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Column Fri Jul 29 2011

Cowboys & Aliens, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Attack the Block, Another Earth & The Smurfs

Cowboys & Aliens

I've never opened a review like this, but for some reason I feel compelled to do so for director Jon Favreau's latest action opus. Somewhere around the halfway mark of Cowboys & Aliens, the gun-slinging female lead Ella (Olivia Wilde, maximizing her exotic beauty by minimizing the glam qualities of her hair, makeup, and costume) is literally lassoed off her horse by a flying alien. Riding next to her is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), aka The Man with No Past (at least temporarily), who immediately sets out to rescue her by chasing down the low-flying alien craft and leaping from his horse onto the top of said ship. After much struggle and attempts by the craft to shake its unwanted passenger, the ship crashes in the desert and Ella and Jake go tumbling across the sand, bruised and battered, but still alive.

Rather than immediately run for cover or seek out the other members of their team, Jake takes a moment, smiles at Ella, and says something like, "We were flying." It's one of the most honest and believable reactions in a film that asks us to set aside our constant desire to separate genres and be open to the magic that can happen when worlds collide. That moment in Cowboys & Aliens asks us to remember that, aside from the occasional hot air balloon ride, Jake and Ella just became the first human beings to take flight at such speeds and lived to tell the tale. And this is a film that does an impressive and thrilling job at trying to gauge what the reaction would be in 1873 to an alien abduction/attack scenario.

Walking into seeing Cowboys & Aliens, I was prepared to become annoyed at how quickly these Old West characters got used to the presence of aliens (a word I'm pretty certain is never used in the film) in their lives, but thankfully that never happened. Depending on what culture or belief system a character possessed, each one of them sees the invaders in a different light. The more religiously inclined see them as demons; Native American characters see them as monsters; still others see them as nothing more than high-tech kidnappers. The idea that they might be creatures from another world doesn't really sink in until we're deep in the film. And this is exactly how it should be. And like any good Americans, the response to these things we don't understand or recognize is to kill them. Thankfully, screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby make the aliens so hateful that wiping them out seems okay.

But here's the biggest secret about Cowboys & Aliens: it's actually a really great Western that is in many ways sidetracked by the alien elements. Don't get me wrong, the alien stuff is fun, but this tale of a man with memory loss wandering into a small town and butting heads with local law enforcement and cattle mogul Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford in full-on gruff mode) is actually compelling enough to sustain its own film. Actually, much of the first 30 minutes of the film plays out with Craig saying almost nothing, making him all the more intriguing. His mystery past deepens due to him wearing a massive metal device on his left forearm--too big to be handcuffs but big enough that he can't exactly hide it. As I'm sure you know, the device comes to life as a type of weapon in the presence of aliens and seems to be the only thing that can take down one of the alien ships, making Jake a valuable commodity. After the aliens first make their presence known by attacking the town and scooping up about half its residents, a good old-fashioned posse is formed to go find "our kin."

Cowboys & Aliens has great lead actors in Craig, Ford, and Wilde, but its heart and soul belongs to the supporting players, all of whom give us a sense of what's important to folks at this time in history. There are a couple of conversations between a preacher (Clancy Brown) and the town saloon owner, Doc (Sam Rockwell), about the importance of faith that provide an undercurrent of strength and motivation to the entire film. As always, Keith Carradine is on hand as the town Sheriff to provide a real sense of gravity and perspective to the situation. He tries to be a good agent of the law, but he also knows that his town is bought and paid for by Dolarhyde. One of my favorite characters is Nat (Adam Beach), Dolarhyde's Native American sidekick, who seems like more of son to the old man than his actual, reprehensible son Percy (Paul Dano). Cowboys & Aliens gets bonus coolness points for having Walton Goggins in its midst as an old acquaintance of Jake, from a time when his memory was a bit sharper.

Weirdly enough, I had a similar reaction to the alien presence in this film as I did to those in another Steven Spielberg production, Super 8. In both films, the alien creations are interesting but they certainly don't add anything new to the history of creature design or science fiction storytelling. What far more interesting is what's going on when the aliens aren't around. In Super 8, I was transfixed and quite moved by the tale of these young filmmakers. In Cowboys & Aliens, the mystery of Jake Lonergan's past in this Western setting had me hooked from the first frame. And make no mistake, watching Craig and Ford try to out badass each other is one of the purest forms of joy I've had all summer. I also appreciated that Wilde's character is not established as simply a love interest for Craig--far from it. Ella has a very specific purpose in this story, and while some of you may laugh when you find out what it is, I found it to be one of the film's truly pleasant surprises.

