Tag Archives: new movies

“War Horse” on screen and stage

"War Horse" was a novel before it was a play

The “War Horse” story was first told in 1981 by novelist Michael Morpurgo, whose tale was adapted for the stage by Nick Safford in association with Handspring Puppet Company, which earned a special Tony Award for its “War Horse” creations.

The National Theatre of Great Britian production premiered in London in 1997 and officially opened in the U.S. last April at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in NYC’s Lincoln Center Theater — and went on to win five 2011 Tony Awards, including one for best play.

The “War Horse” movie directed by Steven Spielberg is based on a Lee Hall and Richard Curtis screenplay inspired by both book and play, was released in the U.S. just days ago, and is already being hailed as a 2011 Oscar contender.

I’ve seen both works with my college-age daughter, who shared my apprehension when learning that the story we so loved on stage was being adapted for big screen. The only saving grace for us at that point was knowing the story had made its way into the heart, and hands, of filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Though we both enjoyed the movie, we were fonder by far of the play for several reasons. First, because the actors who performed in the live theater production did such an exceptional job of conveying each character’s depth. The play makes abundantly clear the full measure of dysfunction in Albert’s family, something that makes his loss and reunification with the “War Horse” Joey feel more precious and profound.

The scenic, lighting and sound design for “War Horse” on stage at Lincoln Theater Center was exquisite. All three designers, as well as the play’s two directors, earned Tony Awards. Despite the visual feast of “War Horse” the movie, we still favor the symbolism these designs conveyed over the literal depiction of war featured in the film.

"War Horse" was a play before it was a movie

We appreciated the fact that several elements of the play, like the bothersome duck who quacks up a storm while nipping at people’s heels, were included in the movie. The duck was funny on stage and screen, but it’s hardly fair to ask an on-screen duck to compare with a whimsical puppet creation operated by a puppeteer sporting a Scottish tam o’shanter cap.

Still, I found more humor in the screen version of “War Horse” — in which knitting needles and metal cutters get used in unexpected ways. The machismo of men is fraught with more comedy than angst in the movie, and plenty of light moments help to break up a story full of labors and loss.

Perhaps the greatest difference is found in the music. John Williams’ score for “War Horse” is no less magestic than those he’s composed for other works, but I found the simple violin and haunting vocals of “War Horse” on stage more moving — despite the fact that songmaker John Tams worked on both stage and screen versions of “War Horse.”

I remember “War Horse” on stage as a single strand of magnificent storytelling, with just a specific scene or two standing out from the rest — the glorious opening and the terrifying tank scene — so the play felt more consistent across scenes. But I’ll remember the movie for specific moments — some touching, others terrifying. The transition between farm fields and battle fields seemed more abrupt on screen, making me feel at times like I was watching two separate films.

In the end, I suppose, it’s all a matter of personal preference. Whether you tend to fancy stage or screen, the story at the heart of “War Horse” is gripping and gratifying. Get to London or NYC for the stage version if you can. It’s truly captivating, and something you’ll never forget. But see the movie, and read the book too. With each “War Horse” encounter, you’ll find something remarkable and new.

— Lynn

Note: Nominations for the 84th Annual Academy Awards will be announced on Jan. 24, 2012. I’ll be rooting for both “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin.” Updated 12/28/11.

Coming up: Valley theaters bring classic literature to life

Update: The touring production of “War Horse” comes to ASU Gammage in Tempe Feb. 5-10, 2013 as part of the 2012/13 “Broadway Across America” season — click here for details. 4/15/12


Spielberg’s “War Horse”

Director Steven Spielberg clearly understands the horrors of war. The USC Shoah Foundation Institute he founded records the testimony of Holocaust survivors. His long list of credits include “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

Spielberg demonstrates these horrors again in the film version of “War Horse,” a movie based on both the children’s book by beloved British author Michael Morpurgo and the Tony-Award winning play his book inspired. The screenplay was written by Lee Hall (screenwriter for the 2000 film “Billy Elliot”) and Richard Curtis.

Spielberg describes “War Horse” as a story of the powerful bond between a boy and his horse. His family owns several horses, and he’s seen the love between child and horse firsthand. One of the film’s most endearing threads is all the people, of different nationalities, who face peril for protecting horses caught up in the war.

