zerode – a sensibility


film, music, text, city, spectacle, pleasure

SF Films: Freebie and the Bean (1974)


Viewing Notes

An early buddy cop movie. And very explicitly so, as the poster makes clear: “above all, it’s a love story” between the two feuding, fighting partners. I’m not sure the whole buddy cop dynamic has ever be spelled out as explicitly and up front.

All the elements are here—the feuding, the style and ethnic/racial differences, the insecurities addressed in their dynamic, the tender final moment… and if you want to talk about a sexual or homoerotic component, you don’t have far to look. The pair spend a lot of times in toilets; there’s a scene with a young gay guy taking a bath; concerns about Bean’s wife having an affair form a major subplot; and so on.

Given how strongly all the key elements of the buddy cop film are present, and its year of release, a case could be made for Freebie and the Bean as the very first in the genre. In an interview in Spectacular Optical, Richard Rush, who directed and developed the original treatment, certainly makes this claim and I think it’s spot on:

a movie  that dealt with two cops, one moral and one not, who rode around together in a police car and quarreled with each other like an old married couple. It was a good idea. It was a new one, never done before, regardless of how many times you have seen it since, through the franchises it has spawned. It started the genre of ‘The Buddy Cop Picture’.

Source: CUNNING STUNTS: A Q&A with Richard Rush « Spectacular Optical

It’s weird watching old cop movies like this: the casual brutality against a nobody crook is striking enough, but using the threat of sexual assault to get someone to squeal is really shocking. Things like this still happen in movies, but they need much more context and justification—here, it’s basically just part of the schtick, the style and wacky interplay of Freebie and the Bean. Likewise, Freebie’s persistent racially-themed needling of Bean (Alan Arkin) who’s Mexican-American (though not particularly believably).

One of the treats—for me, anyway—of watching older movies set in San Francisco is simply the street scenes. Seeing old joints like Omar Khayyam’s, the Sutter Cinema (an ‘adult’ theatre near Union Square) or even the demolished bits of the Central Freeway and Embarcadero Freeway… though for some reason a surprising amount of it seems to have been shot in and around the Transamerica Pyramid—including the final crash, even though it is supposed to be an ambulance driving to a hospital from the ‘Stick.

1974 Freebie and The Bean Alan Arkin James Caan Chuck Bail

The chases—car, motorcycle, and foot—and attendant crashes are worthy of The Blues Brothers—with the one where their car ends up in a 3rd floor apartment being particular memorable. I was surprised to see a car crash that looks to have been actually staged in the Broadway Tunnel. There’s a crash involving a truckload of live chickens. The easy excuse for all the crashes is that Freebie (James Caan) is both a reckless and bad driver. The chase in and around the Gateway Plaza / Embarcadero Center area is a whopper, ending with a fight in a kitchen that covers Bean and the bad guy in a huge pot of marinara sauce.

The screenplay is by Robert Kaufman—not a name to conjure with, and his later credits include The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington, but he started out as a writer on The Bob Newhart Show and his comedic and dialogue skills are in fine form in Freebie.

Loretta Swit, who played Hot Lips on TV’s M*A*S*H, and Valerie Harper, best know as Rhoda from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, have minor roles.

“I gotta have a taco.”

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The Unbreakable Furiosa – YouTube

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Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat

Chritstmas Tree

I’m dreaming of a media Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the music glows
and the  TV shows
holiday classics all day long…

And to help you find music and movies for the holidays, I’ve knocked together a few quick guides (which are listed to the right as well):

Christmas Shows and Movies on TV—When to Watch

Christmas Movies and TV on Amazon

Christmas Music on Amazon

(The two “Amazon” lists use affiliate links; any money generated will be donated to the less fortunate.)

I know I’ve left out some of your favorites.  Let me know in comments and I will add them as I am able.

Also, keep an eye out for two more lists: one on holiday reading; and A Pirate Christmas—with links to (ahem) alternative sources for many of the titles I feature in the other lists.

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Hardcore porn on Netflix, Amazon Prime – Caligula, Last Tango in Paris and 9 Songs [sfw]

Shared without comment for your… edification?

Hardcore porn on Netflix Streaming

Lets be honest. Youve never heard of most of the movies available to stream on-demand through Netflix. Many are ranked by users between the one and two star range. But, where these films lack in such things as say, plot, they often makeup for their cinematic shortcomings with explicit nudity. The below list of streaming Netflix films containing hardcore sex was compiled in part from titles cross listed on under the category, “real explicit sex.” While I have seen many of these titles, for the others Ive had to take faith in the fact that Mr. Skin categorized these films alongside the hardcore sex tapes of Kim Kardashian, Kendra Wilkinson, Montana Fishburne, and Tila Tequila. (via Daily Loaf.)

Okay, I lied.  Commenting now.  The movies cited include 9 1/2 Weeks, 9 Songs, Caligula, Inside Deep Throat and Last Tango in Paris, at least some of which you have probably heard. And they are not just available through Netflix.  You can also watch many of the films on demand through Amazon Prime.

Of those, 9 Songs (2004) is the most recent and possibly the most interesting, at least at this point.

Caligula (1979) was fun when it came out because it was sort of the Claytons of dirty movies: the porn you’re having when you’re not having porn.  Lots of sex, but a gloss of culture (which was maybe just the gloss of money) that made it seem somehow less disreputable, lent to it in large part by a cast that included Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole and Malcolm McDowell. Plus history and costumes, which always lend a bit of gravitas. (Witness Downton Abbey.)

And both Last Tango in Paris and 9 1/2 Weeks were more or less sensations when they came out—because they were what Caligula only pretended to be: serious movies (or attempts) that nonetheless featured what was supposed to be serious sex.  But looking back at those two now that the sensation has faded, it’s clear they weren’t very good movies, and the sex wasn’t all that great either. I think they’re almost unwatchable, whereas Caligula at least has the virtue of looking pretty campy and silly, cheesy, and that has a certain pleasure to it, whereas the seriousness of the other two now just seems dreadfully pretentious.

9 Songs is also trying to be a serious movie with serious sex in it.  But —and this is a big difference—the sex is pretty good.

Though we might need to think about what constitutes “pretty good sex” in this context.  Genuine hardcore porn is very focused stuff, in more ways than one.  The camera angles, depth of field, lighting, even the cutting are all directed at maximizing scopophilia and sexual arousal. And you’re never in any doubt about what is going where at any given time (though in group scenes you may occasionally loose track of exactly whose whats are involved).  And you’re never in doubt about when the action has reached its… climax.  It is designed to have a direct appeal to our nether regions, and I find that directness appealing in its own way.

The sex in 9 Songs is not that. It is not hardcore sex, whatever the Daily Loaf might think.  It’s sex.  Sex as you (hopefully) know it, assuming you haven’t been utterly conditioned by porn.  It’s a little vaguer. The people are focused, internally and on each other, but the scene, the details are more blurry.  It’s not brightly light and in sharply focused close-up. And the camera spends much less time in what I think of as gynecological intensity mode.  It is real sex, both in the sense that the actors are genuinely doing the things they seem to be doing on the screen, and in the sense that it is sex as people outside of movies (in Western society) often/generally experience and enact it.  At least when they are that age.

Here’s what Roger Ebert had to say about the sex in his fairly positive and very smart review:

The sex scenes betray the phoniness of commercial pornography; when the Adult Film Awards give a prize for Best Acting, they’re ridiculed, but after seeing this film you’ll have to admit the hard-core performers are acting, all right; “9 Songs” observes the way real people play and touch and try things out, and make little comments and have surprised reactions.

What Mark Kermode found most interesting about the film was that Winterbottom had made “the least titillating, most explicit movie around.”  He found the movie irritating, but still appreciated what the director, Michael Winterbottom, was doing with the sex.  But he hated the people.

As for it being a serious movie, a movie that is serious about being a movie and actually tries to think through what that means… Well, it was made by Michael Winterbottom who I find to be one of the more interesting directors currently making movies.  His movies aren’t always good, but they are always interesting, even if on no other level than as attempts to interrogate productively what it means to be a popular film, and how popular films might be other than they are, or tend to be  (ie, everything from Transformers: The Dark of the Moon to The Master). His filmography includes Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland, 24 Hour Party People, and A Cock and Bull Story. He’s an intelligent and interested filmmaker, interested in what it means to make films, who thinks about what a popular narrative cinema is and might be, and about how to push against the medium and its structures and expectations in (hopefully) productive  and engaging ways.

