Cowboys & Aliens

The title says it all. In Cowboys & Aliens, there are cowboys, and there are aliens. I haven’t seen such a revealing title in years, probably since 2006 and Snakes On A Plane. Perhaps it was a marketing ploy, although I’m not sure what kind of film they were trying to portray to potential movie-goers. Was it supposed to be an edgy genre-mashup? A goofy grindhouse flick? Maybe a heady drama involving intense cross-species relationships? As it turns out, Cowboys & Aliens is none of these. It’s purely an action movie, standard summer fare full of explosions and effects. Sure, there are elements of a Western and some sci-fi in there. These pieces are what save the movie from becoming monotonous through and through. They’re enough to salvage some of the predictable plot and two-dimensional characters, but ultimately fail to bring the film past forgettable.

As I was watching the film, there were two boys, around 12 years old, whispering to each other. The noise was loud enough to be bothersome, and I couldn’t keep from eavesdropping. Listening closer, I figured out that they were trying to predict plot points before they occurred on screen, and the results were embarrassingly accurate. Sample prediction: “I bet the alien will jump out of the water and attack them.” On screen, five seconds later, the prophesy is fulfilled. This happened a number of times throughout the movie, and each correct conjecture made me a little sadder than the last. An intriguing premise was slowly being dismantled, one cliche at a time. It’s the same song, only played with different instruments. The kids knew the tune. I knew it too. The difference was that I was hoping for something new. It’s far too often that story and plot are reduced to a reason for showing off special effects, and Cowboys & Aliens is unfortunately another film in that long tradition.

That isn’t to say that nothing is interesting here, though. Matching up a true Western with a sci-fi movie isn’t something you see very often in Hollywood. The Cowboy portion of the film works well, providing an entertaining introduction to the story and characters as well as fresh respite from the tedious action sequences later on. The film could have remained as purely a Western and worked, if only the second half of the title didn’t exist. I was jarred out of my pleasant, Western bubble every time the aliens were mentioned or referenced onscreen. They’re not mysterious enough to be interesting, nor are they engaging enough to hold appeal. The aliens are simply there for a fight, as many extra-terrestrial beings seem to have been doing in the movies lately.

The characters in Cowboys & Aliens are an interesting bunch. The three main characters, played by Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde, are efficient and serve their purpose as audience-drawing names, but it’s the side characters that make the movie interesting. Standouts here are Paul Dano, who plays the cowardly bully Percy and Sam Rockwell as Doc. Both characters are unnecessary to the plot, yet necessary to the overall enjoyment of the film. They provide much needed life and comic relief to a movie that sometimes takes itself much too seriously. Like their costars, these characters are tragically shallow, despite the film’s attempts to portray them as otherwise. Craig’s character, Jake Lonergan, starts the movie as a stoic man with amnesia and ends the movie a stoic man without amnesia. Harrison Ford is a hard-ass with a soft spot the whole way through. I attribute much of this two-dimensionality to the sheer quantity of characters portrayed in the film. Cowboys & Aliens introduces and spotlights entirely too many characters, and as a result, the dialogue is spread too thin to really develop or advance any of the roles.

Cowboys & Aliens genuinely tries to present something interesting, but, shackled by the financial pressure of Hollywood and the shallow expectation of summer audiences, it fails to really bloom into anything more than average. The sci-fi/Western crossover is an intriguing idea which creates some memorable moments, yet after all is said and done, Cowboys & Aliens contains all the ingredients for your popular-yet-lacking blockbuster, and, as a result, is a fiercely mediocre film.

Grade: B-

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Published in: on August 4, 2011 at 3:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Captain America: The First Avenger

Back in 2002, Marvel Entertainment released the movie Spiderman. It was a huge critical and commercial hit, wowing critics and pulling in audiences nationwide. Its popularity was due to the fresh and humanizing take on the superhero genre, one that hadn’t enjoyed much success since Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. The genre was reborn, and Marvel was quick to build an empire around it. Nine years and around 15 films later, we have Captain America: The First Avenger. Although the movie retains the Marvel superhero formula established by Spiderman all those years ago, it still manages to stay relevant through its stylish, vintage feel and light-hearted adventures.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a film that never really takes itself too seriously, and it’s right to do so. In the beginning, an energy source of immense power is stolen from a church in Norway by our obvious baddie, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). We’re never really told why Schmidt is seeking this object, or where it came from (only that it was the “jewel of Odin’s treasure room”), but do we really need to know? The pressures of being realistic are quickly thrown out the window, much to the audiences’ relief. The line between superheroes and realism is often crossed, but with Captain America it’s apparent that we are on the side of good ‘ole fashioned fantasy.

