Sunday, January 8, 2012


"Get me Steven Spielberg!"
"He's unavailable, sir."
"Then get me his non-union Mexican equivalent!"

(Mr. Burns and Smithers about getting Senior Spielbergo for the Mr. Burns movie on The Simpsons)

Do YOU point at me?!... cool

In a move that I've found to be kind of unprecedented, Steven Spielberg, once (and probably still is thanks to Transformers and his legacy) the God of Hollywood, has two films out now in theaters.  This may be nothing new for some looking at other filmmakers, but usually there's at least some months apart in release (i.e. Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss could technically be seen one after the other at the IFC Center, but the former was released six months prior to the latter).  Spielberg's had two films out in a year before, but I can't remember the last time a filmmaker had them so close together - even Eastwood gave himself and his audience a couple of months to digest Flags of Our Fathers and/or Changeling before delivering Letters from Iwo Jima and/or Gran Torino.  But I digress.

A Spielberg film is still, at least for me and other film fans out there, a big deal when newly released, and alongside their release Indiewire's Press-Play video series (via Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas) presented a thorough, masterful critical analysis of Spielberg's work as a commercial-auteur (it does make sense, trust me), and Harry S. Plinkett released (somewhat begrudgingly) his review for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Even I revisited Raiders of the Lost Ark - on the big screen, boo-ya - and finally saw (most of) The Color Purple, a film I'll review one of these days.  I got a fever and the only prescription is more Spilebergo.

But with that in mind, here's two new films from him, and they run the gamut of what he does, or can do, as a filmmaker in love with sentimentality and thrilling spectacle.  He is beholden to no one except himself.  Luckily, a lot of the audience shares his tastes.  Usually.  Oh, and btw, spoilers I think....

But first up, his 'Christmas' movie:

Albert (puppy-dog faced/eyed Jeremy Irvine) didn't know he wanted a horse when his drunken father brought one home after winning an auction kind of on a dare (or rather to dig into the mustache twirling Lyons, land owner and if you didn't guess by the mustache-twirling a villain played by David Thewlis).  But lo and behold, he's a horse of some wonderment - if only to himself then perhaps that should (or could) be enough.  The horse, 'Joey', has more heart than body power and is able to make the farm ready for crops and surprises everybody (yes, the whole town seems to come at once to see the boy and horse trying to farm, more on that in a moment).  But ::shock:: he's sent off to war since, well, it's the first world war, and the drunken father needs the money to pay the bills.

Ok, enough of the man-boy, where's the mare already??!
 So begins what we're led to believe will be an epic of the heart - will Albert and Joey be reuninted?  How much one cares will ultimately depend on how much connection is made.  I tried to get into it, but there are two things keeping me at bay: 1) this just isn't a story that is for "me" in the sense that I'm not very big on horses to start with, and 2) there's nothing, deep down, that feels at stake here.  This isn't the war drama of Saving Private Ryan where there's some heavy existential heft to the proceedings about who is saved or who dies and what goes into fighting.  What is at the story, whether originally there in the book or play or via Spielberg's touch who knows, is the same thrust as in Snoopy, Come Home! (will the dog come home to its downtrodden owner - and by the way Charlie Brown and Snoopy were far more able to be on their own than this guy and his horse).  Oh, and John Ford.  Lots and lots of John Ford.

This last part wouldn't bug me so much if it weren't Spielberg aping Ford's style when he doesn't need to - Spielberg, by now at the age he can get social security, has his own style and way to communicate emotional truth.  When the townspeople rush to see Albert and Joey working the farm, I knew it was a kind of nod (or likely so) to The Quiet Man and how those Irish just love to run to see something going on.  Many in the audience may not notice that, but even so it gets cheesy and fudges up what emotional resonance could (or is?) there.  Only at the very end, oddly enough, when Spielberg just goes all out with the Ford homage, color tinting included as a family is reunited, does it feel just about right since it goes so far and embraces Ford instead of dancing with his style (I didn't get choked up, but I knew if I had connected more with the material then it might have made a bigger impact than technical appreciation).

I wish I could just say it's 'not for me' and go on with my day.  Yet the film does have it's moments; nay, it has some damn impressive Spielberg-doing-his-best-spectacle stuff, mostly when he does stage the world war one sequences.  Unlike 'Ryan' this time one can tell Spielberg planned and shot everything meticulously instead of on-the-fly, and there is grace, grandness, some grandiosity, and superb craft via Janusz Kaminski (DP) and especially with those scenes in the trenches (I mean, Spielberg doing Paths of Glory and/or All Quiet on the Western Front - hell yeah).

When all else fails we can whip the actor's eyes and make him sleep and/or cry
 But then these sequences are sandwiched in with this horse Joey, who is made to look like something special... and he's not, past maybe having some strange determination to him that might be different than, say, one of the weak horses in the stable for soldiering.  And Joey's real big emotional scene, where he gets caught in wire while running through a war zone, is a set-up for a scene that walks a line between being really stupid and intelligent (with an English and German soldier come together to save the horse, I guess, since it's a poor wittle horsie caught in the wire!)  I don't mean to say there isn't heart here.  Matter of fact, there's a surfeit of it, where Spielberg is not just wearing it on his sleeves, he's got it tattooed coming down the sleeves on both arms.

It also doesn't help that just as when we're starting to get to know the family depicted early on with Peter Mullen and Emily Watson (the latter gets some decent 'tough Irish Mother' scenes) that it cuts away to the war and with the exception of one scene we never see them again till near the very end.  Hell, even with Albert he only gets so much time near the second half to show his time in war/peril in the trenches, and so most of the story is from the point of view of the horse... I think.  It's really about the horse's adventures, in some part with a grandfather and his granddaughter (maybe there could be a connection there, but that too is all too brief... until the insanely contrived climax to the film, that has a twist with this character that gave me a headache).

And not one of these horses got mentioned in the Patti Smith song of the same name
Again, if you love horses, or are a little kid and maybe just love little moments like the goose on the farm who keeps coming into a room and making things awkward, this may be for you.  At the same time, Spielberg's done sappy bonds between people and animals better (and what is E.T. but a boy-and-his-dog story mixed with Close Encounters?), and there are times he just gets lazy with the emotional mechanics of scenes.  There's a momentous (or would-be) scene late in the film that should be heart-warming, as friends meet again surrounded by many soldiers who look on as if nothing else is happening.  I just didn't buy it completely, and if you can't do that then film doesn't work overall.  Are there parts that soar?  Surely.  But it also exemplifies a lot of what Spielberg's harshest critics point out as his weak spots.  It makes me want to revisit past films of his - i.e. Empire of the Sun - and see if I was being too harsh at the time (much of what I said about that film I said about this... in retrospect, it's probably much more satisfying as character/artistic merit goes).


But hey, that's the 'A' movie offering - what about Spielbergo in 'B' movie mode?

Let's be fair for a moment - Tintin is not War Horse, even as it's technically a 'period piece' (that is set in the past) and has another drunkard character, though in this case a much bigger deal to the story.  And unlike W.H., where Spielberg was the only one in charge, his co-patriot here is Peter Jackson, another big Tintin fan and the one to persuade Spielberg to make the film not only all animated but also shot digitally in 3D, his first ever.  But the difference between the two also is in quality of the entertainment and how much Spielberg is fully in control of his medium to an *awesome* extent.  In fact this will be, for some, like Spielberg's penance for 'Crystal Skull', where he gets a different character than Dr. Jones but puts Tintin right into that swashbuckling Republic serial adventure-verse, with a little extra mystery thrown in.

I wasn't a Tintin fan as a kid - not by choice but by lack of it on TV or availability in the comics world - but there's no need.  Spielberg and Jackson plop the audience into Tintin's world, he's a teenager reporter always looking for the next big story, with very little ease.  The MacGuffin here is a metal cylinder that holds a scroll, and there are three of them, and each one is in a model ship called the the Unicorn, which sets Tintin on an adventure to find the other scrolls, which matched up will reveal a treasure.  He first meets the dastardly Mr. Sakharrine (get it?), but more importantly on an ocean liner Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis, holy hell is he good once again), a booze-hound who has the secret to the Unicorn and its history, as well as the legacy of his former Haddock clan, and it sets Tintin further across the world.

