Tuesday, January 31, 2012

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011)

We're all familiar with the age-old adage that begins "If a tree falls...".  It sets up a paradox that two sides can argue about for days on end with no inevitable resolution.  In If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman document the story of a man's passion and the dilemma he was left with as a result of his pursuing it.  Our job, as viewers, is to heed all the information this 2012 Academy Award Documentary Feature Nominee offers, discuss and argue among each other and, as you may have guessed, only ever dream of reaching a solid conclusion.

If a Tree Falls focuses laregely on the story of now 36-year old Daniel McGowan.  McGowan, as we are introduced to him is a born and raised New Yorker, a college graduate, and a married man  He seems perfectly poised and well-spoken as he goes about and discusses his daily life in his Manhattan apartment.  Soon enough, however, we learn this is where all his life transpires.  McGowan is under house arrest after pleading guilty to a federal court on multiple counts of arson and conspiracy.  He was an active and key member of the US government-labeled domestic terrorist organization Earth Liberation Front (ELF) when these crimes were comitted.

To set the scene and familiarize viewers who might be completely ignorant to terms like "ecodefense" and "monkeywrenching" (myself included prior the screening), Curry and Cullman point the camera at activist filmmaker Tim Lewis. We are told the story of Warner Creek (located in the Willamette National Forest near Eugene, Oregon) when in 1995 after a timber sale, loggers met a loosely organized blockade of environtmental activists.  This rugged group made up of mostly hippyish youth was not ready to see what Lewis describes as "one of the most beautiful places [he's] ever been" chopped down.  The protest delayed loggers, a wooden barrier was even erected, but in the end the Nation Forest Service Law Enforcement cleared them out and the loggers were able to go about their business.  In hindsight, it would be this incident that laid the groundwork for future stands, though the methods and their intensity would surely evolve.

Daniel McGowan
Cue Jake Ferguson, an "outlaw" environemntal activist who as Lewis puts it "was tired of the talk".  In early 1997, Ferguson took part in the burning down of Oakridge Ranger Station which in turn lead to a rift in environmentalism protesters nationwide.  Ferguson had established a new order of extremists, separated from those who aligned with mainstream environmentalism by their willingness to resort to harsher means. Not long after in July of 1997, a row of trees were to be cleared to make room for a parking lot in the heart of Eugene.  Protesters rallied, and many climbed up the trees refusing to vacate them even as authorities arrived on scene.  Violence ensued, the trees were eventually demolished and about two years later Daniel McGowan showed up in the Pacific Northwest to join the cause.

The film does a good job following the rise of environmental protests in the Northwest while also directing attention to the police response.  Though the majority of anecdotes are those given by former activists, convicted ELF members and bystanders like Tim Lewis, there is plenty of screentime devoted to the interviews of Kirk Engdall, Asst. US Attorney and Greg Harvey, Police Detective, who were both based out of Eugene during the conflagration.  Through their impressively open accounts we are given extraordinary insight as to the thinking and counter-strategy that went on behind government doors during the region's uprise. 

After the gruesome and climactic World Trade Organization protest in Seattle in 1999, Daniel McGowan and other members of the ELF decided it was time for exacting retaliation.  On the night of January 1, 2001 McGowan and others set the offices of Superior Lumber company on fire.  In May 21, 2001 they did the same to Jefferson Poplar Farms and offices of University of Washington.  It was for his participation in the planning and execution of these crimes that Daniel McGowan would later come to be known as an "environmental terrorist".

Throughout the documentary, Curry and Cullman do a great job of humanizing their interviewees.  With McGowan we are presented with his wedding footage (while under house arrest), plenty of family members' interviews and, perhaps most stirring, a number of retrospective sequences where McGowan himself second guesses his past decisions.  With Engdall, we witness a moving revelation toward the end of the film where he admits having a much broader, more ambivalent view of the movement now than he did at the time.  We meet the logging company executives themselves and learn of their genuine (judge this aspect for yourself) who-would-want-to hurt-us astonishment to the crimes committed against them (one memborable line plays to the tune of "after all, we plant six trees for every one we knock down").  It would be farcical to state that there is no partiality expressed by the filmmakers in their work,  but at the same time one should walk away from the film impressed by the strenuous effort they have made to minimize that very downfall by offering so many opposing views.  At one point we even follow a self-described environmentalist discuss his philosophy, examine chopped trees in a decimated clearing, and oh yes, take pride in his career as a logger.

The conclusion of the film focuses on the most controversial aspect of Daniel McGowan's case, his official label as a terrorist.  Curry and Cullman have us peer into the legal logistics of just what that means and what kind of indelible significance it holds in the sentence.  The point in time at which the filming was done really lends itself to some fascinating moments here.  We are able to look on as clips show McGowan leaving the court upon receiving his sentence by a federal judge.  Without dropping a potential - albeit historical - spoiler, we learn what comes of the "terrorism enhancement" the prosecutors sought to apply to McGowan's sentence and the touch further on the ongoing debate of its application.

Does a group who took extra-cautious measures to ensure that no living thing was harmed (which is essentially the very ideal they fight for) deserve to have its members labeled right along side those of known murderous institutions like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban?  But what about a group whose members conspire and take it upon themselves to burn down law-abiding citizens' private property, while hundreds of thousands with the same gripe manage to funnel their outrage into non-violent protest and civil disobedience?  Thanks to the sensational work that went into If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front you will be more prepared to speculate, yet to come out thinking you have that answer for certain is on par with claiming sentience of a falling tree's sound, when no one is around to hear it.

~ Review by Mike Dorfman

Monday, January 30, 2012

Take Shelter (2011)

It is basic human nature for us to worry about things that are beyond our control. That universal truth has only become more relevant since the late 2000s, when the economic recession took hold, depleting the finances of families ranging from the lower class of society to the upper middle class. Left with very little wiggle room financially, families live in fear that just one tiny misstep could bring about their doom. Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, which he wrote and directed, explores that sense of anxiety that has befallen families across the globe.

