Archive for January, 2012

TV Quickshots #6

January 14, 2012 Leave a comment

TV Quickshots

Edge of Darkness (BBC; 1985)

I can trust no one but Mr. Honeybuggles.

This well-regarded Thatcher-era BBC dramatic serial about murder, grief, and corruption starts off strongly enough. Detective Inspector Ronald Craven (the perpetually long-faced Bob Peck) is walking with his scientist/activist daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley, pre-Kilmer) outside his country home when an angry man with a shotgun steps from the bushes, cursing Craven’s name. Emma steps in front of his gun and he fires, killing her. As the stricken Craven begins to look into her death (with and without official sanction), he uncovers a web of intrigue involving mining unions, environmentalist radicals, government inquiries, espionage, the IRA, and corporate nuclear power concerns.

This strange multi-headed best of modern corruption ingests his grief whole and regurgitates it as obsession. Aided by a pair of British intelligence types (Charles Kay and Ian McNeice) and crossing paths with a voluble Texan CIA operative (who could only be played by Joe Don Baker) at nearly every turn, Craven comes ever closer to understanding the dark truth behind his daughter’s death but ever further from a solution to the myriad sociopolitical ills that lead to it.

Although Edge of Darkness is an ambitious and smart slice of television, for its time (the complexity of its mystery suffers in comparison to a more recent telenovella analogue like State of Play, to say nothing of HBO’s dramas), it slips over the top in its final couple of hours, as Craven and the CIA agent, Darius Jedburgh, break into the Northmoor nuclear facility for, as it turns out, very separate reasons. There’s a bit too much of Peck (though a fine actor and no mistake) peering and straining and feeling anguish, just to show us how amazingly psychologically tortured he is (that Mel Gibson took on the role in the Hollywood adaptation directed by the original’s helmsman Martin Campbell should be no surprise, given his own proclivities for noble onscreen suffering). Whalley is a lighter presence, and Baker is tons of fun as always, looking like a cowboy soldier but speaking like an ambiguous academic.

But the mystery loses interest quickly enough, and the brew of action and suspense that conquers the final act becomes tiresome without warning. Perhaps things grate all the more because of the score, a litany of wanking slide guitar from Eric Clapton and ‘80s synth backgrounds from Michael Kamen. It’s supposed to set a mood, but that mood is plenty overwrought, as is, ultimately, the show and its political message.

Alcatraz (Fox; 2012)

Quick: which one is the obsessive scholar and which one is the cop?

A considerably less hardboiled take on the mysterious paranoia-driven drama premieres this coming Monday on Fox. Exec-produced by Lost mavens J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Jack Bender and based on a screenplay from Lost and Deadwood writer Elizabeth Sarnoff and two others, Alcatraz is shot through with ample noir-lite mood and curious plot uncertainties, albeit pitched in a much more simplified mainstream way, at least in the pilot.

The show’s central premise is not so much politically charged as it is pulpily resonant of vague supernaturalism: when the notorious maximum-security federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay closed in 1963, the remaining prisoners were not transfered elsewhere, as we have been told. They all mysteriously vanished without a trace, and now, almost 40 years later, they are reappearing one by one, without having aged a day.

Enter plucky, ambitious SF PD Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones, yet another woman on television far too attractive to be a believable cop), who picks up on the trail of clues after the first returned prisoner (Jeffrey Pierce) commits several murders, evidently out of revenge. Although shooed away from the case by the typically shadowy government agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), Madsen enlists the aid of nerdy Alcatraz scholar Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, aka Hurley of Lost) and eventually proves herself to the doubting Hauser to be worthy of participating in the investigation, or at least learns so much about it that enlisting her aid is the only viable alternative to indefinite detention.

