RIORI Vol 3, Installment 59: Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys And Aliens” (2011)

Cowboys & Aliens

The Players…

Daniel “James Bond” Craig, Harrison “Han Solo” Ford, Olivia “that hot chick from House” Wilde, Sam “Justin Hammer of SHIELD” Rockwell and Clancy “Mr Krabbs and/or Kurgen” Brown, with Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Adam Beach, Noah Ringer and Abigail Spencer.

The Story…

An amnesiac gunslinger stumbles into the Wild West town of Absolution, where he’s confronted by two potent adversaries. One is Boss Dolarhyde, a ruthless cattle baron who holds the town in sway, and God help anyone who crosses him or his family.

The other is invading aliens from outer space.

Wait, what?

The Rant…

Me and sci-fi movies have been buddies for decades. Ever since I caught ET back when I was six in the theatre I felt the nip and took its hand. It’s regarded as a classic now, but back then it was a gamble for both Spielberg and an S/F crowd raised on nasty aliens bent on world domination. Now Steve struck a poignant nerve with his prior S/F epic, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. That flick illustrated that Spielberg knew a thing or three about aliens being messengers of benevolence, fostering communication between worlds for the greater good. Only Robert Wise’s classic The Day The Earth Stood Still topped Encounters when it came to addressing such a concept.

Smart stuff.

ET wasn’t much different than Encounters, if not in execution than in tone. Also about communication and understanding ET was a lot less heady than Encounters, and perhaps more accessible to the mainstream. That may explain why back in ’82 ticket takers at the local megaplex had to wear riot gear for fear of getting trampled by overly eager crowds to see if the alien critter got home (to say nothing of Reeses’ Pieces sales at concessions). The crowds in the early 80s dug S/F flicks, a genre once maligned as being puerile at best and mouth-breathing at worst. But thanks to Star Wars: A New Hope, folks came in droves to S/F movies, appetites whetted by not only Hope (or simply Star Wars back then, before Lucas went bonkers), the aforementioned Encounters, the gothic, terrifying Alien, technically the original Superman film (Kal-El was from off-world y’know), Disney’s first PG film, the dark and sinister The Black HoleStar Trek made it to the big screen—for good and for ill. My kingdom for an editor—and heck, even 007 went into space with the loveably goofy Moonraker. Virtually all of these ventures, big and not so big alike, had success with the whole ticket sales thing. Some even got a little critical notice. It looked like for the most part S/F movies were getting their due. The geeky shadow they cast (barring 2001: A Space Odyssey. That one always gets a pass. Do not dispute me) wasn’t so scary as before. Believe it or not, although ET was the culmination of S/F movies as thoughtful and smart, Hollywood (still) wasn’t convinced of it not being a turkey. Unsure if the muddled masses could take in the story of a castaway alien “so ugly it’s cute” stranded in Levittown with his pet/guru human. Word has it the whole wad worked, quite well, and kicked John Carpenter’s sharp remake of The Thing—you know, the one with the vile, shapeshifting, un-cute alien that engulfed its victims and assumed their identities in an arterial spray of gore and puke. Good sh*t—out of the multiplex faster than you could say, “I thought you were dead.”

All of that smart stuff.

And when S/F is thoughtful and smart, we’re best buds. Thick as thieves. Pick my brain and stretch my imagination, please, cute and not cute critters regardless. Although I’m rather choosy about what S/F movie I feel like subjecting myself to, truth be told it’s always been like how RIORI operates: a gamble. There are those films that are required viewing in the genre, unimpeachable without a roll of the dice. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet, Star Wars: A New Hope, Planet Of The Apes (sans Marky Mark), The Day The Earth Stood Still (minus Keanu), Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (excluding that wiry chick from Burn Notice/Scent Of A Woman, whichever you saw first), etc. There are scores more we could name, and despite the arched brow the masses often give the genre, it’s been a popular if not profitable one for over a century. A good example? Remember Voyage To The Moon? ‘Course not. You were barely an itch in your granddady’s crotch, but that novelty was technically a sci-fi flick. With pretty cool costumes for the time. 1902 to be exact. Film dork me.

Just being a smart-ass there. Breathe.

However did you notice that a few selections of the new wave of S/F flicks back then didn’t really cut the mustard in the “smart” department? It’s like the whole Highlights For Children “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” feature. One of these things is not like the other. No one could argue that Moonraker was intelligent, nor The Black Hole being a thinly veiled Biblical morality tale featuring obnoxiously cute robots with Disney eyes to boot. And Star Trek‘s leap into the void? Three words: creaky and dull. Hey, you can’t always shoot for the stars and not expect to miss the sun. Your shot may end up in a black hole. Sorry.

Let’s face it. Despite all the boundary breaking from back in ’82 my film buddy—how can I say this without have the ACLU come down on me like a ton of bricks for being “insensitive”—often rides the short bus. For every sharp S/F flick out there dozens—maybe hundreds—of wampa dung lurking in the shadows waiting to malign the genre ever further. Such may lay claim to some whiz-bang, crazy F/X, improbability factor looming large and just can’t wait to be committed to celluloid and be just plain dumb. I suspect a lot of directors who get handed the reigns to an S/F script assume all bets are off.  The wild flying monkeys trapped in my brain will finally have their voices heard! Call Scarlett!

Such bets often are off. Way off. We’re talking Saturn 3 off. Precious few filmmakers understand the golden gift of opportunity that fate and investors have bequeathed to them with an S/F project. Existentialist musings and the need for us all to communicate and better ourselves. Funk dat. It’s time for splatter and little matter. Just gimme that budget/wheelhouse and let’s see what sings beyond the blue horizon. Bring on the dancing blue horses.

Always wanted to wedge “bequeath” into this blog somehow, sometime. Scratch another one off the bucket list. Again, Mister smart-ass. What else did you expect?

Still, I have to wonder in light of too many dopey, misguided S/F movies made at the hands of some dopey, misguided director that if my pet film genre will forever smolder in the Seventh Level. I might have mentioned this prior (in fact I know I have) but it takes a sharp filmmaker to understand S/F ain’t all about aliens, spaceships and trying to convince us that Daryl Hannah can act. Well it’s not just that. Like all films, S/F is about stories, and about the human factor in particular. Standouts like 2001 was existentialism incarnate, not the Monolith doing its thing. Noted otherwise Michael Bay’s The Island was not about existentialism. It was about motorcycle chases, ripping off an even sh*ttier movie and forever chasing the butterfly that is Scarlett Johannson as a competent actress. Trust me, I saw both movies. Guess which one left tissue scarring?

(That smarts.)

In any event, my drunken wingman has had such a sh*t rep for so long it comes as only natural for the rabble to throw up their collective arms and shrug, “What the f*ck. This Lucy flick stars Scarlett what’s-her-tits. It’ll do.” Smart, thoughtful S/F is few and far between, and it only gets press when it’s smart and thoughtful. That and the CGI is used to enhance, not drive.

Yeah, yeah. Bitch, bitch. Welcome to my worldview. You made the hit and stuck around. Who’s the bigger dunce? Who’s so whip-smart here?

I call dibs, because I’m going to contradict myself…now!

Ignoring my preaching, sometimes we indeed do need a dumb, fun, socially non-redeeming S/F film to roll down the pike and goofily explain what a pike exactly is beyond an oversized spear and then get a cream pie to the puss. Dumb stuff, guilty pleasures, crap you’d be rather embarrassed to be caught watching and immediately hitting eject and slamming disc one of the remastered first season of Star Blazers. That kinda thing in the S/F world. Here’s a few trifles of questionable sci-fi, if only mentioned to explain why it took me until 18 to know what a bare breast felt like: Event HorizonLifeforce, Meteor, Outland (both starring Sean Connery! Joys aplenty!), Supernova and The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. All choice schlock recommended by yours truly. Not the groping part, but yeah. All of them things are pure, dumb S/F fun, essential viewing as any Lucas-fueled phantasmagoria. Have I ever led you wrong before?

Shut up.

But what really constitutes “dumb fun” in S/F? It isn’t just moronic plots, hammy acting and laughable effects. Although those things help, I think the ace in the hole to ridiculous, head-slapping, MST3K-worthy material is a complete and utter lack of plausibility.

Huh? What’s that you say? It’s S/F. All of that truck is implausible. Alien life? That was a weather balloon. Interstellar travel? We can get only as far as the moon. Artificial intelligence? Um, does Siri count?

No, no, no. Chill. Have a cuppa. Shut the f*ck up. What makes good S/F work are a canny handling of the said human factor and (you guessed it) the barest scintilla of plausibility. I’m not saying that what’s depicted in most S/F movies could come to be. Alright, to be fair 2001 is very plausibleand if you consider the Star Trek franchise (old and new) who knows if we won’t be hoppin’ galaxies in 400 years? Those two examples stand out in the pantheon of S/F movies because it lends a feeling of “Huh…” to the audience, as if considering, “Well, what if?” or, “Hey, why not?” For example, it’s no coincidence that Chief Engineer LaForge of the Enterprise-D kept tabs on sh*t using a touchscreen tablet (it’s called a PADD in TNG parlance) and 20 years later in the real world we’re all toting iPads and/or Galaxies. A good example of plausibility in the perhaps not too distant made flesh. Digital. Smart tech. Whatever.

