★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Starring Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson
As a film guy, I end up in a lot of discussions about movies. One which comes up often are from people who don’t “get” old movies. The reasons vary from the often valid “too theatrical” to the idiotic “I don’t care for black and white.” There’s something to be said for old-school. As award season is upon us, I can’t help but make the observation that the three best American films of the year were directed by Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Which is amazing considering they’re practically septuagenarians.
“War Horse” is an absolutely fabulous movie. The kind of epic, grand, pretentious-free story for which cinema was created. Steven Spielberg is a master of this kind of film, and I imagine very few filmmakers could make a movie this good from a story so schmaltzy. On paper, these kind of movies have the potential to devolve into cringe-inducing pap. The entire movie is about a boy and his horse—and, for a large portion of the movie, it’s just about the horse.
The story starts in the beautiful English countryside where a young lad named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) works on a farm and strikes up a friendship with a work horse named Joey. He’s an impressive animal, full of energy and spirit. Albert’s life is far from ideal. His father is a drunk, and their farm is in danger of being foreclosed on by the world’s cruelest banker, played by the great David Thewlis. I often use the metaphor of “the moustache-twirling villain”; this performance could very well be the definition. He’s not tying young ladies to train tracks, but he does participate in some of the most ridiculously cruel passive-aggressive behavior in cinematic history.
Early on, there’s a scene where Albert and his horse try to plow a patch of land without much success. His horse isn’t built for this kind of work, but Albert is the kind of infinitely hopeful character who believes he and his horse can do anything if they set their minds to it. While working, the entire town gathers at the fence to watch them, including the cruel land baron. He yells out barbs and words of discouragement as Albert tries to work the land.
Now let’s stop for a second. I realize life in olden times was slow and there wasn’t much to do, but I still can’t fathom a day and age so boring that everyone in town gathers to watch a kid try and plow a patch of land. Seriously? Spielberg’s pushing the limits of credibility. On top of that, there is a guy yelling “you suck” from a fence. I’ve never seen anyone heckle a farmer before. The very act of farming seems to be something that would generally not require A) an audience or B) a heckler.
The first 30 minutes are filled with this kind of folksy character-building. I’ll admit: I was a few minutes away from mentally checking out. Thankfully, war happens—World War One to be exact. Albert’s father sells his horse to pay some debts. The new owner is a fine young British cavalry captain (Tom Hiddleston). His first charge goes poorly and the horse ends up in the hands of the Germans. From there things get dicey. The Germans send the horse to Berlin where he’s held captive and tortured for military secrets, but the horse is strong and won’t talk. The Germans are convinced the horse knows the details of the next allied advance. They prepare to execute the horse, but they hadn’t counted on one thing: This horse knows Kung Fu.
OK—busted. None of that actually happened. But wouldn’t it have been awesome?
Really, the horse is taken to the German side of the war to help tow artillery. From there he goes through a handful of owners, including a young German soldier, a French girl at a vineyard and a German horse wrangler. Along the way the horse makes friends and narrowly escapes a number of potentially dangerous situations.
Seeing the war from a horse’s point of view is interesting. I would never have thought a story like this to be engaging. Without so much as a word, we end up rooting for this poor animal as he tries to make his way back to Albert through the cruelest of circumstances.
There’s some nice juxtaposition between the innocence of these animals and the tragedy of a war into which they’re dragged. It does a better job of decrying the horrors of war than 99 percent of the military movies before it. There’s a single scene near the film’s end where a German and a British soldier take to the empty battlefield to try and free the barb-wire tangled horse. It does a better job of pointing out the senselessness of war than the entire two hours of “Saving Private Ryan.”
This is easily the best Spielberg film in a decade. Maybe longer. I would put it up there with the best of his work. It’s beautifully filmed, perfectly acted and at times heartbreaking. “War Horse” moved me, which I was beginning to think was impossible.
If this past year has taught me anything, it’s that guys like Spielberg, Allen and Scorsese are still the best working directors nearly four decades later because they’re able to create universal stories, classically told. They do it with the kind of skill and finesse so desperately lacking from their peers. Go see this.
More shows to enjoy this week!
141 N. Front St.
1/26, Free, 9 p.m.
Local band Jam Sandwich, formed in 1998, will play an assortment of different styles, ranging from blues to Southern rock at their Tre Benzio’s show on the 26th. Frontman Jason Schroer sings and plays harmonica, exuding an old-timey, classic sounds. They give off a feel-good vibe with their upbeat, tambourine-accented songs. Stay after the show for a late-night snack or drink, as Tre Benzio’s is open until 2:30 a.m. daily.
Great Zeus’ Beard
Soapbox Laundro Lounge
255 N. Front St.
1/28, Free or $5 for under 21, 10 p.m.
Local indie/alternative band Great Zeus’ Beard (an appropriate nod to encore’s favorite comedy, “Anchorman”) will be performing at the Soapbox on the 28th. The band, formed in 2008, released its self-titled EP in early 2009 and “Symposium” (pictured) in 2011. The band members take risks musically, break barriers and incorporate funky, almost alien-like sounds and heavy bass notes into their fast, electric beats.