Friday, November 22, 2013


Year 5, Day 324 + 325 - 11/20 + 11/21/13 - Movie #1,588

BEFORE:  Back to war films, and if you don't see the connection from horse films to this one, then go and read the Iliad (go on, I'll wait...).  SPOILER ALERT, there's a giant wooden horse in here somewhere.

Linking from "Hidalgo", it's an easy leap from Viggo Mortensen through the "Lord of the Rings" films to Orlando Bloom.  Which reminds me, I have to add those confounded Hobbit films to my list. (Should have been one film, damn it, not three...) 

THE PLOT:  An adaptation of Homer's great epic, the film follows the assault on Troy by the united Greek forces and chronicles the fates of the men involved.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "300" (Movie #300)

AFTER: The Spartans are loose again!  Actually it's not just Spartans here, there's a whole bunch of Greek city-states, or maybe it's kingdoms, since there seem to be a bunch of Greek kings.  Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, etc.  And then in the other corner is the king of Troy, Priam, and his prince sons, Hector and Paris.  Then we've got the soldiers, most notably Achilles for the Greeks and Ajax for the Trojans. 

There are certain things you just can't get from reading Homer's story in English class - you have to set your mind to imagining 1,000 ships sailing to Troy, and tens of thousands of soldiers battling on a plain, and the carnage and the chaos involved.  Now that we have CGI, all that can finally appear on screen and we can all be on the same page, so to speak.

I'm not going to review the whole plot of the Iliad - which actually started out as a poem, and only covered a few weeks' time during the 10-year siege of the city of Troy.  But it covers the difficulty that Agamemnon had keeping Achilles in line, and mentions the events leading up to the siege, and some of the key battles.  But the Iliad was already a simplified version of a 10-year war, and now this film is sort of a simplification of THAT, so really by now we're getting a very watered-down version of things.

One thing that really got played down here was the involvement of the gods.  In the original Iliad, the Greek gods are characters, and their actions are depicted right alongside those of the humans - you had Zeus, Athena, Hera and Ares taking sides and manipulating the events.  As a modern audience, are we supposed to take this seriously, or interpret this as some kind of metaphor, based on the priestesses and oracles interpreting the events on the battlefield, and determining which God was responsible for what?

I suppose it would be somewhat cartoonish to depict the gods in this film as characters, I think it was a wise decision to leave them out of it, and just show the humans fighting on the battlefield.  They do mention the "will of the Gods" a lot, and when the Trojan horse is found, the Trojans say, "Surely it's an offering to Poseidon!  Let's bring it to the temple of Poseidon, conveniently located inside the walled city!"  And that's also a great excuse to further the plot.

This leads to perhaps a more realistic depiction of the war itself, but some things unfortunately had to be sacrificed to achieve this.  Achilles was supposed to be a demi-god (his mother was a nymph) and he was supposed to be invulnerable after being dunked in the river Styx, except of course for that part of his heel that his mother held on to while dipping him.  What happened to all that?  Here he's depicted as a great warrior, but no mention is made of his invulnerablity or weakness - I guess he's such a great fighter that he only seemed invulnerable?

ASIDE: They also managed to whitewash most of the, umm, gay stuff out of the story.  As depicted in "300" and other sources, it wasn't uncommon for these Greek soldiers to have wives and home and male companions on the battlefield.  Factor this back in, and the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus takes on a whole new meaning, and read up on Achilles and Troilus sometime if you've got the nerve.

While I'm talking about the sexual habits of ancient Greece, what was up with the soldiers' wives?  In the myths Zeus was always appearing to women as a bull, or a swan, or a shower of gold (heh...) and impregnating them and creating demi-gods like Hercules or Perseus or even Helen of Troy herself.  So either these wives were trying to cover up their preferences for farm animals, or they needed to explain how they got pregnant while their husbands were off fighting one war or another.  "Umm, honey, while you were at war, Zeus came to me, disguised as you, and one thing led to another, and now we have a son, but hey, he'll probably have super-strength or something, so that's good, right?"

And from there, it's not a big leap to explaining the Christian nativity story, is it?  (Blasphemy, I know, and with Christmas coming up!)  I think it was the comedian Greg Giraldo who pointed out that we have a whole religion based around a young Jewish girl who REALLY stuck to her story.