That Madsen and Hauser each have personal, undisclosed ties to Alcatraz and to the bizarre events on the island should not be surprising, either. It’s possible that Soto does, too, but the pilot seemed uninterested in his backstory, mostly employing Garcia for occasional expert exposition and some trademarked Hurleyesque geek-culture references (he is introduced playing video games and later calls Hauser’s high-tech subterranean operations center on the island “the Batcave”). This is not very meaty stuff, but it was not unappealing in its opening hour of episodic suspense. Neill operates as a flinty glowerer, and Jones and Garcia hint at a touch of unforeseen chemistry, though I’d put that mostly down to Garcia, a Smiling Latino Buddha of a performer who draws all around him into his benevolent glow.

Their interactions will continue to be key to the show’s success, but clever suspense plotting (which the pilot only hints at) will determine whether Alcatraz will be a more tantric, prisoner-culture-centric version of The 4400 mixed with the cult interest of Whitechapel or if it develops into its own dramatic beast entirely. I would also express the hope that the San Francisco setting be mined for some of its foggy West Coast noir charm were the show not being shot in that constant onscreen urban proxy, Vancouver. San Francisco richly deserves a television depiction of its distinct urban reality more detailed than, say, Full House provided (is there a better-known fictional program set in San Fran than that? I can’t think of one). A show like Alcatraz, for all of its promised mystery and mythology, could derive added appeal from such detail. But that element, much like the implied promise of fascinating revelations and loopholes, is likely to be minimised. If I have little in the way of high hopes for Alcatraz, I at least can boast a large surplus of low hopes.

Categories: Reviews, Television

PopMatters Television Review – The Finder

January 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, DVD, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title below to go to the review.

The Finder


Categories: Reviews, Television

TV Quickshots #5

January 10, 2012 4 comments

TV Quickshots

Boardwalk Empire – Season Two (HBO; 2011)

When we last left the painstakingly-detailed 1920s recreation of Atlantic City offered by this latest HBO flagship crime drama, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (the legendarily bag-eyed Steve Buscemi) was celebrating a triumph in the election he worked hard to rig while the various enemies he’s made licked their wounds and conspired to unseat “the boss.” The second season of the Emmy-winning Boardwalk Empire draws out these cliffhanger promises with narrative richness and moral sophistication if not always with particular symbolic depth.

Nice boutonnier, Nuck.

Nucky faces a federal prosecution for election fraud that threatens to dredge up other dark deeds from his past and possibly increase his sentence. Although the government is ostensibly after him, this assault on his power is masterminded by his former mentor the Commodore (the bluff Dabney Coleman) with able assists from the old man’s ambitious but violence-prone son and heir Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and Nucky’s disillusioned brother, Sheriff Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham).

Nucky must also contend with other obstacles to his continued largesse, of course. There are the demands put to him by the local African-American kingpin Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, aka Omar from The Wire), whose community is beset by reprisals from the Klan. There are the interests of his Irish countrymen, who ask for money and (possibly) arms to support their War of Independence against Britain. There is the dogged but increasingly inept vendetta against him by sanctimonious Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (the ever-waxen Michael Shannon), whose private misdeeds threaten to overwhelm him in a way that Nucky never allows his own to do. And, closer to home, he must tread lightly with his domestic partner Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), whose shrewdness is a match for his own and whose Catholic guilt threatens constantly to tear their makeshift family apart.

Boardwalk Empire certainly has much to recommend it, from impeccable period detail to sharp writing to fantastic acting. Shannon is electric even if his character’s arc is often ridiculous, Pitt broods far more effectively than his babyface would suggest he’d be able to, Michael Stuhlbarg is a delight as refined New York gambler and gangster Arnold Rothstein, and Buscemi and Macdonald surprise with their depth of character involvement again and again. The sprawling scope also leaves plenty of room for an extended coterie of swaggering young actors to impress as well (although there’s hardly enough of Stephen Graham’s superb wiseguy Al Capone to go around this season).

