Sunday, December 18, 2011

’Tis the Season for a Double-Dose of Spielberg

Today is Steven Spielberg’s 65th birthday, so to celebrate, let’s take a look at the two newest additions to his filmography, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN and WAR HORSE -- two completely different films which are examples of two genres in which the Beard has been particularly effective throughout his illustrious career, the action-adventure serial and the emotional war drama.

This isn’t the first time Spielberg has given us two of these kinds of films in the same calendar year. Back in 2005, he gave us WAR OF THE WORLDS and MUNICH. The former has its flaws and is considered to be a misfire, but it does feature some truly chilling post-9/11 imagery. The latter, however, is one of Spielberg’s most underrated and powerful works (and one of my Top 25 Movies of the ‘00s). And then of course there was the great year of 1993, when the world was graced with a couple of classics known as JURASSIC PARK and SCHINDLER’S LIST -- perhaps the single greatest year for a director since 1939 when Victor Fleming helmed THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND.

Now, admittedly, this year’s one-two punch is not quite up to that level of mastery. But both TINTIN and WAR HORSE are both effective, entertaining and worthy additions to Spielberg’s oeuvre.

tintinTHE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is a joint venture from Spielberg and Peter Jackson, with a script co-written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish & Steve Moffat, based on a Belgian comic book that I have never read and know absolutely nothing about. Therefore I can’t comment on the film’s effectiveness as an adaptation, but as a film -- particularly one in which Spielberg harkens back to his RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK roots -- it is a ton of fun.

Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a young journalist/detective, always in pursuit of a hot story. One day he buys a model boat at the market, which turns out to be a much-coveted clue to untold treasure. Along with his faithful dog Snowy, Tintin gets kidnapped by the dastardly Sakharine (Daniel Craig), meets up with the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and gets involved in a winding plot involving pirates, treasure, mystery and journeys to exotic locales. There are some incredible swashbuckling action sequences (including one of the best pirate ship battles I’ve ever seen, and an awesome duel in which the participants use dockside cranes instead of swords), breathtaking animated cinematography and very solid use of 3-D. There’s still something about motion-captured human characters that seems... off... but the technology has certainly improved since the dead-eyed soullessness of THE POLAR EXPRESS.

Parents, if you’ve been thinking about introducing your kids to Indiana Jones for the first time, you might consider showing them TINTIN first to get them warmed up with what is essentially a kiddie version. The tone, humor and action are very much in the same vein -- hell, it feels more like an Indy film than CRYSTAL SKULL did -- and Spielberg clearly had a blast with it. Should be very interesting to see what Jackson does with the sequel.

110284_A_ENG-GB_70x100.inddShifting gears, WAR HORSE is the tale of a boy and his horse and their bond that is put to the test of separation and the tribulations of war. If it sounds like a potential schmaltz-fest... well, yes, it kind of is. But if there’s one man who knows how to push all the right buttons, it’s Spielberg. The early scenes of earnest Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and an underestimated horse named Joey on their ranch in England are pretty cringe-worthy, with some questionable acting from anyone not named Emily Watson (who plays Albert’s mum). But once Joey is sold to the British cavalry to be used as an expendable tool, the film kicks into a whole other gear. It combines the underdog horse drama of SEABISCUIT with a PRIVATE RYAN-esque depiction of World War I that is both epic and gritty (a bit of E.T. sprinkled in there, too, obviously). Spielberg does an interesting job of depicting an extremely violent and bloody war through a PG-13, family-friendly lens while retaining the harshness of the situation.

As the war moves through the sweeping French countryside and into the trenches, Joey continually escapes danger and ends up serving both sides, making new friends and enemies in the process. He develops a reputation as a “miracle horse,” all the while never forgetting his best friend. Meanwhile, Albert also goes off to war and also keeps the memory of Joey close to his heart. We know that their experiences will inevitably bring them back together, but their respective odysseys are at times quite harrowing, with a firm grip on the audience’s heartstrings.

Ultimately, the film works because it is so sincere and unpretentious. It wears its schmaltziness on its sleeve and you have to respect that. The cinematography and dialogue are such that at times it looks and feels reminiscent of an old Hollywood epic, and for that reason, it may not play as well with today’s cynical audience. But let yourself get swept up in the Spielberg-ness and it’s a satisfying journey. Oscar-worthy? No way. But then again, far less deserving films have made Oscar cry.

Of course, two new Spielberg movies also come with an added bonus: Two new John Williams scores! No complaints with either of them; TINTIN is fun and adventurous and WAR HORSE is appropriately grandiose. Neither are particularly hummable as you’re leaving the theatre, and thus will not go down among Williams’ best, but they are effective within the context of the films and it’s always a nostalgic pleasure to hear his unmistakable style.

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN opens on Dec. 21st, with WAR HORSE following on Christmas Day. There are a ton of great movies in theatres right now, including many that are more required viewing. But this holiday season, by all means see these and enjoy them for what they are: Two pretty good Steven Spielberg films. Happy holidays, indeed -- and happy birthday (and many more) to one of the all-time greats!

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