Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

It boasts great scenery but ends a disappointing mess of too much plot, too little action.

I appreciate the title Cowboys & Aliens. It has no pretense and puts the viewer on immediate notice of what to expect. I was tantalized by the promise of cowboys and aliens duking it out in the Old West and excited to see this film. But sadly the film completely missed its mark.

Jake Lonergan awakens in the desert with no memory and an odd contraption around his wrist. He swaggers into town and is immediately put in jail after his face is recognized from a “wanted” poster. That evening, the small town of Dispatch is attacked by alien ships, many townspeople are abducted, and the town is almost completely destroyed. Lonergan, with the help of the device on his wrist, destroys one of the the alien vessels. Seeking answers about his past, he agrees to join an expedition to find the aliens and recover the lost.

The plot is the film’s main fault. The basic premise is solid, fresh and interesting. However, the screenwriters stuffed the two hours with countless sub-plots, bogged down with emotional transformations and touching interludes, all of which fall completely flat and lead to a ridiculous conclusion. The lack of cohesive plot and story makes the film feel frustratingly pointless.

The concept is further hampered by weak characters and development, who continually take actions and make decisions completely inconsistent with their roles. Many moments intended to warm the audience’s souls, such as the awkward softness from the hardened rancher, felt completely out of place. The lack of depth left me indifferent to the characters and the predictable outcome.

However, the acting from Daniel Craig and Sam Rockwell is fairly solid; had their characters been properly developed, they would have provided a strong emotional core for the film. Both performances stand out amongst the others—Craig as the amnesiac outlaw seeking to rediscover his past and Rockwell as the timid bartender willing to do anything to save his wife. The acting from Harrison Ford, unfortunately, is a different story. Ford trots about the screen, growling each line, his performance as one-dimensional as the character he portrays: the loathsome rancher seeking to rescue his son. It’s quite sad and disturbing to see such a talented actor being squandered in that role.

Many of the characters spew rather frequent profanities, and also engage in making crude and sexual comments. Another caution-worthy scene suggests complete nudity although nothing is actually shown.

The action scenes are fun, but shockingly sparse. I definitely was expecting much more fighting. The climactic battle is only somewhat satisfying as it barely generates any suspense.

But the film looks outstanding, like a true piece of cinematic art. Every shot is beautiful. Barren desert landscapes fill the screen, the shots of reddish sandstone, covered in sparse shrubbery, contrasting sharply with the azure sky. Strong special effects help maintain interest, and the aliens were well-animated and looked creepy and vile.

Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is excellent. The cadence of the pieces is familiar, echoing the scores of Westerns past—but with a twist. The opening track stood out in particular as the twang of the banjo was replaced by the sound of synthesized guitars. The retro themes mixed with the modern instruments fit perfectly with the theme of Old West meets outer space.

Cowboys & Aliens is a mess. The story could have been campy and fun but instead it’s overloaded, incomprehensible and frustrating. The acting is uneven from great stars and the character development is non-existent. There is also very little action. It irks me to see such a great concept wasted in such a fashion. Miss it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Romancing the Stone (1984)

A fun ride through remote jungles: robust action, rollicking humor, and facetious romance.

I told my roommate that I preferred action to comedy. I thought we all understood that romance wasn’t even an option. But as he read the disheartening list of movie titles, only one stood out.

Romancing the Stone had piqued my interest ever since I stumbled across the abject DOS game Paganitzu (1991), bastard progeny of the movie. I later heard that the film was an early pioneer in the resurgence of the jungle-adventurer genre that also spawned the Indiana Jones storyline. So when I was further informed that Romancing holds a respectable 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I agreed to break my film fast.

The story opens into the curiously mundane life of Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), romantic novelist, who pours her heart and hopes into the pages she pens. Unlike her heroines, Joan’s personal life is uncaptivating and unkempt—until her sister in South America calls and begs Joan to ransom her from kidnappers. Instructed to bring an old map, Joan sets off for Columbia, bravely bumbling through the foreign culture and fearsome jungles, followed by thieves and thugs, and finally guided by the moody and nomadic Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas). Suddenly living her own novel adventure, she begins to wonder, and worry, whether Jack could be its missing hero.

