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Movie Review: Cowboys and Aliens (2011) August 27, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Han Solo/Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in a western fused with nasty aliens, directed by John Favreau (Iron Man), with producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and executive producer Steven Spielberg.  In terms of expectations, they don’t get much higher than Cowboys and Aliens (adapted from the graphic novel of the same name), which could explain the lukewarm reception the film has received thus far.

But was it really that bad?  No.  I actually thought it was okay.  Big stars, freaky monsters, large-scale battle scenes and some well-executed action sequences.  But given what this film could have been, Cowboys and Aliens was ultimately somewhat of a disappointment.

The story is relatively simple — Daniel Craig wakes up in the middle of the desert with an alien bracelet on his wrist and no recollection of who he is or where he has been.  Stuff happens, and along with Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown (everybody’s favourite prison guard from Shawshank), he goes on a mission to rescue some humans while trying to piece together his shattered memory.

All the requisite elements for an engaging motion picture are there.  Craig is excellent as the kick-ass, “don’t mess with me” protagonist, while the supporting roles are adequately filled by legend Ford and rising star Wilde.  The film has that dusty, gritty western feel, along with old fashioned bravado and gun fights — plus the strangeness and unknown feel you get from alien invasion films.  The special affects are fine by current standards.  The story is formulaic enough for a typical summer blockbuster but not to the extent that it becomes a distraction.  The character development and subplot boxes are also ticked.

And yet Cowboys and Aliens feels like an empty blockbuster — all style, (to be fair) a little substance, but no soul.  If I had to pinpoint what went wrong, I would probably say that the biggest problem lies with the aliens, who are menacing but that’s about it.  They’re just there to kill and be killed, monsters with no personality whatsoever, and as a result don’t invoke genuine suspense.

Another problem is that everybody in the film seems to play their roles too straight — there are some elements of humour but for the most part it’s all about being cool.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se, though I feel with such a potentially fun premise they should have had more fun with it than they did.

(And I’m not sure if it was just the cinema I attended, but many of the night scenes in the film came across as incredibly dark, to the point where it became irritating.)

Having said all that, Cowboys and Aliens is better than a lot of the criticism suggests.  I was never disengaged during the 118-minute running time, and I almost wished they could have dedicated more time to certain plot points (especially those involving Ford).  As far as action blockbusters go, it’s certainly a lot better than say Transformers 3, but given the crew involved I should never have even considered comparing the two films.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Paul (2011) June 21, 2011

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I like comedies and I’m fascinated by aliens, so Paul, the new sci-fi comedy written by and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (of Shaun of the Dead fame) seemed right up my alley.  In short, Paul is pretty good, but nothing special.

Paul is about two English comic book nerds and buddies, Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost), who travel across the Atlantic to attend Comic-Con and to take a trip in their RV across the country to visit alleged alien hotspots.  Of course, they run into the titular character, voiced by Seth Rogen, who is unlike all the stereotypes we have come to expect, and that kick starts off a series of wild and wacky adventures.

For me, there were lots of moments where I went, ‘That’s very clever’ and had a giggle or two, but the laugh-out-loud moments were rarer than expected (though, to be fair, there were a couple of ripper gems).  That made it slightly disappointing as I thought the potential for better laughs was definitely there.

My favourite thing about Paul is the Arrested Development connections.  The film is directed by Greg Mottola, who did a few AD episodes back in the day before going on to direct Superbad and Adventureland.  Jason Bateman plays the mysterious Agent Zoil, and there’s also Jeffrey Tambor as a sci-fi writer and Jane Lynch as a themed cafe owner.  They are all brilliant.  I won’t spoil any more than that except to mention that the film also features the likes of Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Bill Hader (Adventureland) and John Carroll Lynch (my favourite husband from Fargo), plus a few truly awesome cameos.

Ultimately, Paul is what it is.  A few flashes of comedic brilliance, some clever lines, surprisingly wonderful cameos and references — super fun but not exactly super funny.  I’d call it an amusing film with a dash of geeky charm, for the most part an enjoyable chuckler as opposed to a laugh-out-loud kind of movie.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Super 8 (2011) June 11, 2011

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I was on a high after last week’s X-Men: First Class so I decided to check out the much-anticipated but somewhat mysterious Super 8, written and directed by JJ Abrams (Star Trek, Cloverfield and the TV shows Lost and Fringe) and produced by Steven Spielberg (no explanation necessary).

If I could sum up the film in one word it would be ‘Wow’.  The trailers of Super 8 show relatively little compared to the spoil-all trailers we tend to get these days, and thank goodness for that.  This is really a film where you should go in with as little knowledge as possible.

So I won’t say much about the plot except that it’s about a bunch of kids making a movie in 1979.  It’s a throwback (and I believe has been referred to as a ‘homage’) to those amazing Spielberg films of the 80s, such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  I just loved those films when I was growing up and it’s obvious from Super 8 that Abrams did too.  In the MTV age, they just don’t make movies like this anymore, and it’s a tremendous accomplishment to even attempt to recreate the nostalgia.

Like Spielberg before him, Abrams has created a marvellous motion picture experience with a clever premise, likable, relatable characters, thrilling action, top-notch special effects, awe-inspiring, memorable images, plenty of heart — and most of all — masterful storytelling.  I was hooked from the very first image, which I thought was pure genius.

The likability of the film makes it easy to overlook its shortcomings (and granted, there are a few), but Spielberg’s films weren’t exactly perfect either.  It remains to be seen whether decades from now Super 8 will be remembered in the same vein of those classic Spielberg films.  My guess is probably no, but that doesn’t change the fact that I think it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.  I would recommend parents taking their kids to check it out.  It’s the type of film that made me fall in love with movies in the first place.

5 stars out of 5!

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