9 Songs doesn’t always work.  Both the narrative and the characters feel a bit too sketchy, and that’s pretty fatal. Kermode’s irritation with, even hatred of, the two main characters is not, sadly, a wildly idiosyncratic response.  But I think it gets an A for effort, or at least a B, for giving us such good sex—that is, such real sex—in something approaching a mainstream English-language film, and doing that within a film that tries to play productively with both the visual and narrative qualities of mainstream film.  (It also has a very good soundtrack.) It’s not an art film, and it’s not pornography.  It’s something kind of new.  Possibly the beginning of something.

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Clint Eastwood’s Comedic Timing

I’m not best pleased that one of America’s greatest filmmakers, Clint Eastwood, has chosen to throw in his lot very publically with America’s worst political party, and at what is possibly the lowest, most appalingly stupid time in its history.  In fact, Eastwood’s appearance at the RNC convention is likely to be the only highly-praised Eastwood performance I never see.

But I am kind of fascinated, from a geek/interwebz observer perspective, with the publicity/search engine optimization going on around it. Do a Google search on “clint eastwood comedic timing” and you get a full page of entries all with exactly the same heading:

Republicans Praise Clint Eastwood’s Speech: ‘His Comedic Timing 

I thought all the dot commies and Google code monkeys were on our side, but there are clearly some effective, interwebs-savvy publicists working for the RNC.

Anyway, there’s no way his performance at the RNC could match his gifted timing in such classics as Kelly’s Heroes or Paint Your Wagon

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Great Films—Seven Samurai, Notorious, The Ruling Class—on Hulu

Some of my favorite movies are available online, in high quality, for free (with limited ads) on Hulu right now.  I suspect these movies will only be temporarily available, as part of ongoing efforts to lure people in to Hulu Plus, so take advantage of them while they last:

The Seven Samurai (1954). What needs to be said of this movie? One of the greatest films ever made. Directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring a young Toshiro Mifune and the charming studio stalwart Takashi Shimura in one of his finest performances (his best being in Kurosawa’s Ikiru). Kurosawa drew on tropes and traditions of American Westerns as well as samurai movies, and in turn The Seven Samurai influenced both of those genres—albeit the samurai movie to a much greater degree—directly shaping such films as The Magnificent Seven (a remake of the Western-influence samurai movie as a Western) and more recently Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, which features a peasant warrior who is the direct descendent, if not an outright copy, of Mifune’s character in Seven Samurai.

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) is not in the same class as Seven Samurai, but the long-running series of samurai movies is still a treat. Shintaro Katsu stars as Zatoichi, a blind masseuse roaming the Japanese countryside, who conceals a deadly sword in his cane and terrific swordsmanship beneath his bumbling façade.  Most of the films in the series seem to have much the same plot: Zatoichi comes to a new town where there is some strife, often involving gangsters and gamblers, and his attraction to a beautiful woman or sense of justice draws him into the conflict; when it’s over he’s slain all the bad guys, most of them in one climatic battle, but has to leave town, driven out, back to his wanderings, by a sense of his own flawed nature and of the violence he feels follows in his wake. Or something like that. You can figure it out for yourself if you have the time: Hulu is showing 18 of them for free at the moment.

I grew up watching these on weekends in a local Japanese theatre. They’re brilliant. After you watch them, you can read about the series on Wikipedia or check it out on Amazon. Takashi Kitano did a mostly excellent remake/updating of Zatoichi a few years back, with himself in the title role — but it was a bit to serious and realistic, and lacked the hokey charm I find in the originals.

Stagecoach (1939)—the film that transformed Westerns, bringing both John Ford and John Wayne to prominence.  The first appearance of John Wayne in the film is one of the great entrances of American cinema.

Notorious (1946)—one of Ingrid Bergman’s most powerful performances and Cary Grant as you have never seen him before. Bergman is a party-going playgirl in South America recruited to act as a spy; Cary Grant is her spy-master.

Charade (1963)—a movie I love, really so extravagantly that I might argue for it as one of the greatest movies of all time, though I know that in truth it isn’t. But Cary Grant has never been more charming, I think, which is saying a lot, and Audrey Hepburn is luminous and… funny. Really funny. I don’t think her gift of comic timing has ever been showcased as well (except perhaps in How to Steal a Million). Hepburn plays a young Parisian wife who suddenly finds herself a widow, and Cary Grant pops into her life as…well, watch it and see.  Directed by Stanley Donen, who started out as a song-and-dance man with Gene Kelly as his partner. He made his directorial debut working with Kelly on Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town (perhaps the greatest integrated musical ever), on which he is credited as co-director, and then went on to make a number of very good films on his own, including Indiscreet with Grant and Ingrid Bergman; but those first musicals aside, this is clearly his masterpiece.

