Movie review: “War Horse” the tear-jerker

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Shot from War Horse

It pulls your heart strings right out of your chest.  Steven Spielberg, you stinking genius!  How do you do it, time and time again?

You start with a grown-up, flawed but wise.  Then you add a young person, precocious and special.  Mix in a creature, wild and untamed, that has a connection to the youth.  Then fold in tragic external events which complicate the bond between the youth and the enchanting animal.  Add dashes of evil, goodness, comedy, and syrup.  Bake for two hours and enjoy!  Or just cry your eyes out.

No, it’s not “E.T.,” “Gremlins” or “Jurassic Park,” but “War Horse” (2011).  Yes, I’m way overdue in watching it, but since it is set during World War I, it’s not a time-sensitive movie that requires immediate viewing.

That being said, there has been a great surge in interest in military working dogs since the inception of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  To me this movie felt like a natural extension of the newly rediscovered affection for animals in military service, but with horses instead of dogs.

The movie also gave Spielberg, and the rest of us, a chance to look back at the Great War.  Unlike World War II, which is the setting for many of Spielberg’s films, World War I is less morally clear, with good people on both sides of the conflict.  The English, French, and Germans are all presented sympathetically in “War Horse,” with horse-friendly humans among the armies of the Allies and the Central Powers.

The plot is not quite as predictable as I laid out in the Spielberg template above.  At the beginning, it seems that Joey, the leading horse, could become a racehorse (or maybe I had Black Stallion, Seabiscuit, and Secretariat on my mind).  Then it seems he’s destined to be a plow horse, then a cavalry horse, then fill other roles, but it’s rarely obvious where the war will lead Joey next.  Whether and how Joey will be reunited with Narracott, the boy who raised him, is key to the atmosphere of suspense and longing in the movie.

The landscapes of the English and French countrysides, including the Narracott cottage, are breathtaking.  The trenches and no man’s land of the battlefront are stark and horrifying.  The camera work and horse effects are real, even painful to watch at times, earning the movie its PG-13 rating.  It’s a beautiful film.

It is also maudlin and manipulative, sending stern Germans and stiff Englishmen into temporary truces for their mutual love of a beautiful, unfairly victimized horse.

Watch it, learn from it, and be prepared to discreetly wipe your eyes while you enjoy it.

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Movie review: “Piranha” fun even though it bites

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Woman straddling raft with toothy fish approaching

Keeping up with my shark-week themed reviews this summer, it’s time for a look back at “Piranha” (1978), if you dare…

The military-industrial complex hatches a plan to destroy the river systems of North Vietnam toward the end of the war.  The war ends, but the secret program lingers on to juice up piranhas and enable them to survive in fresh or salt water.  Sexy teens trespass into the old test site to go skinny dipping by moonlight.  After they’re eaten alive, an agent from a skip-tracing company (blonde and perky of course) is dispatched to find them.  Working together with an alcoholic single father mountain man, she pulls the plug on the pool to the horror of the man running the program, which drains and releases the piranhas into the river.

The duo dash downstream by raft, by stolen patrol car, and motorboat to warn the adults and save the children.  Of course, nobody believes them in time and a host of fisherman, swimmers, inter-tubers, and pleasure-boaters are turned into fish food.  It’s formulaic but fun.  The piranha backstory is clever as any creature feature.  The pace of the movie is pretty quick.

The good guys are actually well-developed characters.  The agent and the mountain man grow on each and the audience throughout the film.  They seem to be enjoying themselves along the way, which is kind of rare but refreshing for a movie like this.  We’re rooting for two to save his daughter.  Like “Orca” which came out a year earlier, the man is so focused on saving people that he ditches the bottle.

The supporting characters are one dimensional—a mean summer camp manager who refuses to listen to warning and jeopardizes campers in the process, a venal politician hell-bent on a big opening day for the water “arena” he helped develop, and a wicked witch of a scientist (brunette and dowdy of course) who consistently downplays the threat and treats people like dirt.

The movie seems to be low-budget because the piranha effects are crummy.  We never really see the fish, or when we do they look like flounder.  The sound effects, a high-pitched pulsing sound, are more annoying than scary.  Their impact on victims seems to vary in proportion to how good, bad, or inconsequential to the plot they are.  Some people end up nibbled and bloody, others get totally de-fleshed and a tub of ketchup explodes on the river’s surface in a matter of seconds.

No, it’s not as well-done or as good as “Jaws.”  It is corny but it is amusing.  There are some scenes like the skip-tracing agent ripping open her shirt to distract a guard that are worth a look and a chuckle.  Modern-day marketers brand it as a “cult classic” and it lives up to that designation.  Recommended.

