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VIFF 2018 Review: Burning (버닝)

Burning

One of my goals at the VIFF is to see at least one film which is a nation’s entry into the Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The first of three I saw during the VIFF was Burning from South Korea.

The film begins with Lee Jong-su performing odd jobs in Paju. One day he runs into a former neighbor and classmate from his childhood. Her name is Shin Mae-hi.  Mae-hi confesses to Jong-su that she always liked him but he always ignored her. Could it be because he was a farmer’s son and she was more urban? At the date later on, Mae-hi tells Jong-su that she has pursued an acting career. She’s disappointed to see that Jong-su hasn’t pursued a career in writing as he wanted to do in college.

The romance sparks up so high, they have sex in her apartment. She lets Jong-su know she will have an acting gig in Nairobi very soon and she wants him to feed her cat. He agrees. Jong-su never sees the cat, but always sees the food gone and the litterbox used. Also when he’s at her place, he masturbates in her bedroom. Mae-hi returns, but three days later than expected because of a terror warning. Mae-hi also returns with a Korean man named Ben: a man she bonded with during the crisis. The three have dinner together. Mae-hi recalls a sunset she saw during the trip. She cries, confessing she wanted to disappear. Ben doesn’t understand why people cry and admits he never cried himself.

Jong-su has things to take care of back home. He has to look after the family house and farm as his father is awaiting trial. Jong-su often watches the relationship with Mae-hi and Ben from afar with envy. However he’s suspicious of Ben. Ben is confident, but doesn’t mention what he does for a living. Jong-su pays a visit to Ben’s place and notices an area where there is a lot of women’s jewelry and decorations in the bathroom. Jong-su later joins the couple in a restaurant. There Mae-hi shows them the dance she learned in Nairobi. Jong-su likes what he sees, but he notices Ben is unamused.

The trio then go to Jong-su’s farm where they find themselves getting high and Hae-mi dancing topless. Hae-mi recalls a memory where Jong-su rescues her from a well. After Hae-mi falls asleep on a sofa, Ben makes a confession to Jong-su that he like to burn an abandoned greenhouse every two months. He notes his area is full of greenhouses. Ben claims the next burning will be close to Jong-su’s house. Ben also tells Jong-su that Hae-mi considers him her best friend. But as she awakens from her drunkenness, Jong-su calls her a whore as they leave.

Jong-su takes this to heart as he is careful over the neighborhood to spot out of any gas houses are burned down. None are, but he receives something even more disturbing. He received a phone call from Hae-mi one night that cut out after that cut off after a few seconds of ambiguous noises. The concern grows as Jong-su makes call after call to Hae-mi with no response. He goes to her apartment which is surprisingly clean and shows no sign of the cat. Jong-su contact’s Hae-mi’s family, but they say they haven’t heard from her in some time and she owes them a lot of money. Even Ben makes claim of Hae-mi not returning calls as Jong-su approaches him.

Suspicious of it all, Jong-su starts stalking Ben. Ben is unaware that Jong-su is stalking him, but treats Jong-su with friendliness. Ben even introduces Jung-su to his new girlfriend and even says they have a new cat. As Jong-su makes his way to the bathroom, he sees the watch he gave Hae-mi. Looks like the truth about Ben and what happened to Hae-mi came out. It’s just after Jong-su’s father has been sentenced that we get the final act of the drama.

The film is a quiet mystery. I call it quiet because there is little if any score. The film quietly lets the events unravel as they happen. It lets the facts quietly but surely become clearer over time. We learn more about what happened to Mae-hi. Mae-hi may be very free as is expected of an artistic person, but no sign of her for a long time does rise to suspicion. We soon learn more about Ben. He comes across cool and confident and the type of person who wouldn’t hurt anyone, but it’s Jong-su who sees Ben’s true colors. We also learn more about Jong-su. Jong-su comes off as an awkward son of a temperamental farmer undecided about his dreams. Jong-su comes as the type of person too awkward to do anything seriously violent, but as truths unfold, the monster inside him comes out. The story comes just as his father is sentenced for his violent actions, Jong-su becomes judge, jury, and executioner on Ben. Having all this happen in a film with no score or any other cinematic gimmicks works well for the film. I think something like a musical score may have hurt the drama.

