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.

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Ghost World Thora Birch Scarlett Johansson

Graphic Fiction

10 Offbeat Comic Book Movies You Need To See

Catch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

When we think of movies based on comic books, our minds tend to drift towards tights, spectacular powers and origin stories about how those extraordinary powers come with great responsibilities. But not all comic books star superheroes, and not all movies adapted from them do either. In fact, there are a diverse array of films based on graphic novels and comic book titles, telling stories about everything from sexual awakening to cold blooded revenge. Here are a few comic book flix that are worth checking out while you wait for Captain America and Spider-Man to return to the big screen.

10. Persepolis

Persepolis
Sony Pictures Classic

Marjane Satrapi codirected and cowrote the screenplay for this acclaimed animated film, based on her autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. Through vivid animation and moving voiceover, the film tells the tale of Satrapi coming of age as a punk rock-loving kid during the Iranian revolution. A revolution itself, Persepolis scored the 2007 Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and further pushed the boundaries of what a comic book movie can accomplish.


9. Mystery Men

Mystery Men
Universal Pictures

Despite a fun script and an amazing cast (everyone from Ben Stiller to Eddie Izzard to Dane Cook is in this thing), Mystery Men never got much credit for spoofing the superhero genre way before the comic book movie glut. Based on Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot comics, Mystery Men came and went when it was released back in 1999. It’s worth a second look, if for no other reason than to see Paul Reubens as a superhero with the power of explosive flatulence.


8. The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer
Disney

Released in 1991 on the heels of Batman and Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer was poised to be the next big comic book blockbuster. But the movie fizzled at the box office, eventually finding a much-deserved cult following on home video. Directed by Joe Johnston with the same mix of heart, humor and action-packed thrills that he brought to Captain America: The First Avenger, The Rocketeer is a throwback to classic pulp adventures presented with zero camp. A faithful adaptation of the late Dave Stevens’ graphic novel, it’s a franchise that Disney should consider rebooting. Maybe a Rocketeer/Captain America crossover?


7. Snowpiercer

Weinstein Company
Weinstein Company

Yes, that insanely awesome movie where Chris Evans fights his way through a futuristic train is based on a series of French graphic novels. Directed with visceral style by Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer developed buzz when it was released in 2014 thanks to its twisty plot and intense action sequences. The graphic novels are worth checking out, though you’ll have to supply your own bizarre Tilda Swinton accent.


6. Ghost World

United Artists
United Artist

Indie filmmaker Terry Zwigoff adapted this film with the help of Daniel Clowes, the writer and artist of the anthology comic Eightball, where the “Ghost World” story first appeared. The film, like the comic, tells the story of two oddball teenage girls making their way towards adulthood. For the film, Zwigoff and Clowes expanded the role of the middle-aged loner (Steve Buscemi) that Enid (Thora Birch) pranks before eventually befriending. The graphic novel helped put Clowes on the map, and the film went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2002.


5. A History of Violence

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

This paired down thriller was a perfect example of respecting the form and brevity of the source material and translating it to the screen. Genre icon David Cronenberg helped steer this adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel to an Oscar win for William Hurt, and a triumphant screening at the Cannes Film Festival.


4. Road to Perdition

Dreamworks
Dreamworks

Sam Mendes followed up his Oscar-adored film debut, American Beauty, by helming this adaptation of the 2002 comic by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. The story of a mob enforcer who seeks revenge on the men who killed his family, it was notable for casting Tom Hanks, aka America’s nicest movie star, as the heavy for once.


3. Art School Confidential

Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes reunited for this largely autobiographical story of Clowes’ early days in art school. The original comic was just four pages long, meaning much of the material covered in the movie was original. Still, you should watch it for John Malkovich’s trademark bizzaro performance as a pompous professor, and then stick around for the serial killer subplot that feels like it’s from a different movie. This isn’t a classic like Ghost World, but it’s worth seeing just for the singular talents behind it.


