Le Cinema de WTF: Cowboys and Aliens

Today I am starting a new little series that I’ve been contemplating for a while. Have you ever watched a movie that was so strange, so bizarre, so outlandish that when it was over, you were left scratching your head and wondering if you actually saw what you think you just saw, or if it was all some kind of hallucination? I know I have. That is what I am going to explore here. These are the films that leave you puzzled, confused, and wondering what in the bloody hell you just watched. Welcome, my friends, to Le Cinema de WTF.

We’ll begin with “Cowboys and Aliens,” the 2011 film starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and directed by Jon Favreau, of “Iron Man” fame. It’s a pretty simple concept, really: take a classic western in the vein of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, add aliens. Get James Bond and Indiana Jones to star, and you’re all set. It’s one of those cases where the title pretty much tells you everything you need to know (See “Snakes on a Plane” for another example).

Genre mashups are all the rage lately. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” just hit theaters yesterday, and there are dozens of books sitting on shelves combining public domain literary classics with all manner of supernatural creatures, zombies, werewolves, vampires, etc. It’s all gotten a bit out of hand really, ever since “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” showed people that there’s money to be made from combining things that really don’t belong together. I think part of the reason that these sorts of mashups are popular is that they are so absurd: it’s fun in a weird sort of way to see things put together that we know have really no business being put together.

Such is the appeal of “Cowboys and Aliens,” for me at least. And it starts out promising enough, with a great opening scene showing Daniel Craig waking up in the middle of the desert, with a strange gauntlet on his wrist and seemingly no memory of how he got there. He promptly beats the crap out of three tobacco-spitting rednecks who show up, takes a gun from one of them and rides into town like a boss.

It’s a great opening, one that sucks you in and makes you wonder who this guy is, how he got there, what’s up with the weird wrist gauntlet, etc. And while all of these questions are eventually answered, they end up not feeling very important. The opening scene almost makes you forget that there will be aliens later in the film at all. The aliens feel a little tacked-on since you feel from the opening that this film would work just fine as a straight-up western. Do there really need to be aliens at all? No, not really. The great opening almost works against the film in a way.

Much as it pains me to say it, dear God does Harrison Ford look old in this movie. I mean, I’m not judging the man, he’s made some classic movies, and he’s pushing 70 so cut him some slack. But at the same time, his grimly humorless performance in this movie is just not very much fun to watch. He’s well-suited to the role of crusty, jaded cattle rancher, and he does what he can with the thinly-written script. It’s really not his fault that it’s kind of hard to see him in growly frowny mode when you can’t help but be reminded of how suave and charming he was as Indiana Jones or Han Solo.

And all of this speaks to the inherent problem with “Cowboys and Aliens”: it’s just not quite as much fun as you feel it really should be. The goofy title leads you to believe that the movie is going to be a fun, lighthearted romp, but it ends up being overly serious and surprisingly violent. The aliens looked to me like a cross between a frog, an iguana, and the Hulk, with maybe a dash of xenomorph thrown in for good measure. And let me tell you, they are vicious. They stab, bite, and rip people in half. This is really not the family-friendly film the title would lead you to believe, which makes the whole film feel oddly disjointed.

Speaking of disjointedness, here’s something I’ve noticed about the plot. It turns out to be basically pretty simple: the aliens want gold for some reason, and (SPOILER ALERT) Daniel Craig ended up in the desert after he escaped from the aliens. There’s really not much else to it. Why do the aliens want gold? Who knows? The only explanation given is that gold is as rare to the aliens as it is to humans. But so what? Are they just greedy aliens then? Are they alien gangsters or something? Again, who knows? They also capture people, which is also never really explained. The people-capturing serves no purpose other than to move the film forward, so the people who get captured are basically a MacGuffin.

So it’s not exactly rock-solid plotwise. The other problem is that while the plot is essentially pretty simple, it somehow feels way more complicated than it actually is. There is an overabundance of characters and subplots that make the threadbare main storyline feel padded, and I still have really no idea what the deal was with Olivia Wilde’s character, aside from the fact that she was extremely attractive.

The film makes it a bit hard to attain that willing suspension of disbelief that my good personal friend Sam Coleridge talked about. It just seems so ridiculous to have aliens popping up in what initially appears to be a fairly straightforward western. But at the same time I kind of feel like a hypocrite for saying that, since is it any more absurd for aliens to show up in any other film? I guess it partly depends on the film’s universe. It’s not surprising to see aliens in something like Star Wars or Star Trek, since it has already been established that aliens exist in those worlds. So maybe it is more absurd for aliens to pop up in a western, but isn’t that the whole point of genre mashups in the first place? Absurdity? And now I have officially painted myself into a corner.