In addition, the film answers more with what we don’t see than what we see. The value of the unseen is first given credit involving the scenes of tending to Hae-mi’s unseen cat. We never see the cat and neither does Jong-su, but the food is eaten and the litterbox is used. The unseen is key for resolving the mystery of Ben. The unseen is where Ben acquired all the female jewelry and decorations. He talks of his ‘hobby’ of burning gashouses down. However it becomes more obvious about what these burning are. And it took the piece of Hae-mi’s jewelry just after Hae-mi goes missing to get the sense that Ben is a killer, and the burnings is a secret word for murder. It’s at the end that the burnt gashouse ends up being Ben’s car with a fatally-wounded Ben inside.

Top credits go to Lee Chang-dong. Lee has had an impressive film making career in South Korea. However it was 2003’s Oasis where he won the Best Director award at the Venice Film festival that he first caught international notice as well as the Chief Dan George Humanitarian Award at VIFF 2003. Poetry took his career to a new height after he won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. This film in which he directs and co-wrote the script with Oh Jung-mi is an excellent work of its own. It won the FIPRESCI Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Fest. Awards aside, the film does keep one intrigued. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense at first, but the drama slowly builds over time. Yoo Ah-In does a very good job as Jong-su. He does a great job of playing a character who first seems harmless, but has a monster inside of him. Steven Yeun, a Korean émigré to the United States, does a good job as playing a character cool and calm, but has a dark secret. Jeon Jong-seo is also very good as the free-spirited Hae-mi.

Burning is a suspense that starts quiet but slowly builds over time. Its quiet drama is its best asset and adds to the film.

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Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: The Post

Post

Merly Streep plays newspaper head Katharine Graham in The Post.

The subject matter of The Post doesn’t sound like the type of subject matter that would win a big crowd, but it is a film worth seeing.

The story goes back in 1966 during the Vietnam War. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg is in Vietnam with General Robert McNamara to document the progress of the war. McNamara admits to Ellsberg and President Johnson that the war is hopeless but has confidence in the effort, leaving Ellsberg disillusioned.

Years later, Ellsberg is now working for a military contractor and comes across classified documents showing the US’s decades-long involvement in the conflict in Vietnam going back to just a few years after World War II ended. Ellsberg discloses the documents to the New York Times.

It’s 1971. Katharine Graham is head of the Washington Post. It’s been a position she mastered with a lot of difficulty as it’s commonly seen as a ‘man’s position.’ Even though her family founded the Post, the position of the head went to her husband Philip instead of her. It was right after Philip’s suicide that Katharine became head. It’s not easy for a female to be head of a newspaper. Especially someone like Graham who has a good work ethic, but lacks experience and is constantly overruled by the aggressiveness of the men of the Post. On top of that, she seeks to gain an IPO for a stock market launch to propel the Post to greater strength. The Washington Post however is second-fiddle to the New York Times which always has the biggest news scoops, even the scoops of what’s happening in Washington.

Editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee is one of the men who work for her. He tries in vain to be one step ahead of the New York Times in coming up with the latest scoops, but falls short each time. Meanwhile McNamara, who is a friend of Graham’s, confesses to her of how he’s the subject of bad news in the New York Times. It’s through their constant expose of the government’s deception of the American public. However a court injunction blockades any further publication of such news by the Times.

Ellsberg is willing to provide the documents and opportunity to the Post to publish the stories. As they look through the stories to publish, lawyers to the Post advise against publishing the story, fearing the Nixon administration will press criminal charges. Graham seeks advice from McNamara, Bradlee and Post chairman Fritz Beebe of whether to publish. It’s made even more frustrating when the lawyer note that since  the sources are the same as the New York Times, Graham herself could be charged with contempt of court. It’s a gamble. Graham risks terminating the newspaper her family established. Alternatively, the Post won such a legal battle, it would establish itself as a major journalism source, much on the same level as the New York Times.

She agrees to have the story published. The White House retaliated by taking both the Times and the Post to the Supreme Court to argue their case of publishing classified document information being a First Amendment Right. Both newspapers receive almost unanimous support from the other newspapers in the US and they win their Supreme Court battle 6-3. An infuriated Nixon bans the Post from the White House. And the rest is infamy… for Nixon.

The film is more than just about a top secret story that needed to be exposed and makes journalism history. The story is also about the newspaper behind the story. We shouldn’t forget that this came at a time when The New York Times was the newspaper that delivered the biggest news about what was happening in the Oval Office and the ones to do it first. Even though the Washington Post was the newspaper of Washington, DC, it was more of a second-fiddle newspaper like the newspapers of the rest of the cities. The New York Times lead and all other newspapers, including the Washington Post followed. This story allowed the Washington Post take pole position towards what was happening in Washington. This would also allow for the Washington Post to be the prime newspaper to go to upon the breaking of the Watergate Scandal. Even despite the Post competing against the Times, they united when they faced the heat of the freedom-of-speech debate and won together.