The story follows a fairly generic path. We follow Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he is transformed from a masochistic weakling into the buff warrior we always knew he could be. Bad guys are slain, villains are chased, and a romantic fling with the beautiful-yet-dangerous Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is eminent. There’s not much new here. If you look through the cloud of typical Marvel fanfare, the movie seems rushed and insincere. It’s unfortunate that the film must be a necessary stepping stone to the upcoming Avengers movie, because it holds back what could have been a solid and fun stand-alone original. Captain America is unique in the fact that it takes place in the 1940’s, and that alone could have propelled the movie to a higher standard than the ones set in place by Iron Man 2 and Thor. The film is delightfully retro, and it’s nice to see the hero driving around in a jeep and firing a pistol rather than flying through the sky shooting rockets. Following the vintage look, the colors in the film are subtle and muted for the most part, a welcome change in a summer full of flashing neons.

Chris Evans is capable but not extraordinary in his portrayal of Steve Rogers/Captain America. He’s more intriguing playing Rogers before his transformation, a small guy with a big heart. It’s here that Evans can actually bring his character to life, giving him an earnestness and emotion that can’t be displayed when he is turned into another muscular action-hero. It seems that character connection is important, as the film makes it a point to show that Steve Rogers is as human and empathic after becoming Captain America as he was before. This is a tired retread of most other superhero movies, where naive youngsters must harness their newfound powers while maintaining their integrity. It’s a struggle we’ve seen before, but, along with many other superheroes, we’ll lose our empathy as soon as the hero realizes what power he or she holds.

Captain America: The First Avenger is good but not great, a fun summer movie held back by the shackles of genre and the future film plans of Marvel. The plot is sometimes nonsensical, but thankfully the movie never takes itself too seriously in its reality or emotional tones. It’s another entertaining film in a long line of comic-to-movie adaptations, better than some and worse than others.

Grade: B-

Published in: on July 26, 2011 at 4:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

When I was in the fourth grade my grandmother handed me a book titled “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” I was skeptical. The strange looking boy on the cover riding a broomstick did little to encourage me to read it, but eventually summer boredom took its toll and I caved. I had no idea that over a decade later I’d still be reliving Harry’s adventures and wondering which of my friends would be in Slytherin. But, such was the impact Harry Potter had on my life and many other lives around the world. While sitting in the theater waiting to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, I suddenly realized that it was all almost over. After 14 years, eight movies, seven books, and a $15 billion empire, Harry Potter and his friends had finally come to the conclusion of their journey.

And what a conclusion it is. The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 amazes and shocks and makes us proud to have ever been a part of Pottermania. It’s a film that is sometimes brilliant and sometimes strange, but it never sacrifices any of the magic we felt along the way. Sure, the plot isn’t as strong as most of the previous films, but director David Yates knows that the plot isn’t what’s important in Harry’s last hurrah. It’s our bonds with the characters that matter now, and Yates dedicates a fair amount of screen-time to show off the witches and wizards that made the series so special.

Although a large cast of characters is on display here, it’s obvious that Harry Potter himself is the focus of the film. This is his story, and we’re going to follow it to the end. Radcliffe, who has played Potter for half of his life, is better than ever. He holds his own among the stellar cast of seasoned British veterans, displaying an impressive range of emotion throughout the entire film. Looking back, it’s quite remarkable to see what a transformation Radcliffe has made from the first movie to the last. Harry’s journey became his own. Radcliffe grew as Harry grew, from child to teenager to adult, and the importance of that passage is quite clear.

Harry Potter isn’t the only wizard in the film, though. Almost every side-character has a cameo, though sadly most of them are brief. The director tries to pack as many familiar faces in the movie as possible, but in doing so limits the depth and importance of their time on the screen. Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Watson) play second fiddle to Harry throughout the movie, and the unfortunate emphasis on their newfound love is too often and too obvious. The rest of the Hogwarts gang is also back, with especially memorable appearances by Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith).

