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.
Set in the turbulent ‘60s each character in Across the Universe represents a different aspect to the unstable times. There’s naïve Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose eyes are opened to the possibilities of life beyond her WASPy sheltered upbringing; adventurous Jude (Jim Sturgess) who breaks away from his Liverpool working-class roots to make it as an artist in New York; and Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) a college dropout who eventually gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. There’s also Sadie (Dana Fuchs) a Janis Joplin-esque rock singer; her guitar-playing lover Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) who hails from the riot-torn streets of Detroit; and even a burgeoning lesbian named Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They are all soon swept up into the '60s' emerging psychedelic anti-war and counterculture movements while Across the Universe lets the songs from one of the era’s most influential bands tell the story. But what drives the film is Jude and Lucy’s love for each other—and all you need is love right? You know you are in for something different when indie darling Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is the most recognizable star. Luckily for Across the Universe the cast of unknowns delivers--and then some. Making his film debut newcomer Sturgess is a particular standout looking very much like one of the Beatles boys in their heyday. His earnest performance as the love-struck Jude immediately hits a chord (pun intended) and he makes breaking out into a Beatles tune seem entirely natural. Wood doesn’t seem as comfortable with the vocals but the actress has a lovely voice--and of course handles Lucy’s emotional ups and downs with aplomb. All the rest of the supporting cast does a wonderful job adding their own unique reinterpretations to the songs (and yes both “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence” pop up). The big fun with Across the Universe however are the cameo appearances: Eddie Izzard sings “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a surreal circus ringleader; Joe Cocker sings “Come Together” alternating between a pimp bum and hippie; Salma Hayek takes nursing to a new level in a “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” number; and finally U2’s Bono sings “I Am the Walrus” as the Beat poet/counterculturist Dr. Robert. You haven’t experienced life until you've heard Bono sing “Goo goo g'joob.” In any original musical there is always something a little disconcerting when a character just breaks out into song even if it’s Julie Andrews standing on top of a mountain. But as with Moulin Rouge a character singing a song we all recognize--well that’s a little different. And honestly who doesn’t love Beatles music? Still director Julie Taymor (Frida) took a big chance creating a musical around the legacy that is Beatlemania. It must have been a daunting task searching through the annals of Beatles music to find just the right tunes for just the right moment--but her extremely inventive ways truly pay off. From Uncle Sam screaming “I Want You!” from a poster hanging in an Army recruiting office to Max and his college buddies running around campus belting out “With a Little Help from My Friends ” everything fits taking us on this journey of life love and self-enlightenment. Although Taymor’s forte clearly lies with the very wild and artistic most evident in Across the Universe’s psychedelic acid trips she also expertly highlights the stark reality of a turbulent time. Taymor is a romantic at heart though—a romantic who adores the Beatles. John Lennon would be proud.
Following a brief history lesson and one of the most asinine opening sequences in recent movie history it becomes apparent that four friends--Caleb (Steven Strait) Pogue (Taylor Kitsch) Reid (Toby Hemingway) and Tyler (Chace Crawford)--possess superhuman powers. In fact the four share an unbreakable bond: Direct descendants of the original settlers of Ipswich Colony during the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s they all inherited their ancestors’ supernatural powers. When they turn 18 they “ascend ” gaining even more potent--but addictive--powers. With Caleb’s 18th just days away his mother (Wendy Crewson) worries about him because each time a magical power is put to use the user ages prematurely and the powers are addictive. But with his girlfriend (Laura Ramsey) in grave danger and an outsider (Sebastian Stan) threatening to infringe on the group’s sacred name and ancestry will Caleb be able to resist? Well it’s official: If you want to break into acting looks are everything. If you look fresh out of the pages of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog you can act--even if you can’t act! The guys in The Covenant might not be quite that bad but the acting’s just not pretty especially compared to these dudes (it’s a backhanded compliment!). Strait (Undiscovered) Covenant’s resident movie veteran with five films under his belt absolutely has enough Abercrombie in him to warrant infinite chances to get it right but he makes Keanu Reeves look like Robin Williams--or a snail like a cheetah. The rest of the actors tend to overact where Strait underacts. Kitsch a bottle beefcake with one hell of an ironic last name and Hemingway (an equally ironic last name) both seem to think they’re in some throwaway teen horror flick instead of a throwaway supernatural thriller. And the other relative newcomer Stan comes close to decency but undoes his good towards the end. Uwe Boll gets a lot of flak for his films but how ‘bout throwing some hate Renny Harlin’s way?! Harlin has the ability to be a good director--as evidenced on Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger--but that ability has been M.I.A. for over a decade. Fresh off 2004’s clunkeriffic duo of Exorcist: The Beginning and Mindhunters (the latter not being released until last year) Harlin has unfortunately added to his canon o’ crap with The Covenant. Though not nearly as much his fault as it is the actors’ the film remains a directorial mess no thanks to the muddled script from The Forsaken writer J.S. Cardone. Despite the characters trying to spell the story out for us it’s still somewhat hazy and its brief moments of clarity provide little to enjoy. Nice cinematography allows for scarce fun but such scenes turn the movie into an underwhelming Matrix/Underworld hybrid in place of an actual mystery. All in all some teenagers might appreciate the thrills and the loud music but fans of the occult surely won’t.
September 25, 2002 12:54pm EST
After Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a mentally disturbed woman who mutilates her body takes a typing course she goes looking for a job and is immediately lucky. Lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader) obviously not very demanding hires her as typist in his shabby and not very busy office. Grey is immediately annoyed with the errors in Lee's letters. Fortunately Lee has the support of her overly protective mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren) and devoted boyfriend Peter ( Jeremy Davies) another loser with parents proud of his job at J.C. Penney's. But Lee and Edward both recovering from nervous breakdowns develop a sadomasochistic relationship which has the duo enjoying spanking and masturbatory sessions at the office. Lee grows so fond of the abuse that she purposefully makes mistakes to provoke Edward. Eventually Lee realizes that she doesn't love Peter and she and Edward acknowledge the perversity that binds them.
Gyllenhaal is charmless as Lee; the very talented Spader seeming to want to carry on with the Bud Cort banner is wasted in his role as lawyer Grey; Davies usually interesting in a variety of offbeat roles here phones in his familiar goofiness as the boyfriend; and Warren who triumphed as the slutty gang moll in Victor/Victoria has absolutely nothing to do here as Lee's overbearing mother.
Writer/director Steven Shainberg favors meaningless close-ups tacky sets and settings lugubrious and phony characters and lame material all around. He fails to make kinkiness amusing his characters compelling or his story dynamic.