2. American Splendor

HBO Films
HBO Films

American Splendor is an autobiographical film, based on an autobiographical series of comics about the life of cartoonist Harvey Pekar, who also appears in the film as himself, talking to his fictional counterpart, played by Paul Giamatti in a career defining performance. It is idiosyncratic, bizarre and something that has to be seen to truly grasp, but with a Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival under its belt, it certainly did its source material proud.


1. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Sony Pictures Classic
Sony Pictures Classic

Based on the semi-autobiographical graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures, this recent indie favorite is about one teenage girl’s sexual awakening by way of an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. The movie, like the comics before it, mixes the moody angst of teendom with a certain magical realism to create an immersive world of sexual delights and snarky comebacks. Frank and funny, the film was an awards season favorite, and took home Best First Feature at the 2016 Spirit Awards.

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Kylo Ren

Use the Farce

Kylo Ren Outtakes, Maron’s Advice for Millennials And More of This Week’s Funniest Videos

This week we're laughing at Beyonce covers, Ab Fab: The Movie trailer and more.

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As another week ends, it’s important to blow off some steam with some hilarious videos. An entertainment appetizer, if you will, that’ll make the transition from work to play a little easier.

From a bumbling Kylo Ren to a perfect take on every white guy who covers Beyonce, here are five funny things from this week you need to watch.

1. Kylo Ren Outtakes


Exceeding fans’ expectations and being better than it had any right to be, Star Wars: The Force Awakens revitalized an ailing franchise from its abominable sequels. And a large part of the recent film’s appeal is its captivating villain, Kylo Ren. But as Auralnauts present in their YouTube video, the antagonist had a little trouble with negotiating his mask. Check out Kylo’s “outtakes” from the film and hope that director J.J. Abrams de-tints the visor for the next installment.


2. Marc Maron’s Advice for Millennials

The prospect of entering a tough job market with a soaring cost of living and a college degree of diminishing quality is enough to discourage any young millennial. Thankfully, IFC’s designated curmudgeon Marc Maron has some helpful advice for the young men and women to find some solace in an increasingly unfeeling word. Sure, it mostly involves swallowing your pride and accepting misery, but the intention is pure. (Find out how Marc digs himself out of his own personal hole when Maron returns on May 4th at 9P.)


3. Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” Covered By Animals


If you got somebody’s answering machine in the early-to-mid ’80s, you might’ve been greeted by a chorus of pups barking “Jingle Bells”, “Grand Old Flag”, or another royalty-free tune. In that vein, YouTuber Insane Cherry assembled the bleats, grunts, and meows from a veritable barnyard of animals into a rendition of “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies. Yes, the cats sound like they’re stressed, but to their credit, they’re really nailing Frank Black’s voice.


4. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie trailer

If you’re like us, you probably have fond memories of watching Patsy and Edina’s drunken adventures back when Comedy Central aired AB Fab reruns in the ’90s. Thankfully the gals are back in a new movie, still sloshed and living a fabulous life. (And this time out, they might have killed Kate Moss.) Considering all the hard living they’ve done, we have to echo Jon Hamm (playing himself in the film) and say we’re surprised they’re still alive and kicking. (For more on the film, visit our pals over on BBC America.)


5. White Guy Covers Beyonce’s Lemonade

Beyonce broke the Internet with her Lemonade album and companion music videos, inspiring a slew of covers and tributes from fans. Funny or Die offered up a perfect spoof of earnest white guy YouTubers who cover Beyonce’s #relatable songs.

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TREMORS [US 1990]  FRED WARD, FINN CARTER     Date: 1990

Better Off Fred

5 Roles That Prove Fred Ward Should Be In Every Movie

Catch a Tremors movie marathon Saturday, April 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Fred Ward has always exuded a tough but likeable on-screen “bad-assitude” that has enabled him to enjoy a career spanning five decades. Before he had a recognizable “that guy” face to movie fans, he was cast alongside Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. Not many actors can play both Henry Miller and David Spade’s dad in Joe Dirt with equal aplomb. Before you catch IFC’s Tremors marathon, check out some roles that prove Fred Ward can hold his own with the Van Dammes and Stallones of the world.