The Blob (1958). A classic monster movie that still scares.  An unintentionally smart mash-up of teen movie and 50s sci fi monster flick, with one of Steve McQueen’s first performances, and a bizarrely fun and goofy theme song by Burt Bacharach.

The Ruling Class (1972). A tour de force performance by Peter O’Toole, one of his finest, as the mentally unbalanced heir of a British noble.  DO NOT read any details about this film before watching it (even my earlier post on it), as there’s a surprise twist about 2/3rds of the way through, and it is worth being surprised by it.  This is a cult classic, which used to get rapturous receptions at the UC Theatre in Berkeley during fairly frequent screenings in the late 1970s through mid 1980s. A bitterly black comedy whose social commentary may not seem particularly startling or original now, but was fairly sharp back in the day.  Worth watching for O’Toole’s performance alone.

Quadrophenia (1979)—a great soundtrack by The Who, mods versus rockers, and Sting.

Most of these are from the wonderful Criterion Collection, which guarantees that the prints and their digital transfer will be of the highest quality, and that the versions of the films will be the most original (no half-baked cuts for the American market or anything like that).

If you have a Roku or anything similar, you can even sign up for a free one-week trial, call in sick and stay home to watch all of them for free, over a few gloriously indulgent days of movie magic, on your (hopefully big screen) TV. Otherwise you can watch them on your computer; you know, now that I think of if, the office I’m working in right now has excellent broadband, and no network restrictions…

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Bond… James Bond – and his cars

Bond In Motion exhibition at National Motor Museum on January 17, 2012 in Beaulieu, England. The display, which marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film series, is the largest exhibition of James Bond vehicles ever staged and runs until the end of the year. (Photos by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

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Mark Kermode is No. 3

Congrats to Mark Kermode – one of my favorite film reviewers – whose weekly review program on BBC Radio 5 Live, “Kermode And Mayo’s Film Reviews” is the number 3 most downloaded weekly podcast, worldwide, on the BBC.  Since the BBC began podcasts in 2007, the program has been downloaded more than 24 million times. (via BBC – Media Centre – BBC Radio celebrates billionth download.)

You can get more of Mark Kermode’s film reviews at Kermode Uncut – Mark Kermode’s film blog.

I also highly recommend his autobiography. It’s got some of his typically pithy and degenerate insights into the movies, but it could also serve as a guide book for anyone wanting to become a film reviewer. Though the internet has certainly changed the specifics drastically, it’s still relevant, and very, very funny:  It’s Only a Movie: Reel Life Adventures of a Film Obsessive.

And, oh yes, hello to Jason Isaacs.

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On TCM Sep 8-11: Old Faves, Michael Curtiz, and Films for 9/11

A couple of favorites roll around again—which maybe shows that TCM’s programmers share my tastes, or perhaps just that their vaults are not as deep as they sometimes seem. On Thursday, 8 Sep at 3:30am TCM is showing the great Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers (1955) starring Alec Guinness—and once again they’ve mislabeled this great black comedy as a “crime” picture. Then The Mouse That Roared (1959), with Peter Sellers and Jean Seberg, screens at 7am.

On Friday (at 5am), you can catch one of the great Spenser Tracy / Katharine Hepburn romantic comedies, Pat And Mike (1952). Hepburn is a multitalented athlete from an upper class background and Tracy is the fight promoter who takes her on as a client. At 10am, there’s a little known and seldom seen film from the great director, Nicholas Ray: Party Girl (1958), starring Cyd Charisse. At noon is a movie I’ve never heard of but am quite interested in: The Angel Wore Red (1960), directed by Nunnally Johnson and starring Dirk Bogarde and Ava Gardner as a priest and prostitute who fall in love during the Spanish Civil War. The synopsis makes it sound like sentimental rubbish, but I have a long-standing interest in the Spanish Civil War…

Michael Curtiz directed some terrific movies—including Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with Errol Flynn, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), and most famously Casablanca (1942). He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar five times, twice in one year (1938), and won for Casablanca. But he made a lot of movies—173 of them in a career that started in Hungary in 1915 and ended with his last movie in 1961, only one year before his death—and some of them were bound to be less than terrific. The ones showing Friday evening are in this latter category. Yankee Doodle Dandy proved that Curtiz could do decent work in a musical, but I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951) and The Jazz Singer (1953) are at best mediocre, demonstrations that musicals require more than interesting female leads—Doris Day in the former and Peggy Lee in the latter—and competent direction to succeed. Fortunately, TCM has some other Curtiz films playing this week.