The other thing about "Troy" that I found was a little weird was the relative lack of fighting - it's the Trojan WAR, after all.  It seems to me that if you've got an army of 1,000 guys on one side, and 1,000 guys on the other side, it's a little strange to make the whole battle come down to one army's best guy against the other army's best fighter, and that's going to decide everything.  Maybe that's the way that Homer wrote it, or maybe that's the way it actually happened, but it's more than a little odd to have all these actors on film just sort of standing around.  Isn't there supposed to be a huge battle going on in the background or something?

Yet, time and again, it comes down to THIS one guy vs. THAT one guy.  Which made sense when Achilles rode up to the gates of Troy and called Hector out for a duel.  It made less sense in the heat of battle to have Agamemnon take on Paris, if he was going to attack the city anyway - did anyone think he'd sail there with 1,000 ships and NOT attack?  Or for one warrior to take on another in the middle of a huge battle scene and for everything in the background to come to a dead stop until one of these guys is slain.  Maybe these guys are very important, or maybe it was just a cost-cutting measure.  You decide.

Still, some great fight choreography, all things considered - 

Also starring Brad Pitt (last heard in "Happy Feet Two"), Eric Bana (last seen in "The Other Boleyn Girl"), Brian Cox (last seen in "Red Eye"), Peter O'Toole (last seen in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips"), Sean Bean (last seen in "Flightplan"), Brendan Gleeson (last seen in "Cold Mountain"), Diane Kruger (last seen in "Unknown"), Julian Glover (last seen in "For Your Eyes Only"), Garrett Hedlund (last seen in "Tron: Legacy"), Rose Byrne (last seen in "Bridesmaids"), Saffron Burrows (last seen in "Reign Over Me"), Tyler Mane, Julie Christie.

RATING:  6 out of 10 funeral pyres

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Year 5, Day 323 - 11/19/13 - Movie #1,587

BEFORE: Turns out my instincts were solid in making this equine-themed chain part of the larger war chain.   "Spirit" had a bunch of U.S. cavalrymen in it, and hinted rather delicately at the conflicts between U.S. soldiers and Native Americans out on the frontier.  And tonight's film starts rather conveniently in the remnants of the Old West, and then moves to the Middle East, where there's always some kind of conflict going on.  And this will set me up perfectly for the next film, which will take me two days to watch.

Linking from "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron", Matt Damon was also in "True Grit", another film with horses, with J.K. Simmons (last seen in "The Ladykillers") who has a cameo here as Buffalo Bill Cody.

THE PLOT:  In 1890, a down-and-out cowboy and his horse travel to Arabia to compete in a deadly cross-desert horse race.

AFTER: There are some films that by their nature give one insight to the screenwriting process.  Like with "Titanic", some writer probably surmised that a story taking place on a sinking ship was a fertile ground (you had me at "iceberg"), but then someone else may have suggested the use of the framing device with the explorers finding the sunken ship, and then someone else may have said the film really needed a love story, and what the heck let's throw in a diamond heist for good measure.  In the case of "Titanic", the pieces came together brilliantly in retrospect, however it happened.

In the case of "Hidalgo", I imagine someone looking at the script and pointing out that the whole middle act takes place in the desert, and it would be scene after scene of barren wasteland, and since it's the kind of race where the horses aren't really running, they're sort of ambling, this thing's just not going to be very interesting.  So let's add a love interest, for extra drama she can be the sheik's daughter, let's add a villain, and in the middle there can be this big exciting shoot-out taking place in an Arabic marketplace, just like the one in "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

With this script-by-committee approach (I'm assuming) the first victim is probably authenticity.  Was there really a man named Frank Hopkins who raced across the desert?  Sure, but I'm betting that no particular race was this exciting or full of drama.  Or sidetracks, since it seems like the kidnapping and the market scene probably comprised like three days of story, which seems a little out of place when there's a timed race going on.  Unless the sheik specifically halted the race while they sorted out all these other little things - which is possible, but then it's right back to the harsh desert crossing. What, no breaks for the guy who saved your daughter and the threat to your kingdom?

There's a Doonesbury cartoon from the 1980's where a participant in the New York Marathon is being interviewed on radio, and praised for his finish time of three weeks, four days and seven hours (or something like that).  He explains that once he reached Queens he met a girl, fell in love and decided to settle down, but when her father didn't approve and the relationship didn't work out, he decided he might as well get back out and finish the race.  I couldn't help but think of that cartoon after watching this.

It's good to know that these tests of human (and horse) endurance took place, I suppose.  And it's good to know that there are the kind of people who hear about a desert race where most of the participants never survive to see the finish line, and they say, "Sign me up."  What happened to that frontier spirit?  And now we know who would win in a race between an American mustang and a bunch of Arabian chargers (was there ever any doubt?). 

