Friday, June 17, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXXIII: Fantastic beasts and where to find them


Spielberg once again goes to war, and this time he brings a horse named Joey, whom you do slowly grow to love (even if you aren't very likely to love any of the hardly-glimpsed character sketches that surround him).

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo)
With Jeremy Irvine (Albert "Albie" Narracott), Emily Watson (Rose Narracott), Peter Mullan (Ted Narracott), Lyons (David Thewlis), Tom Hiddleston (Capt. James Nicholls), Benedict Cumberbatch (Maj. Jamie Stewart), and so on and so forth, there are an awful lot of people in the film, and also many horses

Spoiler alert: somewhere between moderate and high

Steven Spielberg had long since developed a reputation for doubling up his movies, often releasing two films within a year of each other: the trend began with The Last Crusade and Always in 1989, and became more formalized with Jurassic Park and Schindler's List in 1993, which begat the dichotomy that's allegedly defined Spielberg's output for the next twenty-odd yearsthe light and the dark, the sober and the fun.  But perhaps you could say it really started all the way back in 1982, with E.T. and Poltergeist, the schismatic results of what first began as a unitary project.  With those two films in mind, which opened a week apart, perhaps it doesn't seem as strange that Spielberg dropped his second feature of 2011, War Horse, four days after his first, The Adventures of Tintin.  Quite clearly, Tintin represented the frivolous end of the Spielberg Spectrum; that means War Horse must have been that year's entry into Seriousness.  It is, after all, a picture about World War I, traditionally the movies' least enjoyable war, and a war so hallowed and bound up with a sense of tragic, meaningless sacrifice that no less irreverent a farce as Blackadder Goes Forth nevertheless felt compelled to end itself upon a note of eye-rollingly sincere respect for the dead.  (Considering that War Horse was in fact co-written by one of the British series' creators, one rather wishes he'd just saved his wad of tears and century-old sadness for the genuine-article World War I epic that he'd eventually make.)

Despite this dour subject matter, however, Christmas 2011 offered a Spielberg Double Feature that the whole family could enjoy.  War Horse, you know, is not exactly Saving Private Ryan, But With Lovingly-Filmed Horseback Riding.  It is notably circumspect as a combat film, vastly more concerned with the shattered dreams of the Victorian Era than the actual event that shattered them.  Above all, it's a romantic look back at historywhile War Horse is quite adequately aware of the war raging within (but mostly around) its frame, it places its real focus upon the relationship between humankind and nature.  And this connection is embodied in the form of Joey, a thoroughbred that Ted Narracott, Devonshire's most inebriated turnip farmer, foolishly and drunkenly purchases at an auction one day, purely to spite his mean-minded landlord, Lyons.

Ted takes Joey home, and his son Albie falls in love with the horse at first sight, shielding his father's objectively-terrible decision from being overruled by his far more level-headed mother, Rose.  Of course, Ted's purchase has depleted the family's meager coffers, and they won't be able to make rent unless Albie and Joey can plow the Narracotts' unplowable lower field.  Albie sets himself to the impossible task of teaching the free-spirited thoroughbred to plow, and plow they do, revealing how suicidally boring life in the English countryside must have been in 1914, given that the whole village shows up to watch a boy and a horse perform manual labor.

Albie and Joey complete their miracle nevertheless, and the turnips are planted; but a freak flood destroys their crop, putting them right back where they started.  This is when history smashes headlong into the simple lives of these poor, destitute yeomen: Germany invades Belgium, and Great Britain goes to war.  Joey is sold into the British Cavalryspecifically, to the elegant, sensitive Captain Nicholls.  And Joey goes to war alongside the good captain, which ends roughly as well as you might expect.  Forthwith, Joey is captured by the Germans and pressed into service; freed and discovered by a French farm family; captured again by the Germans, and pressed into even worse service; and finally, winds up in the midst of No Man's Land, hobbled by barbed wire, yet capable even now of melting the hearts of every good man who lays eyes upon him.

As you can no doubt determine from that summary, if you didn't know already, War Horse is a ferociously vignettish film; and it rises and it falls, based upon the quality of each vignette.  In nominal terms, the narrative is tied together by its titular protagonist, the horse; in practical terms, there is almost zero effort made to present Joey as a character in his own right for well over an hour of the film.  Beyond a friendship with a black stallion that is given so little shrift that you could blink and miss it (and thereby not really comprehend the frankly excellent horse acting that occasions several later scenes between the two animals) War Horse is surprisingly ready to concede that Joey is just a dumb beast and a convenient framing device.  (And also one possessed of a nigh-on magical charisma, that bewitches every person who sees him: if Joey were a person, the way the other members of the cast talk about him and shower him with endless compliments would be nothing less than absolutely intolerable.)

This is where it perhaps becomes apparent that I'm not a horse person.  When the humans of War Horse stand around Joey, making overawed, fawning declarations about his amazing personality and his gorgeous musculature and how he's a smart horse, and a good horse, and a noble horse, I am deeply confused as to what, exactly, is happening inside the frame.  (Indeed: you could cut down on War Horse's somewhat-overlong runtime, to the tune of about twenty minutes, if you simply deleted all the lines where somebody praises Joey for just existing.)  Yet something finally clicks in Spielberg's direction, with about an hour left to go: Joey actually starts to develop something of his own inner life, and you at last begin to care about himsignificantly more, I imagine, than you could ever possibly care about the people whose ephemeral lives spin and whorl around him.