I don't think I'm ruining anything saying that Cowboys & Aliens all comes down to a nasty battle outside the alien HQ, hidden in the desert. I found this final battle especially thrilling because of how damn bright it was. I'm so used to sci-fi featuring aliens to shroud their creations in darkness that I was thrilled with all that sunlight. Favreau wants us to see how ugly and nasty these creatures are. The battle has a strangely naturalistic quality to it, as Favreau channels a bit of Anthony Mann's Westerns to make us really feel that these different species are hashing it out in the dust. Hell, the aliens even have green blood; you can't beat that.

Did I find it a bit strange when I found out why the aliens are on earth in the first place? A bit, yes. But that goes to my point about the alien storyline not being all that important to this movie. Despite its title, Cowboys & Aliens is a Western that just happens to have some aliens thrown in. Even Favreau seems more interested in developing his human characters than having them tangle with these grotesque creatures. I still found the alien sequences exciting and wildly entertaining; they just pale in comparison to what's going on when the posse of townsfolk meet up with a local Native tribe or Jake's old crew of degenerates. Do I think Cowboys & Aliens will spark a new wave of Westerns? Not really, but I'll take this beautifully shot film as a stand-alone work until the next brave director decides he/she wants to strap on a pair of chaps, hop on a horse, and ride on into the sunset.

To read my interviews with Cowboys & Aliens stars Olivia Wilde, Harrison Ford, and Daniel Craig, go to Ain't It Cool News. My interview with director Jon Favreau should go up sometime Friday.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

There are romantic comedies, there are chick flicks, and then there are amusing films that actually take relationships seriously. Crazy, Stupid, Love is a surprisingly strong work from the smart guys who co-directed I Love You Phillip Morris and the co-wrote Bad Santa, although this film doesn't really resemble those in any way. Crazy, Stupid, Love dares to tackle relationships from every angle. There is a couple (Steve Carell and Julianne Moore) getting a divorce; there's a 13-year-old boy (Jonah Bobo) in love with his 17-year-old babysitter (Analeigh Tipton); and there's a womanizer (Ryan Gosling) who has been tamed and fallen head over heels for a whip-smart lady (Emma Stone). And with rare exceptions, these relationships and handled by the filmmakers like real, living, breathing things that change as time goes on and feel absolutely genuine and moving.

Carell plays Cal, whose wife Emily (Moore) finds their marriage has gone stale. She cheats on him with an appealing co-worker (Kevin Bacon), and although she regrets it, the damage is done. Cal has been in love with Emily since high school, and he's never been with another woman. While drowning his sorrow in a local bar, Cal meets Jacob (Gosling), who knows every trick in the book to get a woman to sleep with him, including an irresistible closer involving Dirty Dancing. Taking Cal under his wing as a sort of charity case, Jacob teaches him to dress, talk, and act, and the ladies react in kind, including a teacher played by Marisa Tomei. The 13-year-old I mentioned earlier is actually Cal's son Robbie, who pines and outwardly declares his love for babysitter Jessica, who just happens to have a secret crush on Cal and sees this divorce as a chance to make her move.

Stone's Hannah is one of the few women Jacob has met that not only can resist him, but she also laughs in his face when he puts the moves on her. But in a moment of weakness after Hannah breaks things off with her long-time boyfriend (Josh Groban...yes, that Josh Groban), she finds him and gives in to his charm, good looks, and too-good-to-be-true abs. There are a lot of places Crazy, Stupid, Love could have turned in a bad direction, but about 95 percent of the time, it dares to take chances. More than a few times, the film actually shocked me with a couple of well-placed plot twists courtesy of a great screenplay by Dan Fogelman.

