Monday, December 26, 2011

Epic ‘War Horse’ delivers love, loyalty, perseverance

By Steve Crum

In the exhilarating drama War Horse, director Steven Spielberg neither aims for the sci-fi/fantasy heights of E.T. nor the starkness of man’s inhumanity (Schindler’s List). Thematically, War Horse straddles both genres, clocking in as a mixed breed of the reality of war’s brutality and animal lover fantasy. I say fantasy because the exploits of the title horse stretch beyond credibility. Hybrid or not, the movie is a thoroughbred winner.

Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’ screenplay could be described as thoroughbred as well since it is drawn from Michael Morpurgo’s best selling children’s book and the Tony Award winning play--both sharing the film’s title.

The story is reminiscent of Courage of Lassie (1946) since it involves a beloved pet, of sorts, that is thrust into a world war, and whose survival, let alone return to its home base, is fraught with impossibility upon impossibility. Of course, in War Horse, the “pet” is an English farm family’s horse named Joey. Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buys the hunter colt at auction despite the fact he cannot afford it. To make matters worse, he has to face his wife, Rosie (Emily Watson) who obviously realizes more than her husband just how tight their meager budget is. Ted has gone to town to purchase a much needed plow horse, but returns with a steed clearly bred for the race track. Their teenaged son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is pleased nonetheless, and vows to train the horse to pull a plow if only they will not resell it.

There is a marvelous sequence involving Albert’s desperate attempt to lead the painfully struggling Joey into plowing a field of rock-hard earth (amidst a number of actual rocks) as virtually the entire town observes. Included amongst is the landlord of the Narracotts’ farm, who plans to close on their property if Joey fails.

At the outbreak of WWI, Joey is sold to the military who, like the enemy Germans, used horses to carry supplies and pull wagons and artillery. It is hard to believe such animal mistreatment under modern standards, but it was very true then. The sale occurs despite Albert’s desperation. Here the story unfolds into realistically staged battle sequences in France, including horrific fighting in and out of the infamous trenches of “the war to end wars.” Through the confusion of battle, Joey journeys from British lines to German, pulling ambulances and becoming a loyal servant to both sides. For a time he is separated from battle altogether, and befriends a civilian French girl and her grandfather.

The film’s most memorable set piece is its most grueling, and involves the horse literally caught on its own during battle in No Man’s Land between the English and German trenches. I had to turn my head away due to the intensity. Spielberg does use an animatronic horse for parts of it, which will not lessen the extremely sympathetic impact. It is the stuff that bad dreams are made of.

Joey’s long journey does not end in the previously described scene, but does involve humans he has befriended along the way. That is enough said without destroying the film’s wonderment. It all makes for a tissue-to-eye finale. Incidentally, there were 14 Joeys used throughout the filming. Considering what this horse endures, it should be no surprise.

John Williams’ score is sweeping and, at times, heart wrenching. Janusz Kaminski’s photography, particularly in capturing the English countryside and French fields, has fine, oil painted color and texture. Accolades are deserved all around, marking another Spielberg triumph and, undoubtedly, Oscar contender.
GRADE on a Scale of A to F: A
The epic tale is previewed in this trailer:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sadistic, yes, but ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ delivers suspense, thrills

By Steve Crum

First, no. I have neither seen the already released Swedish versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series nor have I read Stieg Larsson’s best selling books. But how could I have avoided--even though I was not trying to do so-- hearing about the books and the movies? Point made, since you need to to realize the lack of tattoo girl baggage I brought to the screening of this English language adaptation. Director David Fincher has crafted a disturbing dazzler of a thriller, embellished by sharp acting.

Central to the murder-mystery plot, explained ahead, is the complex title heroine, Lisbeth Salander, brilliantly portrayed by Rooney Mara. Salander is indeed a girl just turning legal age, whose dark features accentuate her goth clothing, facial piercing, and demeanor. Tattoos decorate her body, including a large dragon. As the story progresses, we know Salander is far more than a loner with dubious sexuality and limited intellect.

Daniel Craig plays the driven writer/researcher (“financial reporter” is his official designation) Mikael Blomkvist. Looking for work after losing his job in a libel scandal, Blomkvist is hired by wealthy Swedish industrialist, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Journeying to a remote village on the Swedish coast, Blomkvist is initially surprised Vanger wants him to solve a cold case murder of his niece, Harriet. Missing for 40 years, she is assumed to be dead since her body was never found. Vanger believes she was murdered by one of his relatives who live nearby. Interestingly, his family members are pretty much estranged from each other, yet live in separate houses within walking distance.

Agreeing to accept what is a private eye’s job, Blomkvist chooses the unlikely Lisbeth Salander as his assistant/researcher. The irony is that Salander is an employee for the security firm that helped ruin Blomkvist’s previous career. Nonetheless, she impresses Blomkvist with her unusual investigative methods. She is likewise impressed with him, and the challenge to solve a possible murder. Her drive, memory skills and high IQ prove invaluable. Still, Lisbeth’s motorcycle riding, black leather persona symbolizes a life of mistrust and pain. As both Blomkvist and Salander delve into Vanger Family history, it is apparent this family has its own demons, including multiple murders.

While the murder mystery itself is involving, there is a disturbing side-story regarding Lisbeth’s financial status, and her legal guardianship. Circumstances have placed her under the legal power of a sleaze who demands sexual favors from her so she can receive minimal money for food. It turns out he is not only sleazy, but brutal. Without specifying and revealing too much, just realize Lisbeth is a lethal force unto herself. I could not help comparing her to the Kalinda character in TV’s The Good Wife. Kalinda Sharma, played by Archie Panjabi, works as an investigator for a law firm, and will do virtually anything to get what she needs, professionally and personally. While they are kindred spirits, it is Lisbeth who possesses the cutthroat DNA.

Speaking of violence, there are heaps of it, including with sadism, rape and torture, in TGWTDT. It continues to amaze and (truthfully) disturb me that studios choose to release violent, exploitive, R-rated films during the season of good will toward men. But, a dollar is a dollar, and apparently justification enough.

Artistically, TGWTDT boasts fine photography (Jeff Cronenweth), particularly of snowy, Swedish landscapes; and interiors by production designer Donald Graham Burt. The unusual yet memorable score is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

No doubt that the American film version of the next book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, is planned.
GRADE On an A to F Scale: A-
The trailer gives you an idea of the action and suspense: