So, I’m sorry to report, even at this late date, that Cowboys and Aliens is more deadwood than Deadwood. It’s not Wild Wild West bad, I guess, but there’s no narrative urgency to be had here at all. It’s almost sad, really. Some estimable production values are put into service of a total snoozer of a script. And even with all the star power involved — the movie just never finds a spark to get things moving. By 20 minutes in, I had gotten bored with it, and after an hour I was just dutifully waiting for the credits.
So what in blue tarnations happened? Well, laziness abounds here — to take just example, the aliens here are close kin to what we just saw skulking about Super 8. But I expect much of this film’s inertia lies with the fact that, like Green Lantern, Cowboys and Aliens could field an entire pick-up basketball team with its bevy of screenwriters, and the resulting mess shows. Apparently these five (six if you count story credits) souls presumed that, if they just threw enough stock characters at the story, the so-low-its-high concept of cowboys vs. aliens would simply carry the movie. Suffice to say, it doesn’t work out that way.
As the film begins, a man with piercing blue eyes and no memory to speak of (Craig) wakes up in the desert, a photograph of a woman in his hand and a strange metal shackle on his arm. After handily dispatching some would-be bandits, he rides to the nearby watering hole of Absolution, where he soon makes nice with the local preacher (Brown), meets a mysterious and alluring beauty (Olivia Wilde), gets into fisticuffs with the spoiled son (Paul Dano) of local tough guy Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), and discovers from the sheriff (Carradine) that he’s really a ne’er-do-well named Jake Lonergan, and wanted for a stagecoach robbery. Just as this newly-rechristened Lonergan is about to be brought back East in chains to serve hard time, the real trouble begins.
That would be the eponymous aliens, who, out of nowhere, strafe this sleepy Western town and abduct many of its fine, upstanding citizens, including the sheriff, Dolarhyde’s bratty son, and the wife (Ana de la Reguera) of the local saloon proprietor (Rockwell). And so the survivors of this dastardly attack band together to reacquire their kinfolk. Their ace-in-the hole on this mission is Lonergan, whose shackle has a very useful laser cannon within, and who now can kinda sorta remember a previous encounter he and his ladyfriend (Abigail Spencer, a.k.a. Don Draper’s kindergarten squeeze on Mad Men) had with the invaders. But Winning the West back from aliens who enjoy an overwhelming technological superiority is a horse of a different color from fighting indians or poachers. In fact, come to think of it, indians and poachers might come in real handy right about now…
If this synopsis makes it sound like Cowboys and Aliens is a ripping western adventure yarn, well, don’t be fooled, stranger: The result is more than a little dull. It doesn’t help that the movie continually makes lazy Screenwriting 101 (or worse) choices as it goes along. Yes, we do have both a little kid and a dog on this mission, and, yes, the two do form a bond. Yes, Old Man Dolorhyde has some growin’ to do, particularly with regards to his “adopted” Native American son (Adam Beach of Flags of our Fathers), whom he mistreats for no particular reason. So why are the aliens here on Earth in the first place? Er…I dunno…shall we say gold? What’s that you say, Rockwell’s character can’t shoot straight? Hmm, well I sure hope he gets that squared away by the third act!
As I said in the favorite movies post yesterday, Rockwell is probably the best thing about Cowboys and Aliens, and the only person who occasionally spins the proceedings here into gold. (His character actor compadres, Carradine and Brown, aren’t given enough to do) For his part, Craig is…well, ok — He does the steely badass thing well enough. But before I saw this, I was thinking of him as Bond and Layer Cake, i.e. a mark of quality. Only as the film rolled did I remember: Oh, yeah, he’s actually in a lot of crap too, like Road to Perdition and The Jacket.
As for Ford, well he’s not bad either, to be honest, and he does seem engaged in the material. But, there’s something off as well — Like Pacino-as-Pacino, DeNiro-being-DeNiro, and Nicholson-doing-Nicholson, he seems to have reached that age where he can only play himself playing a role. Old actors never sour, I guess. They just go meta. (It reminds me of a recent interview with Andy Serkis on playing Gollum again after ten years, and he said it felt like he was doing an impression of himself the whole time. Ford seems trapped in the same feedback loop.)