With so many characters to keep track of, the film sometimes seems to veer away from the plot. Many important moments lack significance and fail to make an impression on the audience. Director Yates hurries through often confusing revelations and flashbacks, choosing instead to display our favorite characters in the battle against Voldemort. It’s very much a film made for the fans. A newcomer to the franchise would soon be enveloped and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content the movie contains.

As the credits rolled, I sat in my seat and reminisced about the place Harry Potter held in my youth. About the disbelief I felt when Snape killed Dumbledore. About going to a midnight release for a book (likely for the first and last time). About growing up with Harry Potter, in the most literal sense possible. He grew as I did, and with each subsequent book release I found that we faced many of the same (non-magical) problems. Perhaps it’s this unique attachment that makes the film so meaningful to me. It’s a jubilant final reunion with the characters I grew up loving, and I’m sad to see them go. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is about as grand a farewell as we could ask for, and succeeds in bringing closure to such a beloved franchise. Farewell, Harry Potter. Mischief managed.

Grade: B+

Published in: on July 19, 2011 at 1:10 am  Comments (1)  

Horrible Bosses

Everyone loves an underdog. Luckily, Horrible Bosses supplies us with three very good ones. They’re not overly pathetic like Napoleon Dynamite, nor are they completely clueless like Harry and Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber. No, the three stars of Horrible Bosses are just like us, and it’s this connection and the charisma of the actors that make the film work as well as it does.

Don’t get me wrong, Horrible Bosses is not your typical underdog flick. It’s not so much about the triumph of the weak as it is about raunch. Jokes fly about left and right. Jokes about prison. Cocaine. Men urinating on other men. But, behind this clever facade of dirty humor is a movie with a little heart. We can relate to its protagonists. Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day), and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) are just three regular guys, with very normal problems: their bosses. Granted, the severity of their horribleness is somewhat off the charts, but as an audience we can relate to injustice inflicted by the hands of a superior. The three friends, tired of being pushed around and mistreated, come up with the (seemingly) genius idea to kill each others’ bosses. What follows is a raucous romp through an hour and a half of failed attempts, near misses, and generally unbelievable situations.

It’s not the plot that makes Horrible Bosses so entertaining, though. More than many films I’ve seen recently, Horrible Bosses relies on its stellar cast to create the magic onscreen. The writing and jokes are sufficient, but mostly serve as a vehicle for Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis to display their wildly different but equally hilarious comedic talent. Lines that might have fallen flat are rocketed to life and delivered with precision. Situations that might have been cliché or overused are transformed into something unexpected, entirely through the charisma of the cast. Especially great here is Charlie Day, a fresh face for those who are unfamiliar with his most well-known work, the tv series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He’s neurotic, high-strung, and prone to fits of hilariously harmless rage. His character, Dale, glows with an energy and magnetism that is unmatched by any of his co-stars. The sheer hysteria and frenzied emotion displayed by Dale make it impossible to look away.

The bosses of Horrible Bosses also deserve commendation for their excellent performances. Kevin Spacey is perfect as an evil, selfish, paranoid boss, whose soul-crushing speeches to Nick are spellbinding. Jennifer Aniston has never looked better, and her wild, sex-crazed character is only enhanced by the fact that she’s still as attractive as she was ten years ago. Colin Farrell, on the other hand, is a fat, pot-bellied, coke-snorting dragon lover, and his shockingly callous business ethics are as hilarious as they are offensive.

Horrible Bosses excels at what it does: providing satisfying comedy to a fun-seeking summer crowd. The plot isn’t exceptionally deep or original, but it leaves room for the cast to take over and shine. But, at its core, the film is about more than just the sex jokes. Forever the underdogs, the three main characters find themselves trapped in situations that they seem powerless to control. Despite the odds, however, they concoct a plan than may grant them some much-needed justice. It also gives us, the audience, just a little courage and the hope that someday we, too, can overcome our own “horrible bosses”.

Grade: B

Published in: on July 13, 2011 at 2:26 am  Comments (2)  

The Tree of Life

What is a film? To most people, a film is entertainment. A film is an escape from reality. A film is explosions. Tears. Adrenaline. A happy ending. So what happens when a film comes out that has none of these things? Unfortunately, for the majority, it’s an exercise in monotony. Stale. Boring. But, the fact that The Tree of Life is boring and monotonous is precisely what makes it so important.