Take Shelter takes place in a small town in Ohio, surrounding a small family comprised of Curtis (Michael Shannon), Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is hearing impaired. The family falls into the "middle class" category, as Curtis makes a sound living in construction, using his paycheck to support his family. However, though they live comfortably, in a nice house with plenty of land in a small suburban town, they still rely on that paycheck to maintain their lifestyle. It also doesn't help that Hannah's medical bills are mounting, and not to mention that the family plans to have a cochlear implant procedure conducted to restore her hearing -- which will not come cheap.

As if things aren't troubling enough for Curtis, he suddenly finds himself plagued with apocalyptic dreams while he sleeps. At first they begin subtly; during one dream, a dog attacks him, the next, a stranger kidnaps his daughter. But then he also begins having visions. Often pondering at the sky, he sees large bolts of lightning, accompanied by deathly black clouds and giant flocks of a birds.

Michael Shannon gripping Tova Stewart, who
plays his daughter in Take Shelter.
Nichols uses many wide angle shots, capturing the sky, the trees, and the grassy fields, and at the same time making Curtis look minuscule in comparison. The shots reinforce the fear that lingers in Curtis' mind; that he is a small man held at mercy to the forces of nature.

It is also made known that Curtis has a history of mental illness in his family tree, as we learn that his mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 30, and was placed in assisted living. Because of this, Curtis is inclined to seek outside help for his hallucinations.

Throughout the film, the apocalyptic visions seem very literal. Conveyed with dark clouds, heavy rain and loud roars of thunder, it gives us the impression that Curtis fears that a world-ending storm may be on the horizon. He can be often heard throughout the film uttering the words, "A storm is coming," and even responds by building an underground storm shelter in his backyard.

But while these ominous forebodings of an earth-shattering storm surface in his mind, more human, tangible problems begin to arise. Curtis' ever increasing paranoia begin to bring about a schism in his marriage, his work performance and even his sanity. These problems make the viewer rethink what -- or even who -- Curtis should really be protecting his family against.

Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon
The film is highlighted with the brilliant, subtle performance of Shannon, coupled with a more forceful and dramatic performance by Chastain. As Curtis' fears worsen, tensions and emotions fly, demanding a lot from both actors, which they deliver with ease. That Shannon got so little recognition for this performance is certainly a little puzzling.

 Jeff Nichols is a directorial wunderkind of sorts, delivering his second film at age 33 after 2007's Shotgun Stories, which also starred Shannon. At a relatively young age, his film tackles very poignant and relevant themes that very much apply to everyday families who have felt both the mental and physical effects of the economic recession. His visuals of menacing clouds, ferocious storms and bolts of lightning  are also quite stunning.

At one point during Take Shelter, as Curtis stares at a giant thunderbolt tearing through the night sky, he asks aloud -- without actually expecting an answer -- "Is anyone seeing this?" Whether anyone else sees it or not is irrelevant, because in Curtis' mind, it's here. The real question, however, is whether Curtis is actually protecting his family from the storm, or causing it himself.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Better Life (2011)

Film aficionados may have been perplexed earlier in the week, when the Academy Award nominations were released, and the unfamiliar name of Demian Bichir was listed among the "Best Actor" candidates, alongside such "A-list" names as George Clooney and Brad Pitt. But the nomination, well deserved, brings to a light A Better Life, a movie filmed by Chris Weitz, which, in turn, attempts to bring immigration policies in the United States to light.

The premise of the movie is fairly simple. Carlos Galindo, played by Bichir, is an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in Los Angeles, and a single father who is the sole caretaker of his teenage son, Luis (played by Jose Julian.) The pair live in small one-bedroom flat, and Carlos makes his due gardening as part of a two-man crew with his friend, Blasco (Joaquin Cosio.) 

The two live in a rundown area of Los Angeles which is heavily influenced by gang activity. As Carlos is forced to work all day just to scrounge up enough money to make rent, he and his son barely know each other anymore. In fact, Luis is embarrassed by his father, and tells his friends that he will not end up like him, making a living "cutting lawns."  Ay a very vulnerable age in life, with no mother, and a father who works around at the clock, Luis seems like a prime suspect to be lured into a gang.

But, and hence the title of the movie, it is Carlos' goal to provide the opportunities to his son that he never had. He keeps telling him, over and over, almost like a broken record, that things will get better for them. That he will make enough money so they could move into a safer area, and enroll Luis into a better school. But one look from Luis clearly expresses that he does not believe his father.

The opportunity for a better life finally arrives when Blasco convinces Carlos to buy his truck, so he can begin his own gardening business. After accepting a generous loan from his sister Anita (played by Dolores Heredia), he makes the purchase, and from there, begins the chase of the American dream. 

Demian Bichir in A Better Life.
As an illegal immigrant, Carlos must display the utmost caution, for any action that warrants police attention would almost certainly result in deportation. So when his truck is stolen one day by a man who Carlos thought he could trust, named Santiago (Carlos Linares), he must go on a quest to get it back without the use of the police.

A Better Life may have an agenda, bringing misunderstood and often criticized American immigration polices to light, and putting a face on the issue with the help of Bichir, but at no point does anybody stand on a soapbox and complain about their situation. Carlos knows his situation, and all he wants to do is live a quiet, safe life so that he could provide for his son.

The other theme of A Better Life revolves around the rekindling of a relationship between father and son. Carlos and Luis travel all throughout Los Angeles, from decrepit area to decrepit area, and at the same time exposing the viewer to parts of the country that they will never make any plans to travel to. 

There is a ton of emotion in the film, but most of it goes unsaid. At one point, Luis poses the question to his father, "Why did you even have me?" as he wonders why poor people would bother procreating if they are just passing on their poor social status to their children. Carlos, who can't find the words to answer question, simply tells his son, "Don't even say that."

Jose Julian and Demian Bichir
Demien Bichir plays the part beautifully, giving us all of the emotion that we need in his facial expressions. He loves his son more than anything, even if he can't find the words to say it. It isn't until the end when he finally does find the words, in a tear-jerking scene where Carlos expresses all of the things he had previously held in, and answering all of Luis' questions at the same time. 

A Better Life is a Hollywood film that employs an all Hispanic cast. To add further authentication to his film, Weitz, an American, employed Homeboy Industries, a youth counseling program run by former gang members, to find the proper shooting locations to film his movie at. The screenplay, written by Eric Eason, incorporates the slang used by Mexican-Americans, using both Spanish and English, sometimes in the very same sentence.

