DID YOU READ

“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.

Jackie That 70s Show

Jackie Oh!

15 That ’70s Show Quotes to Help You Unleash Your Inner Jackie

Catch That '70s Show Mondays and Tuesdays from 6-10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Carsey-Werner Company

When life gets you down, just ask yourself: what would Jackie do? (But don’t ask her, because she doesn’t care about your stupid problems.) Before you catch That ’70s Show on IFC, take a look at some quotes that will help you be the best Jackie you can be.


15. She knows her strengths.

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14. She doesn’t let a little thing like emotions get in the way.

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13. She’s her own best friend.

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12. She has big plans for her future.

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11. She keeps her ego in check.

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10. She can really put things in perspective.

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9. She’s a lover…

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8. But she knows not to just throw her love around.

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7. She’s proud of her accomplishments.

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6. She knows her place in the world.

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5. She asks herself the hard questions.

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4. She takes care of herself.

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3. She’s deep.

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2. She’s a problem solver.

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1. And she’s always modest.

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“The Adventures of Tintin,” reviewed

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Steven Spielberg loves film. And not just movies, but the actual, physical medium of light projected through celluloid. He’s one of the last directors alive who still edits his work by painstakingly cutting and pasting strips of film instead of manipulating files on a computer. He doesn’t seem like the type of guy to embrace motion-captured animation. After all, there’s no film in “mocap.” There are barely even cameras: just actors in an empty room and computerized sensors that record their movements.

And yet somehow Spielberg, the analog stalwart, has brought out the best in this new filmmaking technology. For years I’ve watched mocap animated movies in a state of puzzlement: not quite live-action, not quite animation, motion capture seemed to offer only the worst of both worlds: characters bound by real-world physics and hampered by weirdly lifeless faces and eyes. It’s worked at times as a tool of live-action filmmakers, but almost always in more fantastical settings (see James Cameron’s “Avatar”). Whenever it’s been called to approximate the real world, the previous results have been dreadful. Maybe the technology’s improved, maybe the caliber of filmmaker using the technology’s improved. Either way, Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” is the movie that really made me understand motion capture’s appeal. Now I see what mocap can do. And what it can do is action.

Spielberg does things with virtual cameras and animated characters inside his computerized world that would be impossible to capture in the real one. Some are elaborate: he builds chase sequences and sword fights and battles at sea on an epic scale. Others are ingeniously simple: with a virtual camera he can follow characters through walls, or under moving cars, or zooming in and around an African town in one continuous take. Anything seems possible in this world and Spielberg takes full advantage of the possibilities.

In a way, “Tintin” is the best “Indiana Jones” sequel he’s ever made. There are treasure hunts and daring escapes and an air of excitement, both from the characters and the director, that’s palpable. One sequence is so spectacular, I literally yelled out “Oh man!” in the movie theater. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was that beautiful and that thrilling. And there are two or three other action set pieces that are just as good.

The plot and the characters are, admittedly, not nearly as memorable, but the movie is so feverishly paced you won’t notice until it’s over. The story comes from the longrunning series of Belgian comic books by the artist Hergé about a crusading adventurer journalist named Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his fearless dog sidekick Snowy (Snowy). In this film, which at one point was subtitled “The Secret of the Unicorn,” Tintin purchases a model ship at a flea market which, unbeknownst to him, is desired by all sorts of unsavory characters. The ship is promptly stolen and must be recovered and then a tiny scroll that had been hidden in its mast must be retrieved as well. That scroll, and several others, point to the location of an incredible treasure.

Tintin eventually crosses paths with a drunken sea captain named Haddock, who becomes his other partner in his quest for the scroll. He is played by Andy Serkis, the chameleonic actor who previously motion-captured the performances that gave us Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, and Caesar in this year’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” His Haddock is another remarkable creation; witty, charming, roguish, and perpetually sauced. Serkis is like the Pixar of mocap; he seemingly can do no wrong. He might be the biggest and best actor in the entire world who everyone loves and no one knows.