We’re not talking about that here. We be talking, “Oh, come on!” with laughs all around. Utterly unbelievable sci-fi gobbledygook and all its brain-melting glory. It’s vital now and again for any die-hard S/F fan, or regular Joe for that matter. Gotta have the bitter with the sweet to best taste the difference and spit or swallow. There ya go.

Okay. We’ve beaten that horse into glue. Horse sense maybe, or just horse smarts. How smart are horses anyway? Ever see how they behave in westerns? All it takes is a well placed sugarcube and water it won’t drink when you show it to them.


What does all this gibberish about good ‘n dumb S/F over thoughtful and provocative all mean here anyway? I mean, we get the whole “so bad it’s good” concept, but what am I really yammering about? Is it a retread of the lesson about in order to appreciate the good you gotta have some…I said that already? Well it’s still true. At it’s core, like all genres, S/F is meant to entertain. However unlike other, more mainstream films the genre demands—I mean demands—almost total commitment to suspension of belief with just enough wiggle room to allow “Huh..” When this precious balance is upset in watching S/F movies, the results can be disastrous, to both mind and body. I mean, c’mon, MASH was one of the most misguided S/F movies ever…


Oh. Huh. Well as a S/F epic, that thing sucked on toast. Sure was funny, though. Riotous even. Like this week’s vaunt into the void.

Now draw…

Arizona. The late 1800s.

You wake up in the middle of the desert. No shoes, no ride, no memory. All you have is the shirt on your back, a mouthful of sand and a weird manacle affixed to your wrist. And it doesn’t want to come off. Where were you?

You make your way to a frontier town called Absolution in search of provisions, a bath and who the f*ck you are. The first place you break in to is occupied by a concerned, rifle-weilding preacher named Meacham (Brown). Despite you have no recollection of this man—or anyone for that matter—he sure as sh*t knows who you are. By reputation alone, Meacham marks you as the infamous outlaw and thief Jake Lonergan (Craig) and gives you a warning about shacking up in Absolution. This here was once a proud mining town until the stock wore out. Now it’s Col Dolarhyde’s (Ford) personal playground, and f*ck all that gets in his way. If Meacham’s offering any absolution for your amnesiac circumstance it’s just don’t get mucked up with Dolarhyde family affairs.

Whatever. All you want is a bath and drink, not necessarily in that order. Also figuring how to get this screwy gizmo off your arm. It stings. Almost feels like what they call over the telegraph wires “electrical.” Anyway, booze.

Isn’t always the way? You’re just trying to unwind, have a drink, contemplate your non-circumstances when the local sheriff crashes in the bar—and a weird, sultry lady (Wilde) lurking behind—ready to string you up for being an outlaw you can’t remember being. Absolution is Dolarhyde’s town, as has no recourse for infamous criminals. In spite of Dolarhyde’s guerrilla tactics regarding civic responsibilities, you’re the dunce that gets dragged off to the pokey. It might’ve had something to do with besting the Colonel’s drunken son Percy (Dano) in the town square, but you suspect it has something more to do with your rep. That and being The Outsider.

You quickly discover that while rotting in chains you are nothing of an outsider compared to the marauders Dolarhyde’s been trying to stop for months. Slaughtering his herd, scorching his land and ransacking his gold mining operation the good Colonel and this thugs have been trying to ferret out of Absolution. You’re supposedly a vicious criminal and master thief with an infamous gang at your hand, and the ideal prime suspect in mucking about with Dolarhyde’s affairs. You might be the outsider all right, with a missing history, but at least you came from somewhere.

The real Outsiders are only not from Absolution, they’re not from around these parts at all. Quite literally.

So when the paddy wagon you’re chained in (and with the son of the local heavy that caused all your woes) gets set on fire from a barrage of some sort of controlled lightening shot from an airship no one has even seen the likes of before, you have to ask your amnesiac, troubled past, incarcerated self this:

How the hell did I end up here?…

Before we swoop in and take Cowboys & Aliens by the metaphorical horns (heh), I always feel compelled to point out a literal comic book adapted into a motion picture, usually regarding movies that the average, upstanding citizen did know was a comic book movie (e.g.: Bulletproof Monk, From Hell and, yes Cowboys And Aliens).

Usually these nuggets slip under the radar because of their weird and/or mature content. Sometimes they’re books adapted from lesser known publishers (seems DC and Marvel already have the lion’s share of promotion out there in La-La Land. Batman? Spider-Man? Perhaps you’ve heard of ’em). Sometimes they don’t play as “comic-booky” as the more popular films of their ilk (Kick-Ass anyone?). Sometimes they’re so oblique without a popular cache that you just watch and go, “Whatever. This’ll work.”

Okay, Cowboys does fall under the aegis of all these factoids. I admit I went into watching this with eyes wide shut about the movie’s origins, but I plucked it not so much for it falling under the auspices of The Standard. That, of course, was part of the autopsy, but what really piqued my interest about Cowboys had precious little to do with the dailies I used to scan back in my comic shop monkey days. No.

It was something I caught by accident on the History Channel. Back when they aired actual history, BTW. Those were the days.

The program was called UFO Hunters or something like that. Guess now it was the dry run for the immensely but not understandably popular series Ancient Aliens, the show that tackles the mysteries of the Nazca Lines up against incredible hairstyles. Similar to its progeny, Hunters investigated UFO happenings, then and now, from around the US (and sometimes in other countries) by way of the detective work, forensic science, and/or interviewing eyewitnesses. If none were available—read: dead—scouring the historic record served in a pinch. From the ep I caught, it was a pretty cool show, with none of the foaming histrionics that’s Ancient Aliens’ signature. That and the Greek guy’s impeccable, trapped in a wind tunnel coif.

The scene of the crime for the episode I got sucked into was Aurora, Texas, an nice little patch of nowhere in the Lone Star state just north of who cares and a little west of where are we? The town’s claim to fame (as well as the raison d’etre for the producers to film there, natch) was a report of a saucer crash that occurred so long back it became less of the historical record and more like a beloved urban legend. According to the show, the Aurora incident (nicknamed “Roswell, Texas”) was a bit of both. Stories naturally got scrambled over time, but one thing could be agreed upon by Aurora’s legacy: something fell out of the sky back then.

And back then was in 1897, a full fifty years before the Roswell Incident.

The details were hazy, and shifting to and fro by the locals, but the thing that was certain that an airship of curious design crashed and burned in Aurora and its crews’ remains appeared unlike anything on Earth. That’s right. There were passengers aboard that UFO. Some declared them as “not of this earth” if not “Martian” outright. The bodies were given a proper, Christian burial in the local cemetery of all things, but not before the rough-and-ready media swarmed Aurora for news of the strange airship from out of space and its alien visitors.

That’s the bulk of the tale. A close encounter of the third kind. Talk to Spielberg. But the devil’s in the details. After the crash there were tales of unusual properties regarding the metals used in the construction of the airship, radiation poisoning from improper disposal of the wreckage resulting in maladies in the locals as mundane as advanced arthritis to more serious like birth defects to…other things. No to mention that one of the bodies interred was an “infant.” It is to wonder and have that mousse at the ready.

I think the key thing to consider about the Aurora Incident is that the locals, back in 1897, had next to no concept whatsoever as to how to comprehend a flying machine. This was in the middle of nowhere. No proper airships crossed their clouds resembling anything like a steady schedule. The Wright Bros were to take flight only a mere 6 years after the incident, and even then the general public failed to believe their feat real. With photos no less. Yet the testimonies of Aurora’s denizens fell in line with your contemporary mass UFO sighting, proper burials notwithstanding. In short, no matter how rural, isolated and not-20th Century folks might’ve been, they knew that weird sh*t had rained down from space onto Aurora, and most of it was far from explicable. So call Robert Stack already.

Okay. What the f*ck does this MUFON wet dream have anything to do with “dumb, fun” S/F and this week’s pile? Glad you asked.

The movie Cowboys And Aliens was inspired by a graphic novel inspired by supposedly true events. Read: the Aurora Incident. Big surprise. Author Scott Mitchell Rosenberg once commented that his comic was inspired by what may or may have not happened in Aurora all those decades ago. If you took in what I intimated earlier, Rosenberg considered the ramifications of pre-Industrial age folk encountering technology and essentially a home invasion of the like they simply could not comprehend. I’m paraphrasing here, as well as taking great liberties with Rosenberg’s musings. Still, such a notion could be akin to the events relayed in the original Terminator or how a few of the key players in Seven Samurai got offed by gunfire rather than swordplay (or got offed at all). How does the average Joe and Jane wrap their minds about alien (so to speak) tech interrupting—if not disrupting—their everyday existence? By Rosenberg’s vision, not well. That doesn’t mean the incurring party takes it lying down, of course.

