Sunday, January 8, 2012

Revenge of Netflix-a-thon (#6) David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS (Pilot)

 Here it comes - the first 'repeat' viewing in the Netflix-a-thon.  I hadn't seen the show in five years - much too long for a damn good cup of coffee if you ask me - and I realized I had never seen the pilot the way it was originally aired.  Suffice to say the way the first episode ends is actually much the same as the pilot movie - that is, "Northwest Passage", the edit that Lynch did just in case the pilot wasn't picked up (which is what happened for Mulholland Drive not-too-oddly enough).

I've decided for the sake of, well, laziness frankly (and cause I thought I did a competent job previously) to re-print my original review of the pilot-movie.  The way this version ends should be noted, the one on Netflix I mean - this cut adheres to how it was seen on TV.  Which means - SPOILERS - Bob is not even revealed in this cut of the episode-movie.  The episode ends with the *hint* of Bob, via the nightmarish vibes that Mrs. Palmer (the fantabulous Grace Zabriskie) gets in her living room late at night (oh, and that one shot looking up the stairs and at the upstairs hallway of the Palmer residence is a haunted, beguiling shot that suggests so much terror while seeming to be a normal shot - quintessential Lych actually just in that one composition).  However it leaves open a lot, and in the 'First 24 hours' storyline, nothing is resolved really, certainly not how Laura Palmer died exactly before the autopsy or much else. 

In that sense I prefer the 'Film' version actually, even as its revelation is not at ALL how the show goes (or, not exactly, you can interpret the world of Twin Peaks in so many ways 99 different term papers would just scratch the surface).  But still, about 90% of the pilot-episode and the pilot-film are the same really - same introductions to the characters, same twisted satire mixed in with the harrowing tragedy of a dead teenager on a small Washington state town, same not-so-underlying sexual current from Audrey Horne (woof), and good ol' Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations Dale Cooper, who hates Philadelphia, loves good coffee, and has a thing for that Diane person.  (for the sake of help I've actually italicized parts of my review that featured references to the pilot-film).  It's still a classic of pure mystery-mayhem that has to reveal itself slowly, like a girl who has something on the tip of her tongue as her arms bend back.

"She's filled with secrets..."

"The Twin Peaks pilot- the original version made by David Lynch (in collaboration with Mark Frost)- was quite different from how it ended up being done on the show's real beginning. I decided before watching the series itself to see the pilot though, with the 'bonus footage' as said on the tape box, and I was glad I did. While in comparison with the show's major revelation(s) in season two it pales, it still provides one huge wallop in its surreal revelations. Bottom line, this is the kind of work you'll either get all the way and totally become absorbed in, or will turn off from fervently. 

 Or, perhaps even, just a milder reaction in comparison to Lynch's other work. I found it to be something very clever and cunning on Lynch's part- it's like the wildest, sliest, and of course with the usual term weirdest take off on TV drama series, the kind that have the ultra melodramatic music and actors practically made for TV. I haven't laughed so hard at a Lynch film possibly, well, ever completely, with the only work coming close being the Cowboy and the Frenchman. It gives random eccentricities in human behavior a good name, while the comedic barbs, as black as the dark side of Lynch's mind goes, stick out excellently through what is actually a compelling, haunting drama...or so we might expect.

Laura Palmer is found dead, and there is an investigation into what happened, the night of, the killer, the circumstances and secrets and very ambiguous bits of information that turn up. That's the bones of this TV pilot, and from here Lynch and Frost concoct an entire village of shattered small-town folk, with the off-kilter outsider FBI agent coming in to investigate (Kyle MacLaughlan in one of his very best performances, with the same sincerity of Blue Velvet but with a brilliant streak of playing dead pan and other expressions).

 The story may not be totally coherent at times, which is part of the point Lynch has. I could- and will- watch this again for the finer plot details that might have gone over my head the first time around, and they are to be found. But it was also the sort of case where I didn't mind, because there was always something to grab onto with the scenes going by and by. Some lines are classically Lynch, like with the device Cooper talks into ("Diane, I'm holding in my hands a small box of chocolate bunnies", and "I'd rather be here than in Philadelphia"), or when we see the man who happens to own the half of the truck and what he has to say to his woman (and what hair the tough guy has!) and the little bizarre touches that seem so easy and obvious but which makes them all the funnier behind the dire subject matter (like the kid who does a weird movement of some kind across the hall for a moment in the hallway at school).

And even through TV, with its pan & scan format at 1:33, Lynch is still able to fashion a devilishly stylized picture. Sometimes it's very subtle, like when we see a secret being told from one teen to another outside in the dark, but with the two characters put into such an ominous pose. Or when he reveals the killer- or who may be the killer- and the actual uncovering of him. Although they changed around the pieces of this long-version (which should be judged on its own as, like Mulholland Drive, was intended as a stand-alone in case it didn't get picked up), the way this one ends is makes what 'weirdness' that came before go beyond the limit. 

 The actual revelation of Bob is a little unnecessary despite its frightening pay-off, as the whole fun is seeing this insane mystery having to wedge in logic with the absurdities that pop up. Even so, one of Lynch's most deliriously insane dream sequences (if it even is a dream, it's like Little People Big World meets Stroszek), complete with backwards-forwards dialog and a little dance too. More than any other time during the special I felt a little uneasy and wondered 'why' when I could only answer in kind 'eh, why not'.

Lynch is able to achieve with Twin Peaks his uncanny ability to go far with his digs at small town cooks and the quirks and oddities hidden beneath the small-town normalcy by having the good actors (some cast to type, and all the better for it, like James Marshall and Sherilyn Fenn and Jack Nance's bit especially) to pull it off, and by making it both not always self-consciously hilarious in satire/the randomness of absurdism with the occasional wildly surreal touch, and a very believable dramatic effort that skirts past the usual melodrama with a sense of truth to it.

It's not an easy thing to do by any means, even if I could understand how it could be off-putting too. But damned it all if I didn't find it amazing to see one minute a very sorrowful scene of parents finding out the death of their own child, and the next comments that break the tension piercingly. It's not perfect, but it's some of the bravest dark comedy since Dr. Strangelove, and in the unedited form here it should be available for all fans and even first-timers to check out."

Desert Island DVD's

What can I say, I am a cinematic sheeple, and when I see a post by Jim Emerson and a post by Matt Zoller Seitz, follow along and 'bah-ram-you' all night long.

So, per THE RULES for this game... here goes:

1) "Fanny and Alexander" (Ingmar Bergman, 1983)ONLY the television cut, which is five hours and twelve minutes of un-diluted Bergman power.  It sums up everything the director said in a career, but he says new things, and like any good innovator he still makes up some rules to break them.  The writing is full of heart, humor, terror, soul, mysteries that are still hard to unlock after multiple screenings, and real intellect.  It sums up what makes life worth living, and not, and why it should be worth living again: family, and the fuckers who make it suck.

2) "Taxi Driver" (Martin Scorsese, 1976).  Yes, GoodFellas is a 'better' film, Raging Bull probably more daring, and if I wanted more time with film in general I could just pick up 'A Personal Journey Through American Movies with Martin Scorsese'.  But Taxi Driver is the one I keep returning to over and over throughout the years.  There's a visceral power to the script, and also the imagery, and the acting as well.  The mood of the film is so perfect, yet it is imperfect in how it approaches style deliberately.  It nails subjective perspective, and it is the ultimate statement on self-imposed loneliness.

3) "Zodiac" (David Fincher, 2007) Because it's the one David Fincher film that is so goddamn interesting and yet I've only seen it twice in my life so far.  A couple dozen more times couldn't hurt to snag into the procedural mystery of the murder of several people over the course of some years in the late 60's/early 70's in the San Francisco bay area.  The characterizations so vivid, the plotting so precise, and the mystery so impenetrable.  And it's not the case I think where we're made to be the audience through just one person - we can pick if we want Jake Gylenhaal, Robert Downey Jr or Mark Ruffalo.  I love that.  And I could watch that building being built to Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" on a loop.

