Jul 19, 2012

Cowboys vs Aliens

My wife is out of town for the week. So that means that I'm bored. Instead of watching the shows stacking up on my DVR (all of which my wife wants to see), I am hitting up the Red Box and catching up on some movies that I have not been able to see yet. To make this even more fun, I will be blogging my reviews and thoughts about the films. Today's Installment: Cowboys and Aliens.

There is an especially funny episode of Friends where Rachel decides to make a traditional English trifle.  Her cookbook somehow gets some pages stuck together and she ends up combining the recipes for trifle (custard, lady fingers, and jam) and shepherd's pie (ground beef sauteed with peas and onions).  The resultant dish is reviled by all, with Ross going so far as to say, "It tastes like feet."  However, Joey eats not only his plate, but all the other hidden plates.  When someone asks him if he likes it, he says, "What's not to like?  Custard? Good. Meat? Good. Jam? GOOO-ooood!"

That exchange immediately popped into my head when I was thinking about Cowboys and Aliens.  On the surface, the individual elements of the movie look and sound great.  Jon Favreau, who brought us the incredible action movies Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and the class Christmas comedy Elf, was directing.  Steven Spielberg was producing.  As far as the cast goes, you have both James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in roles that seemed created just for them.  The supporting cast was even stellar: Clancy Brown (Highlander, Shawshank Redemption), Keith Carradine (Deadwood), Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, House), Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, Galaxy Quest), Walter Goggins (The Shield, Justified).  You get the point on the cast - a good strong cast.  It's a Western, which has a strong following.  It's a sci-fi, which has a stronger following.  Then you have a unique concept when so many people complain about too many reboots and sequels.

So, naturally, with all those great sounding ingredients, the movie bombed.  No, it wasn't a John Carter or Battleship level bomb.  But it was hardly the raging success everyone hoped for when it was made.  It took in $100 million in the USA and another $75 million overseas.  That doesn't sound bad, except it cost about $170 million to make, not counting the massive promotion costs.  So it didn't make blockbuster money.  Not only that, but its reviews were far from stellar.  If you go on Rotten Tomatoes - the online review site - the movie has a 44 percent fresh rating.  That means just 44 percent of people who reviewed it gave it a positive rating.  Among professional critics (translation: Morons that can't relate to the average moviegoer), it had a 50 percent fresh rating.  With the general audience, it had a 45 percent positive rating.  So, across the board, the movie just seemed to be not well liked.

When you actually read the reviews, few of them are actually viciously negative, though.  For some films, you will find hateful and scathing reviews.  I didn't see many like that at all.  Instead, most of them echoed along these sentiments.  "The movie wasn't as good as it should have been" or "It wasn't as fun as I thought it would be."  It seems like most people who went in thought they were going to get a fun, madcap, action film.  They were disappointed that the movie didn't deliver on it.

All of this puzzle me.  I remember reading about the movie from its original casting announcements.  I saw the previews, saw the marketing.  I don't really remember the movie ever being pitched as some kind of summer fun ride.  It wasn't supposed to be The Avengers or Fast Furiou6: More Fasterer and Furiouser.  So I'm not sure where people developed this perception.  After seeing the movie, I can say that the movie was a Western.  It had the pacing of a Western and the feel of one.  Thinking back on the Westerns I have seen, I don't remember to many of them having a frantic pace.  There aren't planes or guys in metal suits to race around.  There aren't race tracks and sports cars zipping back and forth.  People ride horses or walk.  It is dusty.  Fun time is sitting in a saloon and drinking, playing cards, and listening to music.  That's your average Western.

I know that the commercials highlighted the exciting moments of the film - Daniel Craig jumping off a cliff onto a spacecraft, Daniel Craig blowing up a ship with his bracelet weapon.  But it also showed a lot of Harrison Ford growling and Daniel Craig scowling and Olivia Wilde staring.  So, was Cowboys and Aliens mismarketed?  It is entirely possible that is the answer.  I know that even up to the release, friends of mine were not sure if the movie was supposed to be funny or not.  "Is it a spoof or something?"  [Answer: No.  It is not funny.  Very few laughs.]  When I would try to explain it to them, they would look at me and usually say, "That sounds dumb."  Now, these are the same people that have already pre-ordered tickets to Dark Knight Rises and can give you a fifteen minute dissertation on the symbolism in the Batman films.  They aren't movie noobs that don't get to a theater often.  But they still didn't catch the Cowboys and Aliens fever.

I remember in the past that there have been a handful of movies that were horribly mismarketed.  The strange thing is that I generally like those films because I judge them based on what they actually are.  But most moviegoers go in with a perception and are disappointed when the movie doesn't match that.  Here are a couple of examples.

