Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Cowboys & Aliens" Review

Cowboys & Aliens sticks to its guns. Symbolically, that might suggest a certain strength, but in truth it means the filmmakers couldn't have played it any safer. The story is a weak hodgepodge of ideas riding past the point of homage clear into Cliché County. The crisp, colorful visuals likewise present an unmemorable wallpaper of established western and science fiction iconography devoid of individual vision.

It's a clear case of too many cooks. Credited to a screenwriting seven, their conglomerated output is anything but magnificent. With a cast of caricatures that includes an amnesiac outlaw (Daniel Craig), a bumbling medicine man (Sam Rockwell), and a grizzled cattle rancher (Harrison Ford), Director John Favreau's crack team of creatives had their bases covered with western stereotypes. Their failure is in their unwillingness or inability to add anything beyond extraterrestrials to the mix.

Stripped of its sci-fi gimmick, the world collapses. These people aren't compelling in their own right, and their predictable reaction to an otherworldly threat negates the period setting. The titular visitors are off-handedly called demons, but the unique perspective of a society that hasn't yet read H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds is absent. Explaining the invasion using Christian ideology might have helped set Cowboys & Aliens apart, but it subsists instead solely on the novelty of combining its constituent genres while doing neither justice.

Presumably because the audience is expected and even depended on not to think, the screenplay circumvents such ambiguity at every turn. Instead of allowing our turn-of-the-century protagonist to make sense of the ordeal on his own terms, religious or otherwise, the writers employ an expendable, expository character to do it for him. Do we really need to know the back-story and endgame of the antagonists? It used to be enough just to know they're here and they're dangerous.

And then there's the aliens themselves. It seems almost unjust to criticize the creature design given how low Hollywood has set the bar, but Cowboys & Aliens' take is particularly uninspired. Bearing resemblance to the grasshoppers from Pixar's A Bug's Life, these cartoony insectoids feel completely at odds with the gritty western setting. Granted, dichotomy is the name of the game, but when they share screen space with our human heroes, the result is more Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than was likely intended.

But far more important than its intellectual and stylistic shortcomings is the fun factor. Cowboys & Aliens has a handful of decent set pieces, though its climactic battle is too helter-skelter to impress. Aerial assaults in the aliens' mechanized dragonfly drones prove most entertaining, though remain too few and far between. Their unannounced arrival is especially memorable and chaotic, but as the scale escalates, the stakes never ante up.

Cowboys & Aliens is a hopelessly average blockbuster. Big stars, bigger budget, and zero staying power. Much has been made of the "risk" associated with Favreau helming such an unproven franchise. After all, where are the wizards, the superheroes, and the vampires? This is not a brave film, nor the work of a brave filmmaker. Universal Pictures inherits the slim financial risk that this oddball mash up won't recoup its hundred million dollars; Favreau himself takes none.

In other words, he sticks to his guns. He fulfills his contractual obligation to bring the offbeat Cowboys & Aliens comic to the screen, but traverses cautiously over the safest possible path to deliver it. Call that what you will, but cowardice has a nice ring to it.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Captain America: The First Avenger" Review

The sorry state of comic book movies is laid bare in Captain America: The First Avenger. The star spangled superhero hurdles higher than many of his peers, begging the question how he ended up last in the rotation. With the cinematic landscape cluttered with Hell-sent motorcyclists and Norsemen from outer space, could it be that Marvel sought to save the best for last? Nah.

The studio's lack of faith in the character is apparent in the caliber of talent they put behind the lens. Director Joe Johnston (once of The Rocketeer fame) boasts a career blemished by Jurassic Park III and the toothless 2010 Wolfman reboot. Still more disconcerting is the track record of screenwriting duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, best known for Disney's disastrous Chronicles of Narnia adaptations. If I were a betting man, I'd be out a few bucks this weekend.

Fortuitously, Johnston's strengths cover Markus and McFeely's weaknesses, and vice versa. The authors offer a fertile narrative, and the director plants personality. He's summoned great actors for even his weakest efforts, and the cast of Captain America shines. An earnest Chris Evans takes the lead, supported by talents like Hugo Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, Tommy Lee Jones as himself as a general, and Stanley Tucci as a mad scientist in military employ. They obviously had a blast.

