Yay Or Neigh?: Spielberg Ponies Up Two New Family Films

(Movies discussed in this post: War Horse, Attack The Block, X-Men: First Class, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Paul, Super 8, The Adventures Of Tintin.)

From The Artist to Midnight In Paris to Hugo and a number of others, 2011 is a big year for nostalgia for all sorts of mainly things — but mainly, for old movies. Hugo and The Artist display it most blatantly, but it’s everywhere — take the romanticized look at growing up in the 50’s (not to mention nostalgia for the creation of Earth) in The Tree Of Life, or the paranoid Towering-Inferno-meets-21st-century-paranoia star-killer Contagion, or the retro heroics of Captain America: The First Avenger, or the 80’s kitschiness evoked by Drive, or the surprising success of a prequel to a campy 60’s movie, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. Even the latest Mission: Impossible embraced a silliness that felt borrowed from old spy TV series rather than John Woo-style theatrics.

And because of it, you can hear audiences breathing a collective sigh of relief: “Oh, thank God. We’re allowed to have fun at the movies again.”

I’d argue, though, that no movie this year was as big of a nod back to the Way Things Were than Steven Spielberg’s War Horse — not that some didn’t try. But with Spielberg, it’s effortless. He’s been borrowing from the past since his career began, while also defining the present and future of cinema. I’m not about to take us all through a big ol’ Amblin gush-fest here (though I could). Let’s just say it like this: when it comes to filmmaking, the man knows his shit.His latest epic is War Horse, adapted from the children’s story (and a subsequent play) that is about exactly two things: 1) war, and 2) a horse. If either of these two words appeal to you, you will probably find something to like in War Horse.

The story begins with young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), who may have been cast primarily for the way his eyes sparkle when very bright fake sunlight bounces off them. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was blinded during the making of this movie. Albert becomes obsessed with a newborn colt he names Joey, whom his father purchases with more money than they’ve currently got for no apparent reason. War Horse asks you to accept right away that Joey is a special miracle horse and everyone around him can tell. If you cannot accept that, please exit this auditorium and proceed into the one showing The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.The opening half hour of War Horse is a little bizarre in its strict adherence to old-school moviemaking. You never for a moment believe that this is a real farm somewhere in England; these scenes are strangely lit and look quite fake, and since the peerless Janusz Kaminski is the cinematographer, we must believe that this is done intentionally. It’s the sort of set design and lighting that probably would have worked back in the 40’s in black-and-white, but in a 2011 release, it’s jarring. The tone, too, is almost cloyingly nicey-nice, to the extent that it makes the first Babe film look edgy. (There’s even a feisty duck to peck at the bad guys!) You half-expect Joey to burst into song while he plows the field.

Fortunately, he doesn’t. The film picks up steam once Joey is separated from Albert and War Horse becomes an anthology of various lives touched (or, more often, decimated) by the war. It strikes a curious balance between very adult drama in the battle scenes (they’re bloodless, but still brutal) and a more childish tale of the Brave Horse Who Could — this is Saving Private Ryan by way of Black Beauty. War Horse never quite seems to know exactly which audience it’s aiming for, but once it gets past that gawky, overlong opening sequence, it nevertheless works.Nobody stages spectacle quite like Spielberg, and he delivers here in a few jaw-dropping action sequences (some given away in the trailer). It’s unfathomable to imagine how he managed to shoot this without ever obviously resorting to CG horses. Everything looks amazingly real (which is unfortunately undercut be the aforementioned artificiality of the farm set). There’s buzz about Andy Serkis getting a Best Actor nod for his portrayal of a chimpanzee in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, but I’d just as soon nominate the horse who plays Joey.

There are a lot of terrific one-off dramatic scenes, too — the brilliant moment when one German and one English soldier form a truce in order to save Joey from some barbed wire is about as good as any character-based moment Spielberg has ever delivered, and in what might be my favorite vignette, two young German brother-soldiers go AWOL with Joey. In such moments, Spielberg does not hold back on the senseless horrors of war, even if the violence we actually witness is minimal. The impact is felt. As cutesy as War Horse can be in certain moments, it also cuts deep when it aims to.Back at USC, I took a class on the cinematic stylings of Steven Spielberg, and if I had been allowed an unlimited budget to make a final project that displayed everything I learned, War Horse would be my thesis. This is the epitome of Spielberg movies, one that encompasses nearly all of his tropes. Boy searching for approval from his flawed but well-intentioned father? Strong mother figure? Innocence lost? The horrors of war? Man versus beast? Beast versus technology? Nearly every theme the man has ever touched on, he touches again here.