Ah, well. I still enjoyed “Cowboys and Aliens,” even if it is sort of all over the place. I’m a big fan of Daniel Craig, and he makes an appealing lead character, as he usually does. There are good action scenes, even if they are maybe a bit too intense for younger viewers. I find it impossible to dislike any film that stars both James Bond AND Indiana Jones. It’s a bit overlong, and it has the odd problem of feeling both too straightforward and too complicated. It’s still a fun popcorn movie, even if it is too straight-faced. You could do worse for a Friday-night popcorn movie, but you could also do better.

For all films I am going to write about in this little series, I am going to assign a WTF rating. This is not a measure of how much I liked the film, it is a measure of how freakin’ weird it is. “Cowboys and Aliens” is weird to be sure, but it is still enjoyable even though it’s a bit of a mess. WTF rating: 7/10.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

King of the Monsters

I like foreign films. Some people don’t like reading subtitles. They prefer to watch and listen, not read dialogue. This is certainly a fair point, but subtitles have never really bothered me. Sure, I generally prefer to not have to read subtitles when I watch a movie, but every once in a while I kind of enjoy it. It’s fun to step away from big-budget Hollywood films every once in a while to see what other talented filmmakers around the world are up to, and I have found the results to be frequently rewarding. John Woo’s “Red Cliff” and Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins” are both extremely epic and badass, and could easily rival most American summer blockbusters. And the Swedish version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was so good that many people wondered, myself included, if it was necessary to remake it at all (though for the record, I thought that David Fincher’s version was also quite good).

All of this is to say that when I was at Barnes and Noble last week and saw the Criterion Collection DVD of “Godzilla,” the original Japanese classic from 1954, I knew I had to pick it up. This was something of a stretch for me, since I don’t generally watch a lot of older black and white films (although “The Mark of Zorro” with Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone was a favorite of mine when I was a kid). I wondered what the viewing experience would be like, nearly sixty years after the film was originally released.

And I have to say, it was a lot of fun. There’s something charmingly old-school about the kinds of practical effects used in older films like “Godzilla.” The big lizard was actually played by a guy wearing a suit, and while it does look somewhat cheesy by today’s standards, it is also oddly convincing, since you know that there was a real person in there, as opposed to a mass of computer-generated pixels. I don’t mean to knock modern special effects, it’s just that watching a movie like “Godzilla” really helps you see how far technology has advanced.

And like I said, there’s something oddly convincing about old-school special effects. It feels genuine in a way that modern effects don’t always. I really don’t have a problem with modern CGI effects, but filmmakers these days tend to use them as a crutch. Take Michael Bay, for example, who throws as much flashy-looking action at the screen as he can in an attempt to cover up the fact that there’s nothing really going on in terms of a plot that actually resonates or characters you actually give a damn about. I enjoyed the robot-fighting action sequences in Bay’s “Transformers” movies in a popcorn-munching sort of way, but it’s kind of hard to care sometimes since it all-too-often feels like there’s nothing  at stake if you don’t care about the plot or the characters.

That’s not the case with Godzilla. The story still really resonates in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. I knew that the idea behind Godzilla was partly a response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II, as well as continued nuclear testing in the 50’s. This context gives “Godzilla” a lot of emotional heft, since the situation the characters find themselves in manages to feel really genuine, despite the fact that there’s a giant monster wandering around smashing things.

There are a lot of images in the film that are very striking: a post-attack view of a destroyed and burning city is chilling, and it’s hard not to be affected by the sight of a child wailing hysterically as a parent is carried away on a stretcher. There’s one scene in particular during one of the big Godzilla-attack sequences, that shows a mother cowering in fear, holding her three children and saying, “We’re going to see Daddy now! We’ll be with him soon!” that’s heartbreaking. Scenes and images such as these give the film a sense of poignancy that I honestly hadn’t been expecting.

“Godzilla” is a true classic. The big lizard is surprisingly relevant, and it’s really no wonder that the original film has spawned dozens of sequels. Godzilla is memorable in a way that Michael Bay’s Transformers are not. There are things that stick with you from “Godzilla.” After you’ve watched “Transformers” the whole thing is kind of a blur, nothing specific really stands out as worthy of being remembered, which is not the case with Godzilla.

