Thursday, December 1, 2011

War Horse

The U.S. release date is December 25th. The January 13th date is the UK release Date

After watching the trailer for War Horse I thought it was going to be a sappy Oscar bait type of movie. Why did I doubt Steven Spielberg? I have no idea. Why did I doubt a Steven Spielberg war movie? I don't know. Why did I doubt the movie after seeing that beautifully shot sequence in the beginning of the trailer when the horse is running through No Man's Land? I must have been super cynical that day. My preconceptions for War Horse were shattered after watching the advance screening.

War Horse is a majestic movie about the First World War told through the perspective of a horse named Joey. This type of story telling allowed Steven Spielberg to shoot the movie in new creative ways. Like that one zoomed in shot of Joey's eye in the trailer, where you see the reflection of the girl opening a barn door. That was not an effects shot, it was a practical shot! I found this out during the Q&A session with Steven Spielberg via satellite (he was at the Empire AMC Theater in New York City) after the advance screening. One of the questions asked was how many CG shots were used in the movie? Surprisingly, he only did three CG sequences and, that was only for the safety of the horses. He made sure that all the horses were safe and comfortable during shooting. Steven Spielberg went on to say that he had been living with horses for 14 years and he was surprised by their level of intelligence and loyalty. He wanted to be able to show these qualities on film. Spielberg also noticed how horses tend to have an acute awareness of human emotions and that was definitely well represented in the movie.

Steven Spielberg's War Horse is an adaptation of the book with the same name written by Michael Morpurgo. In between shooting Tin Tin, Spielberg had 10 months of free time and decided to make War Horse after being inspired by the stage play and the book. According to Spielberg, he wanted to translate the emotional aspect of the book onto film. There were moments in the movie which were extended from the book. The part with the two young German soldiers deserting the war was fleshed out more in order to add on the connection between the horses with their human counterparts. There is no question as to why Steven Spielberg is a master of his art. The parallels drawn between human and animal as they go through the brutality of combat and the discovery of humanity within each other is literal but yet, he does it in a way that is not heavy handed. The story and the characters felt organic and earned every single bit of emotion drawn from the audience. This to me is very important, if I felt like I was blatantly manipulated, I'll come out of the movie feeling cheated and my impression of the movie will not last. It's been a few days since I watched War Horse and I'm still thinking about it.

The journey that Joey goes through in the movie is a very familiar one. We had seen it before in movies like the original Star Wars trilogy or, if we go further back to an even older story, The Odyssey. It is the classic story of a "hero's journey". Once I recognized this while watching War Horse, I feared what was to come for the last act. In a "hero's journey", the hero either dies or find his/her way home. Sometimes, "home" is a metaphor for death ("death" can also be a representation for change). No matter what the outcome is, the hero is changed. But we are getting ahead of ourselves... The movie begins with Joey's birth and then it goes on to develop his friendship with Albert (Jeremy Irvine). They go through a bunch of hardship while living on Albert's family's farm but that doesn't compare to what was installed for Joey later in the story. His adventure begins when he gets enlisted into the British army as part of a cavalry. He meets a black stallion named Topthorn in the cavalry stables and they become brothers in arms throughout the rest of the story. It's amazing how Spielberg is able to represent the themes of brotherhood and loyalty through Joey and Topthorn. Joey is the factor that connects all the different characters in the story and through his point of view, we get to see how these characters are affected by the ugliness of war. Even with the harsh story setting in War Horse, the movie is filmed in a way that it's suitable for all audiences (with some discretion of course). The subject matter of war is still kept brutally honest but, handled with creativity and skill. Deaths were handled off screen and gore was absent. This did not diminish the importance of the sacrifices made because of the war. In a way, this made the causalities a lot more tragic since the graphic shock value was not there to distract me. Within this honesty it also made the benevolence and the hope shining through the indomitable spirits of the horses so much more beautiful and heartbreaking. With this said, War Horse is grounded in reality. There was never a moment when Joey winks at the audience or possess any magical abilities.

War Horse was filmed with a wide lens which makes the movie feel old fashioned. Spielberg also did not shy away from the grainy quality of film. He left them in the movie because he felt that film grain makes the movie seem alive (I have to agree). The cinematography was excellent and well... majestic. Spielberg wanted the scenery of the movie... "the land to be a character in the movie" and with the help of the director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, he was able to accomplish this. John Williams score was just as beautiful and heartbreaking as the rest of the movie. Steven Spielberg and John Williams goes together like bread and butter. The acting was excellent as well. There are a few somewhat familiar faces, if you are familiar with British television and movies. Here are some names you might recognize:
  • Tom Hiddleston who played Loki in Thor
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock Holmes in Stephen Moffat's Sherlock Holmes
  • David Thewlis, Lupin Remis in the Harry Potter series
  • Emma Watson from Red Dragon, Gosford Park and Equilibrium
But the two new actors who stood out for me in War Horse was Jeremy Irvine (Albert) and Celine Buckens (Emilie). Spielberg said that he likes working with new actors because they usually bring fresh acting abilities and ideas. He found this to be true with Jeremy Irvine and Celine Buckens. He even got inspiration from Finder and Abraham, the two principle horses (out of 8) who played Joey in the movie. He didn't consider the two principle horses difficult to work with at all. Finder and Abraham were able to bring up the spirits of the entire crew no matter how grumpy they got. This was translated onto the screen as Joey and his war buddy Topthorn were able to persevere through every trial they encounter.

The trailer opens with a horse running through a war zone, dodging artillery fire and wanton destruction, determined to find a way home. A valiant spirit representing hope rushing through a bullet ridden night during the brutal warfare of the First Great War. That sequence is the most beautiful film moment I had seen this year and, it is quite possibly one of the most awe-inspiring sequence caught on film. When the story got to that point shown in the trailer, it was exhilarating and very moving. I was afraid that the horse wouldn't make it past between the trenches of No Man's Land. The audience was cheering for Joey to be able to make his journey home but, as I said before War Horse is set in reality and Joey... I'm not going to give it away! In order to find out you'll have to go watch the movie (or you can find spoilers online). I highly recommend War Horse. I know I had "highly recommended" movies on this blog before but, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND WAR HORSE! There is something in this movie for everyone. It seems as though Steven Spielberg is the only director alive who is able to speak to every demographic through his film making. It could be because his films are honest enough to the audience also, his creativity behind the camera doesn't hurt either. Once War Horse hits U.S. theaters officially on December 25, 2011, I'll be there for my second viewing. It's on my favorite movies list.


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