Don't point your cane at ME!  I'm a young intrepid reporter!
 The story itself is entertaining and engaging on that level that is predictable.  You kind of know where the story will be going along to, particularly if you've seen the Indiana Jones films (Mr. Sakharrine, much like Belloq, is the kind of villain that almost works to annoy the hero by being one step ahead of him in the hunt for the Precious Object), but while the story is important to follow it's never too difficult, helped along when Haddock has a fever-dream-flashback to a big battle on the high seas between Haddock and Rackham (the former Sakharrine) that resulted in the whole Unicorn secret in the first place.  The mystery element is brisk and told with that wonderful efficiency that is the *good* kind of homage, nothing new for Spielberg via Hitchcock but works really well with this kind of material - and don't let the Nickelodeon Films part of it deter any adults out there.

Where the film soars is as a place for Spielberg to stage incredible action sequences and moments of real adventure.  When Tintin has to find a way to escape the ocean liner with Haddock, there is a surprise or moment to jump in every scene - and if it's not surprise then it's just funny.  And when a ride on a plane turns into a struggle for time-to-fill-the-tank, there's real excitement in the air.  But best of all is a chase set-piece in Ba'gaa, where Tintin is chasing after Sakharrine with Haddock for the scrolls (one can see a fuller description in my 'Out of Time' blog from last week).  To sum up this sequence again wouldn't do justice to how Spielberg redefines what he can do with another medium, but suffice to say when one considers a long-take shot, where the shot doesn't cut from the action and is continuous, it just pops off the screen.  It's not just relying on the illusions of animation, it's a director taking animation and making it truly fresh - Verbinski did a similar path with Rango as well this year, and to say Spielberg can just catch up to him says a lot about both films.

... That's a big gun...

The other ace in Spielberg's sleeve here is the script.  He has three writers - the first is Steven Moffit (of Doctor Who) who was brought in to work out the plot and mystery mechanics.  Then there's Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim, Hot Fuzz) and Joe Cornish (this year's sleeper Attack the Block), who were brought in for re-writes, maybe for the action or for the comedy or both.  But whatever the case, this is so sharp a script that comparison to Raiders isn't simply hyperbole: there's not just adventure and real laughs to be had (the latter comes with scenes with a sub-plot as two detectives, voiced by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg no less, are looking for a pickpocket and a horde of missing wallets), but some heart to the proceedings that levels out.  These blokes get how to serve their director, but also to serve what they would want to see in terms of funny (sometimes goofy) stuff involving words and little things, like the opera singer who breaks glass with her voice.

With Haddock as well, it's a character that makes up a lot of the fun of the film, and there's a little pathos near the end to boot.  And he has the knack ala Popeye to not want but NEED a certain element (in this case copious amounts of drink, whether it's whiskey or rubbing alcohol) to jump-start the mind that pays off to wonderful/surprising extents.  Haddock becomes through the writing, Serkis' performance and the direction in his interactions with Tintin one of this year's most lovable BIG characters that fills the screen.

Oh, and the 3D... it's very good.  Not mind-blowing as, say, Scorsese's Hugo, but actually worth the few extra bucks for the glasses.  Like his contemporary, Spielberg (and I should say Jackson too) knows space of the frame and how to make images distinctive when in motion or just still, and to add some details like specks of dust in rooms helps too.  And it does certainly add that extra KICK to that roller-coaster of a chase sequence in the streets, or just when following Snowy, the Great Dog That Could, as he jumps from car to moving car to catch up with his plucky master who's been put in a crate en route to the ocean liner.  Ultimately, as with the animation in general - oh, and by the by, the 'uncanny valley' effect in motion capture, seems to finally, at least close as ever, to be fixed to be believable in the dimensions given - it's a director saying 'let's play', which is the perfect attitude given the style of the story and the rough edges of the characters.

... So, ultimately, two 'family' films via Spielberg for the Holiday/Winter season, both about boys and their pets, and seeing what Spielberg does with his medium.  Which one will you decide? .....

No comments:

Post a Comment