War Horse is not a BAD film per se, but it appears only Spielberg's name keeps this title afloat as one of the most overrated titles released in 2011. Even horse enthusiasts should be wary, as while a couple of scenes full of wonder do make themselves known, it's not enough to ever allow me to recommend it, even as a family trip. If you're lucky, The Adventures of Tintin might still be playing at a theater near you. If it is, that's the Spielberg movie you want to take your kids to see, or even enjoy all by your lonesome. But not this. Never this.

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