War Horse

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Before going to see ‘War Horse’ with my family on Christmas Day, I caught a glimpse of Christopher Kelly’s review, which described the film as a “magnificently mounted, yet utterly soulless shell of a movie.”  I was intrigued by the idea that this could potentially be one of Steven Spielberg’s rare blunders in filmmaking (he has made a couple.)  I attempted to watch the film with the mindset that I was viewing an inherently bad one.  I critiqued every potential flaw, every plot hole; I questioned the films credibility; I tried my hardest to see the film as having no emotional weight and being truly “soulless,” as Christopher Kelly put it.  However, despite my best efforts to see this as a bad film, I failed.  ‘War Horse’ is many things, but poor filmmaking it is not.

‘War Horse’ is not “soulless”; it is conventional, however.  It seems pieced together from a wealth of other films.  Countless animal pictures, including ‘Lassie’, ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘International Velvet’ are channeled during the first half hour as a boy befriends a colt, Joey, in pre-World War I England.  Later, as the horse is sold to the British army and makes an incredible journey through the war, a thousand different war films — not the least of which is Spielberg’s own ‘Saving Private Ryan’ — will seem to pass on the screen as well.  Furthermore, at no point during the film does Spielberg pull any fast ones — the story that the audience, from countless experiences at the movies, believes will happen does indeed unfold, albeit in a very beautiful way.

So yes, the film does rely on conventions, but that’s not necessarily bad. Writer/actor Harold Ramis once mused that conventions and clichés were essentially the same thing, conventions were simply done well; and that’s certainly true of this film.  There is a reason conventions exist — they do tend to work — and Spielberg does not abuse them here.  Rather, he executes them well, molding them into a story that feels organic and strong.

Simply put, this film is incredibly well put together and shows more genuine heart than I’ve seen in a while.  A lot of that has to do with the characters.  As the horse travels from new owner to new owner during the course of the war — the core piece of the film — Spielberg balances a plethora of roles without cheating any principal character of their humanity.  British and German, civilians and soldiers, parents and children, young and old; Spielberg makes them all feel real.  No one seems like a caricature, and certainly none a stereotype.  A scene of a British soldier working with a German to free the horse from barbed wire shows beautifully the complexity and sympathy he has given to each character; it’s consequently one of the best and most powerful film scenes of recent memory.

I would especially like to point out the outstanding performance of Tom Hiddleston (Loki from this year’s ‘Thor’), in the role of a British captain.  During his brief screen time, he exudes so much emotion and depth that he deserves at least a nod from the Academy for Best Supporting Actor.

If there’s one minor complaint I would levy against the film in terms of its characters, though, it is that there are so many that no one really gets an adequate amount of screen time.  However, I think that is ultimately a good problem for the film to have — we like these characters enough to want to see more of them, and that is a testament to Spielberg’s storytelling.  Perhaps an extended version down the road will rectify this.
Lastly, I commend the performance of the true star of this picture, the horse himself.  From subtle gestures to gallops and leaps, Joey is an incredibly well-trained animal, and his personality in the film shines through brilliantly.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much for an on-screen creature.

In closing, ‘War Horse’ is a film you’ve already seen, but it’s told so well you’ll want to see it again anyways.  Spielberg has proven once again that what matters most in filmmaking is passion and heart, and that certainly bleeds through here.
One final note on conventions: In these modern of times of art and individuality, a lot of us live under a myth that to be conventional is to be unambitious.  To be conventional, is to sell out.  To be conventional is to create something fleeting and shallow.  And that does happen… sometimes.  But if Spielberg hadn’t been willing to be conventional, he never would have made ‘War Horse’.

Hugo

Poster courtesy of impawards.com

Review:   Scorsese’s wonderful, thoughtful film ‘Hugo’ is his tribute to the intimate relationship between cinematic dreams and their dreamers, and how the magic of filmmaking, so easily believed by children, is, in a psychological sense, actually real.  Movies are not primarily about what is seen — the plot, characters, setting, and action — but a way of seeing.  Cinematic vision can transform mundanity into magic, magic into mundanity, violence into beauty, or beauty into violence — and that’s just scratching the surface.  It’s why Kubrick, Malick or Spielberg can hold on one simple image and change it into a microcosm of creation’s majesty, while in another film, through less imaginative eyes, the simple image would be glossed over, and the insight lost.  Great directors like Martin Scorsese stand above their peers because they succeed in creating unified, articulate expressions of their unconscious minds, in essence giving life to their dreams.  We go to the movies, whether we realize it or not, to live in a filmmaker’s mind and to let it shape our own.  This is why recognizing creative forces is such a big part of responsible movie-going; whose dreams have you been having, lately?

Like the source material, Brian Selznick’s gorgeously illustrated book ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’, Scorsese’s film is a fictionalized account of how filmmaking pioneer George Méliès was rediscovered by French cinema enthusiasts in the 1920s and ’30s.  Audiences are given a way in through the title character, an orphan named Hugo, who keeps the clocks running in a Paris train station and tries to fix the mysterious, intricate automaton left by his dead father.  The brilliant thing about letting this talented, intelligent and vulnerable boy shape the narrative is that it helps today’s cynical audiences connect with Méliès’ strange world, while simultaneously providing a sympathetic story that demands resolution.  Scorsese’s love of cinema, and his emulation of it, is mirrored in Hugo.  Hugo takes his friend Isabelle to see silent comedian Harold Lloyd’s ‘Safety Last‘, and the delight on their faces is worth the price of admission.  Though Hugo doesn’t yet suspect it, a filmmaker works in the train station as a toymaker; a sad, elderly man who Hugo observes with fascination.  Hugo, and the audience, do not yet know that the toymaker is in fact Méliès, but we sense the man’s painful loss immediately.  The toymaker/magician is incomplete, because his films — his dreams, in fact — are gone.  It’s up to Hugo to reconnect the filmmaker with his lost work, and in the process to solve the mystery of the automaton.

‘Hugo’ is a film populated by broken characters.  Like the automaton, they are missing the pieces that would allow them to act according to their design, and each of them, incomplete, cannot connect with those they care for.  It’s a simple but beautiful rationalization of life, and rightfully, the film lets young Hugo and Isabelle articulate it for us.  Like many children’s films, ‘Hugo’ expresses its morals through its youngest characters, but unlike a typical genre entry, it carefully shows us not just why, but how these morals are practical.  Each character contributes to the stream of plot, and as the protagonist, Hugo is kind enough to open the dam and let it resolve itself.   Until the final thirty minutes, the film progresses slowly; it takes its time to flesh out the train station and its peculiar denizens, in particular the comically awful Station Inspector, played to perfection by Sacha Baron Cohen.  Lanky, awkward, and by turns pathetic and menacing, the Station Inspector makes a terrifically pitiable villain, a guy we’d like to see get his comeuppance and fall in love at the end of the day.  Méliès, meanwhile, begins as a minor, though sympathetic, villain, and ends as a playful sorcerer and loving father.    Hugo confronts the Station Inspector and the filmmaker, and his actions, like those of a skilled tinkerer, realign their hearts with their dreams.  Méliès’ cinematic magic, in turn, fixes Hugo, demonstrating the truth of cinema and the real power a director has over a willing human soul.

On the technical side of the equation, director of photography Robert Richardson’s 3D cinematography is so rich that it competes with James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’.  While Cameron’s film illuminated the beauty of nature, Scorsese’s collaboration with Richardson renders clockwork machinery glorious.  This makes for a rare occasion in which I will actually recommend that you experience ‘Hugo’ with the third dimension; just make an effort to find a theater with very bright projection to offset those tinted glasses.  Even without 3D, the color palette and composition in ‘Hugo’ is striking, so if you can’t find a showing with bright projection, go 2D.

For more on ‘Hugo’, I recommend the following articles: Kristin Thompson’s historical analysis of the film, which doubles as a review; Matthias Stork’s take; and Richard Brody’s thoughts at the New Yorker. 

Also, you can find many of Méliès’ films on YouTube.  Here’s a good one to start with: A Trip to the Moon.