Saturday morning (Sep 10) starts with a decent, albeit minor example of Curtiz’s work: the “Philo Vance” murder mystery The Kennel Murder Case (1933), starring Mary Astor and William Powell. Interesting trivia: both these actors have a connection to one of San Francisco’s adopted sons, Dashiell Hammett. Mary Astor is best know for her work as the wide-eyed and seemingly sympathetic, but endlessly duplicitous Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941), based on the novel of the same name by Hammett. Similarly, William Powell is best remembered as Nick Charles in the “Thin Man” series, also based on a Hammett novel. The “Philo Vance” mysteries were immensely popular in their day, with 12 novels, 15 movies (from 1929-47), and a radio serial. These days, though, they’re largely forgotten, while other mystery series from that era are still known and watched. Powell appeared as Vance in four of the films, but it’s his work in the six “Thin Man” movies (from 1934-47) that is remembered these days. Basil Rathbone played Vance in the fourth film in the series, but it is his other series from that period, the “Sherlock Holmes” movies he did with Nigel Bruce, that is still watched today.

TCM is showing more “Philo Vance” movies on subsequent Saturday mornings, so you’ll get a chance to find out what made them popular at the time. But if Curtiz’s “Philo Vance” mystery is basically of interest to film scholars or as a curiousity, the rest of Saturday offers at least two unqualified treasures: The Caine Mutiny (1954), directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Humphrey Bogart and Van Johnson, and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962), the classic “angry young man” film directed by Tony Richardson.

For the 9/11 anniversary, TCM pulls out all the stops. Sunday (Sep 11) is classics from start to finish—including Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in The Pride Of The Yankees (1942) at 4:45am; one of the first and greatest American musicals, 42nd Street (1933) at 7am; Woody Allen’s masterpiece Annie Hall (1977) at 1:15pm; perhaps the finest and most important of all “integrated musicals” at 3pm, On the Town (1949); Curtiz’s masterpiece Casablanca (1942) at 5pm; and one of Howard Hawks’ best, and one of the best Westerns, Red River (1948), with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, at 11pm. It’s an amazing day of film, selected in part by TCM’s guest programmers, two responders to the Twin Towers attacks.

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A bad day for Netflix

Netflix stocks took a big hit from two significant changes to the company’s service today. First, their controversial new pricing structure went into effect. Customers who want both DVDs through the mail and unlimited streaming will see a 60 percent price increase. Perhaps worse was the other news of the day: premium cable channel Starz announced that it will not renew its distribution deal with Netflix, which will expire in February 2012. The cable channel supplies Neflix with both Sony and Walt Disney films so the blow is significant, though Netflix says that Starz only accounts for about 8% of its subscribers’ viewing.

The news about Starz pulling out of its deal with Netflix comes as uncertainty continues to swirl around the other online streaming film and television service, Hulu.  Hulu is a joint venture of NBC Universal, Fox Entertainment, and ABC, which is part of Disney. But early this year both Fox and Disney discussed pulling their content from Hulu and the company is up for sale.  Most recently, Fox started holding back new episodes of its TV shows from Hulu—resulting in a surge of pirate downloads of those shows, but also making Hulu look even shakier.

It’s clear that even as more and more companies move “into the cloud”—with Amazon, Google and Apple all launching cloud music services, and even the Federal government committing to working in the cloud—the film and TV industry is becoming increasingly wary of streaming video services like Hulu and Netflix, seeing potential revenue streaming away under new models of viewership in which they have less control.

No doubt they are investigating new models that will give them a greater share of the revenues, just as magazines and newspapers (such as the Financial Times) are doing in relation to Apple’s iTunes pricing schemes. That may mean going it alone. In the short term, though, what it will probably mean for viewers is being stuck with the old models, and in particular with cable television.

