War Horse (2012)

Before I even saw this film I objected to it. It’s kind of sad that Hollywood believes the only way to show a modern audience the true horror of the First World War is through the story of a boy and his horse. I mean the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth managed to keep all things equine out of it and still be an emotional fucking rollercoaster. I don’t think there’s anything that can be added to the horror of the real life events by putting a horse into the equation Especially when you don’t have the book’s ability to give the horse a voice or the amazing puppetry of the stage show to justify it. Still, I decided to watch it because, you know, Tom Hiddleston’s face is in it. And I’d watch anything that gave that a starring role.

Spielberg attempts to play the film as realistically as is possible for a narrative revolving around what, essentially, becomes a fucking magical horse. A horse that survives certain death through a mass of coincidences and a ridiculous amount of good luck. The film’s narrative begins in the horse, Joey’s, home in Devon where he is trained by Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the son of a wounded ex-soldier struggling to keep his farm afloat. The partnership between boy and horse is torn apart when war breaks out and Joey is sold to become a part of the war effort. What follows is his adventures through war-torn France where the horse moves between the British and German camps with an almost pleasant stop gap as a young French girl’s pet.

Producing a film from the point of view of a horse without the use of any type of voice-over is problematic. No matter how many fantastic stunts the horse can perform it is always just going to be a horse. Joey will never be able to react to the situations he finds himself in. The best we can hope for is that he stays in shot long enough to get the scene finished. This means that the main emotional emphasis within Joey’s story is placed upon the people he meets on the way. The acting is, for the most part, fantastic but, ultimately, this isn’t the story of the German soldiers, the French farmer or the Geordie private. This is Joey’s story. There is no real time to get engrossed in the human stories because they have to be wrapped up quickly in order to move Joey’s plot forward. It is a waste of such great talent and potential drama.

That is not to say that there are not moments of genius within the film itself. Spielberg is celebrated for his ability to create spectacular cinematic moments and there are some stunning single sequences that really do stand out. The most obvious being the cavalry charge taken from the point of view of the young Captain Nicholls, wonderfully portrayed by Tom Hiddleston. The camera focuses on his face as the young man comes to realise the devastating consequences of the fighting. It is a harrowing and truly emotional moment. There are other single Spielbergian visuals that provide moments of brilliance in what is otherwise a lame beast of a film. Take for example the stunning entrance of a character shown through his reflection in Joey’s eye. Then we have the scene towards the end of the film where a German and a British soldier come together in the middle of No Man’s Land to save the trapped horse. It is a scene that seems to sum up the whole film in managing to be both utterly preposterous and thoroughly entertaining.

That’s the main problem with this film; it has dual personalities. It doesn’t quite know whether it is a hard-hitting war film or a Disneyesque animal fantasy. The bi-polar narrative flits between moments of utter devastation and the constant reminders that Joey is a “miraculous” horse. The repeated emphasis on this special quality has the same effect that saying a single word over and over will have. By the end of the film, it has completely lost any meaning and becomes an unintentionally humorous plot point. To be honest, I laughed my way through this film. I doubt Spielberg would have approved. War Horse lacks any real dramatic punch thanks to its classification as a family film. Spielberg is always skirting close to the violence of war but, because it cannot be shown, the viewer remains detached from the human casualties. The cavalry scene is never able to reach the height of its emotional argument thanks to the fact that Spielberg is unwilling to show death on screen. Instead it is alluded to with cuts between the loud and furious charge with silent, blurry images of riderless horses galloping off into the trees. Rather than finding it harrowing, I found it fucking funny.

It was always going to be difficult to suggest the mindless violence that defined the war without being able to show the loss of young lives on screen. We have a film that is focused on the survival of its animal star instead of the loss of its supporting human cast. Therefore, the deaths come thick and fast but have little, if any, emotional impact. From a director who gave us the gritty realism of warfare in Saving Private Ryan, War Horse becomes nothing more than Homeward Bound 3: Lost in No Man’s Land.

The Artist (2011)

Writing something about The Artist proved to be a fairly difficult task. It is a film that I honestly didn’t believe would ever be made. Unlike the vast majority of movies being produced nowadays, it hadn’t sacrificed style and substance in favour of financial pursuits. The biggest Hollywood name is John Goodman, it is predominantly silent, and filmed in black and white. It hardly caters to the 21st century film goer’s usual tastes. It has, of course, turned out to be a bigger hit than many would have anticipated, receiving critical acclaim and positive feedback from audiences.