  • Hudson Hawk - This movie was supposed to be a typical Bruce Willis film.  Lots of action, some humor and sarcasm tossed in.  It was marketed as a caper film.  Bruce Willis was the best burglar in the world going after his biggest prize.  I can understand why someone would be upset when it turned out to be an action comedy about a duo of burglars who sang songs during their thefts instead of wearing watches.  It was zany and bizarre.  There were subplots about Da Vinci, the Vatican, mercenaries named after candy bars, and alchemy.  I loved it.  But it was NOT Die Hard 3: Rob Hard.
  • The Cable Guy - Jim Carrey was a superstar.  Everything he touched up to this point was pure gold.  He was in the middle of a run that most stars would kill for.  Ace Ventura ($72mil), The Mask ($120mil), Dumb and Dumber ($127mil), Batman Forever ($184mil), Ace Ventura 2 ($104mil) led up to this movie.  The next two after it were Liar Liar ($181mil) and Truman Show ($125mil).  The Cable Guy thudded in at $60 million after costing $47 million to make.  It had Matthew Broderick, Ben Stiller (who directed it), Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and a very hot Jim Carrey.  People HATED it.  Why?  Well, simply enough, they were expecting a Jim Carrey movie.  They wanted to see him acting all crazy and speaking out of his rear end.  They thought he would twists his mouth sideways and cackle.  Instead, they got a VERY dark comedy and commentary on the unhealthy infatuation with entertainment, especially the voyeuristic appeal of criminal trials and the like.  It was should be paired up with Truman Show instead of Ace Ventura. Horrible marketing.
  • Last Action Hero - Arnold Schwarzenegger at the peak of his drawing power.  He had just put out the monster hit Terminator 2 and was about to release True Lies.  This movie raked in a pathetic $50 million on a $85 million budget.  How did it fail so badly?  Again, it was marketed as a big Ah-nold blockbuster.  And it was NOT!!!  It was a BRILLIANT satire on the action picture genre that was about to collapse on itself.  Seriously, go back and watch it again.  I remember seeing it in the theater and being disappointed that it wasn't typical Arnold.  I watched it again a couple years later at home and loved it.  It was hilarious.  
  • Shawshank Redemption - It wasn't marketed at all.  Or it was promoted as "from the mind of Stephen King."  Yes, he wrote the story it was based on.  But it was NOT a Stephen King film.  I remember seeing it in theaters and saying, "What in the world is THAT?"  I had no clue until the Oscar nominations came out that it was even a good movie.  Then I saw it.  WORST. MARKETING. EVER!  Seriously, this is one of the top 100 movies ever?  And it doesn't even get promoted.  Dumb.
So, did Cowboys and Aliens get tripped up by its own packaging?  I don't think it was as horribly mismarketed as those other films.  It wasn't presented as a comedy and then turned out to be a drama or anything.  But I do think it was communicated poorly.  People thought it was either a spoof, a rolling action flick, or a sci-fi film.  Each of those comes with a pretty standard set of preconceptions.  And those are all a pretty far cry from a Western.  Imagine if someone went into it thinking it was like Will Smith's Wild Wild West and realized it was closer to Unforgiven.  That would throw you for a loop.  

Judging the film for what it is, I actually liked Cowboys and Aliens.  I read one review that said Favreau couldn't control the erratic shifts in tone and mood.  Well, you're in a Western.  There's a guy who is wanted for all kind of crimes wandering through town.  People are coming after him, slowly, on horses.  One of them is a corrupt and cruel cattle baron.  They are threatening to hang him or ship him off to the marshalls.  Then three alien spaceships comes screaming down the middle of the street, blowing up stuff and snatching people.  That would be a erratic shift in tone and mood.  That is what made the movie so interesting to me.  How exactly would a Western gold rush city handle an invasion of massively technologically advanced alien spacecraft?  They don't have a clue.  They have six shooters and rifles and sticks of dynamite.  Think of the panic that ensued in films like Independence Day or V.  Those people at least had the benefit of having science fiction movies predicting alien invasions.  The Wild West didn't have that.  So it was a shock.

I also saw one reviewer mock the fact that the characters were able to overcome their differences to defeat a common foe.  Well, duh.  They had to.  Isn't that a common theme in movies from the very beginning?  And books?  And all literature?  Sometimes it takes a common enemy to help people learn that their differences are not really that important.  It puts things in perspective.  Why in the world someone would have a problem with that is beyond me.  That is the message at the heart of The Avengers.

I did enjoy the movie.  It wasn't my favorite movie of all time, or even my favorite Western.  (That still goes to Tombstone.)  I think that Jon Favreau has done better work.  Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig were both good in their roles.  And the aliens were actually very creepy and somewhat original.  There were some surprises that caught me off guard.  But I can understand the overall opinion that it didn't blow me away.  If I had spent the money to go to the movie in the theater, I would have been a little disappointed.  When I used to go to the movies all the time, this one would have fallen into the "good, not great, mostly forgettable, a little disappointing" category.  Now, I would have been more let down, since I don't go as often.  I wouldn't buy it, but I'm glad I saw it.  

Tonight I finalize my week of catching up with another film that I never got around to seeing.  Like last night's film, it has a lot of good credentials.  But this one lived up to the hype according to most people who saw it.  It is a good conclusion to the week - it has aliens,  secret agents, JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg.  Basically it has a little bit of everything from the whole week.  Super 8.  Now the review won't probably be up until Saturday, though.  I'll be driving to Tampa on Friday.  Sorry to make you wait.  

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