4) "Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music - Director's Cut" (Michael Wadleigh, 1970)  I'm not a full-fledged hippie by any sense, and there are a couple of acts (John Sebastian mostly and Joan Baez though I'm starting to warm up to her set) that I just skip entirely.  But the presentation, the editing, the interviews, it's all so fantastic and pulsating, particularly when Santana hits the stage for the ultimate music performance with 'Soul Sacrifice' (also featured in Zodiac btw, I wouldn't mind having that song in my head while I walk around the island).  I also love how off-guard a lot of the performers are and humbled by how many people are in the audience.  Ironic then that the closing finale should show so little of the audience, but then again Hendrix went on Monday morning.  All the same, I throw this on in the background sometimes while I write, so I wouldn't mind it in the fore or background there.

5) "Coffee and Cigarettes" (Jim Jarmusch, 2003)  I don't know in a sense if this is cheating since it is a series of short films, but since I saw it originally as one full feature (and it's how the director intended for people to see it) I think it counts.  I don't love the film, or rather love it overall at the moment, but it's the kind of work I could see myself loving over a period of time.  "Down by Law" is better, but maybe a little gloomy for an island unless if it's in Sweden or something.  The segments I love (Waits/Pop, Murray and Wu-Tang, Coogan and Molina) I'd hopefully love more, and some of the more low-key segments might come to life over time.  It would also be crucial for me to remember Jack White's line: "He perceived the Earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance."

6) "The Last Detail" (Hal Ashby, 1976)  Jack Nicholson is my favorite actor, and the more I think about it my favorite 'bad-ass' performance has to come from playing a character named 'Bad-ass'.  I love the editing, I love the humor, and I love the existential dread in the scenario.

7) "Dawn of the Dead" (George A. Romero, 1978)  The 137 minute director's cut.  The most entertaining horror film ever made and the one I feel most connection with aside from The Shining.  I could watch a zombie pie fight on an endless loop, and it's so quotable too.  "I SEE YOU!  CHOCOLATE MAN!"

8) "Dr. Strangelove" (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)  Two reasons - 1) I'd be remiss if I didn't bring Stanley with me, and 2) it would help remind me that things could be worse - I could lose all of my precious bodily fluids(!)  The perfect satire - Peter Sellers in his three greatest performances, George C. Scott hamming it up to a degree that is apocalyptic brilliance, and Sterling Hayden is my pleutonic husband.  Oh, and we'll meet again, don't know where, don't know wheeeeeeeen....

9) "The Gold Rush" (Charlie Chaplin, 1925)  This may be because I recently saw it, but I'd have to have something on an island that I can feel some joy with.  Sure, "City Lights" is deeper and better, as is "Modern Times", but I don't think a film has made me feel so joyful at a man with so little as the Tramp/Prospector.  He has such hope, and yet he has so little, and the scene where he goes to the bar and is standing around as the girl he is attracted to talks to another man means so much to me, especially how the scene plays out as a whole.  Oh, and he makes one of the great musical numbers with dinner rolls.  That makes the man godly in and of itself, but Chaplin's action sequences are golden, chiefly involving him in a chicken costume and a cabin on the edge of forever. 

10) "The Dreamers" (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)  It is technically 'Last Tango' for my age group, but it has Eva Green in it in her most attractive (and naked) role.  I gotta be frank, if I'm on a desert island I need my spank material, and this has it to the Nth degree.  That it's also a loving letter to cinema, cinephiles, being pretentious and French (yes being critical of that as well), and a mixed reaction to 1968 makes it something I love to return to whenever it's on TV, and it may be the most compulsively watchable of Bertolucci's films, sex/nudity aside (though that *certainly helps*), albeit not as masterful as Last Tango or The Conformist.

