War Horse and Real Steel: Steve’s Surprising Recommendation

This weekend I watched two movies with connections to Steven Spielberg. The first was the Spielberg-directed War Horse, which was nominated for Best Picture, along with five other Oscar nominations. The second was Real Steel, a movie about boxing robots, for which Spielberg was an executive producer. It did receive one Oscar nomination for Visual Effects. I’m not a huge Spielberg fan. I have liked, but not loved, most of his movies. My favorites all date from the early 80’s (Raiders, E.T., The Color Purple). The last one that I really liked was Minority Report from a decade ago. I rented War Horse because I’m somewhat obsessive about seeing all the movies that are nominated for Best Picture. I was not expecting to be blown away by War Horse, but given its pedigree I figured I would at least enjoy it, and that is just how it turned out. Good movie, but not great. Deserving of its Best Picture nom? I can think of about twenty films that were more deserving, but War Horse has enough going for it to give it a fairly strong recommendation. My son requested that we rent Real Steel. The trailer made it look fairly entertaining, but, if I wasn’t expecting much from War Horse, I was expecting even less from Real Steel. I just hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be a waste of two hours. It most certainly wasn’t a waste of time. I am quite surprised to report that I enjoyed Real Steel much more than War Horse!

The key word there is “enjoyed.” One could argue that War Horse is a “better” movie in many respects (and I would grant many of those arguments), but I found Real Steel to be more enjoyable, more fun, and more moving. I shed a few tears during War Horse, but there were more tears flowing more often during Real Steel. I guess I’m more of a sucker for father/son movies than I am for horse movies, but, apart from my emotional response, I think that does get at the heart of why Real Steel is a more effective movie than War Horse. Both movies are shamelessly tearjerkers. Both are manipulative, but aren’t all movies manipulative in some way? Isn’t that the point of making a movie? Both are hopelessly cliched much of the time. Both depend on ridiculous plot-points. Both lead to inevitable endings (although there is a bit of a surprise in Real Steel’s conclusion.) Most importantly, both struggle with the fact that the title “character” is non-human, but the important difference is that Real Steel isn’t actually about the robot, it is about a father/son relationship, whereas War Horse really is about the horse. Alright, you could claim that it is about the relationship between the farm-boy Albert and his horse Joey, but that doesn’t change the fact that half of that relationship is animal rather than human. I know some folks really love their animals, but they are still animals and that limits the emotional impact of a movie. Besides, Albert and Joey are separated for over half the movie and the story follows Joey to war, which, for me, deadened the movie’s emotional impact. The story became so episodic that I felt disconnected from it. (It also seemed over-long at two and a half hours.)

In our blog description, we say that the most important element of a movie is its ability to tell a story and to create relationships that we care about. This is where Real Steel beats out War Horse. Sure, War Horse is a good looking movie, but its story-telling is weak. I didn’t really care if Albert and Joey got back together, although I knew they would. (That is not a spoiler, that is the inevitable ending I mentioned earlier.) On the other hand, I did care about Charlie and Max, the father and son, in Real Steel. Their story drew me in. Sure, it’s a story that’s been told many times before, the errant father who eventually sees the errors of his ways, but it is a storyline that still works for me and at least it gives a sense of hope, which our world desperately needs. That, in a nutshell, is why I rank Real Steel higher than War Horse.

In closing, I’ll offer a few particulars about each movie. As I’ve said, War Horse is a good looking movie. The cinematography is often beautiful. The war scenes are generally effectively filmed. Fortunately, Spielberg avoids an overuse of back-lighting. Overall, it felt like an old fashioned, Disney animal movie. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily a good thing either. Overall, the acting was good, but there was precious little in the way of great performances. Unfortunately, Jeremy Irvine was in the good, not great category, as Albert, which may not have been enough in such a key role. I did especially enjoy Emily Watson as Albert’s mother and Niels Arestrup as French grandfather. Given the episodic nature of the story, most of the other actors had little to work with. One annoying aspect of the movie was the Germans and French who spoke in English with their national accents. I’m not sure that having them speak in German and French with subtitles would have resolved the issue given the attempt to make this a family film. In that regard, the violence of the war scenes is kept to a minimum, but is still probably too much for younger children. Finally, yes, the horses look good. Horses are, after all, magnificent creatures. Most everyone in the movie, except for a few cold-hearted military officers, recognize how grand Joey is. Spielberg and his team do all they can to give Joey a strong sense of personality. They are fairly successful, but Joey is not Mr. Ed. I will mention, on behalf of my co-blogger Bill, who loves savior motifs in movies, that there is one scene where Joey “volunteers” himself in the place of another horse. I am sure that this scene makes some folks misty-eyed. It made me chuckle.

