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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Battle Los Angeles (2011): Battling Big Bugs for L A

Region 1 DVD cover for the 2011 film Battle of...

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans Darkness FallsBattle Los Angeles was almost universally panned by critics. But taking into account that the 70 million dollar production has raked in over 211 million dollars in gross profits since its release, somebody must have liked it.

With a cast of mostly unknown actors (at least feature film wise), the film starts off with an almost documentary feel about it. Not too much, but just enough that it doesn’t feel like a typical Hollywood blockbuster. Of course the mid-film entrance of Michelle Rodriguez did slap me into reality. It was nice though to see Ms Rodriguez’s character not die before the end credits rolled.

English: Actress Michelle Rodriguez on the Bat...

The biggest complaint from critics though, was that the movie was a conglomeration of war film clichés. And yes the film did have a lot of those. But, in my opinion, these were kind of necessary. The film was in essence a war film. The only difference was the enemy, who fell into the ‘big bug from outer space’ territory.

Liebesman wanted the focus to be more on the Marines and their interactions as a fighting unit and less on the invading ‘bugs.’ And using that approach is what makes the film work for me. The only important thing about the invading aliens was their purpose in choosing Earth.

These creatures have a need for water and as a news program helpfully tells us, Earth is the only planet that has so much surface water in the galaxy. The same news program explains that the creatures need to exterminate us in order to take over the planet.

Battle Los Angeles is clichéd, predictable to a degree and it doesn’t boast the most original plot, Independence Day got there first, but damn it,  it’s entertaining. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing big bad aliens beaten back from their invasion of our fair planet?

Aaron Eckhart was brilliant as the Staff Sargent who has the tarnished reputation and has his retirement postponed so he can take over a squad of Marines who don’t like or trust him. Eckhart also has to me what is the best scene in the film.

The Marines find a wounded alien and Eckhart’s character SSgt Nantz, gets them to drag the thing in, so he can discover their weak spot. Great scene. Of course Nantz gets to shine on a couple of occasions in the film. He has to, in order for his men to turn around and become loyal enough to help defeat the aliens.

The mostly CG aliens are brilliant and the special effects for the film are for the most part spot on. The film itself ends with just enough dangle to guarantee a sequel (which is still being touted as a done deal by Liebesman) and I for one am looking forward to it.

The final verdict on Battle Los Angeles? Great clichéd war film fun. Grab a couple of bowls of popcorn and enjoy the spectacle.