And Olivia Wilde — well, I want to like her. She seems smart and funny, she’s easy on the eyes, and she’s the niece of lefty writer Alexander Cockburn. But, lordy, when she first wanders into this movie in her calico print settler’s dress, she’s like an Angel of Boring. I can’t tell if it’s completely her fault, but she and her character, both before after her Big Reveal, definitely contribute to the stultifying air permeating this film. Better luck in the next Tron.
“Zoot Shooters run through a course they call a ‘caper,’ which is often based on a scene from a famous gangster movie, like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Miller’s Crossing.’ The winner is the person who shoots with the most accuracy in the shortest time. Penalties are tacked on for hitting the ‘good guys.’“
Also by way of a friend, the WSJ looks into “Zoot Shooters,” or what happens when fanboys and gun enthusiasts cross-pollinate. “There are two schools of thought,’ says Steve Fowler, a longtime cowboy shooter going by the name Bat Masterson, a famous Old West gunfighter. He recently took up Zoot Shooting, under the alias G-Man. ‘One is that [Zoot Shooting] is another costuming game and it’s a lot of fun…The other is, if it ain’t cowboy, it ain’t nothing.‘”
For, however defiantly stupid Hex is for most of its run, and yes, Hex is extremely, flagrantly stupid — we know that from the horse-mounted howitzers in the first reel — at least the movie is aware enough of its drive-in badness just to let its Weird Western Tales freak flag fly. (Speaking of Hex’s comic book origins, the obligatory source material disclosures: I’ve been aware of the character since he popped up in the Crisis way back when, but never really followed him, even when he got sent into the far-flung future for some reason, and I couldn’t tell you much about Hex beforehand except the scar.)
So basically, I found Jonah Hex to be on the bizarrely-enjoyable, “TNT New Classic at two in the morning” side of terrible, as opposed to the just-plain-irritating-terrible of, say, 1999’s The Wild, Wild West. (Or, to take two recent examples, Alice in Wonderland or Clash of the Titans.) True, gun-for-hire John Malkovich seems really bored as this twisted tale’s Big Bad, Confederate general Quentin Turnbull. (Like Hugo Weaving in The Wolfman, another genre turn I thought would have to be fun no matter what, Malkovich is a letdown. Even in other easy paychecks like Con Air, I’ve never seen him so listless.) But the Malkatraz choosing to phone-it-in notwithstanding, there’s still a lot of goofy fun at the fringes of Jonah Hex.
I mean, we’ve got rising star Michael Fassbender (of Inglourious Basterds, Fish Tank and, soon X-Men: First Class — He’s the Magneto to James McAvoy’s Professor X) as a jolly, lilting Irish-immigrant henchman in a bowler hat. There’s Will “Gob Bluth” Arnett playing it straight as a McClellan-esque Union general, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (of Watchmen and The Losers) as a wordy and depressed zombie, Lance Reddick (nee Major Cedric Daniels) slumming it as Hex’s Q, American Beauty‘s since-AWOL Wes Bentley randomly popping up very briefly as Southern Gentleman #2…and that’s not even getting into the random Civil war-era gladiatorial bat-beasts and whatnot.
And then there’s Hex himself: Josh Brolin, who, not unlike Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley in Splice, carries the stoic deadpan — with a glint of laughter in the eyes — of a man who seems to be in on the joke. If nothing else, Brolin — after spending two decades not-really-making-it between 1985’s The Goonies and 2007’s No Country for Old Men — seems to be getting a real kick out of being an A-Lister carrying his own B-level comic book film. For her part, Megan Fox is not much to write home about here, but she’s easy on the eyes and acquits herself well enough. I know she’s often a target of many people’s weirdly vociferous wrath. But I’ll give Fox this: If Hex and Jennifer’s Body are any indication, she seems to have a pretty solid sense of her own limited range.
Now, you’ll notice I’ve gone several paragraphs in now without mentioning anything involving the actual story, and that should give you a sense of its quality. But, basically, Hex wants revenge on the aforementioned Gen. Turnbull, since he’s the man who disfigured him (good work, make-up people), murdered his family before his eyes, and inadvertently gave Hex the power to commune with the dead (although, apparently not with his family, which is where you’d think he’d then spend most of his time.) Turnbull, meanwhile, wants to level the Union on its 100th anniversary, as payback for that whole Civil War thing — you may have read about it. (The engine of his centennial-obliterating master plan are highly dangerous WMD, apparently once engineered by Eli Whitney — In practice, they’re glowing golden orbs not unlike the pinkish bombs Jar Jar et al were flinging around Naboo in The Phantom Menace. And, yes, the fact I just mentioned Episode 1 should again give you a sense of what you’re in for here.