But the captain's greatest boon is simply having been born a century ago. Set against the backdrop of WWII, the twentieth century aesthetic goes a long way in instilling the adventure with the magic most modern superhero pictures lack. It's somehow easier to suspend our disbelief when the storytellers rustle history's hair à la Indiana Jones. And when it comes to sense of humor, the fewer opportunities for Facebook jokes the better.

Yet Captain America succumbs to its own set of shortcomings. For starters, Johnston's action is inarticulate. Many of the fight scenes suffer from klutzy choreography or are stylistically gimped by passé techniques like speed ramping. Markus and McFeely share equal blame for many of these uninspired sequences, which recast the captain as a personality deficient nobody shooting his way through dim corridors.

But the most glaring flaw is Captain America's irksome link to the inevitable Avengers movie. There's nothing interesting about Marvel's obligatory nods to their other franchise properties — they come off like commercial breaks. And can we get a moratorium on Stan Lee cameos? It was cute the first half-dozen times, but by now their sole purpose is to uphold tradition and to farm further nostalgia for the work of the studio's once golden boy.

Marvel evidently loves taking its audience out of the experience. They'd rather have people whispering to their neighbor than glued to the screen. This is especially annoying in Captain America, because for the first time since Iron Man, the audience is being treated to an origin story worth telling. And instead of letting that story shine in its own right, Marvel literally ends it with an ad.

It doesn't upend the preceding two hours, but it does leave a bad taste in the mouth. If the studio weren't so interested in franchising, Captain America might be remembered as more than a mere prequel to The Avengers — and it might very well be better. The movie has a rare lightheartedness that's absent from the rest of the Marvel's autonomous efforts, and likely will be from their blockbuster crossover.

Regardless of how it ended up last in the rotation, Captain America outshines even some of the higher seed heroes — pity it got ambushed by Marvel's marketing department. The film succeeds in spite of their routinely poor creative decision-making, but a more important question lingers. Did their ploy succeed in selling me The Avengers? Nah.


Monday, July 18, 2011

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" Review

"It all ends." So reads the succinct tagline for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Capping a decade and eight blockbuster adaptations, Warner Bros. and director David Yates have finally put the franchise to bed. This is Potter's final hour, but is it also his finest?

Depends on who you ask. It's a criticism J.K. Rowling superfans may never understand since the Potter films are tailored to them, but the franchise is neigh impenetrable to the layman. Creative sovereignty is secondary to providing a faithful if mechanical visual companion to the source. Consequently, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 isn't even half a story. There's no beginning or middle — the entirety of the two plus hour runtime is one drawn-out ending.

Often that's an exciting feeling. Deathly Hallows' upbeat action sequences outpace many of its predecessors' — a magical bank heist and a Peter-Jackson-sized skirmish at Hogwarts Castle broaden the scope of the series. Others disappoint. What should be the climactic culmination of a 20-hour epic arrives without the exhilarating catharsis its audience deserves. Standing at 10 paces, Harry and his nemesis cross wands, sans emotional stakes. The archrivals spar simply because they're destined to, and the outcome will surprise no one.

Sandwiched between action and more action are dense expository scenes. When we last left Harry, he was hunting horcruxes ("Pieces of Voldemort's soul," he helpfully reminds us). With three of the elusive artifacts still left to unearth, he, Ron, and Hermione have plenty of scrounging to do before their much-advertised and inevitably underwhelming confrontation with the dark lord. The way that series screenwriter Steve Kloves artlessly espouses these crucial bits of info is telling — he could care less whether we follow him because he's following a blueprint.

Still, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is superior to its predecessor if only because it contains the bulk of the book's action and the characters' overdue closure. There is likewise little fluff, especially compared to the middling middle Potter flicks — but at least Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire didn't ask anyone to cough up extra to see the ending.

Dividing Deathly Hallows into two films was a brilliant marketing strategy, but one bereft of creative merit. All of the Potter films suffer to an extent from their unwillingness to embrace a fundamentally different storytelling medium, hoping instead to appease fans by cramming in as much exacting detail as will fit. And that's fine if you view the two billion dollar movie franchise as a visual supplement to the novels, but their standalone worth is negligible.

Hollywood's Potters do a good job of making flesh Rowling's beloved characters and their ever-evolving universe. Removed from the cultural phenomenon of her writing however, they are shallow, mediocre fantasy films cluttered with unnecessary detail. Some would utter an unforgivable curse at this suggestion, but Harry Potter would have made a better trilogy — there, I said it. I just hope you witches and wizards appreciate the irony of burning a Muggle like me at the stake.

Much of the positivity toward Harry Potter can be traced directly back to J.K. Rowling's writing from the generation that grew up reading it. None of the adaptations are bad enough to undo the goodwill she accumulated, but none of them stands independently either. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 stumbles with the right idea — to send the franchise out with a bang — and it does rank among the more enjoyable installments for sheer leanness. Whether or not it's Potter's finest hour is irrelevant; when it all ends, the films are only secondary.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Cars 2" Review

Cars 2 is all about Mater. Mater is Larry the Cable Guy. You do the math. Where Pixar's other efforts feature uncommonly compelling cartoon leads, the sequel to Cars revels in giving a shallow, annoying character the spotlight. With a laser focus squarely on the kiddie set, this washed up fish-out-of-water spy flick is bereft of the adult inclusive humor the animation giant is known for. Toss in a nonsense plot about NASCAR espionage, and — Oh, just go ahead and shoot me now.

Cars is widely considered the black sheep of the Pixar oeuvre. Taking place in its own bizarro universe wherein cars are surrogates for human beings, it tampered with the "Secret life of ________" formula the company perfected with toys, bugs, fish, and monsters. Cars was a curveball — a charming curveball that six year olds fell in love with. The grinning faces of Lightning McQueen and Mater now adorn bedspread, dinner plates, backpacks, and lunch pails. Sequel wise, there was clearly money to be made.

Unfortunately, Cars 2 makes Cars look positively nuanced. What little personality shined through in the original has been syphoned from the sequel's gas tank. Justly Pixar's first critical flop, there is little evidence that the celebrated company was even behind it. No humor, no heart — if it didn't say "Pixar" on the poster, I'm not sure I would have believed it myself.

At least it started well. Cars 2 opens with an exhilarating action sequence set on an oil rig in the dead of night. Michael Caine plays a sporty British Intelligence car by the name of Finn McMissile, who's scoping out a shady transaction when his cover is compromised. With visuals that reaffirm Pixar's unparalleled mastery of medium, McMissile makes his narrow escape by sea with enemies burning rubber in hot pursuit. Cut to black.

Oh no. Oh God no. We're back in Radiator Springs. Cars 2 would have been better off ditching its predecessor's cast and starting anew with a new set of cars. Instead, Lightning McQueen and Mater reunite after the former's most recent racing conquest, amicably agreeing to take on the next together. Like in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (a comedy in which none of the aforementioned vehicles are alive), their journey is soon sabotaged by the idiocy of the latter.

Naturally, the pair become embroiled in an international gasoline conspiracy, with Mater somehow being mistaken for an American spy incognito. Hold on. Imagine for a moment that Cars 2 was a live action film. Can you picture a suave secret agent mistaking Larry the Cable Guy for a spy? That's some direct-to-video shit right there. Just because they're cartoon cars doesn't make it any more believable, and yet the film routinely expects us to swallow similarly stupid scripting.

Cars had a comparably lucid plot. Its sequel falls victim to a problem that plagues so many unwarranted follow-ups in Hollywood — it's bigger for the sake of sheer one-upmanship. There isn't a compelling reason to tell another story about these characters, especially when the characters weren't particularly compelling to begin with. Owen Wilson is lifeless as Lightning McQueen, and Mater is a one-note sidekick who the hero's cape just doesn't fit.

But then, what do I know? Cars 2 is made for someone a quarter my age. From an objective storytelling perspective, however, it's Pixar's first bad film. It would be unreasonable to expect the studio to maintain a flawless record forever, and after the unchecked adulation their previous few films received, it might even help keep the company on its toes. With a sequel to Monsters, Inc. penciled in for 2013, and early talk of a Toy Story 4, they could use a little criticism.