Although, I’ve said that it is in the story that Real Steel beats out War Horse, I would argue that it is also a good looking movie in its own way. The cinematography may not be as grand, but it works well. The opening sequence where Charlie drives up to a fair with the camera catching the reflection of the carnival lights in the windshield of his truck is as effective as anything in War Horse. The various underground arenas where the robots fight are well designed, each with a unique feel. The fight scenes themselves really aren’t all that special. How much can we be expected to care about robots beating on each other? But, the movie isn’t really about the robots anyway. I greatly enjoyed Hugh Jackman as Charlie. I join my son in saying that we are looking forward to seeing him in Les Miz later this year. Dakota Goyo brought great enthusiasm to the role of Max. Many of the other roles were cliched, but the performances still served the story well. In addition to the father/son storyline that I greatly enjoyed, the movie also offers the classic sports underdog motif. This movie is a surprise winner!

Advertisements

Steve’s Summer Movie Wrap-up

Summer is over, at least unofficially, and so ends a rather uninspiring season at the theater. Earlier in the summer, my blog partner, Bill, wrote a column called “Bill’s Summer Movies…So far…” I was tempted to entitle this column “Summer Movies…So What!” There are a couple of keepers in the bunch, but overall I was unimpressed, which, explains at least in part why I’m just now getting around to writing about them. I’ll cover them in the order that they landed on my rankings, which I posted earlier. I’m including a couple of Spring releases that I haven’t blogged on yet, one that I saw then and one that I didn’t see until it was released on DVD.

Here we go…

Super 8 – I am not a huge Spielberg fan, but this Spielberg-produced movie, which is in so many ways an homage to his work, caught my fancy, so much so that it currently stands at No. 3 in my 2011 rankings. In addition to being an homage to Spielberg, this film is also an homage to childhood, the ’70’s, monster/sci-fi movies, and film-making itself. It is said that J.J. Abrams fell in love with movies at an early age and borrowed his father’s Super 8 camera to make his own movies. For the most part he does a good job here capturing the delight of kids stretching their artistic wings. Without a doubt, the movie is at its best when it focuses on the kids. While the acting of the adults in the film often seemed clichéd and perfunctory, I was impressed by the youthful actors, especially Elle Fanning. It is worth seeing the film just for her performance. The guys convince her character, Alice, to join them in making a zombie move. Alice is nervous because she’s never done any acting. This sets up a scene that Elle totally nails. Alice and one of the boys rehearse some dialogue and Alice’s performance is so powerful that the guys’ jaws drop, as did mine. She then follows that up with a self-effacing, “Was that o.k.?” Elle pulls off the difficult trick of seeming quite natural in her role as Alice, while at the same time kicking it up a notch when Alice is “acting” in the boys’ film. One of the boys (I forget which one) pulls off the opposite feat, seeming natural in his role, but then being quite wooden when his character is “acting.” Not as impressive as Elle, but quite good nonetheless. As good as the kids were, this movie falls far short of classic status. As already mentioned, the adults don’t come across well. The more the plot involves them, the sillier it becomes. The revelation that the military mistreated the alien is a bit obvious in its stab at our societies difficulty with outsiders (for more on that issue, see The X-Men). Which brings us to the problem of the alien itself. After all the alien movies these past few years, it is hard to present an alien that is very shocking (see Cowboys & Aliens). In this case, I wasn’t sure how we were supposed to feel about the interplanetary visitor. Were we to have empathy because he was abused? Did that really excuse the fact that he was quite nasty? And why was he capturing people, to eat them? Much of the plot dealing with the alien didn’t make much sense. I think they shouldn’t have even shown the alien, just left it a mystery, and kept more of the focus on the kids. Be that as it may, this was still the best movie that I had the opportunity to see this summer.

Source Code – I somehow missed this when it was in the theaters, but I saw it this summer on DVD. This is quite the concoction: a sci-fi/mystery/action/thriller/love story. As rare as that complicated combination of elements may seem at first glance, this movie actually finds itself in company with this year’s Adjustment Bureau and last year’s Inception. Of those, I like Adjustment Bureau the most. While Inception is a dazzling achievement, I think that Source Code is a whole lot more fun and, as such, provides a better viewing experience. Yes, the premise is a bit ridiculous, the ability to send someone into the last eight minutes of another person’s memories to try to solve a crime and prevent another terrorist attack. The movie struggles to maintain its own twisted logic, but that really doesn’t matter. Despite all the other adjectives, at heart this is a love story (as were Bureau and Inception) and in its own strange way it worked for me. This has been called a sci-fi Groundhog Day and that comparison is certainly appropriate. While this film lacks the whimsy of Groundhog Day, it does find some clever ways to work with the tricky scenario of repeating the same eight minutes over and over again. Though he is no Bill Murray, I was surprised by the effectiveness of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance here. While hardly Oscar-worthy, he does a nice job of moving from confused to reckless to in control of the situation. Most importantly, since this is a love story, he presents his character in such a way that you can feel him falling in love and understand why Michelle Monaghan’s character would fall for him. There were huge holes in the plot, but I really enjoyed watching this and isn’t that really the bottom line when it comes to movies.