The film is not simply about a history-making story, a legal breakthrough or even a milestone for a newspaper. It’s also the personal story of Katharine Graham and how she had to achieve greatness for herself. Katharine Graham was born into the paper and assumed control of it right after her husband died. It was always tradition that a man headed the newspaper. After the suicide of her husband, she headed it. The paper her ancestors founded and the paper she wants to propel into marketability. This news story could help be the boost she needed, but the court injunction against the New York Times causes her to put it on hold. Basically she’s gambling everything with this touchy story: the Times, her status as a leader, her role as a woman with power, her role as a mother, even her own personal freedom. In the end, that one decision caused left all of us convinced she did the right thing. She did more than just allow a story. She did more than boost the profile of the Washington Post. She created a breakthrough in freedom of speech and freedom of press. On top of that, she earned the respect from her male colleagues. That was rare back in the early 70’s.

This story is very relevant to the present. We always hear those words ‘fake news.’ We have a feeling that Donald Trump is like a big brother monster who wants to control everything. There are often times in which I wonder if the times of Nixon were worse than the times of Trump. I know all about Nixon and his lust for control. Whatever the times, the story and the court ruling against government censorship of the press serves as a reminder to all citizens that the press has the right to publish the truth to the public. The ruling of the New York Times vs. The United States of America back then was clear: “‘In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” That ruling still applies today.

Leave it to Steven Spielberg to direct a story that will capture our intrigue. Some would describe this type of story as a ‘boring story.’ Steven Spielberg knows how to direct it into something interesting and have us glued to the screens. The screenplay by Josh Singer and Liz Hannah also creates the right interest and intrigue. They’re able to take the chain of events surrounding the publishing of the story and turn it into a story of intrigue. Even a story from a humanist side.

Once again, Meryl Streep delivers in creating depth in a public figure. She gave Katharine Graham the right dimension and the right humanistic tone to make the story work. Tom Hanks also does an excellent job in his role as Ben Bradlee. He delivers in the character very well as he adds some dimension to Bradlee too. The supporting actors may have minor or limited roles, but they add to the film too. Janusz Kaminski does an excellent job of cinematography and John Williams again delivers a fitting score.

The Post is a journalism story that will keep one intrigued. It’s a story that’s very relevant today as it’s also about our own right to know the truth.

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: Bridge Of Spies

ST. JAMES PLACE

Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, a lawyer in the middle of the height of the Cold War, in Bridge Of Spies. Mark Rylance (centre) steals the show as his subject.

Bridge Of Spies is a Spielberg drama I missed out on seeing during its original theatrical release. I only saw it once it was a choice on a flight I took heading home. It was a good choice.

The film begins in 1957 with Rudolf Abel arrested by CIA agents as he’s trying to read a secret message. He is taken away but is able to keep the message. As Abel awaits trial, American lawyer James Donovan is assigned to defend him. The US government believes him to be a KGB spy but Donovan wants to have a fair trial because an unfair trial may be used as propaganda in the USSR. Donovan meets Abel whom is very welcoming to Donovan but will not cooperate with the US Government for any revelations in the intelligence world.

Donovan knows he has a heavy task in defending Abel. He’s serious about it but no one, not even his closest family, expects him to make a strong defense for Abel. Nevertheless Donovan is persistent and continues to seek acquittal for Abel despite an angry American public, persistent hate mail and threats on the lives of him and his family. Abel is found guilty on all charges. Before sentencing, Donovan asks the judge that Abel receive a prison sentence of 30 years instead of the death penalty because he feels Abel may become a bargaining chip with the Soviet Union. Further difficulties continue as Donovan is unable to win a Supreme Court case where evidence against Abel was tainted by an invalid search warrant.

Meanwhile two innocent Americans find themselves in the hands of Communists. One is US air force pilot Francis Powers whose plane is just shot down between the USSR-Turkish border. He’s able to escape his doomed plane and tries to steer his parachute into Turkey but fails and becomes captive. The other is Frederic Pryor, an American economics student studying in Germany just as the Berlin Wall is being built. He studies in West Berlin but has a girlfriend in East Berlin. He tried to bring her with him to the West but is arrested as a spy.

