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Cowboys and Aliens: An awesome film August 14, 2011

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Many reviews have not been the most flattering about the recently released film Cowboys & Aliens.  The average rating has been around 2 stars — not terrible (“turable,” if you’re Charles Barkley), but not necessarily good, either.  After seeing the film, my conclusion is that the 2-star treatment is an error, for it merits a better assessment than that.

Full confession time:  I had actually been anticipating the release of this movie for most of the year, practically since I first saw the posters for it around December or January.  The title itself sounded intriguing — aliens in a wild west setting.  Then I found out the top-billed cast, and it hit me.  Director Jon Favreau came up with the right ingredients that when combined — at least, on paper — would make for one of the coolest ideas for a movie in recent memory.

What are the ingredients?  The setting, the top cast, and the story itself.  The setting is obvious, and has already been covered.  What about the cast?  The two big names are Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.  What is Daniel Craig known for playing these days?  Why, he’s the latest James Bond, with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace already under his belt, and Bond 23 due to be released in 2012.  What is Harrison Ford best known for playing?  Puh-leaze:  Indiana Jones!

With all of this in mind, how do things add up?  As mentioned previously, it adds up — again, on paper — to the coolest idea in recent memory:  James Bond and Indiana Jones team up to fight aliens in the old west.  Can a movie idea get any more awesome?  I submit ‘no.’

From there, things can only go in two directions:  either the movie lives up to such expectations of awesomeness, or it flops completely.  Usually, a film that potentially cool sounds too good to be true, and that was my primary concern going in to see it.  The concern was alleviated within the first minute.  Craig definitely brings his swagger and brutality that he used to portray Bond, and Harrison Ford brings his A-game as well.  One scene was particularly tantalizing in that it made many a movie buff wonder ‘what if James Bond did try to take on Indiana Jones?’  Craig plays a desperado trying to remember who he is and what he was doing.  His fighting style and cowboy tough guy talk definitely remind folks ‘in the know’ of 007.  Meanwhile, there certainly are times where Ford’s occasional glances and smirks are as if he inadvertantly let Indy seep into this role of Civil War army officer-turned-tyrannical town overlord (think Indiana Jones with a dark side).

So why the relatively low reviews?  Lots of critics expect every film they see to have the dramatic value of MacBeth or Death of Salesman, and when it does not deliver under such a false premise, then the film is to be panned.  Moreover, lots of critics do not understand some of the pre-requisites of westerns.  The beauty of the film is that it is a western first, a sci-fi flick second (albeit a close second).  As a western, you know going in that there are going to be cliches, and heaven knows, the film is rife with them.  If that bothers any would-be viewer, then he or she is apt to detract a star or two from their own personal rating.  But if they are of no consequence to others, then the others will be more apt not to be distracted from the film’s overall awesomeness.

As a western, it also delivers satisfaction.  A lone stranger with a more-than-checkered past comes into town.  The town’s overlord dislikes him, to say the least (Why, you ask?  Watch the film!), until all hell breaks loose, well, you get the rest.  Like most westerns, the emphasis is on actions, not words, though to be sure, the film is not without the occasionally choice dialog.

The object of the story is even somewhat cliche, that of disparate forces having to band together to overcome a foe with a host of advantages.  The action sequences are pure awesomeness, and the ending is very satisfactory, as is the character development taking place throughout the film.  Moreover, Olivia Wilde (who played Quorra in Tron: Legacy) does well as an unexpected helper in the protagonist’s cause, and it was a nice touch to see Adam Beach (who played the part of Ira Hayes in Flags of our Fathers), whose character becomes a needed ambassador as the story unfolds.

If you’re looking for a good movie for a “Saturday (or Friday) night out with the boys” occasion, this film is perfect.  It is perfect for a father taking is son and son’s friends* for a fun time, or for a band of college buddies getting together for movie night.  If this film were made and released during my undergrad days, the boys and I would still be talking about it today:  it delivers that well.  James Bond and Indiana Jones team up to fight aliens in the old west.  A movie like that is so awesome, it’s worth repeating.

*Bear in mind that with a PG-13 rating, there is some violence — mostly modern western-style shooting violence, etc., so it is always wise for parents to exercise discretion accordingly.


Captain America: A Great American Film August 5, 2011

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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If you have not seen Captain America in the theatres yet and are looking for a good film to see this weekend, look no further.   This is a film that delivers.  To offer a small confession, I have seen more than a few superhero flicks in the theatres since the New Millenium began, and on the whole, I have not been disappointed by them (Hulk from 2003, however, is another matter entirely!).  Upon hearing the news that Captain America was to be released in the theatres this summer, I was more than interested, given my past moviegoing experiences for such fare, as well as with my admiration for the character and his patriotic attitude.

Moreover, as somebody who is a sucker for period pieces, I was all the more enthusiastic about seeing the film, since it takes place during WWII.  One of the great things about such movies in recent years is, given the high level technology and sophisticated techniques of filmmaking, each period piece tries to out-do each other with providing details of authenticity of past times, from the architecture to the clothing fashions to the cars and music of those respective eras.  The WWII-era backdrop in this movie is both nostalgic and convincing, so much so that it could show many of us who were born way after that time why that period was looked on as the “good ol’ days” by those who lived it.

Chris Evans plays the main character, who starts out in the story as Steve Rogers, one’s classic image of a 90-pound weakling, who, despite his skrawny body and sickly appearance, is nevertheless driven by a deep sense of patriotism and duty to one’s country.  Furthermore, despite these glaring weaknesses, he’s also resilient — somebody who quickly gets up no matter how many times he gets knocked down.  Rule no. 1 of any movie story is that the audience must be able to sympathize with the main character.  If you’re a red-blooded American, you cannot help but love Steve Rogers.  As Captain America, the hero is quite formidable yet still sympathetic.

Obviously, his weaknesses prevent him from passing physical muster for military service, despite trying to enlist several times.  This determination catches the eye of an immigrant scientist — played by Stanley Tucci — who is conducting a secret military experiment, offering him a chance to help his country in a special way.  Rogers takes the chance, and the story really takes off from there.

On the other side, the arch-villain Red Skull is played convincingly by Hugo Weaving.  No doubt moviegoers would instantly recognize him for his memorable work as Agent Smith in The Matrix trilogy.  FYI, he also supplied the voice for Megatron in the Transformers trilogy, so clearly Weaving has had experience in these sorts of roles!

The love interest is supplied by a charismatic British intelligence agent played by Hayley Atwell.  The romance that eventually develops between her and Captain America has an appealingly old-fashioned feel, as if it were straight out of a real 1940s movie.  Tommy Lee Jones turns in yet another reliable performance, this time as a tough army commander, and the rest of the supporting cast is solid, too.

I was especially pleased to learn before attending the film’s showing that the movie was directed by Joe Johnston, whose previous credits include The Rocketeer, which I still contend is one of the most underrated movies of the 1990s.  One of the reasons I am so fond of that film is that it takes place in 1938 Los Angeles, and shows the sumptuous art deco architectural interiors of that time, the classic propeller airplanes, the 1930s cars of all sorts of makes and models, the period attire (gotta love those double-breasted suits and fedoras!), not to mention that 1938 was the height of the Swing Era, and I was able to identify at least three different Artie Shaw tunes.

Suffice it to say, Johnston pays just as close attention to detail with the WWII period trappings of Captain America that he did to that similar period in The Rocketeer.  If the viewer were to pay a few extra bucks for a 3-D showing, he or she would be all the more apt to be immersed in that era, particularly the artwork, the wartime propaganda posters, the clothes (always the clothes!), the cars, and more.

My only criticism of the film is that I found it rather light on contemporary recordings in its soundtrack.  I was able to make out I’ll Remember April by Woody Herman and Jersey Bounce by Benny Goodman, but that’s it.  As a long-time Goodman afficionado, I can vouch that Jersey Bounce is a decent record, and since it was recorded in 1942, it’s quite appropriate, but Benny and his band did other records of the time that were even a bit more peppy that could have provided the right mood and contemporary backdrop during some other scene, namely Yours Is My Heart Alone from 1940.  Surely they could have squeezed in Glenn Miller’s American Patrol (1942) some place, or an early ’40s Artie Shaw ballad, say Moonglow (1941), or even Stardust (1940) during one of the more tender scenes between Evans and Atwell.

Much credit is due to whomever chose to have the movie take place in the era when the character Captain America was created.  World War II provides the perfect patriotic setting where the true essence of the character can be appreciated by viewers of all ages.  In subsequent decades, namely the 1960s, the bleeding-heart comic book writers essentially perverted the character by superimposing their post-modern claptrap onto this paragon of patriotism, as Mark Steyn so eloqently observed.

They say that the numbers don’t lie.  That is especially the case when it comes to box office receipts.  It is no secret that Hollywood has been guilty of producing more than a few anti-American (or, at least anti-U.S. military/CIA) films in the recent years.  Ben Shapiro offers a laundry list of examples, such as the Bourne Ultimatum, Lions for Lambs, Shooter, Grace is Gone, Rendition, and The Torturer.  He could have also added Jarhead and Syriana to that list.  No doubt this sort of muddying of the moral waters appeals to post-modernists and other supposed sophisticates.

Yet the average public has chosen to favor other sorts of films, which explains why superhero movies have done so well at the box office since the beginning of the New Millenium.  X-Men grossed $157 Million by late 2000.  Spider-Man grossed $403 Million by late summer of 2002.  X2 tallied almost $215 Million by early fall of 2003, Batman Begins tallied $205 Million by October of 2005, Superman Returns rang up $200 Million by late October of ’06, and The Dark Knight set a record with $533 Million in box offices receipts.  In just a couple of weeks, Captain America already has brought in $130 Million in domestic sales alone.  The message is clear:  people like to watch movies where good and evil are easily defined.  Captain America not only delivers on that message alone, but it delivers with an unabashedly patriotic message that America stands for ideals that are worth fighting and dying for, and does so with fantastic period panache.  If you’re a red-blooded American, this film will give you your money’s worth.