But the grandness of the tragedy envisioned by creator and showrunner Terence Winter can often induce nausea. As the pace quickens and the bodies start piling up by the season’s end, it all really gets to be too much. Darmody’s narrative in particular becomes outlandishly Oedipal, its rampant Freudian anxieties clad in the gleaming armour of Arthurian myth but grounded in filthy violence. The symbolism can get cumbersome in its obviousness, as well: childrens’ dolls burning, murders next to angelic statues and war memorials, the Commodore’s parlour full of mounted animals. As absorbing a telenovel experience as Boardwalk Empire can be, its inflated sense of proportion can occasionally overcome its simpler, more human charms.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Social Network

January 8, 2012 5 comments

The Social Network (2010; Directed by David Fincher)

Note: A shortened version of this review was published on January 12, 2011 as part of PopMatters’ Best Films of 2010 list.

Want some Cheetos? Got some in my pocket here...

David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s foreboding dramatization of Facebook’s inception and expansion darkly suggests that the internet “revolution” has not nurtured the good in our souls, but only amplified our most primal driving impulses. This should not be news to anyone, really; the idealistic naivete of the early days of the internet, when it was seen by some initial enthusiasts as the grand uniting tool that would finally throw off the gilded yoke of capitalist oppression, was very quickly bought and sold, monetized with so much filthy lucre. The internet didn’t really fundamentally change the world, but the world is always fundamentally changing the internet.

Mark Zuckerberg (played here by Jesse Eisenberg as an obsessed, driven, sharp-tongued misanthrope) and his simple yet expansive vision did change the internet, but how much did he really change our world? According to The Social Network, on a basic level, not that much. For all that’s been made of Sorkin’s glib Hollywoodism in fictionalizing Zuckerberg’s inspiration as being driven by the rejection of a girl (films about creative people must need have their muses, even if they’re negative ones), dozens of other motivations and driving forces are also floating in the ether. Not only thwarted sexual desire is in play, but betrayal, envy, male competitiveness, lust for fame, misogyny, anti-establishment fervour, and (quite prominently) differences in class and social status. These are the myriad fuels for this upheaval, as they are in every important social upheaval. Facebook has not really made us more than we were, but made us more of what we are: striving, grasping beasts fighting for the limited space available to us and, just maybe, a few inches more.

On the level of technical execution, Fincher takes the script’s underlying Hobbesian philosophy and shoots, edits, and breathes it full of life in the way he knows best: as an ominous borderline thriller, a horror film in which no blood is drawn but much deeper traumas are inflicted. Aided immesurably in this effort by the amazing electro-score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Fincher animates the trademarked witty talkativeness of an Aaron Sorkin script with a black existential hopelessness. This is, at its core, a very lonely movie, entirely by intention. Everyone is always talking to each other and saying clever things (Sorkin, remember), but they’re only occasionally talking about anything but themselves. They’re also saying so many very cruel things that only the purest venom has any effect; the climactic slight in the opening scene that finally leads to Erica (Rooney Mara) dumping the self-fixated Zuckerberg is a knock at her social status (she’s a mere Boston University attendee, not a Harvard grandee like him), but he’s so thoughtless so often before that, it’s a wonder she waits for that moment to walk out.

I swear, that asterisk in the band name was all Fatone's idea, man...

Fincher finds a way to give verve and heft to the endless dialogue scenes, at once plunging us into them and keeping us at a remove. But he always makes sure we feel more than a little uneasy, more than a little frightened. The scene in a noisy, colourfully-lit dance club where Napster-founding bad-boy Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in a slick but overpraised performance) plies Zuckerberg with visions of the billion-dollar potential of Facebook – not to mention the deadly possibilities of failure – is staged by Fincher like Mephistopheles tempting Faust, with Timberlake’s boy-band face lit from below by a creepy blue-magenta glow.