So it's a very good thing that this movie pushes forward somebody to attach ourselves to, at around the 90-minute mark, even if it is a horse.

This is not to say that the various vignettes are not, on average, interesting; though there's an awful lot of variance between them.  War Horse, being basically an anthology film whose segments share an equine host, a continuity, and an aesthetic, is going to suffer from the fate of every anthology: not every story is going to be a winner.  The first, Joey's childhood (ponyhood?) in Devon with Albie, is a boilerplate story of leasehold farmers standing up to capital, good enough as far as it goes, climaxing with a brand of brutishly forced earnestness, emotionally overloaded to the point of self-parody; there are more Awed Reaction Shots per minute in the scene where Albie convinces Joey to plow than there were at the end of Close Encountersand I'd like to remind you that that movie is about a mountain-sized spaceship, while this scene, of course, is about a turnip field.

Yet it all more-or-less worksJeremy Irvine effectively services Spielberg's Boy Hero, even though he's in a movie that scarcely cares about him outside of his relationship with his horse, and he fulfills his duties admirably as the wide-eyed vehicle for War Horse's positively radioactive levels of Spielbergian sentiment; meanwhile, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski worship the Devonshire countrywide, to the extent that you get the impression that you're watching a documentary about Hobbits.  But it's beautiful, and it has the impact of something heartfelt, even if you can't help but look askance at something so pure in its intention that you know it's got to be artificial.  That is, to be sure, Spielberg's whole career in a nutshell, if you were inclined to condemn him rather than celebrate him; but I can't think of any Spielberg scene, even the ending of The Terminal, which simultaneously reveals its own mechanism so thoroughly, yet also still manages to function as the director intended.

Next, we have the tale of Capt. Nichollsand the thoroughbred Hiddleston is almost certainly the most interesting human we'll ever see here.  This no doubt why, within the span of twenty minutes, he's artfully killedknocked off his horse by a machinegunner in-between Michael Kahn's lovely editsand rendered, in his death, as little more than an object lesson in exactly how useful cavalrymen were in the age of industrial warfare, which is to say, not useful at all.  Yet if this vignette does nothing moreand in Hiddleston's endless appeal as a genteel nobleman, it does do a little bit moreit would still be quite worthwhile, because there's nothing I find more baffling about WWI (the most tactically baffling war ever waged) than the confidence with which cavalry were deployed during its early months.  It would seem Spielberg agrees: he renders their inevitable doom with an elegaic, poetic beauty (while remembering that France, much like England, is pretty).

Take that, obsolete weapons system!

After this, we find War Horse's unlikably squishy middlefirst the tale of two German boy soldiers, then the story of a French girl and her doting grandfatherand the structure sags terribly beneath the weight of their dullness.  Actually, "dull" is being much too kind to Celine Buckens, whose work as Emelie is a mighty exemplar of an actively obnoxious child performance.  On the other hand, you can't really blame her, because her precocious interplay with her grandfather would surely remain atrocious, regardless of who precisely spoke it.  (Although on that count, there is hardly anything more annoying to me than the conceit of foreign characters speaking in English, but still saddled with the accents of their nominal homeland; and War Horse, two years after Inglorious Basterds blew this aggravating trope into the sun, spends its middle acts absolutely wallowing in faux-continental brogues, as well as some enervatingly random actual German phrases.)

It never becomes bad; but this sloggy hour is certainly nothing you'd call special.  Undeniably, War Horse has nothing whatsoever new or interesting to say about war.  Honestly, I doubt anyone involved would claim it did.

Thank God, then, that War Horse picks itself back up in that last forty-five minutes, and despite the clunkniess that's come before, the old Spielbergian touch returnsmaybe just as obvious as it always was, but also just as emotionally perfect.  I'm happy to report that on my second time through War Horse, it made me cry, with its nearly flawless riff on the oldest WWI cliche in the book: the two soldiers meeting in No Man's Land, and recognizing immediately that it's only the uniforms they wear that separate them in their common humanity.  It made me cry again, when it reaches what all but the most naive viewer would recognize as a foregone conclusion, once we arrive at the point that young Albie has been shipped off to the trenches himself.  Even that annoying French family becomes something meaningful, in the end.  And, in the final frames, a family reunites against the backdrop of the most jaw-droppingly excessive orange sunset since Gone With the Windoh, it is exquisite photography.  (But then, it's almost all exquisite, excepting a few hideous Kaminski Shafts of Light here and there; meanwhile, the on-camera/off-camera choreography of the actors is noticeably brilliant.)  However, in the final moments, Spielberg and the indefatigable Kahn go out of their way to emphasize a newfound separation between the humans and our long-suffering horse.  We are reminded that this was his movie, and they'll never really know what Joey has seen.  So, yes, I misted up again.

But shedding a few tears is the least you could ask of War Horse.  After all, the film is entirely an exercise in bludgeoning the audience with a one-two punch of Spielbergian emotionalism and Old Hollywood style.  (The Lean comparisons are not too much misplaced, and it makes an enlightening diptych with Tintin, which was just as old-fashioned at heart, but newfangled in the way that War Horse so studiously avoids.)  But closing far stronger than its beginnings would ever suggest, its deficiencies thankfully recede behind the sheer charm inherent to any movie like this one managing to exist in 2011.  War Horse is something so self-consciously classical that I can't help but love it, at least a little.  Besides, its strengths are real; and its greatest strength is how astonishingly straightforward it iseven for this director.

Score:  8/10

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