Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens: A Meta-Western

Yes, it is the kind of high-concept kitsch that studio pitches are made of (“what if we had a cop movie, see, but the cop is an extra-terrestrial”). Yet this most unlikely of goofy summer popcorn flicks is actually a pretty decent Western, and a sly social commentary on our run-down economy to boot.

Daniel Craig plays the Clint Eastwood role as the mysterious stranger with a past (Jake Lonergan). He wakes up in the middle of the desert with a metal thingamabob on his wrist and no memory about who he is. Yet he hasn’t lost is reflexes and karate chops a posse of highway men who attempt to rob him as quick as you can say “genre bender.” He is clearly one bad dude who has had one really bad night.

Into town he rolls, and soon finds himself up against the local town robber baron, Woodrow Dolarhyde – played with marvelous gruff charm by Harrison Ford, making one of the best big screen comebacks since Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Dolarhyde is the type who nearly – but not quite – draws and quarters a suspicious ranch hand telling strange stories about blasts from the sky. Who’d have thought that Ford had yet to do some of his finest work, and would do so in an end-of-summer movie that seems to have been created out of some all-night screenwriting drug-induced bender? Dolarhyde’s son, a good-for-nothing skinny bully, strolls into town – drunk or cocky or both – every so often to wreck havoc on the townsfolk. This time he encounters Lonergan, who immediately makes him an enemy, along with Dolarhyde, of course.

Then the aliens arrive, and all hell breaks lose. The aliens fly around in cheap metal go-carts (how’d they get here in those jalopies?) and lasso the townsfolk to take them back to their mother ship for who-knows-what kind of disgusting probing, slave labor, or gourmet dining. They are just enough like disgusting, green cattle rustlers kidnapping a bunch of injuns that this plot development feels not at all unnatural and – aside from the laser beams – actually a rather classic Western development. Naturally, the sheriff asks Longergan to assemble a posse of beleaguered townsfolk – including Dolarhyde, of course – to set out after their stolen kin.

What follows is scripted from the playbook of every classic Western that has come before, as Jake needs to regain his memory and his purpose, Dolarhyde needs to regain his heart and his passion, a little boy needs to take his first steps towards manhood, and the two men find they are more complicated – and more alike – than they seemed at first.

Meanwhile, those aliens and their Arcosanti inspired ship are here doing some serious strip mining, and it will take real cooperation amongst the various warring Western factions to scare them off. This is where one might stretch and say the movie plays into the present day angst by giving us a predator class, not unlike present day politicians and bankers, who are after one thing – our gold – and a populous of various competing interests who need to wake up and cooperate if they are to realize that these predators see them as nothing more than food.

The aliens and their warren of a ship seem a bit stolen from every other recent sci-fi, but never-you-mind. This is really an old-fashioned Western more than a sci-fi, and it follows all the good old Western tropes. Who’d have thought it would have taken a visit from outer space to inspire some of the best Western writing the genre has seen in decades?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Captain America: The Last Superhero

Marvel is out to do something that no one has ever done before: translate the world of comics, whole cloth, to the screen. It has been methodically recreating superhero origin stories from its Avengers classic comics series since the first Iron Man movie in 2008. All this is leading up to an actual Avengers movie for next year. Given the unevenness of the movies so far, whether it will have been worth the effort remains an open question.

The last – or most recent – superhero to have his origin story cinematized is Captain America, who also happens to be the oldest Avenger. Created during World War Two as a kind of Marvel version of Superman (that is, a classic square jawed, Nazi-pounding, muscle boy who seduces dames when not fighting evil and flying Old Glory), this 2011 version of that early Twentieth Century story seeks to recreate that all-American hero “on the nose,” as they like to say in Hollywood.

On the nose – that’s the phrase that producers use about a screenplay when it telegraphs its intent all too clearly. In this case I use it to mean that this Captain America is about as sincere a recreation of that “aw shucks” all-American hero as one could seriously get away with in these post-modern, "Glee"-inflected times. Chris Evans shaves his oversized, well-oiled chest to give us a hero whose superpower seems to be male modeling and who gets in the requisite necessary beefcake shots (though clearly not enough to keep my interest in this movie). He smiles, jogs, and acrobats his way with affable enough likability through the film, though the plot that surrounds him feels like tissue paper manufactured solely for the purpose of his tearing gleefully through it.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen all you need to know about how he got those massive shoulders, although for some reason the filmmakers felt that what you got in twenty seconds in the trailer needed a good forty-five minutes in the theater (forty-five minutes of Evan’s training ritual would have been leagues more interesting than what we’re given here). The rotoscoping effect used to make Evans look puny in the opening sequences is the same one used to much more believability in Benjamin Button: here, it just seems like the actor’s stepped in front of fun-house mirror.