In the rare scene that is entirely visual and requires none of Sorkin’s rapid-fire wordiness, Fincher lets his filmmaking prowess run rampant. A sequence depicting the Winklevoss twins (played with a SFX assist by Armie Hammer and humourously referred to by Zuckerberg as “the Winklevii”) losing a rowing regatta in Britain by less than a boat length (a none-too-subtle metaphor for the way they were always just behind Zuckerberg’s internet phenomenon, for which they provided one kernel of inspiration) is shot with fuzzed-out heart-pounding intensity, scored by an ominous Reznor/Ross take on Grieg’s already ominous “In The Hall of the Mountain King”. It’s a bit of showing-off from a master filmmaker, but it’s no less impressive for all that.

The notable performance in the film beyond Eisenberg, Timberlake and the doubled Hammer is undoubtedly Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s initial partner, financier, best friend, and, in the film’s view, last tether to human reality. Garfield swaggers but also roils in self-doubt, shows tenderness for his anti-social programmer buddy and feels betrayed by him in a quasi-Shakespearean sense when he’s muscled out of the expanding Facebook. Garfield is not the only person who gets discarded on the way to a brave new world, and Saverin is still a billionaire even with his comparatively miniscule share in the company, so we can’t feel too sorry for him, ultimately. But like the peripheral female characters who get shuffled away by the froth of male competition, he’s too human for truly massive success in the lizard-brained world of big-time American business. The Zuckerberg of The Social Network gets where he does not despite his anti-social tendencies but indeed specifically because of them; the same ability to see the immense social potential of the internet makes him ill-suited to true (“IRL”, as they say on the web) interactions.

They're just pretending to know what that means, you know...

This view is perhaps a bit glib, not to mention the product of a fuddy-duddy anti-internet-culture mentality (and there is no shortage of that generational gap in this film, to be sure). But there’s much more to The Social Network than mere disdain for Web 2.0; this is a film that digs deeper than a couple of men from an older generation telling kids to shut down their devices and read a book. In an endlessly reflexive culture, one in which we discuss in person how we discussed what happened in person on the internet, where social interactions even on the supposedly liberating worldwide web have become even more proscribed and rule-bound than their real-world counterparts, this is a movie that pokes and prods cleverly and potently at the underlying forces and assumptions behind it all.

Its conclusions may not inspire much hope, but then it’s hard to argue that they should. The final scene of Zuckerberg repeatedly refreshing the webpage he built, waiting for it to tell him that he has a friend (as the Fab Four mockingly sing “Baby You’re a Rich Man”), is an image for our technological age, but also for all modern social ages. If The Social Network was only a film about the technical achievement of Facebook and the glory of the social web, as some of its internet-savvy detractors seem to wish it was, its shelf-life would be that of a viral video. But what makes it a potential classic and possible zeitgeist film is the connections it builds to more powerful impulses in the human character.

Categories: Film, Internet, Reviews

Republican Iowa Caucuses 2012: Some Brief and Intemperate Thoughts

January 5, 2012 2 comments

Some bullet-point-ish observations on the first official primary of the US Presidential Campaign, the Iowa Caucuses, which saw Republicans primary voters cast their ballots for their party’s nominee on this past Tuesday:

Mic check, Mittens in the hizzouse!

– Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney defeated former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum by 8 votes. Eight. Before any general-interest columnist somewhere gets too misty-eyed over the sublime power of democracy and the importance of every single vote, let’s recall that barely over 100, 000 Iowans even voted in this thing. You can get more people together for a Mexican league soccer game than for this supposed Middle American democratic watershed, and the number of caucusing Iowans was low even when compared to previous years. So eight votes in this caucus is probably equivalent to, say, 500 in a larger state. Although the ever-breathless American political media overstates the importance of all of the early primaries (especially the consistently left-field results in New Hampshire, whose primary is on January 10th), their continued elevation of Iowa, which just happens to vote first, is especially excessive.

