Monday, August 29, 2011

COWBOYS & ALIENS - REVIEW

Cowboys & Aliens
July 29, 2011
118 min
United States (English)

Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Mark Fergus, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and Hawk Ostby



"Cowboys & Aliens" commences as a promising Western, but winds up being a middling science-fiction affair (a somewhat bewildering one at that). Still, the fact that we are receiving such a mad mixture is pretty awesome! Beyond the gripes there is enough to enjoy herein, especially Harrison Ford's performance.


MASHUPS & HYBRIDS

Yeah, John Ford is probably rolling in his grave right now. John Wayne could have never foreseen such a thing happening to his beloved stage. And I wonder if Clint Eastwood went to see this. It is probably not far off, but certainly not as personal, from how the late Jane Austen must've felt when Seth Grahame-Smith released "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." (Quick anecdote: I remember when I first saw that book at Costco. I was there with my sister who had read "Pride and Prejudice." I picked up the novel with its ghastly cover and excitedly asked my sister, "Have you heard of this? 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'!" I was surprised when another woman answered, a stranger. "Yes, I have!" she highly declared. "And I am disgusted!" With that she pushed her shopping cart elsewhere and I was left a little bewildered, but thoroughly entertained.)

When you take a pre-existing text and add whatever your creative mind desires they call it a mashup. While "Cowboys & Western" is not specifically based on any one Wild West tale, it takes the Western genre, lassos many of its semantics (in Altman terminology) and tropes, and turns it on its head... and then rips it inside out. (Hopefully that painted a graphic image in your mind's eye.) Yes, you could say it goes "Alien" on us and has a creature from space burst forth from the very gut of Westerns. When you braid two vastly different genres in this manner you have yourself a hybrid, a Frankensteinian composition that clerks at a video store will likely argue over which section and shelf to put it under. Westerns have been injected with several foreign elements before. I recently highlighted a list in "The Film Tome Report" by Brian Warmoth over at IFC entitled "The 10 Least Realistic Cowboy Movies of All-Time." While "Cowboys & Aliens" came in at number 7 on his list, I probably would have ranked it higher. Then again, I've yet to see "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula."

COWBOYS & ALIENS

Daniel Craig plays our unnamed hero (an immediate homage to "The Man With No Name" trilogy) who wakes up with a start to find himself alone in the desert with a strange metal device attached to his left wrist. The opening sequence plays wonderfully and lasts well until he enters the town of Absolution and meets the colorful residents there including a doctor/preacher (wow, he can heal your body and your soul) named Meacham (played by Clancy Brown), a young and foolish trouble maker named Percy Dolarhyde (played by the young and great Paul Dano), and a mysterious yet beautiful woman named Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde). We also learn that our unknown protagonist is a wanted outlaw named Jake Lonergan, even if he doesn't know it. Before long Percy's father, Woodrow Dolarhyde (played by the man, the legend, Harrison Ford), shows up and wants Lonergan. He has his reasons. However, also before long the aliens show up and change everything.

Let me take a quick aside and comment on the set design being so spot-on. Just look (the picture above) at the shambled town the characters find themselves standing in after the initial spaceship attack and abduction. The filmmakers and storytellers involved (namely the director, production designer, art director, and set decorator) have crafted a visually spectacular setting.

After the aliens blow up half of Absolution and take half the townspeople (this man's wife, that boy's grandfather, and even Dolarhyde's son, Percy) the opposing humans reevaluate their situation. Dolarhyde and Lonergan join forces. I greatly enjoyed this twist of the yarn. The fight is not long between lone hero vs. town tyrant, there be extraterrestrials involved. (I was surprised by how much we actually see of the aliens. I have to say I really dug their concept and design. They have one particularly memorable anatomy feature that I won't spoil here. You'll know when you see it and it'll probably gross you out like any good creature would. Check out what Ebert wrote about it in his review after you see the film.)

WRITER & WRITER

Jon Favreau, fresh off the sequel to "Iron Man" (which he also directed and which really put him on the map) spearheaded the onscreen vision for this film, which is really one of the primary roles of every director. However, the film's origins go further back than Favreau taking the reigns. It shouldn't surprise anyone that this is based on a comic book of the same name penned by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. "Cowboys & Aliens" was actually first purchased by DreamWorks and Universal Pictures in 1997 after Rosenberg first pitched the concept.