Tintin himself isn’t much of a protagonist, or a journalist, for that matter — who does this guy work for? Does he ever file a story? — but he’s an acceptable everyman foil for Captain Haddock and the rest of the colorful supporting cast, including Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as a pair of bumbling policemen and Daniel Craig as a mysterious man who wants Tintin’s ship. Really they’re all just there to drive the action. But let’s not forget, the movie is called “The Adventures of Tintin,” not “The Searing Emotional Drama of Tintin.” On that level, the movie is an absolute masterpiece, maybe the first one motion capture has ever produced.

“The Adventures of Tintin” opens today. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

The best movies of 2011

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The Mayans might have predicted the world would come to an end in 2012, but it’s hard to imagine a more apocalyptic year at the movies, both on and off-screen, than 2011.  This was the year that theater attendance dipped to its lowest level since 1995 and critics played the role of coroners, declaring the film camera — and even film itself — officially dead.  2011 was the year that digital became the dominant medium of the movies, both in terms of recording and distribution.  We still sometimes call them films, but we sure don’t watch them that way anymore, thanks to television, Blu-ray, HD digital projectors, and online streaming.

While pundits eulogized the death of film, a few directors celebrated its birth.  Michel Hazanavicius made “The Artist,” about the forgotten magic of early silent cinema; Martin Scorsese made “Hugo,” an impassioned plea about the importance of film preservation masquerading as a children’s film about an orphan who lives in a train station.  Both became critical darlings, maybe because in a time of great technological upheaval it felt appropriate to look back, with awe and admiration.

Looking ahead with anxiety, though, was a far more popular theme.   In 2011, filmmakers envisioned the start of our investment banker-led economic collapse (“Margin Call”) and imagined the start of an ape-led social collapse (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”).  They put big name movie stars up against cataclysmic viruses (“Contagion”) and cataclysmically shitty employers (“Horrible Bosses”).  As more and more movies foretold the end of everything, more and more treated the end like a foregone conclusion rather than a point of suspense; in Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” Earth didn’t even survive past the opening credits.  My own list of the best films of 2011 is bracketed by two movies about men haunted by dreams of impending Armageddon.

Ah, top ten lists. So fun to read, so excruciating to make, so contentious to discuss. “These are the greatest movies of the year.” “No, these are the most important movies of the year.” I’ve never been good at drawing those kinds of distinctions. All I can do is tell you honestly which movies affected me the most and try to explain why.  That’s what I’m going to do here. Film may be dead, but cinema is alive and well.  And here is the proof.

10. “Bellflower”
Directed by Evan Glodell

“DIY” doesn’t feel like a strong enough term to describe Evan Glodell’s “Bellflower” so I’m going to call it “DIAY” — do it all yourself. Glodell had a hand in editing, producing, writing, and directing this film; he also played the lead role of Woodrow and actually built all the gadgets and weapons his character uses in movie, including a flamethrowing muscle car called The Medusa. It’s an impressive accomplishment — and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that he also designed the custom camera he shot the movie with yet — but “Bellflower” is a lot more than a hollow technical exercise; it’s also a beautiful and tragic account of what it feels like to fall in and out of love (plus flamethrowers). It’s the best directorial debut of the year and the subject of my favorite movie trailer of the year to boot.


9. “Margaret”
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Is this movie a mess? Yeah, kind of. But that’s also kind of the point. “Margaret” is about a teenage girl (Anna Paquin) who accidentally causes a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) to run over and kill a woman (Allison Janney, devastating and unforgettable in just one scene). Afterwards she’s left searching for answers; the only one she ever finds is that life is messy and rarely makes any sense. Neither does this film’s tortured backstory, which involves untold numbers of cuts and lawsuits spread out over half a decade. It sounded like a disaster on paper, but it’s actually a magnificent film about people living in the aftermath of a disaster, and scene after scene hit with the impact of an oncoming city bus. Playing “Margaret”‘s spoiled, confused, angry protagonist, Anna Paquin gives the performance of 2011, creating one of the most fully and complexly realized teenagers in movie history.


