Monday, December 31, 2012

War Horse

War Horse (2011), directed by Steven Spielberg, marks a rare cinematic endeavor: a film set in World War I. Yes, some of the all-time great movies have been about this war (All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory), but compared to other major conflicts of the 20th century, especially World War II and the Vietnam War, the number of films about the war is relatively small. There are a few reasons for this, I think: U.S. involvement was limited until the end (American audiences can be a bit impatient with movies not about Americans), other wars still hold some degree of moral justification (WWI seems to be the last war governments were able to justify blatant imperial ambition with blind patriotism), and the very nature of the fighting itself. For most of the war, it was two sides dug in and not giving or taking much ground.

Spielberg seems to grasp these challenges. Based on a book and play, War Horse follows the events of World War I with a horse as the unifying character. No, it doesn't talk like Mr. Ed or have voiceover narration like in Black Beauty, but by linking several different characters and locations through the horse, Spielberg is able to convey the huge scope of the war, from the early days of patriotic fervor to the grueling trench warfare to the wearied relief that marked the end of the fighting. Less important is the horse and more important is how it affects those who come in contact with it and how the war impacts everyone and everything.

In Devon, England, farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buys a thoroughbred horse instead of a work horse, much to his wife Rose's (Emily Watson) dismay, but his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) has admired the horse since its birth. He trains it and names it Joey. When the harvest fails, Ted sells the horse to the British Army as war with Germany is declared. Joey is first shipped off with Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). When Nicholls is killed, Joey spends the rest of the war passing through various owners across the battle lines: a pair of young German brothers (Leonard Carow and David Kross) in the army, a Frenchman (Niels Arestrup)and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens), and a German private (Nicholas Bro). Meanwhile, Albert has enlisted and is part of a massive campaign on the Western Front.

Inevitably, since this is a Spielberg movie, Joey and Albert will be re-united in a big emotional scene, but the movie is less a linear narrative and more of a series of short stories as the various players interact with Joey, who eventually becomes known as the "Miracle Horse." It's through the horse's experiences that we witness the war. The early scenes of patriotism and glory are shattered in the first big battle as Captain Nicholls rides Joey in a cavalry charge across a grassy, sun-lit field into an enemy encampment at the edge of a forest. In a stunning visual, the German machine positions open fire and instead of showing the men being cut down, Spielberg elects to represent the slaughter with dozens of now rider-less horses leaping over the German positions (quite a few steeds are killed in the crossfire, too). As the war progresses, the environment itself seems to become poisoned, the sun remains hidden by dark clouds, and the lush green fields are replaced by filthy trenches lined with corpses, broken equipment, and barbed wire. It might not be Saving Private Ryan levels of violent or gory, but War Horse competently captures just how brutal, frightening, and demoralizing war is.

In the midst of all this suffering and turmoil, basic dignity and love survive. There is the German soldier who uses Joey to escape the army with his brother to protect him from a young death. At one point, Joey becomes trapped in barbed wire in No Man's Land, and one soldier from each side goes to help get him get free, both Germans and British silently agreeing not to fire on each other (in a funny shot, the two soldiers call for wire cutters and several pairs are tossed over the top). The French grandfather does his best to protect his granddaughter from hardship, letting her keep Joey when she finds him and later trying to buy him back at an auction after the war.

As I've indicated already, War Horse is a movie of amazing scope, and it's complemented by some amazing cinematography by Janusz Kaminski that's simply gorgeous and sweeping. It's certainly a great picture just to look at and simply take in. On the down side, this is a movie of big moments and sequences, and as a result, characters are drawn in the most basic of traits; it's hard to get emotionally invested in any of them because so many of them are out of the picture before too long. Spielberg being Spielberg also gives in to his tendency to pile on the bright-eyed sentimentality when a little understatement would have been better served.

In the end, War Horse encapsulates both Spielberg the artist who makes a gritty war drama and Spielberg the popular entertainer who tugs at the heart strings, and for the most part, he succeeds at both.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Straight Story

The Straight Story (1999) refers to the story of a man named Alvin Straight who drove 300 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin in a John Deere tractor to visit his ailing brother, but the title could also be considered a promise from director David Lynch. Lynch, the master of weird and surreal who has specializes in labyrinth, dream-like plotting and freakish depravity on film, seems to be saying to the audience this movie is not going to be like that; this is going to be an honest, straightforward, and simple account of a man's journey and the people he meets along the way.

Alvin Straight (an Oscar-nominated Richard Farnsworth) lives with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) in Laurens, Iowa, when he receives a phone call that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin. Alvin, not in the best of health either, resolves to see him before it's too late, but because of his bad eyesight, he cannot drive a car, and Rose is mildly retarded and no good behind a wheel either. Eventually, Alvin hitches a trailer to his lawn mower and begins his slow, steady trek across the state.

If there were ever two entities I would have never expected to work together, it would be David Lynch and Disney, but it happened with The Straight Story. In essence, this a road movie, much of the plot is driven by the various stops along they way, but it is a sweet, simple tale. The journey is challenging and potentially dangerous to say the least, but there aren't any creeps or criminals along the way. Rated G, the movie contains no violence, foul language, or even people that could be classified as bad or immoral. Plenty of characters question Alvin's trip, but there aren't any false conflicts or efforts to stop or discourage him. The strangers he meets all in their own way help him along, even the hysterical woman who hits a deer and drives off; Alvin takes the event in stride, fixing the antlers on his trailer and eating some of the meat. In movies like Blue Velvet and TV shows like Twin Peaks, Lynch finds corruption and evil hidden among seemingly perfect suburban facades, but in The Straight Story there is no rot beneath the surface, and that's a refreshing change of pace.

In his own words, Alvin is a stubborn old fool who has seen everything life can throw at a person. We learn he's a widower and a veteran of World War II still bothered by his experiences there. While he accepts help from time to time, he's steadfast in his determined self-reliance. When told by his doctor he needs to use a walker and quit smoking, he merely gets another cane and continues to smoke cigars. At this point of his life, he's come to far along to change who he is, but now with a possible end to it all just around the corner, he wants to make peace with his brother. "My brother and I said some unforgivable things the last time we met, but I'm trying to put that behind me," Alvin says. "And this trip is a hard swallow of my pride. I just hope I'm not too late."

Being a Lynch movie , there remains some weirdness, although nothing dark or grotesque. The aforementioned woman who hit the deer claims she can't avoid crashing into them on the same stretch of road, and there are the bickering mechanic twins, but most of the different episodes along the way have a simple poignancy: a pregnant runaway that Alvin tells about the importance of family, a fellow veteran of the war also haunted by his experience, and the priest near the end who in a way hears Alvin's confession. At one point, Alvin finds himself being passed by a mass of cyclists in a cross-country race, and he makes camp with them that night. They ask what's the worst part about being old, and he says remembering when you were young. If you spend too much time regretting and thinking about the past, life will pass you by, and you're left all alone.

The cinematography by Freddie Francis is gorgeous. There are so many beautiful shots of the farmland country and small towns Alvin passes through. Also excellent is the music by composer Angelo Badalamenti. I'm not sure what attracted Lynch to this material or what inspired to film it, but I'm glad he did.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a rare bird. Remakes are huge business, but I can't recall another instance of a director remaking his own movie. Sure, there are plenty of remakes overseen or produced by the director of the original (Wes Craven seems to be overseeing his own cottage industry),  George Lucas seems to endlessly re-tinker and re-release Star Wars, George Sluzier directed the watered-down Americanized version of his own The Vanishing, but Alfred Hitchcock might very well be the only major director to redo an earlier effort so literally (unless one counts Howard Hawks retooling Rio Bravo as El Dorado and Rio Lobo).

This new version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, based on the 1934 version with the same title, retains the same basic setup and narrative development, but the details have been changed. Instead of a British couple whose daughter is kidnapped in Switzerland, the newer version centers on an American couple (Hitchcock's regular leading man James Stewart and Doris Day) whose son is kidnapped. In both movies, the kidnapped child is used as leverage on the parents to guarantee their silence about an assassination plot in London.

Dr. Ben McKenna (Stewart), his wife Jo (Day), and son Hank (Christopher Olsen) are vacationing in Morocco when they're helped out of a potentially tense situation by a friendly Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin). The next day, they witness Bernard, now wearing brown face makeup, being murdered, but before he dies, he whispers something in Ben's ear. Before the McKenna's realize it, Hank has been kidnapped by what they was a kindly English couple, the Draytons (Bernard Miles and Brenda De Manzie). With the cryptic information they have, the McKennas fly to London, caught between the police who demand to have it and the conspirators who threaten to kill Hank if they talk to the police.

Hitchcock was famous for his use of humor, but curiously, that element is not on display here. Perhaps Hitchcock believed that given the subject matter - an abducted child - it might have been inappropriate (not that that hasn't stopped him before). The movie's only humor is an inside joke with composer Bernard Herman appearing as himself to conduct a symphony in Albert Hall for the musically-charged climax and the denouement involving some very patient dinner guests. The emphasis here seems to be more on the family in peril.

What Hitchcock does really well is convey a sense of paranoia and distrust outside of one's own country. When visiting a foreign land where you don't speak the language, it's very easy to find yourself uneasy and unsure of what to do or who to go to when trouble occurs. Not helping the McKennas is Jo's fame as a retired Broadway performer. How do you remain anonymous and hidden when people recognize your face? Hitchcock plays on this uncertainty of reality with a number of deceptive images and revelations: Bernard appears to be threatening but turns out to be a heroic spy, the friendly Draytons are really terrorists, the assassins hide out in a church as a priest and staff, and the name thought to refer to a person turns out to be a church.You can't always believe what you see; first impressions can be wrong.

Hitchcock favored the man-wrongfully-accused trope, the innocent man on the run for the crime he didn't commit who would more often than not find help with a woman along for the ride, but in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the formula is shaken up a bit. The heroes aren't accused of any crime that drives the plot, but they are on their own with no help from the police. In addition, more so for Hitckcock, the wife, despite being setup as the standard flimsy, turns out to be the more heroic one.

Jimmy Stewart, at his usual "aw shucks" charming, is an open book to strangers. Ben practically tells his life story to Bernard and where they'll be staying, and it is Jo who eyes the Frenchman with suspicious and correctly notes he hasn't reciprocated with any info about himself. She's the one who notices the Drayons when they begin eying the McKennas. When Hank is kidnapped, Ben initially keeps the knowledge to himself and refuses to tell Jo until after she's taken a sedative. It looks like he's the one who's going to take charge, demand answers, and find their son, but for the longest time, he's ineffectual. It's Jo who realizes the name given to them by Bernard is not a person but a church, and it's Jo who is present at the assassination attempt and the one to be involved with stopping it. Ben, trying to force his way through to warn the intended target, is rebuffed and denied entry. Motherly love outweighs manly pride.

The assassination attempt occurs at Albert Hall during a performance by a symphony orchestra, and we're present when the villains discuss that when the cymbals clash, the gunshot will ring out. It's a mostly dialogue-free sequence as the music builds in intensity and the movie cuts back ad forth between Jo, the killer, the target, and the man with the cymbals. The framing gets tighter and tighter on Jo's face, the gun, and the cymbals until ... Credit must be given to both the editing and Day's performance. A good reason the scene works so well is how well she conveys how frightened and desperate she is.

The orchestra scene is a masterful sequence, and really, nothing else in the movie could top it. Unfortunately, it occurs with another 30 minutes to go with the kidnapping still to be resolved. The scenes in the embassy and the sneaking around just don't have the same energy or power. Also hurting the movie is the lack of a great villain. By their nature, the villains are somewhat anonymous, but the original film had Peter Lorre revealed as the mastermind. Here, there's no equivalent.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Paths of Glory

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the jury deliberates for quite a long time before delivering a guilty verdict against Tom Robinson. In Paths of Glory (1957), we go immediately from Colonel Dax's (Kirk Douglas) impassioned closing defense to the firing squad going over preparations the night before the scheduled execution. Unlike Mockingbird, there was never a hope for acquittal or even any promise of long-term change. The corrupt system remains in place, and people continue to suffer.

Widely regarded as director Stanley Kubrick's first masterwork, Paths of Glory is a scathing indictment against the corrupt, cynical officer establishment of the military, in which the privileged elite live in luxury and mistreat the common soldier as merely a pawn in the never-ending pursuit of advancement and prestige. From the harrowing hell fire of the battlefield to the twisted, self-serving cover-up of a kangaroo military court, we witness the absolute lowest humanity has to offer.

World War I. The Western Front is locked in a stalemate. Following a disastrous and ill-advised assault against a heavily fortified German position known as the Ant Hill, French General Mireau (George Macready), to save face and protect a promised promotion from his superior General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), orders the court martial of three low-ranking soldiers for cowardice under penalty of death. Defending the men is their commanding officer Colonel Dax (Douglas), and the only hope he has winning their acquittal is to prove the attack itself was impossible.

Watching Paths of Glory again, I was reminded of another work: Catch-22 Like Joseph Heller's novel, Paths of Glory is a portrayal of a military bureaucracy taken to the extreme, but while Catch-22 is satirical and absurd, Kubrick's movie (based on a novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb) is stark and nightmarish. When Dax protests the attack was impossible, Mireau snaps that if it was impossible, the only proof would be the men's dead bodies. Broulard also notes later on that shooting a man now and then is an effective way to maintain discipline. "There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than watching someone else die." Only someone so insulated from suffering, so oblivious to the lives of those under his command, could be so dismissive of other human beings.

Kubrick draws a clear line between the officers who lead and the men who fight. The generals live luxurious splendor, wining and dining a chateau far away from the front line, and holding fancy dinner balls while casually agreeing that a casualty rate of 65 percent is an acceptable loss. Early on, Mireau visits the trenches to observe the Ant Hill as a group of wounded soldiers pass by, unseen by their commander; to Mireau, the Ant Hill is a distant goal that means another star on his uniform while the price in taking it can be ignored. To his men, the Ant Hill is certain death. Later, Broulard all but admits to Dax the attack was doomed to fail and high command knew it, but to keep up appearances with the government, media, and folks back home, some action had to be taken to appease them. Meanwhile, the common soldiers live in filthy conditions under a constant threat of gunfire and bombardment without support or relief, their lives short and terrifying.

The assault on the Ant Hill is horrifying in the loss of life depicted. The scene begins with a tracking shot of Dax walking through the trenches as his men stand ready to go over the top, nervously huddled together while explosions grow closer and more frequent, the tension building up. The men swarm out across the open, muddy "No Man's Land" as machine guns and artillery cut them down by the dozens. Kubrick follows the combat from a long shot of the mass of soldiers intercut with shots of the men scrambling through  the mud and barbed wire, As the agonizing sequence continues, the film cuts to Dax's point-of-view to show they haven't even made it half way across.

Although he later developed a style known for its epic size, scope, and import, the Kubrick on display in Paths of Glory is tighter and more economical. Less than 90 minutes long, the film doesn't have a wasted moment and contains a number of subplots that all tie together: the artillery commander ordered by Mireau to bombard the French positions when they don't advance, the condemned Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) who witnessed a superior's cowardice and misconduct on a previous mission, and the backstabbing and jockeying for position of the high-ranking officers. With what would become his trademark cold, dark logic, Kubrick sees them all through to their sad, inevitable ends.