Sunday, August 21, 2011

cowboys and aliens

Much like Snakes on a Plane, it is physically impossible to stay away from a movie with a title so tempting. Cowboys? And aliens? In the one movie? Grab the smelling salts, I’m feeling woozy. How could a movie called Cowboys and Aliens not be ridiculous fun?

Well, apparently the equation to make it not ridiculously fun is this: Jon Favreau + Daniel Craig + Harrison Ford = No. Which is surprising, as Favreau directed the stellar Iron Man (though is tarnished by Iron Man 2), Daniel Craig made an excellent Bond, and Harrison Ford is [insert your favourite character of his here]. And clearly the people in the cinema who applauded at the end of the film thought it was great. I did not. Actually, by the end, I was so busy crossing my arms and sighing theatrically that I can’t believe I wasn’t punched in the face by an audience member.

The movie begins in dusty silence as Jake Lonergan (Craig) wakes up in some dirt and has no idea who he is, or why he has a mysterious metallic wristband on. After an altercation with some no-good-criminals he winds up in a single-road town with the vital elements (saloon, jail, porches to lean against) and gets into an altercation with a bratty kid called Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), who holds the town in fear as his father Woodrow (Ford) is the only reason the town still survives. After another altercation with wide-eyed Ella (Olivia Wilde), Lonergan is about to get smacked down by protective father Woodrow when aliens come and ruin what could have been an interesting Western and steal half the townsfolk. Banding together despite their differences, Lonergan and Dolarhyde Snr. go to rescue everyone, followed by town doctor Doc (Sam Rockwell), preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown), Dolarhyde’s Native American sidekick Nat (Adam Beach), Ella, a kid, a dog, and some other people who are totally irrelevant. Fighting with aliens ensues, as does fighting with some bad cowboys and a band of Native Americans. Somehow, it’s still not interesting.

I have a lot of problems with this movie; so many, I can’t even really think of good parts. Wait, I know: I jumped twice at surprise alien appearances. It did a good job of feeling very 1873. (I assume.) That’s about all I can say on the positive side though. The score was nonexistent; sure, great movies don’t need false soundtracks to move them along, but this isn’t a great movie. It needed a crescendo for victorious moments to bring some emotion to the piece. The lighting, while accurate, meant that scenes shot at night (ie when the aliens most love to attack) were almost impossible to see and gave me a headache within about fifteen minutes. (Said headache may have contributed to my eventual grumpiness.)

As far as gender politics go, the movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, and the three women actually in the movie are either a) a whore b) naked or c) kidnapped. As far as political correctness goes, our major interaction with a Native American community has them initially appearing as terrifying savages happy to throw a now-deceased main character into a fire; shortly afterwards, they become mystical and wise healers. It dehumanises the culture and makes you think they must be bored when they don’t have white people to attack; it just made me want to cringe.

The cast, while serviceable, were not stretched in the least—Harrison Ford is old and cranky, along with being a racist, violent asshole who lets a whole town suffer for his financial gain; Daniel Craig is as reserved, quietly violent and shirtless as he is as Bond; Paul Dano is another annoying Western caricature (though his turn in There Will Be Blood is, of course, brilliant); Olivia Wilde is as wide-eyed and other-ish as she was in Tron. Actually, Olivia Wilde’s character Ella annoyed me most in this film, I think: she stood around being frustratingly cryptic when it was clear she knew something. Instead of saying, “Right, guys, here’s what I know,” she just hung around being obtuse until the moment came—post many loved characters dying—when she felt like sharing her story.

The script was dull and predictable; no one was fun or funny, bar Rockwell’s Doc who made one flimsy joke that fell flat even on my accompanying Saturday night drunk crowd; the directing wasn’t even that great, noted by both the ridiculous pacing of the ending (with accompanying pretend danger) and one scene full of every character’s inital reaction shot to the aliens showed. Which is another point—there wasn’t nearly enough discussion about what the hell was happening, from a world where aliens were so far removed that not even ET had screened on television yet. The lack of discussion about aliens was about as surprising as the lack of horror of everyone who had just had a loved one snatched by demons. Were there no emotions in the past? Was sadness not mined until the 1890s?

The trouble is that a movie called Cowboys and Aliens calls to mind something much more fun than what was ultimately made. It takes itself far too seriously without having any stand-out parts to make it work as a serious film. It’s bleak, dark, completely boring and full of characters so horrible you honestly couldn’t care if aliens killed everyone but the kid and the dog.

I give it one out of four gross alien arms.

Monday, August 15, 2011

tucker & dale vs evil

It’s not often you see a schlocky horror movie and think to yourself, “Those poor murderers, they’re so gentle and misunderstood.” But after seeing Shaun-of-the-Dead-esque Tucker & Dale vs Evil—a movie with a lot of gore that is still a comedy—you may see all horror movies from now on and think “but is the devil really possessing this person to torture them? Is the backwards head and biting just an attempt to say ‘hello’ and reach out to humanity?”

Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are two men—mostly referred to in the film as hillbillies, which makes me feel bad but does give you an idea of the truck-drivin’ overall-wearin’ folk they are—are going to Tucker’s newly purchased vacation home to do it up into the holiday house he’s always wanted. At the same time, a group of attractive college kids have taken a parents’ van to the same destination, where they plan to camp, eat, skinny-dip, and do whatever else kids of today do when they camp. (Play Cut the Rope on their iPhones?)

From the moment they pass each other on the road to their first contact at a gas station, the college kids have Dale and Tucker pegged as backwoods creeps. But Tucker’s a charmer and Dale is a man with low self-esteem who instantly sees one of the college girls, Ally (Christine Taylor lookalike Katrina Bowden), and wants to go say hi. Tucker convinces him that he’s not as horrible as he thinks, and Dale approaches the kids—with six-foot scythe in tow—and terrifies them immediately. It’s a bad start to the holiday, but they head to Tucker’s run-down, dangerous, possibly-previously-owned-by-a-murderer cabin in the woods by a lake.

When Dale and Tucker save Ally from drowning in the lake and take her to their cabin to heal, they start a chain of hilarious and gruesome accidents that lead the kids to believe Dale and Tucker are serial killers, and D&T themselves to think that the college kids are embarking on a suicide pact. While our heroes do their best to protect Ally and save themselves, the kids, at the behest of crazed jock Chad (Jesse Moss) take it on themselves to rescue Ally, refusing to listen to the voice of reason that is Mitch (I think—the kids all looked equally floppy-haired and I got confused.)

T&DvE is actually super entertaining, with your cynicism towards annoying fucking twenty-somethings who get murdered relentlessly on film being finally justified. Not all the kids are evil—they’re mostly sheep following Chad—but they are flat-out stupid and the accidents that befall them are really just kind of funny no matter how gross they get (and don’t worry, if you’re looking for some flat-out horror, they seriously do get gross.) Dale is ridiculously endearing, a font of useless (though occasionally handy) information, and trying only to make friends and be nice to everyone—a great example is the scene where Ally wakes from her accident and screams when Dale comes in with pancakes, where he automatically assumes she’s yelling because she hates pancakes and goes to make her bacon and eggs instead. Tucker is the alpha male in their relationship, jealous of Dale and Ally’s growing friendship and aware of how the continuing accidents would look to police. Katrina Bowden does an excellent job of making Ally convincingly amicable, a girl who makes the best of her situation and tries to reason with a whole bunch of people with preconceived notions. It’s pretty much flat-out hilarious; the music is great, adding violin-string-tension to moments that aren’t actually scary to remind you that in other films, the moment could be alarming; Chad uses his asthma inhaler like a cigarette and blows the smoke out of his nostrils to be cool; the phrase “you’re half hillbilly!” may be laughed over forever.

T&DvE does not pass the Bechdel Test, though Ally is at least a fairly empowered character. In a satire like this, it’s hard to tell whether some tropes—blonde girl gets her cans out, black male makes declarations like “damn” “shit” and “that is whack!” (okay, so I’m paraphrasing here)—are actually deliberately there to make a point. I’ll presume yes because it’s a spoof, but it’s worth mentioning just in case it’s not. The dubbing was out in the second half when I saw the film; not the movie’s fault, but it annoyed me a little. I would also have liked a touch more of Dale and Tucker’s background—are they work friends? Do they work? Where do they live?—but I can’t bring myself to care that much, because it’s just funny and entertaining and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who can stomach someone going head-first into a woodchipper.

Four out of five amputated fingers.