With less than a week until the Oscars, my quest to watch all of the Best Picture nominations is getting quite tense. I’ve got three more to go and I’m not really super keen to watch either of them. I managed to watch two in quick succession last week so, if I’m clever with my time, I should be okay. It’s just a shame that the film I’m talking about today marks the end of the list of films I really wanted to see. The Darkest Hour is something I’ve been excited about for months. Combining my love of history and Gary Oldman; what could be better? When the first pictures of Oldman in his full Winston Churchill costume came out months ago, everyone was apparently amazed by the transformation. The picture was placed on the front of newspapers along with the tantalising caption of “we bet you’ll never guess who this really is” or something. I didn’t get the uproar. I mean anyone that looked at the photo should instantly be able to see Gary Oldman’s eyes staring back at them. Don’t get me wrong, the transformation was incredibly but it’s quite clearly the actor underneath all of that makeup. I admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for Oldman so I might be more familiar with his face than many people. It meant that whenever I saw photos from the set of The Darkest Hour I only ever saw Oldman and not one of the greatest Prime Minster’s the UK has ever seen.
If you follow me on Instagram then you’ll be aware that last week I was lucky enough to see the stage version of the book War Horse. It was an absolutely amazing experience that I will never forget and one that left me an emotional wreck for days. I don’t understand it but the deaths of massive wooden puppets was super traumatic. As a huge literary nerd and a bit of a history geek too, World War 1 has always been somewhat fascinating for me so I’ve been interested in War Horse for a while. It wasn’t until I watched Steven Spielberg’s film in 2012 that I became familiar with the story and, if I’m honest, it left me feeling more than a little critical. As I suggested in my review, I felt sad that society could only become emotionally invested in the story of the Great War through the treatment of horses. I mean I’ve got nothing against horses but why do we need to make a film about a horse when loads of innocent, young men died as well? Human beings care more about animals at times than they do about strangers. It’s ridiculous. Going off topic for a second, I once heard a story (probably not true) about a charity that went around giving food to the pets of homeless people. Now I have nothing against this kind act on its own but the same people were (allegedly) only giving food to the animals. Now, I realise dogs that live on the street deserve food but what kind of fucked up person would not also give food to the owner? Anyway, I’ve had my misgivings about Michael Morpurgo’s story of a magical fucking horse since I laughed my way through Spielberg’s film but the stage show had me changing my mind. Maybe there was something there after all?
This has been a tough weekend work wise if I’m honest. It’s been super stressful so I’ve been avoiding reading. Well, I’ve managed to do some reading but it’s not been great. I still haven’t finished War Horse which I started this week with the intention of finishing before I saw the stage version. Even though I didn’t manage that I absolutely adored the play. I mean, I was in floods of tears but it was exquisite. So well realised and mesmerising but, also, so good at capturing the real consequences of war. It was so much more meaningful and powerful than Steven Spielberg’s film version. He completely lost his way with that film and I spent most of my time laughing. I really hated that film and, if you’re interested, you can hear more of my rants in my review from 2012 here.
Going back to work after having a few days off last week proved to be extremely difficult. So, it came as a major surprise that I managed to keep on top of reading. I’ve decided I finally need to sort my sleeping habits out. Usually, I stay up way too late before work. This is mainly because I want to take full advantage of the time I have before I go back the next day. Just one of the major struggles of working in a job that you have zero passion for. Anyway, to get myself in better shape I’ve been trying to turn my computer off early and read for an hour or so before I go to bed. What usually happens now is that I get so engrossed in my book that I lose track of time but it’s an improvement, right? Whilst it may not be doing wonders for the amount of sleep I’m getting, it does mean that I’m making progress with my books read this year. I’ve finished another book finally. It takes a bit of pressure off after the 3/4 months that I spent getting through 7th Function. Fingers crossed it’s a sign things are improving.
- One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus
So, as expected, I got through this book pretty quickly. I plan on writing my thoughts up for me Tuesday review so come back soon.
- The Answers by Catherine Lacey
- Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
I have seen this book of poetry all over Instagram in the past few months and have desperately wanted it. With Kaur’s second collection of poetry being released next month and finding myself in an emotional state, I decided it was the perfect time to buy it. I’ve already read snippets so I’ll be glad to finally get to grips with this collection.
- The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich
On the same impromptu shopping trip that saw me buy Milk and Honey I also purchased this book. I’ll be honest, I only got this because I loved the cover. It’s a Penguin book and was so striking that I couldn’t not pick it up. Then I read the blurb and was hooked. This is the English language translation of the history of Soviet women in World War 2. Svetlana Alexievich wanted to tell the story of all of the strong women in her life who helped with the war effort but were deleted from official history. Now you all should know that I’m a lover of all things that show how great women are and this just sounds perfect. Combined with my love of history, I can’t think of a better book to get stuck into.