I did not expect the movie’s comical abundance. Joan’s abysmal life contrasts in amusing contradiction to her romantic heroines’. Jack’s apt and astute answers to each dilemma created unintentional hilarity; at his every pause and silence, his deadpan sarcasm kept me wondering what humorous remark he would make next. The villains, constantly challenged in their attempts to follow Joan’s unpredictable itinerary, and outmatching expertise with effort, act as comic foils to each other, sometimes coldly cruel, other times absurdly clumsy, though not ridiculous. The story is riddled with genuine gags and laughter, but is also cringingly cliché (albeit laughably) at times.

Nor does the action disappoint. Flash floods and perilously plunging falls, gun battles, bus crashes, standoffs and jeep chases punctuate the film without overwhelming it. The movie opens in a Western setting with a well-thrown knife, but involves more traditional shootouts and a lively machine-gun battle. But while the action is explosive, the violence is (almost) never bloody or macabre. As they wend their way, the heroine and anti-hero drive, tramp, slide, trudge, ride, and jump from rainforest to river, hovel to hotel, and cave to castillo.

The film is a veritable child of the eighties, from the big hair to the Model 2500 telephones. Alan Silvestri’s awfully inappropriate score of synthesized saxophones and slap bass hearkens back to a formidable history of the decade’s television shows and theme songs. Even the outrageous and overblown action and violence bears its birthmark. While sometimes sadly dated, these aspects made the movie even more merrily entertaining.

My only regret, besides the lamentable music, was the quantity of profane language. Jack in particular is frequently irascible and irreverent, though never obscene, and a few of the other characters sometimes indulge. There are also two brief displays of dishabille (one with the leading duo in apparent full undress), but I thought them neither excessively prolonged nor overtly lurid.

I appreciated the movie, finding it a remarkable but mostly pleasing blend of comedy, action, and romance, in just balance. I’m not an eighties fan by any means, but I thought the era’s influences were more amusing than annoying. The movie was just enough over the top to entertain, but always avoided going too far. I enjoyed it entirely; it is definitely worth a watch.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Cool effects can't resuscitate a lifeless story, dead acting and bloated length.

What made the first Transformers movie so attractive was its combination of ground-breaking robotic action, fast-paced fun, strong plot, charismatic characters, good humor and incredible special effects. But this winning formula was wholly abandoned in the terrible sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The cast and crew publicly acknowledged this, the director and stars apologizing profusely for its flaws, and promised that the close of the trilogy would be a work of phenomenal franchise redemption. Alas, these promises were broken, making the third Transformers the biggest disappointment of the summer.

Sam Witwicky is bored. He’s recently been dumped by Mikaela, and is living with his new flame Carly while trying to lead a normal life. But Sam yearns to be important, to be part of the ongoing battle between the Autobots and Decepticons. This struggle intensifies when it is revealed that humans might be working with the Decepticons. Sam, Optimus and the rest of the transforming gang are once again thrust into the center of the war between robotic armies, this time fighting the enslavement of the human race.

The plot is shallow, but it still manages to produce a few surprises. The opening scene reimagines the history of the space race: the United States government put men on the moon for the sole purpose of locating and examining a crashed alien ship. Splicing actual historical footage with new dialogue to fit the plot, the scene is brilliant and probably the best of the movie. Sadly, it all goes downhill from there.

The bloated two hour and thirty-five minute runtime is jam-packed with a rapid assault of chases and explosions. Robots incessantly blast each other—and their surroundings—in Chernobyl, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. There are some stunning effects and sequences—in one, Sam is riding in Bumblebee (in Camaro form) when they are attacked and the bot is forced to transform. In an awesome and breathtaking sequence, Bumblebee launches his passenger into the air, dispatches his enemies with explosive accuracy, then transforms back, catching the plummeting Sam safely in the passenger seat. But these action scenes are nothing new; they are almost identical to those in the first two movies. The barrage of metallic destruction is overkill; instead of thrilling, the scenes feel repetitive and dull. Around the two-hour mark, I was bored and felt my eyelids drooping, fighting the call of slumber.

