Category Archives: Movies

Cowboys and Aliens: Critics’ worst nightmare

I saw Cowboys and Aliens over the weekend, and much to my surprise, it didn’t afford any narrative to write about. Cowboys and Aliens is exactly what it’s billed as: cowboys fighting aliens who are trying to wipe out humans in search of the earth’s resources. There are a few hammy White Man Gets What’s Coming to Him moments and some contrived looks between bigoted Harrison Ford and some Native Americans who are now his only hope of survival, but other than that, Cowboys and Aliens doesn’t try to do anything other than pit cowboys against aliens in a non-ironic, realistic way.

This led the increasingly deranged Roger Ebert–this man gave a positive review to The Zookeeper, for Christ’s sake–to write,

Cowboys & Aliens has without any doubt the most cockamamie plot I’ve witnessed in many a moon.

Though Ebert gives a relatively positive review of the film, that quote brings to light something about Cowboys and Aliens which is unlike almost any non-b-rate movie: this is a film that tosses out any conceits to a traditional quality storyline and takes a straightnosed approach to making a movie that’s pure entertainment. Aside from a fairly wooden romantic sub-plot, Cowboys and Aliens doesn’t care if you find this movie believable or even reasonable. It’s about cowboys fighting aliens, that’s all.

But honestly, is the idea that cowboys and aliens co-existed at one time more preposterous than any number of movies produced on a yearly basis? Is it more outlandish than extracting dinosaur DNA from fossilized mosquitoes to recreate dinosaurs or the US government training super soldiers that can speak countless languages, suffer little if any physical pain, and outsmart the entire agency that trained them?

When I was a senior in college, I took a lower-level English course (I majored in English) to fulfill a requirement. We read a short story by Aimee Bender, and I can’t remember the premise entirely, but it revolved around her husband (I believe) turning into a frog. When we discussed it in class, most of the students tried figuring out What It All Meant, when in actuality, it’s a story about a woman whose husband literally turned into a frog. It’s referred to as premise fiction. The author tells a real-world story that happens to include one or two premises that need to be accepted. Cowboys and Aliens is precisely this: everything about the film is realistic except for the fact that aliens also happen to exist and are on earth to <MINOR SPOILER>mine for gold</END SPOILER>.

But movies and literature are wildly different mediums, especially with regards to critical reception, the former of which, both from movie goers as well as critics, is often chastised for assuming these logical incongruities but maintaining a functioning outside world. Cowboys and Aliens gives the middle finger to anyone of this narrow-minded belief system and offers an unflinching action film with a storyline that’s not nearly as unrealistic as critics would have you believe.

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Dark of the Moon: The best-ever third act of an action film

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is incomprehensible visual diarrhea. It may also be brilliant. I have long been a proponent of the Michael Bay directed Transformers series, not because they’re good movies or because I’m too stupid to tell otherwise, but because these movies blow things up in a more innovative and visually captivating way than basically any movie ever made. As well they should: These are giant alien robots that can transform from car to humanoid in the blink of an eye, and come equipped with plasma canons, Maverick-and-Goose-flown heat seeking missiles, and random medieval weapons that can slice through just about anything. The third in the series is ultimately no different in this regard, but the paths the movies take to achieve this are divergent.

The first movie had a lot of setup to do. You had to get alien robots to earth, have the humans discover them, and have a typical hostage/terrorist/baddies-takeover cum redemption plot. There was a neurotic government agent and fat black guy thrown in for laughs, but terrible acting aside, the first Transformers film was not unlike most other action movies of the last decade.

The second film was a disaster of epic proportions, in large part because it was two romantic comedies pigeonholed into one action movie: Sam Witwicky loves hot girl and Sam Witwicky loves giant robots. But it was mostly a failure because rather than sticking around populated, American cities where good and bad robots can hide in plain site, they arbitrarily added a teleporter to the movie and decided that fighting on top of a pyramid was more fun. It wasn’t.

Dark of the Moon is so confoundingly constructed that it can hardly be classified as a single, discernable movie. It begins with a handful of tangentially related storylines that all feel like different ways the writers wanted to start the film. Segment by segment passed and I often found myself thinking, “Hm, that’s an interesting premise for a movie. I’d go see that.” only to remember that I was sitting in a theater watching that movie: essentially, the first act of the movie is a handful of failed movie trailers with little or no relation to one another. Occasionally, a moment from a prior segment would be referenced later, but for almost no purpose.

Worse still, the opening hour and 45 minutes of the film are nearly bereft of real action scenes. A transformer will pop up here and there, and the occasional skirmish happens, but for the most part, the first two acts of the film are structured entirely around Sam Witwicky, his lack of a job, feelings of inadequacy, and his too-hot-for-him girlfriend. It’s interminable. I sat in the theater of the movie I’ve been waiting a year to see and thought to myself, “This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen.”

Then the unthinkable (and glorious) happens: Michael Bay tosses out every single bit of plot and character development for the last act of the film and creates (in 3D, at least) the greatest 45 minutes of action ever put to film.

There’s a literal hard stop at the end of the second act. The screen goes completely black, followed by an Inception BONG and everything you thought you knew or were watching is ceremoniously burned. You transport from Washington DC to Chicago in the blink of an eye and without explanation, random robots and creatures appear unrelated to both the movie you’ve been watching and (to my knowledge) Transformers folklore, and all of the character development the writers forced down your throat for the prior 100 minutes is disregarded in lieu of watching cool shit happen. And I mean endlessly: for close to 45 minutes (I’m approximating), every single moment on the screen is a visual cacophony of brilliance. Things happen and they happen for a reason and you understand why they’re happening and you’re no longer watching Transformers: Dark of the Moon so much as you’re watching War of the Worlds and who cares what happens to who, I just want to see the Chicago skyline flattened and on fire.

The last 45 minutes of Dark of the Moon don’t even resemble–and I mean, at all; in no way, shape, or form–the prior two acts. It’s like Bay realized that the reason people love Transformers is not for the forced storylines and hot chicks but because they’re giant fucking robots in robot gangs with plasma canons. It’s like watching the Barksdales and Stanfields fight but instead of killing innocent black children peering down from windows above, they’re blowing up cities.

And the 3D–oh, the 3D–is so good that they don’t waste time scaring you with explosions or making it look like something is coming right at you. No, you’re in the movie itself. You’re jumping out of planes and being assaulted by an evil robot gang despite the fact that you’re supposed to be just an innocent kid watching from a window above the fight.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon isn’t for everyone, and by that I mean people unwilling to disregard plot, character, and storyline for the chance to have a seizure in a public setting. But as far as action and beautifully done visuals, this movie, at least the final act, is without competition.

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Hanna: The emotive action film

Spoilers abound, so if you haven’t seen this movie yet and are planning on it, I suggest reading this later.

Ostensibly, Hanna is an unremarkable action movie: your eponymous hero is a super soldier teenage girl that, plot points aside, goes about killing things for her cause until the credits roll. All of the markers are there–chase scenes, fast-cutting fights, combat training montage–and you’re unlikely to be surprised by anything that happens. But Hanna is not about a thirst for blood, vengence, justice, whatever; Hanna is about emotion.

Hanna‘s plot is largely inconsequential. It acts as a vehicle to carry the characters to other emotionally pressing situations. Most good guys die. Most bad guys die. The characters themselves take second billing to the feelings they invoke. Hanna forces you to take inventory of each scene and plays with your expectations, never settling for cheap thrills or stereotypes in the face of genuine emotion.

Each character has a specific type, and those that don’t are inserted only for brief comedic appearances. They’re are so clearly defined and formed that every scene feels natural. Of course that’s what he would say, you find yourself thinking. And in this sense, Hanna never has to reach. When Character A enters a new situation, you know what to expect and anxiously await how that’s going to happen.

The movie’s real triumph, however, is the way it deals with violence. This movie is conspicuously devoid of blood and gore. Pain isn’t an emotion, it’s a physical reaction, and as such, it has no place in Hanna. When a group of baddies marches into the house of a do-gooder in search of information, they’re carrying a roll of industrial tubing and about to extract information in a gruesome way. But that information, and the way in which is was obtained, are no where to be found. Hanna, having been desensitized to violence from a young age is never seen killing anyone. Instead, you see her blank stare as she’s doing so, even at the movie’s climax.

The film’s most powerful scene, however, takes place shortly after a teenage boy innocently tries to kiss Hanna while on an impromptu date. Not having experienced physical attraction previously, Hanna comically diffuses the situation. Shortly thereafter, while they’re telling secrets to one another in a sleeping bag, she kisses a teenage girl that she befriended earlier. This is the truest sense of attraction she’s felt in her lifetime and is symbolic of Hanna’s greater narrative: after being raised in the wilderness by her father, Hanna is new to everything.

The action may be what drives the movie and what ultimately puts people in the theater, but Hanna is about discovery and clumsily walking through the new.

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Year-end films…

Or, I didn’t watch any films this year

ironman

In trying to determine what movies I’d seen this year so I could make a year end list, I realized that I have only watched 10 (!) movies in theaters all year, many of which have no right being on anyone’s year-end list. The following is a list of movies I paid to see (please, don’t laugh):

Ironman
The Dark Knight
Harold and Kumar
Wall-E
Wanted
Cloverfield
Incredible Hulk
Hellboy 2
Baby Mama
Be Kind, Rewind

In a year that was ostensibly pretty good for films, or so it seems, at least four of these almost certainly would’ve made my final list (Ironman, Dark Knight, Hellboy 2, and Wall-E). So I can say that, even with the embarrassingly low amount of films I’ve actually seen, I feel like I’ve seen some of the better ones of the year (I have long been bored by traditional Academy films; read: Brokeback Mountain, Charlie Wilson’s War-type films that typically extend themselves toward some greater meaning).

Bullets:
– After I saw Wall-E, I went on a pretty rampant diatribe about why it’s not nearly as spectacular as the reviews and my friends were claiming that I have since, at least somewhat, taken back. I still think there are a number of Pixar films that are better but this was pretty great.

– The Dark Knight was as great as everyone said if a little long and wasteful of a lot of Two-Face story that should’ve been used for the third installment

– Ironman was my favorite film of the year, hands down. It was great and might be the best superhero movie of all time (at least it should be in the discussion)

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