– Let’s call it, essentially, a dead heat, then. That the slick, dissembling Mormon plutocrat Romney was able to scratch out a draw with the odious Tea Party champion of the week (about which more in a moment) in a socially-conservative rural environment that favours sanctimonious culture warriors and moral scolds augers very well for Mittens. He looks set to clean house in New Hampshire, if Nate Silver’s usually-accurate projections can be trusted, show better than he ought to in the Neo-Confederate South (where Newt Gingrich’s current cushion cannot really be expected to be preserved), and then outleg his fulminating remaining rivals in the ever-important money race. But beyond that? Romney is the most polished of the GOP hopefuls, but he might be too polished to be acceptable to the ragged Republican base, with their Fox-News-fed authoritarian fantasies and dizzying conspiratorial suspicions. Evangelicals, in particular, might stay home rather than dimple their chads for a Mormon, and without them, no Republican has a hope in Des Moines against Barack Obama, Hussein or not. And I somehow doubt that the activist wing will continue to ignore the fact that he passed the model for the Affordable Health Care Act that they despise so cartoonishly in his own state for very long.

Sleeves only slow me down!

– Enough horse race stuff, though. Can we talk about Santorum? Yes, that Santorum. That the Tea Party base has now seemingly decided that he’s their pony in this derby bespeaks the weakness of the other social conservatives in the contest, as well as their own ill-thought-out ideological fickleness. I would put the drastic polling shifts from one extreme far-right candidate to another entirely down to the enormous influence of the aforementioned propaganda outfit Fox News in this campaign, not to mention the larger conservative ideological project in America. When you rely on a cable news channel to form your sociopolitical belief system for you, your belief system will inevitably follow the short attention span of cable news, and this is what has happened in this primary campaign, as social conservatives have fled to and from a succession of rightish demagogues like rats from sinking ships every few weeks.

– Santorum however, is a far-right Catholic moral authoritarian unlike any of the previous Teabag faves, opposed to abortion, gay rights, and birth control under any circumstances and not only fine with government-mandated torture and preemptive war but positively eager for both. And there’s his Google problem, too. And his brittle boyish credulity. And those sweater vests. And his dismal polling in the rest of the coming primaries, where he’s running last or next-to-last, at least until he gets a post-Iowa bump. He threw everything he had into Iowa, and came out with essentially a draw with Mittens. It’s hard to conclude that he’s long for this race.

– Gingrich does seem to be long for it, as does Texas Governor Rick Perry, despite a poor Iowa showing and a reconsideration of his comedy-of-errors campaign. This is a good thing, from my perspective. Perry has no hope of winning after being exposed as a mean himbo who makes George W. Bush look like a thoughtful statesman in comparison, but with Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann both out of the race, he’s the premier clown left to unintentionally lay out the fundamental ludicrousness of Republican ideas as accidental satire. Gingrich, meanwhile, has become a spiteful troll since his surge dissipated. He smells Mormon blood in the water, and will assault Romney in a frenzy until he’s spent, helping to reassert the core of selfish nastiness behind the family-values facade of the GOP image.

– Ron Paul has hit his ceiling. Purist libertarianism will only ever be a useful sub-ideology to the power merchants the top of the GOP, and that’s a good deal more use than a sub-ideology with such enormous and cruel blind spots ought to have in the first place.

– Finally, a word about Bachmann, whose exit from the race surely spells the end of her bizarre run of prominence on the US political stage. I was tempted to make a Nixon reference, something to the effect of “you won’t have Michele to kick around anymore!”, but the thought made me realize that she hasn’t relied on that sort of self-pity to establish herself as a major political figure, as her common analogue Sarah Palin constantly does. She’s a wild-eyed nutcase with dangerous ideas, of course, but she has asked for no quarter, demanded no special consideration as a woman in a world that is still largely glass-ceilinged. I’m not calling her a feminist or anything, as the valences of that term clash harshly with the basic tenets of social conservative conceptions of gender in a manner that cannot be reconciled. But she did better than most expected she would have in the Presidential primary of a highly patriarchal political party. We’ll miss those wild eyes. Godspeed, Kooky Lady.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