But “War Horse” feels first and foremost like a war movie, something parents need to know before deciding to take young children to see it. It’s rated PG-13 for a reason. People and horses suffer terrible fates. Think machine guns and massive tanks. Firing squads and grenades. Barbed wire and brutality.

War reveals our common humanity, something that’s beautifully conveyed in this film. When “War Horse” Joey is trapped, two soldiers from opposing sides work together to free him. When a girl questions her grandfather’s courage, he explains that there are many ways to be brave.

But the story doesn’t begin with war. Instead, it all starts with relationships. We see a teenage boy named Albert at home on his family’s humble farm, where his longsuffering mother endures uncertainty and ridicule wrought by his father’s drinking and lousy judgement. Their relationship generates one of the movie’s best lines — something akin to “I might hate you more, but I’ll never love you less.”

Albert’s mother is one of two parents in the film who share an important family belonging that proves pivotal in unexpected ways. Both items serve as powerful reminders that our histories, both individual and collective, never leave us. Deny them or embrace them — but you can never destroy them.

“War Horse” reminds us that history is made up of moments, of the decisions we make alone and together, of the choices that sometimes have unintended consequences. It demonstrates our drive to protect what we love in a world where love sometimes means letting go.

Parents will find several scenes especially profound — a big brother’s attempt to help his younger brother escape the front lines, a grandfather’s fireside reflections on the importance of home, a young girl’s innocent ride up and over a mountain.

Take it all in, then take it home with a renewed appreciation for the joys and responsibilities of the everyday.

— Lynn

Coming up: Comparing “War Horse” on stage and screen

Tintin tales

Tintin-related titles I discovered during a recent trip to the Book Gallery in Mesa

While I’d heard that the new movie “The Adventures of Tintin” was based on comic book adventures created by 20th century Belgian artist George Remi under the pen name Hergé, I hadn’t seen any of his work until stumbling a few weeks ago on a pair of related titles at the Book Gallery’s Mesa location.

I was apprehensive about seeing “The Adventures of Tintin” after hearing that it’s a mystery meets action adventure film. I’m not particularly fond of either genre, mostly because I’m bad at following clues and even worse at enduring vicarious chaos.

But I was pleasantly surprised that the tender little package, wrapped in mustardy yellow and equivalent shades of blue and red, is a rare blend of mystery and action adventure with old-fashioned storytelling. A charming opening sequence featuring old-fashioned typewriter keys pounding out Tintin’s boyish bravado hastened my conversion.

“The Adventures of Tintin” feels first and foremost like the simple tale of a curious young boy named Tintin and his loyal pup Snowy, but it’s also the tale of Captain Haddock, a man left alone in the world to face his family’s unfinished business. Through his journey, we’re reminded of the power of personal choice — and the value of holding tight to a puppy when seas get rough.

Haddock delivers the most obvious messages of the movie, which always feel organic rather than contrived, and never interrupt the pace of the  chase. When you hit a wall, break through it. Don’t glorify giving up by labeling it “realism.” And know that what you think of youself influences your vibe with others.

Plenty of synapses fired while watching “The Adventures of Tintin,” but I couldn’t always make the connections. Several action sequences, bits of music and other elements felt vaguely familiar, in a nostalgic way, but often I was caught up in the next moment before realizing the intended reference. There’s an extra layer in “The Adventures of Tintin” for folks with lots of film and music experience.

Parents should know that “The Adventures of Tintin” (rated PG) has several scenes featuring fist fights, sword battles and rapid exchanges of gunfire. Also fire, explosions and such — all well-integrated into the story and none particularly frightening for elementary age kids and up because only animated characters take the hit. 

“The Adventures of Tintin” is full of tools young adventurers can relate to — magnifiying glasses, flashlights, maps and more. When Tintin can’t find what he’s looking for, he asks questions, hits the local library or doggedly hunts down missing clues.

Adults too reliant on four letters will discover new options as frustrated characters belt out alternatives like “Great snakes!” or “Thundering typhoons!” And literature lovers will revel in long strings of Shakespearean-like insults shared by pirates, bumbling detectives and a pickpocket who explains “I’m not a bad person, I’m a kleptomaniac.”

