War Horse (2011): Sobbingly Sentimental Spielberg

I am not a huge fan of films that are just made to make the audience tear up and blubber at the screen. The Champ for instance; both the original and the remake put me right off. I don’t want to see a film that makes me cry. If I wanted that, I’d just look at the injustices of the everyday world. But sometimes; just sometimes, I do like sentimental films and War Horse is just such a film.

Directed by Stephen Spielberg and released in 2011 under the auspices of Disney, War Horse does not feature a cast of “stars” because he wanted the emphasis to be on the horse and not the actors presumably. That is not to say that the actors in the film were not of stellar quality. The cast features a lot of England’s finest screen Thespians extant. I saw a lot of familiar faces from actors whom I know to be considered top-notch in their profession and not without good reason.

I was particularly pleased to see one of my favourite “new” actors Toby Kebbell who I’d first seen in Shane Meadows‘ film Dead Man’s Shoes. This young man is a brilliant actor and should be seen more often. I am hoping that his appearance in a triple A feature by the undisputed master of sentimental saga’s (Spielberg) will bring him to the notice of the “big boys” in Hollywood land.

But enough about the actors;  I now want to talk about the film for a little bit.

War Horse is a giant leap into the past of films and film making. It is almost an equestrian version of Lassie. The story is certainly familiar enough; Boy and horse unite, get separated, horse passes through many hands influencing all who meet him, and despite astronomical odds survives a war (the only difference from Lassie really) to become re-united with the boy at the film’s end. How’s that for a brief summary of the film?

The film opens with the birth of the horse and its eventual sale to a local farmer who, a bit worse for the drink, outbids the leaseholder on his Devon farm for the animal. Much to the landlord’s derision of course, for the man needs a plough-horse not a thoroughbred. The farmer, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) takes the horse home to more derision by his wife Rose (Emily Watson) and to the delight of his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine).

Albert names the horse Joey and trains him not only to follow commands but to shoulder the harness for the plough. The landlord Squire Lyon’s (played with suitable nastiness by David Thewlis says the horse will never break to the plough and that he will repossess the farm if Ted comes up short on the rent he owes.

Of course Albert or Albie as everyone calls him does get Joey to plough the field; much to the delight of the villagers who’ve come by to watch. Meanwhile, the German’s are busily starting WWI and when war breaks out Ted, whose crop of turnips is partially ruined by bad weather, takes Joey and sells him to an officer in the army.

The officer seeing Albie’s distress at the sale of Joey promises to get Joey back to him at the end of the war, if he is able. With this somewhat ominous promise Joey joins the war effort on the English side. Unfortunately we all know how the first war to end all wars was waged. A lot of men died under machine gun fire and in the trenches. And on Joey’s first charge his rider is dispatched in due course and he becomes the property of the German army.

Joey in the trenches.

The film follows Joey’s journey through the battle fields and the backdrop of the European countryside where it was fought. It is pretty wrenching stuff to watch. I sat through most of the film with a knot in my throat that would have choked an elephant. At least three times towards the end of the film I actually had tears in my eyes. And when actual sobs broke unwillingly from me, I cursed Spielberg for this horribly wonderful film.

Spielberg specialises in bringing the child out of us. He has the ability to make me cry more than any other director. E.T., Hook, and now War Horse have all made me blubber like a baby. Thankfully I did not see this film in the cinema or I’d have been mortified at crying in public.

The cinematography is on par with all of Spielberg’s best films and the war scenes are touching, sad, and criminal. Criminal because the First World War cost so much in lives of young men who romantically joined the army to fight the “Hun” and return home heroes; unfortunately, a lot of them came home in a box or not at all.

So despite that fact that I felt that Mr Spielberg had gone straight for the sentimental jugular, so to speak, I loved the film; every sad and teary-eyed bit of it. If you have got a box of tissues handy (or two) and don’t mind crying your eyes out; watch this film.

Oh and if you can wipe your eyes clear enough, watch out for Toby Kebbell’s turn as Geordie in the last part of the film. It’s a great scene that has been done in war films before (you’ll know what I mean when you see it) but that doesn’t take away from the effectiveness or the humour of it.