The Artist was born out of director Michel Hazanavicius’ interest in the films of the 20s and 30s and his long-standing desire to play with this historic genre. It is easily (at least in my opinion) compared to James Cameron’s Avatar, which was solely used as a method to highlight the possibilities of 3d technology. When Avatar was first released in 2009 it was as a celebration of the modern age of cinema and technological advancements. For all intents and purposes, The Artist is the exact opposite. Filmed in traditional 1.33 aspect ratio in black and white, The Artist uses very little sound and relies instead on its beautiful musical score and the occasional intertitle. It looks back to a golden age of cinema but in a thoroughly modern manner.

Hazanavicius spent months researching the era and silent movie filming techniques before he started creating his masterpiece. It is superbly thought out and put together. We are not watching a film that tries to pass itself off as a film of the 1920s but instead a historically accurate homage to that era. On a visual level the film never falters. The black and white world of 1920s Hollywood is consistently beautiful and provides the perfect setting for the cast to do their job. The audience is reminded of a time when it was the all important close-up of an actor’s face that told the story. The pressure was on Hazanavicius to create a film where the image is everything and it’s a challenge he was more than ready for.

If there is anything that lets this film down it’s the story itself. We are dealing with a plot that is fairly pedestrian. Coming from a similar place as films like A Star Is Born and Singing in the Rain, the main character finds himself dealing with the transition from silent film to talkies.

The film begins in the upbeat and joyful world of silent movies. Hollywood’s darling, George Valentin, is so set in his ways that he refuses to believe talking pictures are anything to be concerned about. The same cannot be said for plucky young actress Peppy Miller who quickly finds herself reaching the dizzying heights of stardom within this new era. Of course her climb to the top comes at the expense of the old crowd and performers like George find themselves in a less properous position.

Of course this fairly unoriginal plot is really uplifted thanks to the great work of the lead actors and their director. Dujardin gives a truly fabulous performance as George Valentin, a silent star who finds himself lost in a world where sound is everything. He is the true star of the entire piece. Aided of course by his co-star Bérénice Bejo who proves to be one of the key ingredients in blending Hazanavicius’ vision with Dujardin’s homage to the likes of Rudolph Valentino and John Gilbert. The chemistry between Bejo and Dujardin is palpable.

Hazanavicius’s film is a celebration of everything cinema was and could be again. As the film is predominantly silent it undoubtedly takes George’s side in suggesting that silence is art. Of course, it would be a bit of a stretch to say that Hazanavicius is trying to tell his audience that good films must be made according to the standards of the 1920s. However, The Artist makes a refreshing change and proves that filmmakers do not need to rely on CGI and other distractions to wow an audience. It’s an absolute masterpiece.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

I have fond memories of Tintin but certainly would not presume to position myself anywhere near the level of fandom that many possess. Although I do think the original stories are wonderful  and eagerly watched the television series as a child. Tintin is a much loved fictional character so it is safe to say that there was an awful lot riding on the much anticipated big screen debut of Hergé’s infamous journalist and his faithful dog. 

The film itself has clearly divided opinion in a dramatic fashion. Like the much overused example of marmite, it has either completely captivated its audience or thoroughly offended them. It is easy to see why there is such a split in the reaction to Spielberg’s attempt to bring the character to life. On the one hand, the plot contains plenty of excitement and fun that many would associate with the original material but, at the same time, the film lacks the passion and soul that is associated with Hergé’s characters.

Spielberg’s decision to use motion capture is one of the major culprits for this important lack of heart. There is a great deal of emotion and heart tied up within the original artwork which has not been brought to life using this modern technique. It is, arguably, only the motion capture veteran Andy Serkis who is able to bring any amount of feeling to his animated portrayal of Captain Haddock. Serkis may be forced to spout several trite and painfully sentimental speeches about “breaking through walls” but he does so with the perfect balance of feeling and downright ham.

For the most part, the rest of the cast (each brilliant actors in their own right) seem to flounder when faced with this method of filming. We just need to look at the final showdown between Haddock and his archenemy Sakharine (played by Daniel Craig) to the see the stark contrast. This supposedly villainous counterpart to Haddock is decidedly flat. Craig shuffles through the role as if he were simply providing a voiceover. There is never any real show of passion that explains his hate-fuelled mission.