- Netflix Binges: Modern Family, Travel Man
I’ve eaten so much food today and I really don’t know why. Well, that’s not strictly true. I did because I’m bored. I’m meant to be getting my life (aka my house) in order before I head back to work but it really doesn’t appeal. So instead, I’ve been lying down, stuffing my face and watching soldiers die horribly in Steven Spielberg’s 1990s epic war film. It’s been a while since I saw this film and have preferred to watch the version shown on the Adam and Joe Show. Yes, it may be played out with stuffed toys and not people but that doesn’t mean its not as good as the original. Still, after watching Dunkirk I decided it was time to rewatch Spielberg’s war epic. Saving Private Ryan was one of those films that changed the way war films were made. It inspired several directors and, according to Quentin Tarantino, inspired Inglorious Basterds. It was also, apparently, the first time that people realised that World War II was awful. The majority of things I hear people say about this film is along the lines of “it really brought home to me the reality of war”. As if, before 1998, there existed some people who thought World War II was a fucking picnic for everyone involved. Personally, I’ve never needed Steven Spielberg to paint me a vivid picture of what a real battle sequence might be like to know its somewhere I don’t want to be. I’ve never really thought to myself “I really wish I was alive in the 1940s because it seems like it might be fun”. Still, it’s good to know that this film helped some people get over the crazy notion that was is good.
If there’s one thing that Steven Spielberg can do it’s create a memorable visual. We all vividly remember the water glass from Jurassic Park, the girl in red from Schindler’s List and ET and Eliot flying in front of the moon. The one that sticks with most people, though? The opening of Saving Private Ryan. It’s the thing that so many people have referenced in relation to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk because it is still considered to be the best interpretation of war ever created for the big screen. I’m not going to sit here and deny that the opening sequence isn’t great. It really is. It’s a horrific representation of what happened on Omaha beach in 1944 and it places the audience uncomfortably in the middle of the action. Even now, nearly 20 years later, this sequence still feels as gruesome and important as it did way back when.
However, the problem with these magnificent film moments is that people become blinded to the faults that come before and after. The sequence of the Normandy landings is regularly referred to as the film’s opening but it isn’t. No no. The film is patriotically bookended with some muted shots of an American flag flapping in the breeze as well as the overly sentimental prologue and epilogue showing an elderly Private Ryan visiting the graves of fallen soldiers. Had we opened in the midst of the D-Day sequence this film would have had an entirely different feel to it but, thanks to these brief moments, the film ends up feeling more like another attempt by Hollywood to bolster the myth that WWII was the good war and showcased the American spirit. It prevents the film from being the kind of critique of war that the first battle suggested it could be and, instead, turns into an American story of American heroes.
Spielberg’s film has been hailed as something of a masterpiece from the moment of its initial release and it’s easy to see why. The film is incredibly well made and the visuals are stunning. The battle sequences have still never been beaten in terms of realism and it more than adequately shows the waste of life that occurred in Europe. The main part of the narrative is intended to show us the ridiculous nature of war. We see a group of 8 men sent out on a mission to save the life of one soldier all because his mother had already lost 3 sons. It’s a sad story, obviously, but it is a preposterous notion. How can the army justify the lives of so many for the sake of 1? Every single man in the group agrees and, when all is said and done, don’t really give a shit about the life of Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). How can his mother’s suffering be more important than their own?
Still, this is war and they have to follow their Captain, John Miller’s (Tom Hanks), orders. So the group set off on their mission through Nazi occupied France. They lose men along the way and struggle to keep themselves going. But, somehow, they do. The hapless group find Private Ryan and a small group of soldiers defending a bridge. After a harrowing and spectacular opening sequence, Saving Private Ryan kind of loses its way during the main bulk of the narrative. Spielberg clearly tries to push his message about the futility of war but it kind of gets lost. Saving Private Ryan falls back into the Hollywood tradition of the Wild West movie. We see our band of heroes make their way through the landscape and heroically fighting the bad guys whenever they need. The script may make the occasional reference to the absurd nature of their assignment but there is an inescapable sense that what they are doing is both moral and brave.
I don’t hate Saving Private Ryan by any stretch of the imagination but, aside from the depictions of warfare, it doesn’t portray its message adequately enough. This film didn’t go far enough to blow the lid on the meaningless sacrifice that was made by the men who died in combat between 1939 and 1945. It is every war movie cliche rolled into one. It doesn’t directly say that war is heroic and the soldiers are fighting for their country but that is the message we are seeing. It glorifies the men on screen instead of adequately questioning the men in charge. When I reviewed War Horse for this blog I criticised Spielberg for sugaring the pill for his younger audience. He desensitised the audience by hiding the death with cutaways. Here he has no issue with showing us how deadly the war was for the people involved but what follows is sheer Hollywood. The story of a whole load of men dying so one mother can be slightly less sad.