War Horse is a definite 5 star film that received critical raves and was a box office smash; it received a plethora of award nominations and goes down in celluloid history as the first film that Spielberg edited digitally.

Watch it.

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Wilderness (2006): Who Let The Dogs Out

 

 

Cover of "Wilderness"
Cover of Wilderness

Directed by Michael J. Bassett (Deathwatch , Solomon Kane) Wilderness is only the second feature film helmed by Bassett. He has stepped up his game with this film. Made for a budget of three million, the film did not make back it’s production cost and only pulled in  just over twenty-four thousand pounds. Which is a shame, because it really is quite a good film.

Wilderness opens in a Juvenile Detention Centre aka Prison.Sean Pertwee is  prison officer  Jed, who is in charge of the young criminals. This disparate group of six lads do not get on well together. Steve (Stephen Wight) is the self proclaimed leader of the boys, his right hand man and enforcer is the hulking but simple Lewis (Luke Neal). Steve makes life miserable for Lindsey (Ben McKay) and Dave (John Travers). Steve especially likes humiliating Dave. A new arrival, Callum (Toby Kebbell) is a tough customer, who is more interested in keeping a low profile, than in challenging Steve for the position of leader.

Steve and Lewis’s campaign of hate against Dave intensifies. Dave cannot  face the abuse any more, and kills himself. Callum makes the discovery when he slips in a pool of blood and traces it back to Dave’s bed. The alarm is raised and Jed deals with the body. The prison Governor comes in to talk to the boys. He is furious that this has happened. He tells Jed to take the lads to the Island and to work them hard.

The island is uninhabited and shared with other prisons who have to book time there. There should only be one group on the island at a time.When Jed and his charges arrive on the island, they begin to set up camp. These are all city lads and they are very uncomfortable camping in the woods. Every noise serves to make the boys nervous and jumpy. They get their campsite  set up and spend their first night uneasy and restless.

In the morning Callum goes down to a river to get the camp water. On his way back he notices what looks like an animal skull stuck on a stick. After examining it he turns to go and is bashed on the head. He falls to the ground unconscious. Jed gets tired of waiting for Callum to return so he gets the lads together to search for him. They find Callum and Jed decides that he must have tripped and fallen. The inmates spend the rest of the day participating in team building activities. Returning to their camp site, they encounter another camp site. As they are supposed to have the island to them selves they decide to investigate.

While Jed is looking into a tent Louise (Alex Reid) shows up and asks Jed what he thinks he is doing. It turns out that the island has been double booked and now has juvenile delinquents from both sexes camping out.  After a short discussion, Jed and Louise decide to share the island. Jed and his six lads are to stay on the east side of the river and Louise and her two charges are to stay on the west. Once Jed and the lads return to the camp, he sends them out orienteering.

Steve and Lewis find yet another person on the supposedly unhabited island, a hermit. They begin to beat the old man up. Later Callum goes to the same place and finds the hermit with his throat ripped out. While Callum is checking to see if the man is alive, Louise’s two girls see him and go back to tell Louise. Callum goes to a stream to wash his bloody hands. Jed and Louise take Callum down and handcuff him, thinking that he has killed the hermit.

The two groups decide to band together and leave the island the next day to contact the authorities. In the morning Jethro goes to collect water for the two groups.When Jethro doesn’t come back Jed sends Blue and Lindsay down to find him. When they get there they discover that Jethro has been killed and hung from a tree. They rush back to the camp and tell everyone about Jethro.

Jed immediately starts trying to get everyone organised when he is struck in the chest with a crossbow bolt. He is shot twice more as he slumps down against a tree. While Louise and Callum try to help Jed, attack dogs are running through the woods to the camp. Callum and Louise get away but not poor Jed the dogs savage him to death.  In the mad scramble to get away from the dogs, Louise goes missing.

The remaining campers now have to keep away from the killer dogs and the mystery person who is shooting the crossbow. They must fight to stay alive and get off the island.

Wilderness boasts a splendid cast. Sean Pertwee, dying as usual in the second reel; Alex Reed, no stranger to horror films (The descent) and Toby Kebbell in a role completely different than the character he played just previously in Dead Man’s Shoes. In fact the casting for the film was brilliant. The youngsters playing the prison inmates sounded exactly how they should. They all seem to have come from London and talked in the ‘gangster’ style that juvenile delinquents favour. The cinematography is crisp and makes the most of the location. The plot is nothing spectacular, but it kept me guessing until the last minute as to who was killing everyone.