I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on Transformers in particular, like I said I enjoyed them for the most part. They’re good, mindless popcorn entertainment, which I really don’t have a problem with, but they’re also one of the best examples of the kind of style-over-substance filmmaking that seems so prevalent these days. Popcorn entertainment is great, but every once in a while you just want something more substantial. That’s part of why Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, for example, have become so popular: they combine blockbuster action and spectacle with genuine heart and intelligence in a way that many other blockbusters do not. That’s another reason why I liked “John Carter” so much, since I felt that it was able to achieve that same balance.

So if you’re looking for a fun old-school sci-fi flick that just might make you think a little, check out “Godzilla.” It’s still a great movie, and it makes me feel obliged to end this post with a giant monster sound, so here goes:

BBBRRRRRAAAAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

A Princess of Mars, A Gem of a Film

I first heard of the character of John Carter on the wonderful website badassoftheweek.com. His Badass of the Week article ended with a recommendation to pick up a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars if you’re ever in the mood for some slightly cheesy and highly entertaining old-school sci-fi. Which is exactly what I did one day, when I discovered a Penguin Classics edition of the book at Barnes and Noble. It caught my eye because it was the only book on that particular shelf with the distinctive black Penguin Classics cover. I thought that was interesting, so when I pulled the book out from the shelf and saw what it was, I remembered that article from Badass of the Week and immediately decided to buy the book. If it’s good enough for Badass of the Week then it is most certainly good enough for me.

I enjoyed the book, which lived up to its billing as slightly cheesy and highly entertaining. It was a fun ride, but what was most surprising about it to me was how much I ended up rooting for Captain Carter. By the time I finished the book I wanted more than anything for him to return to Barsoom and his beloved princess Dejah Thoris. (And yes, I realize that there are five or six books in Burroughs’ Barsoom series, I just haven’t read them yet.) Now before you start to wonder what the hell I am talking about, let me just say for now that Barsoom is the Martian name for the planet Mars. That sounded a little redundant, but it will make more sense later.

I was excited to learn that a film adaptation was in the works, and that it was the live-action debut of Andrew Stanton, who previously directed some wonderful Pixar films, including “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E,” my personal favorite Pixar movie (how I love that sad-eyed little robot). It also cost an immense amount of money to make, reportedly somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million, making it one of the most expensive films of all time. It was one of those films that had been in development hell for a long time, with a whole bunch of different directors attached to it before it finally ended up getting made, with Taylor Kitsch as John Carter and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. (Coincidentally, both Kitsch and Collins starred in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” with Kitsch as Gambit and Collins as Wolverine’s ill-fated girlfriend, the wonderfully-named Kayla Silverfox.)

There was a lot of negative buildup leading up to the film’s release. People seemed to want it to fail, which really made me sad. Do we live in a society where a film costing a quarter of a billion dollars and requiring the efforts of THOUSANDS of talented people is released, and all people want to hear about is how bad it is? Arrrrgghhh, come on, people. GIVE THE DAMN MOVIE A CHANCE!!! It bugs the absolute HELL out of me when people are like “THIS MOVIE IS GOIN TO SUCK LOLZ” without even giving it a chance. It ALSO annoys me when people are like “This movie was so bad I turned it off after 20 minutes. One of the worst movies ever.” IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE WHOLE MOVIE THEN YOU ARE NOT QUALIFIED TO PASS JUDGMENT ON IT AND THEREFORE YOUR OPINION IS INVALID!!!!

Okay, whew. Sorry about that. I kind of had to let that out. I promise to stop writing in all caps now. I just don’t understand why people want things like this to fail. It took years of hard work by thousands of people (I haven’t counted, but seriously, there must be thousands of names in the credits), and nobody cares. Sigh.

Alright, I’m getting off my soap box now. On to the actual film. I, for one, loved the hell out of it. The setup is pretty basic: world-weary Civil War veteran Captain John Carter is mysteriously transported to Mars (aka Barsoom), where he discovers another civil war of sorts between two groups of Red Martians, who look a lot like humans but, as you may have guessed, have slightly redder skin. There are also these four-armed green dudes called Tharks, who kind of want to stay out of the whole civil war thing. The Tharks in the film are slightly reminiscent of the Na’vi in “Avatar,” with their elongated body structure and the fact that they’re all seven to eight feet tall. The main difference is that Tharks are green, have four arms and these awesome tusks sprouting out of their faces. Needless to say, I am a big fan of Tharks.

There’s a really bad dude named Sab Than (played with grinning villainy by Dominic West, whom you may remember as that corrupt douchebag senator from “300”) who has been destroying cities and causing all kinds of mischief, and the only way to get him to knock it off is to marry off the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris to him, thereby uniting the two kingdoms of Zodanga and Helium. Dejah is understandably not very pleased with this situation, since Sab Than is pretty much a total raging murderous douchebag of epic proportions, but she reluctantly agrees to marry him to forge peace between the kingdoms.