Once the real beefed up Evan emerges, the story gets some legs (literarily), thought where it decides to go is hopelessly uninteresting. Some manufactured nonsense with Hugo Weaving as a Nazi spin-off (why not the real thing?) whose creation mirrors that of Captain America. Though the parallels could be interesting they are not explored: instead, we get a Force Ten from Naverone attempt to storm into the Nazi lair for the purposes of nabbing some “Warehouse 13”-like artifact whose abilities are never really explained. To say we’ve seen all this before would not be quite true because even in the most uninspired Indiana Jones flick we’re treated to a plot with more going on than this; Captain America exposes us to a new low in uninspired filmmaking.

Only Evans and his – ahem – “acting talents” gives this film any interest.

It’s a shame, really, especially after an entertaining Thor earlier this summer. Clearly we might have gotten a much better Captain America film than this, if only our luck with screenwriters and directors had held firm. Let’s just hope that for the Avengers movie, Marvel decides to lead with its A team.

Harry Potter & Deathly Hallows Part 2

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for this final installment in the 8-part franchise is that the story is finally over. Dragged on to the point now where it's already old news that the main actors are appearing nude in arty Broadway productions and being taunted on Saturday Night Live dirty skits, the actors are a bit long-in-the-tooth to still be playing high-school seniors, the mysteries set up ages ago have long faded into memory, and the main feeling one gets from this close of the final chapter is, well, relief.

This final installment is naturally more dark - and more violent - than any that have come before. Not a few students meet their makers and the epic battle between dark and light takes places unflinchingly. As a parable for World War Two (with Voldemort as a kind of Hitleresque figure come to seduce, divide, and conquer the weaker minds of an English prep school), the story delivers a satisfying final confrontation, including a scene where Harry must kill the Voldemort within himself in order to truly defeat evil.

The wizardry behind the special effects are particularly superb in this final chapter. Teachers at Hogwarts, beseaged by leagues of Voldemort's evil-doers, erect a kind of defense force field that has all the charm of fairy dust combined with the power of a Star Trek force field - an appropriate type of white magic that gives the assorted pupils and instructors the precious minutes they need to prepare for battle once Voldemort discovers that Harry is on the grounds. Meanwhile, Harry and friends hunt for the final horcrux where Voldemort has stashed a piece of his soul, wands flash red and white in the ensuing battle, and the familiar school is laid waste as the scene of tremendous explosions and bloodshed. Key to the story, as well, is the revelation of Snape's heretofore unrevealed relationship to Harry, and his true allegiences, as well as the sacrifices all of the adults made in an earlier war in order to keep Harry safe and give him this time and place in the spotlight.

Some may evaluate this then as the best of the Harry Potter lot and it certainly does wrap everything up that one would wish to see summed, zapped, or otherwise disposed of. For me, despite the tremendous effects and satisfaction of denoument, it lacks the artistry of Part 1 (particularly the Deathly Hollows story, which gets rather ignored here in favor of the action scenes). I also miss the tonal tension of the mid-story movies - say Goblet of Fire, with the fun Twiwizard tournament, which may be the best in the series. Those earlier stories got the balance right between serious menace and the structured safety of preparatory school. This final Potter feels simply like all-out war. Effective, to be sure, but also preposterous, no longer a metaphor for high school but story grown a bit too epic for the likes of Hogwarts.

Also, as the story races to tie up characters, relatives, in-laws, and friends, one feels as if there is both too little time being spent and way too much. Some characters rush past - if you haven't read the books, as I haven't, their mention has little import - while others, like Snape, have their stories revealed in an over-edited blur. In final review, with the last four movies all exploring the same Horcrux-based wild goose chase (and all having, basically, the same extended plot), this series could have used way fewer side characters and a couple less feature films. But then I supposed it wouldn't have made as many billions as it has.

If you've made it through the first seven films, there's no doubt you need to see the series reach its final conclusion. What began as a magic-based metaphor for the eternal rituals of secondary school has grown, like a sparrow affected by one of those enlargement spells, into a Manichean epic importing the spectre of fascism and war. Spectacular as it is, this story has gone on just a little bit too long for us to really care.