War Horse (2011)

Film #21: War Horse (2011)

For the past half-decade, Steven Spielberg has been much busier producing films than directing them. Since 2005’s Munich, the only film he directed before 2011 was the regrettable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008. Perhaps to make up for that dearth of direction, last year saw the release of two Spielberg-directed films: The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. While the former was released to much acclaim – even taking home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature – the latter had more of Spielberg’s ‘epic blockbuster’ feel to it. War Horse received plenty of accolades itself, nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, but its sentimental tale set during World War I didn’t quite win over everyone. After watching it myself, I’m not surprised.


Avatar (2009)

Avatar is the newest James Cameron film, and the first of his since the Oscar-sweeping Titanic in 1997. It’s shot in 3D, and advertisements are claiming that Avatar is a new benchmark for filmmaking, impressively innovative in visual effects. While the first claim may not be met, Avatar definitely succeeds on the second. This film is quite possibly the best-looking movie I’ve ever seen, and easily the best 3D film of all time.

Avatar takes place in the 22nd Century, in a time when humans have apparently destroyed their own planet and are now colonizing Pandora, home to the sentient and humanoid Na’vi. The film follows Sam Worthington as a Marine whose twin was a military scientist before being killed. Worthington becomes an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation when he’s called on to fulfill his brother’s duties. Except I guess he’s not that ordinary, since he’s a wheelchair-bound Marine. But you get the idea.

I’ll start off by saying that the story and Worthington’s performance are what keep Avatar from truly becoming a new benchmark for all of filmmaking. The plot is exceedingly simple and straightforward. I actually enjoyed most of its straight-forwardness, but it’s nothing new, and the predictability can sometimes take away from the story. Worthington goes undercover and learns the Na’vi’s ways in a plan to exploit their weaknesses. You can guess immediately that a.) he’s going to fall in love with the girl who takes him around, causing him to lose his loyalty to the military program, and b.) there’s going to be a point where he reveals his longstanding deception, the girl turns away from him in disgust, and he has to win back her and the peoples’ trust to save them before destruction comes. Both of these things happen, and you can see them from a mile away. But I’ve gotta be honest, I didn’t care. I didn’t see this movie to see the next Citizen Kane. I saw it to see the next Star Wars.

And from a technological showcase standpoint, it clearly succeeds. The film’s creation of Pandora has to be unmatched in cinematic setting depth. Every inch of the map is carefully constructed, and it shows that time and creativity went into all of it. There are a number of wild species on the planet – every single one is distinct and interesting, and makes you want to see more. Even the plant life is so captivating that you wish the characters could just frolic and explore the jungle around them, so you could see what else the developers of this universe came up with.

It all looks and sounds amazing, and the 3D effects are really put to their best use in Avatar. I’ve seen many of the new films coming out in 3D, and this is hands down the best one. I believe that this is the first film to bring a respectable non-animated film to the realm of 3D – before this, we had things like The Final Destination and other cheap gimmicky fare. Avatar takes this technology and blends it into its cinematography as well as widescreen or depth of focus has been adapted in the past. There are few outstanding uses of it that purposefully jump out at you, but it’d be boring without at least a couple of indulgences in the new technology. Most of the time,  it is used maturely and artistically, creating a very immersive and enchanting depth and feel to the film.

The film also operates on a number of other levels. It blends psychology (the biologically-based scientific psychology, not the archaic Freudian psychobabble) and spirituality to give the Na’vi a faith rooted in the world around them forming a biological network with neuron- and synapse-like connections. That’s very cool, and very appreciated in an industry where psychology is usually abused and misused.

The story also touches lightly on some philosophical issues dealing with identity. When you really think about it, operating another body as your own opens a whole case of questions and considerations, some of which have been discussed by great thinkers in the past. Avatar definitely doesn’t become some Godardian experience, but the fact that it brings some questions up at all is another welcome intellectual addition to what is undeniably a blockbuster film.

The film also has a political slant to it, which ends up getting a bit overbearing by the end. People who have problems with “tree hugging liberals” may very well leave upset with the film’s message and its almost laughably stereotypical antagonist (he’s like George W. Bush on steroids). To be fair, however, the film’s story does bring in political considerations almost inherently, and considering the perspective of the film, its alignment is practically predetermined.

Overall, I recommend everyone see this film. See it to see that 3D isn’t the same stuff from the 50s or 80s, and that it’s matured into a respectable and entertaining technology. See it because everyone else is and you don’t want to be left out of good water cooler conversation. See it because even at its near-3 hour length, you really and truly don’t have anything better to do. I promise you that if you have even an ounce of childlike curiosity or appreciation for aesthetics, you will be entertained. If not, then movies probably aren’t really your thing anyway.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

After my love affair with Lawrence of Arabia, I decided to check out an earlier Lean / Spiegel movie, and I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai. I had first heard about this movie when I was young and listened to “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, so I expected the movie to fulfill such a mighty start as a construct in my mind. It did.

Bridge on the River Kwai now stands 52 years old, and unlike Lawrence, there are a few moments where its gray hairs show. Whether it’s Sessue Hayakawa slapping Alex Guiness in the face or the over-dramatic musical cues that sometimes start just a tad too early, there are aspects of this movie that will disappoint movie-goers who fear “the classics”. But those people tend to be close-minded anyway, so if you’re expecting a good movie, don’t let those occasions get in the way, and you will be satisfied.

The satisfaction comes with the breadth of the film. Sure it only covers a few months in time, but the movie is an excellent exploration of characters and issues whose relevancy have not expired. The A-one cast helps the film, as well.

The film stars William Holden, who does a good job as an American everyman soldier. Still, the films second star, Alec Guiness, steals the show from him with ease. Guiness is amazing as the stubborn “lawful good” British officer whose principals stand stronger than his need for food. The character is a complex one that has to represent and challenge a lot of ideologies, and Guiness never stumbles once as he plays the character with acting expertise. It’s safe to say that I am a Guiness fanboy after watching him in Lawrence of Arabia and this film. Yes, being Obi-Wan helps drastically as well.

The other actors, including Hayakawa playing a Japanese officer who clashes with Guiness, and Jack Hawkins as an eager and wide-eyed British officer, never disappoint either. It’s great to have a movie with so many interesting characters acted out in the finest manner possible, and if that’s not enough to make up for outdated gunshot make-up, then you’re not looking for the right things in films.

The story takes its time as it raises and then sits on various issues, and throughout the two and a half hours there are a few slow drudges that might bore those with limited attention spans. The ending of the film (WHICH I AM ABOUT TO SPOIL, SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU WANT TO) makes its contemplative pace entirely worth it. I’m actually impressed that a film of this age could have such a climactic and exciting ending, as well as one that does what I least expected it to do, and kill off almost its entire all-star cast. But it does it quickly and without regret, and because of its boldness it is effective, and captures you. The ending definitely sticks with you after the film has finished, and that’s only one of the ways you know that The Bridge on the River Kwai is truly a classic.

This film will not disappoint anyone looking for a contemplative and deep story that pays off in the form of amazing acting talent and a fantastic ending. Though specific moments may be dated, the movie as a whole is timeless.

Final rating: 9/10

–James A. Janisse

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I finally saw Lawrence of Arabia, and I feel like I’ve reached a new point in my movie-watching career. This is often referred to as the epic of all epics, and there’s no hyperbole to that claim. Lawrence of Arabia truly is one of the greatest movies ever made.