Monday, October 3, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens *1/2

Cowboys and Aliens is boring mess of a summer blockbuster.  It attempt to blend science fiction and western genres falls flatter than a pancake.  Its complete lack of creativity is made up for with shoddy special effects and wooden acting.

The film begins in the 1870s where we meet drifter Daniel Craig, who is wearing a strange futuristic bracelet around his wrist? Guess what, its from the aliens!  Then the film begins to use every cliche we associate with the western.  A stranger comes into town who is wanted by the sherif and trouble begins to ensue.  And then the town is attacked by flying saucers.  Enter Harrison Ford as grouchy old rancher who gathers a posse to get the aliens.  And then there's an absurd subplot featuring an alliance between Native American tribe and the whites in a clumsy attempt at political correctness (preceded by a scene with every Native American stereotype associated with the Western). Yes folks, that's the movie.

It is sad to see such a talented cast go to waste.  Sam Rockwell adds little as a timid bartender.  Paul Dano is Ford's winy son, a mere shadow of his excellent part in There Will Be Blood.  Olivia Wilde adds a spark, but her character is underdeveloped and given an inexplicable ending.  As for Harrrison Ford, it is too bad he's not getting better scripts at this stage in his career.  His performance is all corny dialogue and grimacing.

Steven Spielberg produced this and it seems like his disciples are just lifting material from his old films.  The ships are out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the aliens are out of some other movie. J.J. Abrams homage to early Spielberg worked in Super 8 because it had real characters and a great premise.  The film's director, Jon Faverau of Iron Man fame, has proven himself a competent director, but its time to stop squandering his talent in thrown together scripts aimed at the lowest common denominator.  While watching the film, I thought of great westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that had great writing and acting (that's how bored I was during this one) Skip this one, we deserve better.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Movie Review: Midnight in Paris ***1/2

Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, opens with a montage of scenes in modern day Paris - a perfect antidote to the deluge of superhero films released this summer.  Gil (Owen Wilson) is visiting Paris with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) family and becomes enchanted with the city of light, much to the the annoyance of his future in-laws.  As they visit various tourist haunts around the city with a pretentious professor Paul (Michael Sheen), Gil decides to investigate Paris on his own at night.  One night he finds himself back in Paris at some point in the early 1920s and meets his literary heroes - Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and many others at the forefront of 20th century modernism.  Nostalgia for the past is the film's main theme, but also the need to embrace one's own time period.

There is a lighthearted nature to the film that is often lacking in Woody's films.  Perhaps it is the performance of Owen Wilson, who's likability Allen used to full effect.  The fantasy element also is also something new for Allen.  At times, the film is a who's who of 1920s Paris, but that is the part of the great fun in this film.  Gil observes the Fitzgerald's marriage at first hand, gets writing advice from Hemingway, and a critique from Gertrude Stein.  The writing life is another big theme, since Gil who is tired of writing scripts for Hollywood wants to stay in Paris and work on his novel - a common dilemma in Allen's films.  His bourgeois in-laws will have none of it. Yes, the film is predictable and sentimental, but also full of lighthearted humor and smart writing.

This is beautiful looking film to look it - Allen's Paris is quite appealing.  For anyone that feels lost in their current time period, they will take comfort and find some hope in this film as well.  It is a safe bet that English High School teachers will use this film in the future for American Lit courses - and they should. In fact any student of the humanities, will find much to savor in Midnight in Paris.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8 ***1/2

Like many around my age I grew up on the early films of Steven Spielberg.  One of the first films I remember seeing in a theater was E.T. and recall being totally mesmerized.  You could say I'm a child of Spielberg and Lucas - I spent my childhood wearing out VHS tapes of Star Wars and Jaws.  J.J. Abrams did manage to get some of the magic from early Spielberg.  This film recalls E.T., Close Encounters, Goonies, and many other from that era.  Pure nostalgia. 

It is 1979 and a group of kids in rural Ohio are trying to make a zombie film.  Both Spielberg and Abrams made films as children - and it is so great to watch a film that captures the romance of filmmaking.  Early on we quickly learn about the different personalties in the group.  There is the leader, the nerd, the eccentric, and the quiet kid.  They recruit Elle Fanning (Alice) who amazes the boys with her acting ability.  All the scenes with the kids play out perfectly without going over the top.

Without revealing too much, the town begins to experience strange events after a train wreck.  The governement gets involved and all hell begins to break loose.  It seems only children are able to figure everything out, a very Spielberg touch.  Midway through, the human drama of the early scenes gets lost in some extended action sequences.  But the film never loses its sense of humor. Abrams does manage to hold it together, but the climax does not quite have the magical ending that Spielberg always delivered.  I miss those John Williams scores!

 Super 8 is a fun summer movie.  It is destined to be a classic and hopefully will inspire studios make more films in this mode that emphasize the human drama rather than CGI effects.  Superhero films are unlikely to go away, but whatever happen to the idea of ordinary people caught in extrodinary circumstances?  Abrams rejuventated network television with LOST and if Super 8 is any indication, I look forward to anything he does in the future.