I admit I didn't really follow too much of the action at the beginning, but there was a lot of drama that came from Hopkins being part Native American, and also being the long-distance rider who delivered the message that authorized the massacre at Wounded Knee.  I didn't get the contrivance, at least not at first, that led to Hopkins entering the race - he was billed in the Wild West show as the world's greatest distance rider, and the sheik was the breeder of a line of Arabian horses that were known for their distance running.  But how did the wealthy female horse breeder fit into the picture?  I'm still trying to puzzle out her motivations.

There's a message about whether horses should be allowed to run free, or put to work for humans, (and if you don't tear up at the end of this film, congratulations, you have no soul) which ties in perfectly with the theme of "Spirit" and the things I said after watching "War Horse", so it's funny but things once again are coming together this week - I don't expect to see much of this thematic coincidence taking place next year.

Also starring Viggo Mortensen (last seen in "A Dangerous Method"), Omar Sharif, Louise Lombard, Zuleikha Robinson, Adam Alexi-Malle, Silas Carson, Peter Mensah, and Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman.

RATING: 5 out of 10 mirages

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Year 5, Day 322 - 11/18/13 - Movie #1,586

BEFORE:  Sticking with the horse theme, this is another film told more or less (I think) from the P.O.V. of a horse.  Linking from "War Horse", David Thewlis is also in the soon-to-be-released Terry Gilliam film "The Zero Theorem" with Matt Damon.

THE PLOT:  As a wild stallion travels across the frontiers of the Old West, he befriends a young human and finds true love with a mare.

AFTER: This was an OK animated film, but there just sort of wasn't anything super special about it.  The story was pretty basic, with the horse being caught by U.S. cavalry men and they attempted to train him (similar to Joey being enlisted into World War I last night), but here the result was the same, again and again - horse gets caught, horse escapes.  So really it just became a simple chase sequence after a while.

Spirit then gets put to work for the railroad, dragging a heavy locomotive uphill.  But this didn't really make sense, because the most efficient way to move a train engine would be to build a set of rails, and then move it to where it needs to be.  Why would the railroad company need the engine to arrive someplace before the tracks?  Once again, Spirit breaks free and runs away - is this sending the right message to kids, that they should run away from all difficult siutations?

It is innovative to tell a story from the horse's point of view, but then having him express his thoughts to the audience in English didn't really make sense to me either.  I imagine that the filmmakers meant to tell the story purely through images and horse noises, and then realized that people weren't picking up on all the aspects of the story, so the voiceover was added.

I've got some more animated films set for Christmas, and then I'll hit the animal-based ones hard again in the New Year.

Also starring the voices of James Cromwell (last seen in "Secretariat"), Daniel Studi, Charles Napier (last seen in "Miami Blues"), Michael Horse.

RATING:  5 out of 10 teepees

Monday, November 18, 2013

War Horse

Year 5, Day 321 - 11/17/13 - Movie #1,585

BEFORE: Wrapping up the war chain, for now, with a leap back to World War I.  I'll explain the next diversions tomorrow, which should ultimately lead me right back, well, someplace close to here.

Linking from "A Mighty Heart", I'm down to grasping at straws - Demetri Goritsas, who seems like he had a very under-the-radar role in that film, was also in a film called "The Whistleblower" with Benedict Cumberbatch (last seen in "Star Trek Into Darkness").  

THE PLOT:  Young Albert enlists to serve in World War I after his beloved horse is sold to the cavalry. Albert's hopeful journey takes him out of England and to the front lines as the war rages on.
AFTER: I didn't have high hopes for this film, primarily because my Mom liked it, which is usually a bad sign.  Surprisingly, she managed to recommend it to me without spoiling the ending, which is very rare - but this is probably because only someone who's never seen a movie before would have trouble predicting the ending.  Essentially it's boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy goes to find horse.  What do YOU think will happen at the end?  HINT: If it's not boy finds horse, then there wouldn't be any frickin' point, would there?

Let's start with "boy loses horse".  The first lesson when war is looming in Europe is that soldiers are going to take whatever they need to win the war, be that young men or strong horses.  And a solider saying "I'll do everything in my power to bring him back to you" is a non-certainty that's predicated on that soldier managing to stay alive, and given the statistics (and the nature of drama), things ain't looking so good.  But always bear in mind that when someone says that war is good for the economy, they're not talking about YOUR economy.