January 3, 2012 1 comment

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011; Directed by Tomas Alfredson)

Every few years, a talented young filmmaker cuts his directorial teeth on a John le Carré adaptation, and critics and moviegoers alike are treated to a film whose intelligence and complexity stands in stark relief to the glut of Hollywood hogwash. The last notable instance was in 2005, when Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles crafted The Constant Gardener into a textured critique of corporate corruption and governmental complicity. Now, six years later, Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) tackles one of le Carré’s classics, the Cold War espionage tale Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, fabled as the novel that disseminated the word “mole” into the popular lexicon as shorthand for a double agent.

Never underestimate the near-sighted.

The resulting adaptation is too measured and deliberate to really be tagged as a thriller, a stark grey film that proceeds in sketched hints and understated suggestions. It takes full advantage of its early 1970s settings, taking place predominantly in a drained London, with sojourns to similarly colourless corners of Budapest, Istanbul, Paris, and Russia. There are many ungrinning intelligence men in drab suits talking in code and jargon and evidently striving against each other despite exerting little outward effort. This greywash of dreary intrigue is punctuated by practically motionless bursts of violence, which are bloodless in figurative terms if not strictly so in literal ones.

Although it’s certainly possible to lose the thread of the narrative due to the dogged dryness of the exposition, the plot is not really all that complicated. A British Intelligence agent (Mark Strong) is shot and presumed killed while waiting to meet a prospective defector in Hungary, and the grizzled agency veteran who ordered the operation, Control (John Hurt), is drummed out of his post as a result. At the forefront of the coup is a well-connected new wave in “the Circus”, headed by a Scottish peer Sir Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) with a supposedly bulletproof source of information, codenamed Witchcraft.

The Budapest meet was centered on information about a mole placed highly in the Circus, and another agent (Tom Hardy) conducting surveillance on a prospective Soviet agent in Turkey vanishes after sending word back to London about another potential source that would reveal this mole, his treason presumed by nearly all. Faced with an apparent leak in their ship, the government contacts Control’s right-hand man George Smiley (Oldman), who was pushed into early retirement along with his boss when Alleline’s faction took over, to head a secret investigation to expose the mole. Aided by another retired agent (the retired Roger Lloyd-Pack) and the younger man who is the Ministry’s contact to him (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley examines the suspects in Alleline’s team that the now-deceased Control left to him, their occupation-related codenames giving the film its title, and finds that Witchcraft is not what they suppose it to be.

Alfredson, working from a script adapted from le Carré’s novel by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, shoots his concise actors through windows and across foreground obstacles whenever possible, lending a further opaqueness to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s already-opaque visual palette. His superb British cast is exactly on his minimalist wavelength, and the older actors especially embody their characters’ concerns with nicely-controlled microexpressions.

Oldman, buttoned-down with manicured silver hair and full-moon 220px-tinker2c_tailor2c_soldier2c_spy_posterspectacles, reveals nary a feeling in his face, but his lines of thought flash subtly across his eyes like a light charge through a circuit board. He briefly lets the façade slip while drinking with Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam, as he describes an encounter with the Soviets’ master spy, known only as Karla. It’s a marvelously quiet performance from an actor more generally known as a younger performer for his verbose and demonstrative characters, but follows logically from the weary father figures that Oldman has been portraying in blockbusters over the past few years.

The rest of the cast is mostly similarly subtle, in particular the nicely-rounded Colin Firth and the ever-intense Strong, who is in hiding as a schoolteacher and stares contemplative holes in the walls. Hurt dissipates in a fog of cigarette smoke, Cumberbatch mingles confidence with shaking nervousness, and Hardy swaggers in period sweaters and a bad wig, even gaining permission to employ his pillow-lips in a truncated romantic subplot with a potential female Russian defector. The miscast Jones aside (as strong an actor as he is, he can’t help but embody sad little men, and Alleline’s role is not quite that), the cast does a superb job with the material.

