Week 3. Jan 15, 2012: War Horse

One line review: War Horse sure was a movie that I watched. 

War Horse was a strange beast of a film. Superbly made and and gorgeously filmed, the film flows effortlessly from setpiece to setpiece as it follows the life of a horse named Joey through the events of the first World War. Despite the technical proficiency though, the film left me almost totally cold. I felt next to no connection with the film’s characters, or with the horses - and given the setting and intent of the film, I can’t consider that anything other than an unmitigated failure. 

The intent of the novel on which the film is based was to explain the shared horror of WWI. The experiences of soldiers fighting on both sides of the conflict, the families caught in the crossfire,the colossal waste of life resulting from war. I didn’t feel that this message was sufficiently delivered on the screen. Certainly there were notes of it throughout - flashes of insight, moments where characters made the audience feel what they were going through, but they were fleeting and far too few. Given the film’s structure as a chronicle of Joey’s circumstances as the war begins and progresses, I never felt that the narrative really had a strong motivation carrying it forward. There’s no (or very little) character to the horse himself, and there’s certainly no character arc for him to follow. His situation is rarely within his own control, and when it is, he runs blindly into another situation that is outside his control. He’s a horse, written to be a horse, and even with the little hints of personality they provided him to distinguish him from the other horses, he is still just a horse. This left the film feeling like a string of events that happen to Joey, a chain of coincidences that neither develop the character nor leave the viewer with any genuine investment in the events of the film. Human characters are introduced and then dropped again too quickly to be meaningful. The experience simply feels hollow. 

The one thing the movie did leave me with though, was a desire to see Spielburg tackle a much more serious historical drama set during the first World War. I’d like to see him do for the WWI what he did for WWII with Saving Private Ryan. Saving Private Ryan remains one of my favorite films because of how expertly it captures the horror of war. The film terrifies me and evokes in me a respect and great sadness for the sacrifices made by the soldiers that fought and died. It connected me to those experiences in a way that, being born long after the war myself, I would not have otherwise had. I have felt for a long time now that WWI deserved a similar treatment. Given the extent to which it is removed from our generation in time, and how overshadowed it has been by the history of WWII, especially in Hollywood, I feel that it’s important to have a modern film that helps us to understand the Great War, and to remember the soldiers that gave their lives in such a tremendous and terrible way. War Horse was not that film. 

On the whole, there’s nothing essentially wrong with War Horse, but it failed to move me in any significant way.  I can’t call it a successful film, but its technical execution is top notch. There are worse ways to spend the cost of a movie ticket.

Week 2. Jan 8, 2012: Hugo

Hugo was a film that took me entirely by surprise. Going in, I’d heard only middling things from friends who’d seen it, and I hadn’t paid it much attention to reviews. I knew it was a Scorsese film, in 3D, and G rated. What I didn’t know was that it would be one of the more delightful and fascinating films I’ve watched in recent months. 

The story of Hugo centres around the title character, a young boy living in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris, in the late 1920’s. Formerly the son of a clock maker, he was orphaned by a fire and now spends his days keeping the clocks of the station wound. The job once belonged to his uncle, and Hugo continues to do it following the uncle’s disappearance, in order to avoid getting caught by the station inspector and sent to an orphanage. The one piece of his past that remains is a clockwork automaton, a device that he and his father were repairing at the time of his death. Hugo spends his nights fixing the automaton with parts he’s stolen from the station’s clockwork toy store. 

Otherwise a fairly standard family tale, what sets Hugo apart is the fact that the fictional narrative of the film is tied directly into the very real life and work of one of the forefathers of modern cinema, Georges Méliès. The film features numerous restored sequences from Georges Méliès’ body of work, as well as a full recreation of his film studio, and several sequences depicting the actual recording of his films. The film makes visual reference and pays extensive homage to classic film in several cases. As the film progressed it became very evident to me that the story of the film was secondary to a goal of imparting a sense of wonder and spectacle to the viewer at the unfolding of cinema history, and to inspire in the audience, much of which is young (given the G-Rating), a desire to learn more about film-making, and film history. This may have been Martin Scorsese’s attempt to create a new generation of film makers. Certainly, it inspired me to do some research on the background of the film, and to learn about the life of Georges Méliès.  The experience was both entertaining and educational. 

Overall I’d give Hugo a very strong recommendation if you’re at all interested in film or film history. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable show, and while it stumbles occasionally, the total product is a supremely entertaining and interesting piece of work. Even the use of 3D mostly adds to the film, generating an incredible sense of life, and depth-of-field in many of the scenes. 

Check this one out, before it drops out of theatres. 

Week 1. Jan 1, 2012: The Adventures of Tintin

At no point in my childhood was I ever really into The Adventures of Tintin. I read some of the books, and I watched the cartoon show pretty regularly, but I have to admit that my memory of the series on the whole is, at best, nebulous. I’m familiar with the style, but not with the substance. Having now seen the film, that actually hasn’t changed much. 

I was expecting a sweeping adventure that moved from scenic locale to scenic locale, with action set pieces linked by some sort of treasure-hunting mystery. This is exactly what I got. What I didn’t get was any real appreciation for the characters in the film. A little bit of research indicates that Tintin himself is very intentionally a blank slate, but I didn’t really feel like the other characters got much of a treatment either, really. This is consistent with what little I remember from the cartoons, but it did put me in a position of lacking any kind of real investment in any of the characters I was presented with. 

The other issue I had with the film was the extent to which it relied on heavy-handed expository dialogue, especially early in the film. I felt that as the characters (Tintin especially) were connecting the dots of the mystery unfolding before them, far too often did they make a remark akin to “This is X! And X means Y!”.  These lines routinely grated on me, because in most cases the film had already shown us, and made apparent the importance of, the development in question. It took an already slightly-overlong first act, and made it dwell entirely too much on ensuring you understood all the details of an adventure that wasn’t remotely complex enough to require it. 

Once the action got going, though, the film began to shine. Beautiful, fluid animation, and stunningly realized locations created what felt like a living, breathing world.  By carefully working to ensure that the characters of the film were caricatured just enough in their design, the film-makers were able to sidestep the issue of the uncanny valley, and create believable, nearly-real looking animation. The action was grand in scale and in scope, and reflected an ambition in the project that paid off exceptionally well when it worked, and was mostly forgivable when it didn’t.  I’d never have thought that a cutlass fight could be translated into a battle between cargo cranes if I hadn’t seen it done in this film, and as an element of subtle visual double-entendre it’s easily one of the highest points in the film. 

Overall I’d give The Adventures of Tintin a strong recommendation. It’s an imperfect film, but the heart is absolutely in the right place, and when it hits it’s marks, it’s truly spectacular to behold. 

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