I saw “The Adventures of Tintin” with my college-age son, who shared his thoughts about the movie as we walked back to the car. “It reminded me,” he said, “of how I was as a little boy.” Not to worry, Christopher. That unsatiable curiosity is still there. And life with you will always be an adventure.

— Lynn

Note: “Tintin” is Jamie Bell, known to Broadway fans for his performance in the film version of “Billy Elliot.” The film is directed by Steven Spielberg and features music by composer John Williams. It’s rated PG.

Coming up: Once upon a “War Horse”

My own little movie list

Lizabeth called the other night as she was preparing to fly home from college for the holidays, sharing that she had just one final decision to make before getting on the plane — which movies to purchase for the five-hour flight.

Turns out she chose three of them, including one on my short list of “must see” movies for families who like to do films with friends and family members visiting during the holidays. It’s “Dolphin Tale,” a 2011 film still playing at just a few Valley theaters.

“Dolphin Tale” is based on a true story. It recounts the adventures of a wounded dolphin named Winter and a wounded veteran, follows the developing friendship of two tweens and offers a touching glimpse into the heart of a mother learning to let go as her son pursues his rather unconventional dreams.

I have my own little list of movies to watch during the holidays, including one my grown son loved enough to see twice when it was in theaters. It’s “Up!,” a 2009 computer-animated film featuring Ed Asner voicing a grumpy old widower whose house floats away as a young boy he’s just met stands helpless on the front porch.

When I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll revisit the 2011 “Winnie the Pooh” film. It’s a lovely homage to literature, and reminds me of all the Pooh paraphernalia that filled Christopher’s room when he was young. Also “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” a 1982 film I first saw with my mom without knowing I’d lose to cancer the following decade.

Lizabeth is already planning to watch the final “Harry Potter” movie with me while she’s home. I somehow managed to miss the movie theater run, so it’ll be my first experience with 2011 movie “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.” We’ve been watching these movies together since she was ten years old.

I’m also determined to finally see “The Help,” a 2011 film that’s still showing in a small number of Valley theaters. It stars one of my favorite actresses, Viola Davis — and actress Emma Stone, who once performed at Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix.

I’ve got a whole other list for new movies. It’s topped by two Spielberg titles — “The Advenures of Tin Tin” (opening today, Dec. 21) and “War Horse” (opening Sun, Dec. 25) — but also includes “Carnage” and “The Artist” (both films open Fri, Dec. 23). Two of the four are based on Broadway plays, which doubles the fun factor.

If you’ve got a new or classic movie to recommend for families who like to share films this time of year, please comment below to let our readers know.

— Lynn

Note: If you share my fondness for Winnie the Pooh, you’ll be happy to know that Valley Youth Theatre is performing “A Winnie The Pooh Christmas Tail” at VYT in Phoenix through Fri, Dec. 23. Click here for details.

Coming up: Musings on 2012 movie fare

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The orphan boy in the new Scorsese-directed picture titled “Hugo” was the invention of accidental author Brian Selznick, who fully expected to do theater design work until the popularity of his books, including “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” caused him to shift gears.

Shifting gears, stolen time and secrets unlocked by the heart figure prominently in Selznik’s tale — which also features an orphaned girl. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in a hidden portion of the Paris train station, while Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretze) lives with a couple she calls Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory) and Pappa Georges (Ben Kingsley).

Hugo adores movies, but Isabelle lives for books — often shared with her by a man named Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbearg). Georges is convinced that he’s been robbed somehow, while his wife does her best to keep what little they have left safe and secure. Music by Howard Shore makes clear the tenuousness of her mission.

Other couples, all seemingly mismatched somehow, populate this movie — which features screenplay by John Logan. A staunch station conductor (Sasha Baron Cohen) obsessed with sending errant children to jail seeks the heart of a demure flower seller named Lisette (Emily Mortimer). An older man named Monsier Frick (Richard Griffiths) who lacks animal magnetism pursues a woman named Emilie (Frances de la Tour) who sits each day with her dog at a train station cafe.

But two other characters, neither of them human, sit at the center of Hugo’s world. An automaton, or self-operating machine (created by Dick George), who sits at a desk with quill in hand. And the fictional man on the moon. As the movie unfolds, like a delicate piece of origami art undone step by step, their role in creating and stirring memories grows more clear.