So, yeah, the film is bad, no doubt. But I still definitely enjoyed myself through its schlocky-grisly awfulness. If you’ll allow me to explain by digression: Speaking of John Lee Hancock’s amiable but slightly dull adaptation of The Alamo in 2004, I finished up by saying of Billy Bob Thornton’s Davy Crockett that “Billy Bob is so good here that I spent most of the film contemplating who else I’d cast alongside Thornton for the definitive American History miniseries. Christopher Walken as 1850 Henry Clay? Fred Thompson as James Buchanan? Adrien Brody as Mexican War-era Lincoln? The possibilities are endless.“
And, with that in mind, I think the point where Hex sorta sold me as Z-grade entertainment, despite its pretty unmitigated badness otherwise, is when Aidan Quinn (most recently playing a drunk-of-a-different-color in The Eclipse) shows up as President Ulysses S. Grant, a man who needs that outlaw and ex-Confederate rapscallion Jonah Hex on the side of God and country, his dirty deeds be damned, or else. If you’ve been coming ’round these parts and reading the movie reviews for any amount of time, you’ve probably noticed I have a weakness for both historical recreations and genre outings. Well, however much of a bomb in the end, Jonah Hex at least has the good sense to frolic happily at that crossroads for awhile.
And so on. Judging from the generally positive reviews, I went into Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s pretty but painfully slow sheepherding documentary Sweetgrass expecting a languid, contemplative rumination on the ancient but fading bonds between Man and Beast. And I guess that’s basically what I got. But, at the risk of seeming like a Philistine, trust me: You really can’t overestimate how slow-moving this picture turns out to be. Sweetgrass has images of undeniable beauty, sure, but I thought its reach far exceeded its grasp. And, while obviously different movies work for different people, some of the ridiculous praise Sweetgrass is getting — “the first essential movie of this young year,” for example (Manohla Dargis, NYT) — has a definite “Emperor’s New Clothes” feel to it.
Billed as “the last ride of the American cowboy” (as in Brokeback Mountain, by cowboy they mean sheepherder), Sweetgrass chronicles the final time a flock was taken into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture on a federal grazing permit, in 2001. It seems like an arduous undertaking, and no mistake — Two men have to corral hundreds of sheep on a journey through forests, across creeks, and up and down steep mountainsides, with only some horses and a few dogs to help them. (Speaking of which, I imagine Berk would’ve loved this flick.) But, just because a job is hard doesn’t necessarily make it compelling for motion picture purposes. And, as a film, Sweetgrass loses the thread in them there hills.
The movie works best in its opening half-hour or so, when the long, uninterrupted takes of sheep and shepherd behavior still seem like a novelty. The herd is shorn, the herd is fed (from a big wheel of grass, basically), the herd reproduces, the herd is driven through the streets of a small town to start its great grazing adventure. All pretty interesting. But, once Swetgrass gets into the actual drive into the mountains, we’re already pretty much inured to strange sheep behavior and the crazy fluid dynamics of the herd, and there’s not enough other story to sustain the enterprise. So after awhile, you just sit there, waiting for something — anything! — to happen: Demon sheep? Killer sheep? Even just a Black Sheep, maybe? Nope, sorry. Instead, we sit through extended shots like “Sheep being Sheep,” “Man Getting on Horse,” “Man Setting Up Tent,” “Sheep Still Being Sheep,” “Man Eating Bacon,” “Sheep Even Still, Not Surprisingly, Being Sheep,” and “Man Complaining about Sheep Being Sheep.” (Yes, I was reminded of this Onion classic.) There’s not much there there.
I say “Man” because, in a Cormac McCarthy-esque flourish, the film never really introduces us to the two shepherds on this drive. Presumably, this was to add to the “ancient natural rhythms” feel of the film — man, dog, horse, and sheep engaged in a millennia-old ritual or somesuch. The problem is, neither of this pair are engaging or particuarly easy to relate to. (Earlier, a sheephand at the farm gets off a good joke about “cowboy brains,” but unfortunately he’s not on the Big Trip.) The elder fella on the drive has a certain whos-more-grizzled je-ne-said-quoi, I guess, but he’s a mumbler with a maddening tendency to repeat himself over and over and over again. (Did I mention he repeats himself? He repeats himself.) And the other guy, who gets less screen time, probably ends being even worse to hang around with. At one point late in the film, he throws what can only be called an epic hissy fit — screaming vulgarities at sheep and calling his mom to whine about his predicament. I get it, it sucks. You’re still on camera, buddy.