The Tree of Life starts out not with a bang, but with a whisper. The opening shot of the movie contains a mysterious light, trembling and swaying and saying nothing. We’re never told what it is. It’s up to each individual to determine not only what this light symbolizes, but what the entire film is trying to say. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that the director, Terrence Malick, is less concerned with telling a defined story and more concerned with boiling down the scope of life and the universe into three measurable acts. As expansive as this vision sounds, it’s actually quite logical. The first part of the film is filled with epic, rolling montages, seemingly outlining creation as told through Genesis. We follow this story until we reach the sixth day. Humanity. The beginning of act two. Our lives, as told through the O’Brien family.

Their story, if examined on a superficial level, is practically nonexistent. But if you delve a little deeper, you see that their story, like our lives, isn’t told in a narrative, dramatic fashion. We see memorable incidents in their lives, events that spark a change of heart. Turning points. The soul-searching moments that everyone experiences. It’s not the day-to-day routines that we remember later, but these small flashes of time that will affect us for years to come. The same is true for the O’Brien family. We see their most important memories, from the significance of a birth to the seeming triviality of chasing your brother through the woods. An ordinary person doesn’t live their life fighting giant robots or effortlessly maintaining perfect relationships. It’s the quiet moments that matter the most, the small thoughts and inconsistencies that make each person unique. Malick displays these events perfectly, providing experiences that everyone can relate to.

The third and final act of the film is something a bit more abstract. We have already covered what happened before and during life. What’s left is what happens after. Malick’s vision of the afterlife is the most enigmatic section of the film. It’s mostly dialogue-free, allowing the audience to reflect. It doesn’t bash you over the head with any theological beliefs, instead letting you apply your own.

Therein lies the beauty and the determined artistic vision that Terrence Malick has lain in place. In an industry filled with instant gratification and definite answers, Malick has shown Hollywood that it’s still possible to construct a film that is based on something as mundane, mysterious, and fleeting as life itself. It’s easy to dismiss the film. In the showing I was attending, one member of the audience went as far to say, “Wow, aren’t you glad that’s over?” addressing the rest of the theater. They laughed in agreement. The irony is that what was being laughed at was life itself. That was the reason the film seemed boring. There aren’t many films that take you out of your comfortable movie theater and bring you back to reality. It makes audiences uncomfortable. But, as The Tree of Life so clearly shows, life is uncomfortable, though that doesn’t make it any less important. We are a tiny, microscopic speck in the history of the universe, but Malick reminds us that who we are and how we live does, indeed, matter.

Grade: A

Published in: on July 7, 2011 at 4:06 pm  Comments (2)  

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

You know, for two hours and thirty-five minutes of relentless action, vulgar one-liners, and an extremely attractive Victoria’s Secret model, you’d think I was in for a treat.

Instead, we have Transformers: Dark of the Moon. All of the aforementioned traits, usually entertaining, get extremely tiring and oftentimes unbearable after around the half hour mark. It’s not that this movie is made with bad intentions; no, I think that Michael Bay has lovingly crafted something he proudly calls his own. It’s that the movie itself is so horribly, unfathomably soul-draining. If examined individually, the pieces of this film could appear to be something entertaining, and perhaps even a little intriguing. But, when slapped together with Scotch tape and Bay’s 13-year-old sensibility, we get a muddled mess that puts the audience’s brains to sleep, despite the flashy whirling robots and massive explosions.

To understand why Transformers: Dark of the Moon is so unpleasant, I had to dig a little deeper. The first problem I came across was the characters. And oh boy, was this a problem. What tipped me off was the fact that while watching the movie I rarely had any semblance of what a character’s name was, let alone its importance or role. Take, for example, Frances McDormand’s character. She is some sort of leader in a national security group. Don’t ask me to explain further, because that’s about all I garnered from her appearances on screen. After the misogynistic accusations of the previous Transformers films, it’s clear Bay wanted to have a female character in charge, and Frances McDormand was his pick. Tragically, all the character serves to do is become the victim of sexual harassment several times during the movie. Good call, Michael. There are probably two dozen or so characters who have prominent speaking roles in the film, but around five or six of these are actually necessary to the plot. The others just wander aimlessly about on screen, shouting nonsense and waiting for their one, slightly-important-yet-unnecessary scene.