Such is the stuff of fun. Stand offs. Fisticuffs. Get off my land. As for the silly S/F factor? Uh, the movie’s called Cowboys And ALIENS in case you forgot. You did, didn’t you? You and yer Pokemon Go. Focus!

Funny thing though (almost retracting everything I said above), Cowboys was not dumb. It was pretty sharp actually. The concept may have been dumb and silly, but put into the proper perspective the thing had clear eyes.

The nifty thing about Cowboys is that it’s two movies in one. On one hand we got us the classic Western tropes. Mysterious drifter. Scowling bully that holds the hapless denizens of a dying town in his sway. Gunplay. Whiskey. All the essentials. They’re played out in the traditional fashion but lacking any corn that a less canny director than Favreau could not resist. All of Absolution is grim and gritty, worlds—if not light-years—away from some S/F plot with marauding alien invaders mining for REDACTED.

The first act plays out kind of like classic Eastwood “man with no name” Westerns. We have a grim anti-hero, past a mystery, handy with a gun and carrying a sense of purpose. The big difference is for most of the movie is that Jake’s past really is a mystery, and even though later the pieces fall back into place, that mystery drives a great deal of the tension in the tale. At least the existential part of it. If Jake and Co were immediately plunked into extra-terrestrial hijinks there’d be no human drama, and Cowboys would swiftly mosey (if you can do that) into the overwhelming fast and stupid S/F I cautioned about before.

This whole setup surprised me, though. Well, I kinda knew what I was in for with a movie called Cowboys And Aliens. It starred James Bond and Indiana Jones. Jon Favreau—who helmed Iron Man, Zathura and the latest incarnation of The Jungle Book—knew a trick or ten about directing spectacles without processing them into rancid Velveeta. It was based on a graphic novel (heard that’s a safe gamble nowadays for movie fodder). Having human drama paired with only essential Western devices as launchpad into some space swashbuckling would usually lead into cinematic giblet gravy, and the reason I thought that (or at least took pause) was while I read the opening credits. I really do that by the way. I still don’t know what an ACE is.

The screenwriter/producers for Cowboys were the infamous glimmer twins of less-than-subtle S/F and fantasy flicks: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. A true mixed blessing. I’ve mentioned in the past for my fondness of Fringe, that warped X-Files meets Twilight Zone hybrid that Mr Spock occasionally popped up in. That show was good, but their other efforts were often received with ambivalence. The Star Trek reboot (which Mr Spock also occasionally popped up in) which was more about pyrotechnics and winking nods to Trekkies than drama. The seventh installment in the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens resulted in more questions than answers and even more plot holes. Lots of pyro and winking also. The manic Now You See Me, which went under the lens here at RIORI and I needing an Ativan after its viewing. Their sh*t can be mad entertaining, but as for nuance and grace, their sledgehammer-subtle concoctions can make for a grueling experience on the imagination—info dump upon info dump—and a need to have great patience, pay attention and try to keep up lest you miss something whizzing by at breakneck speed, which you need a crate of Red Bull at the ready because Adderall can get pricey.

Yeah, so these two lovable dunderheads penned Cowboys’ script. I repeat, I took pause at that. Then I crossed my fingers, recalling the best eps of Fringe and just shrugged, deciding to go with this and see where it went. The first thing I noticed after our hero crawls out of the desert is what the movie didn’t have. Not outright anyway. Knowing my Kurtzman-Orci track record I guessed the nasties from the great beyond would descend upon Arizona and start vaporizing cacti by the score before the bloody credits were over. Then Mr Spock would pop in.

Quite the other thing. The opening is gradual, the pacing is steady, there’s room to breathe and time to figure out what is up. We find our bewildered Jake marooned. We see him get into scrapes that suggest his troubled past. We get him to Absolution—a town name as subtle as a fart at a funeral—where he comes to a crossroads and the pieces/mysteries start falling into place. All at the speed of mind. I thank Favreau for this. Like before, the guy has a talent for spectacle, but his directing allows breathing room. That comment about CGI enhancing rather than driving a S/F flick? There ya go.

Consider this the calm before the storm. Right, it being the type of movie it is, we’re gonna get some pyros eventually. What I dug about the action in Cowboys is that it’s almost exclusively Western-style. Barring the weird manacle that blasts lasers, Jake prefers his sidearm to do the talking. In actuality, its both in tandem, but the gunplay is straight out of the old West. That little bit is a good example of how Favreau’s lens works here. There’s a canny fusion of Western and S/F action playing through Cowboys.  The man with no name that everyone knows. The outlaw as the “chosen one” in a greater, world-bending scheme. The humans and the aliens feuding over the same property, and it isn’t plutonium. There’s a lot of stereotypes and tropes with both genres, but they get so bent and twisted Cowboys comes over as fresh and thrilling not eye-rolling and a burlap sack of yawns. As I am accused of saying way too damned often, it ain’t the notes, it’s how they’re played. By melding these two tried and true warhorses—so to speak—we got ourselves a pretty deft, if not unusual S/F caper. With whiskey.

And a crackerjack cast, too. Yeah, yeah. I’ve already dropped the alter-egos here, but separate the actors from their iconic roles and you’re in for a surprise: character acting! Neither Craig nor Ford are known for deviating from their signature styles. They’re not like, say, Paul Giamatti or Forrest Whittaker, whose roles and delivery roll with the tide. No. We know Craig as tough, smug and gruff. We know Ford as tough, funny and gruff. We know Wilde as willowy and rather wooden. Um, as far as Cowboys‘ principal players roll, two out of three ain’t bad.

Craig’s Jake is tough, sure. He’s a gunslinger, first line of the CV. He’s also vulnerable, with no memory of his past and reminded of something he’s supposed to remember strapped to his wrist. Walking contradiction, and also shouldering this feeling of malaise that he deserved whatever has happened to him. This later dissolves into having the holes plugged (it’s almost inevitable), but while we get there we have a protag that is scared, fragile and despite carrying a piece is unlike any prominent role Craig has had before. Okay, maybe Mr X in Layer Cake comes close, but really can you picture Bond riddled with angst? Not for an entire picture. Maybe that’s why Craig looks so gaunt here. Well, that and being stranded in the desert.

Ford was having some fun here as the despotic Col Dolarhyde. Playing the baddie, the heavy, chewing it up. Folks are accustomed to Harry playing rapscallions and rough-and-tumble heroes, often possessing an air of insecurity and/or reluctance. Han didn’t want to get mucked up in the Rebellion. Indy just wanted to go on a cool expedition, not mess with Nazis. President Marshall just wanted Gary Oldman to get off his plane (who wouldn’t?). Virtually all of Ford’s roles have been him reacting to something, not being pro-active. It’s worked. But getting the opportunity to play the bad guy? A vicious cattle baron whose name is quivering fear on all the locals’ lips? Boy howdy does Ford do a fun job, all growly and menacing and ruthless with his enemies. One wonders why Ford didn’t try this schtick before? You can only run away from so many snakes before becoming one. That almost made sense. Quick with a gun, with a threat and an ultimatum, very few actors could pull off this 180 Ford did in such a fun way.

Wilde is kind of creepy here. It suits her enigmatic character, but let’s call a spade a shovel: the girl is eye candy. She’s stiff, she’s not natural, she overreaches. Again, it mostly works here considering her role. It just isn’t particularly enjoyable. Sure, she’s purty, but that’s where all her presence lies. This can be traced all the way back to he salt mine years up against cantankerous Hugh Laurie in House. Come to think of it, didn’t her character only made it onto Greg’s team because of her looks? Foreshadowing? Regardless of whatever, wedged between Craig and Ford, Wilde gets lost in the shuffle.

Besides the action sequences of scary, ravaging aliens and hell bent for leather outlaws Cowboys had oodles of tech points that were not only winning but essential to movie’s mood. Like I said before, we’re dealing with Western tropes here, so if there are going to be stereotypes they better be good, attentive, substantial ones.

There are, breathe easy. What Western would be complete without a convincing setting (at least as far as what we expect to see in a Western)? Right. A backlot. Not here in Cowboys. The landscapes are sweeping and stunning demanding our attention, “Damn, we’re in God’s country.” Big sky and exposed, the whole county screams isolation with only mere handfuls of folks trying to live. Looks like a good place where no one will look for a good place. Great cinematography is all I’m sayin.’

Like most Westerns Cowboys‘ pace is rather slow. It can make it feel edgy. There’s always either been a big blow out in act one, scene one of a Western (e.g.: Silverado, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, etc) or some slow build to a super major blow out (e.g.: The Wild Bunch…’nuff said). Then we get a Western that creeps, builds, takes its time even in light of the urgency. Looks like Kurtzman and Orci took a few pages from the old playbook and put ’em to good work without rendering them in the summer blockbuster blender. Sometimes you can have an even hand and not show it right away without bumming out the audience. Oh, and the sh*t really picks up later so have that with a slice of cake.