Speaking of getting it, I know what the counterargument to my dismissal here is — As the Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr puts it, Sweetgrass is arguably “about the death of a particular sense of time: slow, profoundly observant, in tune with the larger cycles of nature…If you’re used to the ADD pace of modern filmmaking, ‘Sweetgrass’ will probably drive you crazy. If you can adjust, it could widen your soul.” Well, ok, I plead guilty to ordinarily being a souped-up, Twitter-happy, multi-tasking, Red Bull achiever. And, when it comes to spending my entertainment dollar on discourses about the Death-of-the-West, I highly prefer Red Dead Redemption (or, for that matter, books like Richard White’s It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own) to plodding docs like this. But I also feel like I have a higher-than-normal curiosity about the world, and I don’t think I have the attention span of a hummingbird either. And, despite my best efforts, I was just not feeling this film. To be honest, some of this “you can’t handle a slower rhythm” talk feels like an attempt to make Sweetgrass critic-proof.
As it is, Sweetgrass would’ve probably made for a great one-hour National Geographic documentary or an episode of Dirty Jobs. And, as a “thick-description” anthropological study of a sheep drive, it probably has its merits too. But, as a full-length movie, though, it leaves much to be desired. On the bright side, its glacial pace and studied solemnity actually sent me into 21 Grams-style chuckling fits after awhile, and everyone in the theater got a good laugh at the sheephands onscreen snoring in unison with the guy in the front row. Counting sheep, indeed.
On the outskirts of Bisbee, in the years after the Civil War, an honest life is hard, as attested by the sad fate of one Dan Evans (Bale). Having lost his leg in the service of Abe Lincoln, Evans transplanted his wife (Gretchen Mol, dusty yet luminous) and two sons to the Arizona plains in search of renewal, only to find himself deeply in debt and on the verge of starvation. Dan’s boys, particularly his older son William (Logan Lerman), are humiliated by his failure and seeming weakness…and the rains just ain’t comin’. Meanwhile, the regal, courtly Ben Wade (Crowe), a part-time illustrator and full-time desperado, is living high on the hog, along with his gang of thieves, murderers, and bad, bad men — most notably his adoring #2 Charlie Prince (a.k.a. Ben Foster of Six Feet Under and Freaks & Geeks, strangely eerie and excellent here.) But, after a stagecoach job near Evans’ land, this Jack of Hearts lingers too long back in Bisbee, and is summarily captured by a mishmash of local law enforcement, bounty hunters on the Pinkerton payroll (i.e. a solid Peter Fonda, looking haggard and reminiscent of his dad), and Evans himself, in town to settle a debt one way or another. And, when the local railroad suit (Dallas Roberts) offers a $200 fee that might turn around his struggling fortunes, Evans enlists in the company assembled to take Ben Wade to Yuma Prison, by way of the 3:10 train in Contention. But — and it’s a big but — Wade’s gang is still at large, the forces of Law & Order are amateurish at best (note Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk as a well-meaning veterinarian conscripted into the group) and easily corruptible at worst, and Wade himself is no slouch in the survivability department. By means fair or foul, whether by quoting Scripture with a serpent’s tongue, bashing in a sleeping man’s head with a rock, or tempting Evans (and his son) with all the lucre and pleasurable squalor the ignoble life affords. Ben Wade will do what he must to restore his freedom…
…Or will he? My biggest problem with 3:10 to Yuma, and perhaps it’s also an issue in the Glenn Ford version of 1957 (I haven’t seen it), is that Ben Wade’s motivations grow increasingly confused as the film progresses. Given how easily he subdues certain people at certain times, one begins to wonder what’s keeping Crowe along for this ride, other than a general sense of bemusement about the whole proceedings. By the third act, which devolves into a town-wide shootout at the railroad crossing of Contention, it’s hard to figure exactly why Wade is behaving as he does (or, for that matter, why Evans’ missing leg isn’t a problem as he engages in the cowtown equivalent of Ninja Warrior.) Crowe is given a few lines at various points, and the final shot in the movie, to help explain his reasoning…and I guess it makes a certain amount of sense, from a dramatic perspective. But I’m not sure if I bought it, given all that’s come before.