The plot, written by three British screenwriting legends Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, is made up of the plots of three separate Tintin stories. The titular Secret of the Unicorn, The Crab with the Golden Claws and Red Rackham’s Treasure. This results in a fairly mismatched adventure that is fairly clumsily put together. The rushed subplot of the pickpocket, whilst interesting in its own right, is included mainly for convenience and could perhaps have been replaced in order to better set up the main narrative of the film.

The script itself often seems clumsy and awkward. The obvious and almost out of place speeches where characters are forced to state exactly what is happening and why are far more frequent than should perhaps be necessary. Although, there are some outstanding moments and one-liners (mostly courtesy of Captain Haddock) and more than enough double entendres to keep the older viewers satisfied.

This being said, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the film. From the gorgeous opening titles and the tremendous introduction of our hero (briefly uniting the Tintin of old and this modern reincarnation) the film captured my imagination. The action never slows and it is constantly apparent that, despite taking the long way round, the plot is always moving forward.  Yes this fast paced approach may be at odds with the more laidback feel of the books but it was a necessary evolution for the move to film. As much as I may hate to admit it, we live in a modern age where the Tintin Hergé created no longer fits. It was a necessity that his adventures captured the imagination of a modern audience, even if this was perhaps at the expense of the true fans.

Yes, Tintin may not be exactly as we all remember him but this is to be expected. He fights his way out of tricky situations in a manner that would have impressed the likes of James Bond. Modernising the hero was something that was bound to happen and should have been embraced as openly as the recent reincarnations of Sherlock Holmes. He is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but he is good enough. If I may quote Commissioner Gordon here, Hergé’s Tintin may be “the hero we deserve, but he is not the one we need right now”.

The Three Musketeers (2011)

I must admit I didn’t have very high hopes for this latest adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel as any attempt since the 1973 version, directed by Richard Lester, has never quite felt right. Even the one starring Kiefer Sutherland and my love for him has allowed me to put up with a lot of shit over the years. Although, it does star Rome star Ray Stevenson who I appreciate almost as much.

The latest version from Resident Evil’s Paul W.S. Anderson is perhaps the closest you can get to a modernised version of a narrative set during the reign of Louis XIII. For the most part, the film stays close to Dumas’ original: the young D’Artagnan leaves for Paris and is introduced to musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis. The four then find themselves mixed up in a political plot in which they must stop the villainous Cardinal Richelieu overthrowing the young King.

Although the writers obviously felt that a modern audience would not be able to accept this simple tale of four men fighting for King and country so we find ourselves in a steam punk version of seventeenth century France complete with airships armed with machine guns and flame-throwers. The three main characters become more than the traditional sword wielding defenders of the French Monarchy and find themselves becoming examples of a more modern action hero.

Anderson has certainly attempted to bring some fun into this well known story but it ends up being a ridiculous and mind boggling experience. The film tries not to take itself too seriously and the opening sequence is a perfect example of this. With images lifted straight from Batman, The Matrix and video games, such as Assassins Creed, the three musketeers are introduced in an blur of romance, violence and booby traps. This part of the film is actually well played out, if you ignore the awful slow-motion fight sequences (something that has not only become one of the most annoying of Hollywood clichés but also something that is pulled off much more successfully elsewhere) and the odd faces Matthew MacFadyen pulls as he wields his rapier. Anderson certainly embraces the swashbuckling side of the narrative.

However, there is something about the film that prevents this attempted light-hearted attitude ever fully taking over. Unfortunately for Anderson, there is a lot more to Dumas’ tale than non-stop action. It relies on political treachery, heart ache and double-crossing spies. It is these elements that gives Anderson most of his problems. For the most part he attempts to push them into the background but when it is necessary his attempts are fairly pathetic.

The main offender is the failed romance between MacFayden’s, Athos, and Milla Jovovich’s, Milady. It is something that we are supposed to believe continually haunts Athos but it is barely given any prominence. After the opening scene it is only briefly referred to again in a few conversations. The romance was never believable meaning its destruction is utterly pointless.

To argue that the film’s major positive is that is does not take itself too seriously is both a flimsy argument and, more importantly, a fallacy. A film that is at its heart a political drama cannot completely commit itself to this sense of fun. Anderson seems to be completely perplexed by the actual story he tries to introduce. The plot to overthrow the King is rushed and certainly secondary to the visual aspects.

The film falls down dramatically from it’s poor script and terrible narrative structure. The script is littered with the expected Hollywood clichés as well as more than enough plot holes and unanswered questions. At it’s best the script is laughable and at it’s worst is painful. Take for example any of Athos’ speeches about being a damaged individual driven to drink and despair or the excruciating scene played out between D’Artagnan and his father before he leaves for Paris.

