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Saturday, August 6, 2011

BEAM 'EM UP, COWBOY!

If you’re going to make a movie with the title COWBOYS AND ALIENS, you’d best have a sense of humor. Fortunately for their audience, director Jon Favreau and writers Damon Lindelof and Roberto Orci/Alex Kurtzman, maintained tongues firmly in cheek while crafting this tale of visitors from space landing smack in the middle of the usual wild west hoohah.

Daniel Craig turns in a creditable job as a post-modernist Man With No Name, waking up in the desert in the first scene with no memory and a big ole shiny thing-a-ma-bob on his wrist that no amount of hitting with a rock will dislodge. Harrison Ford shows up soon enough in the growly role of semi-evil cattle baron. He’s there to rescue his worthless, cowardly son, who’s been shootin’ up the town, but as soon as he lays eyes on Craig, he recognizes him and wants to kill him. Too late—the sheriff (Keith Carradine, always good in a cowboy hat) has already identified him as a wanted criminal and will hang no man before his time.

In the middle of all this, dad-burned ALIENS show up and really start shootin’ up the town, lassoing (yes, literally) citizens along the way. As you might imagine, six-shooters have little effect against what appear to be atmosphere-capable starfighters. But, much like Frodo’s Sting, our cowboy hero’s magic wristband begins to glow as soon as the aliens appear over the horizon and blasts one of the ships clean out of the sky.

Are we having fun yet? Well, yee-haw, you bet we are! Throw in Olivia Wilde as the Mysterious Woman, Adam Beach as Harrison Ford’s much-abused half-Indian foster son/ranch foreman (think John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter in THE SEARCHERS), Indian attackers-turned-allies, a doctor called Reverend and a bartender called Doc and a priceless scene between Ford and a small boy recounting the horrific history of a knife and you’ve got more than enough to keep you entertained for two hours.

I gather some critics were disappointed that this movie does not meet expectations for opening up a whole new crossover subgenre for exploitation. Well, no. What it does is exploit beloved clichés of both genres for pure entertainment value. Even the reason the aliens come to Earth is based on a common Western theme—they want gold. Gold is an excellent conductor and might be rare and useful to any advanced species, so it actually works here, too. There is no depth at all to this movie, but who cares? If you are a fan of Westerns and SF, and you can relax about it, you’ll have a good time.

Similarly, I wouldn’t look for depth in TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. It’s all action all the time in this third installment of the Transformers franchise, which is just as well. The few moments we spend with Shia LaBeouf’s whiny, not-too-bright Sam Witwicky are largely a waste of time. And, fanboys, here’s an announcement: a guy like Witwicky would never have a girlfriend like Carly (model Rosie Huntington-Whitely). Just doesn’t happen. And, no offense, Hollywood, but I’m tired of seeing it onscreen when the flip-side—a “loser” female paired with a handsome, rich male—is never seen.

Two things save this two-and-a half-hour homage to Hasbro’s ingenious toy inventions of the Eighties: the effects, which are spectacular, and the wacky performances of some of Hollywood’s best. John Malkovich is a hoot as the self-parodying CEO of a megacorporation that hires Witwicky. Frances McDormand does a hilarious turn as the director of a government agency charged with minding the Transformers. Patrick Dempsey is beautiful—and smarmy—as Witwicky’s erstwhile rival. John Turturro chews the scenery nearly as effectively as the Decepticon’s grinding gear-and-bladed python. And Ken Jeong provides a good ten minutes of completely meaningless fun as one of Witwicky’s co-workers.

I was delighted to recognize Leonard Nimoy’s unmistakable rasp as the voice of Sentinel Prime. What better excuse for any number of TREK references in the dialogue throughout the film?

Okay, so far I’ve given one A and one B. Sorry to say I have to give a C this time out, too. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER had a lot going for it, but falters by taking itself way too seriously. You would think “camp” would be written all over a script that includes evil Nazis in possession of a secret formula; a villain with a red skull bent on world domination; a wasp-waisted female “handler” with a crush; and a hero that goes from 90-pound weakling to bulked-up he-man in seconds and uses a machine gun and an American-flag shield as his weapons of choice. But, no, everyone except Tommy Lee Jones (as the Army general who is supposed to find a use for “Captain America”) and Hugo Weaving (as Doctor Nazi Red Skull) seems to be treating this as Oscar material. Puh-leeze.

I could even have tolerated this until the ending, which, not to give away anything to those who haven’t seen it, is nothing more than a blatant come-on for a sequel. Well, I won’t be on pins-and-needles waiting for that one to come out.

DONNA’S JOURNAL

The August, 2011 issue of Romance Writers Report, the official magazine of Romance Writers of America, features an article by Larissa Ione, author of the Lords of Deliverance series of apocalyptic romance on dystopic, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic romance fiction. The end of the world has some appeal as a subject for SFR, says Ione, even beyond YA and digital publishers (a viewpoint I heard expressed among editors and agents at the conference in New York, also). The author points out, however, that working with such dark material isn’t always easy. As always, the worldbuilding must be meticulous, but not overwhelming. Some readers prefer man-made disasters, others, natural ones. And finding time for love among the ruins is a challenge. The article is available online for members at http://rwanational.org/.

Cheers, Donna

6 comments:

  1. Donna, I had the delight of seeing COWBOYS AND ALIENS too, and thoroughly enjoyed it, though it was darker than I thought it would be, and the aliens scarier, especially in the first appearance.

    Aside from a few weird things that were left unanswered--the history of a certain riverboat and the why it ended up where it did, for one--I found the film enjoyable and worth the price of admission (which is more than I can say for most movies, of late.)

    Harrison Ford was indeed a villainous "growler" who is eventually redeemed. Daniel Craig was just plain awesome (in chaps, yet!). I wasn't a fan before. I am now.

    This is definitely not an SFR. No happily ever after--not even a happy for now--but there is a bit of a romance involved. Or at least an attraction. Being a SFR writer, I saw a perfect plot point to employ in creating a more satisfying ending, but alas, I wasn't the script writer. :)

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  2. I don't go to the movies often (I do buy DVDs), but COWBOYS & ALIENS is definitely on my list. Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and swooping space ships all in one sitting? Yeehaw! Meanwhile I'll be glued to the season finale of FALLING SKIES tomorrow night. (Noah Wyle is pretty watchable, too!)

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  3. Yes, Laurie, those chaps were quite the luscious costume detail! And I've been following FALLING SKIES, too, Kay, though I think the acting has been far superior to the writing for the most part.

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  4. Well, waited until I'd seen Cowboys and Aliens before I commented. I did enjoy it but it missed a trick, I think. It should have been funny - all the cliches were there ready to be laughed at but the tone was too serious. i agree with Laurie - too many unanswered questions. The boat?? The way his bracelet could cause such mayhem - well that was a bit careless to have a weapon that can be used so easily by another species. Well, the whole plot really was just strange. I just so wish it had been funny.

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  5. Um, well, I guess that explains why I was the only one laughing in the theater, huh, Barbara? I just assumed all those cliches were there to be laughed at! But then I'm a Quentin Tarentino fan, too, and all about the dark humor. I agree there were a lot of loose ends, the worst of which is the weapon that seems to "perform" for just anybody. The steamboat in the desert can just be explained by "star-lasso failure". :)

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  6. You were clearly the perfect audience member, Donna!!!

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