I would just like to take a moment here to say that Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris is so heart-stoppingly beautiful in this film that it is completely understandable why pretty much everyone in the movie wants to marry her. I wanted to marry her too. I would also like to point out that in Burroughs’ novel she was pretty much naked all the time. You know, just sayin’. This being a Disney movie, I kind of understand why they didn’t go that route.

I’m not going to go into a whole lot more detail regarding the plot of the film. For one, the above summary sums up the main conflict of the story (I think) pretty well. It’s fairly simple really, kind of like “The Princess Bride,” but in space. Also, there are a couple of subplots that don’t really make a whole lot of sense. I’ve watched the film twice now and I still have really no idea what the deal was with Mark Strong’s character, aside from the fact that he was evil (as usual), and also very bald.

The movie drew a lot of comparisons to “Avatar,” which makes some sense, I suppose. Similar setup, similar visual style. Some (stupid) people thought it was ripping off Avatar, which is stupid because Burroughs’ book was published in 1912 (making the release of the film in 2012 fall on the centenary of John Carter’s creation). If anything, James Cameron ripped off John Carter, not the other way around.

Given the choice between the two films, I would take John Carter any day of the week. I liked it far more than Avatar. The characters have actual depth to them, they’re not just cardboard cutouts. You actually care about what happens to them. Re-watching Avatar a while ago, I found that I couldn’t really care less about Jake Sully, and actually ended up rooting for the military guys, because I was so sick of the blue people’s incessant tree-hugging, I kind of wanted them all to get blown up.

But I never felt that way about John Carter. I was rooting for him and Dejah Thoris the whole way through, and I was (SPOILER ALERT) heartbroken when they were separated at the end, only to feel that I was somehow made whole again when they were reunited.

I also really liked the look of the film. Every penny of that enormous budget is evident in the movie, from the sets to the costumes to the visual effects, which all blend together to create a seamless and completely immersive experience. It made me want to live in its world, which I think is the highest praise you could give to a fictional universe. I saw it in 3D in the theater, and for once the 3D actually added to the experience instead of detracting from it, or simply not adding much at all. I left the theater with that warm feeling you get when something really resonates with you, and I felt that way again when I watched the film for the second time just last night (on Blu-Ray of course, since basic DVD really wouldn’t do this film justice).

I understand that the movie got a very mixed response, and that it was considered a failure at the box office. I for one count myself among the film’s most staunch supporters, and hope that it will at least manage to become a cult classic down the road. It’s kind of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western by way of Star Trek, and what’s not to like about that?

I understand that not everyone liked or will like this film as much as I do, but please, give it a chance. Don’t think of it as just “that big Disney flop.” You may just be pleasantly surprised. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a fantastic adventure that I enjoyed every minute of. Thank you for this film, Andrew Stanton. I for one think it’s a treasure, and if I could I would give you a hug.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

Badass Modern Shakespeare

I’m a bit skeptical on the concept of modern Shakespeare adaptations. Does Shakespearean dialogue translate to a modern setting? Is it weird to see characters in a modern setting, wearing modern clothing, etc. speaking Shakespearean dialogue?

In an attempt to address these pressing issues, I watched Ralph Fiennes’ recent adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, “Coriolanus”. I really didn’t know much about the plot of Coriolanus, I’ve never read it or seen it performed. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read my fair share of Shakespeare, (I am an English major after all, Bill is the patron saint of English majors) but I was mostly unfamiliar with Coriolanus, aside from what the trailer for the movie informed me. Fiennes directed the movie and starred as the title character.

The basic plot is fairly simple (SHAKESPEAREAN SPOILERS AHEAD, VERILY): badass Roman general Caius Martius, more at home on the battlefield than in politics, wins a great victory against the Volscians, enemies of Rome, and his rival, Tullus Aufidius, the Volscian general. Martius returns to Rome and is given the name “Coriolanus”, in acknowledgement of his victory at the city of Corioles. Coriolanus is appointed consul and is initially popular with the people until they are turned against him by two Roman tribunes and he is banished from Rome. Furious at this betrayal, he allies himself with his former rival Aufidius and together they march on Rome. Rome attempts to dissuade him to stop but their attempts are unsuccessful until they send his wife, son, and mother to appeal to him to spare Rome. He relents and signs a peace treaty between the Romans and Volscians. Aufidius, feeling betrayed, kills Coriolanus. The end.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Of course the details of how the plot progresses are more complex, but that’s the gist of it.

