As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.
Making an earnest cinematic argument for the immortality of the soul and the existence of an afterlife without delving into mushy sentimentality is a difficult task for even the most gifted and “serious” of filmmakers. Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson discovered as much last year when his sappy grandiose adaptation of the ethereal bestseller The Lovely Bones opened to scathing reviews. Critics by and large tend to bristle at movie renderings of what may or may not await them in that Great Arthouse in the Sky.
And yet filmmakers seem determined to keep trying. The latest to make the attempt is Clint Eastwood who throughout his celebrated directorial career has certainly demonstrated a firm grasp of the death part of the equation. His filmography with a few notable exceptions practically revels in it: of his recent oeuvre Invictus is the only work that doesn’t deal with mortality in some significant manner. With his new film Hereafter Eastwood hopes to add immortality to his thematic resume.
The film's narrative centers on three characters each of whom has intimate experience with death and loss. Their stories in true Eastwood fashion can ostensibly be labeled Sad Sadder and Saddest: Marie (Cecile de France) is a French TV news anchor who’s haunted by disturbing flashbacks after she loses consciousness — and briefly her life — during a natural disaster; George (Matt Damon looking credibly schlubby) is a former psychic whose skills as a medium are so potent (the slightest touch from another human being triggers an instant powerful psychic connection a la Rogue from X-Men) they’ve left him isolated and alone; Marcus is a London schoolboy who retreats into a somber shell after losing his twin brother in a tragic car accident (both brothers are played rather impressibly by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren).
Humanity offers little help to these troubled souls surrounding them with skeptics charlatans users and deadbeats none of whom are particularly helpful with crises of an existential nature. Luckily there are otherworldly options. Peter Morgan's script assumes psychics out-of-body experiences and other such phenomena to be real and legitimate but in a non-denominational Coast-to-Coast AM kind of way. Unlike Jackson’s syrupy CGI-drenched glimpses of the afterlife Eastwood’s visions of the Other Side are vague and eery — dark fuzzy silhouettes of the departed set against a white background. Only Damon’s character George seems capable of drawing meaning from them which is why he’s constantly sought out by grief-stricken folks desperate to make contact with loved ones who’ve recently passed on. He’s John Edward only real (and not a douche).
Marie and Marcus appear destined to find him as well but only as the last stop on wearisome circuitous and often heartbreaking spiritual journeys that together with George’s hapless pursuit of a more temporal connection (psychic ability it turns out can be a wicked cock-blocker) consume the bulk of Hereafter’s running time. We know the three characters’ paths must inevitably intersect but Morgan’s script stubbornly forestalls this eventuality testing our patience for nearly two ponderous and maudlin hours and ultimately building up expectations for a climax Eastwood can’t deliver at least not without sacrificing any hope of credulity.
It should be noted that Hereafter features a handful of genuinely touching moments thanks in great part to the film's tremendous cast. And its finale is refreshingly upbeat. Unfortunately it also feels forced and terribly unsatisfying. Eastwood an established master of all things tragic and forlorn struggles mightily to mount a happy ending. (Which in my opinion is much more challenging than a sad or ambiguous one.) After prompting us to seriously ponder life’s ultimate question Eastwood’s final answer seems to be: Don’t worry about it.
Everything is just oh-so-dramatic for 15-year-old Mary aka Lola (Lindsay Lohan) who is uprooted from her beloved New York City by her artist mother (Glenne Headly) and forced to live in what she thinks is the dregs of New Jersey suburbia. Once there however the wanna-be actress decides she'll make a difference in her high school and stand out among the common folk and show them what true art is all about. Of course with an attitude like that Lola immediately gets on the bad side of the school's most popular--and mean-spirited--girl Carla (Megan Fox) but makes fast friends with the meek Ella (Alison Pill) when they both discover they worship the same rock band called Sidarthur. Lola soon proves with unstoppable determination that whatever Lola wants Lola gets; she stands up to the evil Carla wins the lead role in the school musical and has the adventure of a lifetime trying to see a Sidarthur concert in New York with Ella. Yet Lola comes to realize that while being the premiere drama queen she sometimes has to come back down to earth to see what really matters in life.
Lindsay Lohan a Disney favorite who has truly become the Hayley Mills of this generation has the same bebop freshness she displayed in other Disney fare including last year's mega hit Freaky Friday and is the best choice to play the ultimate Teenage Drama Queen. Yet if you strip away all the sparkle and showmanship could Lohan hold her own playing a real honest-to-goodness dramatic role? At least the actress has far more potential than say that other teen fave Hilary Duff (who supposedly has a real-life feud going on with Lohan. Talk about drama). Alison Pill on the other hand who did a nice job playing the forgotten sister in the indie film Pieces of April is the one to watch out for. She illustrates far more depth as best friend Ella who is transformed from a mouse to a lion under Lola's influence. The scenes where Ella and Lola moon over Sidarthur--and the subsequent misadventure to see them in concert--gives the film its most realistic insight to a teenage girl's psyche--and the girls seem to have a great time connecting to one another. In the supporting roles character actress Headly does a quiet down-to-earth turn as Lola's mother while in comparison Carol Kane really hams it up as the drama teacher Ms. Baggoli with the wacky hair lispy speech and hyperactive personality.
Teenage Drama Queen is a Disney specialty. It's the kind of movie the studio is been known for and can execute the best--cutesy over-produced teen fare with a wholesome message tied up in a brightly colored and oftentimes zany package. Back in the day Kurt Russell and Hayley Mills were the favorites in films such as Russell's The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and the sequel Now You See Him Now You Don't (takes you back doesn't it?) as well as Mills' original The Parent Trap (which Lohan went on to remake in 1998). For Teenage Drama Queen the studio picked the up-and-coming Welsh director Sara Sugarman (Very Annie Mary) a self-proclaimed recovering drama queen herself who infuses the film with right amount of joie de vivre while keeping things in vogue for the MTV generation especially with the musical numbers and Lola's dream sequences. Plus the character's wardrobes are terminally hip; even the Sex and the City gals would be impressed. But while the film is certainly not as scary as the very dark Thirteen or dull as Catch That Kid Teenage Drama Queen doesn't offer anything poignant or remarkable beyond its glittering production value.