Sunday, January 1, 2012

Review - A Spielberg double feature

For New Years Eve I took advantage of a unique opportunity; the chance to view two new Steven Spielberg features on the same day. Spielberg has had four others years in which he released two films, but never simultaneously, so this is kind of a first both for him and his eager fans. The two films in question are awards pony War Horse and "animated" action/adventure Tintin. Both my reviews after the cut.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

“How's your thirst for adventure?” Even if your answer is “unquenchable”, Steven Spielberg's rollicking new popcorn pic should be enough to slake your thirst. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is easily the funnest movie he's put out in nearly a decade; an Indiana Jones for the next generation.

Beneath the photorealistic sheen of Weta Digital's motion-capture cloaking, the character's of Herge's beloved comic books are given new life by a slick cast and Spielberg's dynamic direction. Jamie Bell plays Tintin, a baby-faced MacGyver who never seems to lose his cool and always seems to attract danger. Why, simply by purchasing a souvenir model ship he is hurled into a perilous sunken treasure hunt versus a man who isn't above killing to get to the loot first (Daniel Craig). But to solve the ship's vague riddle before the bad guys, Tintin is dependent on the hazy memory of sozzled sea dog Cpt. Haddock (Andy Serkis, terrific as always) to illuminate what happened the night it sank.
Any comparisons made between Tintin and Indiana Jones are far from coincidental. Spielberg first learned of Herge's popular European comic book series shortly after making Raiders of the Lost Ark – via direct comparison in a review he had read – and swiftly secured the movie rights. It may have taken him thirty years to get around to it, but late is certainly better than never. The film itself suffers from no such hesitation. It hustles along at a brisk clip that ensures you are never bored with a scene by the time it ends. The action is marvelously conceived too. The liberating power of the mo-cap technology has allowed Spielberg to more or less go nuts (in a good way) in terms of concocting shots and situations he couldn't have before, most notably in a fantastic tracking shot that follows a fast chase through the tiered streets of Bagghar.

The obvious Indy flavour aside, other Spielbergian tendencies can be spotted and heard in Tintin. The opening credits recall the Saul-Bass-inspired titles of Catch Me If You Can, and he can't resist tossing in a cheeky Jaws sight gag. If any filmmaker's earned the right to reference himself/herself, it's Spielberg. But his more important trademark is the impeccability of his craft, and Tintin is no exception. The sound work in particular is outstanding, and any fans of John Williams (which I most definitely am) will not be disappointed by his busy orchestrations with lots of jazzy ornaments mixed in for distinction.

***1/2 out of ****

War Horse

“They say the history of WWI was written from the saddle of a horse, but it's never told from the heart of one.” Okay, okay; Dreamworks aficionados know I'm paraphrasing and warping the opening lines of their 2002 animated feature Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, but the concept of equine narration applies just as suitably to Dreamworks new live-action horsey drama, Steven Spielberg's War Horse, which galloped into theaters alongside the director's Tintin last weekend.

Borrowing predominantly from the novel by Michael Morpurgo over the more illustrious Tony-winning stage play, writers Richard Curtis and Lee Hall craft the story of Albert, a doe-eyed lad working his parents' farm in prewar rural England, and of his beloved cloven pet, a spirited horse he names Joey. Forced into selling Joey to the cavalry in order to save the farm, Albert avows to enlist as soon as he's of age, track down his horse, and return him home. From here the narrative opens into a series of chapters that capture the scope and impact of WWI from various perspectives as the horse changes hands. First from a British cavalryman, a pair of teenaged German deserters, a young French girl and her grandfather in occupied France, and a German horse master on the front lines, before eventually swiveling the camera back to Albert, now four years older and fighting in the trenches.
To me, War Horse is a tale of two movies. The narrative structure of following the horse on its tumultuous adventures is a smart and effective way of framing the experiences of the human characters. We see a fleeting variety of glimpses into what life was like during this long, violent conflict. I dig that. However, when it came time for my heartstrings to be tugged, I wasn't feeling it. Maybe it's because the emotional ploys were too obvious, or because we hadn't spent enough time focusing on Albert to really care whether or not he finds his horse and makes it home, but mine must have been the only dry eyes in the theatre (I exaggerate, of course, but many viewers were quite moved). All said, the parts that were well done probably even out the parts that made me roll my eyes. We'll call it a successful failure.

If nothing else, no one can accuse War Horse of not knowing what kind of film it is. Criticisms of saccharine and triteness aren't exactly inaccurate, but that's because it's intended to be that way. We are talking about the guy who made E.T.. If sappy's what you came for, you're in luck. If not, you can still marvel at the film's technical execution. In keeping with the film's tone, DP Janusz Kaminski shoots in bold hues that recall the style of Gone with the Wind, while John Williams produces a score that is unmistakably his. Detractors of the composer will no doubt hate it, but fans of the composer will love it. Gary Rydstrom's sound design is exceptional, creating and mixing the thunderous rumble of galloping hooves, the piercing staccato of machine gun fire, and the shattering bombast of artillery shells with precision and detail.

**1/2 out of ****


  1. Why did you drop War Horse to 2 1/2 stars :S?

    1. Well, it's deppreciated a bit for me. It was always on the fence between 2.5 and 3 stars from the moment I left the theatre, but I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. But 2.5 feels more accurate now. I'm always tinkering my official ratings.

    2. Ok I got it. I had similar feelings about the film, but I think its too well made to get anything less than a 3. And probably not great enough to get anything more.