Cowboys and Aliens

Last week, I caught an early screening of Cowboys & Aliens, at the Majestic Ten in Williston. One of the film's screenwriters, Hawk Otsby, is a resident of South Burlington, and just prior to the screening, he was introduced, talked briefly about the film and his involvement, and sat down to applause as the film started up.

Cowboys & Aliens is a film about film: two of the richest genres are mashed together into a surprisingly coherent, exciting film. Set in New Mexico, a mysterious man (Daniel Craig) wakes up suddenly in the desert, with a strange device on his wrist. What happens next is a flood of clichés mainly from westerns, but some science fiction flicks as well. The result is the perfect recipe for a summer blockbuster: light, entertaining, with plenty of action and a surprisingly good story to boot.

Craig's character has lost his memory, and discovers that he's quick to action and fairly ruthless when confronted by four men who aim to bring him in for a bounty. Ending up in a small town, he quickly becomes embroiled in a local conflict at a bar, running him against the local cattle man, Woodrow Dolarhyde. It's only then that he learns that he's Jake Lonergan, a wanted man, and is prepped to be sent off to the federal marshals. As that happens, bright lights appear in the sky, complete with explosions, abductions and shooting. The town gathers together to track down their kidnapped friends and family, and the rag tag group of townspeople, ranchers and criminals set off into the desert, coming across outlaws, Native Americans and ultimately, gold-hunting aliens. It's a silly, but fun plot.

The really good points to this film isn't the actual story itself, but the characters. Broadly speaking, there's a lot of archetypes here: the mysterious stranger who doesn't remember his past, the soft bartender, the gruff, but ultimately wise fatherly figure and so forth: ultimately, none of these roles would have really worked with different people in the cast. Daniel Craig does a fine job as an American cowboy, strong, silent, and reserved. Sam Rockwell is fantastic with his regular wit (still one of my favorite actors), and Olivia Wilde does well with her surprise twist.

But the real props go to Harrison Ford: 69 years old, and still a fantastic actor. He steals the show in every scene he shows up in, with a fantastic blend of dark and angry, but at other times, fatherly, caring. He pulls off the role convincingly, and it's quite possibly one of my favorite roles in which I've seen him. He's no Han Solo or Indiana Jones here, and it's nice to see him succeed so well in a role that's quite possibly as memorable or at least as much fun to watch.

Coupled with this summer's other nostalgic blockbuster about aliens, Super 8, Cowboys & Aliens makes a good balance when it comes to looking to the past for inspiration. Super 8 looked to the 1970s films of Stephen Spielberg, and this one clearly has some influence from him as well, but expands out to other influences within the Western or Science Fiction genres. Moreover, the film could have easily taken the parody route, but stays true to being a western with science fiction mixed in. It's nothing new or groundbreaking in films (There's others, such as Outland and Firefly that go similar routes), but this one feels more rooted in the wild west than in outer space.

At the end of this summer, Cowboys & Aliens is one of the stronger summer films, and while it didn't amaze me like Super 8 did, it was a hell of a ride: exciting, nostalgic and fun all at the same time.

Super 8

I’ve got a lot of love for some of the science fiction films from the 1970s, particularly because they were some of the earliest ones that I can remember. We had a VHS of E.T. that I remember watching periodically, and after my obsession with Star Wars, someone got me a copy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film that’s slowly grown on me over the years, to the point where it’s one of my absolute favorites. J.J. Abram’s latest film, Super 8, helps to recall some of the best points of those films, and go right to the center of what makes a film truly great, rather than mere visual spectacle that’s designed to bring people in for the initial theater run. This film feels like the type that is designed to run the distance, and to become a film that will last for years to come, and serves as a great counter-film to another project that Abrams was involved with, Cloverfield.

Set in 1979, the film opens in the aftermath of a disaster that takes the live of Joe Lamb’s mother, setting his, and his father (one of the town’s deputies), into a bit of a flux, as they try to regain some stability and clarity in their lives. Joe escapes into work on a zombie film with his large and somewhat controlling friend Charles, along with the rest of their small clique of friends, hoping to submit their film to a film festival at the end of the summer. Bringing along the town drunk’s daughter, the lovely and standoffish Alice, they begin to film a scene at the train station when a train is deliberately derailed by their science teacher. Spectacle ensues, and the boys see something strange, before escaping as armed soldiers rush on scene. Chaos ensures in the town as town’s dogs and people go missing, strange things happen to electronics and cars, while the military moves in to clean up the mess, but refuse to answer any questions. All the while, the boys are trying to use the background as the perfect setting for their film.