There’s lots of nice touches through Cowboys (the surgeon scene is a good example) that make its world-building barely skirt the mindless S/F fun mark. This film isn’t mindless. It is chewing gum for your mind. You dig Western films? Good. You dig S/F films? Also good. You dig movies about alien invaders trying to wipe out the townsfolk of a remote mining village and the quickdraws band together in a Seven Samurai-esque union to take the freaks down? Very good. You want it all stupid or do you want it “stupid?” Keep working that gob in your jaw and all will be well in viewer land.

Cowboys plays with a clever, entertaining, stupid, serious fun. Its a weird movie, but of the best kind. Think Independence Day, but with horses. It’s such a wonky, if not schizo movie that you’ll swear you’re watching two separate films. But they fold over well with each other, and that’s nice. Two flicks for the price of one.

Oh, and it’s dumb, too. Sometimes you gotta put your Fellini away (cuz he never did S/F).

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Cowboys is so freakin’ rife with all the goodies and baddies of both genres you’d have to be some sorry son of a bitch stick in the mud to not turn on, tune in and get yer mind a-chewin.’ Yee-haw.

Stray Observations…

  • “English.”
  • An interesting note: Wilde looks as if she’s wearing minimal makeup. Attention to period detail, or for some…other reason. Hmm.
  • “Give me your hand!” No.
  • The knife scene. Shades of classic Ford. We do miss them.
  • “God don’t care what y’are, son. Only who you are.” Best Hallmark card never written.
  • Of course the hat floats.
  • Ayahuasca. It works every time.
  • Nice shot, Doc. Nice shot.
  • “You’d better hurry.”

Next Installment…

Bob Dylan claims “I’m Not There” in his biopic. To a certain degree he’s right.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 58: Woody Allen’s “To Rome, With Love” (2012)

To Rome With Love

The Players…

Woody Allen (surprise), Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page, with Alison Pill, Flavio Parenti, Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi.

The Story…

A washed-up record producer discovers a potential new star in the toilet. A young architect battles feelings for his girlfriend’s gal-pal as well as the advice of his wiser self. An average guy suddenly finds himself hounded by paparazzi, which is the ultimate mixed blessing for an average guy.

Only in the Eternal City, me amico. Let’s take a tour, shall we?

The Rant…

About a billion years ago here at RIORI (volume one’s fourth installment to be exact) I covered Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris. I argued that although the film was well received, it met The Standard by being “too smart” for the rabble. Most of Allen’s films are like that, even the goofy ones like Bananas or Sleeper. To quote Bill Hicks, I’ve noticed a certain anti-intellectualism in this country ever since 1980 to be sure. Nowadays I understand the need for most folks to check in and check out with some mindless cinematic drivel now and then (mostly now).

Smart movies are few and far between these days. Been that way for a while really, well sooner than 1980. When I say smart, I’m not necessarily talking intellectual, dense, snobby sh*t the likes that Lars von Trier, Louis Malle or even Werner Herzog put out. And if any of you out there in the blogosphere recognize those names, don’t fret none. You just like smart films. You ain’t no snob or nothing. Sorry to burst your bubble.

No. It’s okay to like smart films, but what do I mean by smart? Simple. Movies that don’t insult your intelligence. In fact, flicks that may tickle your frontal lobes and even make you think a little. Not in a cram for midterms kind of way, but a movie that may simply make you say, “Huh…” and then go about your day leaving a warm fuzzy somewhere in your cockles. If you can locate them. Where the hell are the cockles of your heart anyway? Probably near the sphincter.

Those flicks are few and far between. Poignant, tender, ribald and a lot of other adjectives you don’t use on a yearly basis. Mostly it’s a lark to hover into such a movie’s orbit. Based on The Standard’s criteria it’s happy hap hunting to track down one of these nuggets. They are there if you want them. Ask Fandango, and try to steer clear of the latest Sandler car wreck.

Woody Allen’s stuff has always been smart, from the dour Interiors to the delightful Annie Hall. Not intellectual per se, but decidedly not dumb (including the screwy sh*t like Take The Money And Run, again Bananas and the to recall a personal fave Sleeper). Sometimes that’s all it takes to have a smart film: not be dumb. In these times where Kevin James has a movie career and Michael Bay just basically exists, not being dumb at the cinema is trace element stuff. You occasionally need a sharp film to wipe away the kernels but not something regarding a beard-growing competition at the local craft beer plank. To be plain, smart movies are all about having a chuckle and knowing why.

The whole connect the dots nature of modern comedies sour me. I like my dumb sh*t as much as the next dude, and for all my slagging on the guy Sandler’s pretty funny (when he’s not forcing it). Still, and there’s always a still, you gotta take a left turn occasionally. So back to Allen. Smart films incarnate, and although I’m a bit of a fanboy, I’d be a liar to not claim his stuff’s a reliable source of cinematic entertainment even if sometimes his oeuvre may require a slide rule. Again, no matter. If the film’s satisfying, who cares?

Speaking of satisfying cinema, Allen’s last movie (and only movie) that went under the knife here at RIORI was Allen’s Midnight In Paris remember. To review the thing in brief, watching 2010 Owen Wilson carouse with the intelligentsia of 1920’s Paris was a lot of fun, even if you didn’t know that Gertrude Stein coined the phrase, “There’s no there, there.” You didn’t need a Masters’ in English lit to be down with Midnight In Paris (tho’ it might’ve helped), but if you were a patient soul in need of a chuckle and a low tier course in existentialism, then boom. Court dismissed.

I heard that a lot of Allen critics and pundits alike regarded To Rome, With Love as a companion piece to Midnight. I didn’t see it. Sure both were tributes to the feeling of the cities, atmospherics and aesthetics, but the tenor of the movies were as different as gauffes slathering in vanilla creme and chocolate covered espresso beans. Truth be told, Paris was about smart and Rome was about “Huh…”

That and Rome had way more music and even more sexual frustration…

Ah, Rome. The Eternal City. Very little has outwardly changed here in the past few millennia. Most of the great architecture still stands, if not still being used. The people are philosophical as ever, as well as passionate over culture, ideas of romance and hospitality (mostly regarding family meals). It’s a vibrant place despite the age. In fact, it’s history makes its contemporary culture all the more vibrant. Ask Hailey (Pill) who accidentally met her future finance Michelangelo (Parenti) there.

Since their only daughter is getting hitched, it would behoove Hailey’s mom Phyllis (Davis) and dad Jerry (Allen) to jump the Atlantic and check out what’s so special about Michelangelo and his beloved home. Turns out a lot, especially for Jerry’s ears. Oh yeah, and the forthcoming nuptials, too. But first, what’s that angelic singing coming from Michelangelo’s family shower?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, established architect of shopping malls John (Baldwin) excuses himself from his wife and guests to go on a little nostalgic walking tour. He lived in Rome years ago in college, and reflection compels him to walk the back alleys of his callow youth. He bumps into Jack (Eisenberg), a young architectural student who not only is on the same studies as John once was, but quite the fan of John’s work. Jack invites John back to his place, and down the rabbit hole they go.

In yet another quarter of the city, Leopoldo (Benigni) is your average, everyday office clerk. He lives with his average, everyday wife and kids. He drives the same average, ordinary car to said average, ordinary office job battling the average, ordinary rush hour traffic every day. Every day. Everyday. Leo’s a no-one, a typical Roman citizen. Nobody would pick him out of a lineup for doing anything remarkable.

Except the paparazzi. Apparently tired of the dirty laundry celebrities toss, Leopoldo is one day swept away from his drudgery to become the guest on the local news channel. When interviewed he’s asked about his morning routine: breakfast, shaving, picking out his wardrobe as if it were all vital information. According to the media it is, and by fault of his mundane existence Leopoldo becomes an overnight sensation. His wife and kids have to battle away cameras at the breakfast table. The world comes to him asking advice on how to best butter toast. He never has to wait for a restaurant reservation. Models slither around him. What a treat for such a lowly nobody!

But is this all there is?

According to a local traffic cop, not quite and not exactly…

Considering the (very mild for a change) rant, my take on To Rome, With Love is kinda akin to an AllMusic review to one of my choice albums.

Go with me here.

For those not in the know—and regarding how old and defunct the band is, no shock—there was this post-punk band Gang Of Four that created a minor stir back in the butt end of Britain’s punk craze. Their lyrics were very political, but delivered with a healthy dose of funk and groove which made the medicine go down. The AllMusic critic with their review cited their ironically titled sophomore effort Solid Gold‘s lyrical content was less “you’re all a bunch of mindless puppets” and more “think about it.” I guess it goes to say that it’s far easier to get a message across with the carrot and not the stick.

