COWBOYS & ALIENS
Paul Dano, the twitchy oddball from Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, plays the son of stalwart Harrison Ford in Cowboys & Aliens, and the collective thought grasping moviegoers nationwide will be that Shia LaBeouf suddenly doesn't seem that implausible as Indiana Jones's offspring.
That's not meant to be taken as a criticism of this new picture - it's merely an observation, the sort that increasingly pops up to distract audiences from the fact that there's not much of interest going on during the second half of this hybrid of two genres beloved by Old Hollywood (Westerns) and New Hollywood (science fiction).
Cowboys & Aliens boasts a high-concept hook (and moniker) so obvious and promising that it's amazing this angle wasn't first tackled at least 30 years ago. Instead, this is based on a graphic novel that was released five years ago, and even at that, director Jon Favreau and his army of writers (six receive official credit; who knows how many toiled anonymously on various drafts) elected to toss out almost everything except the bare bones premise of, yes, cowboys and aliens mixing it up.
The movie works best toward the beginning, before potential gives way to actual execution. In the rocky New Mexico Territory of 1875, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up with no memory of his identity or what led him to this spot; all he knows is that there's an unusual metallic contraption wrapped around his left wrist. He stumbles into a nearby town, where he witnesses young whippersnapper Percy Dolarhyde (Dano) bullying the meek citizens, especially saloon owner Doc (Sam Rockwell).
A mysterious beauty named Ella (Olivia Wilde in what would doubtless have been the Megan Fox role had the latter not professionally imploded) hangs around, Percy's powerful pop Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) shows up to bellow at the townspeople, and before you know it, all of these oater conventions are blasted to smithereens around the same time the aliens show up and start blasting the town and snatching up its citizenry. As Jake leads a small band to rescue those who've been nabbed, he starts to piece together exactly what had happened to him - and works on figuring out a way to defeat these otherworldly assailants.
Any movie teaming James Bond with Han Solo certainly sounds like a can't-miss, and the two stars ably fill their roles: Ford especially looks so natural in cowboy garb that it's a shame the Western genre was largely kaput during his glory years (aside from early bit parts in TV shows like Gunsmoke, his only major genre credit is the 1979 comedy The Frisco Kid, opposite Gene Wilder).
But the picture rarely finds imaginative ways to merge its disparate trappings - this past spring's animated yarn Rango did a far superior job of placing fantastical characters in a Western setting - and it soon settles into a deadening, repetitive pattern of one protagonist about to be offed by an alien before being saved at the last millisecond by another of the heroes. By the time Jake and company are tangling with e.t.'s in cavernous surroundings (in scenes eerily similar to those in the more accomplished Super 8), it's apparent that the picture's army of authors have elected to merely plug in conventional story devices that would have worked just as well in movies named Cops & Barracudas or Doctors & Hornets or even Accountants & Amoebas.
CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE
Just how likable is the new romantic comedy with the ungainly title of Crazy, Stupid, Love? Likable enough that it survives not one but two absurd narrative coincidences that would cripple a lesser film. That's some pretty powerful mojo at work there, my friends.
The secret to the film's success starts with its blue-chip cast, the summer's finest gathering of thespians with the possible exception of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. Steve Carell, whose ability to tap into wells of deep-seated emotion elevates him above most of the current comedic pack, plays Cal Weaver, a typical suburban schlub; Julianne Moore, the real star of The Kids Are All Right (sorry, Annette), plays Emily Weaver, who suddenly announces to her husband that she wants a divorce.
Rocked right down to his rumpled pants and designer sneakers, Cal spends his post-breakup period wallowing in nightly pity parties at a stylish bar. His caterwauling attracts the attention of uber-stud Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), who elects to take Cal under his wing and teach him how to be a successful ladies' man. Before long, Cal is reborn as a swinging single, but the resultant meaningless sex can't conceal the fact that all he really wants is his wife back in his arms.
For his part, Jacob finally meets a woman - Emma Stone's aspiring attorney Hannah - who stirs his heart as much as his libido.
That right there is enough plot to pack a running time (in fact, it once was; see the similarly themed Hitch), but writer Dan Fogelman clearly had taken his vitamins before cranking this one out. There's also the major story thread focusing on the pursuit of a 17-year-old high school beauty (Analeigh Tipton) by the Weavers' 13-year-son (Jonah Bobo). And let's not forget the single Cal's romp with a spirited bar pickup (Marisa Tomei), or the continuing presence of Emily's marital fling, David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon). That's a lot of material for one film and, not surprisingly, there are some casualties: I would have liked to have seen much more of the relationship between Jacob and Hannah, especially given the bright chemistry between Gosling and Stone.
To help himself make all of these competing plotlines somewhat manageable, Fogelman takes some shortcuts by tossing in the aforementioned pair of whopping coincidences. The first is minor and easily dismissed, but the second affects the entire film and, worse, is revealed in a silly sequence that culminates in an over-the-top physical brawl. Fortunately, the actors continue to shine, the movie's hard-won truths are articulated in an unlikely but effective denouement, and all is forgiven.
Even moviegoers suffering from superhero burnout might want to stand up and salute Captain America, which doesn't match the excellence of X-Men: First-Class but ranks ahead of fellow summer stablemates Thor and Green Lantern.
I've long held a soft spot for 1991's The Rocketeer and 2004's Hidalgo, two box office underachievers that refreshingly stripped away the modern era's automatic coat of cynicism and instead delivered old-fashioned thrills with no trace of irony or condescension. Both films were helmed by Joe Johnston, and coming off the disastrous monster muddle The Wolfman, he's thankfully back in his gee-whiz element here.
Captain America has a purity about its politics (not hard when the villains are Nazis) and everything is presented in strictly black and white - or, if you prefer, red, white and blue - terms, resulting in solid matinee fodder.
Chris Evans, in his second tour of duty for Marvel (having essayed the part of the Human Torch in two terrible Fantastic Four flicks), stars as Steve Rogers, a scrawny kid whose 4F status repeatedly prevents him from being able to enlist in the army during World War II. But responding to the youth's inner decency rather than his outward lack of muscles, a kindly scientist (Stanley Tucci) decides that he would make the perfect test subject for a serum expected to create the ultimate super-soldier.
The experiment is a success - the sickly Steve Rogers now sports a Charles Atlas physique - but only after being mainly relegated to appearing in a colorful costume to drum up support for war bonds is he able to go after the man who has emerged as his arch-nemesis: Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a vicious Nazi whose use of the same serum has transformed him into the appropriately named Red Skull.
As expected, the movie has the requisite CGI bombast, though the most unique visual effect involved digitally altering the buff Evans so that he would appear emaciated in the early sequences - an approach that works far better than the technique for which The Curious Case of Benjamin Button managed to grab a Visual Effects Oscar.
Aside from the effects, the movie generally takes a decidedly more low-key approach, heavy on earthy tones and even making Cap's garb less flamboyant than in the comic book. This sense of playing it close to the nostalgic vest even applies to the performances, with Evans sweetly sincere, co-star Hayley Atwell (as Peggy Carter) as brassy and buxom as any 1940s actress, and even Weaving delivering the majority of his lines in a low rumble (by comparison, imagine the aural assault if, say, Al Pacino had been cast as the Red Skull).
Balanced enough to offer entertainment to young and old alike, Captain America should make us all proud to be moviegoers.