We're meant to believe that the U.K. soldiers are somehow different or "better" than the German soldiers, but damn it if their process doesn't amount to the same result - there are families who as a result don't have horses, and can't plant their turnips.  (Really?  There's that much demand for turnips over crops that actually taste good, like, I don't know, cucumbers or something?)  Actually, this seems to be quite a clever recruiting tool for the Allied war effort - "I'm taking your horse, and if you want to see him again, go and enlist and ask to be assigned to the 37th Regiment, but you didn't hear it from me..."

ASIDE: Actually, I've got a number of quibbles about the portrayal of this British family's farming skills - like how could they live on such rocky terrain and still call themselves "farmers"?  And how did they farm before they got a plowhorse?  And if they couldn't plow or farm or plant turnips, how did they get the money to buy the horse?  And how does a horse who admittedly and non-apologetically looks nothing like a plowhorse become the world's best plowhorse?  Something's just not adding up here.

Anyway, back to the war - this story is meant to show the differences in the fighting styles of the U.K. and Germany, and it becomes one of those "want of a nail" things - you know, for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, and so on.  Finally, the truth is revealed: if only the Germans had treated their horses better, the horses would have performed better, and their tanks and materials would have been moved into place more efficiently, and so on.  But this seems like a gross generalization, and awfully convenient to boot, so it started to set off my B.S. meter.  We could be looking at something of a cultural bias here - and an assumption that if Germans were cruel to Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, then by extension naturally (?) they were cruel to their horses.  (You've got to watch this sort of thing, because painting all Germans with the same convenient brush hems a little close to the sort of thing that led to concentration camps in the first place...)

I actually don't know much about German films - I'm incredibly biased toward Hollywood films, and I admit I haven't given foreign films much of a shot here (current stats: 1,585 to umm, zero).  And even though I'm of German descent and spent a couple weeks there on an exchange, my knowledge of German culture is quite limited.  I know for sure it's NOT like Americans think, with people singing and dancing all the time, wearing colorful lederhosen and carrying around mugs of beer and plates full of sausages (except maybe during one week each year in Munich...)  But how do they view World War II?  What do THEIR war movies look like? (I imagine that German audiences have a very low tolerance for films that jump back and forth in time excessively, as I do.  "What is this scheisse?  Why are the scenes not in the proper order?")

ASIDE #2: Speaking of cultural throwbacks, here in NYC we've got these horse-drawn carriage rides that take people around Central Park, and the practice is quite divisive and controversial.  People either view this as a quaint, romantic yet anachronistic way to see the park, or a cruelty-driven insane practice that should have been banned decades ago.  There seems to be no middle ground.  Even the people who are against the practice are split, because they're not sure if banning the carriage rides would save the horses, or if they'd all be summarily executed once they're no longer useful.  Because investigating that sort of thing starts to sound like work, and that's where people lose interest.

Other people say, "Well, horses are like people.  They NEED a job."  This also sets off my B.S. meter, for two reasons.  First, horses have been around for millions of years, long before humans started giving them odd jobs, and they seem to have gotten through that fallow period quite well.  Secondly, there are plenty of people who don't have jobs, either by choice or by occurence, and most of them get through the day just fine - and even those of us with jobs are hoping that there will come a day when we can retire, and not have a job, and this also suits us.  So don't tell me that horses NEED a job, when you're the one putting them to work, and your logic just happens to support your own needs.

ASIDE to ASIDE #2: Speaking of politics, what I've learned in my 28 years among the New Yorkers (and maybe politics works the same everywhere, but I have no idea) is that everyone here seems to be either strongly FOR or strongly AGAINST any given issue.  I've never heard anyone speaking out on a topic who espouses moderation in any way.  The carriage horse issue is a perfect example, as is abortion, as is "stop and frisk".  I sometimes enrage people by taking the middle ground, which is perceived as a cop out, but that's usually how I feel.  Sure, I support a woman's right to choose, but I would also like it if there were fewer unwanted pregnancies to begin with, and therefore fewer abortions.  Do I think "stop and frisk" prevents crime?  Sure, but who's to say it isn't also racist and trampling people's personal liberties at the same time? 

Anyway, back to the film.  This is almost complete sentimental rubbish because of the way that man and horse find each other again, or more accurately are thrown back together again.  The boy joins the army, and the horse passes through a series of owners, on both sides of the war (he pulled loads for the Germans - why isn't this called "Traitor Horse"?)  The film then tracks both of them (mostly the horse, but the boy gets some screen time too) and through a series of unlikely, nearly impossible contrivances, they are eventually reunited. 