In 1902, George Melies released a film called “A Trip to the Moon”. It was a momentous occasion. The picture was wildly successful, due to its comical story and technically superior production and special effects. While undoubtedly “A Trip to the Moon” ranks as one of the most important films in history, some have criticized it as displaying a naive understanding of narrative film structure and technique. Fast-forward 109 years, and you’d think we were still having that problem. Only occasionally during Transformers: Dark of the Moon did I have any true grasp of the plot or the significance of the events unfolding before my eyes. It’s as if the mind-numbing special effects weren’t enough to hook the audience, so Bay treated us to a story that reeks of faux importance and tries to pass itself off as significant. The pattern of the movie became apparent early on. The audience can look forward to a lengthy action scene followed by a painfully transparent dramatic moment followed by more action. The formula is useful until its predictability leads to a passive audience, over-exposed to the drudgery onscreen.

I understand that Transformers: Dark of the Moon isn’t supposed to be some sort of character-driven drama, nor does it aspire to be more than another summer blockbuster. The problem with this movie doesn’t lay in the fact that it’s lacking in eye-candy or fantastic special effects. The problem is that it’s impossible to empathize with the characters or plot. We have no reason to care what’s happening to the Autobots, and no amount of special effects will change that. Even films like Transformers: Dark of the Moon need appeal beyond the visual. It’s one of those films where after the credits have rolled and the audience has filtered out of the theater, it’s forgotten in the realm of endless special effects. It’s competing for space in a genre already packed full of better and more interesting movies. There’s no reason to think about it again.

Grade: D

Published in: on July 3, 2011 at 7:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cars 2

Well, it was about time.

After 25 years and 11 exceptional films, Pixar has officially made its first dud. It’s just unfortunate John Lasseter had to be at the wheel. One of the greatest animators and creative minds of our generation, Lasseter has wowed audiences and critics for the past quarter century, redefining what is possible in animated storytelling. But after all this time, it’s a little disappointing and sad to see Pixar’s head creative reduced to the sort of kiddy mediocrity that Cars 2 embodies.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is as visually spectacular as anything we’ve seen in an animated movie before. The cars in the movie are sleek and shiny, perfect representations of their real life counterparts (except, you know, for the eyes and stuff). The environments are also beautifully rendered: bright, shining sets full of razzle-dazzle and countless car puns. Sadly, visuals aren’t what make a movie great. If that was the case, we’d have Transformers and Sucker Punch battling it out for Best Picture. No, it’s only when the visuals are paired with intelligent storytelling and earnest emotion that they are truly effective. Pixar successfully combined all of the those things for the past 25 years, until now.

Cars 2, while appearing sillier and more shallow than previous Pixar films, actually has quite a complex plot: Mater the tow-truck is involved in an international conspiracy and must save the world and its new alternative fuel before the baddies can get rid of it and get rich on oil. Oh, and Lightning McQueen is in there somewhere, driving around in races and spouting off a line every now and then. There’s also spies involved. And friendship issues. Maybe a naive love story too. All of these things combine with a constantly changing locale to baffle the youngsters that it sets its sights upon. Even the apparent eco-friendly message behind the movie flies straight over their 8 year old heads.

On the other hand, many (all) of the characters in the film seem to be made to appeal to kids. Mater has replaced Lightning McQueen as the primary protagonist, but at the cost of much of the movie’s intelligence. I understand that Mater is a dumb, redneck tow-truck, and thus supposedly rakes in the laughs. What I wonder is why on earth Pixar would bestow the title of hero on a character that was previously a shallow comic relief. It’s like making the fat guy from Jurassic Park the main star. What chance there was for integrity and emotion is effectively gone. This connection with the characters is mostly doled out through laughable stereotypes that you can only chuckle at once before losing touch. Hippie VW Bus? Check. Mexican lowrider? Check. Emasculated Italian F1 car? You betcha. These stereotypes are tired and overused, and cause the lack of character development that, in the end, cripples the film.

It’s not that Cars 2 is awful. No, it’s unfortunately doomed to a fate worse than that of a bad movie: a mediocre movie. In an industry filled with forgettable, vapid animation, Pixar has finally joined the ranks of its competitors, and released a movie that is neither good nor bad. It’s just a minor feature, one that you can afford to pass by on your way to somewhere better.

Grade: C+

Published in: on June 29, 2011 at 2:23 am  Leave a Comment