News gets to Donovan of the two men arrests. He’s even offered a deal from the USSR of the exchange of Abel for Powers. Donovan is insisting in a 2-for-1 deal of exchanging Abel for both Powers and Pryor. However he has the challenge of dealing with Soviet agents and a CIA that’s interested in only getting Powers back. The whole deal puts the governments of three nations– East Germany, the USA and the USSR– in a heated debate with Donovan make the outcome work out right. The end result is historic.

This is yet another film about war Steven Spielberg does focus on. There have been many films of the theme of war he’s done in his career. The wars he have depicted on screen have spanned time from World War II in Empire Of The Sun and Saving Private Ryan to World War I in The War Horse to the Civil War in Lincoln to even revenge missions in Munich.

Here he tackles a war that’s less about brutality but more about ideology and had victims of their own: the Cold War. Although there wasn’t as much blood shed, the Cold War did put a sense of paralyzing fear in the world, especially in the United States, with a possibility of nuclear war and armageddon. Thus the ‘duck and cover’ scene. Ask anyone over the age of 60 about doing all those ‘duck and cover’ practices at school. People were constantly being suspected as spies on both sides and there were reactions of hysteria to those accused of spying or treason. The construction of the Berlin Wall at a time when Germany was divided between the capitalist West and the Communist East is an example of the war.

The story takes us back to the 1950’s at a time when Cold War hysteria was at its highest. Neither side could be trusted if one from the other country came in to visit. That explains why even innocent visitors could be seen with suspicion. People arrested as spies for the other side were huge headline news. Most of the public wanted them dead with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg still fresh in their minds. It’s easy to see why someone like James Donovan would be so easily vilified by the American public and even face a possible shooting. The film shows why James’ efforts in the prisoner trade were necessary in the Cold War. It was something that was able to ease some tension on both sides.

Spielberg does a very good job of showing what the Cold War was like. Instead of showing fighting that’s common in the wars, he focuses on the more tense moments of the Cold War and captures its tense feel most people of that time felt. The screenwriting by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers was very good in providing insight to the moments in history and keeping the key elements of the situation. It didn’t focus too much on Jim’s personal life but it did focus on his efforts and even on the prisoners themselves. It may lack some historical accuracy but it does provide knowledge and keep the audience intrigued. Its one glitch is that it had too sweet of an ending. I don’t think it ended on the right note.

Tom Hanks was very good as Jim Donovan but it’s not at the same level as his most stellar roles. The biggest scene-stealer of the film was Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. He not only matched Abel physically but also gave him character with his love for art and his ability to say persuasive things. Other good supporting performances came from Amy Ryan as Jim’s wife and Alan Alda as Thomas Watters. Janusz Kaminski did a very good job of cinematography, the production designers did a very good job of recreating the 1950’s and 1960’s with their sets and Thomas Newman delivered a very good score to the film.

Bridge Of Spies is very much a story about a lawyer and his pursuits but also the times he had to deal with. Reminds you of some of the political tensions and paranoia that’s currently happening now. Spielberg does a good job of capturing the feel of the intensity as well as the political climate of the story.

Movie Review: Lincoln

lincoln-2

I’m sure almost all of us are familiar with Abraham Lincoln. Even if you don’t live in the United States, you must have learned about him and his presidency somehow. Steven Spielberg has directed the epic biographic movie of Lincoln. Will it show the Lincoln we know or the Lincoln we don’t know?

It’s January 1865. Lincoln has been re-elected President back in November. However the Civil War is entering its fifth year. It has been the most brutal war on American soil in terms of destruction and fatalities. The Emancipation Proclamation, the law completely abolishing slavery, is being debated in the US House of Representatives. Politicians from both the American states and the Confederate states debate it. Both sided stand firm in their beliefs. Meanwhile Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens–a strongly anti-slavery Republican who demanded total war on the Confederate States– are waiting and debating as the Proclamation is nearing its vote into law as the Thirteenth Amendment. However the Republicans want the vote delayed because they fear the outcome and want the War to end. Lincoln doesn’t want to wait. He wants slavery over before the Confederate States can be reintegrated.

This takes an impact on how people view Lincoln. Lincoln is one president who’s willing to meet with Civil war soldiers on the ‘Yankee’ side and hear the stories they have to tell. Many politicians view him as a wise communicator who always has an interesting tale of past history that will make one think about the present. However Lincoln loses some appeal as he’s unable to convince Republican Party founder Francis Blair in his method of dealing with the Confederates instead of peace negotiations. He even senses possible political tension in Stevens desire for racial equality included with ending slavery, fearing the Thirteenth Amendment won’t pass. He a meets up with Secretary of State William Seward with a plan to convince the Democrats to support the amendment with offers of federal jobs.