Spielberg has been criticized at times for being emotionally manipulative. But all movies are. The only time it’s a problem is when there’s an attempt that doesn’t work. War Horse is perhaps his most earnest film yet, and that’s saying something. It’s so straight-faced, it’s naked — and at first, you might feel embarrassed for it, perhaps even encourage it to cover up before everyone starts laughing. “Quick, War Horse, put on some cynicism! Wink at the audience! Let them know you’re not really that sentimental! How about a fart?” But the war horse does not fart.There are moments of humor, but all the while War Horse has its heart proudly displayed on its white-socked hoof — in a way that may be shocking to modern audiences. Particularly in its final scene, the film is awash with cinematography reminiscent of revered filmmakers past, most noticeably John Ford — but the real pastiche here is the film’s old-fashioned tone. The movie’s subject is World War I, and if not for the technical wizardry, you might think it had been made sometime around World War II for all its straight-forwardness. They simply don’t make movies like this anymore, mainly because they think jaded 21st century audiences won’t accept them. I might have agreed, except the audience I saw War Horse with seemed to enjoy themselves quite a bit. They were totally into it. How you’ll respond to this film likely to depends on how you generally respond to Spielberg, because — for better or worse, love him or hate him — War Horse is the ultimate Steven Spielberg movie.

But if War Horse seems to be Steven Spielberg’s self-conscious effort to make the ultimate Steven Spielberg movie, he’s not the only who tried last year. It was not nostalgia for the John Ford aesthetic, but rather nostalgia for the Steven Spielberg aesthetic that led J.J. Abrams to make Super 8, which knowingly and intentionally recalls films like Poltergeist, E.T., The Goonies, and Jurassic Park to tell the tale of a small town plagued by… something.The opening scenes of the film recapture that old Spielberg magic, at least in a superficial way, as they introduce the young gang of misfits who band together make a movie the old-fashioned way — on an old Super 8 camera, natch. (Back in my review of Hugo and other 2011 films centered on wayward youths, I mentioned that such misfits either tended to find an unlikely adult role model or team up to fight aliens. These were the two most pervasive courses of action for young misanthropes in 2011 — and this, of course, is an example of the latter.) The young cast is full of remarkable finds like Joel Courtney, Ryan Lee, and Ryan Griffiths, plus the better-known Elle Fanning, who is marvelous. It’s not often you see a blockbuster in which the characters are more interesting than the movie built around them, and their banter is more entertaining than the action set pieces. But in Super 8, that’s exactly what we get. I’m not exactly complaining.

A few early suspense sequences come off quite well, if a bit too derivative of similar scenes in the first two Jurassic Parks. They invoke Spielberg’s famous Jaws rule — what you don’t see is scarier than any mechanical or CGI monster. Unfortunately, Abrams abandons this in the film’s flawed final act, unwisely shifting gears from Jaws and Jurassic Park to the more family-friendly tone of E.T. and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. (There’s a reason Jaws didn’t end with the Brody family frolicking with the misunderstood Great White at Sea World, J.J.). It’s actually quite like Spielberg to flub his finales in otherwise great movies (see War Of The Worlds, A.I., and Minority Report, to name a few), but I seriously doubt this homage was intentional.Which is why I’m glad 2011 offered us another kids-versus-aliens movie in Attack The Block, the movie Super 8 only wishes it could be. Attack The Block doesn’t winkingly credit Spielberg for any of its thrills or chills, but it’s actually a much better example of the kind of movie he was making back in his late 70’s/early 80’s heyday. (Though it owes more to the Spielberg-produced Gremlins than any of his directorial efforts.) The film’s premise is genius: extra-terrestrial monsters descend upon London, but all we witness of this is what happens in the projects, when the neighborhood hoodlums have to contend with the fanged space beasties. (We’re meant to believe that things turned out quite differently for the posh kids who had to contend with said creatures. You just don’t fuck with these kids.)

