At The Movies

Cowboys and Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau
By Michael Panush
The largely unknown comic on which “Cowboys and Aliens” is based featured an interesting parallel between the invasion of the Old West by alien forces and the destruction of Native Americans by the US government. The movie does away with any historical allegories or attempts at depth, going for a straight-shooting science fiction western that is solid summer entertainment. At that, it largely succeeds.

“Cowboys and Aliens” could milk its campy concept for cheap laughs, but instead plays everything extremely straight, proving that western and alien invasion stories get along just fine. An amnesiac gunslinger, played by Daniel Craig, wakes up in the desert with a mysterious metal bracelet and wanders into a small Western town, where he immediately begins stirring up trouble for the local cattle baron, played by Harrison Ford. Their squabbles are interrupted by a fleet of aliens, who abduct several townsfolk and fly away. Those left from the attack form that familiar Western group — the ragtag posse of assorted misfits — to rescue their kin. Along the way, they encounter outlaws, Apaches and the ferocious, conquering aliens themselves.

Director Jon Favreau relies on classic westerns for much of the movie’s feel. The shots of groups of riders dwarfed by the enormous New Mexico scenery are straight out of John Ford, while the gritty close-ups of the weathered, dusty faces of outlaws and lawmen could belong in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Except for some fast editing in violent brawls, the action is shot very cleanly, giving us a good view of the eponymous cowboys and aliens clashing.

The actors all do well in their potentially silly roles. Craig talks little and shoots fast as a taciturn gunslinger, while Ford is appropriately crusty, with a permanent scowl and rasp. They are joined by Paul Dano as the cattle baron’s loudmouth son, Sam Rockwell as the nervous saloon owner and Keith Carradine as the weary small town sheriff, who bring some real life to traditional western archetypes. The only weak link is Olivia Wilde as a mysterious frontier woman. Her perfect hair and extra wide eyes would be more at home in a shampoo commercial than the dusty old West. A particularly contrived semi-nude scene for her doesn’t help.

Wilde’s presence, derivative-looking aliens and a final battle that drags on just a little too long are the only real faults in this fast-moving, action-packed western flick. The ease of placing sci-fi elements into a western setting proves that mixing and matching genres can create some fun combinations. While other Westerns, such as “Unforgiven” and “True Grit,” may use and subvert the genre’s conventions to create truly amazing, uniquely American works, “Cowboys and Aliens” just shoots from the hip, aiming to be a popcorn¬-munching diversion. It neatly hits the target.  

Movies that come in pairs:
Cowboys and Aliens/Attack the Block
By Tony Sheppard
As a production, “Cowboys and Aliens” has just about everything going for it – Han Solo/Indiana Jones and James Bond in the lead roles, Steven Spielberg as the lead executive producer, “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau, and the awesome combination of cowboys and aliens suggested by the least subtle title since “Snakes on a Plane.” As a visual exercise, it’s as good as that combination of talents would lead you to expect.  Styled very much as a western, the aliens are not just alien to the planet but alien to the genre – and the juxtaposition works. However, the story takes a turn about half way through that, in my opinion at least, ruins it with a deus ex machina that almost completely undermines the premise of the movie. I probably haven’t enjoyed the first half of a story but not the second half this much since “Fight Club.”

Meanwhile, starting a slow release in the Bay Area this weekend, there’s another alien invasion movie that by comparison seems to have virtually nothing going for it. A young cast, most of whom you’ve probably never heard of, and an unfamiliar director. The only claim to fame is that some of the producers also brought us “Shaun of the Dead” – although that’s noteworthy in and of itself. In “Attack the Block,” a gang of young wannabe gangsters in South London are out and about, exercising their juvenile delinquency, on the night that vicious creatures arrive. They react in much the same way they would if the gang next door invaded their housing project – they grab everything at their disposal and attempt to beat the crap out of them. The result is pure and unadulterated fun. It has none of the slick production values of “Cowboys and Aliens” and only the tiniest fraction of the budget, probably less than that movie’s snack allowance, but it’s a simpler story better told.

Captain America: The First Avenger
Directed by Joe Johnston
By Tony Sheppard
Feeling less superheroey than some of its counterparts, “Captain America: the First Avenger” worked for me. It actually sits back and takes the time to tell a neat backstory of how and why Steve Rogers is selected for an experimental program that ultimately causes him to become Captain America, a title that’s first applied as he travels the country selling war bonds. It’s an interesting character arc – he’s not just another bitter rich guy with all the toys, super strong alien, or the result of a lab experiment gone wrong. He’s a decent guy who had all the characteristics you’d want in a superhero, long before he was super. This may explain his long-time popularity – he’s a wimpy guy who becomes great by first being good – it’s a geektastic fantasy.

The movie comes with a neat period feel and is well directed by Joe Johnston (“Jumanji,” “October Sky,” “The Rocketeer”).  While there are certainly special effects, you feel like you’re watching more tangible action with actual people and props than many contemporary counterparts. The stars feel solid too, with Chris Evans so much better here than as Johnny Storm in “Fantastic Four,” benefitting from an outfit that looks more like a uniform than a leotard. Tommy Lee Jones adds a crusty vibe as a senior military officer who’s seen more than his fair share of battle and death. It also manages to fill the gaps between this story and others, such as “Iron Man,” for non-comic book readers like me.

In an odd coincidence, a few days after watching this I stumbled upon the straight-to-video 1991 version of the same story. That film blasts through the entire plot of the new movie in the first 30 minutes or so, without ever giving any of the characters any sense of identity and purpose. Probably nothing else could have cemented for me just how well the new one works, and why. All of which bodes well for next year’s Avengers movie, which brings the Captain together with Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk, under the direction of Joss Whedon (“Firefly,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”). Although what I’d really like to see would be that lineup of characters as the leads in the next “Hangover” sequel – and I doubt that’s what Whedon has in mind.

Friends with Benefits/Crazy, Stupid, Love.
By Tony Sheppard
These are two movies that both want to distance themselves, to some extent, from the romantic-comedy genre and, in the process, also attempt to appeal more to guys. &ldquo
;Friends with Benefits” even tries very hard to parody that genre, making fun of it quite openly as it progresses, through the use of a movie within the movie. The plot hinges around two successful and good looking young professionals (Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake) who attempt to have a sexual relationship (a far raunchier sexual relationship than is normally seen) without getting romantically involved. It actually works quite well in many respects. Both the leads and their supporting cast do a neat job creating dysfunction on screen. But despite its apparent claims to the contrary, it’s entirely conventional in its structure – it’s the wannabe-non-romantic comedy that’s actually a pure romantic comedy at heart. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Meanwhile, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” takes a different approach by not trying to bring a couple together, but by starting out tearing a couple apart. A long time married couple (Julianne Moore and Steve Carell), with a big house, kids and a Volvo, separate. Carell’s Cal finds himself single for the first time since middle school. He then meets Jacob (Ryan Gosling), the consummate bachelor and ladies’ man, who takes him under his misogynistic wing and mentors him in the art of the one night stand. The result is both funny and awkward – exactly the tone it seems to shoot for.

However, it also relies on two of those filmmaking conceits that normally annoy me – the ridiculous kinds of coincidences that ought to only happen in towns with a population of 20, and the scene in which one character stands up and interrupts an event with a long speech that would result in heckling and insults in real life. But despite the fact that underneath the comedy it deals with quite profound feelings, it never takes itself too seriously, and these elements somehow seem less bothersome as a result. The lighthearted and even more dysfunctional outcome makes it the better of the current attempts to not make a romantic comedy.

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