Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin - Cinematic fun

I've been hearing and reading quite a bit of negative feedback for the new film The Adventures of Tintin, particularly from US viewers. For some this may be expected. After all Tintin is not a name very familiar outside of Europe. However after having seen the film I find this lack of support for the film in the States surprising. I loved the film for a number of reasons, and none of them had anything to do with prior knowledge of the Tintin name. Sure I'd heard of Tintin before, I think I read a comic or two in primary school, but I would in no way consider myself a fan of the series. Yet the film still worked for me. And here is why:

Unbridled Creativity - This is Steven Spielberg's first foray into animation. And you can feel it... in a good way. It's like suddenly he has pulled out all the stops, anything is possible. Swooping cameras, beautifully unique (and even surreal) scene transitions, exciting, death defying chaotic action. It's all there in spades. You can just feel how much fun Spielberg is having in every frame of this film. He is like a gleeful kid getting to play in an amazing new toy box with amazing new possibilities. And it's infectious.

Darker Tone - Ok, so this is no Munich, but it certainly features a tone darker than I was expecting. People get shot. People die. Hell, there is even blood! This film is, in many ways, more violent than Spielberg's previous outing, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, was. And while I'm in no way trying to suggest that violence alone makes a film good, in an adventure film such as this, the threat of violence is what raises the stakes and generates the excitement. It's thrilling when there is a legitimate threat that your lead character may be maimed (lets be honest, we all know Tintin won't actually die).

More Indy than Indy - Expanding on that last point, this film in many ways really does feel like Spielberg is atoning for Crystal Skull. Now it is an animated film based on a children's comic. It's no Temple of Doom. But it is exciting. It's action packed. And most importantly it's fun. The plot may not quite be up to Raiders standards either, but once the initial contrivance that sparks the adventure has passed there is a rollicking good time to be had.

Captain Haddock - In many ways this film is the story of captain Haddock. And that's a good thing as he is amazing. He provides both the comic relief and the pathos. He is the heart of the film and I'm convinced that one of the key reasons (if not the key reason) why he works is Andy Serkis. The man is a genius.

The most important thing about The Adventures of Tintin however is that it's fun. It is a gleeful ride of a film, both narritively and stylistically. And you don't need to be a Tintin fan to love that. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The traveling gamer

So I am currently travelling. I have been so for over 6 months now. And while travelling I have been listening to many gaming podcasts. This is great for keeping up with current discussions and news, however the the downside is that it really is making me miss gaming.

I've been trying to do a little gaming when I can, mainly on my iPhone. I recently picked up Ghost Trick for iOS which is amazing, and I'm still somewhat addicted to Tiny Tower. But I still long for my 360. I'm dying to sink my teeth into Batman: Arkham City, Dark Souls and Skyrim. I want to plant myself on a comfy couch and get lost in a game for hours on end.

Then I had a revelation. I got back from a 9 day trek in the Himalayas with an injured knee and ankle and was confined to my hotel room. Before long I got through Ghost Trick and was out of new podcasts to listen to. Then I remembered that I had my DS buried deep in my backpack which I had not yet played during my travels. I dug it out and looked at the cartridges I had with me. To my delight there was The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass sitting snug in it's little pouch. Back in 2007 I started the game but gave up due to the repetition. But it is a different story now. I didn't have a pile of games I need to play. I  didn't have a job I need to go to. I literally had nothing but time. Hell, a little repetition sounded like a good thing.

I boot the game up and start fresh. And you know what, this may be the most enjoyable experience I've had with a Zelda title. The key to this is that I didn't rush. I didn't feel like I just needed to smash through the core story line. I took my time. I explored. I spoke to the townsfolk. I hunted for treasure. I explored new islands. And I loved it. I finished the game last night and am a little sad that it's over. It's a valuable lesson I've learned. I need to take my time. It may be hard when I have a huge backlog of titles leering at me. But what's the point of blasting through a game if I don't enjoy it?

When I do finally get my 360 and my comfy couch I'm totally sinking 100+ hours into Skyrim

Friday, February 17, 2012

War Horse - The horrors of war... for kids

This post contains significant spoilers for War Horse.

Ok, full disclosure. I'm a Spielberg fanboy. I can't help it. I specifically consider the moment that I saw Jurassic Park to be the seed that grew into my lifelong love and obsession with film. Having said that I approached War Horse with some trepidation. The trailer looked over stylised and over sentimental. I had next to no knowledge of the book and subsequent play on which the film is based. And I was still reeling from Spielberg's last effort, the abysmal Crystal Skull.

But do you know what? I came out of War Horse impressed. It's not a perfect film by any means. But it certainly captivated me. Tonally it doesn't make much sense. The beginning of the film in particular stands out as being oddly whimsical. It features a comical goose and strangely childish humor. In fact almost feels like these scenes were lifted from a more traditional "children's" film. Which is in stark contrast to the darker atmosphere felt during the rest of War Horse. One could perhaps argue that this mirrors the loss of innocence felt by the titular horse's owner Albert. However this feels unearned as he scarcely features in the film beyond the opening and closing moments. It also seems forced to read it as a metaphor for the loss of innocence felt by England as a nation. The opening scenes do not so much evoke a sense of innocence for which the audience can nostalgically pine for, but rather the attempted comical tone feels hollow and throwaway. Narritively these scenes work. They successfully rationalise the intimate bond felt between Albert and his horse Joey which fuels the films 2+ hour runtime. But tonally boy do they feel out of place.

It was the films violent (though notably bloodless) and harrowing depiction of war that surprised me. While it would indeed seem natural that the director of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan would tackle the subject of WW1 seriously. After having sat through the film's opening scenes I honestly thought I was in for a family drama. Something in the vein of Free Willy perhaps. But suddenly people started dying. There were intense battle scenes, child executions, and terrifying trench warfare.

Essentially the film is a series of short vignettes. Joey, our equine hero, trots through Europe (and the war) meeting various colorful characters on his journey. Joey himself is a positive force. He brings hope, love and compassion to everyone he encounters. However almost all of these characters, after being enriched by their encounter with the lovable and noble Joey, end up dead. This is a bleak film. The inspirational and compassionate general who rides Joey into battle is gunned down. The German children who use Joey to escape from the oppressive and dangerous German army are found and executed via firing squad. The young French girl who finds Joey and in him the one small joy in a world where her parents are dead both has the horse taken from her by German soldiers then eventually dies. The other horse which Joey 'befriends' while being forced to pull German artillery succumbs to injuries. Even in one of the final scenes, in which an injured Joey, tangled in a mess of barbed wire in no mans land, inspires an English and German soldier to work together in order to free him has somber undertones. It is implied that, once the horse is free, they will both go back to their respective platoons and continue trying to kill one another.

A film for children? Definitely.

Once the comical opening scenes are dispensed with that the film really begins to work. And while it may not be a "children's film" per se, the relatively tasteful and gore free depiction of war make it a film older children could see. It's a family film that doesn't glorify or gloss over the horrors of war. Spielberg isn't afraid to include intense and frightening imagery, which is why the film works. And I think it is why older children will like the film. It is the kind of film that I, as a child, would have felt proud to have watched. Sure it would probably have scared me, but getting through it would almost have been a badge of honour. It would feel like I had been trusted enough to see a "grownup" film. A mature, violent story that didn't patronise me (with the exception of that damn goose!).

And in that sense it reminds me of vintage Spielberg. A film from the man who understood that being scared is one of the greatest things about going to the cinema as a kid. It's what made it exciting. Just like that first time I saw Jurassic Park as an 8 year old. And with a film like War Horse, I probably would have felt like I had learned something too.