They say too many cooks spoil the broth. Well, I also believe too many writers can spoil the screenplay. There are five men with screenwriter credit on this film, another two with story credit if you count Rosenberg. I had the opportunity to catch a special early screening (yeah, I caught it a whole hour before our friends on the East Coast) of the film at the LA Film School. It was part of "The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith" series wherein we all watch a film after which Jeff holds a question-and-answer session with the screenwriters of watched film. Mark Fergus and Roberto Orci (2/5) were there and generously spent an hour or so answering Jeff's questions and then a few from the crowd. I highly recommend giving that episode a listen after you've seen the film (just search for it in iTunes). Fergus and Orci were nice guys and I am a fan of some of their previous work. Fergus even helped with the writing for the 2006 film, "Children of Men," which had the same amount of writers and proves to be an exception to what I have just been lamenting. With "Cowboys & Aliens" it seems that they were too busy coming up with cool ideas to spend time providing explanations. Saying "Cowboys & Aliens" is ridiculous might sound a little ridiculous. Of course it is! Nonetheless, I am trip at the plot holes and grimace at the deus ex machinas. At one point Jeff asked them, "Why did the alien remove his gauntlet?" (This is the alien weaponry that Craig's character has around his wrist). Mark jokingly responded, "It was really uncomfortable."

There is a massive upturned riverboat they come across in the desert (Fergus and Orci were quite to cite it as a direct influence from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") that the posse spends the night at. Two of my favorite moments take place therein: 1) The hardened Woodrow who can't help his fatherly tendencies and gives a young boy some of his food. 2) Said boy has an encounter with an alien who we only see glimpses and parts of. The young boy is Noah Ringer, who played Aang in "The Last Airbender" and is much better here, but some may say that is not saying anything. He looked familiar, but I did not even realize it was the star of Shyamalan's latest until after the fact. I found his performance fine enough. (The role? Well, that's another story...) Still, as far as child actors go, this is still far from the likes of Hunter McCracken who you can and should see in "The Tree of Life").  I quite liked those instances and applaud the writers and the crew who brought it to life.

THE GOOD & THE BAD

When the first trailer emerged for this film I could not have been more excited. It looked beyond promising. Even my folks thought it looked good. As it turns out, that trailer is initially a 90-second version of the film's first half-hour, which is absolutely golden. The second trailer was disappointing enough and probably put me in the right position to see the film. That and hearing not-so-glowing words about it out of ComicCon gave me a rightful dose of under-selling so that I was able to both brace for some of the bumps (though certainly not all of them) and enjoy the ride.

Daniel Craig is really good as the lead, but I kept looking forward to any time Harrison Ford was onscreen. He growls his lines as Woodrow Dolarhyde like a natural. Seriously, this guy should have a rich career ahead of him in Westerns! Besides the comedic likes of 1979's "The Frisco Kid," Ford has never been in a Western. And still, he has yet to be in a "true" Western. I am reminded of something that Roger Ebert wrote about Tommy Lee Jones in his review of "In the Valley of Elah." Wrote he, "Look at the lines around his eyes. He looks concerned, under pressure from himself, a man who has felt pain. Look at his face. It seems to conceal hurtful emotion. He doesn't smile a lot, but when he does, it's like clouds are lifting. Listen to his voice, filled with authority and hard experience. Notice when he speaks that he passes out words as if they were money he can't afford. Whether these characteristics are true of the private man, I have no way of knowing." While those vivid descriptions are specific for Mr. Jones, I feel the Mr. Ford also aged like a fine wine, albeit with wrinkles aplenty. The character of Woodrow Dolarhyde holds many roles in this film, but perhaps the most important is that of a father. There is even an interesting reveal later on with a Native American who runs in his gang.

I didn't care for the flashbacks that Lonergan experiences. I was learning more about him, but somehow wasn't caring. The relationhip between him Olivia Wilde's character has no convincing sense of development. Some of the action is pretty lackluster. There is a sequence in which a character is guarding a passageway and he simply remains rooted in place while enemies come storming towards him. He blasts them away again and again and again. It is far from exciting and we wonder why the baddies don't try another tactic. If it didn't work the first dozen times that might be a good indicator to draw up a new plan of action. Such a situation is unfortunately a rusty staple in video games that I've begrudgingly accepted at times. In games it is simply uninspired. In films it is downright unintelligent.

All these quibbles troubled to the end and after... Then you get a scene where our gang, intent on getting back their loved ones and townspeople, plant dynamite to blast a hole into a spaceship's hull and you can't help but smile at the very concept. "'Cowboys & Aliens,'" I would say to myself, "This is actually happening." It is what it is and in the end the West was won.

★★★

CONTENT: several violent scenes, partial nudity, and some language

1 comment:

Bryson and Tara said...

Well, I didn't read this whole thing, because I want to see the movie first, but I enjoyed the intro. That was funny when that woman was so indignant about the P&P book... And I thought it was funny to imagine 2 Hollywood video employees arguing where to shelve this movie. :)