Wednesday, January 4, 2012

War Horse Review

By David Salazar

Spielberg has long been known for his overt sentimentality and romanticism. I feel that part of his appeal to the vast audience is that this romanticism and sentimentality, to some extent, enables people to relive something that is becoming less and less noticeable in current film culture. As the world becomes more and more cynical in its approach to art and the independent film and its smaller strokes (though no less effective) start to take center stage, Spielberg has continued to remind us of the golden age of Cinema with its larger than life characters and operatic drama. His cinema in many ways, reminds people what fascinated them about the movies in the first place: the heightened sense of reality; the grandiosity; the sense of hope.

With "War Horse," Spielberg has returned to this romantic style of filmmaking for the first time in what seems like ages. The film that this most resembles in tone and feel is likely "Schindler's List," though "War Horse" is certainly not on the same level.

The film centers around  the travels of a horse named Joey through the atrocities of World War I. During the course of his adventure, Joey goes on to motivate and change of the lives of a large cast of characters. The range of characters that Joey interacts with cross enemy lines, emphasizing the pointlessness of war and unity of the humans and that very world they are so intent on destroying. The film is filled with devastating moments that sometimes feel a bit manipulative, but the beauty of the story (an innocent creature such as Joey being pushed through so much with little he can do to stop it) is as moving as any out there. Spielberg captures some truly magical moments such as Joey's race through the trenches in heroic fashion, rallying the troops and emphasizing his strength and courage.  Later, a German and Brit drop their differences to help Joey get out of a trap; a rather romantic notion, but a touching and feel-good moment nonetheless that may not win over your reason, but certainly wins over your emotions. Joey saving the life of another horse and then helping a young girl Emilie are all unforgettable.

I will state that the film, which as you may have surmised already, is large in scope and at times even seemed a bit unwieldy for even Spielberg. The films' opening seems to indicate a romance between a young man Albert Naracott and Joey. However, after a 30 minute interaction and relationship build between the two, Joey must be sold so that Albert's irresponsible drunk father Ted can pay off the rent. Then Joey goes to war and is passed on from person to person. The story seems to move along pretty well until it gets to a point where one asks where it is all headed. Then Spielberg decides to return Albert to the story after he's been gone for more than an hour, at which point the story seems to make all the possible ends meet so that Joey and Albert can reunite (I don't think there are really any spoilers left). Then all the story elements that were introduced early on reveal their true function in order to bring this story to a snug finish. The film also has its share of hokey moments such as when Albert and Joey are plowing the field that no one really believes they can plow. The scene is highly effective except for the occassional "You can do it Joey," "Go Albert, we believe in you" from the rest of the crowd that elicits more of a cringe than it does an adrenaline rush of anticipation.

The cast of characters is quite good let by a sweet and honest portrayal of Albert by Jeremy Irvine. Celine Buckens makes a charming and delicate appearance as Emilie, a crippled girl who befriends Joey and his horse friend. The rest of the thesps, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbach, Niels Arestrup,  and Peter Mullan amongst others all make what amount to prolonged cameos, albeit good ones. Arestrup, as Emilie's Grandfather, has a gorgeous monologue that has been glimpsed in the film's trailer. However, it is a shame to see such a strong cast of actors get a chance to work with Spielberg and get rather meager roles in long run of things. Nonetheless, they all make ample use of their screen time and provide some memorable movie moments.

But the real star (or stars) are the horses that play Joey (there were several). Just looking into those horses' eyes during certain emotional scenes portray a magic that is truly rare. In fact, Joey may be one of the most fascinating characters to watch onscreen. If there should ever be an award for best animal performance(s), this would be the time to have it.

John Williams returns with another lush score filled with some truly memorable themes. There are other times, the less emotional moments, where the score feels more like filler, but when those high points kick in, Williams delivers some of his best tear eliciting melodies. It's a Spielberg film so there is no doubt that the technical aspects are at the highest level one can imagine. Spielberg Cinematographer of choice, Janusz Kaminski gives us some of the most fascinating images of the year. A shot a top a wind mill with the propellers circling intermittently through the frame. Down below is the death of two traitors and as the propellers come down and block them out, the shooting occurs. The propellers circle off-screen and we are left with the two dead bodies. Another massive helicopter shot reveals the deaths of humans and horses across a field. The energetic dolly and crane movements throughout Joey's race across the trenches. The final scene's look and tint evokes the mood and tone of "Gone with the Wind." This film is truly mesmerizing to look at. The Production design Rick Carter adds to the scope and grandeur of the film. No stone left unturned from the technical standpoint with this film.

You've likely picked up on my constant repetition of the words "Magic," "Fascinating," etc, etc. That's because that is likely the best way to describe this film. Despite its flaws in storytelling and structure, the film certainly achieves its aim of taking the audience through an emotional journey of an innocent creature in a hostile world. Spielberg has gotten sidetracked a bit of late with Science Fiction fare and sequels, but "War Horse" represents a return to the vintage Spielberg of "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan:" Naive but emotionally charged filmmaking that teaches us to hope and dream.

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