Friday, January 13, 2012

Steven Spielberg Today: A Portrait in One Evening

Which is a fancy way of saying: I did actually manage to complete the Steven Spielberg double feature last night.

It's my second straight year with a themed double feature at the end of the year. (Yes, I know it's January -- we're talking about "end of the year" in terms of the previous year's films.) While last year I attended a Jeff Bridges double feature -- Tron: Legacy and True Grit -- in the week between Christmas and New Year's, this year I managed two Spielberg films -- The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, though I should hardly need to name them -- a couple weeks later. (Both at the same theater, Pacific Theaters in downtown Culver City, where the staff is so skeletal that you buy your ticket at the snack bar and no one even rips it as you walk back to the screening rooms. After that, you're free to sneak in to a second movie without any fears of discovery.)

And naturally, I thought of a lot of different things to talk about. In fact, I've got four subheadings: One about the general experience, one about Tintin, one about War Horse, and one about both.

So let's get right to them:

Candy stimulation

If I were going to watch the 146-minute War Horse starting at 9:30 p.m., I knew I needed to come stocked with candy to stimulate me back into consciousness. I'm not as young as I used to be, and I get up a little after 6 every morning.

Last night's haul: A big resealable bag of Reese's Pieces, a box of Hot Tamales candy, a bag of sour gummy worms, a Cadbury Peanut Butter Egg and two small Redbulls. (Don't worry, I didn't finish it all.)

But last night's foods were chosen not for any preference I have toward them -- they were chosen merely for their potential efficacy. And in some cases they were testing a philosophy of what foods had a better chance to keep me awake when everything in my body said "sleep."

Let's start with the Red Bulls. This is actually my third time bringing Red Bulls with me to the theater in the last couple weeks. I started two weeks ago with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and continued last week when I took in the double feature of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Carnage.

To be clear, I'm not a Red Bull guy. I definitely had a period in my life when I thought Red Bulls were sort of cool, and I sort of liked drinking them. But they were never a natural fit for me, and it's debatable how much they actually do to keep me awake. I've been bringing them to the movies because the theory is solid, but after three trips to the theater with Red Bulls in jacket pockets (and jacket bunched up in my arms as I enter the theater), the jury is still out. I will say that I haven't more than nodded off in any of those movies, but I can't be sure the Red Bulls were responsible. However, when I brought two cans the last two times, each time I drank only one -- which means either that it worked so well that I didn't need a second, or that I didn't think a second would accomplish anything that the first hadn't been able to accomplish.

Now, the candy. The Reese's Pieces are a good energy crutch because there are a lot of them, and you can eat them regularly like you'd eat popcorn. (Plus, I really like them, and plus, they make an appropriate accompaniment to a Steven Spielberg movie.) Chocolate is supposed to stimulate you plenty. The problem is that I opened them too soon in the grand scheme of the evening. I didn't want to save all my food until the second movie, so I chose the Reese's Pieces to eat during Tintin. I hadn't intended to eat them all, but I have a hard time saving my concessions once they're open. A popcorn never lasts longer than the first 15 minutes. And I apparently hadn't learned my lesson from eating my Reese's too fast in a 9:50 showing of We Bought a Zoo just before Christmas, then fighting sleep for most of the movie.

So that left me with only non-chocolate candy stimulants for War Horse. Except, of course, that peanut butter egg, as my emergency "nuclear option."

The Hot Tamales and the sour gummy worms were both tests, as neither of them were things I'd normally pick out from a concession stand. (Gummy worms, maybe; Hot Tamales, no.) I figured the bursts of sour and cinnamon would be just what I needed to get my endorphins pumping a little bit, send some energy out to my extremities. I had to hope they would work at least as well as the chocolate, because I knew there was a chance the Reese's Pieces would be gone by the end of Tintin. (The philosophy was that they'd operate in a similar fashion to my Altoids, which I always have with me, and which serve as an emergency final option if all else fails and if I need some repetitive eating just to keep me awake. They're marketed as "curiously strong," so each has the ability to give me a little kick in the head.)

The cinnamon bursts did the trick. In fact, I didn't even finish the box and never opened the gummy worms, in part because a whole bag of Reese's Pieces and 2/3 of a big box of Hot Tamales leaves you feeling pretty oogey. But I did indeed feel like each one lit a little flame in my palate, temporarily warming my skull and keeping my eyes wide open.

The nuclear egg option was not needed.

Andy Serkis as a ... human?

It's been a good ten years for Andy Serkis. An actor capable of getting only bit parts in live action, Serkis has turned himself into the very face of motion capture technology, starting in 2002 as Gollum in two Lord of the Rings movies, then continuing on to King Kong in 2005 before again garnering awards buzz as another primate, Cesar, in last year's Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

And so it's funny to see him just playing ... human.

That's what he does in Tintin, playing Captain Haddock, who functions as the title character's boozy sidekick. He gives a good performance as usual, but it was his first motion capture role that made me ask ... why Serkis?

The captain doesn't look at all like Serkis really looks, but that's hardly an issue -- of his previous "mocap" roles, only Gollum is actually based on his own physical traits. Serkis is lauded for both his exceptional vocal work and his uncanny understanding of how to move his body. However, neither of these seem to be put to maximum use in Tintin, either. His Scottish brogue could have just as easily been done by Gerard Butler; in fact, I even checked the credits afterward to see if it was Butler, before remembering that duh, of course it was Serkis. And I don't necessarily see what special body movements he's bringing to Haddock, since all the other actors (most prominently Jamie Bell and Daniel Craig) are playing humans as well and doing the body movements just fine.