Cowboys & Aliens – Yep, this movie was a mess. I had high hopes for it, which certainly were not met, but I still enjoyed this more than most people seemed to. As with Super 8, one of the big problems was the aliens. When they appeared, it felt too much like been there, seen that. The one big change was that the aliens’ chests opened to reveal a set of arms. Really? And the aliens were here to look for gold. Really? Well, I guess everyone was searching for gold in the Old West! And the aliens captured people to study our weaknesses. Really? Shoot us and we die. How much studying does that require? To transition to the Cowboys in the title, there was also a problem with how the humans reacted to the aliens. Sure, they saw them as a dangerous foe, but they still seemed to take the appearance of the aliens too much in stride. These were aliens, in spaceships shooting laser beams, in 1873! Despite all those shortcomings, the human side of the story still drew me in. Sure it was filled with clichés, but I thought they were kind of fun in this context. Harrison Ford has indicated that he simply mailed his performance in, but I liked him as the grumpy cattle baron. Paul Dano was a hoot as his son. He sure knows how to play an obnoxious jerk. Unfortunately, after the aliens nabbed him, we didn’t see much more of him. It was Daniel Craig, though, who saved the movie for me. I loved his stoic looks as he tried to figure out who the heck he was and why he had this metal thing on his arm. Because I so enjoyed him here, I finally got around to watching Casino Royale last night. I now look forward to seeing more of his work. There is definitely something about those eyes! Finally, this movie had some of the clearest spiritual themes of the big summer movies. The name of the town was Absolution! Maybe some of it was a bit over the top, but the idea that God is not concerned with what we did, but with what we do, is an interesting notion to ponder.

X-Men: First Class – This movie was most definitely not on my must-see list for the summer. As I mentioned in my review of Thor, I’ve grown a bit tired of superhero movies. Also, as superhero movies go, I could hardly be called a big fan of the X-Men series. I’m pretty sure I saw the first one on tv at some point, but that’s about it. Even though this one had received fairly good reviews, I was quite satisfied to let it leave town without seeing it, just like Pirates 4 before it. But my son convinced me to go to this and I’m glad he did. This movie restored my faith in superhero movies, at least for the time being. I found the story and characters to be more engaging than in most superhero movies. The notion of human mutation makes enough sense, but my one complaint in regard to the X-Men is that the particular mutations that they present strike me as ludicrous. That being said, and whereas all superheros are misfits in their own way, the X-Men series seems to tackle the issue of prejudice against outsiders in a deeper way. There certainly seem to be undertones of the gay/lesbian experience here. For instance, when the Beast reveals something about himself the others didn’t know, someone says, “You never told us.” The Beast responds, “You never asked.” Hmm, don’t ask, don’t tell? Overall, the performances were solid. Jennifer Lawrence, who was so spectacular in Winter’s Bone, could have been put to better use here, but that’s the problem with large ensemble casts. (I don’t know how they are going to give everyone enough screen time in The Avengers!) My only real complaint was Kevin Bacon. I usually like him, and I thought he was good here in his opening scene, but after that his performance reminded me too much of his role as Chip Diller in Animal House!

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – I’ve mentioned plot holes and ridiculous notions in many of these reviews, but in this movie stupidity rose to its highest level for the summer. I thought the script was atrocious. Of course, James Franco did warn us. He said the intelligent stuff was cut to focus more on the apes. Given his acting here, that was an intelligent move. He was definitely out-acted by a bunch of CGI simians! (Overall, the CGI stuff was pretty impressive.) Seeing Franco in this reaffirmed for me how great a director Danny Boyle is. How did he coax such a fine performance out of Franco in 127 Hours? But, again, when all is said and done, this movie, despite being incredibly stupid, was actually quite fun to watch. So what if I laughed for all the wrong reasons, at least I laughed (which is more than I can say for the next movie in this list).