The places where the film falters are its all-consuming message that you should never give up if you think you've found your soulmate. The thought is sweet, but in reality if we all did that, we'd be arrested for stalking. There's a scene gone wrong in this movie where Carell takes over his son's graduation speech to declare his views on fighting for love, and I almost choked on the sugar. But Crazy, Stupid, Love only falters a couple of times, and certainly not enough to ruin all of its great scenes, especially between Carell and Gosling, who continues to impress me with his range. After seeing him last year in Blue Valentine and All Good Things, I didn't think I'd ever be able to find him charming, let alone sexy. But I'll be damned if he didn't convince me beyond any doubt that he was the ultimate ladies' man. Gosling has always made a point of never repeating himself, and between this film, the upcoming Drive and the George Clooney-directed Ides of March, his versatility streak continues.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is a tough film to pigeonhole into a genre or category, and that's a great thing. Carell gets to handle a bit of heart-breaking drama, while Gosling--easily one of his generation's best actors--gets to do something a little lighter. Even the stuff with the teenagers is loaded with all types of charm and sweetness. More comedies about the nature and pitfalls of love should be like this one. Now, if only we could do something about that horrible title...

Attack the Block

I'm not sure there's much I can add to the discussion concerning this impressive debut from writer-director Joe Cornish about a group of British inner-city kids defending themselves and their housing project from invading alien monsters with lots of teeth the like to bite people. Like all great science-fiction, Attack the Block isn't just about aliens; its has a very blatant narrative thread about how these kinds of kids are portrayed in the British press, and how they are a product of broken homes and a lot of time on their hands. But Cornish doesn't glorify these kids; he portrays them as thugs. The film opens with them mugging a woman at knifepoint while wearing masks. Later in the film, when they stumble upon this same woman, it is they who need help, and they must come to grips with what they've done and struggle to make amends. When the kids find out she lives on the block, they say they would never have robbed her if they'd known, a statement that is cold comfort for their victim.

But much like this week's other release Cowboys & Aliens, Attack the Block is also a kick-ass monster movie that succeeds in scaring the hell out of you, while you consider the bigger sociological picture. And the aliens in this thing are fucking scary, kind of like huge black dogs crossed with gorillas, almost featureless other than their multiple rows of glowing teeth. And they are relentless in their pursuit as they seem to target these kids for reasons we're not quite sure of for much of the film.

Stand-out performances come from the mugging victim/nurse Jodie Whittaker, who is allowed that rare opportunity to unleash her anger at her attackers; John Boyega as Moses, the leader of the kids and a strong, silent type who is both wise beyond his years and still very much a child; and, of course, Nick Frost as Ron, the building's pot grower and resident voice of reason. One of my favorite elements of Attack the Block is the portrayal of the kids in two distinct lights: one as tough-talking street punks and the other as youngsters who still answer to their parents and grandparents, and still play with toys and sleep in Spider-Man sheets. It adds an air of sadness to their lives to think that these kids don't often get to be kids, but that also gives the film strength and perspective.

Attack the Block succeeds on every level, as comedy, tragedy, and horror story. And I firmly believe that if you don't go and see this film in a theater with crowd full of like-minded sci-fi/horror fans, then you aren't really seeing it at all. No other film that has come out this year has as much unstoppable energy (seriously, the monsters never stop charging forward) or plain, old-fashioned guts as this one. Don't be afraid of the accents; save your fear for the aliens. Attack the Block opens in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, and Toronto this weekend, and hopefully will expand exponentially soon thereafter. Get to it. Trust! Attack the Block opens today exclusively in Chicago at the AMC River East 21.

To read my exclusive interview with Attack the Block star John Boyega, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Another Earth

Of all of the films opening this week, Another Earth might be the toughest to explain, both in terms of the plot and how I felt about it. So I should probably start by saying that of all the films opening this week, this is the one I still think about in terms of big-picture implications and the ideas and concepts put forth in its micro-budget frame. In many ways, it's a simply story of Rhoda (played by the film's co-writer Brit Marling) attempting to somehow right a wrong she committed many years earlier. She knows she can't actually fix what she broke, but she still wants to help the person she most wronged by her recklessness. That person's name is John (William Mapother), and four years earlier Rhoda accidentally killed his pregnant wife and child.

The accident was indirectly caused by the discovery in space of a planet coming closer and closer to earth, a planet that looks like an exact duplicate of earth, and that forces people on this planet to contemplate the idea that there may be life forms on "Earth 2" or perhaps even exact duplicates of us. Another Earth certainly begins life with a science-fiction backdrop, but when Rhoda is released from prison, the story turns into a very moving human drama. She takes a job as a school janitor and seems intent on living off the radar, but it turns out she's biding her time to build up the courage to visit John. Since he was in a coma for months after the accident and she went to jail before he came out of it, John doesn't actually know what Rhoda looks like.