The film is not forcing the viewer to take a side on immigration policies in the United States, but strives to convey the everyday happenings of those who risk it all to seek a better life in America. It's a film that stays very real, and portrays the issue in an imaginative, sympathetic way.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

No book series may be more prominent right now than Stieg Larsson's Milennium Series. The books have sold over 65 million copies worldwide (the series was also the first to break the million dollar-mark electronically via the Amazon Kindle), have been adopted into a critically acclaimed Swedish film trilogy by director Niels Arden Oplev, and most recently, the first book of the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was "remade" into an American adaptation by David Fincher, starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. That is what I am here to talk about.

Though I have never read the book series, I have now seen both the Swedish and American versions of Dragon Tattoo. Upon the viewing, the viewer may think that Dragon Tattoo may be one of the most cynical stories ever told. It's a tale where slander, blackmail, antisemitism, torture and rape lurk at every corner. In fact, what you see at times may even shock you. 

The story relates heavily to the life of Stieg Larsson, who tragically died of a heart attack in 2004, before his best-selling books were published. In his story, his protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist (Craig), is a disgraced journalist, having been given a false lead a story, which he published, and was subsequently sued for. His reputation and credibility lost, he has no choice but to step down and hand the reigns of his Swedish political magazine, Millennium, to his second-in-command, Erika Berger (Robin Wright Pe --, I mean, Robin Wright.) 

Larsson, meanwhile, was involved in political activism his entire life. At age 40, he became the editor of Expo, a quarterly magazine devoted towards exposing racist and antisimetic organizations in Sweden. As editor of such a publication, he received many death threats. To think that Blomkvist isn't a direct depiction of himself would be extremely naive.

Millennium brainchild Stieg Larsson
In Dragon Tattoo, Blomkvist wishes to lay low for a while while the dust settles and the negative media attention disappears, and is given the perfect opportunity to do so when Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the retired CEO of the internationally renowned Vanger corporation invites him to visit his home and makes him an offer.

On second thought, to say "home" would be a little bit of an injustice towards Henrik. Because, in this case, home represents an island, filled with several small mansions which each of the
 Vangers dwell in. Henrik presents Blomkvist with his offer: Aware of his credentials in investigative journalism, he wishes him to investigate the death of his niece, Harriet, who vanished without a trace 40 years ago, and was later presumed dead. Henrik wants to know who in his family killed her. A large task, especially, which Blomkvist notes, the police themselves couldn't solve. But he accepts nonetheless.

Just before this, we are introduced to Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed, heavily pierced, mohawk donning, gothic young woman, who, thanks to the immense beauty of Rooney Mara, we find ourselves unable to keep our eyes off. An absolute whiz with computers,
 Salander is hired by Henrik's lawyers to do a thorough background check on Blomkvist before they hire him.

Along the way, we receive a glimpse of what
 Salander's life is like. Parentless, and outcasted by society because of her appearance, she has spent her life weaving in and out of legal trouble. Since she has no parents, and given her past troubles, her every move is put in the hands of a lawyer, Nils Bjurman, who controls her money and files monthly reports based on her behavior. Bjurman, portrayed by Dutch actor Yorick Van Wageningen, given his character's delicate and unfathomable circumstances, does a terrific job.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander
Bjurman uses the situation to sexually abuse Salander. The scenes are graphic, unforgiving, and and at times, may be hard to watch. That Rooney Mara puts herself out there so often in this film is a display of great courage, and a devoteion to her craft; her accolades and honors (Oscar nomination) are well-deserved. You may find yourself wondering what kind of sicko Larsson must have been to have imagined such a scene. However, according to the author's close friend,  the scene was a result of a rape that Larsson witnessed when he was 15-years-old, and did nothing to prevent, which he regretted his whole life. 

Salander, using her brains, manages to outwit
 Bjurman, and in an equally-as-graphic revenge scene, regains her independence. Eventually, she meets Blomkvist, and teams up with him to help solve the Vanger mystery. In a way, this was Larsson's redemption of the rape he witnessed, which he did nothing to stop. In fact, the original working title of Dragon Tattoo was another title that translated to Men who Hate Women.

As Mikael Blomkvist, Daniel Craig is the anti-James Bond. Though as physically fit as the British spy,
 Blomkvist is a thinker, not a doer. His biggest weapon is his brains, and he prefers to avoid physical confrontation, and rather, settle things with reason and dialogue. When drawn into violence, Blomkvist is a fish out of water. Craig gives very believable and professional performance as such, giving Blomkvist a very real sense of competence in all of his ventures.

Anyway, back in the Vanger island, Henrik gives Blomkvist (and the viewer) a
 Sparknotes version of his estranged family, who all are antisemites with strong Communist and Nazi ties. Essentially, he's telling Blomkvist that any of them were perfectly capable of killing Harriet. That, of course, is with the exception of Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard), Henrik's nephew who he adores, and has given control of the Vanger Corporation to following his retirement. 

Thus begins the mystery. Through a series of Internet searches and old photographs, Blomkvist and Salander are able to put the pieces of the mystery together. David Fincher does a terrific job with the cinematography, and, like in his other works, presents the viewer with the darkest of tones. Somehow, Fincher is always able to make every setting look so dark and eerie (including the prestigious Harvard in
 The Social Network) 
that his settings become an antagonist in the story in its own right.

Daniel Craig and Christopher Plummer 
No disrespect meant to Larsson, but if there is anything holding back The Dragon Tattoo, it is the plot. In a screenplay written by Steven Zaillian, he forges a script that must remain loyal to the book, which consists of generic and aforementioned Internet searches, characters who still somehow maintain photographs they took 40 years ago (and conveniently keeping them in a binder that sits atop their coffee table), and best of all, character's explaining their motives in extended soliloquies right before they are about to kill. In other words, things come together way too easily for a mystery that has lingered for 40 years. 

But that could be forgiven because of all the good that
 Dragon Tattoo does. In Fincher's capable hands, and with Craig's stony, professional performance, and of course Mara's boldness, the two-hour and forty-minute feature will not quite feel as long. In a David Fincher film, you are trained to trust nobody, including the protagonist (cough* Fight Club* cough), and that too will keep you hooked from start to finish.

