Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: Could This Be The Year's Best Picture?

Whatever happened to grand, old-fashioned Hollywood moviemaking?
It's still here.
You just have to look for it.
And right now you can find it in War Horse, the new yarn from director Steven Speilberg.
This big, enthralling new film is based on both a children's novel of the same name set during World War I, (by Michael Morpurgo, first published in the United Kingdom in 1982) and the 2007 stage adaptation, also of the same name. The screenplay is by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis and it presents us with a traditional narrative storyline that is fascinating, inspiring and wonderfully memorable.
It also reminds us that great movies begin with great stories. It's all about the story.
But then the moviemaker must know how to bring the story to life.
Every move, every scene, every nuance in War Horse is presented so seamlessly that the whole experience is like being enveloped by a great novel -- a story as simple as a struggling farm family and as complicated as all of World War I and the British Empire.
Of course the stage play of War Horse has captivated the West End and Broadway. Since I didn't see the play, I can only imagine the hours of work (and sheer genius) that went into the staging of this story. But now the movie takes it all to whole new level. And I've got to conclude that Speilberg & Co. recognized the story as the basis for a great film right from the start.
In War Horse young Albert Narracott enlists to service in WWI after his beloved horse, Joey, is sold to the cavalry. Albert's hopeful journey takes him out of England and across Europe as the war rages on.
Save for Emma Watson (who plays the mother, Rose Narracott) there are no name stars in this film. But there are so many stellar performances by so many young and accomplished (mostly British) actors that it takes your breath away.
Most notably, Jeremy Irvine is wonderful as Albert; Peter Mullen is spot-on as Ted,  and Niels Arestrup is marvelous as the grandfather. But then I've forgotten David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens and Patrick Kennedy. They all work together as a magnificent ensemble.
And they're just part of a large and diverse cast.
The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is likely to be the best you'll witness all year. And the music by the great John Williams is the kind of movie music some of us are fortunate enough to remember from Hollywood's golden age.
But let's not forget the horse -- or horses. We're talking about both live and "computerized" horses here and great care was taken to guarantee the safety of the real, live lead horse and the other live horses in the film. In fact, the American Humane Society has awarded this film an outstanding rating for animal safety.
So, is this all just a story about a boy (Albert) and his horse (Joey)? Yes and no. The story begins and ends with Albert and Joey and they epitomize the struggles and the theme. But what happens in between covers so much that history and storytelling get wrapped together in the best possible way.
Spielberg himself says this is a movie about courage.
"I really wanted to make War Horse because I think it says a lot about courage," he explains. "The courage of the boy and what he endures and what he overcomes to achieve what he needs, not just for himself but for his best friend Joey. And it's also about the courage and the tenacity of this extraordinary animal."
He added, "That was the underlying subliminal theme that I think informs every single frame of War Horse."
Endurance. Survival, Tenacity. 
And above all, courage. That's a word we don't hear much anymore.
What a joy it is to be challenged and uplifted by this magnificent tale.
This is the year's most significant new film. Don't miss it!

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