Film Review: War Horse Should Have Been Taken Out to the Barn and Shot

War Horse (2011) Directed by Steven Spielberg

War Horse was on my IMDB Watchlist for one reason — it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The director has given us some of the greatest films ever made, and more than a handful of my all-time favorite films. Schindler’s List. Empire of the Sun. Lincoln. ET. Amistad. Saving Private Ryan. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Raiders of the Lost Ark. And on and on. So of course I was going to want to see War Horse. What a waste of two hours and 26 minutes.

This film was more like a 1970s Disney film or an After School Special. It was so corny and predictable from start to finish. Boy meets horse. Boy loses horse. Boy finds horse again. I felt like I’d seen this story a million times before, but with a dog, or a pig, or a pigeon in the anthropomorphized lead role. No, the horse didn’t talk (he’s no Mr. Ed) but he did have a personality that made him feel more human than he is.

There were a few things I liked about War Horse. The battle scenes were cool and really well shot. Not a surprise for a director with the skills of Spielberg. And it didn’t do too bad critically, with a 76% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But the review also included this line: “Technically superb, proudly sentimental, and unabashedly old-fashioned, War Horse is an emotional drama that tugs the heartstrings with Spielberg’s customary flair.”

That about sums it up. Yes, beautifully shot but over-the-top sentimental. Oh, and there was one little surprise for me. Scottish actor Peter Mullan played the dad in the film, and once again my mind was blown. I had no idea he was Scottish while he was playing Jacob Snell in the amazing Netflix series Ozark or James Delos in Westworld. This guy is a tremendous actor who I love and now I like him even more. How many times am I going to be blown away be a foreign actor playing an American? I mean, he plays a Brit in War Horse and I thought he was putting on the accent! Are there any good American actors left?

Next up on my Watchlist challenge: Shame (2011)

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Book Review: Shapiro’s ‘Inheritance’ Proves There Are Layers to Who We Are

“What’s fascinated me from the time I was a little kid was the way we construct our lives through stories.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Who are you? I suspect we all have a basic sense of who we are. I’m a 52-year-old husband and father, born in New York but raised in California, a sports fan, a writer, a liberal, an atheist. I’m Ashkenazi Jew on both sides of my family tree going back as far as the historical record. This is the “story” I tell myself and others about me. But what if one day you found out that a huge piece of your story was based on a lie?

Author Dani Shapiro thought she knew her story as well, until one day the results of an Ancestry.com DNA test she took “on a whim” came back with a shocking result. She was not genetically related to her father (the only father she ever knew). Shapiro’s world was turned upside down and her story changed in an instant. As a writer who specializes in memoirs, she handled this life event in the only way she knew how — she wrote a book about the experience. The result is Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (Knopf ( 2019).

I’m not going to ruin the book for you with spoilers, but suffice it to say the memoir reads like a mystery novel and it’s beautifully written. I didn’t know Shapiro’s work prior to reading Inheritance, but I was really blown away by how she weaves this story and by how she lays herself bare in the process. It’s clear she was devastated by the results of the DNA test, but that doesn’t stop her from taking the reader along for the whole intimate ride. At each turn of the narrative she delves deeply into her psyche as she starts to put the pieces of the story — her new story — together like a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Truthfully, it’s a brave retelling given how much of herself she lost along the way.

It’s interesting to think about the simple, almost matter-of-fact decision that led to the unraveling of Shapiro’s sense of herself. Her husband purchased a DNA test for each of them (even though she was not overly keen on the idea) and then decided to compare her results to those of her half-sister. Maybe she subconsciously knew her results would provide a surprise, especially given that as we learn in the book she had always felt a nagging feeling that she didn’t quite fit. There were little moments in her life that, on reflection, gave her pause about her deep Jewish roots. Plenty of people told her she didn’t “look” Jewish.

In 2003 when the Human Genome Project was completed, I suppose even the scientists involved couldn’t have imagined less than than two decades later people all over the world could spit in a test tube and for a hundred bucks or so get their entire genome mapped and categorized. Genetic sequencing has become an integral part of medical science and disease diagnosis and treatment, and it has applications in law enforcement, paternity testing, and of course ancestry research. With these advances have come a host of ethical issues, not the least of which involves privacy, and perhaps mankind has been slow to put sufficient guidelines around those ethical issues. Of course, when you agree to take a DNA test for ancestry research you agree to see the results no matter what news the results may bring. The internet is full of stories like Shapiro’s.

