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)

AFI #8: Schindler’s List

SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) OLIWIA DABROWSKA STEVEN SPIELBERG (DIR) 025 MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTDI’m not going to attempt to provide a review of Schindler’s List because frankly it’d be a waste of time. It is clearly one of the greatest films ever made and to offer my semi-professional opinion on it as a film would be unfair to Mr. Spielberg. Suffice it to say Schindler’s List is brilliant. As are the performances by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley.

Instead, what I’d like to offer is my opinion on the purpose of film in general. Because let’s be honest, Schindler’s List is not entertaining and I have argued on this blog before that the main purpose of movies is to entertain. When I saw Schindler’s List I walked out of the theater looking like I’d been run over by a train. I was emotionally drained and disturbed. I swore to myself I would never see it again, despite believing that the film was so important that everyone in the world had a responsibility to see it. I didn’t want to see it again because as someone who grew up in the Jewish community I had had my fill of Holocaust education. I knew everything I needed to know about these tragic events and, well, “never again.” Of course, Schindler’s List added the previously unknown story of Oskar Schindler and the Schindler Jews, but once I knew that story I didn’t want to be reminded again about the Nazis. But I have been pretty true to watching these AFI films again, and in order, so I carved out three hours recently and watched it again.

So is the purpose of film to entertain? As I said above, I have used “lack of entertainment” as an excuse for why I haven’t enjoyed some of the films on the AFI list. But in the past couple of days I have seen several films that reminded me that film is art and art can also be educational. In some cases, art can even be revolutionary. In that context, Schindler’s List is as important a film as has ever been made. If art can cause a sea change in ideas and understanding, then that too is a worthwhile purpose. Entertainment is important, but so is providing understanding and empathy and knowledge and context of history. So for that reason I can say Schindler’s List is one of the most important films ever made and if being important is a measure of art then Schindler’s List is also a great film — even though it is not “entertaining” in the popular sense.

Ultimately I go to films to be entertained, but as a lifelong learner I also go to films to be educated. Documentary films do this, but so does drama (fiction or based on true events). For example, just because Dances With Wolves is fiction does not mean it does not effectively educate viewers on the events surrounding the extinction of Native Americans. And of course, any drama is “based on” true events. Filmmakers take literary license and that’s ok. Even documentary filmmakers take license and spin stories to their narrative.

I also watch films to be moved. I was thinking about this very thing the other day when I was coming out of a screening of Kill Your Darlings, which was based on true events. I loved the film, and I loved it because it was a tremendous story and I love a good story. I always say I like to be entertained, but what I really mean is that I love to be taken on a journey. It’s why I love to read fiction and why I love movies and even story-driven television shows. And it’s why I have spent close to two years now watching every damn film on the AFI top 100 list!

Next: Lawrence of Arabia

AFI #24: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

etWhen it comes to sappy science fiction Steven Spielberg opened and closed the book in 1982 with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the story of a California family that takes in a friendly alien who was accidentally left behind by his space travelling partners from some unknown planet. Released just three years after Sigourney Weaver battled a terrifying space monster in Ridley Scott’s Alien, E.T. is the Casper the Friendly Ghost of science fiction. I was 16 year’s old when E.T. came out and I remember thinking it was sappy back then and watching it again this weekend did nothing to change my mind. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a cute film and that darn E.T. was so adorable (E.T. phone home!), but in terms of the best films in American history I can’t agree with the AFI here.

The film is ridiculously cliche and you know what’s going to happen all along. I’m not going to tear it apart — it is indeed iconic, but you know what I’m getting at. To say it’s predictable is an understatement. So how about some nice moments for posterity? The scene where E.T. hides in the closet among Elliott’s stuffed animals so the mom won’t see him is terrific. As is the scene where E.T. gets drunk on Coors and topples over in the family’s kitchen. And then there’s the adorable scene where young Gertie (Drew Barrymore) dresses E.T. up as a woman. And of course who could forget the scene where Elliott flies off into the moonlight with E.T. in a basket on his handlebars. Yes, iconic moments all.