Even though Woody Allen’s muse is very much carrot, the stick comes in handy to prod the audience to attention. Worked well for Midnight In Paris. For To Rome, With Love? Not as much. Too much carrot, not enough stick.

I’ll get this out of the way: Rome‘s a pretty okay movie. Okay. It wasn’t compelling as Paris was, but then it was a rather different movie. What got retained from its “sister” movie was it being easygoing and inviting, besides the lovely setting. There’s warmth here, and a devil-may-care flow of the narrative. I mentioned Jim Jarmusch’s style, and we have segues like his films, moving from one chapter to the next. Rome‘s bookends are far gentler, making the intertwining factor easier to swallow. I’m not saying everything is seamless, but thanks to the atmosphere you kinda go “huh” rather than “what?” as Allen takes us on the trip. It’s essential to the narrative of course.

But of course this is a Woody Allen movie, which are often funny and they are narcissistic. Rome is Allen’s view of what the city means running perilously close to parody. Ostensibly Rome is a rom-com, but most of the com part comes from classic Allen one-liners. Sure, Begnini is a stitch as always (he’s a demented riot here) but again, Allen film, and his wry wit and neurotic self sets the timbre of this movie, not to mention virtually all his films (Interiors was the blunt exception). Not that this is a bad thing. Far from it. I hate to keep hammering on the notion that Rome is the flipside of Paris. Perhaps so, especially considering the style of offbeat, winking, goofy humor in play. But with Allen being slick as he can be the proper message and/or tone of Rome is akin to Paris‘ but much more subtle. What the hell, the man just follows his muse.

Both movies are about fantasies. Paris‘ was more overt, with 21st Century Gil jaunts back to early 20th Century Paris’ writers, actors and idols. Rome‘s corners aren’t nearly as square. We have Jerry’s infatuation with Mic’s dad’s gift, which might lift him out of resented retirement. John and Jack meeting each other with a sci-fi taste of future shock, only the way ’round. Leo’s camera barrage. All are fantastical, but within mental walking distance. With Gil we know. With this rabble, again, “huh.” It gets very existential, but not as hard-nosed as Paris delivered.

All right, where does the differences end? Here. Unlike ParisRome is feel good, a rarity for most of Allen’s films (at least consistently over the past 20 years). Rome is a trifle, light as air and never cribbing from Othello. Whereas Paris was heady and all philosophical, Rome is whimsical and philosophical. Sure, that social content is still there, but if you take the darn thing serious you’re wasting your time. And admittedly knowing where Allen comes from he tries to take his audience on a serious trip dappled with enough humor to fool you. Kinda like the joke’s on us. I repeat Rome is silly, but charming and still has all those Woody Allen thingies bouncing around.

What I’m getting at is that although Rome was entertaining, often vibrant, rather funny and typical Allen this flick was mostly for diehard fans. It wasn’t as lush as Paris (or Annie Hall, for that matter) despite the cool setting. Nor was it as thought provoking. Nope. Rome was a lark. A pretty good lark, especially with the whole John/Jack (get it?) chapter, but overall it was fanboy film. Betcha the hoi polloi waked out of the theater scratching their collective heads, maybe stumbled online to RIORI and read the opening manifesto. Yeah, it was that kind of movie.

There. There’s a f*cking sober, thoughtful review for you. Take ’em as they come, cuz I get pissy not being evil. Leave the gun and take the damned canoli already.

Sorry. Wrong film.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Rome was overall a mild film, with some yuks-yuks and clever musings on identity and existentialism. Plus the backdrop was great. But this a film for fans only, not casual Allen viewers.

Stray Observations…

  • Jesse Eisenberg, twitchy as ever.
  • “Someone dead?”
  • The “shower scene” is the most sensible, ridiculous piece of comedy I have ever seen.
  • “Can you imagine working all that time on your back?” “I can.”
  • Nice touch with the thunder there.
  • “Milly! Milly! Milly!”
  • A kind of reserved Begnini is nice, but still why does having Roberto in this film confuse my brainpan into watching a Jarmusch chaptered film?
  • Page is every woman every guy has ever dated.
  • “You can f*ck me in the car. I’m okay with that.” Told ya.
  • Awesome stare, Alec. Simply awesome.
  • “There are many stories the next time you come.”

Next Installment…

Hey, remember when we were kids and used to play Cowboys & Aliens? No? Sorry, wrong planet.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 57: James Mangold’s “The Wolverine” (2013)

The Wolverine

The Players…

Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Hiroyuki Sanada, Svetlana Kohchenkova, Will Yin Lee, Brian Tee and Famke Janssen.

The Story…

The nigh-invulnerable X-Man travels to timeless Japan to pay a debt. One personal and one very personal. Finding himself vulnerable for the first time and pushed to his limits, our man Logan confronts lethal ninja against his inner struggle with his own death just beyond reach.

Just another day at the office for our fave Aussie-cum-Canucknucklehead.


The Rant…

This is something I haven’t done in a while. For the unaware, please refer to the Young Adult installment. And also please be patient. We’ll have a weenie roast come sunset.

First Intro (1.1)…

Aren’t you sick of R-rated movies sweetened into PG-13 ones for the sake of profit over art? Me too. Or maybe you’re vaguely aware of it. Or perhaps you just want the humble blogger to shut up and get to watching your Jennifer Aniston binge marathon (gotta wince through The Break-Up one more time, y’know).

Hold up. I wasn’t talking being aware of the dumbing down of high-end, straight off the assembly line, Ah-nuld in his prime, Paul Verhoven/Brian de Palma grunt fests with lots of action, profanity, violence, the occasional tittie shot and lots of action. Well, perhaps a smidge. What I listed were (and very rarely still are) hallmarks of movies that would garner an R rating. Stuff aimed at grown-ups, mostly mature and sometimes partially educated. Violence, sex, profanity, heady drama, crude jokes and things that are just, well, above kids’ levels of comprehension (save your doltish blogger who watched the original Die Hard every summer afternoon before he started high school. Yippi-ki-yay). Movie entertainment made for grown-ups, plain and simple. Let the kiddies under 17 f*ck around with G to PG-13 flicks. Mom and Dad need to watch The Godfather trilogy again. Well, maybe not third one.

Now, two things first. That aforementioned word “sweetening.” Ever hear of it, beyond Willy Wonka’s factory? It’s a term from the Golden Age of TV. Sweetening was using a grab bag of gifts and gizmos to spruce up an otherwise ordinary program. Laugh tracks were popular, and used well into the 80s. It was also called “canned,” either for being pre-packaged chuckles made in a recording studio acres away from the sound studio of Night Court (and I adored Night Court), or just sounded fake (like on every episode of MASH. Christ). The pre-digital Auto-Tune/Photoshop. Other tricks included tightening up the soundtrack, make it looser or harder as the scene demanded (or simply needed) or just exaggerating sound effects. Law & Order‘s signature “duh-dun” sound bite is a prime sweet example, and has become inextricable from TV audiences minds as the cue towards deeper, mysterious intrigue. It makes me pine for the days of Briscoe and Logan, but Jerry Orbach is gone so no-one can put Baby in a corner ever again. Duh-dun.

In any event, sweetening enhanced TV programming in a myriad, but subtle ways. Almost subliminal if you think about it. In hindsight, TV sweetening might have conned audiences at home into believing they were watching a better program than they actually were. Maybe.

Something tells me though that over the past decade, Hollywood got hip to this old school gag of sweetening movies that would otherwise be regarded as flat, derivative and frankly couldn’t cough up the cheddar. But instead of adding malign Easter eggs they threw ’em in a basket and hoped moviegoers wouldn’t notice.

Most didn’t. Don’t. But more on that later…

Second Intro…

When I was a youth I guess you could’ve called me a Nipponophile. That was a term I cooked up to describe myself as an amateur student of Japanese culture, both pop and ancient. Morphed from the term “Anglophile” and all those obsessed with cricket and crumpets and all things UK to suit my own needs. Nippon was the old skool, ignorant European name for Japan. So clever was I co-opting that.

My first introduction to Japanese culture was waaaay back in the third grade. School project. Solo. World culture. Pull a number out of a hat and—boom—get on to becoming an expert on Cuba in three days. Here’s a mug of coffee.

I got the Land of the Rising Sun. So as any third grader chained to a history project off I went to the school library (sometimes even the big people library. Ooooo) to do my research. Thirty years on I don’t remember much of the assignment. The fact that I remember even doing it at all surprises me. Must’ve been the coffee.

I figure it stuck in my craw was what I uncovered how so fundamentally different the Japanese were compared to us Americans. Our cultures share a lot of similarities, sure. Especially when it comes to blatant capitalism and alcohol abuse. But overall I learned that East doesn’t necessarily ever meet West. It’s a good thing.