Most of the movie’s characters have been profoundly touched by tragedy, but the intersection of their lives begins fixing what’s broken. “Hugo” is at once a mystery, an adventure tale and a testament to the healing power of humanity — appreciated most fully by teen and adult audiences.

It’s also a love letter of sorts to masters of film and the art of storytelling. Author Selznick notes that Georges Méliès (Pappa Georges in the movie) was a famous filmmaker who worked from the 1890s through the 1920s. “He made the world’s first science fiction movie,” says Selznick. “It was really magical and strange.” It’s high praise, and no less true of the movie “Hugo.”

— Lynn

Note: Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” earned a Caldecott Medal. Click here to read Selznick’s acceptance speech, which recounts his journey from childhood to children’s author and describes the origins of the boy named Hugo.

Coming up: Showing too much leg, A movie sneak peek from NYC

Neanderthals making nice?

Cast of Arizona Theatre Company production of God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza

There’s a point in the play “God of Carnage” where things take a decided turn, but making it that far into the Arizona Theatre Company production, which I saw on opening night, took some doing. I found myself thinking, “I can’t take any more of these plays about people whining on pristine sofas.”

Soon slurs, swearing and something best left unnamed before the uninitiated start spewing forth — and the story develops at a quickening pace. Still, theater afficianonado Alan Handelsman, who was part of the first class of ASU Gammage Goer reviewers, felt “there was something missing” in the opening night performance.

Handelsman and his wife Anita saw the play a couple of years ago in New York City, and he’s got a clear preference for the NYC version’s vibe — feeling it had more “energy, commitment, rhythm, flow, surprise, pacing, abandon, arc and continuity.” Even simple prop choices, he recalls, gave the NYC production “a much greater sense of impending danger.”

Clockwise: Joey Parsons, Bob Sorenson, Amy Resnick and Benjamin Evett in the ATC production of God of Carnage

The Arizona Theatre Company production was good, says Handelsman, but not great. Despite being surrounded at the Herberger Theater Center by people laughing loud and proud, I’m afraid I have to concur. “God of Carnage” felt a bit of a letdown — perhaps because I went into it expecting so much. “God of Carnage” won the 2009 Tony Award for best play.

Other people whose opinions I respect felt differently. I saw Frances Smith Cohen, artistic director for Center Dance Ensemble, and her daughter Rachel Cohen in the theater foyer after the show, and both praised its artistry. Rachel loved “the writing and directing” and Frances “the contrast in characters.” My own theater baby Lizabeth, who has studied dance with both, would likely take their side.

We talked via “Skype” after I got home from the theater Saturday night, and Lizabeth was shocked when I shared my tepid response to the show. She saw “God of Carnage” in Chicago last year while touring colleges with my husband James. Both remember it being fabulously funny.

Lizabeth described it as “well written and well acted” — and shared that she loved watching the different characters evolve during the course of the story. Seems she was amused by just how “quickly the adults became the children.”

“God of Carnage” centers on two couples’ attempts at a civilized conversation after their sons spar on a playground. “You just don’t expect it to go as far as it does,” reflects Lizabeth. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen dad laugh that much,” she recalls. “He totally let loose.”

“Maybe.” she says, “it was his way of letting off steam after all the things that happened when we were little.” Seems she’s observed that the things we sometimes took too much to heart as young parents now fall into more perspective. “You used to take it all so seriously,” she told me. “You guys have learned to let go since then.”

The journey from kindergarden to college does effect profound changes. But the parents in “God of Carnage” have survived only grade school, and the perils of middle school are proving a bit more daunting. After meeting to discuss one boy’s use of a stick and another’s missing teeth, they demonstrate that words are perhaps the worst weapons of all.

The parents who seem so perfectly civilized to begin with soon dissolve into shreiking narcissism and nihilism, something that feels more believable once alcohol enters the picture. I hate to think any of us could trade “nice” for “Neanderthal” so quickly in its absence.

Handelsman, a highly-trained hypnotherapist, says the play reveals “how many different layers humans live in” — showing “the difference between the person we show, and the person we are, and the person we may be afraid we are.” Confronted with the final image in this production, we realize that humans haven’t evolved nearly as far as they imagine.

