War Horse (2012)

Nothing short of remarkable, War Horse is the deceptively simple tale of a young man and his horse who are torn apart by World War I. At its core, however, the play is a powerful reaffirmation of human compassion and peace.

The narrative focuses on individuals, whether they be simple farmers or seasoned military officers, while speaking on behalf of the entire world regardless of stature or race. The play opens with a simple, pastoral setting that turns cold and dark when World War I breaks out. Even in the bright moments that emerge from the darkness, there is still the weight of what has happened and the characters are never the same. The innocence of the pre-war era is lost forever. The difficult transition of childhood to adulthood rings true for Joey, his owner Albert, and all across Europe.

War Horse also provides many perspectives on World War I. In one of the funnier and more touching scenes, Irish and German soldiers see Joey caught in barbed wire; both camps send soldiers to go rescue him. The two soldiers, from rival sides, do so in peace and flip a coin to decide who gets to keep Joey. Both are cordial and amicable to one another for this entire transaction. Even in times of greatest despair, the human capacity for friendship and goodwill can still shine through.

The horses themselves are masterpieces all on their own. Particularly the adult Joey (the titular War Horse), who is so strong he can carry riders on his back, the mechanics and believability of the horse puppets are truly marvels to behold.

Fortunately, even with such amazing spectacle, the play exercises a strong restraint by not over-using them. The audience is given several moments of young Joey, alone on stage, to observe the jaw-droppingly realistic movements and subtleties of the horse puppetry, so by the time the human characters show up, the audience’s attention is no longer just on the horse.

This same restraint is what makes the final scene so exceptionally powerful. The reunion of Joey and Albert is a beautiful and emotionally satisfying moment, but the show is better weighted by Albert coming home to his mother. The play’s main character may be a horse, but the core message is one of pure humanity and compassion.

ParaNorman (2012)

What a delightful little oddball of a film. ParaNorman is a stop-motion feature from the same production company who brought us Coraline, and it’s easy to spot the similarities. Both are charming and creepy stop-motion family films, while bringing enough jokes and even chills to keep the parents in the audience entertained.

The somewhat thin premise is that Norman, a preteen boy who can speak to the dead, has to break a witch’s curse in his New England town celebrating its 300th anniversary. The fairly simple plot fortunately is brought to life through the colorful cast of supporting characters; Norman’s school bully (voiced by the actor who played McLovin of all people!) and Norman’s older sister are just two of the highlights.

A surprising edge and wit also keep the story feeling fresh and engaging throughout the film. In one of the laugh-out-loud moments, Norman’s mentor (another ghost whisperer) tells Norman to “swear” to break the witch’s curse, to which Norman replies, “Like what? The ‘f’ word?”

Toward the third act the plot runs a little long (particularly in the surreal and visually entrancing, yet ultimately predictable climax) but the journey is consistently engaging and intriguing. Stop-motion films consistently produce fascinating worlds that are tons of fun to explore (especially in 3D) and ParaNorman is no exception; you almost want the screen to pause so you can better appreciate the detail in the setting and characters.

While it does clock on for a bit too long, ParaNorman is still a breath of fresh air for animation, providing solid and quality entertainment with some really stunning visuals. It is very rare and exciting to find a family horror film with genuine thrills, and is even more special to find one with such a strong and endearing young protagonist.

Bus Stop (1956)

Bus Stop is the wildly underrated story of two young people at a crossroads (both figurative and literal) in their lives. She is hustling from the Ozarks to Hollywood, and he is journeying from his native Montana down to Phoenix to become a rodeo champion. It also presents a powerful message on the growing feminism of the era and how it can coexist and even thrive within more old-fashioned ideas about gender roles.

He comes from a small town and has seen very few “gals” in his life. From the instant he sees Marilyn’s character, he falls instantly (and foolishly) in love with her and decides to make her his bride. She is flattered by his chivalry while also fearful of it; having only known men as semi-abusive clients, she is unable to deal with men who treat her well.

This seemingly perfect pairing deteriorates as their journey continues; his once-chivalrous ways become obsessive and she regrets having accepted his courtship. She asserts herself by denying herself to him, seeing him as an obstacle to her Hollywood dreams. To deter him, she cites her past of having “many boyfriends” as a foil to his pureness and virginity.

This conflict inspires one of the best movie lines of the 1950s. He reassures her that her past does not reflect poorly on her or his feelings for her. “I like the way you are, so what do I care how you got that way?”

The film is ultimately about compromise and sacrifice. Neither has exactly the future they had envisioned for themselves, but by the end they don’t see it as a sacrifice but rather a new future just as promising as their original dreams.

A bus stop is a single point on a greater journey. It is a place of interaction, collision, and reflection. After all the action takes place though, the trip must continue, progressing ever onward toward a better place.

Youth in Revolt (2009)

There aren’t very many adaptations of ambitious, lengthy books into film that manage to not to trip on their own feet. I am very happy to say Youth in Revolt does not mishandle the book, but in fact adds a layer of realism and earnest emotion that the book (deliberately) strays away from.

Youth in Revolt is a teenage fantasy coming-of-age story set in central and northern California, about one young man’s quest for love. Beyond this basic setting, we have no other cues to tell us when the action is happening; the protagonist Nick uses a computer that looks like it’s from 1992, the teenage characters all speak with Shakespearean wit, and everyone seems to regularly write letters and keep journals. (Like I said, it’s a fantasy.)

This otherworldly element was fortunately imported in from the original book. Another spectacular motif that was thankfully maintained is showing the extreme lengths teenage guys will go for love; some of the more twisted elements of the novel (like Nick drugging his girlfriend so she is expelled from school and forced to go back to her hometown, also where he forced his father to move) ring true to the source material. Which I think is really commendable and brave on the filmmakers’ part; not many studios would make a movie where the character we are supposed to sympathize with pulls that kind of stunt, even in the name of love.

What the film does even better is bringing this often-fantastical story back down to earth. Eventually Nick’s crimes (yes, they are crimes) do catch up with him and he is forced to reconcile with his past, while in the book he is able to skirt it yet again. In literature though, disbelief is much more easily suspended than in film, so it is refreshing to see this problem actually brought to light for a medium in which that plot development is simply implausible.

The film also humanizes the actions taken by the characters. Both the young lovers, Nick and Sheeni, pull some pretty bad shit throughout the course of the story. Exhausted with the situation, Sheeni eventually tells Nick that she can’t put up with Nick’s shenanigans any longer. “I’m tired of being alone.” He thoughtfully replies, “I’ve been alone all my life. That’s why I’m doing this.” A real motive is fueling their love, not just the boredom of disaffected youth (which appears to be the case in the novel).

One minor (unrealistic) critique I have of the film is how comparatively minor in scope the movie is when looking at the novel. The original is an epic 500-page trilogy of books (bound together in one volume) and deservedly so; Nick goes through a lot to finally win over Sheeni. I had been expecting similar treatment for the film (clocking in at at least 2 1/2 hours?) but alas, my contemporary American epic can apparently be told in 90 minutes. Still, I’m amazed they pulled off the stellar project they did.

This movie seems perfect for our contemporary era of culture and sophistication re-entering the base requirements for courtship. The characters (convincingly) discuss arthouse film and dress fashionably (but affordably). Despite its more fantastical elements, this film still seems incredibly weighted and a more realistic depiction of teenage life (well, mine anyways!) than the typical teen sex comedy fare you get in the multiplexes. By far the best high school film in recent memory, and one of the best movies of 2009.