Attack The Block gets a number of things quite right — first of all, not all the kids survive, which establishes some real stakes for these characters. Also, the creature design manages to be both campy and terrifying, as is the tone of the entire movie. As they’re introduced, the street punks are menacing and indiscernible (it takes awhile to get a handle on who’s who), but gradually the film gives these characters layers and backstories of their own, allowing us to root for them. There’s a bit of social commentary on how the rich treat the poor, but mostly, Attack The Block is just pure popcorn-munching monster-movie goodness. What’s most impressive is that the film, written and directed by Joe Cornish, was made for only $13 million (and unfortunately has not made its money back). Though it does not actively convey any sense of nostalgia, Attack The Block does harken back to the spirit of the 80’s with its humor and low-budget special effects — Aliens and Tremors may come to mind while watching it, and that’s a very good thing.

Less successfully aping the Spielberg ouvre is Paul, a nutty but obviously overpriced comedy that throws just about everything at the screen, hoping something will stick. Not much does — particularly the expensive-looking action set pieces, which Universal almost certainly regrets. The story follows two British geeks (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg) as they encounter a wisecracking extra-terrestrial named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). In fact, the alien is exactly like Seth Rogen in every way, except green and thinner and marginally less attractive. (The CGI isn’t very convincing, which is only the first in a laundry list of problems.) The film primarily relies on space-related TV and movie references for humor, such as the scene where Paul is on a conference call with — you guessed it! — Steven Spielberg. Apparently, just about every movie ever made about aliens was Paul’s idea. Say it with me now: “Womp. Womp.” (Paul doesn’t merely rip off E.T. and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind for jokes, but also cribs actual shots from Spielberg movies, too.)

A number of skilled talented comedic actors appear — Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Jane Lynch, and Jason Bateman, to name a few, along with Sigourney Weaver (get it?). They’re all doing their own schtick, which works… sometimes. Not shockingly, Kristen Wiig comes away looking the funniest, since she’s playing a Jesus freak who unravels once Paul tells her there is no God. There’s a hilarious scene in which she smokes pot for the first time and rapidly and exaggeratedly experiences every common side effect; of course, this has nothing to do with the overall premise of the movie, suggesting that a spin-off featuring this character would have been better than this movie. Paul just seems desperate to get a laugh wherever it can, without much concern for a story. The British humor doesn’t mesh well with the high-concept Men In Black stuff, and Seth Rogen merely being Seth Rogen, replaced by a CGI creature, is not inherently funny. The fact that the alien is named Paul gives you an idea of just how clever this movie is. Is Paul really the funniest name they could come up with? Is that supposed to be hilarious? Apparently, somebody thought so.One of the best things Paul has going for it is its collection of misfits against the esgablishment. Did Steven Spielberg invent the kids-banding-together-against-the-elements movie, or merely capitalize on it? Probably the latter, but nowadays such films are so common, it’s hard to really pinpoint where Spielberg ends and other filmmakers begin. And since Spielberg executive produces so many of the movies that ape him (including Super 8) it’s especially hard to tell who’s feeding off who. We watch most modern blockbusters now without really feeling his influence, but can you imagine X-Men: First Class, for example, existing without Spielberg’s early works as a precursor?

X-Men: First Class gives the franchise a jolt back to life by giving us a glimpse back at the mutants’ roots, introducing several of the characters we met in Bryan Singer’s films as youths. The series showed signs of exhaustion with Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand and particularly X-Men Origins: Wolverine, so setting the story back in the 60’s during the Cuban Missile Crisis was exactly the breath of fresh air it needed. It doesn’t hurt that A-list actors like Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Kevin Bacon, and Jennifer Lawrence were called upon to play the mutants; the 1960’s time period allows for an extra level of old-school James Bond kitschiness that serves the story well (especially in January Jones’ Bond girl-wooden performance). It’s a curious dose of nostalgia that we didn’t know we needed in these movies — the cinematic equivalent of checking out a spouse or close friend’s baby pictures. Our reaction is, “Aww, look at those mutants! They were so cuuute when they were kids!”Where X-Men: First Class really misses the mark is in its social commentary, which has always been an inherent part of the X-Men universe (with the mutants standing in for any minority that has been oppressed, most evidently displayed via Bryan Singer’s gay analogy in X2). Considering that this film is set during the emerging African-American Civil Rights movement, amongst other milestones, it could easily have used that historical background to provide a more allegorical exploration of the mutants’ “otherness.” What a missed opportunity! Hopefully the next X-Men film corrects this oversight and weaves social upheaval into the storyline — hmm. X-Men at Woodstock, anyone? It would have elevated the film from B-level summer entertainment to something a little greater.

