[Editor's Note: These were the only nominees for the Academy's 2012 Best Picture Award that I skipped at the theater, mainly because their reception was lukewarm to ice cold, and I didn't foresee them claiming any major awards.]
Emotional manipulation bothers me, and as soon as I saw the teaser trailer for War Horse, with very little dialogue and an over-the-top score, I assumed this tale about a boy and his horse in World War I was exactly that. And though I wasn't entirely wrong in my original assessment, the film did have a lot more to offer.
War Horse focuses on Joey, a horse purchased by young Albert's (Jeremy Irvine) father to perform plow work for which Joey isn't particularly trained or built. However, when the family can't pay their rent, Albert's father sells Joey to the British army as World War I begins, breaking Albert's heart. Joey is used by both the British and German during the course of the war, and even finds respite briefly on a French farm, impressing everyone he meets with is beauty, strength and endurance.
The first act delivers exactly what I expected. With the sappy set up of Albert and Joey's relationship, the overpowering score, and a desperate attempt to make the story feel epic, I thought for a moment that perhaps War Horse would be more at home in the mid-90s on the Disney channel. Though the film is based on a children's novel, I was still expecting higher quality in its execution.
Thankfully, once Joey is sold to the army, the film starts to take a grittier turn. Afterall, it is a film set against the backdrop of a war. What really begins to work at this point is that when Joey leaves Albert's farm, the film mostly leaves Albert behind too, only to revisit him briefly once in the middle of the film, until his more mature return at the end.
This is very much a film about the horse and his miraculous journey through a very dark time in history. Joey's adventures aren't without their own dab of schmaltz, unfortunately, as he befriends another horse in the army named Topthorn. When the weaker Topthorn is elected to pull heavy German artillery, a demanding task that typically kills horses quickly, Joey actually runs in to take the place of his friend. It is as cheesy to watch as the description sounds.
But despite the moments of bothersome emotional manipulation, War Horse is a very beautiful film with a strong leading character that is fascinating to watch. And though an overdose of sentimentality may not be for everyone, especially me, the message of hope during such difficult times is one that anyone, including me, can and should appreciate. And that's really what War Horse is all about.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close felt like a low blow in the Best Picture race. In a year when the Academy decided to redact it's "hard ten nominees" rule and implement a change that allowed five to ten nominees for the most "deserving," Extremely Loud flew in under the radar to nab the ninth (and final) slot. Not only was it under the radar, but a closer look at the general consensus of the professional critics and the limited release audiences was pitiful. It was the only film of the prestigious nine to have a certified "rotten" average on Rotten Tomatoes, which hasn't changed. When critic and fan favorites like Fincher's Dragon Tattoo remake and Refn's Drive were shut out of the Best Picture race, Extremely Loud soon became the film to hate, whether you'd seen it or not, myself included. But did it really deserve all the vitriol? Now that I have seen it, I can say without hesitation "Absolutely."
The story is of a young Oskar (Thomas Horn), who has some undefined disability (perhaps somewhere in the Autism spectrum, though it's never really stated), whose beloved father (Tom Hanks) sends him on expeditions around New York City to help Oscar control some of his issues. However, after his father's tragic death during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Oskar, unable to connect in the same with his mother (Sandra Bullock) is lost. Then he finds a key in a vase and is convinced that his father had one final expedition in mind, making it his mission to find the lock the key fits.
I wondered for the longest time what the title of the film referred to. The planes and collapsing towers? The tragedy and mayhem? The spirit and memory of Oskar's father? Nope. It's Oskar himself. Thomas Horn spends 85% of the film yelling his dialogue at everyone, as if he's the only person in the world who's ever lost somebody. Even before his father's death, warming up to Oskar was impossible as his crude exchanges with the apartment doorman (John Goodman) were completely unnecessary. Though the film puts forth some vague disability, Oskar is nothing more than a spoiled, obnoxious brat who lacks any discipline. And since Extremely Loud is very much focused on Oskar and his journey, it fails by putting such a loathsome character at its gooey center.
As is if Oskar isn't awful enough, the film is highly exploitative of the 9/11 tragedy. Oskar's father could have died in any way, and the same story could have been told. Even worse is that Oskar's father didn't work at the World Trade Center; he was a jeweler who owned a shop and was unfortunate enough to be there on that fateful day. Extremely Loud pulls no punches in manipulating viewers' emotions.
It's all quite disappointing too, because with less plot contrivances and a better written central character, Extremely Loud might have been worthy of its wrongful nomination. Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, and Jeffrey Wright make the most of their few minutes on screen. And Sandra Bullock saves the movie from being entirely unwatchable with a lovely, quiet scene with Oskar toward the end, once the entire story comes full circle, but a scene that almost feels too little, too late.
So now that I've experienced the film for myself and am no longer relying on the opinions of others, I can say with strong conviction that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was undoubtedly the weakest candidate among an already underwhelming group of Best Picture nominees this year.