Good job, Vance -- the first time you write about the great Andy Serkis on your blog, you're dumping on him.

That's not it, actually -- I do think he's great. I guess my point is, not every motion capture role can be a role that needs an Andy Serkis.

Then again, even if you don't need an Andy Serkis, why not hire Andy Serkis? At least you know he doesn't command the same salary as some of the bigger stars, and there's got to be some benefit to the fact that he's used to having those little ping pong balls attached to his body.

And oh yeah, you know he'll give a great performance every time out.

I don't understand movie bidders

There are any number of scenes in War Horse that are supposed to remind you of scenes you've seen in other movies -- in fact, War Horse is as much an exercise in homage as it is its own entity.

The ones I found most frustrating, however, were the two different scenes devoted to people trying to outbid each other at auction for an item that holds great value to them -- in this case, the titular horse.

How many movies do I have to see where the two bidders are wincing over each higher bid as the crowd gasps behind them, unable to be sure if they can afford the price they're paying -- and then one of them submits a bid that is, like, three times the amount of the previous bid?

I guess it's the only surefire way to make a movie bidding war dramatically interesting. I mean, otherwise you're left with the winner having been the guy who outlasted the other, who kept submitting higher bids in the smallest possible increments until the other guy decided he'd reached his limit. After all, this is how every single bidding process in the real world goes down.

But in a movie, nothing could be less interesting. Which is why the first bidding war goes in increments like this:

"One guinea!"
(Crowd gasp.)
"Thirty guineas!"
(Another crowd gasp.)


Couldn't these two men have worn each other out in the late teens? Maybe. But I guess it would have been boring.

So then (spoiler alert) the horse is for sale again later in the movie. This time, the ridiculous topper bid is 100 guineas. (The previous bid had been 25). Major crowd gasp there. Not only that, but the winning bidder tells everyone that he'd sell the jacket off his back to bid higher, then sell his entire farm to go to 1,000 if need be.

Ah, movies. So much suspension of disbelief required.

Two different Spielbergs have much in common

On the one hand, people are saying that The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse showcase two different versions of Steven Spielberg -- the old-fashioned director unashamed to make an homage to old-fashioned filmmaking (War Horse), and the technologically innovate director ready and eager to embrace the latest techniques (Tintin). (Funny, I feel like we were just having this discussion about Marty Scorsese.)

But seeing these movies back to back made me realize how much they have in common, in really funny ways. Forthwith:

1) Both movies prominently feature a drunkard who's trying to quit drinking. (Or at least theoretically wants to.)

2) Both movies include references to unicorns.

3) Both movies feature an incredibly heroic animal capable of incredibly improbable feats. (Not sure how they got the horse to do some of the things he did in War Horse.)

4) Both movies clearly hearken back to earlier points in Spielberg's career. (Numerous scenes in Tintin seem right out of an Indiana Jones movie, while I suspect Jeremy Irvine was cast as the lead in War Horse because he is a dead ringer for E.T.'s Henry Thomas.)

5) Both movies include a bidding war for a desired object (a model ship in Tintin) that eventually comes down to a "name your price" scenario.

6) Both movies feature a large amount of gun violence with little actual blood, keeping them family friendly. (Hilariously, in Tin Tin, a man gets machine-gunned down at a door, but doesn't have a single entry or exit wound when he falls through the doorway.)

7) The animals in the movies are named Joey and Snowy.

8) Both movies are largely unable to develop their human characters beyond the level of archetype.

9) Both movies were released in December of 2011. (Okay, I'm running out of legitimate comparisons so I guess I'll stop there.)


Tintin = Innovative storytelling and visuals, no soul
War Horse = Plenty of soul, even more cheesiness


Travis McClain said...

In my entire life, I've only done three theatrical double features. One night, I went with a friend to see Down Periscope. It sucked. As we were leaving, some classmates were going into see Happy Gilmore and on a lark, I decided to turn right around, buy a ticket and go see that with them. Glad I did, because even though I rarely really enjoy Adam Sandler comedies, that one made me laugh quite a lot.

The second double-feature was also that year; I went with the same friend and my brother to see Spy Hard and then Mission: Impossible. In 2000, I went to see an actual double feature of The Perfect Storm and Space Cowboys. I can't imagine trying anything like that at this point in my life, to be honest.

Anyway, I haven't seen either movie so I can't comment on them. I was amused by this post, though. Nicely done!

Vancetastic said...

Funny, Travis -- three is the number of "theatrical" double features I've done since 12/31. ("Theatrical" is in quotes because the first one was at the drive-in, and seeing both movies was part of the price of admission, so it was legit.)

I love the idea of the second movie salvaging the experience. That's definitely happened to be several times before, but the one I really remember is when a friend and I snuck into Four Weddings and a Funeral (which we assumed we wouldn't like) after paying for the Danny DeVito vehicle Renaissance Man (which I guess we thought we *would* like). What a good save that way. To this day, FWAAF is still one of my favorite movies.

Nice spy theme on the Spy Hard/M:I double feature. I don't usually try to set themes, but sometimes it works out that way. Sometimes it's funniest when there is the opposite of a theme, as when I saw Gosford Park followed by Kung Pow: Enter the Fist.

Vancetastic said...

*to me

Vancetastic said...

*was (shit, I need to proofread!)