It’s a bit unfortunate that X-Men: First Class has so much story to tell, because not all of it gets the fleshing out it needs. The younger characters like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) get painted in fairly broad strokes (those played by lesser-known actors, even moreso), and at least one of them undergoes a major character transformation at the end that doesn’t feel in the least bit earned. As in his previous film Kick-Ass, director Matthew Vaughn seems a little too busy zipping around from set piece to set piece to worry about how his characters might actually feel about what’s happening to them. What should be rich and complex on an emotional level feels rather surface-y instead, though there’s more to like than dislike. Plus, there’s at least one truly excellent action sequence when the young mutants are attacked by the bad guys — and don’t all survive. X-Men: First Class might have been a stronger film to hone in on these teen characters and let the story be theirs, more in the vein of Harry Potter. Though I have mixed feelings about any suggestion that results in less of Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy in a movie.

And speaking of Harry Potter — fortunately, we didn’t need X-Men: First Class to emulate it, because here we got the real thing. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 seems to possess its fair share of that old Spielberg wizardry (as do the seven films that came before it). It’s no coincidence that Spielberg was at one point attached to direct the first Harry Potter; it begs the question, would the world even know Harry Potter without Steven Spielberg? Certainly, the frustrations of a child (or child-like creature) against authority have come through in a number of his films, from E.T. to A.I. and so much in between; War Horse, too, tugs heartstrings by pitting an innocent horse against a big, bad tanks, amongst other cruelties. See, unlike X-Men: First Class, the Harry Potter films have always managed to strike just the right balance between sentiment and spectacle, as most of Spielberg’s do, too. It’s a balance that so few other filmmakers get right.

The final film in the series is one of its best — though somewhere in the middle, they started to blur together into one very long movie, with plot elements incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t well-versed in J.K. Rowling’s novels. That didn’t make the adaptations less enjoyable, though, and Deathly Hallows provides a satisfying conclusion. The series’ strongest conceit has always been the Spielberg-like wonderment of seeing relatable young children up against the most dire of circumstances; after a decade, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are as familiar to us as our favorite characters in a long-running TV series, and fortunately all three of these child actors grew into capable adult performers as well. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint all pull out the stops for this last entry, having carefully crafted each of these characters over the years into something special.I could retroactively criticize, if I wanted to, the eight-film franchise’s pacing, or the way information was parsed out between all the movies. But why bother? These movies are what they are, and each one delivers enough on its own terms to warrant its existence. Maybe I wish they’d all been more individually distinct, as Alfonso Cuaron’s The Prisoner Of Azkaban was, even if just so I could remember which events happened in which movie. I can’t. Episodes 4 through 6 are a blur for me, dawdling the way Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers did as we bide time before the big showdown. And what a showdown it was! (Though I found the lack of focus on other Hogwarts students disturbing, since presumably many of them died. No one besides the lead characters is shown reacting to all the chaos and destruction, or the climactic victory. But this certainly isn’t the first movie to suggest the deaths of scores of people without explicitly showing any.)

What I wish director David Yates (and J.K. Rowling, for that matter) had learned from Spielberg is that putting younger actors in old age makeup for a coda to an epic story almost never works out quite properly. It was the weak sentimental link in Saving Private Ryan, and it’s an unfortunately awful end to an otherwise very good Harry Potter movie. I know the book ends this way, too — but at least in a book you can imagine that the characters actually look the ages they’re supposed to be, and not merely as convincing as your average high school production of Fiddler On The Roof. Also perplexing — Harry’s attraction to Ron’s sister Ginny and the fact that Hermione ends up with Ron. Did this really work in the books? Because it in the movies, it’s incredibly obvious that Harry and Hermione are meant to have sex and then babies, because they clearly have chemistry (whereas neither of Weasleys manages a drop of it with their supposed soul mates). I can’t for the life of me see what Harry Potter, savior of the world and magician extraordinaire, finds attractive about Ginny; in my mind, he and Hermione totally start having an affair right after that terrible epilogue.

Of course, part of the appeal of this final Harry Potter film was our nostalgia at having watched these kids grow up; as filmgoers, we were these children’s collective parents, only instead of “baby’s first step,” we witnessed “baby’s first ‘stupefy!'” and so on. In my review of the few acceptable blockbusters of year (find it here), I intentionally neglected to mention both Harry Potter and X-Men: First Class because they seemed thematically closer to Super 8 and Attack The Block and I knew I’d discuss them separately. “Nostalgia” has quickly shaped up to be the cinematic buzzword of the year and certainly it’s found within all of these movies one way or another. Originality is an endangered species in Hollywood, which is nothing new in 2011; but now more than ever it’s alarming how many movies are looking back instead of forward. Take a look at the most likely Best Picture contenders so far — The Artist, Hugo, The Help, War Horse, and The Descendants. The only one set in present day and made in a modern style is The Descendants, and even that has a non-starter of a subplot about the ancestry of the protagonist’s family.