I’m not gonna slag American culture here, no matter how much of a orchard we have of low hanging fruit. Thinking people already know what’s cool and what stinks about these our United States. But let us consider for a moment the fundamentals that make up our often petulant culture against what little I properly know about Japan’s.

This has a point, I assure you. Be patient and remember how I sat beside with you post-op after that cyst was excised from your moving right along.

Here’s a basic one: religion. In America it’s one of the key matters that made the founding fathers to tell the Church of England to get bent. Don’t tell us how to worship, you punters. Even as secular the Union has become (and if you’ve been paying attention to the Trump campaign trail), a lotta Americans take Jesus and his Dad’s teachings quite seriously. Sometimes too seriously.

*insert inflammatory, heathen one-liner here*

Despite whichever side of the line you fall behind, America is a myriad of faiths. We make room for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Rastafarians, Trekkies, you name it. How we worship and deem a higher power as so is still a big deal in America. Despite all our technological advances and avarice warping our moral judgment, JC is still OK. And that’s nice.

In Japan we have a different story. That and only about 3% of the Japanese are Christian, yet almost everyone celebrates Christmas there, not unlike in the US: presents, trees and booze. Seems fitting, after all Jesus liked his wine, spreading gifts of learning and compassion and getting hung up on a wooden moving right along again.

Spiritualism in Japan is a dodgy subject. They have their Buddhist and scant Christians, with their their delineated practices and ritualism, but the Japanese have their own more or less homespun “religion” that most adherents don’t outright commit to.

Now keep in mind again, third grade. I have no fact checking department. I am the fact checking department, so sh*t often gets muddled. However since this a social metaphor I’m working on here, go with it and shut up.

Shintoism is a rather eclecticbelief that most Westerns cannot wrap their heads around. From what I’ve learned about Shinto, seems most practitioners are themselves constantly rectifying the spiritual against the secular. When asked what Shinto is, most adherents discuss nature and spirits and reverence to both and that’s it. There’s no one real dogma and the best way to explain a holy spirit is to acknowledge something as just that, solid and/or ephemeral. Acknowledgement of holy places or objects are either specified by a strategically erected torii gate to announce the presence of a kama or draping a talisman called an ema around a figure of spiritual significance.


Right. Like I said, me no Shinto scholar. But it all sounds so very alien to American ears. Probably just as much as Christianity sounds to your average fishmonger from Kyoto. Left from right, this cross-cultural boondoggle.

Faith ain’t the only thing that separates them from us. Of course entertainment, particularly (duh, which blog is this again?) movies. Keeping it quick after my gospel according to RIORI, we Americans want a sci-fi fix? Call the Wachowski brothers, nab Channing Tatum, drum up a budget along the lines of the GDP of the Gambia and get that location director to Jupiter, stat! And cross your fingers.

In Japan, hand it over to Miyazaki-san, and Ghibli Animation always scores. Nary a stuntman to be found. And anime is aimed at everyone, not just the kiddies. Don’t get me started on how the salariman pore over manga on the train to Shibuya each morning.

(BTW, I kept the last bit short because we’ll be mincing movies down the line. That and I was too lazy to expound on it any further. My rules, neener neener.)

One final (and very potent) difference in American versus Japanese culture is how each society regards age. In America, growing older is anathema and most go to great—sometimes stupid—lengths to keep the Grim Reaper at bay for as long as the botox treatments hold. Plastic surgery, lifetime gym memberships, kale and denial are prime examples of battling the march of time here in the USA. Youth is the stuff of potential and social awareness, the open road of opportunity, oysters and such. We Americans are big on doing stuff with our lives (as questionable as some of that sh*t may be. Can we say playing Pokemon Go as career?), and ever advancing age reminds us that sadly potential can escape us all too soon. Sad but true. I might recommend a tonic to that by quit reading this blog and run out an adopt one of Jolie’s kids. Might.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific…

The Japanese, like many Far East cultures, venerating age and wisdom across a lifetime rather than spend years accruing FaceBook friends is unquestioned. Oh, BTW, most of those friends aren’t. If you were older and wiser you’d know that by now. Now go adopt one of Jolie’s kids.

But seriously, there is a quote I recall that is akin to the Japanese respect for their elders. It goes something like when an old man dies, a library is lost. Something like that; wish I could remember the source. No matter. Knowledge is power they say, and real knowledge (if you’re lucky and cagey enough with yours) takes years to gather, not to mention being smart enough how to dispense it at the proper time to the proper audience. Takes patience, I suppose. Patience most gaijin don’t have, nor is encouraged.

So what’s the point of this dissection of differences between cultures and how does it relate to this week’s film? Well picture this, me amigos, it’s happened before, it’ll happen again, it’s happening right now. Culture clash. What happens, really happens upstairs when a Westerner (perhaps a Canuck with unusual talents in the area of claws, healing and hairiness) gets plunked—perhaps exiled even—in an alien, Eastern culture? A person who has no issues with aging, who has seen several lifetimes of experiences drip off the blade and who can’t see an end in sight. Shintoism as ancient reverence for nature. Entertainment as fleeting yet deeply, deeply entrenched in the basal needs of a people; to see themselves as who they truly are (or may be). All such hoodoo almost lost on such a person, but still wise enough to make the connection somehow. Must get dizzy.

Didn’t learn all that in third grade. Learned a lot of it from reading manga.

Er, X-Men comics. Sorry to get muddled…

Third Intro…

Back in 2ooo I caught the first X-Men movie. I dragged my buddies to see it despite them not being well-versed in the canon. Or comic books in general, for that matter. Still, we all struck out for the multiplex to get acquainted with song and dance man Hugh Jackman unsheathe some claws and battle Sabretooth. Good times were had overall, and Rebecca Romijn well you know.

Again, this was 2000. Marvel’s year one into the foray of film. Well, I should say year two, since Wesley Snipes slew vampires in Blade two years prior (still a go-to movie when I feel like a movie but don’t care what), but who’s counting? Anyway, Blade was the acid test to see if comic book movies were a viable option bringing the medium to the unwashed masses. Since two sequels followed one could argue this as an affirmative.

So two years later—boom—Capt Picard as Prof X. The prototype passed, and mass productioned beckoned. For good and for ill. Pretty soon we had Tobey Maguire as Spidey for three flicks. Michael Chiklis as the Fantastic Four’s Thing (a brilliant bit of casting if you ask me). Ron Perlman in all his chili-drenched glory as Hellboy. Chris Nolan coaxed Batman back from the brink. Superman showed up again, spitcurl in tact. We hunted Jack The Ripper in From Hell. Christ, even Watchmen (Watchmen!) made it to the silver screen. Same with 300 and (ugh) The Spirit. The floodgates had opened, and there was no way to close the valve.

One could assume that comic book fans delighted in seeing their heroes up there on the big screen. I did, for a time. But sooner or later everything reaches a saturation point. Mine bubbled up with (no surprise here) with Ben Affleck as Daredevil. Sour and silly film, but Michael Clarke Duncan was a stitch as Kingpin, I give him that. A bit later we had Green Lantern. Fun film, but kinda dopey and cursed by Ryan Reynolds. And the aforementioned return of Superman was lame and disappointing. Spidey 3 was a dizzy headache (and the all too soon reboot felt like a band-aid. The new Fantastic Four felt like gauze). A few bright spots shone through (e.g.: the first Iron Man film, the first Avengers film, um, Avatar?), but for the past few years we’ve haphazardly been sifting through many haystacks.

I think we reached the tipping point with the Ant-Man film. Now truth be told I never saw the thing. By that point I gave up on comic book movies. I ain’t ragging on the thing. Can’t. Didn’t see it. But I did think that casting wiseass Paul Rudd as wiseass O’Grady was spot on, as was Michael Douglas as Dr Pym. But still, Ant-Man? The Hulk had two movies (both were tepid), but the green guy’s been mostly a supporting character for the better part of his comic book/film career (spare Greg Pak’s fairly recent “Planet Hulk” story arc). Ant-Man has been so secondary (in all his iterations), if not tertiary that for Marvel Studios to have the chutzpah to make a film about his misadventures can only scream to me “show us the money!”

Ticket sales. Box office cash, that is.

The heavy hitters had their time in the sun. Like the street thug peddling uppers: take two, they’re small. Then addiction sets in. Going to check out comic movies may not be addictive (then again who knows), but so much input can become habit, and the gentry seem to watch comic book movies this way if the box office sales say anything.

In a previous installment I spoke of when I worked at a comic shop around the time Spider-Man 3 dropped. In hopes of using the buzz to push product, I set up a display of old skool Spideys from the 80s when the web-slinger was sporting the black-and-white costume just like in the new movie. Didn’t sell a single ish, despite reasonable pricing (20 bucks for a 75 cent very fine condition comic is a good deal, believe me). But we did sell out of the action figures. This said something, but even today I’m not exactly sure what.