But how good is the material? It’s all right, ultimately, its themes and elements and twists and turns obvious enough to popular audiences that Alfredson’s dogged defamiliarizing attempts do not grate terribly. Although it’s arguably le Carré who made these sorts of stories so familiar, even his work suffers from the dissemination of convention. As strong and well-crafted as Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, it offers only a little meaningful insight into either intelligence services or the necessarily inscrutable humans who populate them. The film simmers along at a low boil, with none of the revelatory moments of fine cinema. It’s mostly faultless, but nothing particularly special either.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Adventures of Tintin

January 2, 2012 2 comments

The Adventures of Tintin (2011; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

There are, one might suppose, two key metrics by which to measure the success or failure of the motion-capture animation adaptation of the Tintin comics from Hollywood film geek lords Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. We can ask how effective the film is as a general all-audiences popcorn-munching adventure flick and we can ask how accurate and mindful it is as a cinematic translation of Belgian artist Hergé’s detail-rich, vividly-coloured, and good-humoured graphic texts. The pedigree of director Spielberg and producer Jackson (roles which will reverse themselves if this film is successful enough to warrant a sequel, and European box office numbers indicate that will be the case) certainly suggest that the former is the case, and I can say that it certainly is.

The Adventures of Silhouette and White Fang

The Adventures of Tintin is a delightfully fun movie, so overwhelming visually clever and technically masterful that you never know whether to be simply captivated or actively impressed. Its wit is not merely visual but verbal as well, as Hergé’s impish fondness for punning humour alongside his cartoonish visual gags is well-translated to the screen by some of the finest British wits in the screenwriting game. Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat wrote the first draft of the script, with a rewrite done by hipper-than-thou writer/directors Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and some other comic-book debacle that doesn’t merit mention here) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block).

They craft a brisk and funny tale for Spielberg to animate with his trademarked chameleonic style, based on three of Hergé’s mid-1940s books (one of which, The Secret of the Unicorn, provides the film with its subtitle in foreign territories, where the property is more recognizable). Cub reporter Tintin (voiced and mo-capped by Jamie Bell, who vanishes behind the iconic fresh-faced hero) stumbles upon a greatly sought-after model of a 17th-century warship called the Unicorn at a street market, just beating a distinguished sharp-bearded gentleman named Sakharine (Daniel Craig, also invisible) to it. Sakharine will not be denied, however, first ransacking Tintin’s flat and then abducting the reporter (who we never once see writing a story) when he couldn’t find the secret object he sought, which was hidden inside the model. With the help of his loyal fox terrier Snowy and the hirsute, boorish, and often drunken Captain Haddock (mo-cap vet Andy Serkis), Tintin chases Sakharine across seas and romantic locales, gradually solving a centuries-old mystery in the process.

A globetrotting adventure narrative of this sort is fine fodder for the sort of action set-pieces that both Spielberg and Jackson are known for, and they provide at least a couple of doozies. Haddock’s reminisence of a dizzying sea battle between his ancestor and that of Sakharine is the most grand of these, featuring both the Unicorn and the pirate ship attacking it burning and heaving in a stormy sea, their mainmasts hooking up to each other and transforming into an immense pendulum as the crews swordfight to the death. It’s the sort of massive-scaled, eyes-wide-open imagery that Gore Verbinski tried and failed to achieve in his Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and it’s stunning stuff done beautifully here. The real highlight, however, is an elaborately-staged and enormously clever one-shot chase sequence through a terraced Moroccan hill city featuring a rushing flood, a motorcycle with sidecar, a tank dragging a hotel lobby, and a determined falcon. Worth the price of admission alone (maybe even the inflated 3D price, although I saw the regular old 2D print), these two scenes are among the most purely, joyfully cinematic things that Spielberg has ever committed to celluloid, and justify the expense and effort of the film all on their own.