His family life is also impacted by this all too. Lincoln is adored by his youngest son Tad. His wife Mary is known for her outlandish mouth and is frequently involved with spats with Abraham and even breaks down whenever their late son Willie comes up in conversation, especially since it’s possible their oldest son Robert might have to fight. Meanwhile Robert returns home from his law studies as he had just been named Union Captain to General Ulysses Grant. He’s studying to be a lawyer like his father but is willing to fight in the war if he has to. That leaves Abraham very uncomfortable and even coming to some confrontations with Robert.

Then the day comes for the Emancipation proclamation to be voted upon. Lincoln has gone far to get this voted upon fast to the point of even instructing Confederate envoys to be kept out of Washington. This was a moment of focus for all the nation. In the end, the Emancipation proclamation was voted into law by a margin of just two votes and the abolition of slavery was sealed as the Thirteenth Amendment of the American Constitution. People outside the White House, both black and white, celebrated. Lincoln finally meets with the Confederate envoys after the vote but they were willing to rejoin the Union if they could prevent the amendment from becoming law. Lincoln sent the message: “Slavery’s done.”

It would take time for the Civil War to end: April of 1865 to be exact. Then on April 14, 1865 Lincoln is in a meeting discussing measures to give suffrage to blacks when he is reminded Mary is waiting for him at Ford’s Theatre. That night…the rest is infamy. Nevertheless we’re reminded of the man who is an integral part of history with a flashback to his Second Inaugural Address.

The best thing about the film is that it does not just focus on Lincoln the maverick politician but Abraham Lincoln the person. He was a friendly talker and did his best to be a good father and a loyal husband but he was also stern in what he believed. It was not perfect because he wanted the Emancipation Proclamation to pass but knew that mention of equality for blacks would deter many Representatives from giving it a ‘Yay’ vote.  He was as much a strategist as he was an idealist. He knew any chances of equality would be a step-by-step procedure and emancipation was the first step. He knew of the bloody war happening and of the Confederate’s rebellion but he knew it had to be done.

Another excellent quality of this film is that it shows the political climate of the time. We should remember that the United States of America wasn’t even a century old at the time and slavery had existed in the South long before the United States of America was formed. There were many laws and disputes debating free states and slave states over the years to the point that slavery was going to reach its end but the South refused it to the point they would form their own nation: The Confederate States of America. The North, the United States, wanted to see slavery end throughout the whole United States and were even willing to have this war to make it happen even in the South. The South, the Confederates, knew that they would lose but they valued slavery to the point that they were willing to fight for it in such a brutal war. Even though they knew they were losing, they were willing to fight for it over these four long years and despite the huge losses they suffered.

The debates in the House Of Representative from the various states’ Representatives showcased the ideologies both the United States and the Confederate States felt. Nowadays we all can’t imagine slavery from happening but back then the South valued slavery to the point they would try to start their own independent nation and fight a long bloody war to keep it alive. And even the politicians in the American offices upheld their convictions in debates. The film also reminds us that the Emancipation Proclamation may have been written by Thaddeus Stevens and introduced to the House Of Representatives by Lincoln but it required the House to vote it into law. It almost didn’t happened and if it didn’t, Lincoln may have gone down in history as one of the lesser Presidents of the United States. We’re reminded in the film what kind of gamble Lincoln was making.

Another thing to notice in the film is Spielberg’s infatuation with war. We have seen it before with World War II with Saving Private Ryan and Empire Of The Sun, World War I with War Horse and we see now see Spielberg’s depiction of the Civil War and it has a lot of details. It details the artillery that was used at the time. It details the gruesome destruction and bloodshed that occurred. It even depicted the communication between officers and of relaying news to soldiers via Morse Code. Spielberg does it again.

Spielberg gives another directing effort under his belt. Already we know Spielberg to master sci-fi thrillers, sci-fi family adventures, and war dramas. Now he creates an ideological drama that focuses less on the war and more on the focus of the historic individual and the times he was facing. The film did an excellent job in focusing on the political climate of the times as much as the main politicians involved. The film however couldn’t have been done without the excellent acting. Daniel Day-Lewis gave an excellent performance as Abraham. The may have focused mostly on a single month of Lincoln’s presidency but his performance spoke volumes of the President we thought we knew. The movie however was stolen frequently by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. Tommy Lee did a great job in showing Stevens in his mannerisms, beliefs and how fierce of a man of conviction he was. Sally Field was also excellent as the troubled Mary Lincoln. History has documented her as a woman with mental illness. Field’s performances showcase her outlandish personality but also shows her as a woman both troubled by her losses and fearing for her future. Joseph Gordon Levitt was not so good at undoing his body and talking from modern mannerisms but he was better at conveying Robert the person in his ambitions and fears.

The screenplay by Tony Kushner is an excellent adaptation which is able to make that one month in 1865 to be the defining month in the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. It was as much focused on political details as it was on the people involved. John Williams delivers another fitting score to his list of movie scores. Janusz Kaminski gave good cinematography but there were many times I felt the use of zoom-ups were excessive. The depictions of war in the movie were mostly graphic only at the very beginning but were very well-detailed in not just the battles taking place on screen.

Lincoln is a surprising outlook on a president we’ve all come to know and celebrate but didn’t completely know. It’s also an excellent presentation of the political climate of the times. This reminds us of his celebrated greatness and how much of a gamble he made not just with his life but his political status to achieve it. Definitely worth seeing.

2011 Oscars Best Picture Nominee: War Horse

War Horse is the latest live-action drama by Steven Spielberg. It was originally a children’s story written in 1982 and later adapted into a stage play which debuted on Broadway in 2011 and even won a lot of Tonys. Now War Horse comes to the big screen and it’s only right that Steven Spielberg be the one to create it into an epic movie.

The film opens as young Devon boy Albert Naracott watches the birth of thoroughbred colt and watches him grow up. The colt would become his, but at a cost to the family. The father Ted wins him at an auction at an enormously high 40 guineas, thanks to his intent to spite his landlord. The high price would cause him to miss his rent and he would have to pay by autumn. That’s not an easy thing for Ted as he has an injured leg from the Boer War for which he’s not proud of and drinks to hide his guilt. He even hides his medals away.

Meanwhile Albert grows a friendship out of the horse whom he names ‘Joey’. Each time Ted threatens to shoot the horse, Albert tries to prove Joey is worthy of staying. Albert trains Joey into plowing the farm and succeeds in having it all plowed in a single day. However the farm fails because of heavy rain and Ted sells Joey to an Army Captain as World War I has just started. This breaks Albert’s heart and he even tries to enlist, even though he’s underage. However Captain Nicholls ensures Albert Joey will be fine and will make it home. Albert even ties his father’s war pennant to Joey’s bridle.

Joey is trained for battle and faces his first battle with Nicholls on top against the Germans. The Germans however have the latest artillery which are capable not only of killing horses from far away but making horses now useless in war battle. Nicholls is killed in battle but Joey is one of few horses to survive, only to be captured by the Germans and used as an ambulance horse along with Topthorn, a black horse whom was trained by the British. Joey and Topthorn become friends. The two horses then become owned by two young German brothers who plan to desert the army and flee to Italy. Even though they hide themselves and the horses in a French windmill, the brothers are discovered by the German soldiers and executed by firing squad.

The two horses are discovered by a French farm girl named Emilie, an orphaned girl who has brittle bones and lives with her grandfather. They soon become hers and she’s able to hide them successfully after German soldiers raid their house and take their food. She finally rides Joey on her birthday only to have the horse stolen by German soldiers. The horses are then put to the task of pulling heavy artillery. Joey and Topthorn are the only two pulling horses to survive this.

Meanwhile it’s 1918 and Albert is now a soldier for Britain. He and his allies are wounded by a mustard gas explosion in German trenches. Joey and Topthorn are still alive after years of brutal labor by the Germans but Topthorn can’t take it anymore and dies. Soon after, Joey tries to flee and advancing tank only to end up tangled in barbed wire and fall down in the mud. A British and German soldier clip off the wires together and the British soldier wins possession of Joey in a coin-toss. While Albert is recovering from his gas attack, he learns the story of the miracle horse. Meanwhile Joey is to be put down because he is too injured. Just before he’s to be shot, Joey responds to an ‘owl call’ from Albert. Albert and Joey are back together again but it doesn’t end there as there is still the auctioning of the war horses. What happens after is something for you to see for yourself.

One thing about the movie is that this, like a lot of epic films, does not have that stellar of a script or of acting. The script is good in how it takes one through the adventure from one place to the next with its various twists and turns, but nothing really deep. There are even times in which it comes off as fluffy as a movie-of-the-week script. The acting is flawless but nothing of any real challenge either. There was no real actor that stood out with Emily Watson being the top billed actor of the film and newcomer Jeremy Irvine being the lead human protagonist. The acting roles are well-played but often end up as cardboard as your typical acting in an epic movie.

The lead role and the protagonist in the movie is actually Joey the Horse. The story may mainly be about Albert trying to get Joey back to Devon but it’s Joey’s adventure and trials of it all which is what the story is all about. He goes from being born to Albert’s best friend to a horse in battle for Britain to befriending another war horse named Topthorn to a horse on the German side to being a horse of a French farm family to being back with the German side to being found stuck in barbed wire to being reunited with Albert. I may have knocked the script a while back in my review but I have to say one of the best attributes of the script is that it was able to make Joey into a horse with feelings without coming across as cheesy. That scene where Joey says his last goodbye to the deceased Topthorn didn’t come across as cheesy or manipulative. Also the movie ends with some unexpected twists and turns. Just when you think Albert and Joey are finally reunited, it doesn’t guarantee Albert will be taking him back to Devon. Interesting note is that the scriptwriters worked with Michael Morpurgo, author of the novel, to get the right adaptation of the movie.

Although the script and the acting are not the best attributes of the movie, the cinematography, set design and the accompanying score are the best technical qualities. Spielberg picked out some of the best and most appropriate areas of England for filming this movie, including Devon for the countryside and town scenes, Hampshire for cavalry scenes and an airfield in Surrey for the battle scenes. Janusz Kaminski did an excellent job of cinematography. His cinematography duties for this movie were complex as he had to both capture the grittiness of war for the battle scenes and capture the glamor and beauty of the countryside for the various country scenes. Plus you can’t go wrong when you have John Williams to compose your movie’s score.

However the best overall attribute is its ability to capture battles of World War I. Steven Spielberg is already known for his movies that depict wars and it only seemed right that he should be the one to recreate World War I in this movie. Here, he doesn’t disappoint. He’s able to recreate everything from the horse battles to the ground artillery to the trenches of the World War I battles to the first tanks. He also shows the grittiness of war too with the laying of the dead horses in battle to the execution of boys not yet adults to the rats in the trenches to the explosion of mustard gas bombs. Grittiness of war is something Spielberg doesn’t avoid and he doesn’t avoid it here. It’s also interesting noting the horse statistics of World War I that Morpurgo researched to create the War Horse novel. It is believed that there were 10 million horse deaths during the whole war. Of the one million horses sent from the UK to battle, only slightly more than 60,000 returned alive. The rest were killed in battle or slaughtered in France for meat. So War Horse is quite a story of survival.

War Horse may not deserve to win Best Picture as its acting performances, direction and script lack the winning edge but it’s a very good movie on its own. It’s a good family drama for families with older children. I commend Steven Spielberg for making the adaptation of this children’s novel possible on the big screen.

Move Review: Super 8

DISCLAIMER: Okay, I know I’m behind in my writing and my movie reviewing. This has been a summer where I’ve tried to relax as possible so please excuse while I play catch-up here.

It’s the summer: the time when Hollywood producers, directors and film companies compete for the #1 grossing movie and the top moneymaking film company. It’s always at the box office where they decide the tried-and-true from the tried-and-tired. Despite the intense competition, there’s always a movie that comes with modest expectations that surprises everyone and steals their attention in the end. Super 8 is a movie that came with no top billed cast, Steven Spielberg acting only as a producer, and directed by little-known J.J. Abrams. Nevertheless it surprised everyone who saw it and gave them more than their money’s worth.

The movie starts as Joe Lamb’s mother had died on the job at the steel mill in an Ohio town. His father, the town deputy, is not taking it that well and even arrests Louis Dainard, the town bad apple. Four months later, school’s out. Joe’s father wants to send him off to a baseball camp in Pennsylvania but Joe’s more interested in making a zombie movie with his friends. This is a film director Charles Kaznyk wants to make to win a Super 8 film competition. He convinces Alice Dainard, Louis’ daughter, to play the protagonist’s wife in the movie. Alice steals her father’s car and takes the group to a train station to film the scene. During the shoot, a train passes by which the crew hopes will add more to the story. During the passing, Joe notices a truck driving towards the train, colliding, and derailing the whole train. In the aftermath, the kids come across a lot of explosions from the train cars and unique white cubes amongst the debris. They also find out the man who hit the train was their biology teacher Mr. Woodward who instructs them never to talk of what they saw or they and their parents will be killed. Just before the children flee, they learn that the Super 8 camera was untouched during the crash. Later the U.S. Air Force arrives to take over the crash scene.