Yeah, I do. I’m not venerating the medium per se, but I feel most folks who are either casual or dedicated viewers of comic book films are more in them for the cinematic pleasure of super powered heroes thrashing super powered villains. They’re not into the same stuff on the printed page. Too many words I guess. We offered classic books. They opted for plastic made in China. Cheap thrills are fine, but they’re still cheap.

So now we can guarantee nowadays that month into month we’ll be barraged by comic book films so often you could set your watch by it. And by way of the websites I scour for this blog that delineate movie profits—both domestic and foreign—most audiences don’t seem particularly discerning when it comes to story, drama and characterization. They want the boom. And the more the merrier. Happy New Year.

We’ve reached a tipping point. A saturation point really. What was once a momentous thing (at least for comic book heads) has become routine. The forthcoming Dr Strange movie (of which I am curious about, but still) is penultimate for non-comic fans to take in the boom and maybe scoop up some drama et al. If they’ll have it. And let’s face facts, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, most people get pretty much the movies they deserve.

So when a rare nugget of mature, deep, well-developed comic book movie gets released? Hm. Well. According to what I said about myriad websites and their collective data, they tank.

I blame reading the books. Don’t do that. Just keep drizzling that butter flavoring onto your head…

First Intro (1.2)

Okay, now second thing second.

The following is about dumbing sh*t down, but not in the conventional way. It’s an extension of the first part of this intro (hence the title).  You remember, the whole sweetening thing? Welcome back.

Dumbing down is a popular—lately very popular—method from Hollywood to make would-be tentpole movies more palatable for mainstream audiences. One may remark R material into easy to digest, profitable PG-13 has to have just enough trimmed from a harder-edged script to ensure more folks (e.g.: teens) queue up for a ticket. That’s a judgment call, but I’m making it.

Here. Let’s take a look at the criteria that warrants an R rating in a movie. Violence, for one. Hard to argue that one. Don’t want to give the kiddies any ideas what to do with a corkscrew and a chloroform-soaked hankie on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Coarse language is another factor. I don’t take issue with talking sh*t, but I don’t want my daughter to mouth off at school and then mom and me be called in for a dreaded parent/teacher conference. F*ck that sh*t.

Sex is good one. The only reason I can think of is having to answer a lot of weird questions from the junior set, which responses would only baffle them further. Baffles adults too, for that matter. And I still don’t get our whole irrelevant, Puritanical unease with sex. Makes no sense to me when sex on film is pushed against violence on film and violence is more acceptable (you can see violence in a PG-13 flick. Sex? Not so much). The late George Carlin put it best when he said he’d rather have his kid watch two people making love than watching two people trying to kill each other. That seems sensible. Except when it comes to sub-R rated movies it seems.

There are other factors that garner a movie an R rating. Content either too dense, abstract, odd or just plain unappealing to kids. I have a hard time believing that any third grader is champing at the bit to catch a screening of The Imitation GameMy Dinner With Andre or Rashomon (I know the last one was released before the MPAA set up their arbitrary rules. I do not care). Let’s face facts: there’s enough Despicable Me installments out there to keep the kids busy while mom and dad take in the next John Woo or Lars von Trier epic. Here’s where I feel an R rating is justified, mostly based on when my teenaged stepdaughter (was forced) to take a seat and watch American Hustle with mom, who adores that film. Barring the REDACTED scene, she simply didn’t get it. She didn’t have to. Wasn’t kid friendly. Story was an R.

So what’s all this have to do with Hollywood’s anti-sweetening? Simple: profit. You can rake in a sh*t-ton more cash if you open your product to a wider market. That’s how capitalism works. You’d have to be a moron to expect to sell anything aimed solely at a single demographic, like for Speedo banana hammocks or durian fruit. Movieland has been stripping R rated films from the market so nakedly that virtually any movie barely toeing the line gets tweaked just enough to drop below the R line and therefore open up the gates. Regardless how soggy the product ends up being.

No matter how superfluous the content that brands a film rated R, such junk is often key, key in making a film for a mature audience, well, mature. And I don’t mean just the so-called controversial stuff that separates the little kids’ from the big kids’ viewing needs. I mean the essential smarts attached to more adult films (save most porn and anything from Eli Roth) gets diluted when PG-13 is applied. It also affects the timbre of certain, would-be grown up films by lessening any visceral impact one would usually get in an R movie when diminished for a larger audience. In sum, certain PG-13 movies feel…off. Stilted in dialogue, acting, the whole wad in the name of bigger ticket sales. Like with the overabundance of comic book movies, the numbers don’t lie.

So that’s more or less my say-so when I comes to Hollywood’s anti-sweetening. It’s not a new thing, BTW. Some past films had been deliberately rated down to cast a broader net, often with questionable results. And I ain’t talking ’bout no film called Pearl Harborwhich being based on a gruesome day of infamy surely needed an R rating. But it was a Micahel Bay flick, so there you go—or some of The Expendables movies, or a pastiche known as Poltergeist (and that little doozy was rated PG. In know PG-13 didn’t exist back then. Shut up, I’m rolling). Heck, even The Dark Knight was questionable with Heath Ledger’s joking histrionics.

No. I’m talking about a favorite, key movie that should have indeed been rated R: the original Jaws. We had two hours of severed limbs, drowned bodies and Robert Shaw being bitten in half. PG. Crunch. Sometimes the MPAA can really screw the pooch, but I doubt back then (barring any Bay schlock) these misfires were just that and not some scheming to empty peoples’ wallets. I hope.

R movies are very few and far between things on the movie landscape for the past decade now. There have been more sightings of Elvis. Does that rating warrant a healthy dose of mucking sh*t up for the crowds? Not necessarily, not even maybe. Does the compulsion for Hollywood to keep shaving away at scripts in order to line their pockets motivate this anti-sweetening?

Dunno. Go watch Insidious again. You tell me…

Whew. That was a lot of bullsh*t. Sorry about the stink. But all of it was relevant to this week’s grouchfest. The Wolverine has all three of the above devices. We got the culture clash. We got the irrepressible assembly line of comic book movies baiting us. We got some dumbing down when it was not needed (nor acceptable, really). Took a long time to get down here. Just wanted y’all to be properly prepared.

Now (drum roll), take it away, Logan…!

Forever is a long time coming.

The X-Man known as Logan (Jackman)—better known to the world as the infamous claw-wielding mutant Wolverine—has been carrying around that nagging belief for a long time. A very long time. Feels like forever. And he’s had to live with that, all the while churning with the inner turmoil that is his existence. Such as it’s become.

Logan’s a man of two worlds. Actually more like one. The first is his present. Self-exiled after the final battle with Magneto and his Brotherhood. Prof Xavier’s children triumphed, but at the cost of Logan killing his beloved Jean (Janssen). He’s quit the X-Men, leading a nomadic life, avoiding human contact whenever possible, controlling his temper and trying to rectify his difference between being a noble, principled man and an animalistic killer ready to strike at any moment.

The second world is the world of endless memories he’s been carrying around for time immemorial.  His past. Thanks (or curses) to his unique rapid-healing abilities, Logan may be virtually immortal. Imagine that. Sure, we’d all like to live forever, so long as we can forget the past and continuously move on, ever changing.

Logan doesn’t see it that way. He’s seen too much, learned too much and wished he could put a lot of it behind him. That gets difficult when “behind” never seems to get far enough away.

That’s a lot to ponder, and Wolvie has all the time in world.

But the present always has a way of tearing our wayward hero back to reality, a reality that never seems to stop. Despite trying to keep those claws sheathed and rage contained—if only to honor Jean’s memory—you just can’t keep a good killer down. In his (former) line of work, Logan built up quite the rep as Wolverine as gun for hire. He’s had more than enough time to so, and sure enough that kind of past has caught up to him. Again.

He’s located by Yukio (Fukushima), another mutant who can see the future. She scoops up Logan and informs him that an old friend (and one-time benefactor), Yashida Singen (Sadana) wishes to see him, one last time. Logan rescued Shingen back in WW2, saving his life and putting him forever in Logan’s debt. Well forever is relative, and Shingen is dying of cancer and his final wish is to repay that debt.

Shingen has built up quite a powerful tech empire over his lifetime. But no tech on earth can keep his aggressive cancer from killing him, not by itself. He figures he needs the aid of an old friend’s…unique abilities. Despite his age, Shingen still has a lot to live for, and he understands that Logan has had too much. Why not make a trade? With Shingen’s access to unlimited resources, he may have found a way to save his life and end Logan’s.

That’s a favor?

Logan mutant healing gene could be removed from his DNA and transplanted into Shingen. The cancer will be destroyed and Logan will eventually find rest. An end to the pain. Death. Nirvana.

This sounds all well and good to Logan. Crazy perhaps, but the idea of not wandering the world forever carrying around all this guilt, anger and sh*t seems worth a try. He’s gotta sleep on it though. Besides he’s also discovered he’s a guest of honor at Shingen’s granddaughter Mariko’s (Okamoto) wedding tomorrow. Didn’t see that coming.