Ever since I almost died from a heart attack in 2011 I’ve been obsessed with ancestry and genetic detective work. My interest in genealogy has not been driven by my medical condition, but rather by a desire to know who I am and where I come from in order to pass my story on to future generations (especially my son). I was able to get my DNA sequenced as part of a heart study at the University of Michigan and in return for allowing them to use my DNA for their study I received a summary of my results. No surprises for me: I’m 65 percent Eastern European and 34 percent West Asian and North African. My people come from the area around the Black Sea and likely migrated up from the Middle East and Northern Africa. A classic story of Jewish diaspora.

But while reading Inheritance I found myself wondering what it’d be like if my DNA test had come back with a surprising result. I watch a lot of ancestry shows like Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates and Who Do You Think You Are? and people get surprised all the time. Hell, last season on Finding Your Roots, white actor Ty Burrell discovered he is part African American and African American radio host Joe Madison found out he was part white! Talk about changing your perception of self?

Of course, I knew I was genetically related to my parents. All you have to do is look at us to see that. Still, what if I found out a few branches back we were not Ashkenazi but rather something altogether different? You can imagine that kind of genealogy discovery would change who you are, let alone finding out you weren’t related to your father like Shapiro uncovered. And to find this out in your 50s, after both your parents had died, would make it even more hard to handle.

For Shapiro, a big part of her identity was tied to her upbringing as an orthodox Jew. So many of her childhood memories were tied to that Jewish culture, especially the times she spent with her devout father. And then to find out she’s not even related to her father? That’s she’s Jewish, but only on her mother’s side? She moved on from her religious upbringing, but it was still part of her identity — her story.

The book really made me think about story and how we identify. You know where you’ll find your story in its most basic form? Your Twitter profile! Mine says: “Husband, Dad, Desert Dweller, Sports Fanatic, Survivor.” Shapiro’s declares: “Novelist, memoirist, essayist, teacher, wife, mom.”

What’s your story?

Film Review: ‘Skin’ a Disturbing, Macabre Mess

The Skin I Live In (2011) Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has been behind the camera for 50 years and is considered one of the great European directors. I’ve been a huge fan since seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) back in college, a film that I credit for helping opening my eyes to the wonders of foreign films. Almodovar’s filmography includes several favorites of mine, most especially Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1989), Kika (1993), and Matador (1986). All About My Mother (1999) is a bloody revelation. He has compiled a spectacular list of awards over the years and has introduced the world to a host of Spanish actors who have stayed loyal to him even as they found American success (see Antonio Banderas and Pen√©lope Cruz).

Almodovar is one of those directors who, when he releases a new film, I immediately, without question, add it to my list to see. Which is why The Skin I Live In has been on my Watchlist since its release in 2011. I wish it hadn’t been.

One of the reasons I love Almodovar’s work is because his stories are at the far edge of mainstream. I mean, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down is about a guy who is so obsessed with a porn star that he kidnaps her in an attempt to make her fall in love with him. Talk to Her (2002) is about the friendship between two men who are both caring for women who happen to be in comas. Matador is about a man who is wounded by a bull and has lost his appetite for killing and it opens with a graphic close up of him whacking off. This is not the stuff of typical Hollywood boy meets girl tropes.

Almodovar can always be counted on for shedding light on the dark side of human nature, but methinks he went too far in The Skin I Live In. It was deeply disturbing. And frankly, it’s hard to discuss without giving away the big reveal, so I’ll dance around it.

The film centers around a successful plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (played by Banderas), who has lost his wife to a tragic accident. The loss haunts him so he holes up in his rural mansion to work on a breakthrough synthetic skin that in its development casts aside medical ethics. As part of the project, he is keeping a beautiful woman hostage in his home/laboratory to use as a guinea pig for his breakthrough skin treatment.