And lest not forget the eerie tunes of Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, who again teamed up with Fincher to compose the soundtrack. Unlike
 The Social Network, the duo stray away from using actual songs (with the exception of an awesome rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," produced by Reznor and Ross, and sung by Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's during the film's opening credits), and actually compose their own score, which flows with the film seamlessly, and gives it that extra touch of suspense.

But when it is all said and done, it may be the "shock-factor" that remains the most memorable in your mind, most notably the rape scene featuring Mara and Wageningen. Undoubtedly, Larsson, who -- given his history -- abhors the very idea of sexual abuse, wished for that to be the prevailing message, and with the help of Fincher, succeeded in permanently etching that into our very minds, just
 like a tattoo.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hugo (2011)

Since it just received more Academy Award nominations than any other film in 2011, why not discuss Hugo?  The story of the story all begins with children's book author and illustrator Brian Selznick.  Mr. Selznick, a distant cousin of famed producer David O. Selznick (think Gone With The Wind, King Kong, Rebecca), penned The Invention of Hugo Cabret which saw its release by Scholastic in June 2007.  As Selznick put it, "...the images in my new book don't just illustrate the story; they help tell it."  He defers from referring to it as a picture book or graphic novel, instead settling for "a combination".  This unique dual function of images and words working toward a single purpose is something Selznick credits to one of his favorite authors growing up, Remy Charlip.

Anyway it only took a matter of months for director and producer Martin Scorsese to snatch up the rights to the book.  Once writer John Logan put the finishing touches on the adaptive screenplay, production went into full swing.  The majority of filming was done in a London studio with some on location work done in London and Paris as well.
Brian Selznick
It's probably one of the most cliché lines in movie criticism to mention something about "recapturing the magic of going to the movies" or to declare "this is what going to the movies is all about" but it seems painfully appropriate in describing Hugo.  Scorsese, a director you'd not likely associate with the letters "PG", takes us on a truly magical adventure from the first moments of flying through a bustling 1930s Parisian train station to the very last involving a special theater presentation.  Not once did it feel as though the 3D format was superfluous or awkwardly utilized during the course of the film.  On the contrary, Scorsese and his longtime collaborating cinematographer Robert Richardson orchestrate a fantastic world where magic and dreams are as believably conveyed as those harsh trials in life all of us know too well for real.  There is something to be said of the style and unifying texture of Hugo as well.  From the many gears and sprockets that often appear in the clock tower to the props in old movie sets, and similarly, in the Metropolis-like views of a wintry Paris, virtually every scene emits that old dusty mystical sense of nostalgia.  There is just the right balance of foreboding darkness and familiar warmth to aptly set the story.

But let's talk about the story.  We are introduced to an orphaned boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lost his clockmaking father (briefly played by Jude Law) to a fatal accident.  He was taken in by his drunken uncle the night of the death who hurriedly instructs him to take his belongings so he could come live with him and apprentice at the clocktower above the train station.  The only thing Hugo keeps is a rusty old automaton (an anthropomorphic wind-up robotic toy with the function to write) his father and he were hoping to one day restore to functionality. Because of his need for spare parts (and food), Hugo steals from the shops in the train station, most notably a small toy stand owned by Georges Méliès, played masterfully by Ben Kingsley.  The grouchy old keep catches Hugo in the act and his retribution leads to a series of adventures for Hugo and a new companion, god-daughter of Méliès, Isabelle played by Chloë Grace Moretz.  Moretz, known for her precocious roles in Kick-Ass and 500 Days of Summer delivers a charming performance and a nonabrasive British/general European accent to boot (she is the only star not to hail from the UK).

Left: Remy Charlip.  Right: Ben Kingsley as Méliès.
The two children find their way into trouble and triumph while delving into a history that piques their passions and entangles their loved ones.  Kingsley puts his heart into the character of Méliès and excels equally at the younger and older versions he must portray.  Interestingly, Selznick has said that he inadvertently visually depicted the character of Méliès as Charlip in his book.  For Kingsley's near clone-level likeness the casting director and design team must receive credit. Asa Butterfield delivers a job well done with Hugo Cabret, seamlessly transitioning from tears to smiles to awe as the part calls for it.  Perhaps the most memorable role, however, belongs to Sasha Baron Cohen as the goofy, villainous Station Inspector, constantly on the prowl with his guard dog to nab another "thieving" orphan loitering the rails.  Much as he does in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as the nefarious yet hilarious Pirelli, Cohen delivers nearly all his lines to the comic delight of the audience and in such a way that we find ourselves torn labeling him as a pure antagonist (as often is the case in children's literature).
A ways into the just over 2 hour-long runtime, a central theme of a melancholic nostalgia for early cinema develops.  In this way the film takes on a meta quality as it not only alludes to films within its own realm, but real staples of the classical era featuring archival clips of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and the like.  Growing up a Selznick, one can assume there was a bit of Hollywood lore passed through the generations and made felt in the author's life which surely manifests itself in Hugo.  In it, the gradual disregard of early groundbreaking artists like Méliès is presented as both travesty and tragedy.  Responsively, Selznick pays tribute to the early masters by instilling in the youth of a later generation an avid interest and determination in reshedding light on them.

So while Hugo does make you want to advise to your friends that it is "fun the whole family can enjoy" and forces tabooed phrases like "this is what going to the movies is all about" to surface in your mind, there is a wonderful depth and quality to it that should preclude you from doing so.  Instead, submit to an artfully told story of a boy fulfilling his so-called "purpose", marvel at the 3D graphics Scorsese expertly employs and connect to those emotions the main characters  all share in discovering a forgotten past.  Hugo is many great things; to see it is to find which most stir you.
~ Review by Mike Dorfman

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Artist (2011)

Don't adjust your audio/video settings, and definitely don't try to raise the volume -- and most of all, don't fear, as you're brand new 55-inch [obscene dollar figure] LED flat-screen is not broken.

In an effort to pay homage to early 20th century cinema, where films were silent and screens were dark, Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist is, appropriately, a silent film. To show my true appreciation for this work, I thought it might be prudent to write a silent review, and leave the space blank. But then I thought better of it.

