“War Horse,” reviewed


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In 1997, Robert Altman executive produced an interesting but short-lived television series called “Gun.” The only recurring member of the cast was a semi-automatic handgun; each episode featured an entirely new story with entirely new actors and one new owner of that same gun. Steven Spielberg‘s “War Horse” is basically the same idea, only with a horse as the one constant instead of a gun and an Ireland-circa-WWI setting instead of modern day America. We follow a horse named Joey from birth through his childhood — do horses have childhoods? I’m not a big horse guy — to his unwitting adventures during the Great War, where he passes between owners on both sides of the conflict. The strength of any anthology depends upon the strength of the characters, and that’s the biggest problem about “War Horse.” Joey’s present for all of these stories, but he’s surprisingly uninvolved in many of them (or maybe it’s not that surprising since he’s, y’know, a horse). He’s less a protagonist than a guide through a world full of protagonists, some far more richly characterized than others.

The best of the bunch is unquestionably Joey’s first owner, an Irish boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Albert’s father, a drunken war veteran named Ted (Peter Mullan) buys Joey as an act of instinct and foolish pride; the horse catches his eye at auction and when his greedy landlord (David Thewlis) joins the bidding, Ted refuses be embarrassed. With the rent to the landlord due, Albert must train the colt to plow his family’s pitiful plot of fallow land or lose everything. There’s some real tension here, and what feels like a genuine connection between Irvine and the horses who play Joey.

Before Albert’s family’s dilemma can be fully resolved, war breaks out in Europe and Joey is sold to the army, where he’s selected as the mount of an impossibly chivalrous officer (“Thor”‘s Tom Hiddleston). In these early days of the war, the British soldiers entertain romantic notions of what the battles will be: swords flashing, horses charging in perfect regimented unison. The horrors of modern warfare with its machine guns, gases, and tanks, will quickly dissuade them of their high-minded ideals.

From Hiddleston, Joey passes hands to a pair of young German soldiers and then to a young orphan and her grandfather. Later, he’s acquired by a cruel German officer who needs horses to pull his heavy artillery and doesn’t care if they die in the effort. Each move away from Albert feels like another move away from the heart and soul of this story. In Michael Morpurgo’s original children’s book, Joey narrated the story. In the Tony Award winning stage adaptation of the book, the horses were brought to life with remarkable life-size puppets. In Spielberg’s “War Horse,” the horse is just a horse (of course, of course). All it can do is observe the people around it, some of whom are painfully dull. “War Horse” is the law of diminishing returns in action.

Spielberg’s brilliant use of camera, lighting, and production design mean the film is never boring to look at. Joey’s life darkens as the war does, and many of the latter scenes take place amidst the horror of trench warfare. These scenes feature several impressive long takes panning the hellish landscape of the battlefield and following Joey on an unsuccessful ride for freedom. From any other director, these would feel like watershed moments. But Spielberg, the director of “Saving Private Ryan,” has captured the senselessness of war before with more clarity, scope, and raw terror.

I did like one scene which is complete enough as its own unit of story and character that it could be pulled out of the film and played as its own short subject. Circumstance has led Joey to run into No Man’s Land between the German and English forces, and he’s gotten tangled in a nest of barbed wire. Two soldiers, one from each side, tentatively make their way out to free the horse. They both acknowledge that neither has any idealogical reason to kill one another, and despite their mutual distrust, they quickly learn to work together toward their common goal. Then the horse is free and only one man can own him and animosity suddenly returns. This tiny episode is a beautiful microcosm of the film’s themes: the power of an animal to remind us of our shared humanity and the futility and absurdity of war.

If only every story bore that same emotional impact. Even the grand climax, which uses John Williams’ nostalgic score like Pavlov ringing a bell for his dogs, fails to achieve its heartwarming goals (it might have something to do with the fact that Albert’s obsession with Joey borders on the absurd, if not the outright creepy). There’s both too much about this horse and not enough with him at the same time. Even though it is about an animal and not a person, “War Horse” bears all the flaws of a mediocre biopic: a sketchy and schmaltzy life story that’s so busy cramming in all the broad strokes that it doesn’t have time to fill in the more important details.

“War Horse” opens on Christmas Day. If you see it, tell us what you think. Leave a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Documentary Now! Robert Evans Mansion

The Reel Deal

Everything You Need To Know About “Mr. Runner Up” Inspiration Robert Evans

Watch the two-part finale of Documentary Now! this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

In its upcoming two-part finale, Documentary Now! spoofs the crown jewel of docs: The Kid Stays In The Picture. It’s the autobiographical documentary about Robert Evans, the unlikely Hollywood mogul whose mix of self-aggrandizing bravado, classic good looks and extremely circumstantial good luck took him from being a salesman to an actor to the head of Paramount Pictures.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s totally worth it. Rotten Tomatoes agrees, with a staggeringly-high approval rating. Watch it before, or watch it after — doesn’t matter. You’ll appreciate it whenever.

In the meantime, here’s a bit of background that will come in handy…

Robert Loves Robert

Robert Evans desk

USA Films/Everett Collection

Robert Evans is the ultimate Robert Evans fan. The movie was narrated by Robert Evans and based on his memoir of the same name. It is totally unbiased.

He’s Kind Of A Big Deal

Robert Evans, Chinatown
Paramount Pictures

Evans produced some of Hollywood’s true classics: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Love Story…the list goes on. Totally legit and amazing movies.

He’s Also Kind Of A Joke

Wag The Dog
New Line Cinema

Evans has been parodied in TV shows and movies like Entourage and Wag The Dog. He is the quintessential “producer” you already have in your head.

So Wrong He’s Right

Robert Evans Slap
20th Century Film Corp

Robert Evans is a notorious narcissist whose love of self is so blind and sincere that it’s actually adorable.

There’s Something Missing

via Giphy

Entire sections of Robert Evans’ life are left out of the documentary. Maybe it’s because of timing. Maybe it’s because real life isn’t a tidy narrative. Who knows.

He Blew It

Spider coke

Evans had a pretty spectacular fall from grace. He was convicted of cocaine trafficking in the early 80’s, and was connected to a contract killing during the production of The Cotton Club. Oops.

Losing Is For Losers

Everett Collection
Everett Collection

In the Robert Evans mythology, all tragedies are just triumphs in disguise, and every story has a happy ending…for Robert Evans.

Bill Hader Jerry Wallach

With these simple facts in hand you are now prepared to thoroughly enjoy the two-part finale of Documentary Now! starting this Wednesday at 10/9c on IFC.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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