The fillers between the fight scenes consist of weak attempts at humor, mostly sexual. The film pushes the limits of the PG-13 rating with explicit and raunchy jokes and strong profanity. The dialogue is lacking, the lines are contrived, and the delivery is so wooden it’s painful to watch. Shia LaBeouf is adequate as Sam, and Patrick Dempsey appears to have fun in his role as Carly’s boss Dylan, but the performances won’t be winning any awards. The rest of the supporting cast is more robotic than the robots.

Jablonsky’s score also feels unoriginal. There was not a single theme or riff that was different from his first two orchestrations. While strong in musicality, the lack of creativity is a letdown.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a disappointment because it could have been great—the audience was promised as much. The weak story, terrible acting, raunchy jokes and nauseating excess of action scenes are a poor excuse for a summer blockbuster. I felt insulted having paid to see this garbage. Don’t waste your time.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

2011 is indeed the “Year of the Franchise” with a record-setting twenty-seven sequels, prequels and remakes being released in cinemas. Some have been pleasant surprises; others have been awful. I loved the first two X-Men films but disliked the third and fourth. With low expectations I entered the theater to witness the prequel stories of my favorite mutants.

Erik Lehnsherr is separated from his parents as they are hauled to a German concentration camp (an almost shot-for-shot reproduction of the opening scene in the original X-Men). After a display of his mutant abilities, Erik is tortured, experimented on and forced to witness the brutal death of his mother. Years later, Erik plots his revenge on the Nazis and the brute that killed his mother. During his quest, he meets Charles Xavier, a mutant helping the government avert a nuclear holocaust. The two develop a strong friendship and together they train a team of young mutants to prevent the start of World War III. But the differences in ideologies between the friends threaten to destroy not only their friendship but the world itself.

X-Men: First Class is a political film, and it raises some very interesting questions about prejudice, discrimination, evolution and the goodness of man. The treatment of mutants is analogized to the treatment of Jews in World War II. Erik believes that, like Jews, mutants will eventually be considered a threat to the government and thus imprisoned and annihilated. Charles maintains a faith in humanity. The dialogues between Charles and Erik over these issues are thought-provoking and disheartening as the humans confirm Erik’s views. The following exchange in particular stood out to me:

Charles: Erik, you said yourself: we're the better men. This is the time to prove it. There are thousands of men on those ships: good, honest, innocent men. They're just following orders!
Erik: I've been at the mercy of men just following orders...never again!

The plot is excellent. It’s unpredictable and suspenseful. However, since this is a prequel, some of the character development feels a bit rushed, the filmmakers hurrying to put the characters in position for the “first” X-Men film. Though the audience knows that Erik becomes Magneto—villain of the later films—his transformation into the brutal arch-nemesis is devastating. This is a credit to the acting which is outstanding from every single member of the film’s ensemble cast, including James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, and Kevin Bacon.

The drama takes place in the ‘60s and the film’s technical aspects beautifully reflect this era. The cinematography is stylistically antique and the film grain gives the movie a classic look and feel. The special effects, while topnotch, also feel wondrously oldfangled due to an obvious reliance on real stunts and actual explosions rather than constant CGI. The score is loud and orchestral—a throwback to Bernard Herrmann and John Barry—and can be enjoyed off-screen.

There is some strong language in the film, but it is not pervasive. Many shots focus on women in lingerie and Mystique appears fully “nude” in a couple scenes, arrayed only in her blue skin and leaving little to the imagination. Several crude jokes, sexual references and implications of sex are also present. It is also surprisingly violent at times, unusual for a PG-13 film.

X-Men: First Class is the best of the X-Men franchise, featuring a deeper plot, better dialogue and more character than its predecessors. The look and feel are perfectly suited to the period, the acting is outstanding, the visual effects stunning and the themes rich and thought-provoking. These attributes make it not only the best film of the year thus far but also one of the best superhero movies ever made. This is definitely a must-see.