Although, despite the excruciating language, the aspect of the film that annoyed me the most was the overuse of CGI. Mostly because it is an obvious attempt to distract the audience from the poor craftsmanship of the whole thing. The main objective seems to have been to make sure as much was happening on screen as possible in the hope that the audience stopped listening to the words or noticing the acting.

The whole film has an air of desperation after it’s acceptance that there is little substance behind the gaudy spectacle. Of course saying this, there will always be a part of me that finds immense joy from watching these familiar characters outwitting the evil Cardinal and totally annihilating armies of men. Since I first watched the 1973 version I have had a secret desire to one day become a musketeer and, despite his shortcomings, Anderson has reignited my desire to smite my enemies with my trusty blade.

Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox remains one of the most loved books of my childhood. My twin and our friend would demand to listen to the audio cassette whenever we were driven anywhere. I still have incredibly fond memories of this book so it was with a certain amount of apprehension that I sat down to watch Wes Anderson’s adaptation. His quirky style and fondness for more unique characters should be the perfect accompaniment to Dahl’s own style of writing but things don’t always work out the way they should. So how would one of my favourite directors fair with this significant piece of my childhood?

Fantastic Mr Fox is hardly an epic tale so Anderson and Noah Baumbach have had to flesh out the narrative a bit but all of the key points are there. After a pretty close-call, Mr Fox promises his wife that he will stop stealing birds and instead settle down into family life. He finds his subsequent work as a journalist dull so comes up with a three-part assault on the farms of his vicious neighbours, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. As Mr Fox goes all Ocean’s 11 on us, his son, Ash, struggles to live up to family name and gain his father’s respect. When his impressive cousin Kristofferson joins the family, the young fox finds himself even more removed from his fantastic parent.

This type of sub-plot, packed with troubled father/son relationships, is nothing new for either Anderson or Baumbach, which is perhaps why it feels a little stale and unnecessary. The angst of the teenage Ash and jealousy towards his cousin is such an overworked cliché that even placing animals at the centre of the drama cannot make it seem fresh. Unfortunately, the theft is over in the blink of an eye and the resulting conflict is pushed into the background once the familial plot takes over. Once the animals find themselves seeking refuge underground, the plot has worn so thin that the audience is simply faced with an unoriginal soap opera style plot.

Although at least a soap opera would be able to provide terrifying enemies. Dahl is not afraid to place his characters and his young readers in the presence of a real and terrifying danger. The main disappointment of this film is the farmers themselves. They are not the grotesque images of evil that the original text summons up. They are instead rather pathetic individuals finding themselves in a, frankly, utterly petty war. The farmers are presented as so pathetic and witless that there never appears to be any real danger for the animals. It is only in the form of the vicious Rat, voiced expertly by Willem Defoe, and a terrifying rabid dog that any real tension is created.

As with all Anderson’s film you get the sense that every detail has been thought out. The look of the characters, the backgrounds and the colour scheme. The film primarily makes use of autumnal colours and is littered with various yellows, oranges, and browns. It is only in Kristofferson that we see a rare glimpse at the colour blue so the audience is fully aware that he is an outsider.

The animation is much more traditional and looks much less polished than contemporary animated offerings. The stop-motion animation brings to mind the works of animators like Oliver Postgate and is truly astounding, despite it’s potentially outdated feel. The detail on the puppets is breathtaking; just look at the way the foxes fur moves during the close-ups. We are not left with the brash and hectic Disney universe but with an understated world in keeping with Dahl’s own, very British, setting.

As you would expect, music plays an important part within the narrative and both the original scores and well-known pop songs fit into the ensemble perfectly. It is Jarvis Cocker’s Petey and his campfire song that leads to one of the film’s best scenes. Cocker’s ditty is played beneath images of Fox and his animal friends dancing in celebration. Watching as the crude puppets perform such adorable dance moves is a sight to behold complemented expertly by Cocker‘s performance. At least Fantastic Mr Fox is a constant treat for the eyes even when the narrative proves a little disappointing.

Although I did like Anderson’s film. I think it had a lot to live up to and it’s entirely possible that I’m just being a bit too stubborn because of my vested interest. The narrative, though nothing ground-breaking, is still a pretty decent script and enjoyable for a mixed audience. Were is a film not grounded in both literary and personal history then I’d probably have been jumping for joy. The wonderful story of Dahl’s original novel may have been lost in translation somewhat but when it is presented in such a charming and beautiful way, with such an amazing array of voices and a tremendous soundtrack, I’m not really sure how much that actually matters.