8. “Win Win”
Directed by Thomas McCarthy

Our perpetually recessed economy has a lot of people asking themselves how far they would go to provide for their family. Thomas McCarthy’s “Win Win” is not only one of the best recent films about the search for the answer to that question, it’s also also one the smartest and most unusual underdog sports movies in ages. New Jersey lawyer and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, as good as he’s ever been) is in danger of losing his feeble legal practice when he makes a sensible but morally indefensible choice: he has himself declared the guardian of one of his elderly clients, dumps him in a nursing home, and pockets the monthly $1500 stipend that comes with the guardianship. Mike’s decision bears unexpected consequences for his family and his wrestling team, all portrayed wonderfully by a cast that includes Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, and newcomer Alex Shaffer as Mike’s client’s grandson, a troubled teenager and wrestling savant. McCarthy’s film is full of astute, unsentimental observations about life in modern America and features an ending that is just about perfect.


7. “Poetry”
Directed by Lee Chang-dong

An elderly woman named Mija (Yun Jung-hee) learns she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and tries to keep her memory sharp by taking a poetry class in this heartbreaking film from Korean director Lee Chang-dong.  Inspiration proves elusive, and only comes along eventually at great personal cost, one involving her grandson Wook (Lee David) and his role in the death of a girl at his school. Lee’s “Poetry” is about the connection between pain and beauty, and how the worst experiences sometimes spur the greatest works of art.  Or, as Mija’s poetry teacher puts it, “It’s not difficult to write a poem, but to have the heart to write one.” It’s not hard to make a movie, either. Making one with this much heart is the real challenge.


6. “A Separation”
Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Like “Win Win,” this is another movie set in a universe of fascinating moral complexity. Like “Win Win” it’s a bit of a genre hybrid: part legal thriller, part family drama. It begins when an Iranian couple requests a divorce. The wife (Leila Hatami) wants to leave the country in order to keep their young daughter from growing up in the oppressive atmosphere of Tehran; the husband (Peyman Moaadi) can’t leave behind his father, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s and requires constant care. After the wife moves out, a situation arises that explains her concerns. To watch the father while he’s at work, the husband hires a pregnant woman as a housekeeper, but after a few days on the job, there is an incident in the house, and the father blames the housekeeper. Who is legally at fault? Who is morally at fault? Farhadi’s outstanding film explores how hard — or sometimes impossible — those questions are to answer, with subtle writing and brilliant performances.

Will Ferrell’s “Casa De Mi Padre” has an official teaser and release date

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Back in April, we shared the first, vaguely bootleg-y trailer for “Casa De Mi Padre,” the upcoming Will Ferrell project notable for the fact that the entire film was made in Spanish (yes, that includes Ferrell’s parts too). And then, for months and months, nada. We didn’t even have an official release date.

The film was finally acquired for American distribution last month by Pantelion Films, who’ve scheduled “Casa De Mi Padre” for a March 16, 2012 release. Now, we’ve also got an official teaser. As you’ll see below, the film, directed by former “SNL” writer Matt Piedmont, is an homage to overheated Spanish language telenovelas. Take a look:

Here’s the official synopsis from Apple Trailers:

“Armando Alvarez (Will Ferrell) has lived and worked on his father’s ranch in Mexico his entire life. As the ranch faces financial strains, Armando’s younger brother Raul (Diego Luna) shows up with his new fiancee, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez) and pledges to settle all his father’s debts. It seems that Raul’s success as an international businessman means the ranch’s troubles are over, but when Armando falls for Sonia, and Raul’s business dealings turn out to be less than legit, the Alvarez family finds themselves in a full-out war with Mexico’s most feared drug lord, the mighty Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal).”

Dios mio, this thing looks and sounds amazing. It’s it March 16 yet?

What do you think of Will Ferrell as Armando Alvarez? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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