SHORT FILM - I wish I could be more original, but Un chien Andalou for me, for pure entertainment value, and so I can study how the couple is buried in the sand at the end and copy it to the best of my ability.

TV SHOW (season 1) - MTV's THE MAXX- since it was only one season, and it was the perfect animated cartoon to be introduced to as a pre-teen/adolescent.  The colors and themes are just sensational, and it has really deranged, surreal images and dark humor..

Revenge of Netflix-a-thon (#5) EN LA CAMA (aka 'In Bed')

And speaking of sex...... yeah, get your attention?

'In Bed'... and other stuff
A one night stand usually goes - you meet up, you do it, and then you amscray (or in the case of Knocked Up, you do... and then you meet up again two months later).  In En La Cama this is the unusual variety of the one night stand where the couple who's just met goes to a motel, fucks, and then... stick around through the night, and talk and fuck and talk and fuck.  Not too complicated as a premise, and for an independent filmmaker (and I think a first time filmmaker, or at least a young one, Matias Bize) it's a novel way to start off with basically no budget - two actors and a bed.  In a sense it goes another step further than Godard who had a long (but not feature-length) set-piece with his two leads in bed talking and screwing around.

How well the film works then depends on how good the conversation is and what the acting is like.  In the course of the film we learn about the characters and how they got there, in some way or another (one is engaged, the other has an ex girlfriend), and there's some of the banter that comes with a young filmmaker writing for 'young' people (in their 20's).  There's dialog about 80's cartoons, movies (and what categories a person might fall into), a dance 'number' to a song on the radio that Daniela (Blanca Lewin) does for Bruno (Gonzalo Valenzuela), and then some more serious talk about their past relationships, sick family members, or what's specifically *not* said.  Oh, and a condom breaks at one point.  Maybe, maybe not, who knows, fertility time? 

cigarette time.

The actors do the best they can - actually, mostly, Lewin does a lot better.  Valenzuela can carry some moments, notably near the end when he gets sad that this is all seeming to actually come to an end, but I was impressed how much Lewin showed and then what she held back, or what she wouldn't say in those little moments with her partner.  As for the script, it's a mix of curious, cute, cool and a little pretentious dialog.  But then again maybe that's who these characters are.  I almost thought at some point it could have ended sooner than it did, and then another sex scene came around - which is not unwelcome as the actors are attractive enough to pull it off. 

I may have wanted it to either go longer, or go shorter.  It would depend on what else these characters have left to say to one another.  What does make En La Cama work is that the actors have chemistry, and they're able to carry when the director has to flap back on traditional coverage for a dialog scene (for the sex he's a little more creative, though never again as ambitious/stupid as the opening of the film which is a jumble of sheets and skin).  It does speak to a truth about couples, but it also goes into little aimless sections - i.e. standing on your head to make the blood flow differently to your genitals or something(?) - that aren't terribly interesting.  It's ultimately like Before Sunrise/Sunset lite but with more explicit sex (no actual penetration, far as I can tell) and a more concrete and, if possible, somber ending.

My 'Oh, uh oh' face

A good little curiosity, but I'm not sure how it will sustain any repeat viewings, if at all.  It's a movie fascinated by itself and by its dialog, when it works best in being fascinated by its actors.

Revenge of Netflix-a-thon (#4) LIVE NUDE GIRLS UNITE!

(Fallen behind again?  You don't say!  This whole series is seeming to be more for me anyway I guess, like 'You come to read ME, I don't come to, uh, read YOU', but I'm trying to catch up, and I think I finally have in the past couple of days.  I'll actually, technically, be working backwards in my real viewing order, but it's more to help my memory more than anything.  First up, something for all you feminists out there and/or labor supporters):

The girls of the Lusty Lady in San Francisco are strippers, or as they might call themselves 'nude artists' (or.. no, that's someone else), but they know what they do is simple enough - they go into peep-show booths (no, not typical stripping, actually more interesting as far as the fantasy aspect for the male audience), dance, and get paid to do it.  It's not glamorous, but it pays the bills.  Except that in 1996 they were being ripped off by management, and on top of that discriminated as well (i.e. the 'Private one-on-one' shows, for a spell only whites were allowed to perform and black dancers worked less than white girls).  So, as women and as a workforce, the girls of the Lusty Lady decided to unionize and demand a contract.