Rhoda pretends to be working for a maid service visiting homes in the neighborhood offering free cleanings as a promotion. John allows her to clean and invites her back because he likes her company as a means of breaking out of his depressive cocoon. But as their romance seems to take root, other things are happening regarding Earth 2, and suddenly the very real possibility that versions of ourselves exist. Rhoda become intrigued with the idea of her other self not making the same mistakes she did four years ago, and as a result, she enters a contest to be the first civilian to travel to the newly discovered world.

Another Earth, directed by co-writer Mike Cahill, is not a movie that answers nearly as many questions as it posses, and that's perfectly alright. It's film that asks big questions, and demands of us that we contemplate the countless answers. Please be aware that there is nothing wrong with a movie making you think, but Another Earth also has a bit of intrigue and mystery to it, making it quite engrossing and often entertaining. On top of that, the love story feels organic and natural; the pair don't connect instantly, and the film allows the relationship to grow at its own pace. But above all else, this movie allows us to wonder what it might be like to meet (or confront) a version of ourselves who may have made different choices and taken a different road.

All of this being said, I think Marling's other new film (as both actress and co-writer), Sound of My Voice (hopefully coming out later this year), is the better work. And I can't wait for a chance to see that one again. Marling's acting style is very natural; she's not playing to the camera--in fact in the film's crucial final scene, we don't even see her face at a moment when we desperately want to. She's naturally beautiful, sure, but there's something lost and agonizing behind her eyes in Another Earth, the same way there's something ruthless and controlling about her in Sound of My Voice. You will absolutely be seeing her for many years to come, and you can start by seeing her this weekend. Another Earth opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Another Earth director/co-writer Mike Cahill, go to Ain't It Cool News. My interview with star and co-writer Brit Marling should go up sometime today.

The Smurfs

I'm not sure where to begin here. The Smurfs is so propulsively cute and harmless that there's a certain charm to it. It doesn't quite have the cuteness quotient or nostalgia appeal of Winnie the Pooh, but there's something there. The only problem is, once the Smurfs leave their happy mushroom village and somehow end up in New York City, the movie loses a lot of what I dug about it.

A handful of the blue creatures--three apples high with white leggings and caps to match--are actually chased from their world by the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria, looking and sounding uncannily like the cartoon version of the character) and they somehow end up under the care of a kind couple, Patrick and Grace (Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays), who help the Smurfs find their way back home while escaping Gargamel's clutches. The wizard wants to capture the Smurf essence, which for some reason makes him all-powerful.

I just wasn't as interested in this The Smurfs Take Manhattan storyline, and no, I don't think that simply inserting NPH into a movie makes it cool. With the exception of the Harold & Kumar films, I think quite the opposite is true. I actually, think NPH should kill his agent who keeps putting him in these horrible movies time and time again (Beastly, anyone? I didn't think so.) And then there are a host of weird cameos and supporting human characters, played by the likes of Sofia Vergara, Tim Gunn, Liz Smith, Joan Rivers, and Tom Colicchio. Really?

The voice actors who breath some life into he Smurfs is actually an inspired bunch of mostly comedic actors doing their best. I especially liked Jonathan Winters as the noble Papa Smurf. Also on hand are Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen, George Lopez, Anton Yelchin, Kenan Thompson, John Oliver, Jeff Foxworthy, B.J. Novak, Paul Reubens, and Katy Perry, squeaking out a cute performance as Smurfette, who actually has an origin story that explain why Gargamel seems fixated on her.

There are a couple of cute moments in the film, and there's a sequence involving the Smurfs looking for a special book that will help them return to their village that gets. The scene gets weirdly meta when it turns out the book gets into the actual Smurfs creator Peyo. I'm not quite sure I understand the circle of life presented here, but it did pique my curiosity. I liked that someone in this movie actually calls the Smurfs on their annoying habit of inserting the word "Smurf" into every sentence.

The Smurfs was directed by Raja Gosnell, a man who has a knack for turning the absurd, ridiculous and surreal into mainstream family entertainment with such films as Big Momma's House, the two Scooby Doo films, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua--not the greatest movies ever made but they all were quite popular. The Smurfs is watchable and occasionally amusing, and I believe I even laughed out loud a few times during it. I've seen a lot worse this summer, buy this is hardly essential viewing. I should add that the 3D in this film is surprisingly strong, probably because so much of the film takes place in broad daylight. See? Someone was listening. If the kids beg you to see this one, you'll be no worse for wear on the other side.

 
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