I was impressed with Bassett’s second visit to the horror genre. I would recommend this film highly, if for no other reason than to see the excellent performances from the actors. Not to mention the chance to hear what English teen criminals sound like, because they really do talk that way. I know.

Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) Film’s Got Soul

Dead Man’s Shoes  was writer/director Shane Meadows next contribution to the film world after his previous film Once Upon a Time in the Midlands   exploded onto the British film scene in 2002. Meadows co-wrote DMS with his lead actor Paddy Considine and Paul Fraser. Made on a shoestring budget of only £723,000 this film was completely overlooked, it seems, by everyone. Despite being ranked number 180 in Empire Magazines list of “201 Greatest Movies Of All Time” in 2006 and ranking twenty-seventh in 2008’s  “100 Best British Films Ever” the box office figures show a disappointing reception.  Actor Paddy Considine won the  “Best British Actor” at the 2005 Empire Awards and   Toby Kebbell was nominated for the Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards. Home viewing figures (DVD sales and rentals) have elevated the films reputation and it now has a huge cult following.

Paddy Considine plays Richard, a young man who left his home town Matlock, Derbyshire in the Peak District to join the Army. Richard  comes back to avenge  his mentally challenged younger brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell). A   gang that sells drugs has been bullying Anthony and Richard is going to make them pay for their crime. The gang is headed by Big Al (Seamus O’Neill) and his right hand man is Sonny (actor Gary Stretch), who is also the gangs enforcer. Sonny is the brightest member of the group and the hardest. The remaining members are Soz, Tuff, Herbie and Mark. Out of the six strong gang, only Mark (like Richard) has left Matlock.

Richard makes his  presence known to Herbie (actor Stuart Wolfenden) first.  Herbie is the  gopher of the group, he is collecting money  in a Social Club (pub) when he notices Richard staring at him in a hostile manner. When he asks Richard, “What are you looking at?” Richard responds by saying, “I’m looking at a C**t.” Herbie, who is the weakest member of the gang, decides it is time to leave. Once he gets outside of the club, Richard comes out and apologises to Herbie.

Herbie goes to Soz and Tuff’s flat where they cut and distribute the drugs and tells them of his encounter.  Herbie now thinks that the man he talked to was Richard, Anthony’s brother. All three men become very quiet after hearing that Richard is back in town. Richard in the mean time has been very busy. He breaks into Big Al and Sonny’s house and covers them both in make-up while they are sleeping. He then goes to the entrance of Soz and Tuffy’s apartment building. When Herbie starts to leave the building, Richard (in a gas mask) starts banging on the door and shouting. Terrified Herbie runs back up to the flat and tells the other gang members of the “Elephant Man” at the front of the building.

All three men go out to find Richard. When they return to the flat, empty handed they find that the flat has been emptied as well. All the gangs drugs and money have been taken. Reluctantly the three then go to Big Al to tell them what has happened. When they arrive they find Sonny and Big Al in women’s make-up. Herbie tells Big Al and Sonny about Richard and the gang decide they need to take care of him.

Paddy Considine is truly terrifying as Richard. His character has no problem dishing out the ultimate punishment of death to the gang members that bullied his brother Anthony. Toby Kebbell is so convincing as the mentally challenged Anthony that I thought the actor was really suffering from a mental disorder. He is touching and shy as Anthony and the audience sympathizes with him immediately. We also are behind Richard and his quest of vengeance. In between Richard terrorizing and killing gang members, he and Anthony talk. Mostly Richard is asking Anthony about who specifically bullied him and how, but they also talk about the “old days” before Richard left for the Army. The love demonstrated by the two brothers is impressive and touching.

Viewers of the film will be surprised at the double twist ending.  They will also be impressed by the actors and their ability to sell their deaths. The cinematography is impressive, all the more so when you see how they managed to make the death of Big Al look so real. Writer/ Director Shane Meadows has put together a brilliant film that rightly deserves its place in the 100 greatest British Film list.

Once you have seen this film, you will never forget it.