The film begins in the mid-to-late 1920's during the final stretch of the golden age of silent films in Hollywood. We are immediately introduced to George Valentin, played by French actor Jean Dujardin, who is a pioneer of silent films. He is loved and adored by all, has his face on every poster, and is the biggest star in Hollywood -- and Valentin certainly enjoys the attention. Not to say that he is narcissistic; with a winning smile and just right amount of charm, Dujardin plays the part brilliantly, solidifying Valentin as a bonifide, humble star who deserves all his fame and fortune. Or in his words, his an "an artist."

The character interacts and appreciates his fans, and even befriends one right away in unique circumstances. The seemingly random stranger, we come to learn, goes by the name Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), is an aspiring actress, and she does not stay random for long.

The purpose of The Artist is to not simply pay homage to silent films of yesteryear, but to also help the viewer understand exactly what happened to films sometime between World War I and World War II. When silent films became obsolete, so did the silent actors. Not equipped or trained for audio films -- or "talkies," as they were known then -- they vanished, and were left to be forgotten.

One day, Valentin is called into the big studio executive's, Al Zimmer's (John Goodman) office, where he is shown the first ever sound test to present audio onto the big screen. While Zimmer tells Valentin that "this is the future of film," Valentin simply laughs it off, thoroughly unconvinced that it will appeal to the masses.

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin in The Artist.
Peppy Miller meanwhile, finally gets her break when, after being cast as an extra in one of Valentin's films, she continues to get more roles, each bigger than the next, until finally becoming a star in her own right. Young, beautiful and with a fresh face and distinctive "mark" on her face, she becomes the new poster child for Hollywood. This is solidified, finally, when Zimmer signs her to a mega-deal to be his star actress in his talking pictures. And all the while, she maintains her friendship with Valentin, who she idolizes and even reveres.

And that begins the upward climb for Miller, coinciding with the downward spiral for Valentin, who sees his career free-fall once movies finally made the full transition from silent pictures to talkies.

Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist, is -- at the risk of sounding corny -- a true piece of art. While Hazanavicius chose to make his film silent, and in black and white as a way of honoring old films, he also toys with the sound, actually using it at times to convey his points.

The charming and affable Valentin is meant to be a sympathetic figure, but that's not to say he is perfect. Far from it, in fact, as he neglects his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), and, when his career takes a turn, he mistreats those who were loyal to him, like his driver, (James Cromwell). No longer necessary, he dismisses them at the drop of a hat -- just like what the movie industry did to him.

When things are going well, Valentin is bubbly, effervescent and charismatic, and so is the film as a whole, with the buoyant, upbeat music conveying such. But when things are the opposite, Valentin, and The Artist, are as dark as the black-and-grey screen we are watching them on. Jean Dujardin might have been an unknown before this, but it may be that he was put on this planet solely for this role. He is George Valentin, and simply with one look, he can make you adore Valentin, and at other times, make you want to jump through the screen and give him a huge, comforting hug. He is that good, and when it's all said and done, it would not surprise me in the least to see him take home the Oscar for Best Actor.
Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller.

Berenice Bejo, meanwhile, another "unknown," is also terrific, and should have an Oscar nomination coming her way tomorrow morning as well.

Miller and Valentin serve as perfect foils in the film. Though both immensely talented, one is youthful, and one a bit more elderly, one an up-and-coming star and one the established veteran who is on the way out. It's the same disconnect that exists between William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd., Billy Wilder's 1950 classic that also pays homage to the silent-actors long forgotten.

If the silence throughout isn't enough to ingrain The Artist into your subconscious long after the movie is finished, then the performances by Dujardin and Bejo should be, and will make you sit in awe, silently reflecting and appreciating a true piece of art.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Like Crazy (2011)

Drake Doremus's Like Crazy does not waste any time. The movie is intended to be about a relationship between a boy and a girl, so why bother with unnecessary back story when you can get straight into it? The pair flirt within the film's first minute, and within five minutes, they are an item.

In this case, the boy, Jacob, is portrayed by Anton Yelchin, and the girl, Anna, by Felicity Jones. Throughout the 90-minute feature, we are exposed to the very beginning of their relationship, and how the relationship evolves through long distance perils, immigration perils, and other life perils, which is convenient, because a perilous relationship  makes for a much better story than a smooth-sailing one.

Jacob, an American, meets Anna, who is English, while they are in college in Los Angeles. Anna, who still lives in England, is in the states via a student visa. Jacob happens to the the teacher's assistant for one of Anna's classes, and that is how they meet.

What makes Like Crazy work is the real performances by Yelchin and Jones, who share a terrific on-screen chemistry. Their relationship seems very natural and authentic, and it makes the viewer believe that there truly is something between them. The progression of their relationship from "dating" to "couple" is conveyed through a four or five second clips of romantic escapades of the two, streamed one after the other; a montage, if you will. The absence of pop music is much appreciated, and instead, the voiceless music presents an almost nostalgic backdrop, making the viewer reminisce of their own first loves as they watch. It's a nice presentation of young, blissful emotion by Mr. Doremus.

But the bliss does not linger of course, when Anna, who decided to stay in Los Angeles over the summer to remain with Jacob, rather than returning home, overstays her school visa. As a result, when she attempts to return, she is disallowed into the county and is returned to England.

Jacob, an aspiring furniture designer, has no intention of moving to England. Whereas Anna, a writer, can no longer visit the states until she clears up the visa issues -- which apparently takes years. I don't think I can explain the dilemma any more clearly.

It's evident that Like Crazy makes an effort to avoid conventional romance cliches. And for the most part, it does. Doremus uses the "shaky camera" approach when filming his movie, giving the film a more real feel. Additionally, he employees a very voyeuristic style. Instead of inserting the camera directly in front of his characters, he's off to the side. Sometimes we're even watching Jacob and Anna from a different room, or from behind a tree, as if we are ourselves are there, observing the couple from a distance.

Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones in Like Crazy.
Doremus also penned the script, along with co-writer David York Jones, and the two deserve credit for making it very age-appropriate. It's not overly witty, or doesn't try too hard to be funny, but to sum it up best, the characters say things that any young couple would say. In fact, I hate to say it, but the dialogue throughout the film even borders on being cute.

The film doesn't avoid conventional cliches throughout it's entirety, however. We follow the couple as they move on with their lives, and try to make things work, then give up, then visit each other and try again, then take a break, and then finally they -- well, I'm not going to spoil it. Other subplots and minor characters arrive of course. Anna's parents (Alex Kingston and Olivier Muirhead) check in every now and then, and are very vocal about their love for whiskey (in a non-alcoholic way). Additionally, each character has their own romantic fling to muddle the plot, Jacob's being a lovely Jennifer Lawrence (her second movie this past year where she shares a romance with Yelchin, the first being Jodie Foster's The Beaver) and for Anna, a completely bland and dull Brit named Charlie Bewley, who she shares no chemistry with whatsoever.

As the relationship becomes muddled, between the visa issues and such, so does the film to an extent. The last 30 minutes or so take on a much different tone than the first 60. It may have been intentional, as Doremus is trying to portray how the characters are fed up with their inconvenient situation.

The film is also very modern, heavily incorporating things like smart phones and blogs into the mix. Doremus, only 28, is part of generation Y, and is clearly at an age where he fully understands today's technologies, and knows how to incorporate them properly into his work.

But Like Crazy is all about Jacob and Anna. I mentioned how the film has a very nostalgic feel to it. Though you're only just meeting them for the first time, when you watch Yelchin and Jones together, you'll almost feel like you've known them for years. And even after the credits finish rolling, you may even find yourself still thinking about them.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Descendants (2011)

There's an exchange during one of the more gripping scenes of The Descendants, when George Clooney's character, Matt King, incredulously states, "Things just don't happen," to which he receives the unsatisfactory -- yet accurate -- response of, "Everything just happens."

In a nutshell, that is what The Descendants is about. There is no rhyme or reason to the events that transpire in our lives, but pure randomness. Why do we bother explaining or justifying the actions we undertake, when you can sum it up in three words: Everything just happens.

The Descendants represents Alexander Payne's directorial return to the big screen, filming his first major motion picture since Sideways (2004). In Sideways, Payne proved that he knew how to make a real film about real people, and with The Descendants, he manages to do it again.

The film, set in Hawaii, centers around Matt, who is the descendant in a long line of riches that was passed down to him by his great-great-great-great ancestors. In his case, the riches represent 25,000 acres of pristine, virgin Hawaiian land in which Matt is the sole trustee of. However, due to a law called the "rule against perpetuities," Matt has just seven years to decide what to do with the land. His family, consisting of a large amount of cousins, also have a stake in the land, and together, the King family has decided to finally cash it in and sell it to a prospective bidder, who plans to use the land to build a golf course, hotels, a casino, the works.

However, this is the least of Matt's worries. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was recently in a speed boating accident, and is in a coma. As things get bleaker for Elizabeth, Clooney takes a shuttle with his youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller) to fetch his oldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who is away at boarding school.

Alexandra recently had a falling out with her mother, and it is quickly revealed that Elizabeth was cheating on Matt in the months leading up to the accident. This revelation sets the King family in a talespin. Over and over,  Matt tells friends, his daughters, and no one particular, "I don't know what I'm doing."

George Clooney has finally hit his niche in recent years, beginning with Michael Clayton (2007), followed by Up in the Air (2009), and continued with The Descendants. He excels at playing a simple, average man, who, in his middle age, finds himself at crossroad. With his affable, natural charm, no other actor plays the sympathetic figure better than Clooney does.

Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.
Shailene Woodley, meanwhile, proves herself to be a star in the making. Part rebellious (as a teenager), part-emotionally overcome (with this devastating tragedy), and part motherly (towards her younger sister,) Woodley conveys each emotion with the deepest subtlety. Overacting may be the biggest syndrome of a young actor, but Woodley plays the part coolly and skillfully.

Dysfunctional at first, the King family is forced to deal with this tragedy, and though all they desire is privacy, the big question lingers throughout Hawaii, what will Matt decide to do with the land? He notes, at one point, the irony of his inheritance, and how he did nothing to actually earn it. Just for being born, he is handed a goldmine of wealth. Again, randomness.

Although Matt, and Alexandra, and Scottie, always wish to do the right thing, there always seems to be something in the way. Whether it's spontaneity, outside influence, or raw emotion, the characters -- while meaning well -- continue to do and say things that only harm others. And that is a major theme of The Descendants: human imperfection.

Clooney, Woodley and Amara Miller. 
As the family travels to and fro, figuring out what to do with Elizabeth, and dealing with the bombshell that she had been unfaithful, Alexandra's friend Sid (Nick Krause) joins along with them, at the request of Alexandra. A boneheaded, insensitive stoner, the viewer initially gets the impression that Sid simply exists for comic relief. But, like any character in an Alexander Payne film, he indeed does serve a purpose, which eventually comes to light. Krause helps round out a terrific supporting cast, which is also aided by Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges and Robert Forster, among others.

The film absorbs the Hawaiian culture, with a soundtrack full of folksy melodramatic tones, where ukuleles prevail, giving you the impression that you are attending an extremely somber luau. That this problematic story line takes place in Hawaii is yet another irony that must have appealed to Payne, as Hawaii, known to the outsider as a carefree, easy-going paradise island, is supposed to be where everyone lives free and easy.

As the film progresses, the family tries to hold on, and piece together their lives in light of this tragedy. You can't not sympathize for the characters, who during this crisis, will make you laugh, will make you angry, and may even make you cry. It's a story about a family, who was given a raw deal, and is trying to make due with both the fortune and misfortune that descended upon them.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tiny Furniture (2010)

I remember first watching the trailer for Tiny Furniture and thinking to myself that this looks hilarious, darkly realistic and different.  Fast forward to a few months later after I finally got around to watching it and each of those impressions retain their own respective degree of truth.

For starters let's cover the basics.  Distributed by IFC Films, Tiny Furniture is the brainchild of its director, writer and star Lena Dunham, a 25 year old filmmaker hailing from New York.  Just given that tiny bit of information, one might take a shot in the dark that this film will employ an autobiographical nature, specifically a post-college subject-matter, while probably embracing an indie tone.  And it does.  In fact, the first scene follows Aura (played by Dunham) returning from school in Ohio, entering her impressively large and contemporary TriBeCa loft still inhabited by her mother (Laurie Simmons) and sister (Grace Dunham).  It's clear that Aura immediately feels ill-received and out of place.  Her mom, a photographic artist, works out of the studio in the apartment and barely pays her a hello, while her sister is focused on the normal high school mélange of stressors with no room in her routine for a currently life-pondering sister.

This trio of a nuclear family (there is never mention of a father) communicate to each other in sarcastic witticisms while never seemingly devoting their full attention or solemnity in conversation to one another.  To do so might border on acting as a cliché family.  There are respective tensions building between Aura and her mother and sister.  There is the conflict between Aura's home friends and those of her collegiate life.  There is that small matter of what means of employment Aura, a self-described videomaker (of the comical YouTube variety), plans to pursue in life.  And finally, most expectedly, there is boy trouble for Aura who is coming off a two year college romance which is belittled by her friends and family, and who now finds herself attracted to two potential suitors.

Two notes of interest: First, I could not help but be reminded of the Catherine Hardwicke directed Thirteen during the course of watching Tiny Furniture.  There are similarities that go beyond a female protagonist coming of age (albeit a different age) surrounded by a largely female presence.  For one the subject of sex and drugs are explored to some extent in both.  But what really had me recalling the 2003 feature film was that it too was semi-autobiographically written by its star lead, Nikki Reed.

Second, over the course of her screenplay, Dunham references Gilda Radner, acclaimed comedienne and original SNL cast alumnus. Given Dunham's outgoing style and strong screen presence it's clear enough that she has taken to the legacy of one of America's greatest comics as a strong influence.  A wise choice.

Now on to whether the film made good on its initial billing...

Jemima Kirke as Charlotte.

Did the film deliver on its comedic chops as portended in the trailer?  For the most part, yes.  Though there is plenty of gloom and whining by the characters overall, the character of Aura fancies herself as something of a comedienne.  This allows her to play out as the straight man in the majority of her relationships making for amusing commentary that the audience can enjoy.  By far, however, Aura's home friend Charlotte, played by the uncompromisingly hilarious Jemima Kirke, provides the lion's share of laughs.  She is the completely independent (living situation-wise; not finance-wise) daughter of successful artists who sports a pompous and unconvincing British accent (sidenote: turns out it's real but heavily Americanized) and frequents galleries and house parties in her spare time, which is to say all her time.  Her explicit mannerisms and admitted self-entitlement are just some of the dimensions that will bring you to guffaw at this well-written character.

Darkly realistic
Set in Dunham's hometown, enlisting her real-life mother to play her mother, her real-life sister to play her sister, with about half the scenes taking place in her real-life apartment - Tiny Furniture can really not help but to be realistic.  The film is shot in digital giving things a non-fictional or documentary feel and on a $50,000 budget meaning you're not going to be treated to the accustomed Hollywood cocktail of tricks and effects.  The high definition digital composition also does little to mollify the evident lack in hair and makeup personnel, a plus in realistic portrayal.  Darkness is achieved through bouts of heavy cynical dialogue and the general mise-en-scène (ie. the clash between workplace and home that is the family's loft)  peppered by raw shots of Manhattan.  A climactic sex scene's location which is too good to give away also contributes in the same vein.

The most vague of my micro-conclusions based on the trailer, is also the most difficult to grade based on the film.  Sure, the movie was unique.  The manner in which it was conceived and produced alone earn it that.  But what of the story, its message and/or any payoff?  This was the major disappointment for me.  Until now you have read nothing analytical of the narrative.  Unfortunately this is inherently due to the lack of narrative depth.  The storyline is flat supported by very little to no arcs in its characters development.  While Aura is omnipresent throughout the film's scenes, we're left with nothing more than a superficial snapshot of one abbreviated segment in her life.  The very last sequence in Tiny Furniture involves our protagonist and her mother with attempt at metaphorically referencing a ticking clock.  It's a welcomed subtextual parting gift after a script lacking thereof, but it falls under the category of too little, too late.

Lena Dunham, Writer/Director/Actress.
Final word on newcomer Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture must be a positive one.  The film is perfectly confluent.  The dialogue is smart and the acting is impressively understated, not to mention seamless given that much of the cast had little experience going in.  Watch it and appreciate the work of a talented up-and-coming female in her early 20's who we are sure to be seeing a lot more of in the not too distant future.  While we were all tragically cheated out of a full spanning career by Gilda Radner, her star surely remains in the form of Lena Dunhams today.

~ Review by Mike Dorfman

A Separation (2011)

A Separation implores us to think of the consequences of our actions. Not only on our ourselves, but more importantly on others -- and even more importantly, on the ones we love.

Shortened for its English-speaking viewers, A Separation, an Iranian film by Ashgar Farhadi, originally goes by the title, Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, which I believe translates to "the separation of Nader from Simin." I can't say for sure; I left my Iranian-to-English dictionary at home.

The film was awarded the Golden Globe for "Best Foreign Film" last night, and after viewing it, I will go on the record by saying, come February, it will take home the Oscar as well.

The film begins in a court room, with our film's two primary subjects, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) pleading their case to an unseen judge for a divorce. I say unseen, because Farhadi uses a camera angle to give us a point-of-view perspective of the proceedings, as if we are the judge. Why he chooses to do so can be interpreted by the viewer; perhaps Farhadi wanted us to make our own judgments upon the couple.

The pair aren't getting divorced because of infidelity, nor as a result of any instances of domestic violence. In fact, Simin herself, says to the judge, about her husband, "No, he's neither an addict nor does he have any issues; in fact he's a very nice and decent person," to which the judge responds, "Then why do you want to get a divorce?"

Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi pleading their case
Chalk it up to the age-old excuse of 'irreconcilable differences.' Simin wishes to move abroad, not wanting to raise her 11-year old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, whose last name should look familiar) in Iran. Nader, however, has no intention to leave, mainly because he needs to take care of his elderly father (Al-Asghar Shahbazi), who suffers from the dreaded Alzheimer's Disease. But the question is, what happens to Terhmeh?

And there lies the predicament. The classic dilemma of the divorce always lies within one fundamental question: How will the child(ren) react? In this case, Termeh seemingly is handling it pretty well. Though, without forming any deep animosity, she does blame her mother for the potential split, and remains with her father while the proceedings are ongoing. In fact, as any 11-year-old would, she idolizes her father. But how will further events, namely the divorce proceedings, affect that?