Super 8 does a really good job splitting their duties between looking at the kid’s perspective and looking at how their parents see what’s going on, and Abrams excels here by putting together a great cast of new actors, with a lot of people pointing out the similarities between this and films such as E.T. and Stand By Me. I found some similarities between this and Freaks and Geeks as well. This group of kids really makes the movie: the story is character-driven, and the result is a great film that sees kids steering their own destinies. Ultimately, the kids are also believable, unlike in one of the trailers for an upcoming film, where a child sounds like an adult for their entire appearance. These kids feel just like I remember when I was 12, 13 or 14ish. It feels honest, and that gets major points.

Other cues from older films also help: Abrams ops for a slow buildup, and there’s some good camera work that supports that: the camera lingers, capturing some key moments throughout the film, while not abandoning the excitement when the train derails and the tanks roll through town. The creature that’s driving the main story here is also fleetingly seen until the last couple of moments, and feels far more Cloverfield than ET. It’s a great mechanism, with some great, geeky tension for the audience.

Still, there’s parts that don’t quite fit as well in the modern day and age, and the events in the film help to anchor the film nicely in the later days of the Cold War. At one point, a lady stands up in a crowd and declares that all of these problems must be a result of Soviet actions. A couple of people in the theater laughed at that, but looking at the state of the public during that era, it’s not far off the mark: Abrams captures the moment of the 1970s, but not in a way that’s readily relatable to the modern audience, at least when it comes to the big themes or historical relations. In a way, this is one of the bigger strengths of the film, because when it comes up against the films that it’s been compared to, it’s in good company, and it’s something that I could easily see being created forty years ago.

In one way, this is a bit of a bother to me when it comes to Abrams: for all that he is as a rising star with the science fiction / fantasy genres, he doesn’t do well at wholly original ideas – as original as one can get in fiction or entertainment. Looking at his track record, Star Trek, Mission Impossible, and now this film, there’s a great modern look at older franchises, television shows such as LOST or Fringe non-withstanding. It fits with our culture, one that looks to remixed albums, comic book characters that run back decades and movie and television franchises that have repeated themselves ad nauseum. Nostalgia is one component here, but another is familiarity.

Super 8 manages to really pull itself out of this lurch by being not only an original story, independent of franchise, while taking familiar tropes and moving them around on their own, but it doesn’t rely completely on them: the story is driven by its own architecture: the characters working with their environment as it sends fastballs their way.

This is also a whole different from from other efforts like Cloverfield, where the film is simply a group of people buffered by events around them, with no or little control of their actions and the world around them: this film is the diametric opposite, and I think for that reason, it's a story that will last far longer, and it honestly a better story for people get some type of message from.

I loved Super 8: I rarely want to see something more than one in theaters, and while it has its flaws here and there, it’s a film that excels on its many merits. Plus, it’s a film that has a bit of meta narrative, one that nods to the origins of the current crop of filmmakers , while giving something to everyone else in the theater. And? It’s a whole lot of fun. It’s hard to argue with that.

2010 Film Recap

After last year, with some excellent films like District 9, Moon (and less excellent, but still fun to watch, like Avatar), 2010 felt downright dull when it came to the genre films that came out in theaters. So far this year, I've only watched a couple, in and out of theaters, although there are a couple that are currently available to rent through a local Red Box, which I'll likely do over the next couple of days.

Of all of the films that I've seen thus far, Inception is by far the best, not only of the year, but it's going onto my 'Top genre films' list, which includes films like Moon, District 9, Solaris, Minority Report, and others along the same caliber that I’ve enjoyed. Inception worked on almost every level for me: it had a compelling, interesting and relevant plot, was excellently shot and directed, and has a fantastic soundtrack that I’ve listened to a lot. It’s a film that I’ve been eagerly anticipating seeing again after I saw it in theaters, and I was particularly happy to see a film that was not only smart and interesting, but that caught with a broad appeal and actually did quite well at the box office.

How to Train Your Dragon was a film that I saw recently that really surprised me. Megan and I rented it on a whim, and we both really enjoyed it. It’s a standard pre-teen action/adventure animated movie, with a focus on the fighting and happy ending, but it’s a fun little story of friendship and doing the right thing. And there’s dragons, some funny moments, quite a bit of action, and some excellent voice acting. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming in a couple of years, and I’ll certainly make it a point to see that one.