Still contemplating Shingen’s offer the following day, Logan reluctantly attends Mariko’s nuptials. Feeling all the more an outsider grants him a certain station. He understands Shingen’s offer, and also knows that him being the lord of a massive industrial empire warrants some rivals. Rivals like the yakuza who crash the wedding and try to kidnap Mariko. Sorry Jean, but this will not stand. There’s obviously more going on here than a mere debt being fulfilled. It’s plain to see it all now, but with his endless life experience, could Logan have seen all this coming?

Hell, did Yukio see all this coming…?

I promise you now that the review part of this installment will be blissfully shorter than the above rant upon rant. Upon rant. You’re welcome. Now where are those hot dogs?

But really, tying all that aforementioned crap into how I dug the film does have some relevance now. Really. But I ain’t gonna gush, ramble, skewer and/or preach the gospel according to Logan here. Just touch upon prior convictions. It’ll all make some sense, somehow.

How? Funny you should ask. First off, The Wolverine is the first truly mature comic book movie I ever had the pleasure of viewing. When I say mature, I don’t mean for R rated content outright. There is a lot of that here (violence, cussing, kinda goofy aidoru come to life, etc), but the package it’s couched in is a tad more heavy that, say, X-Men 3. Then again after that abortion anything minus a blue Frasier Crane would only be an improvement to the franchise.

The R rated-ness (or potential R rated-ness) in Wolverine stems from the drama present in the film. And boy, we get heavy on the drama here. Sure, other X-Men flicks had drama in drips and drabs, but mostly it was used as bookends against thwarting Magneto’s nefarious schemes, then snikt!

Not here. In fact the action serves more like bookends in favor of creating a deeper portrait of Logan the lonely, tortured immortal. Wolverine isn’t about Logan champing at the bit to let the claws/animal free and let the Sentinel scrap fall where it may. This film’s the diametric opposite. Most of the film is Wolvie struggling to keep his claws (and ire and pain) sheathed. For those yahoos looking for collateral damage, pick up a Schwarzenegger flick circa 1987. We got some existentialism going on here, thank you very much.

This is decidedly not your usual X-Men movie. There’s precious little of the trademark splash and dash one expects to see with a mutant movie. In fact, there is precious little of anything that resembles a Marvel movie. Even with more “adult” flavored Marvel pics (e.g.: The PunisherBlade, hell, even Daredevil) there’s a taste of humor, verve and optimism. Not here. Wolverine is overall grim, heavy and ponderous. There’s a lot of existentialist musings, meditations on mortality and the duality of man (or in this case, hirsute mutant). Not the flavor in Columbus, Jubilee.

This all is a good thing. A very good thing. It’s refreshing to watch a Marvel movie for once that doesn’t play to the family. Wolverine, like the titular character, plays to itself, isolation and alienation intact. Hey mom, dad: don’t let the PG-13 tag fool ya. Just because the blue language and serious violence is scant (but strategic), this movie is tough on the mind, especially your conscience. It’s thrilling to the frontal lobes first and the brain stem second.

But Wolverine isn’t all about navel-gazing. I mean, would you want to watch a flick about Logan without an external rampage? Duh. This is still a comic book movie, and naturally with an anti-hero like Wolvie on the prowl there’s gotta be some collateral damage. The opening act sets the stage, or more accurately baits the audience. It’s intense, and a good hook to draw you into the forthcoming intrigue. C’mon, the bombing of Nagasaki while Logan is imprisoned in a pit? That’s some set-up there. It also sets everything up, domino-like, for the hard adventure our tortured killer finds himself in.

Virtually every scene of action—which are few and far between, for good reason—is tempered by reflection, and not with some silly reverie. Jackman exudes such reluctance and resentment for how his endless life has resulted in a lot of hurt, within and without, that every time Logan is forced to go snikt, his desire for redemption grows ever deeper. He may view his invulnerability as a curse, but it’s what he’s done with it that hurts the most. In sum, Jackman’s performance of his signature character this time out is less looking for action and more like looking for solace. Walking conflict that, and it makes for an all too juicy character study. With ninjas, of course.

As for the action scenes (which are breathtakingly cool), I gotta give props to director Mangold’s shrewdness. You make another Marvel movie about superheroes in a seemingly never-ending queue of Marvel movies about superheroes the audience has a lot of preconceived expectations. Biff, bam, boom, splat and spot Stan. Not the go-to for Wolverine. Like I said, the serious action is parsed out over two hours, instead making more room for mystery and drama. The action here is smart, not in your face and smeared all over the place like a cream pie to the puss. The action here is also particularly smart by having key scenes injected at strategic parts to not only enthrall the audience (like with the awesome bullet train sequence) but actually move the story along. To me it says a lot about an action director to know when to apply action and to what end and not go overboard with a lot of sharp, superfluous visuals. Granted Wolverine has a lot of great, sharp visuals, but X-Men 2 this ain’t. Hell, Stan didn’t even make a cameo. Then again he didn’t create Wolverine. Sorry.

After extolling Wolverine for the past few ages, I would only be prudent if I pointed out the film’s downfalls. Now there were no overt issues I took with the flick. The action was great, the story was engaging and the characters (especially our hero, which I’ve never seen so fleshed out before with the franchise) were truly three dimensional. In a sense, despite the passed years, Wolverine held true to the spirit—if not the execution—of Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s mini-series back in the 80s which ostensibly the movie was based. The tricky part there is with adapting any book to screen is some concessions have to be made. Miller is known to be very exacting in his writing (and you’d need to know your feudal Japanese history for this one), but a lot can change in styling between 1983 and 2013. Mangold and crew had to tamper with the original script to make the movie palatable to modern audiences. A necessary evil, I know. Still I think it would’ve been cool if the movie retained the funky stylizing of the original comic. A personal thing, take that or leave it.

The only other issue I took with Wolverine is the final act. Here the film becomes your traditional superhero conflict: good guy thwarting bad guy. Don’t misunderstand me, the final fight still retained all the smart action goodness up until that part, but I got the impression that Mangold was throwing a sop to a dyed-in-wool, very patient comic book film audience. Running over 2 hours, the typical fan with the attention span of a gnat on crack you better be patient for a big payoff. I have an attention span—maybe that of a fruit fly—but I could’ve done without the pat battle sequence. I was no less exciting than what came before it, but I’d’ve rather had something less “safe.” The movie was already rich and edgy enough without having Logan tear it up with REDACTED in a sort-of bread and circus maneuver. On the flipside, the final scene either paid homage to a traditional Japanese drama, or did just that. Not a bad cap, really, but still safe.

A final thing (finally). Although technically Wolverine did not tank at the box office—it paid for its budget four times over, therefore warranting a sequel. Be on the look out for Logan in 2017. You’ve been warned—that doesn’t mean it was beyond my scrutiny. Most of its reviews were positive, albeit mixed. Ah, this is where The Standard rears its persnickety schnozz. I think I know why the film got a few raised eyebrows. It required patience, and a need to put aside all your were familiar with regarding comic book movie tropes. I say again, this ain’t yer daddy’s X-Men film. Then again with film’s skirting an R rating, existentialism and ultimately heavy on the drama over non-stop thrashing (which I repeat was the key to the great action sequences), Wolverine being not your metaphorical father’s comic book movie made it all the better. A palate cleanser to crazy costumes, cheap one-liners and over the top clownishness. All that jazz is welcome in a comic book film, but sometimes you gotta tuck away the cape. Maturity makes childhood seem all the sweeter in hindsight, after all.

So here’s for maturity in comic book films. Am I saying we need more of this with the onslaught of comic book films barreling down the boulevard? Once in a while. At least once in a while to wipe away the scales and reboot yourself for Ant-Man. Or Doctor Strange. Or Logan. Or Blade On Ice.

Um, that last one was a joke, people. Step away from Fandango or you get the claws.

One more time: snikt!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Awesome. Finally a mature comic book movie that means mature, namely in construct and not a Deadpool-esque scatological audience baiting. If you have the patience and quit tweeting for a microsecond. There’s ninjas, BTW.

Stray Observations…

  • “Funny you should ask…”
  • On the scene where Yukio picks up Logan: that a nod to the first movie when Logan picks up a wayward Rogue after a bar brawl? Perhaps, then againI tend to look too deeply into things.
  • “Hip replacement!”
  • Like the pin bed.
  • I’ve always wondered how Wolvie bends his elbows and/or wrists when his claws are sheathed. Surely there are a million fanboys out there with reams of theories as to why or why not. Get a girl already.
  • “Where is the security?”
  • The still standing torii after the Nagasaki attack says a lot beyond this film’s context.
  • Hiro Sanada, the Japanese Edward James Olmos.
  • “Go f*ck yourself, pretty boy.” Hell. Yeah.
  • Almost R rated. Almost.
  • “Uh-oh.”

Next Installment…

Woody Allen sends a postcard To Rome, With Love. Aw.