Saving Private Ryan isn’t a bad film. It’s a very good film that showcases everything that has made Steven Spielberg as popular a director as he. It features strong performances from its cast and had a profound affect on the people who sat in movie theatres to watch it back in 1998. It’s a great film but is it a masterpiece? Or is it just a great 20 minute sequence surrounded by harmless Hollywood schmaltz?
So, I guess I have to start off today’s post by apologising for a lack of Rundown this week. I’ve been away this weekend for a big family celebration. August 20th 2017 was the 40th anniversary of my parent’s marriage and my older sister’s 1st anniversary. To celebrate the entire clan made their way to a lovely cottage in Scotland. The rest of my family managed to get the Friday off work but I had to travel up after I finished my shift. It meant the latter half of my week was pretty intense. It was my intention to either get ahead with my Sunday post or do it on Monday, when I got back. Neither of those things came to fruition and I decided it was better to just not do one. Which is a shame because I’ve actually done some fucking reading this week. Anyway, I’m back now and ready to get on with my regularly scheduled uploads. Starting with a review I wanted to write in reaction to this weekend. My twin sister’s boyfriend made the very bold statement that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk wasn’t worth watching. An opinion that goes against everything that everyone has ever said about it. So, because I’m really stubborn and love proving people wrong, I decided it was time I watched it myself. Because I refuse to believe something that looks that good could ever be described as much worse than Saving Private Ryan.
When you talk about World War II on the big screen there will be very few people who won’t reference the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and for good reason. It is still one of the most iconic opening sequences in film history. Spielberg places his audience in the midst of a very bloody, dramatic and, ultimately, realistic depiction of American soldiers landing on Omaha Beach in 1944. It’s awful but shows the true cost of the conflict. After that, well, things get more Hollywood and it turns into a kind of ridiculous narrative littered with sequences of war porn that will keep any young boy on the edge of his seat. You can see why people love it but, when it comes to realistic portrayal of WWII, it’s safe to say that Spielberg kind of loses his way.
Ralph Fiennes has a deep history with this particular Shakespeare play after his much appraised portrayal of the title character about ten years ago. With the help of screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo) and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker), Fiennes offers us an exciting modern adaptation of the little known and little loved play. Modern adaptations of Shakespeare are not uncommon but there is always the danger that the connection between the plot and the updated setting will start to wear a little thin. For example, I was lucky enough to see Michael Sheen in Hamlet at the Young Vic last Christmas. Not only was he amazingly talented, mesmerising and rather beautiful (in a crazy way) but the adaptation itself was pretty exciting. The action was set in a mental asylum where Claudius and Gertrude were medical staff and Hamlet their patient. This worked incredibly well until the plot demanded that the staff organise a deadly fencing match between their patients. Obviously there needs to be a suspension of disbelief but the scene did stand out as a bit much. When plays deal with plots set in the Elizabethan period there is bound to be a certain amount that doesn’t quite translate. The trick is making sure these elements blend in enough that it doesn’t really matter.
For Fiennes’ masterpiece, the centurions of Ancient Rome have been replaced with modern soldiers armed with the AK-47s and running the risk of getting caught up in impressive explosions. Logan’s script cuts down the lengthy tragedy down to two hours of classic drama and heart-stopping action. It is a film that shows the necessary appreciation to its source whilst avoiding the potential trap of a straightforward and traditional production. Logan includes as much of Shakespeare’s language as is possible and all of the key scenes have been given due care and attention. Filmed on location in Belgrade, the costumes, props and cinematography could be taken straight out of most modern war films. Gone is the city of Rome and the action is placed in a modern Balkan like state. The political focus of this play fits well into the turbulent times we have all seen in the past few years. In Logan’s skilled hands and with a certain amount of help from modern scenes we are all familiar with (smart-phones, internet streamed assassinations and satellite news) this Ancient Roman tragedy becomes a modern tale of the struggle for power and respect. For my part, I enjoyed the way that certain conversations that organically would have taken place between Roman citizens were transformed into news items and interviews with experts. I can understand the reviewers who found it a little too tongue-in-cheek but I relished the cameo by Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow and firmly believe he should do all news items in Shakespearean language from now on. It is amazing how easily the play fits into this setting and it only goes to remind us how relevant the issues Shakespeare raised 400 years ago. The place which calls itself Rome could indeed be anywhere and the action sequences and rolling news could well have been seen on any news channel in recent times.
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.