Friday, July 29, 2011

'Cowboys & Aliens' provides rip roarin', monstrous time

By Steve Crum

As fresh and catchy as the title Cowboys & Aliens is, the plot has been explored at least once before. Except when singin’ cowpoke Gene Autry starred in Mascot’s The Phantom Empire in 1935, the aliens, called Muranians, had set up shop 20 thousand feet underground, and mostly stayed there. (Actually, one should call these guys inner-earth aliens.) At least they never ventured into the skies via cliched flying saucers, zapping and lassoing cowboys and cows alike as in C & A. Instead, Autry had to contend with boxy-looking robots controlled by humanoids of the substrata.

The outer space invaders in the western-science fiction romp, Cowboys & Aliens are tall, lanky, slimy, and extremely lethal, looking like killin’ cousins of the boogie creatures in both Alien and Predator. (They DID meet up in that one movie, so maybe this is offspring?) And they are hell bent on conquering earth by first experimenting on its inhabitants. Sounds like evil alien behavior in, oh, approximately 83 percent of sci-fi movies since 1950.

Whereas Autry’s film undoubtedly looked cheesy in its day, as now, Cowboys & Aliens is state of the familiar art CGI, along with actors who can truly act (sorry, Gene), great stunt work, and nearly non-stop action that kicks in about 10 minutes into the film, when some range riding cowboys have a fiery, alien encounter. Even earlier, Daniel Craig’s Jake Lonergan wakes up on the prairie with a strange, metallic wristband on, and has to defend himself against three attacking cowboy thugs. (Throughout this and other sequences, Craig’s fighting prowess is all James Bond.)

What follows are cleverly scripted action pieces, centered on a revenge story: Harrison Ford’s cattle baron, Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, wants to catch and punish outlaw Jake for stealing his gold. Soon after arriving in Absolution to both hang Jake, who has already been jailed, and free his half-witted, gun crazy son, Percy (Paul Dano), from an adjoining cell, the downtown skies are full of UFO’s. Such is not commonplace in New Mexico Territory, circa 1875. Enemies Jake and Woodrow become fast allies as cowboy and cowgirl alike are whisked upwards by alien lariats, and carried away. Woodrow’s son is among the abducted.

There is the cartoonish look of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks in the lassoing sequences, as humans are whiplashed into the stratosphere. Yet, like Mars Attacks, we discover these aliens are capable of real violence, from torture to disintegration. Incidentally, there is another similarity: Cowboys & Aliens is based upon a comic book; Mars Attacks evolved from cartoonish collector cards.

Director Jon Favreau handles the script (credited with eight writers!) much like he successfully did with the first two Iron Man movies. The action is balanced by fast, clever dialogue, and tempered with great stunts and special effects. While the aliens themselves look much better in half-light, hidden in caves, their outside, daylight appearances are pretty impressive. It should not be a spoiler to expect a third act finale of all-out war between the title characters. Indeed, not only basic cowboys, but a cowboy outlaw gang and a tribe of Apaches unite in the war. By then, the invaders have become every earthling’s mortal enemy. This is a logical turn and, again, no spoiler surprise.

Good guy humans include Keith Carradine’s Sheriff Taggart, Sam Rockwell’s Doc, and Buck Taylor (of TV’s Gunsmoke) as Wes Claiborne. Particularly noteworthy is the mesmerizing Olivia Wilde (“13” on TV’s House), she of the piercing cat-eyes, as the mysterious Ella Swenson.

My only complaint is by the time this was screened, TV previews as well as an HBO behind-the-scenes special had revealed far too much of the fun and games contained within. But that is a complaint of most trailers over the last decade or so. It is time to rename trailers spoilers.