Along with How to Train Your Dragon, we rented Toy Story 3, which was a great capstone to the first two films, although given how long it’s been since I’ve seen the 2nd one, it’s hard to compare them in terms of quality. This new addition holds up wonderfully to the first film, something I consider a formative film in my own childhood, and treasure it deeply (along with the lessons learned there: treat your things well). #3 felt very dark at points without going overboard, but retained the charm of the first two films. Beyond that, it aged well, with Andy headed off to college, making this film a very different one in tone, and not just a rehash of the first two.

Daybreakers was another surprise, and while people seem fixated on the horrors of the sparkly Vampire novels and urban fantasy, this film makes its own departures and is able to retain some of the more horrific and over the top elements nicely. There’s an overt political and environmental message embedded in the story, but it fits well. The story of vampires running out of blood and mutating was a fun one, with some over the top elements, some neat science fictional ones, and Sam Neill being creepy.

Iron Man II was a letdown after the first Iron Man movie. Where the first was a fun, concise story that rolled together the military industrial complex and the wars in the Middle East, the sequel attempted to do the same thing, while also setting up the upcoming Avengers movie, juggle multiple villains and the Demon in a Bottle storyline. It’s a case where they should have picked one or two and focused on those, but despite the glaring problems, the film is a fun one, with action, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Hopefully, they’ll get the 3rd one right when that’s released in a couple of years, and I’m guessing that many of the problems are due to studio interference, rather than the people who actually filmed it.

Clash of the Titans was a bomb: a big, stupid fun bomb that was pure popcorn fare. Not worth picking up by any stretch of the imagination (I ended up winning a copy), but it’s worth watching for the overblown effects, crappy acting and monsters going around eating / killing / maiming people in various ways.

I couldn’t even get through The Book of Eli. A coworker of mine told me the ending afterwards, and I’m not missing anything after falling asleep while watching it. There were some interesting action sequences and a cool premise, but it just couldn’t hold my attention.

There were a bunch of films that I wanted to see, but simply haven’t had the chance or time to do so yet: Wolfman (despite the horrible reviews), Green Zone (Jason Bourne lite?), Social Network (Aaron Sorkin is one of my favorite writers), Kick Ass (Which looked like an incredible amount of fun), Splice (which was apparently a well acted, scripted and shot film), Predators (which looked like fun), The American (Artistic spy film?) and the recently released Black Swan, (which looks and sounds incredible). A couple of these, like Predators, Splice, Kickass, Green Zone and Wolfman are all available to rent, so I might end up going that route before buying any of them.

And, of course, there’s a couple of films out there that are about to be released: True Grit, a Coen Brothers western, which looks like it could be an interesting one, based off of the original John Wayne film, while I’m also interested in the last Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hollows, Part 1 (I’m rereading all of the books now). The last film of the year that I’m eagerly awaiting, Tron: Legacy, for some pseudo-Cyberpunk blockbuster action is out next week. I loved the original Tron when I saw it earlier this year, and it’s one that I’m already anticipating for the big screen.

After this year, there’s a couple of films that I’m looking forwards to for 2011: Battle: Los Angeles is going to be a certain theater visit for me, The Adjustment Bureau, based off of a Philip K. Dick story, as well as Sucker Punch, which looks like pure male fantasy (and every geeky trope lumped into one story). Source Code, Duncan Jones’ second film is also to be released (I loved Moon, so I’m hopeful for this one.) and the summer, with Thor (Maybe), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strange Tides (Sure), X-Men: First Class (Yep), Super 8 (J.J. Abrams film), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Maybe?), Captain America (Maybe), Harry Potter 7.2 (depends on the first one), Cowboys and Aliens (Yes!), all looking like a bit of fun. The fall will also bring in the first Tintin movie, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, which I’m eagerly awaiting. There’s also a second Sherlock Holmes film in there somewhere, which might be fun.

2010 felt like a bit of a lax year – there were some other genre films that came out, but there really wasn’t anything that caught my eyes or attention beyond the films that I saw (or otherwise listed). Between ’9 and ’11, there are quite a few interesting things set to film, and if anything, it’s a reaffirmation that Science Fiction and Fantasy are both still pretty popular when it comes down to the wire. Except this year, for some reason.