Christmas time is officially here, folks. It’s one of the busiest days of the year at movie theaters and the good people in Hollywood have been so kind as to provide us all a slew of holiday blockbusters to enjoy when we need a break from our families (or at least something to keep them quiet for a couple of hours). This week we get three Christmas releases: one dark, fetish-y, R-rated thriller and two family friendly romps from super-director Steven Spielberg.
While Stevie only knocks one of his movies out of the park, The Adventures of Tintin and The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo are two perfectly enjoyable works of guilty pleasure entertainment that should cover all age groups between them. If you want to have a little fun at the movies this Christmas, you’re all set with either title and you won’t have to learn anything about the meaning of Christmas before the credits roll. If that’s not a reason to get excited about a movie this time of year, I don’t know what is.
The Good: The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo
What better way could there be to settle down with the family over Christmas than by watching a good old-fashioned thriller featuring a bi-sexual leather fetishist, lots of rape, and, of course, Nazis. Yep, if you get sick and tied of holiday cheer during your Christmas shenanigans, a trip to the theater to see The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo should instantly put you in a whole other mindset.
Stieg Larsson’s inexplicably popular 'n' trashy best seller previously came to screens in 2009 with a Swedish version that was decent, if overlong and convoluted. Now we have an American adaptation that’s good, if overlong and convoluted. A modest improvement perhaps, but given the source material, this was only ever going to be so good and the American version is as strong as it could possibly be. If you’re a fan, that’s cause to get giddy. If you’re not, don’t expect too much and you’ll have yourself a good, naughty time.
The tangled plot involves a journalist (Daniel Craig) caught in an unfair libel lawsuit, a tattooed hacker (Rooney Mara) who specializes in getting information and kinky sex, and a decades-old kidnapping/murder case involving an extended family of ex-Nazi billionaires that the unlikely duo set out to solve. It’s all pretty silly stuff, but undeniably compelling in a guilty pleasure sort of way. Apart from some strong performances all around (particularly the tortured, mysterious, and sexy turn from Mara) the main reason for the success of this film over the Swedish original comes down to director David Fincher.
Having previously helmed thrillers like Se7en and Zodiac, Fincher knows his way around the dark 'n' dirty genre and delivers the goods. While the content of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo may be a little light, style is all that really matters in these sorts of thrillers and the meticulous filmmaker pulls every dark hued toy out of his directorial bag of tricks. Fincher is slumming it a bit in this B-movie material, but does it well.
Even though it would have been nice for him to untangle the narrative a bit, chop 20 minutes out of the running time, and close off the ending to take the two shitty sequels out of the equation, you can’t have everything. This is still better than any Girl with The Dragon Tattoo adaptation had the right to be. Now subtitle-phobic audiences can start to look forward to being deeply disappointed by the sequels just like everyone else when the Swedish movies were imported a few short years ago.
The Bad: War Horse
War Horse is a tale of friendship between a boy and his horse that slowly becomes a tragic World War I tale of the trenches. In other words, it was inevitable that Steven Spielberg would turn this into a movie, especially after the successful theater adaptation.
Watching the film, it’s immediately clear why the project appealed to Spielberg. It features all his worst habits and filmmaking obsessions, but thankfully also kicks in a few of his strengths. It’s a weepy, old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama, the kind of film that Spielberg clearly loved as a child and has tried to recreate a few times before in films like his 1989 remake Always. Unfortunately, it’s a style of storytelling that doesn’t carry nearly as much resonance today and, generally speaking, whenever Spielberg tries it, he makes his worst movies.
War Horse is hokey, filled with unbelievably simplistic characters, and painfully predictable. It also suffers from having a real horse as the protagonist, a particularly inexpressive animal that Spielberg has to work his directorial buns off to give some sort of interior life. Simply put, the movie doesn’t work.
However, it is filled with a handful of purely visual moments created by Spielberg that are breathtaking. A sequence with the horse racing across No Man’s Land or the silent final scene are beautiful moments and serve as a reminder that when it comes to emotionally evocative visual storytelling, few filmmakers can match Spielberg. It’s a shame that those stunning moments are wasted on a limp story like War Horse, but at least it’s nice to know that the director still has those chops, if only for a few minutes at a time.
The Tintin: The Adventures Of Tintin
Fortunately fans of Spielberg get a good movie from the bearded entertainment genius to go along with the disappointing War Horse this week. When it was announced that we’d have a Very Spielberg Christmas of dueling releases this year, I always assumed that War Horse was a lock to be the good one. After all, even as a kid I kind of hated Tintin. The whimsical comic book series has long been a massive success in Europe that never quite translated properly in North America.
Since a French journalist pointed out the similarities between Herge’s teenage adventurer and Raiders of The Lost Ark in the '80s, Spielberg has long dreamed of being the man to bring Tintin to America. When he finally made it happen, he surrounded himself with Tintin fans in the form of producer/semi-co-director Peter Jackson as well as British co-writers Steven Moffat (Doctor Who), Edgar Wright (Shaun Of The Dead), and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block). The result is easily Spielberg’s most entertaining movie in a long, long time. This is the movie audiences were hoping to get in 2008 with that Crystal Skull B.S.
Rattling off the plot of Tintin is kind of pointless. It’s not really important what happens. This is a big, silly adventure filled with eccentric supporting characters like Andy Serkis’ hilariously drunken Captain Haddock, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s jovial bumbling Interpol agents Thomson and Thompson, and Daniel Craig’s amusingly evil Ivanovich Sakharine (a man with so many syllables in his name that he must be a villain). Created with Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture process employed on The Polar Express and Beowulf, the actors bring cartoon characters to life and joyously dive into the heightened characterizations that would seem too extreme in live action.
Spielberg also takes advantage of the elastic reality afforded through the animated medium to create some astounding action sequences that would be impossible to pull off in live action (especially an epic car chase through a crumbling city that was created without an edit). The director is a master of spectacle and creates a film that’s tells its story entirely through set pieces. After a brief five-minute setup, Tintin is thrown into one suspense or action sequence after the next and the audience is barely given a chance to catch their breath during the 106-minute running time.
There is one problem with Tintin and that is the protagonist is one of the most boring Spielberg’s ever had. Tintin isn’t a sardonic action lead like Indiana Jones, who is constantly commenting on the action and getting himself into trouble. No, Tintin is essentially a blank slate with no backstory or character beyond an insatiable curiosity and unshakable moral barometer. The entire adventure happens to Tintin without him bringing much to the table.
Fortunately the movie moves far too quickly for most to notice, but it is a bit of a bummer that the team of talented writers couldn’t come up with much for Tintin to do, think, or feel when he isn’t chasing bad guys. Still, despite that nagging issue, The Adventures Of Tintin is one of the most purely charming, entertaining, and fun films that Spielberg (or any other director for that matter) has made in years. With stunning 3D visuals, the film almost feels more like a theme park ride than a work of storytelling and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Buy a big bucket of popcorn, turn off your brain, and enjoy.