Movie review: “In the Heart of the Sea”

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Movie poster for In the Heart of the Sea with Chris Hemsworth over a sperm whale's tail

Some people have called “In the Heart of the Sea” (2015) an unofficial “prequel” to Moby Dick.  That’s not the right word.  Prequel makes it sound like it’s a story ending where “Call me Ishmael” begins.  It’s actually a depiction of Herman Melville and the true-life story he researched while writing his great American novel.

I wish “In the Heart of the Sea” had been released 20 years ago before I read Moby Dick.  The book is dense and challenging.  Moby Dick went straight into the lives of the characters then shifted to life on Captain Ahab’s ship.  I don’t remember it stopping to explore the wider economic motivations behind whale hunting.

“In the Heart of the Sea” provides that background and context.   It presents Nantucket as a thriving point of embarkation for the “oil business” (whale oil).  Think of it as J.R. Ewing and the Texas oilmen in “Dallas” transported to Massachusetts in the 1800s.  The nautical ways of the Old World still prevail with the privileged sons of wealthy men can essentially purchase their commissions as officers.  The diffident and inexperienced Pollard is given command of a ship with Chase as first mate even though Chase is God’s gift to whaling.

That’s where we see our first signs of trouble.  Not just for the crew, but for viewers.  Chase is too perfect.  He demonstrates again and again on deck that his knowledge and seamanship is superior to Pollard’s.  He’s bigger and stronger than anybody else aboard.  Chris Hemsworth, who plays Chase, speaks in a husky, artificially deep voice which is often difficult to understand.  It’s like listening to somebody speak through a cheerleader’s bullhorn.  There is volume and strength but the words are indistinct.  Chase’s main failing is depicted as arrogance, which is easy to understand since he is better than everybody else.

However, another of his failings, which probably was unintentional on part of the moviemakers, is that Chase is totally serious and unfunny all of the time.  That entire movie is guilty of that, too.  There are very few laughs and rarely a light moment aboard the Essex.  The story is presented as the most serious thing that has happened to anybody.

The story itself is a good one, and we can see why Melville thought it would make for a great book.  Pollard and Chase are trying to kill as many sperm whales as possible so they can be done with each other and go back home.  Despite warnings they get at port in Chile about an aggressive sperm whale, they pursue the whale.  The giant beast already has an antipathy toward human ships.  The whale eludes capture and retaliates later.  The whale is smart and recognizes the crew wherever they go from that point forward.

Like every other shark, whale, or sea monster story, matters worsen for the Essex’s crew.  The number of humans dwindle on a long a painful voyage home.  Thirty years later, a cabin boy who survived the ordeal reluctantly recounts the tale to Herman Melville, enabling him to finish writing his classic.  The witness’s wife, in a rare moment of comedy, is the only character to agree to accept Melville’s payment for consenting to an interview.

Overall, the revenge story and the man-versus-nature conflict make for gripping drama.  The special effects of the swelling sea and whale are well-done.  The movie has a good pace and doesn’t waste time on irrelevant side stories.  The film illuminates the context of the important period of American history that formed the basis of Melville’s book.  I’d give the movie an 8 or 9 out of 10 for being so well-made, but I ding it a point or so down to a 7 for being self-important and stodgy.

“Rogue” scares and satisfies

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Rogue 2007

In the 2007 movie “Rogue,” Michael Vartan plays Pete McKell, a travel journalist who normally writes reviews of hotels, glamourous attractions, and restaurants.  Pete gets more than he bargained for when he joins a boatload of tourists on a ride upriver for a glimpse of saltwater crocodiles and other wonders in Australia’s rugged Northern Territory.

Kate Ryan, played by Radha Mitchell, runs the river tour company and skippers the flat-bottomed boat.  She is a tough, attractive, and sympathetic character who has never left the Northern Territory.  She and Pete develop a chemistry early on, and viewers can quickly predict how their relationship will develop.

Kate has to put up with a pair of human pests who harass her tour boat.  She must also contend with her own passengers who question her decision-making as the story progresses.  The tourists are a mixed lot of thrill seekers with their own strengths, weaknesses, and secrets—maybe just one aristocrat short of an Agatha Christie cast.

As viewers will guess, the boat quickly ends up in the territory of a particularly dangerous crocodile.  Ryan and her passengers have to attempt to fight their way back to safety.  This movie would appeal to fans of classic creature features like “Birds” and “Jaws.”  Unlike “Godzilla” or “Jurassic Park,” this is not a film about the hazards of scientific excess.  It’s about a big, old-fashioned natural predator and a series of missteps that leads a group of people deeper into trouble.  The fun and suspense is in seeing who gets offed and how any survivors escape.  The Australian vistas and realistic crocodile effects are also a treat.

The DVD can be bought on Amazon for $12.  Recommended with pizza and beer.