Still, leads Ford and Craig have the necessary chemistry to carry Cowboys & Aliens for its rip-roaring two hours. True, Daniel Craig handles all the rough and tough physicality, while the elder Harrison Ford is, appropriately, much more reserved. They’re still Indiana Jones and James Bond versus monsters, no matter.
GRADE: On an A to F Scale: B+
Pardners, mosey up to the movie's trailer:

Friday, July 15, 2011

'Deathly Hallows-Part 2' is grandest of film finales

By Steve Crum

All is said and done, and Harry Potter’s 10 year movie quest has ended. Closure? Superb closure! As I have repeated in each of my Harry Potter movie reviews over the decade, I have not read any of the Potter books, yet I have become a fan of the movies. That said for the final time, my fondness for this franchise has only increased after seeing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2. Surprisingly, there is now high desire to watch the previous seven films over again for both enjoyment and juxtaposition. You see, I still have problems with all the names, wizardly and otherwise. Re-watching would help. That would mean seeing DH2 again at the theatre, and that suits me fine. (See it in 3-D, if possible.)

Where the death of the lovable house elf Dobby was arguably the biggest shocker of DH1, DH2’s conclusion provides multiple surprises and revelations. I cannot understate the heroics to be found throughout DH2, and not perpetrated by just Harry and his two cohorts. Valdemort villains by the dozen are zap-wanded and obliterated by Potter’s old guard friends and colleagues. Of course, evil does overpower the good guys as well in a few instances. (I am trying not to spoil things by being too specific.)

DH2 opens essentially where DH1 ended, with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) squaring off against Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). There is a lull, since Harry and friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are ill prepared for all out battle since they have yet to find--and destroy--the remaining Horcruxes. Four sinister items remain, and each is embedded with portions of Voldemort’s soul. Voldemort requires each and every item to insure his immortality. As long as one item survives, the dark lord cannot be defeated.

Essentially, that is half of DH2's story. The race is on to sneak into guarded places to find and destroy, while Voldemort tries to obstruct such. In no episode of the Potter saga is it clearer that Harry has matured to manhood, with the single-minded drive to kill Voldemort, even if he himself has to die in the process. There is a particularly nail-biting sequence in which Harry, Rupert and Hermione (in disguise) sneak into the Gringotts Bank, assisted by the goblin Griphook, who has agreed to help if he can have the magical sword of Gryffindor as payment.

Incidentally, the very opening of DH2 is quiet, sans music, and with sparse, softly spoken dialogue. It is wise convention that director David Yates uses to advantage, since hellfire action kicks in not long after. The jolting effect works, appreciably so.

Memorable scenes feature a dragon, snake, fire, water, and golden goblets. There is also a portion toward the end involving a white world of limbo--or is it? Think 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Nostalgia is everywhere in this final Potter telling. Characters from much earlier films in the series reappear, and often interact with major consequences. Maggie Smith’s Minerva McGonagall finally takes charge, as does Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters). Expect Bellatrix Lestrange (Helene Bonham Carter), Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Prof. Trelawney (Emma Thompson), Prof. Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), Prof. Sprout (Miriam Margolyes), and a slew of others. Major surprises ensue with Prof. Snape (Alan Rickman) and the Dumbledores, brothers Aberforth (Ciaran Hinds) and Albus (Michael Gambon). Let’s not overlook the element of romance in DH2, and that refers to the return of Harry’s love interest, Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), Ron’s sister.

Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling said early on that she “had a very, very clear idea of where Harry was going to go.” Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have lovingly transported her vision to the most satisfying finale, truly grand, in film history.

Think of it. Rowling’s genius, via books and films, have not only entertained us with some of the most popular fantasy adventures in media history, but created a unique lexicon in the process: Dobby, Hagrid, Hogwarts, dementors, Voldemort, Quidditch, and on and on. Paramount above all it is the unforgettable Harry Potter himself--all in the span of 14 years, since the first book debuted.

I will especially miss Rickman’s darkly garbed Prof. Severus Snape, and his meticulously timed delivery of lines. Classic.
GRADE: On an A to F Scale: A
Let's visit HP and the gang again via the trailer: