Thursday, September 13, 2012

War Horse Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson

War Horse, the Academy Award-nominated Best Picture, is a story of incredible friendship, loyalty, courage, hope and tenacity. Based on the Tony Award-winning play, and set against the sweeping canvas of World War I, this deeply heartfelt tale begins with the remarkable friendship between a feisty colt named Joey and his young trainer Albert (Jeremy Irvine). When they’re forced apart by war, the film follows Joey’s extraordinary journey as he changes and inspires the lives of everyone he meets.  No matter where they go or what they experience both boy and horse keep forging ahead, driven by devotion and the hope of returning home.   Filled with spectacularly rich visuals, War Horse is one of the most powerful and moving stories of friendship and love ever filmed.

Film (5 out of 5 stars) 

Last year was a very good year for Steven Spielberg who came out with two very different movies that not only showed off his legendary talent, but also marked a return to two of his main themes of his career – a story about a boy that must overcome obstacles and a thrilling adventure story.  While the excellent The Adventures of Tintin:  The Secret of the Unicorn was a welcome return to his action-adventure roots, War Horse was a throwback to his earlier films like E.T. : The Extra Terrestial and Empire of the Sun that focused on a young man who achieves great things despite adversity.  When Spielberg isn’t telling a story about a brave young man, he’s usually showing us the daring exploits of a brave man like Indiana Jones.  In the case of War Horse, it’s focused on the bravery of both young and old as well as the courage of a single horse named Joey.
The journey begins in Devon, England when a young boy named Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) watches the birth of a young foal and falls in love with the horse right away.  When that same thoroughbred is sold at an auction, Albert is thrilled to learn that his father bought the horse even though it will likely bankrupt them.  His father Ted (Peter Mullen), who bought the horse while slightly drunk did so partly because he could spot a quality horse, but also because he wanted to spite his landlord, Lyon (David Thewlis) who kept raising the bid in a effort to shame Ted.  As happy as Albert is to see the horse, his mother Rose (Emily Watson) is far from thrilled because she knows that there’s no way that they can afford the horse and by buying it, Ted has put the entire family at risk.
Sure enough, Lyons comes calling for the rent and Ted doesn’t have the money.  Lucky for Ted, Lyons has a thing for Rose and she convinces him to give them more time.  Lyons reluctantly agrees to give them until Autumn but he’s convinced that there’s no way Ted will be able to plough the rough field with Joey in time.  The only person that believes Joey can be trained in time is Albert, who starts teaching Joey right away.  First, he starts off teaching Joey to find him when he whistles, but the real difficulty lies in training Joey to pull the plough through the rough rocky ground.  It doesn’t help that when he does start to plough for the first time, a crowd including Lyons who are there to watch his progress.  Despite the odds against it, Joey and Albert are able to plough the field once it starts raining which softens the ground.  Later however, a massive rainstorm ruins the turnip field and Ted sells Joey to a British cavalry officer named Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) to save the farm.  Before losing Joey, Albert tells him that he will find him again one day and he ties his father’s old regimental pennant to Joey’s bridle.
With the selling of Joey, the movie shifts the first of several times as we witness Joey go from one side of the war to another.  Nicholls along with his superior Maj. Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) plan to led a cavalry charge against the Germans in a surprise attack.  What they don’t realize is that their style and training of warfare is completely outdated and they fall under the annihilating machine gun fire that is so effective, all we see is riderless horses continue past the German position.  Joey and Stewart’s horse Topthorn are captured alone with the rest of the horses  by the Germans.  Some are used to pull ambulance wagons while others will later be used to tow the insanely heavy artillery guns.  Joey’s friendship with Topthorn continues as Joey tries to help his friend tow the guns when Topthorn starts to falter.  Joey and Topthorn are first cared for by two young German boys but they (along with Joey’s pennant) are obtained by other parties when tragedy continually follows the horses and those who care for them.
War Horse is a fantastic film that’s filled with heart and moving imagery and it’s a nice throwback to just about every facet of Spielberg’s oeuvre.   What’s impressive about this film is the varying style and techniques used at different points of the film which gives the movie a varied tone.   The opening of the film is very reminiscent of a John Ford film with its wide open vistas but once the trench-fighting starts it shifts into a darker and more realistic feel.  The movie is touching and it’s easy to empathize with both Joey and everyone who encounters him and the movie strikes a neutral stance on the war.  What’s interesting is seeing how Joey brings out the humanity in everyone he meets, no matter if it’s a farmer, a soldier, or a young French girl.  Both sides of the war have those that care about Joey and neither side is vilified or blamed for the war.
Much like Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg simply shows us the horrors of war and let’s us draw our own conclusions on the futility of war.  Even though it’s not really fair, after watching the World War I section and how incredibly it was filmed, I selfishly wanted to see that film.  In fact, I would love to see Spielberg make a movie about every major conflict and even important ones like the battle at the Alamo.  Many people felt this movie is old-fashioned and overly sentimental and it is, but that’s not a bad thing.  In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air since we hardly see these kind of movies anymore.

Video (5 out of 5 stars) 

This 1080p (2.40:1) transfer is simply stunning with it’s high level of detail and rich imagery that shows off Janusz Kaminski’s wonderful cinematography.  From the lush countryside of England to the grayed out horrific wasteland that makes up no man’s land, the colors pop off the screen with startling realism.  Detail is also superb and you can easily see the textures of the uniforms and every speck of dirt on each haunted soldier’s face.  Black levels are suitably dark and solid with spot on contrast as well.  There’s no digital defects to mention or any other complaints to mention as this is a beautiful looking transfer.

Audio (5 out of 5 stars) 

Having Disney take care of this Blu-ray release is a great bonus since they always do an incredible job with the picture and audio quality.  War Horse’s DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround mix is no exception as it sounds as good as any other one of Disney’s celebrated Blu-ray efforts.  Spielberg wisely brought in Gary Rydstrom to handle the sound design and it was a brilliant decision as Rydstrom is a giant in his field and he went all out to capture authentic sounds to make the movie sound realistic.  The dialogue is clear and clean and the rear channels offer a sonic experience that you won’t forget.  From artillery cannons, machine guns, tanks, galloping horses, and more all swirl about the room with dead accurate directionality.  The LFE channel had a field day with this mix and offers quite a bit of power behind the events on screen.  The score by musical genius John Williams also sounds incredible and it’s well mixed in with the rest of the dialogue and action.  I can’t say enough good things about this mix, but rest assured, it’s reason enough to buy this Blu-ray.

Extras (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

With every release of one of Steven Spielberg’s movies, I always hope that there will be a director’s commentary track even though I know it won’t be there. This time is no different but there are some really cool extras on this that make up for that loss.  All of them are in high definition too!
  • War Horse: The Journey Home – This extras was the most surprising one on the disc since it features two round-tables hosted by Steven Spielberg that’s a salute to his frequent long-time collaborators and some of the key cast-members from the movie.  While it’s nice to hear the actors talk about their experience on the film, I was even more interested in hearing from the people who have worked with Spielberg for decades like editor Michael Kahn and producer Kathleen Kennedy and seeing them exchange stories with Spielberg.  I wish more movies had this kind of extra that shines the spotlight on the talented people we rarely hear from.
  • An Extra’s Point of View – A short look at the life of an extra named Martin D. Dew who got a lot of work on this movie as he portrayed an English farmer, a British soldier, and a German soldier.
  • A Filmmaking Journey – This is the highlight of the extras as we get over an hour of time devoted to the history, genesis, and making of the film.  We get a lot of time with Spielberg, the cast, and the writers of the film too.  They all talk about the themes of the movie and how all of the effects and stunts were pulled off.
  • Editing & Scoring – This is something of a continuation of The Journey Home but this time it’s focused on Spielberg’s two main collaborators – Editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams.  They each talk about how they approach each movie and what it meant to them and Spielberg graciously lavishes praise on the two men and makes it clear how much he values them.
  • The Sounds of War Horse – A talk with sound designer Gary Rydstrom who shares how he went about creating an authentic sound design by capturing the real life sounds for the movie.
  • Through the Producer’s Lens – Producer Kathleen Kennedy shares her cool collection of  photos that she took on location.

Summary (5 out of 5 stars) 

War Horse is expertly directed, well acted, and just beautiful to look at and when combined with the Adventures of Tintin, it represents one of Spielberg’s best years and shows his amazing range as a director.  This is a stellar Blu-ray with pristine picture and sound quality and some excellent extras that make this release a very easy one to recommend!
Order your copy today!

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