5. Wilkes, Uncommon Valor

Due to his rugged, determined look, Ward was often cast as cops, crooks and military men. It’s no surprise that he appeared in Uncommon Valor, the 1983 film where Gene Hackman puts together a ragtag squad of ex-Vietnam vets to rescue his son who was left behind in Laos. Sure, the movie pretty much set out to make a Vietnam version of The Dirty Dozen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining in its own right. Ward fits right in with a cast of ’80s era tough guys, including Patrick Swayze, Randall “Tex” Cobb, and Tim Tomerson. Ward’s character Wilkes was a tough-as-nails Vietnam Vet who was a “tunnel rat” during the war. There’s a funny training session scene that provides a comic relief moment where Wilkes captures every one of the guys in the unit, including Gene Hackman’s Colonel Rhodes, by hiding under water. Eat your heart out, Rambo.


4. Earl Bass, Tremors

Not many actors can pull off lasso-tossing an explosive in order to lure a huge worm creature with snake tongues out of the desert sand, but Ward pulls off the moment with zero camp. His Earl Bass, the tough but average Joe ranch hand turned hero, didn’t need Kevin Bacon’s long hair and exaggerated Southern drawl either. Ward and Kevin Bacon made a great team trying to save their town from the Graboids, elevating the humor in this out-of-this-world (or under-this-world) horror comedy.


3. Sgt. Hoke Moseley, Miami Blues

In a movie where Alec Baldwin completely shines as a psychotic (and highly entertaining) criminal using Miami as his own personal joy ride, Fred Ward gives an equally great performance as the grizzled Miami cop who’s seen one too many cases. After being attacked by Baldwin’s character in his own home, Ward’s Sgt. Hank Moseley loses his badge, his gun and his dentures, which really pisses him off. (And nobody plays pissed off better than Ward.) Baldwin’s Junior goes on a crime spree while using Moseley’s identification. Moseley’s wily veteran slowly begins to figure out what Junior is up to through sly conversations with Baldwin and his overly trusting hooker girlfriend, memorably played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. An underrated action comedy that is all the better for giving us a pure shot of uncut Ward awesomeness.


2. Gus Grissom, The Right Stuff

“An astronaut named Gus?” That was the question asked of Virgil Grissom in The Right Stuff by the executive from Life magazine. Who better to play a fearless, rough-around-the-edges astronaut who refused to be called Virgil than Fred Ward? The Mercury Astronauts were the best of the best, and in the film they were played by a group of great actors who were all perfectly cast to portray the brash group of American heroes. In the film, Gus was blunt and to the point and far from loquacious (his character would never use that word) but when he did speak up, it had meaning. In another pivotal scene, in which Deke Slayton was relaying to the other astronauts what Gus was trying to say about beating a monkey into space, it’s Gus’ response that summed up his character perfectly: “F***in’ A, bubba.” Nobody could have delivered that bad-ass line better than Fred Ward. In fact, “F***in’ A bubba” should have been added into the dialogue of every character he played.


1. Remo Williams, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins might have gotten ahead of itself with that title as we never got to see the adventure continue, but it had everything you want in an action movie, starting with Fred Ward. Of course, it also had Joel Grey in heavy makeup portraying Korean martial arts master Chiun, but the less said about that unfortunate bit of dated cultural stereotyping the better. Based on a series of pulp novels, Remo Williams was supposed to be an American alternative to James Bond. In an alternate, much cooler universe, it would have propelled Ward to action movie superstardom. In the film, Ward starts out as a NYC street cop recruited to be a government assassin. His face was altered through plastic surgery (to look less like a generic actor and more like Fred Ward with a clean shave) and then he is given the name Remo Williams. There is a lot of humor in this film, which mostly comes through the interaction between Ward and Grey. Chiun teaches Remo the ways of Sinanju, the ancient Korean marital art which enables you to not only dodge punches but point blank range bullets as well. (Let’s see Mr. Miyagi do that.) Anyone who caught this movie during one of its many TV airings during the ’80s remembers the thrilling fight scenes that takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Only Ward could pull off a turtle neck sweater/leather jacket combo and still look badass.

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