Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

Best review I've seen of this one so far says, "It's cowboys and aliens–just like it says. No more, no less."


Nice setting, good actors, great idea, but the thing you look for going in is: How many writers are listed? 

Thing is thick with producers, but that doesn't matter as much, some of those are just titles to get more of the profits, but the general rule of thumb is: The more writers with screen credit, the worse the script, and therefore, the worse the movie.

One writer can have a vision. Two, maybe even three, can share the vision. Past that, it's like a frat party with too much beer: The boys are all trying to impress the girls and each other.

Here's another movie-rule-of-thumb: If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the screen. 

Six writers on this one, between the story and script, and that's not fatal, but it's not a good sign. What this usually means is that shitload of producers I mentioned–sixteen of them in various forms–plus the director, couldn't agree on what the movie should be, and the writers keep getting replaced. 

Too many hands, nobody feels the love, and the life tends to get written out of the project. Yeah, it hits its marks and says its lines, but ...

Oh, Ford is great as the crusty old cattle baron, Civil War hero–and he's got the best hardware, a nickel-plated Peacemaker–so it had to be circa 1873 or thereabouts–while the others use old Navy cap 'n' ball Colts or Schofields, and assorted rifles. 

Well, except for Daniel Craig, who has the alien bracelet. Craig does his turn as Clint Eastwood (with amnesia) in a cowboy hat and chaps. 

Abigail Spencer is gorgeous, and the rest of the cast is full of cowboy-actors and suitably seedy-looking bandits, townsfolk, kids, Indians, and so on. Doc, Preacher, the Shurf, the Weenie son-of-the-cattle baron, pretty much every cliche you want to shake a stick at is in there. Lines and moves from other classic westerns, you can't miss 'em. Not anybody in the movie who isn't an homage, really, though you have to wonder how many of the teenaged boys who people summer theaters will get the references.

Walt Goggins (The Shield, Justified) plays a great weasely bad guy right out of Butch and Sundance.

They wiped some stuff from the Aliens movies, too. 

Then there's the dog–but ... I'll get back to the dog. It's a spoiler, so if you don't want to know, skip the last paragraph. 

It's not giving anything away to say that aliens have arrived and are blowing up shit, lassoing people and hauling them off, and that before it's all done, there will be bodies piled up hither and yon on both sides. The plot, such that it is, concerns Craig regaining his memory, and if you think me telling you he does is a spoiler? You don't get out much.

I won't tell you why the aliens came. You wouldn't believe me. 

I had high hopes for it, but C+ is the best I can do. 

If you want to see a send-up of cowboy movies, rent Rango. Better written, much funnier, and there's an opening scene wherein the chameleon–voiced by Johnny Depp–smacks into a car's windshield that's being driven by  Johnny Depp playing Hunter S. Thompson, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That sold me the movie right here. With Timothy Olyphant as the Spirit of the West and those mariachi owls ... ?

Mm. Back to C&A. The reason it gets the plus is the dog's story arc, which is a perfect metaphor for survival. Some kind of border collie mix, every time you see the dog, he's hooked up with a different person. Scalphunters, Jake, the Kid, the Banditos, the Sheriff. When the dog hears the alien rummaging around in the ruins of an upside-down steamboat, he goes to check. You hear him yelp and you think, Adiós, dog, but no. The dog endures, and that saved the movie ...


The Daring Novelist said...

I actually really loved this movie (did a review on my blog on July 30), but to each his own on that score.

The thing I wanted to disagree with you on, though, was the old Hollywood rule about the number of writers on a script. Do you have ANY idea how many writers worked on CASABLANCA? (Most were not credited.)

Almost all of the great classics had teams of writers working on the script -- specialists in women's dialog, in jokes, in action sequences.

The idea that having lots of writers is a bad sign comes mainly, imho, in that it's a sign of something else -- an out of control production.

IMHO, from what I know about this production, it was not out of control. I suspect the things that people don't like about this are more deliberate.

Steve Perry said...

Actually, if you check further, Julius and Philip Epstein were brothers, and they did the lion's share of writing with Howard Koch, and if anybody else hand a hand in it, it was the lightest of touches. And they had a play to work from.

What makes a movie great is not writing by committee, it's usually a single vision that manages to survive molestation by the committee. What they did in the thirties with the Hollywood sweatshop writers produced some fine pictures, but we aren't talking about them, we are talking about summer movies today.

There are script doctors whose names you never see, and all the A-list stars have their own writers to buff their parts, but as a general rule, the more writers who screw with a script, the more screwed-with it looks.

I don't see much evidence otherwise, and plenty on this side. Not to say that one or two writers can't screw up a good idea, but eight or ten almost always manage to do so.

Check it out. You might find exceptions, but if you list the best movies, I'm guessing you won't find many that are committee projects, viz the writing.

Cowboys and Aliens was simply too on-the-nose for me, paint-by-numbers. No surprises, nobody stepped outside their roles to astound or delight me with some clever turn. Every character beat was look-at-your-watch-and-here-it-comes. My son and I kept leaning toward each other and pointing out what the next shot would be: About time for the aliens to show up, and ... there they are.

About time for the noble homage character to die saving the other noble homage character and there he goes ...

It was a drive-in movie B-picture. Nothing wrong with that. It was okay, but it could have been so much more, given the talent. Didn't compare to the X-Men reboot for summer movies -- not the writing, acting, nor the story. When you have Harrison Ford onscreen with Daniel Craig, you ought to be able to really kick ass and take names. Didn't happen for me. They phoned it in.

Box office is showing it to be a yawner. Opened big, no legs. Made half its cost back so far, which is not a good sign.

Michael Reaves said...

Go see Rise Of the Planet of the Apes. It makes a monkey out of just about every other summer movie I've seen since the season began.

Shawn R said...

I thought it was a fun movie, but not as good as I'd hoped for. I thought (spoiler-ish here) that the Harrison Ford character arc from damn near a villain to good guy was simplistic & glossed over all of the meaty character layers.

My biggest beef was with the leading actress. No, wait, that's not true. The actress did a good job with what she was given. My beef is with the people who CAST the actress. Because really, could they not have found an age appropriate actress for this? Did they have to go with a pretty 22 year old to be Craig's counterpart? would it have killed them to find a 35 year old? Or even, god forbid, a 42 year old? Plenty of gifted, stunning actresses in a believable age range who would have kicked butt in the role.


Steve Perry said...

You don't get the teenaged boy audience by casting somebody old enough to be their mother as the hottie.
To them, somebody twenty-five is ancient, so Craig and Ford were dinosaurs. The girl had to be somebody closer to their age.

I found it greatly amusing that in a recent survey done for some Hollywood fitness thingee, the actress deemed to have the Body of the Year was Helen Mirren, who is a couple years older than I am.