So, how does all of this work in a modern context? Actually pretty well, as it turns out. Fiennes updates the play to a modern setting, while still keeping the dialogue, characters, and story intact. An opening title card informs us that the story takes place in “A Place Calling Itself Rome”, although I’ve read that it looks more like Bosnia or Beirut, which is probably intentional on Fiennes’ part. I watched part of an interview with Fiennes, who said that it isn’t really intended to be any one city in particular, it could be and has characteristics of a number of different cities. It frankly doesn’t really matter exactly what city the story takes place in, since the plot remains the same.

So what is the actual viewing experience like? Is it off-putting to hear Shakespearean dialogue in a modern context? Initially, yes, it is. It is weird to hear newscasters on TV reports speaking in Shakespearean language, or to see soldiers in full gear yelling “AWAY!!” before a bomb explodes. Picture a modern war movie like “Black Hawk Down”, for example, only with the Marines sounding Shakespearean, and you’ll get an idea of what the viewing experience of watching “Coriolanus” is initially like. When Fiennes’ Coriolanus growls at Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler), “I’ll fight with none but thee, for I do hate thee”, and Butler responds, “We hate alike”, it sounds weird coming from guys holding assault rifles and covered in blood.

But the off-putting effect doesn’t honestly last all that long. You get used to it, and the plot really isn’t that hard to follow. I’d be lying if I said I understood every line, but you don’t have to understand every line in order to still be able to grasp what’s going on. That’s the inherent difference between reading Shakespeare and seeing Shakespeare. Reading Shakespeare, you need a ton of notes in order to be able to understand what the hell people are talking about. In a performance of Shakespeare, in a film or on stage or whatever, you don’t need the explanatory notes because seeing the events played out in front of you is explanation enough.

The language really isn’t a barrier to understanding what’s going on. Shakespeare is difficult to read, but the language itself is timeless because you can still understand it, and because it is so eloquent. Everything sounds better in Shakespearean language. “What light through yonder window breaks?” sounds so much better than “Hey, what’s that light coming through the window?” like I mentioned earlier, I haven’t read “Coriolanus” so I don’t know if the dialogue in the film is take verbatim from the play or has perhaps been adapted a bit, but again it doesn’t really matter because the impact and the feel of the dialogue is the same. Why bother changing the dialogue to modern language when Shakespearean language sounds so much better? That’s another thing about Shakespearean dialogue, it isn’t entirely about what is being said as much as how it is said. Ever hear of iambic pentameter? Shakespeare’s dialogue itself is poetry.

Okay, time to change course a bit. Fiennes has a very wiry, soldier-y look in this film. He spends most of the movie bald, reminding me of Voldemort, but with a nose. Gerard Butler reminded me of Leonidas with his bearded, grizzled look, so I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Voldemort vs. Leonidas! Awesome!” when they got a knife fight scene. I can honestly say that I never expected to see a Shakespeare adaptation with machine guns, rocket launchers, and knife fights. It was certainly unique, to say the least, as well as a bit bloody, definitely earning its R-rating for violence.

Coriolanus himself is an interesting character. He doesn’t really fit in anywhere, in many ways he is already an outcast even before he is banished from Rome. The only place he really feels at home is on the battlefield, he doesn’t belong in politics and his disdain for the people gets him into trouble as much as anything else. He is as much responsible for his own downfall as the Roman tribunes who caused him to be banished. He is arrogant and bullheaded, not a good combination for a person who holds a public office. He essentially betrays both the Romans, by joining the Volscians, and the Volscians, by signing a peace treaty with Rome. He’s one of those characters who sets himself on a path to destruction pretty much from the get-go, you know there’s really only one way a story like his can end.

So would I recommend the film? Yes, I would. Modern Shakespeare can work surprisingly well if it’s done right, as Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” is. The film is Fiennes’ first as director and he shows that he’s got talent behind the camera as well as in front of it. He really nails the character’s intensity and ferocity. No one can do subtle, terrifying menace quite like Ralph Fiennes. Gerard Butler is also good, as is Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mother, Jessica Chastain as his wife, and Brian Cox as one of his few political allies. The rest of the supporting cast is also quite good, and all of the actors handle the tricky Shakespearean dialogue very well. So yes, overall I would recommend the film, as long as you know what to expect.

I think Roger Ebert wrote in his review that, while he liked the film, it might have a somewhat limited appeal, since as Shakespeare it’s too much action, and as action it’s too much Shakespeare. In a way, the film, like its title character, is a bit of an anomaly, since it doesn’t fully inhabit either world. But also like its title character, it is very good at what it does.