Over the next two days, strange paranormal phenomena occur like people and dogs disappearing, power lines vanishing, missing electronics and even a gas station destroyed by something unknown. Woodward, recovering from the accident, refuses to answer the Air Force any questions and he is poisoned by a soldier. The Air Force has complete control of the town and its people, even deliberately starting a wildfire to evacuate the whole town. The town relies on Joe’s father to assure them of their security and answer their questions.

In the meantime the kids try to use some of the events as catharsis for Charles’ film, including using one evacuation scene for shooting. They also try to look for clues to this whole mystery. The first clue comes in the developed film used at the train station shoot. They notice something bizarre, like bugs. Later after Alice is amongst the missing, they break into their school and search for any of Mr. Woodward’s items that may have clues to this creature. What they find is a film and audio recordings about a creature that crashed to Earth in 1958. The alien only wanted to rebuild its ship but the Force tortured and imprisoned it to take its technology. One film even showed Woodward attacked by the alien only to form a bond. Woodward crashed into the train to free the alien.

The Air Force capture the boys and place them on an Air Force bus heading back to the base only to be attacked by the alien. The alien kills the men from the Air Force bus with allows Joe and the boys to escape and return back to the town. The boys return to town which is under heavy fire from the malfunctioning military equipment. They find a subterranean lair near the cemetery where Joe’s mother is buried. They come across many missing people still alive, including Alice, in which the alien was planning to have for food. They also learn the town’s electronics are underneath the base of the water tower formed together in which the alien is hoping to build a machine to return him back to his planet. Joe rescues Alice but in the escape, Joe is caught by the alien. Joe tells the alien that he can still live on after the painful events. The alien understands him telepathically and allows Joe and his friends to escape.

Soon after, all the loose metal, including the cubes that break free from the Air Force transport truck, are attracted to the town’s water tower. The cubes align and a ship forms allowing the alien to enter and finally leave earth. During the end credits, we see the film in which Charles, Joe and his friends created. A fun zombie movie filled with simple effects and gory make-up.

The movie is not just about an alien breaking free from the Air Force captivity. It also has a lot of human elements and themes. One theme featured is about parent-child relations. The town sees Deputy Lamb as a hero but Joe sees him as someone who has alienated him ever since his mother’s death. Alice Dainard thinks her father’s a monster. Things turn for the worse as she befriends Joe and her father forbids him. Another theme is about trying to heal from the past. Deputy Lamb blames Louis Dainard for his wife’s death since he didn’t show up for his shift that day. Joe also keeps the locket of him as a baby in which his mother wore until her death. Another theme is about the growing pains of adolescence. Charles hoped using Alice in his film would attract her to him. Instead she develops a bond with Joe. That puts a hot spot in the friendship between Joe and Charles with Charles feeling like the misfit again because he’s overweight. This was one sci-fi film that had a lot of depth in its script that worked well with the movie.

One of the best things about this movie is that it will remind many people of Steven Spielberg’s thrillers of the past. I’m sure most of you have a favorite one: Jaws, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Poltergeist, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Gremlins, The Goonies. They captured people’s imaginations and dazzled viewers looking for an escapist thrill. Here in Super 8, we can see a lot of the Spielberg magic captured with the storyline, the special effects and the thrilling sequence of events. That’s what makes for a winning story. Many people can already see many hints of Spielberg’s past movie’s in Super 8. I’m sure if you see it or have seen it, you might too.

The best thing about the movie has to be the lack of star-billing in this movie. Here the main characters are the children. The adults are in minor roles. They are all great individually but its their unselfish performances together where the acting shines best as a whole. J.J. Abrams’ direction is also excellent. He was very good at taking the story he wrote and turning it into a thrilling movie that is as generous with its storyline as it is with its thrilling effects. With Spielberg acting as producer, I’m sure that J.J. Abrams could rightfully label himself the heir apparent to Spielberg. The visual effects definitely could pass as some of the best of the year. The mix of music with 70’s hits and the original score of Michael Giacchino was also excellent. Overall this was an excellent movie.

In terms of its business, Super 8 cost surprisingly over $50 million to make and even had a video game released with it. As of now, the film has grossed $125 million in North America and just over $200 million worldwide; not enough to rank it even in the annual Top 10 list of highest grossing movies. I really enjoyed it. I feel sorry for those who missed out on it. It’s also surprising to see that something like this about an alien invasion of such would draw and captivate moviegoers in the late 70’s but doesn’t seem to do so now.

Super 8 is an excellent summer movie that the viewer would expect little of but would leave the theatre amazed. This definitely has to be one of the best summer movies you could see. It may not look like your type of movie but if you give it a chance, you might be surprised.