— Lynn

Note: This original production, directed by Rick Lombardo, is a co-production of Arizona Theatre Company and San Jose Repertory Theatre (which performs it next spring). Yasmina Reza has teamed with Roman Polanski to write the screenplay for a movie titled “Carnage,” directed by Polanski and scheduled for mid-December release. It stars Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly. Click here to learn about another opportunity to see the play performed live. Please note that “God of Carnage” contains “mature content.”

Coming up: Advice for young filmmakers, Handelsman shares his “Wicked” ways, Holiday shopping “arts and culture” style, The fine “Art” of Yasmina Reza

Photos: Tim Fuller for Arizona Theatre Company

Occupy Bella

Wedding scene from The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I

As “Occupy Wall Street” protestors were facing off with their opponents on Thursday, “Twilight” fans were lining up in equally impressive numbers for the epic battle of team Edward versus team Jacob.

I began to think of the latest “Twilight” tale in terms of “Occupy Bella” while discussing the “Breaking Dawn” plotline with my oldest daughter Jennifer the other day. She’s taken issue with all those people butting into Bella’s business.

I’d been awakened in the wee hours the night before by our younger daughter Lizabeth, whose dorm in NYC was under the flight path of all those lovely helicopters flying to and fro as the city cleared both tents and campers from Zuccotti Park.

It’s rarely comforting to hear such noise overhead, or in the streets, when you live only blocks from the World Trade Center. And parents tend to assume the worst when phones ring just hours before dawn breaks.

Some might say that “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I” is the story of Bella’s occupation by her baby. But the baby isn’t the problem. Instead, it’s the friends and family around her – who each try to force their own beliefs onto Bella. They erect barriers, and she tears them down.

But first, of course, she’s got to walk down the aisle. As Bella goes bridal, there are plenty of moments we can all relate to – wistful parents, pre-ceremony jitters, tacky toasts and a handful of guests who are hardly on their best behavior. One-liners abound, most of them quite funny.

The wedding ceremony, like the nightmare of red rose petals falling from the sky that precedes it, is breathtaking. It’s held outdoors amidst trees dripping branches laced with white blossoms. Bella’s gown, designed by Carolina Herrera, is sure to launch a bevy of Bella-inspired bridal wear.

Wedding scene from The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I

Bella’s honeymoon with Edward is more complicated than most, despite taking place in a setting so swanky that it makes your average day spa look lackluster. Their lavish honeymoon digs, full of lush plants and opulent décor, open up onto the beach. A silvery full moon shines down on deep blue waters as the couple laps up waves, and each other, unfettered by clothing.

There’s sex and blood and bruising that makes the film’s PG-13 rating feel a bit of a stretch. Vampires, it seems, have unusual strength – and so do their offspring. There’s nothing pretty about Bella’s pregnancy, labor or delivery – except for the finished product. And all the glorious scenes of mountains, forests and rivers that surround it.

I’m not particularly wedded to the “Twilight” story arc, but found myself mesmerized by the visual feast of this film — which was shot in Rio, Baton Rouge and British Columbia. The photography is clean and crisp. The editing feels precise. And the directing seems more focused than in previous “Twilight” films. Music and sound ebb and flow as romance and revenge do their delicate dance.

Previous films have seen Bella preoccupied with self. But there’s considerably less brooding in “Breaking Dawn” – on both Bella and Edward’s part. Less whining means more time for other things, which makes both characters more interesting this time around. But one thing still eats at me.

Why is Jacob still hanging around? For younger viewers, there’s a simple answer — because he’s good at stripping shirts off his bulging biceps as he mounts his motorcycle or morphs into wolf mode. But let’s face it, no newlywed husband wants a man who pines for his bride getting too cozy in her presence.

Unless, of course, it’s the lesser of two or more evils. I suppose the fifth and final film in “The Twilight Saga” series will settle the rest of my burning questions. I just hope that Bella, who’s been occupied too often by the wishes of others, goes into it with her eyes wide open.

— Lynn

Note: Click here for information on “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I” from Summit Entertainment, and here to visit the official movie website.

Coming up: Once upon a “War Horse”