Harry Potter 7.2 – Let me start by clearly stating that I am not a big fan of the Harry Potter movies. If I’m going to watch a movie featuring a Potter, I’ll take It’s a Wonderful Life any day. I would probably say that this was the best of the eight films, but that is faint praise. At least I stayed awake through all of this one. I can’t quite put my finger on why this series never cast a spell on me. It seems like something I should really like. Part of the problem stems from the early films where it felt like no one was quite concerned enough about Valdemort. Here was this great force of evil and everyone seemed to go on with life as if nothing was particularly wrong. Finally, in these last two installments they seemed to take the threat seriously, but by then they had already lost me. Whatever.

Captain America – Along with Thor, Captain America was my favorite superhero in my younger years. Now, in the same year they both make their way to the big screen and, unfortunately, I found both movies to be deeply disappointing. Roger Ebert gave Captain America fairly high marks because he thought it had a better story than most superhero movies. I disagree. I give best superhero screenplay of the summer to X-Men without a question. I thought the story here was hackneyed. Weakling becomes hero…whoop-di-do. Guy and gal fight at first, then fall in love. Sure didn’t see that coming. Frankly, I was bored. This movie added to its sins by wasting the talents of Hugo Weaving. Then there was the look of the film, which I really didn’t like. I assume they chose the muted colors to give it a retro feel since it was set in the 1940s. At times it looked almost black and white, a problem that was exacerbated by those darn 3D glasses which make everything appear darker. Dull story, dull colors, nuff said.

The Music Never Stopped – I actually saw this one in an art house theater when I was in St. Louis in April. I should have gone to Win Win  or Certified Copy. I wanted to love this movie. I didn’t. I should have cried a bucket of tears. I didn’t even weep. Although this had received mixed reviews, I thought it would be perfect for me. A movie about a father/son relationship and the power of music to connect us to our memories and bring healing, starring J.K. Simmons, how could it miss? It did. Lou Taylor Pucci, as the son, was bland. I didn’t like Simmons as the rock and roll hating father early in the film. I guess you weren’t supposed to like him. But then, his shift to caring, compassionate father was too quick, too easy. There were a few good scenes, especially the one where Gabriel, the son, first hears the Beatles and shows a spark of recognition and life, but they were few and far between. Most of it felt forced and phoney, including the climatic trip to the Grateful Dead concert. If you love music or the Grateful Dead in particular, you should still probably see this. Or maybe you shouldn’t.

Captain America Added to Steve’s 2011 Rankings

I added Captain America to my 2011 rankings. Check my 2011 page to see how it did. Spoiler: it didn’t do well. If this is our Captain, America is in trouble!

How to Train Your Dragon: a Recommendation from Steve

This is going to seem like a tepid recommendation, but it is more than that.  I avoided this movie when it was in theaters for a number of reasons.  I’m not a big fan of dragons and obviously this movie would have its fair share of the critters.  I thought that the scenes depicting riding dragons in flight would remind me too much of the banshee scenes in Avatar and I’m not a big fan of that movie, either.  The trailers didn’t generate much interest on my part.  It looked like the plot was one that I’ve seen many times before.  It turns out that all of those things are true, and yet I still give it a hearty recommendation.  It is not a “must see” as the DVD cover claims, but it is definitely worth your time.

I finally decided to see it because it was one of only three animated films nominated for an Oscar, so I figured it must have something going for it, and because my son wanted to see it.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Yes, the plot is filled with elements we’ve all seen many times before.  For starters, it is about a boy who doesn’t fit in.  In this case, the misfit is a young teen-aged boy with the strange name of Hiccup.  He is a Viking, in fact the chief’s son, but he is not big and burly like a Viking is supposed to be.  He is clever and creative, but these are not gifts that valued by his father or the other villagers in their relentless fight against the dragons.  Hiccup hopes that he can find a way to kill a dragon to prove his worth to the community, which leads to obvious plot point, number two.  Rather than killing a dragon, Hiccup ends up befriending one.  In so doing, he discovers that dragons are not an evil enemy (despite the fact that they still the village’s food and burn down numerous buildings), but rather that they are misunderstood just like he is.  For obvious plot point three, add a girl to the mix, a girl Hiccup really likes, but who thinks that he is a loser.  Can you guess how that will turn out?  Of course, you can!

Why do writers keep using these same themes?  Because they work!  And this movie worked for me.  I know there are many of us who understand what it feels like to be a misfit.  This movie provides another opportunity for parents to talk with their kids about how all of God’s children (and other critters, too) are unique gifts to the world.  In addition, you can discuss the joy we feel when enemies become friends and when the guy and girl end up together.  Yep, it was an obvious happy ending and I had tears rolling down my cheeks!  In my movie world that is reason enough for a recommendation.