Our coordinates are 42 degrees North… by Northwest

It’s a good thing they do, however, because there are several niggling issues coming along with them. The complex spectacle of these scenes is rather un-Hergé, to be honest, even if his simmering wit is imparted well enough in their surfeit of sight gags. The climactic industrial crane duel between Haddock and Sakharine is a few steps too far down this road, a crunching, fairly ugly mirror image of the swordfight of their antecedents earlier on. The titular protagonist’s role is minimal in this sequence as well, as the manlier alpha male Haddock seizes the Hollywood action-star mantle for the big showdown.

Furthermore, the technical choice to use the still-clunky motion-capture animation style pioneered by Robert Zemeckis’ zombie-people cartoons like The Polar Express and Beowulf seems an odd one to portray the vivid heightened graphic reality of the Belgian comic master. Most critics of this method cite the dead look in the eyes of the onscreen characters, but advances in the technology have largely overcome that problem (no one could say that the eyes on Jackson’s and Serkis’ innovations in the method, Gollum and King Kong, were lifeless in the least). They have not overcome the slightly jerky, vaguely robotic movement of characters’ bodies nor their fleshy baby-fat excessiveness, and even in the mostly visually-exquisite Tintin these hitches present themselves with regularity. The bodies that are treated unlike real ones work the best: witness the hilarious scene in a ship’s quarters, with sleeping crew members flopping back and forth in (and out of) their bunks with the rhythm of the waves.

The characters themselves, especially Tintin and the villainous Sakharine, also don’t animate the plot so much as occupy positions in it. A few amusing, slapsticky Thompson and Thompson moments aside (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost do the voicing honours), Serkis’ burly, jabbering Haddock is the only human who makes much of an impression all on his own. I do make the “human” distinction because Snowy is consistently rather great, snatching away much of the movie and proving that W.C. Fields’ famous truism about children and animals at least partly applies even in the age of computer-generated 3D animation.

There’s also a certain unwillingness on the part of the script to grapple with the problematic side of Hergé’s Tintin world, in particular the knee-jerk social conservatism and imperialistic assumptions of his early work (we shan’t be seeing Tintin in the Congo on silver screens in the near future, I would wager). The choice of the Unicorn/Red Rackham arc for the movie’s plot was a deliberately apolitical one, focusing on the distinctly non-ideological exploration tales that Hergé produced to avoid blowback from the Nazi occupiers of Belgium during WWII. There’s also a sometimes awkward attempt to have Haddock’s alcoholism both ways, to employ it as an uncomplicated comic device as Hergé did as well as an affliction and a marker of the weakness and anxiety that Haddock must overcome in order to fulfill his family legacy.

The Adventures of Tintin has only a small role in the legacy of the comic property’s creator, for its own part. The well-intentioned and careful fondness for Hergé’s work that is displayed by the creative team is certainly hard to miss. The opening credits are a slick, swinging tribute to the elegant geometry of the comics, and the master himself gets a heavily-nodded-at cameo immediately after them, as a street caricutarist who draws the mo-capped Tintin in his comic-book appearance.

But the rest of the film leaps off of Hergé’s creation into a swashbuckling Hollywood adventure of the Saturday morning serial sort that Spielberg himself once restored to the popular discourse; a kind of Tintindiana Jones, as a friend quipped in the theatre beforehand. It will be interesting to see where, if anywhere, the series goes from here, with the most neutral and inoffensive stories in the Tintin canon now spent (the conclusion of the Red Rackham’s Treasure narrative is the ending sequel-promise, not to play spoiler). Spielberg and Jackson have managed to make a very fun Tintin, but are they able (or willing) to incorporate Hergé’s subtle social commentary into their adventures tales as well? Possibly next time, I suppose.

Categories: Film, Reviews