The plot thickens as his daughter is sexually assaulted at a party, which leads to her suicide, and Dr. Ledgard decides to take the law into his own hands. The result is a psycho-sexual, disconcerting chain of events that takes even Almodovar down a strange and unsettling rabbit hole. I mean, the film is categorized as Drama/Horror/Thriller and let’s just say Dr. Ledgard received a bit of inspiration from Dr. Frankenstein.

The Skin I Live In is hard to watch and while the acting is wonderful (Banderas is great as Dr. Ledgard and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes is brilliant as the doctor’s assistant/mother) I was left uncomfortable with the taboos that highlight the film. And I am not easily disturbed by uncomfortable subject matter.

You really can’t have too many hangups if you’re going to enjoy Almodovar films. I found a list of his themes/motifs on the web, and they include: homosexuality; sexual perversion; female heroines; sacrilegious Catholicism; excessive kitsch and camp, stalking, prostitution, rape, incest, transexuality, and women urinating on film. These topics have not kept him from scores of awards, including two Academy Awards, five British Academy Film Awards, six European Film Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, nine Goya Awards and four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.

Say what you will about Almodovar, but you can’t say he’s not a bold and brave filmmaker. His stories tend to be centered around woman, which in an of itself is interesting for a gay director, but some find his female representations to be misogynistic. I think his female characters tend to be powerful, either by their strength and beauty or by their deep matriarchal traits.

So, I didn’t like The Skin I Live In, but I’m still going to watch the other Almodovar films I haven’t seen yet, including the soon-to-be released Pain & Glory which is a drama featuring both Banderas and Cruz.

I give The Skin I Live In four stars out of 10.

Next on my IMDB Watchlist:¬† Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011)

Film Review: ‘Amigo’ Brings to Light the Horrors of the Philippine-American War


Amigo (2010) Directed by John Sayles

I am a history buff, or so I like to think. But honestly I either never learned or simply forgot that the U.S. went to war with the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, from 1899 to 1902 U.S. troops invaded the small island nation to maintain control over it following it being handed over to the U.S. following the Spanish-American War. And while the Philippines are strategically located in the Pacific, the war was criticized in America by anti-imperialists including the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie and notably, Mark Twain.

It’s not a war that gets much attention in mainstream cinema, especially given the plethora of World War II and Vietnam War films that have come out of Hollywood. Recently, we’ve even seen a slew of films about the Gulf War and our conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan.

Director John Sayles has a history of highlighting the underdog, whether its organized labor fighting for rights in West Virginia coal country in 1987’s intense film Matewan, or local residents fighting the government in 1991’s City of Hope. Sayles also has a fondness for history, most notably with his 1988 retelling of the Black Sox scandal in Eight Men Out.

One thing you can also count on with a John Sayles film is that he’ll always give you interesting characters and complex stories. I’ve been a dedicated Sayles fan for decades and have seen most of the films he’s directed, including favorites such as the aforementioned Matewan, City of Hope and Eight Men Out, along with Passion Fish, Lone Star, The Brother from Another Planet, and The Secret of Roan Inish. My personal favorite is the 1983 coming of age story Baby, It’s You starring a 24-year-old movie newcomer named Rosanna Arquette. His filmography is tremendous and for an independent filmmaker he’s managed to cast so many great actors who have gone on to stardom — he pretty much discovered actors like Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Mary McDonnell to name a few who have each starred in multiple John Sayles films and gone on to award-winning Hollywood careers. It’s enough to make you forget he also wrote the screenplays for Piranha, Alligator and The Howling.

Amigo certainly fits the John Sayles bill. It tells the fictional story of a small village in the Philippine jungle that has been taken over by American troops and used as a base to take on nationalist guerrillas. Things quickly get turned upside down for the villagers, who while are not harboring nationalists are in multiple cases related to guerrillas hiding nearby who are determined to fight to take back their country from the Americans.

The film stars Filipino actor Joel Torre as Rafael, the village mayor who’s brother leads the nearby guerrillas and who’s son has run off to join them. Rafael is stuck between trying to appease the American soldiers while at the same time not turning in his brother and son. We never truly know where Rafael’s allegiance lays, but he’s certainly in a tough spot. It doesn’t help that at the same time his fellow villagers seem unsure of his ability to lead the village. It’s worth noting that Sayles chose to present the film in Filipino with English subtitles except for when the Americans speak. This serves to both create a realistic experience for the viewer and at the same time ensure a level of confusion among the American troops and native villagers that adds to the tension. In recent years Sayles has made several films using subtitles versus Americanizing the characters and this adds to the realism of his films and provides unique opportunities for native-speaking actors.