Which brings us right back to Spielberg, who released not one but two films within days of each other in 2011. In many ways, they couldn’t be more different; in most ways, they couldn’t be more the same.The Adventures Of Tintin is Spielberg’s first foray into motion-capture animation (or animation of any kind, for that matter). In every other way, it is absolutely a Spielberg movie — a globe-trotting adventure story that recalls Raiders Of The Lost Ark in tone, and a tale of a plucky young lad and his curiously intelligent animal sidekick (hey, remember War Horse?). Both The Adventures Of Tintin and War Horse are family-friendly (the former moreso than the latter), but while War Horse stubbornly bucks modernity in favor of over-the-top pastiche of very old movies, The Adventures Of Tintin is an advancement toward the (possible) future of movies. Which may not be a good thing.

The story hardly matters. Based on a beloved comic book character mostly unknown here in the States, it stars the voice of Jamie Bell as Tintin and Daniel Craig as the cookie-cutter sinister villain, plus the cute pup Snowy (a total scene-stealer). Beyond that, Andy Serkis voices the drunken sea captain Haddock — the closest thing we get to a fully-developed character in this movie. (I was going to say “three-dimensional,” but since the film is presented in 3D, I guess that’s confusing.) The plot is the typical treasure hunt nonsense so many adventure movies are, and the film’s pacing is pretty much nonstop action. It’s been lauded for one extremely long take in which the “camera” zooms from one character to another in the midst of a big action set piece, but to that I say, so what? One “take” in an animated film is considerably less impressive than the same thing done in live action. You simply draw it that way. Am I on the record about 3D yet? I don’t much like it. The Adventures Of Tintin is actually the first 3D feature I’ve seen since Avatar, so I was curious as to how I’d take to it. And after the initial razzle-dazzle of the first few minutes (“Ooh! It’s like the characters are coming right out at me!”), I mostly find it as much a distraction as it is an enhancement. I always feel like I’m just sitting right up in front of a TV screen. I’m also not a fan of motion-capture animation, which I find pointless. If you’re struggling so much to make the animated characters look real, why not just shoot real people? It seems like a lot of effort for naught.

Sure, there are a number of moments in The Adventures Of Tintin that would have been exorbitantly expensive to shoot in live action, but none that couldn’t have achieved roughly the same effect done the traditional way. The Adventures Of Tintin sold me on neither motion-capture nor 3D, and I will happily continue to watch live-action movies in two dimensions from now on. (Sorry!) The problem audiences have with motion-capture is often referred to as “the uncanny valley,” because it looks so real but not quite real that our brains get confused and reject the whole idea altogether. Maybe that’s part of it, but my main problem with The Adventures Of Tintin has nothing to do with either 3D or motion-capture: it’s the fact that nothing in this story has any weight to it, and nothing seems to matter. The action feels madcap and random, the characters are thin to the point of being transparent. Spielberg could have taken a helping of War Horse‘s overcooked sentimentality and included at least one scene here where we care about somebody, but I had about as much attachment to Tintin and company as I have to a Super Mario Brother. The Adventures Of Tintin is a lot like a video game, which works for some. But not me, unfortunately. I spent most of my two hours fascinated by Tintin’s snazzy CG haircut and not much else, and wondering if maybe Spielberg wasn’t hitting the anti-alcohol message a bit too squarely on the head. The only character arc to speak of is Haddock getting sober, which feels like a weird choice for this movie. At times, it feels like most expensive after-school special ever — in 3D!

As it turns out, I like my Spielberg the old-fashioned way, erring on the side of too much emotions rather than too little. Accept no substitutes.

Attack The Block: Shoulda been a blockbuster.

War Horse: Giddyup!

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2: It took awhile to get here, but it was worth the journey.

X-Men: First Class: Maybe not quite first class, but even second-class X-Men will do.

Super 8: Not totally super, but a few moments of old movie magic make it worthwhile.

The Adventures Of Tintin: It’s one continuous two-hour long special effect.

Paul: Only for those really craving a close encounter with a CGI Seth Rogen.

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