Still, 3:10 to Yuma is another solid and welcome entrant in the burgeoning ranks of the revisionist western. (Indeed, the film reflects more of the New Western History than it does John Wayne country — For example, there’s a sequence involving evil Luke Wilson overseeing a Chinese railroad camp which is really kinda unnecessary, but I for one just liked seeing a Chinese railroad camp included in the proceedings.) And, as with The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven, and several other superlative entries in the genre, 3:10 frontlines the question of what code should — and actually does — govern a man’s actions when he is unconstrained by larger society.
Indeed, if you’ll permit me a digression, that was the beauty of Deadwood, a classic show still unsullied by Milch’s later, more confused attempt to fashion a Gospel of Surfing: Watching the varied, colorful residents of the town attempt to create a tentative order out of anarchic disorder: What rules must we live by if we are to live together? What should we do when the plague breaks out? How and when should the municipal government gather, who should attend, and what roles should it take on (and, for that matter, should there be canned peaches or cinnamon served at the meetings?) And, for the coup de grace, Milch offered a wry commentary on the iron fist within the velvet glove of the existing Gilded Age social order (and the ugly commercial realities that drove much of westward expansion.) When the fledgling entity of Deadwood finally ran up against the established authorities, it was not the government of these United States it faced, but rather the ruthless and mighty arm of unchecked Capital. By the end of Season 3, everyone — even the wily, formidable, and take-no-prisoners saloon proprietor Al Swearingen — was eventually forced to bow and succumb before the whims of the Great (and Monied) Man, George Hearst. (As Al put it, “Leviathan f**king smiles.”)
3:10 to Yuma doesn’t cover exactly the same ground as Deadwood, of course (and it has much less time to ruminate in any case.) But, at its heart, in the churning psychological tension between Crowe’s Wade and Bale’s Evans — as well as the omnipresent lure and power afforded by the almighty dollar therein — 3:10 ponders similar western verities. In the absence of external fetters, what drives a man to do the right thing, even to the point of ignoring his own self-preservation? In a world of complicated loyalties and compromising shades of grey, where the law is irrevocably bound up with the interests of the railroads and a struggling farmer and a smirking murderer can draw disparate conclusions from the same Bible, what, even, is the “right” thing in the first place? As today, different men come to different answers amid the open country of the Wild West. What probably matters most, 3:10 seems to suggest by the end, is that a man has some answer he’s ready to live — and die — by. As the cowboy troubador Alias once put it, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” So you’d better do or find something to make your short time in Contention count…’cause no matter how you live your life, that slow train is coming up around the bend, and it ultimately waits for no one.
The new teaser for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the titular gunslinger and coward respectively, is now online. Out this September, the film also stars Sam Shepard, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel (Yes, Zaphod and Trillian), Mary-Louise Parker, and what would a hard-boiled western these days be without Garret Dillahunt?
After the atrocious Alexander, Oliver Stone returns to American history for inspiration with Son of the Morning Star, based on the 1997 book by Evan S. Connell about George A. Custer and Little Bighorn. Ok, but I still want to see Stone’s take on LBJ some day, just to complete the trifecta.
Can’t tell a hooplehead from a squarehead? What are you, from Yankton? Well, this establishment here can at least help you separate fact from fiction on HBO’s Deadwood. Some spoilers to be had, if the writers keep following the basic history of the town. (Courtesy of the formidable proprietors of Triptych Cryptic.)
“The last sanctuary of the West Douglas wild horse herd is a desolate, forbidding place, which is just how the horses like it…Now, even this refuge may soon be lost. The U.S. Interior Department, which has leased 93 percent of the horses’ preserve to energy companies, recently unveiled plans for evicting the entire herd. Under the proposal, the animals will be rounded up using nets and tranquilizer darts and then hauled away for adoption. The reason cited: Wild horses are incompatible with the region’s intensive gas production.” As seen in the NYT ten days ago, the Post checks out Dubya’s terrible environmental record, with specific attention to the West, which is being cut, drained, mined, and refined away in order to secure extra energy profits for Dubya’s corporate cronies. The party of TR? Not bloody likely.