Every New Years eve, my wife and I take in three movies. Then we head home to watch the Times Square festivities on TV. This year, because of the running time of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and War Horse, we really didn’t have time for a third - which is a good thing because there wasn’t a third movie we both wanted to see. TTSS wasn’t playing yet in Pittsburgh or that would have been our choice.
Dragon Tattoo? Go. Absolutely a terriffic movie. Lots of Hitchcockian elements, too, that were delightful. Rooney Mara is an amazing actress who transcends, in this one character, anything I ever saw Meryl Streep do. Note to Rooney - eat something, drink some milkshakes, beef up.
The only negative comments I read were in a few fan reviews. Some friends said the “sex scenes were too violent.” True, there’s violence and it’s distrurbing, but integral to the story. I really didn’t pay attention to those who said they preferred the Swedish version because I haven’t seen it. So, I suppose without that bias to influence me, I thought the film was great.
On the other hand, War Horse is so bad, so unredeemingly faulty, that I can’t spend this entry just praising Dragon Tattoo. I have to warn you about War Horse.
Briefly, it’s a bad story with poor character development, technically a throwback, and long and tedious. Oh, the acting is terrible, too.
The film opens as a young man witnesses the birth of a colt and within two minutes he’s decided he is going to devote his life to this animal. We don’t know why exactly, the kid has no other apparent interests. No girl friends, no friends at all, really. Everyone keeps repeating that there’s something special about the animal. Yeah. If you say so. Actually, the animal kept changing throughout the movie. Sure, it had to grow and age a little. But at one point, you could clearly see where his forehead star had been painted on over an existing diamond shape. Wierd, too, because they could have brought the horse with the natural star in for the close-up and then swapped them out for a wide shot.
As a colt, the animal warms up to the lad because he offers it a bright red apple. We see the animal react to the offer with interest, and when the camera cuts back to the young fellow, his apple is no longer ripe red. Okay. Then the kid once again extends the apple to the horse who continues to keep his distance. And back to the boy. Now the apple has a big bite taken from it but the kid isn’t chewing. So what is going on? Who is in charge of continuity?
Oh, and you can be sure the kid didn’t eat the apple because he can’t shut his mouth. I mean whether he’s talking or not, his mouth is always, always open. I remember my mother once said that was a sign of “adenoids”, whatever that means. His father is a stereotypical drunken, abusive Irishman (thanks a lot, Spielberg. Bet you love stereotypes as much as I do) enabled by his mother. Curiously, we find out at the outset that Dad had served with the British military in the Boer War. Ironically, boredom sets in not long thereafter and remains a leight motif. Here’s some of the flaws I found so vexing.
Dad’s Boer War regimental colors, we are told, are a good luck talisman, and are passed to each caretaker of the horse. They are such good luck that one guy gets killed during his first charge into battle. And just about everyone else who gets close to the horse suffers, too - including anyone who pays anything to own the horse, only to lose all the money they paid, along with all their worldly possessions like food, saddles and granddaughters. Though not the film’s intent, it’s clear, the horse, like most horses in stories, is a bringer of destruction.
But first, there was the farm field. The horse, named that timeless favorite of horse names - Joey, (not Flicka, not Silver, not Black Beauty...but...Joey) plows a field and that makes him a hero because he’s not a big powerful draught horse and the field was in horrible shape. Okay. But check this out. The field is on the side of a hill and it would make a better quarry than a vegetable garden. The landlord even advises the kid to start Joey (not a dancer) at the top of the hill so gravity will help him plow as he heads downhill. It makes sense, there’s at least a 15 degree slope and it’s hard work.
Nevertheless, the horse delivers, turnips get planted and they grow into beautiful plants about to be harvested. However, there’s suddenly a torrential downpour and the field - that hillside of gravel - is flooded like a rice paddy. Now, how you flood a hillside? That had to be the dryest piece of ground in Ireland. And lest you think I’m being picky, you have to understand how obvious this flaw is. Even the characters point out how steep and rocky the hillside is. Gimme a break.
Anyway, Joey (not a kangaroo) is sold to a soldier on his way to the fields of France and WW1, and we see it placed in a makeshift stall at their bivouac next door to a black stallion destined to become Joey’s second best friend. Farmboy says goodbye and promises to find Joey (not a lounge singer), which is how we know Joey will get lost.
By this point I recognized a directorial look reminiscent of Old Yeller. The sets, the story, the acting, the camera angles all look like vintage Disney. There’s even a full frame shot of Dad’s face with a glorious sky behind him. The only difference is Disney would have centered the guy and Spielberg chose to compose him off-center, which is more contemporary. But there’s something else vintage that drove me crazy. The lighting.
The lighting in War Horse sucks.
Like at the bivouac. You’ve got a light source, presumably the sun, coming from behind and left of the camera. To the right is a black horse. You’re not going to be able to see any detial in the horse’s face without a lot of light (there was a better way to do it and I suspect James Cameron would have thought of it) so they blew (or based on the color temperature one could say they blue) a ton of light onto the black horse’s face. Every time the horse nodded, the light shot under or over the horse’s mane and blasted the soldier behind him, turning him pale and blue.
It reminded me of the many old Westerns filmed in the Hollywood Hills at the same familiar rock outcroppings. Rock outcroppings have a lot of shadows so film crews would use reflectors to fill and provide shadow details. Characters often cast two shadows and moved through hot spots where crinkles on the reflectors were evident. Cheap looking.
The horse eventually encounters a portly old Frenchman and his grandaughter who were so over-the-top that I am convinced when they left the set of War Horse they spent their evenings as Tevia and Bielke. “Oooh Grandpere, may I ride ze horse to my death? Even zo ma bones, zay are zo brittle I must take ze green medicine?” So endearing I wanted to yell, “Shut up!”
I couldn’t get to know any of the characters. Maybe there were too many. They were introduced but not well developed. And the war scenes were impersonal. I don’t think there was a single image of an enemy shooting. There were long-range machine guns, mortars and artillary images. But no enemy in a trench drawing a bead. Very distant.
And the trench. That was another problem.
There’s a scene when the Brits have taken the German trench and there are German bodies scattered here and there still wearing gas masks. All of a sudden gas grenades hit the trench. Do you think anyone grabs a mask off a dead German to save his own neck? Have they no survival instincts? There are masks everywhere! Spielberg put them there cause they’re scary. But they’re not as scary as seared lungs, right?
And to make matters worse, farmboy’s friend is consumed by gas as he calls out to him, yet later, he’s okay and farmboy is the one with chemical burns. Bad luck, Old Bean.
Anyway, they’re about to kill the horse, which there’s a lot of in this movie, but he’s rescued by a miracle that anyone in the theatre could have predicted. He hears farmboy whistle for him the same way he did on the farm. Spielberg takes so long to develop this that I really wanted to shout (again) “Hey, Joey, get yer bloody ass over there.”
But I thought I shout at you, instead.