Spielberg's return to form


Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup




Picture: Excellent

Sound: Excellent


Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1

DTS-HD Master Audio


April 3, 2012


war horse 

It seems so long ago now. Steven Spielberg once made films that cut across age and cultural lines. His films were universally loved. Most of his films had a child's outlook on fantasy and even life itself. He made audiences laugh, scream, and cry.

"War Horse" is now available on Blu-ray.

I was a child of Spielberg's magic during the 1970s and 1980s. Not all of his films were perfect during those decades, but I would often overlook the flaws and admire his direction. Certainly some critics and film historians would chastise Spielberg for "borrowing" directorial elements from masters like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. But even those critics and historians had a hard time faulting Spielberg for his mastery of the filmmaking medium and his ability to move an audience.

Watching "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was a thrill. Watching my father cry during "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" forever stays in my memory. Spielberg was, and is, a master of film.

I must admit that, over the years, my love for Spielberg's films has waned. In my opinion, he changed his directorial style during "The Color Purple" and became a "serious" filmmaker. "The Empire of the Sun," I felt, especially, changed Spielberg's style. Many of his films after that still made audiences cry and jump from their theater seats. But his films seemed to have a more cold and somewhat cynical edge. No longer a kid-at-heart, Spielberg grew up. I still admired many of his films, but they didn't affect me as much as they once did.

"War Horse" is a grand return to those optimistic films of Spielberg's past. Filled to the brim with classic Spielberg dolly shots of tearful actors, the film gently reminds audiences that the master director still has heart. And I, for one, miss that about his films.

The film is based on a popular stage play, which itself was based on a children's book by Michael Morpurgo. The story is told in different segments of how Joey the horse goes from farm life into World War I. Along his journey, he encounters people from both sides of the war. The basis of the story centers around his owner and trainer, Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Albert loses Joey to the war effort and after fretting over the horse, finds himself in the war effort.

Spielberg returns to his former style during "War Horse." There are many shots of actors tearing up their eyes and looking into the distance. The camera moves in on them for their close-ups. John Williams' score, which is very good, swells up at the right moments. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography captures an epic aura that we haven't seen in many films lately. The on-screen colors go from Technicolor to grim grays. This is a stunning film to watch on a big screen.

In watching "War Horse," I couldn't help but get misty eyed. I had missed those Spielberg moments in which, suddenly, I find myself chocking up over some revelation in the story. Some critics often took Spielberg to task for allegedly manipulating the audience's heartstrings. So be it. Nothing wrong with pulling the heartstrings every once in a while.

I did have some issues with the film, though. Jeremy Irvine seems like a good actor, but he portrays Albert with the same zeal as actor Sean Astin did in "Rudy" (1993). The lead character is such a good kid that he becomes almost overwhelmingly annoying. He has such a love for his horse that you wonder if the guy has some issues. There are scenes in which Albert talks to Joey as if the horse will respond. Perhaps this type of acting works better in a boy-and-his-dog story.

Spielberg lets Irvine play Albert with the same conviction as a teenage character in a 1940s weepy movie, or perhaps like Mickey Rooney in one of those "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" films. Albert is almost too enthusiastic. The experience is like watching "Rudy." You want another character to say to him, "Stop being such a nerd!"

Still, the film works. It feels and plays out as a traditional drama that would be completely at home in the 1940s or 1950s. Some people have pointed out that Spielberg directs "War Horse" like John Ford would have directed. Spielberg said in an interview that he didn't channel Ford or any other director. It's easy to see why people might think that the film channels John Ford. There is an old school feel to the film. Takes are long and Spielberg allows for the actors to act. If anything, the film actually feels like an epic in the tradition of "Far from the Madding Crowd" (1967) or David Lean's, "Ryan's Daughter" (1970).

The Blu-ray picture is excellent. The cinematography really pops off the screen with very sharp details and a lovely color palette. Kaminsky shot the film in Super 35 and utilized Arri lens and heavy key lighting to bring out sharpness and detail. On my 50-inch plasma screen, film grain is almost non-existent. This Blu-ray is a stunner.

The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent. Even though there are some scenes of war, the soundtrack is mainly dominated by quiet passages. I took notice that John Williams' score was recorded quite well. It's a lush sounding score. Sound effects of Joey galloping and scenes of the war trenches are well-recorded and mixed. It should be noted that Gary Rydstrom was one of the members of the elite sound crew on "War Horse."

Is "War Horse" a classic Spielberg epic in the tradition of his 1980s productions? Not quite, but it is a handsome steed that will gallop into your tear ducts if you're not careful.

Special thanks to Click Communications

Photo: © DreamWorks II/Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.         

Bill Kallay

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