From this point on, the rest of the movie plays out like a ripple effect. With Nader and Simin living in different households, Nader is forced to hire a caretaker, named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to nurse his ailing father while he is at work.

Without trying to spoil too much, an incident occurs between Nader and Razieh that results in criminal charges for Nader that could potentially result in years in prison. With the incident occurring before our eyes, the viewer is able to make their own conclusion as to who is at fault.

As if his life wasn't troublesome enough at the time, Nader is now involved in a messy criminal case -- not to mention a feud with Razieh's temperamental husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) to go along with his messy divorce proceedings. And in the middle of it, still, is Termeh, who at one point, idolized her father. With the events, she is forced to make the realization that all children eventually do -- that her father is not a hero, but a man, with flaws, like any other.

Sarina Farhadi in A Separation.
With current divorce rates sitting at about 50% in America, A Separation is a film that many can relate to. Like Noah Baumbach's 2005 semi-biographical drama, The Squid and the Whale, the viewer is witnessing the immediate aftermath of a separation, and how all parties involved are handling the sticky situation, both mentally and physically.

As an Iranian film, I can't say exactly what cultural taboos this film may have breached while coming to fruition, both with touching a sensitive subject such as a separation, mixed with its making its way towards America, a country that isn't exactly deemed an ally, but they must be noted. Credit should be given to Mr. Farhadi for creating such a film, and doing it in such a human manner.

As the plot thickens, and events transpire, we watch how each character responds to said events, how they handle themselves, and what means they undertake to get what they want. Like the opening point-of-view scene in the courthouse, we are the ever-watchful eye, and we are surveilling, and judging, and trying to pinpoint which character is in the right, if any.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Friday, January 13, 2012

War Horse (2011)

There once was a day in film when epics reigned supreme. Movies would typically last an excess of two hours, bordering on three, or more. But now, in an age where people seemingly wish to be entertained in the minimal amount of time as possible, epics have become prehistoric. And that is why Steven Spielberg's epic World War I drama War Horse has not been getting the proper buzz and acclaim that it should be. What a shame.

Steven Spielberg has already mastered World War II in film, with his 1998 masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan. This time, Spielberg goes back two decades and takes on World War I. Like Ryan, Spielberg does not focus on the war as a whole, but picks a story within the war as his focal point, with the purpose of entertaining, horrifying, and to tug at your heartstrings.

Having now shot two war films, one may be inclined to think that Spielberg's own personal depiction of war should play a part in both works; but it doesn't. He doesn't judge, or criticize, he merely gives us a realistic presentation of what war is: a brutal and irrational, yet effective, means of getting things done.

War Horse, based on Michael Morpugo's 1982 book, and a 2007 stage adaptation, gives us the ultimate tale of devotion. The story centers around a struggling English family, the Narracotts, headed by Rose (Emily Watson), Ted (Peter Mullan) and their teenage son, Albert (played by Jeremy Irvine in what was essentially his major motion picture debut.) As one may perceive from the trailer, the family purchases a horse, named Joey, of which Albert forms the deepest of affinities with.

Joey not only bonds with Albert, but saves the family from poverty and foreclosure as Albert goes against the odds and teaches the thoroughbred how to properly plow a field.

But then the first half of the title comes into play. The arrival of World War I coincides with the Narracott's crops being destroyed by heavy rains. Desperate, and left with no choice, Ted sells the horse to an English captain (Tom Hiddleston) for the war. Albert is distraught, but by the time he finds out what is happening, it is too late; Joey has been sold. But not before Albert  -- too young to volunteer at the time -- makes one more final pledge to Joey that, when all is said and done, the two will reunite.

 "This isn't the end. This isn't the end, my brother. I, Albert Narracott, solemnly swear we will be together again. Wherever you are, I will find you. I will bring you home." 

It's impossible isn't it? Locating a single horse among hundreds of thousands, deployed somewhere across Europe. And yet, with the deep conviction in Albert's voice, we can't help but to believe him.

A fantastic score by the one and only John Williams enhances the emotions throughout the film, but it is not necessary. The acting, across the board -- amplified by Spielberg's visuals -- is top notch, and need no aid as far as providing emotion.

And with that, we follow Joey. Changing hands constantly throughout the war, and to both sides of the fight, among them being Hiddleston, two German teenagers (David Kross and Leonhard Carow), and a French girl and her grandfather (excellently portrayed by young Celine Buckens and Nierls Arestrup). And with each new possessor, we learn their story, and how the deadly war has affected their lives. With each character's tale, we wonder more and more why this great war is happening if it hurts everyone who touches it.

Celine Buckens in War Horse.
Again, Spielberg is not being critical. There is one terrific scene, where an English and a German soldier cross into no man's land to work together. Away from the bullets and the trenches, they are just two young men, joking around, and getting along despite the fact that they are supposed to be enemies. Not one scene conveys the irrationality of war better than that one.

With magnificent cinematography, Spielberg gives us the horror of war, putting us right in the heart of the battle. It's not quite as graphic as Saving Private Ryan, and I think I'm correct in thinking that was his intention. Whereas Ryan would be better off not being viewed by a young audience, War Horse is a great introduction to war for young teens. Because amidst the storyline of a young man and his love for his horse, which a younger audience can relate to, there is a war going on.

All the while, Albert, who eventually becomes old enough to volunteer, is still on a quest for his horse. Whether he will find him remains anyone's guess up to the film's end, as most people know that Spielberg has never been one to submit to fairy tales.

In the two hour and twenty minute saga that Spielberg gives us, your emotions will be taken for a ride. Aside from your attachment towards the love between Albert and Joey, you will feel for every character that sets foot on the screen. And in a war movie, you know where that leads.

It all stands to reason why Spielberg enjoys picking subplots within wars to tell his story. It mostly involves young men who get mixed up in something in which they have no idea why they are involved with in the first place. Yet, it takes everything from them and gives them nothing in return. And that is the unforgiving nature of war. We don't sympathize for the political leaders who set the war in motion, but for the young soldier, who just wants to live, go home, and find his beloved horse.

~ Review by Ddubbs