I’m not sure what Spielberg was going for here. His Close Encounters five years earlier was a much better alien movie, but perhaps he did E.T. simply so the kids who were too young to see Close Encounters could have an alien movie they could call their own. I will give it this though — the John Williams score is amazing and one of the best of his career — and it did indeed win the Oscar. Thank god the film didn’t, though it was indeed nominated for Best Picture for some odd reason (I think Gandhi might have rolled over in his grave had he lost the Oscar to this glorified after school special).

Next Up: The Grapes of Wrath

AFI #56: Jaws

It’s pretty hard to take Jaws seriously after seeing “Bruce the Shark” at Universal Studios so many times, and nearly 40 years later Bruce does seem rather ridiculous in the film. I mean, the shark essentially hunts down the Orca and crew as if it has a personal vendetta against them, and the scenes in which the shark attempts to crash through the walls of the boat to get Chief Brody are so unrealistic it’s flat out laughable. Captain Quint is a caricature of a salty sailor and all the blood bubbling up to the ocean surface after an attack is ludicrous. The fact that the town elders wouldn’t shut the beach even after three attacks is unbelievable. The shark blowing up at the end is silly. Frankly it’s a dumb film. But I love it!

Jaws may not hold up as a horror flick after all these years, but it is fun as hell to watch. Plus there’s the golden line that turned into what the kids today call a meme — we’re gonna need a bigger boat! When the film came out in 1975 I was 9 years old and since it’s rated PG and it was such a summer smash of course my parents took me to see it. I’m 45 years old now and I still fear the ocean (thanks Spielberg). Seriously, whenever I’m in the ocean I think about sharks, even for just a brief moment. You gotta give the film credit for at least that. Plus, the music is as memorable as any score.

Jaws came out during the heyday of the big disaster film including The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, but while those films were over the top Jaws at least had some character development. In fact, what does hold up about Jaws is the great acting by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and especially Richard Dreyfuss. All you need for proof that Dreyfuss’s Matt Hooper was a compelling character is to know that it was spoofed by Saturday Night Live (the ultimate compliment). Dreyfuss was never better than during the mid-70s. He stole American Graffiti and then followed that with the very underrated The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, then hit with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goodbye Girl for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Quite a run by any measure.

Unfortunately, the follow ups to Jaws were lousy attempts at cashing in on the first film. Jaws 2, Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge all flamed out. I mean how many killer sharks can there be? I do question whether or not Jaws should be included in the AFI Top 100. It may not have been good film making, but it certainly had a profound effect on society in terms of striking fear in anyone who went swimming in the ocean for years to come. If you believe “impact” has a place in the “best of” ratings than I suppose Jaws belongs.

Next: North by Northwest

AFI #71: Saving Private Ryan

I remember not liking Saving Private Ryan when it came out in 1998 and after watching it again today I remember why I didn’t like it — it’s depressing as hell. To me the plot sort of seems like it’s violence for violence’s sake. And it’s really graphic violence. What was the point of losing nearly an entire platoon to save the life of one guy? I get that Private Ryan lost three brothers, but since when is one life worth more than another?

Don’t get me wrong, I like a good war movie. I can think of several off the top of my head that were way better than Saving Private Ryan, including The Deer Hunter, Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker just to name a few. This film just doesn’t do it for me. I like so many of the actors in the film, from Tom Hanks to Adam Goldberg to Giovanni Ribisi…but (Spoiler Alert) they all fucking die. Are they heroes, or was this just a fool’s mission?

I will say this much — the first 30 minutes are intense as hell and some of the best war action ever filmed. I don’t know if it was realistic since I didn’t hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, but it sure felt real. And if it really was like that, holy crap! Spielberg probably earned his Best Director Oscar in those first 30 minutes alone. Talk about blood and guts. This film is not for the feint of heart.

Next Up: A Clockwork Orange