The American troops are led by Colonel Hardacre, a hard-ass soldier with no soft spot for the Filipino villagers. Played by the underappreciated Chris Cooper, Hardacre clearly doesn’t want to be in the jungles of the Philippines and is perfectly comfortable treating the natives like subhumans. Cooper is a regular in Sayles’ films, perhaps most memorably as the sheriff in 1996’s Lone Star. He’s one of those actors that seems to show up everywhere and is amazing in each role (see Conklin in the Bourne films and as the sexually-confused Marine living next door to Kevin Spacey’s iconic Lester Burnham in American Beauty). Cooper does have an Oscar, which he won for Best Supporting Actor in Spike Jones’ 2002 film Adaptation.

The tension in the film comes as the American troops try to hold the village while at the same times the guerrillas try to disrupt their activities and ensure village leader Rafael doesn’t spill the beans on his brother’s activities in the jungle. The American troops are a bunch of rag-tag kids with little wartime experience and their anxieties play out as the situation gets complicated.

Ultimately the film is heartbreaking, and while it is a fictional story the viewer gets the feeling in real life it very well could have played out exactly as it does in the film. I found the story compelling and intense, and as the story progressed I could feel the anxiety mounting and I was on the edge of my seat. I highly recommend it for the story and the acting, as well as for the history lesson.

It’s also worth noting that Sayles makes no profound statement about the war or America’s imperialistic nature, rather he leaves that for the viewer. Sayles makes films about tough subjects and doesn’t preach (unlike, say, Oliver Stone) but instead provides a realistic view of the situation and leaves the viewer to make his or her own decisions about the politics. Yes, I think Sayles chooses subjects like this war specifically because they are not among the best moments of our history, and for me that’s what makes it good art.

Lastly, I should mention that once again Sayles cast a few young actors that since the time of this film have gone on to bigger things. One of the young American soldiers is played by a 24-year-old Dane DeHaan who is a tremendous actor who most recently is well known for his portrayal of the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man films (with Chris Cooper as his father). The other young up-and-comer is D.J. Qualls, who I love as the loyal Ed McCarthy in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Both DeHaan and Qualls have even more bright roles ahead.

I give Amigo an 8 out of 10 stars.

Next on my IMDB Watchlist: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (2011)

New Movie Review Project Underway

A few years back I decided, for no apparent reason, to watch all of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films in order and blog about each. It took me about 18 months to get through the list, and at the end I felt a sense of accomplishment and at the same time I felt a little sad that it was over. In the years since that challenge ended I have given some thought to doing another list, but I couldn’t quite decide which list to watch.

Over the weekend I was flipping around the Interwebs and found myself going down a rabbit hole on the Internet Movie Database and that led me to notice that my IMDB Watchlist had grown to 136 films going back to around 2011. I’m the kind of guy who keeps track of the films I watch and the books I read, and so over the years I’ve used IMDB to flag films I haven’t seen but wanted to see.

That’s when it dawned on me — I should watch all 136 films and blog about them. It’s a totally random list, but each film made my Watchlist because at some point I wanted to see it. Having a project like this will encourage me to watch more than 100 films I want to see and give me a reason to blog about them.

The list is really diverse. It has mainstream films I just never got around to seeing, as well as indie films and foreign films I’ve read about but have not gotten around to. Streaming services mean it should be simple to get access to these films. The only question is in what order will I watch them? I thought about this and ruled out alphabetical and IMDB ratings. I decided I’ll start with the film that has been on my Watchlist the longest and count up from there. So, watch this space soon for a review of the first film on the list — 2010s Amigo from one of my favorite directors, John Sayles.

Why am I doing this? That’s a good question. Mostly because I love movies and I also love to blog and this project enables me to do both. Also, frankly, I have a lot of spare time at night on on weekends and it’ll give me something more productive to do than watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory.