Sunday, July 31, 2011

Film Review: Cowboys & Aliens

"Cowboys & Aliens" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

When you hear about a movie called "Cowboys & Aliens" (2011) you tend to review the movie before you even see it. Lets face it, the movie sounds goofy. People are going to judge the quality of the movie based on the title alone. It may in fact work in the film's favor. Some might think "what the heck kind of movie is this going to be" and then they'll head out to see it. Others, will hear this title and say it sounds horrible. I'm somewhere in the middle.

"Cowboys & Aliens" might not be the movie some people are expecting. I don't think this is a spoiler but "Cowboys & Aliens" is not a campy, broad comedy. The film is a western first and foremost, second a science fiction adventure. The film has a set-up and a cast of characters you would find in a typical western film. Director Jon Favreau, his screenwriters and this cast take this material serious. In my opinion that serves as a plus. Still there are those who criticize that move, among them, Wall Street Journal movie critic Joe Morgenstern who wrote, "cowboys versus aliens is a concept that may make you smile in anticipation, but wipe that smile off your face before buying your ticket, because the film takes its subject seriously - deadly seriously".

And you have to hand it to this cast. No one is winking at the camera, no one has a smirk on their face. This cast, starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, actually give engaging performances. Their characters are as believable as characters can be in movie called "Cowboys & Aliens". These are characters with a background story. Characters with an objective. They are motivated by emotions. This isn't a shoot 'em up, brain dead action film. There is acting required. That is another plus in the film's favor.

Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan. A mysterious man who roams into a town called Absolution. He wakes up one day in an empty field. He has a metal brace attached to his arm. He doesn't know what it is, how it was put on him, where he is or who he is.

He finds himself in trouble after an encounter with the son of a big cattle rancher, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and when the local sheriff (Keith Carradine) figures out who he is. A wanted criminal with a reward on his head.

Here we have the set-up of most western. The mysterious stranger who rides into town and confronts the town's local villain. The beautiful woman who brings out the softer side of our anti-hero, in this film's case, Ella (Olivia Wilde). And then these two men must join together when a dangerous gang rides into town. Only in this film's case that dangerous gang is aliens and they ride into town in flying saucers not horses.

Once the aliens start rounding up the townsfolk, in order to study humans, a posse is formed to attack the aliens and get the townsfolk back.

The film is based on a comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and was adapted by a gang of writers consisting of Roberto Orci and his partner Alex Kurtzman. Together they wrote "Star Trek" (2009) and "Mission:Impossible III" (2006). And the writing team of Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby who worked on Favreau's "Iron Man" (2008), also a comic book adaptation, and "Children of Men" (2006). These men took this project serious and must have studied the western genre. Still Joe Morgenstern may have been on to something when he said the film could have used some light-heartedness.

Jon Favreau is proving himself to be an accomplished mainstream filmmaker. His first "Iron Man" was accepted by fan boys as a worth-while comic book movie and its sequel, while it didn't receive the same glowing reviews, did make a lot of money. And now with "Cowboys & Aliens" which is positioning itself for the number one spot this weekend, with the children's film "Smurfs" (2011) giving it a run for its money ("Smurfs" is not worth watching) Favreau has another hit on his hands.

But part of me just couldn't get over the goofy, absurd nature of the film. Yes, I appreciate the acting and the look of the film but, I couldn't quite accept the blending of these two genres. Though you have to admit the filmmaker and the actors sure give it the ol' college try. But could a film, which blends these two genres have actually worked in the first place? Was the deck stacked against it to begin with? It is difficult to find the right tone for a project such as this.

In a rather smart move, the movie avoids all discussion of how this came to be. The cowboys don't know these are "aliens" at least they never call them that by name. There is no scientific explanation for how these aliens came to invade the old west. The only mis-step is with the Ella character and explanations of her origins, which are never properly explained. I still don't know where she comes from. And I'm not sure it matters.

If it sounds like I'm on the fence about "Cowboys & Aliens" that's because I am. Should you see this movie? Maybe. I will say this is probably going to be the best alien invasion movie of the old west we will see for a while.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Film Review: The Company Men

"The Company Men" *** (out of ****)

In a strange twist of fate I saw "The Company Men" (2011) on the same day the U.S. Labor report for the month of June was released. According to the report only 18,000 jobs were created last month. The employment rate rose to 9.2% which equals more than 14 millions Americans who are out of work.

I mention all of this for a reason, believe it or not. This is what John Wells' "The Company Men" is about. The film deals which our current recession (though some would call it a depression) and our economic downturn. Millions of people are out of work as companies downsize. Meanwhile, CEOs are getting paid bonuses and the disparity between workers and their employers grows.

"The Company Men" centers on a shipbuilding company, GTX, run by James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson). The company's stocks are down, there is a threat of outsiders buying the company, taking control of the company which Salinger and his best friend, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) started from scratch. In order to deal with this problem Salinger and his board decide the best thing to do is downsize. More than 5,000 people are let go. Among that number is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper).

In a bizarre way "The Company Men" reminds me of "The Best Years Of Our Lives" (1946) the "Best Picture" Oscar winner, which dealt with post-WW2 America, and how soldiers reacted to returning home. In "The Company Men", just like "The Best Years" we follow three men; McClary, Walker and Woodward. Each man represents a different job-market reality. Walker is a young man, who put in 12 years at the company. He has an impressive resume and because of that he believes he will rapidedly find another job. The true nature of how bad the economy is hasn't hit him. He suspects it will only take a couple of days until he finds something else. Woodward represents an older generation. He is pushing 60 years old. He and his family are use to a certain way of life. This isn't the America he was taught about. There was a time you put in x amount of years with a company and you had job security. You saved some money on the side, had a nest egg, bought a home, put your kids through college. Woodward has done most of those things but isn't ready to retire. McClary is the company head with a conscience. He doesn't want to see these jobs go but, even with the company downsizing, he still makes money from his shares.

A lot of people compared "The Company Men" to the George Clooney vehicle "Up in the Air" (2009). There is however a big difference. "Up in the Air" was really a romantic/comedy/drama about a man who learns the value of his life. In that film we followed a man who fired people (this film has a character like that played by Maria Bello). In "The Company Men" who follow the people Clooney fired. This in some ways makes "The Company Men" a more relatable film. It might not be as good as "Up in the Air" but that is only because it isn't written as sharply and some of the performances didn't strike me the way they did in "Air".

Watching "The Company Men" though made me think about my own life. At the start of 2011 I was out of a job (unlike these characters and most of Americans, my situation was different, I quit my job. Yes, you read that right. In this economy I actually quit my job). For three months I was unemployed. Sure, I had some money saved up, but I wanted to work again. I needed to find something better than what I had. Luckily I did find something better, well, kind of. I don't have any benefits but I get a paycheck. "The Company Men" made me take a moment and pause. I'm blessed to have a job in this economy. I can pay my bills, put money in the bank and buy things I don't really need.

That is probably the strength of a film like "The Company Men". It isn't about the acting, though Cooper and Jones are good in their roles. The film is timely. We can see ourselves in these characters. We've been in this situation or you currently are. It feels realistic. The characters here face problems and make decisions which we have all had to make. Selling a home, selling a car, stop eating out, looking for a job which pays less than the one you just had. But hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to get by. As one character says in the film, "just be thankful you have a job."