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’.

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Thor

A Note from James: I will no longer be rating by stars, or any other quantitative system.  It’s an awfully rigid way to measure a fluid, dreamlike medium.

Summary: A solid, fun fantasy film with impressive performances, Marvel’s best cinematic villain to date, and the promise of a lot more to come.

Review:  Through its recently formed Studios branch, comic book giant Marvel is putting together the most ambitious sci-fi/fantasy effort since Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Four superheroes — Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor — are getting solo cinematic treatments, then being tied together in next year’s ‘The Avengers’, which is shooting under Joss Whedon’s direction now.  While Captain America has yet to debut, Iron Man and The Hulk performed well, and now the burden falls to Thor.

With a rich fantasy backstory drawn from Norse mythology comes an inherit risk of camp.  Director Kenneth Branagh and Marvel’s team of writers crafted an effective, if not terribly fresh, story, but what sells the film is its leads.  Newcomer Chris Hemsworth — who previously provided a tear-jerkingly heroic performance as George Kirk in J.J. Abram’s ‘Star Trek’ — simply kicks ass as Thor.  He’s a miraculously good actor, someone who can sell subtle emotional changes and go toe-to-toe with great hams like Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Natalie Portman is his earthbound love interest,  physicist Jane Foster, and she refuses to play her as a typical determined scientist, instead letting her dissolve into a giggling schoolgirl around Thor, an amusing and sympathetic reaction.  Given her brief screentime, she deserves a good deal of praise.

Of course, no comic book film excels without a good villain, and the true distinctive of ‘Thor’ is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  He’s a truly Shakespearean baddie, a guy who thinks of himself as the hero of his story, a good guy gone bad by going mad.  While another villain might cackle and spit out threats with an uncompromised glee, Loki actually weeps when he confronts his heroic brother in the final battle, even as he laughs and snarls and throws down with the best of them.  He’s a manipulative liar, but he believes he’s doing the right thing, and we feel his pain.

Most of the film takes place on a cosmic stage, as war brews between noble Asgard and bitter Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants.  With fantastic CGI and refreshingly tangible sets, I found myself believing in it.  The action has a real weight to it, and while Branagh isn’t the best action director around, he and his team still know that matters is clarity and impact.  When it desperately needs to work, it does.  This isn’t the best superhero action, but it is on a larger canvas than most, and deserves recognition.

As excited as I am for ‘The Avengers’, even if that wasn’t on the horizon, I’d be game for a ‘Thor’ sequel, a chance to cut loose from the trappings of an origin story and really let the “God of Thunder” loose in an even bigger conflict.  I really hope they do.