Quick Takes on Three Films

Film Insight by Tyler Malone

December 2011


Reel Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Even before Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin was released, while it was in the works, Tom McCarthy (a great novelist who wrote a lovely critical study of the Tintin stories called Tintin and the Secret of Literature) said of the upcoming movie in an article in the Guardian: “I hold out little hope for Spielberg’s film. I suspect it will be sanitised and anodyne, devoid of the complexities that make Tintin so compelling.” His apprehension for and suspicions of the Spielberg movie were well-founded, and his greatest fears have come to fruition. Hergé’s wonderful stories have certainly been sanitised for this film version, and what we’re left with is a version of Tintin through the looking glass. It may look at first glance like the Tintin we know and love (though animated motion capture immediately clues one in to the askewness of this version), but everything in this Tintin is a little off kilter: visually, narratively, thematically, tropologically, etc.

Tom McCarthy wrote another article about Spielberg’s film in the Guardian upon its release and called the film a “truly execrable offering.” While it didn’t offend me as much as it did McCarthy (of course, I’m no Tintin scholar, so it wouldn’t offend me with the same intensity), he is right on in comparing the film to “a seminar on monetisation through self-empowerment”–a strange reversal of the complex thematic core that underpins much of the universe Hergé created. Or, as McCarthy also wrote: “It’s like making a biopic of Nietzsche that depicts him as a born-again Christian, or of Gandhi as a trigger-happy Rambo blasting his way through the Raj.”

I would rarely let someone else’s thoughts on a film stand in for my own, but since McCarthy is one of the greatest living scholars on Tintin, I figure he has better insight than I as to why this film is disappointing to anyone who loves the original stories. It’s not a horrible movie, it’s just a lazy and wrong-headed one. Of course, if you just want entertainment, and are looking for something more Spielbergian than Hergé-esque, then this is your lucky day. The film offers up his moralistic universe and family-friendly mindless entertainment in droves, traced over the much richer and much more complex Tintin universe. No matter what you’re looking for though, I’d argue it’s passable at best. Too bad considering the possibilities. I really liked McCarthy’s original suggestion, that David Lynch would have been a more appropriate choice for director. Could you imagine?


Reel Rating: 3 out of 5

As one would assume from the title, there are a number of animals on display in We Bought A Zoo, including lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), but the most prominent of animals is that strange creature: the Crowe. We Bought A Zoo is a Cameron Crowe movie through and through, with all of Crowe’s idiosyncratic virtues and vices. This story of a family in crisis buying a zoo to cope is crammed with eccentricity and quirk, while still endeavoring to maintain an overly sentimental Hollywood mainstream vibe. As always Crowe is neither truly indie artsy nor mechanically mainstream. He’s just Cameron Crowe, an earnestly eccentric sentimentalist, and We Bought A Zoo feels like Crowe by number. That doesn’t mean, of course, that this is quintessential Crowe. He’s not at his best here, nor at his worst–this fits somewhere in the middle.

We Bought A Zoo is an ultimately forgettable, but mostly enjoyable, sincere sentimentality-fest. Matt Damon swims in this sea of sentimentality and not only stays afloat, but helps keep the entire cloying thing afloat as well. Yes, like many a Crowe film, it teeters a bit too much towards mawkishness, and some of the eccentricity seems pointless and included only because, well, why the hell not?–but the one thing you can always count on Crowe for is sincerity. He’s certainly not the only person in the movie business to over-sentimentalize or to over-eccentricitize, or even to do both simultaneously, but he is one of the only filmmakers who can do both while maintaining absolute sincerity. So while the film is a little too saccharine, it works well enough, and is enjoyable enough.


Reel Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Our sentimentality tour that is this Quick Takes continues (and escalates) with one more Spielberg film, War Horse:

There is no cinema but the cinema of quotation. Every film steals from previous films. The greatest of filmmakers do it both knowingly and artistically. Lesser filmmakers do it haphazardly or heavyhandedly. Though I’d never call Steven Spielberg a lesser filmmaker, I might imply it (implication and subtlety being something Spielberg himself seems unable to grasp). War Horse is perhaps the greatest example of his inartful auteurism. War Horse is nothing more than a mishmash of cinema quotations, but that isn’t inherently bad. The same could be said for any film by Tarantino or Godard or Scorsese. But Spielberg is the kid who has everything but doesn’t know what to do with it. Whether I like a specific movie of Scorsese’s or not, when he frames a scene a specific way, there’s always a reason, and often multiple reasons. When Spielberg does it, I either struggle to find his reasoning (because it seems accidental) or his reasoning is not only in plain sight but he’s hammering you over the head with it.

War Horse isn’t a terrible movie, it’s just a mediocre one–and one that is especially uninteresting when you compare it to what Spielberg is intentionally mimicking. John Ford made this kind of film artfully, Steven Spielberg does it inartfully. What I think it comes down to most of all is that, as I’ve said, Spielberg has always lacked subtlety. Look at his entire film career and I think this is an undeniable statement of fact. This is why I am not a fan of Schindler’s List. And yet I love Jurassic Park. Why? Because a movie like Jurassic Park doesn’t need subtlety, and would perhaps be worse off with it. Whereas a movie like Schindler’s List could use some, if you ask me. So could War Horse. But subtlety is nowhere on these gorgeous horizons (which admittedly are breathtakingly beautiful, and have the feel of old Hollywood painted backdrops).

And War Horse isn’t just a lesser version of John Ford’s filmography, but it is also a lesser Spielberg. It proves to me that Spielberg is always, sadly, a parody of himself. Scenes that were meant to make me cry, and certainly had others in the theater crying, made me laugh out loud–laugh so hard, in fact, that I felt guilty afterwards (after getting a rather icy glare from a mother there with her child, disappointed that I was undermining some sentimentalized Spielbergian morality she was hoping the film might instill in her son). But the movie seemed to me to be a joke. If I were ever to make the ultimate Steven Spielberg parody movie, I wouldn’t even have to write it, I’d just refilm War Horse with (intentionally) comedic actors.

The Adventures of Tintin is a film directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, and based on stories by Hergé. It stars Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis and Daniel Craig. Intrepid reporter Tintin and Captain Haddock set off on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship commanded by Haddock’s ancestor.

We Bought A Zoo is a film directed by Cameron Crowe, written by Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna, and based on the book by Benjamin Mee. It stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson. Set in Southern California, a father moves his young family to the countryside to renovate and re-open a struggling zoo.

War Horse is a film directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, and based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo. It stars Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan and Emily Watson. Young Albert enlists to service in WWI after his beloved horse, Joey, is sold to the cavalry. Albert’s hopeful journey takes him out of England and across Europe as the war rages on.


Official Site: The Adventures of Tintin

IMDb: The Adventures of Tintin

Official Site: We Bought A Zoo

IMDb: We Bought A Zoo

Official Site: War Horse

IMDb: War Horse

Written by Tyler Malone

Photography Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Design by Jillian Mercado


Press Photo from The Adventures of Tintin, Photography Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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