This documentary follows the quest of those girls over the course of several months to get better wages and just bargaining rights as to a union, which was made difficult by management saying they were independent contractors, ineligible for the same rights as regular workers (i.e. no taxes or health insurance).  It also follows one of the dancers, Julia Query, who at the time was an (ex)grad student and stand-up comic who fought perhaps the hardest among her girls to get the rights they asked for, not just as women (though the feminism angle is clear, and interesting, which I'll get to in a moment) but as organized labor.  At the same time Julia also had to contend with her mother, who was actually Doctor Joyce Wallace, famous for being a major force of good for prostitutes in need of medical assistance and contraceptives (even appearing on 20/20), and not telling her what she did with herself.  And hey, can you blame her - she's a quintessential Jewish mother.  Who doesn't expect the flip-out to come?

The documentary isn't well polished by any stretch and shot on 90's video, but then this was by first (and/or only) time filmmakers out to simply make a statement and spread the word; indeed Julia stopped being a regular at the Lusty Lady to crusade for other stripper/dancers rights throughout the country, who saw their eventual victory and said 'hey, we need to organize too!'  Through interviews we learn about who these girls are and why they're stripping, but that's not as important as the problems they face in the work place (along with other strippers who worked at other clubs in SF, rougher ones and with what appear to be much less forgiving bosses).  And throughout the interviews and Query's own search through what she's doing and her history with her Mother, there's the (potential) contradiction raised in these women as even being feminists.

A picture speaks a thousand words, don't it?
The dancing, some would say, gives them empowerment, particularly if they're doing a peep show and are just looking at themselves dancing (one-way mirrors, which pose their own problems we learn via camera-hounds).  Or, it is demeaning that a woman has to take off their clothes to make money in this manner.  To me, a key line comes from one of the dancers who says almost casually, "I always thought that the women's movement was about saying to women: you have a choice."  If they want to dance, fine, who's to stop them except themselves (or maybe a pissed-off significant other or parent, and even then we see it's more disappointment than outright rage we see through the Doctor-mother).  To me, the profession can only last a certain number of years, so it becomes like any other kind of low-level job, like a video store clerk - only so much time can be spent working there, but then years can go on longer than one might think.

Of course, there is more danger to it than that - and certainly I'd be interested to see the story told from a regular strip club with the dancers in front of an audience, and with lap-dances (this last part *is* addressed in the film,  but just briefly) - which then leads into the legal battle about having protections.  So what if it's a "fun" job (in quotes as that's directly from the management of the Lusty Lady), it's still a profession that requires some protections on the workers' part.  I can only imagine with some cynical glee the dumb anti-union bastards who come across this on Netflix thinking 'here's some spank-off stuff' and then find it's a 'Worker's Rights Now!' saga. 

And Query and her co-director actually do get creative in certain parts as filmmakers too, past the Delivering-the-Information-of-the-Story side of it.  After Julia tells her mother what she's been up to, since they'll both be speaking at the same conference (the Mother on prostitution rights and Query on labor rights for the strippers, plus stand-up comedy), it's a tearful but kind of blunt and true exchange that happens where the Mother tells her daughter flat out - don't tell people we're related, it'll give me trouble.  So it cuts between very funny Jewish stand-up comedy ('Yentl' jokes), and a serious lecture on women's rights.  It's a great cut-back-and-forth method to illustrate how two paths can be so the same and so different.  But by the end there is some hope: "I'm proud of my daughter for being smart and witty and strong and resourceful... not so much for the stripping."  Fair enough, Ma.


"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? .....