Twilight (2008)

When Twilight came out about three years ago I was assured by a friend that I would “fall in love with one if not both” of the main characters. This same friend demanded that I watch the film as soon as I could as it would undoubtedly change my life. However, Twilight, like Dirty Dancing, was going to be one of those films I never lowered myself to watch. It clearly wasn’t aimed at someone like me and, I must admit, in terms of the series of novels I’m clueless. I do have it on good authority that the books are better than their big screen counterparts and, after finally watching the first film, I honestly can’t imagine how they can’t be even slightly better than the self-indulgent and pathetic drivel I’ve just witnessed. Twilight is everything I was ever led to believe it to be; essentially it’s vampire-centric, family-friendly porn. It is the stuff of every hyperbolic teenage girl’s fantasies. The handsome and mysterious stranger without the underlying issue of sexual desire. It is a safe but bland love story.

Whilst it is perhaps rather redundant to comment on the plot of any film based on a novel, the story of Twilight is beyond pointless. We see Bella move to a new town to live with her estranged father. She finds herself surrounded by a pleasant and accommodating community but only finds herself drawn to the mysterious Cullen clan, specifically the pale and, I’m told, handsome Edward. What takes place is a drawn-out process that sees them move together and attempt to overcome the small problem of Ed’s vampirism and desire to taste her blood. Twilight is neither a great romance or a terrifying Vampire film. Instead it is 122 minutes of self-centred teenagers moaning about their insignificant problems and idealising their ‘great love’.

Twilight is a film that places a great deal of pressure upon its two lead actors and, unfortunately, it is a challenge that neither of them are up to. Robert Pattinson, every Twi-hard fan’s pin-up, simply flounders on screen. Thankfully his input is small but the audience must still be forced to watch him pout his way through the story. Edward Cullen, the vampire with a conscience, is the mysterious figure of Bella’s, and many a fan girl’s, dreams. There is no real hint within Pattinson’s performance that any  potential threat exists. Lord Ruthven or Dracula he most certainly is not. Thanks to some dodgy special effects, Edward becomes a harmless superhero who removes Bella from some slightly unnerving situations. It is only towards the films end that the potential danger of their relationship comes to light but that is rushed over in a blurry mess of moaning and shaky-cam close up. Edward Cullen is not a Byronic hero; a complicated and dangerous figure who cuts himself off from society. He is a soppy teenager who enjoys his meat on the rare side.

Whilst she excels as an actor next to Pattinson, Kristen Stewart doesn’t fair much better. Bella is meant to carry the entire film but her relentless and completely redundant voice-over only adds to her self-absorption. After walking the audience through her discovery of Edward’s true identity, including a confession from the man himself, Bella feels the need to tell us she “was now convinced Edward was a vampire”. Well I’m glad that was finally cleared up. In Stewart’s defence, she is faced with the task of playing a deplorable and insipid teenager in dire need of a slap in the face. Bella never seems fully developed as a character. All of her relationships are turbulent apparently just because she’s a teenager. Rather than delving into her motivations, her cold attitude to the kind people around her is excused because she is a stereotypical teen. I can only speculate that trying to portray such a horrific person would be difficult.

For a story about love, admittedly a scary, obsessive, Disney-love, Twilight’s lead actors lack on-screen chemistry. Whilst I can’t admit to being terribly knowledgeable about acting techniques, I’m not sure the Twilight ‘mouth open, heavy breathing, stare’ approach is one to look out for. Whilst we are supposed to believe, as we are told on many occasions, that their love is the most spectacular love ever, we are never given evidence to back up the claim. Their romance suddenly just happens and is described by the pair rather than lived. It may just be an age thing but I could not understand why this coupling was something to fight for. Their romance is nothing to rival the great literary pairings even though they work hard to convince us otherwise. In all areas, Twilight tries incredibly hard to be something it isn’t. It comes across as something that looks distinctly like a film student’s end of year project, so desperate to show their knowledge they throw everything they can into the mix. All in all the film looks lacklustre and shoddily thrown together.

However, as I pointed out, this is not a film for someone like me. Twilight is harmless and adequate tale that would keep any teenage girl satisfied. It may wish to be a great example of cinema but at the very least it delivers for its target audience.