FURTHER ASIDE: What this reminds me of the most are those stories about lost dogs - as seen in films like "The Incredible Journey", but also what are essentially urban legends about dogs being separated from their owners, and finding their way across the country somehow in order to get back to what they consider home.   Are these stories total B.S. too?  I'm not inclined to believe that dogs can navigate by the stars, and being color blind reading a road map is out of the question, so what's the deal?  Their sense of smell is powerful, so do they stumble around until they find one of their own pee-mails at a highway rest stop, then backtrack with that direction until they find another one?  And for every dog that allegedly travels on foot 3,000 miles from Seattle back to New Jersey shouldn't there be like 1,000 lost dogs that never make it?   What about the dog that makes it 99% of the way, and then gets hit by a semi when he's just a mile or two from home?  Logically, it's got to happen.

I checked with good old Cecil Adams at the Straight Dope, and yes, this question has been asked and answered before.  Cecil backs me up by supporting the theory that dogs more or less stumble around until they find a familiar landmark.  However, dogs used in cattle drives have been known to travel home over 100 miles or more, but admittedly this was over familiar territory.  I think that if you lose your dog on the other side of the country and he shows up on your doorstep weeks later, you really have to wonder why his markings are slightly different, he's a little shorter than before and how he managed to have grown his testicles back.

ASIDE TO THE FURTHER ASIDE:  While I'm at it, what's the deal with missing people?  I can see how a pet can run away, but has anyone ever come up with a constructive explanation as to why so many people seem to disappear each year?  Where do they go?  What happens to them?  Can we tell the difference between someone who's met with foul play and someone who just drops out of society to get their head together?  And did putting anyone's photo on a milk carton ever do any good?  Because I haven't seen that take place in quite a while.  I figure if you see someone's face on a milk carton that you recognize, while they're sitting across from you at breakfast, there's a pretty good chance that you're their abductor, so I don't know if that process was ever beneficial.

I know there was that girl, Elizabeth Smart, who came back to her parents after 9 months in a cult after being abducted - but what about all the others?  Am I right in thinking that she seems to be the exception, and most of these cases go unsolved?  We've got one of those cases going on now in NYC where an autistic teen left his high school unsupervised, and hasn't been seen since.  A month has gone by and they keep posting his photo in the subways, as if we're all passing him on the platform and we're not paying close enough attention.  Or perhaps he's in some alley somewhere, and someone just needs to spot him, because he can't quite figure out how to get himself back out on to the street.  It's been 7 weeks now, so if this kid can't communicate or ask for food, I don't think his chances are good.  Part of me believes that good and improbable things do happen sometimes, but the other part of me is more realistic.

The film, right, the film.  Enough with the asides.  I know this was based on a stage play, and that stage play used an allegedly remarkable puppet/animatronic horse.  I'm now quite curious about this, because having seen the film, which is mostly live-action and partial CGI, I don't see how you could get much of this action across through puppetry.  That would have to be one super amazing puppet.

Also starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson (last seen in "The Boxer"), Tom Hiddleston (last seen in "The Avengers"), David Thewlis (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"), Eddie Marsan (last seen in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"), Peter Mullan (last seen in "The Claim"), Niels Arestrup, Celine Buckens, and Finder the horse (last seen in "Seabiscuit").

RATING: 4 out of 10 guineas 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Mighty Heart

Year 5, Day 320 - 11/16/13 - Movie #1,584

BEFORE: And linking from "Argo", Clea DuVall was also in "Girl, Interrupted" with Angelina Jolie (last seen in "The Bone Collector").

THE PLOT:  Mariane Pearl embarks on a frantic search to locate her journalist husband, Daniel, when he goes missing in Pakistan. 

AFTER: I don't have much to report tonight - I can't say that I enjoyed this one, but I don't think it's meant to be enjoyed, though some may consider the story important.  Yet I think that's sort of a trap that screenwriters fall into, with an important story there's sometimes not much of an effort made to ensure that the film is also entertaining, and isn't that the point?  Documentaries inform, dramas should entertain.
The other trap on display here regards the fate of Daniel Pearl - if you already know it, then you may spend the whole film waiting for it to be portrayed, and if you didn't already know it, then you may hold out some hope.  Either way, it's a set-up for disappointment.  I maintain that with a tricky story like this, it's best to not even try.  Not every story is going to work as a dramatic film, and I think this is one that just doesn't.

Also starring Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi (last seen in "Bend It Like Beckham"), Will Patton (last seen in "Brooklyn's Finest"), Denis O'Hare, Irrfan Khan (last seen in "The Amazing Spider-Man")

RATING: 3 out of 10 TV interviews