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The Beginnings of Science Fiction Cinema: A Trip to the Moon

On this day in 1902, the first science fiction film was released: Le Voyage dans la lune (“A Trip to the Moon”), directed by Georges Méliès and based on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon with material from The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells

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Cowboys & Aliens. And Han Solo. And Indians. And yet a little dull.

A few minutes into Cowboys & Aliens I found myself wishing I’d gone to the Smurfs movie instead.  I was taking the sons of a friend to the movies, and I knew that the violence in the opening scene was more than she would have approved. For that matter, it was more than I was expecting from a PG-13 film.

Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes in the desert with no boots, a wound in his side, a weird metal contraption strapped to his wrist and a bad case of amnesia.  Three men ride up while he is trying to get the thing on his wrist off.  Lingering close-ups of bloody scalps hanging from their saddles tell us that these are not nice guys.  A fight ensues, during which we get more bloody close-ups, this time of a knife stuck in one of their legs, and then of Lonergan’s face as it is splattered with blood from the head he has just bashed in.

It wasn’t anything to which I would have objected normally, but it seemed unnecessary and perhaps a tad overly nasty, and certainly not something I really wanted those boys to see, or their mum to hear about. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to register much with the boys. Based on their comments after, they’d been more engaged by the aliens’ second set of hands, and by a cowpoke taking a dump in the river, than by the nastiness that discomforted me. But I was still a bit bothered…

After that bloody opening, Lonergan rides into town, where he is recognized as a wanted fugitive and arrested.  As he is being loaded into a prison wagon, the aliens show up in insectile flying craft. They blast up the town and start hauling off townsfolk with metallic ropes that lash out and grab them. It’s one of the few moments of real wit in the movie, seeing the aliens lassoing townspeople like cattle.

The thing on Lonergan’s wrist activates, and he is able to use it to blast his way out of the prison wagon, and then to shoot down one of the alien craft. The alien pilot escapes and some of the townsfolk set off in pursuit, hoping it will lead them to where the lassoed people have been taken. They are accompanied by Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the local cattle baron, whose ne’er–do–well son was one of those taken. Lonergan initially abandons them, but later comes back when his memory starts to return and he recalls that the aliens had kidnapped him and his wife and killed her.  Also along for the ride is a mysterious woman (played by Olivia Wilde, seen most recently on Tron:Legacy and the TV show House), who seems to know something about the aliens and have her own cause for revenge. The group meets up first with Lonergan’s former gang, and then with a tribe of Apaches, both of whom ultimately join them in their assault on the aliens.

It’s fun to watch Harrison Ford as a cowboy—the last time we saw that was probably The Frisco Kid (1979), a fairly fun comedy Western directed by Robert Aldrich and co-starring Gene Wilder.  We’ve seen him on a horse since, in the “Indiana Jones” movies, but he would have been good in more Westerns. And Daniel Craig is good, too—looking surprisingly gaunt after his sleek foray as James Bond, and appropriately haunted, making a fairly effective “man with no name” lone cowboy hero. But gaunt as he is, he’s still a bit too gym-toned for me.  Think of the great movie cowboys—the long and lanky James Stewart, the even leaner Henry Fonda, solid (later chunky) John Wayne, and perhaps most particularly the rangy, languid menace of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti Westerns. Craig’s eyes have got it, and his lined face, but somehow the body and moves seem more martial arts than open range.

The film lives up to its title. Cowboys happen. Aliens happen. And yet it all seemed a little… dull. The pursuit of the aliens is a bit hard to believe. No one riding around the hills, not even those Apaches, noticed that huge alien structure with spacecraft flying out of it? And there are so many subplots along the way—the outlaws, the Apaches, the mysterious woman, Dolarhyde’s backstory—that there isn’t much room for the things we most enjoy about movies with cowboys and movies with aliens, so it ends up feeling like, despite all those subplots, not a whole lot happens.  There’s a ridiculous showdown between the Apaches and Dolarhyde before the final battle. And that final battle with aliens ends up offering nothing really new and no real surprises.

It’s actually a bog standard fantasy novel plot. Lonergan’s amnesia makes him the orphan with a mysterious past. His alien wrist device is the magic ring, sword, oracular pig, whatever. He goes off to hunt down the evil force in its lair, being joined along the way by a band, a fellowship. Together they defeat the evil, and harmony is restored in the kingdom. It’s not bad to follow that archetypal storyline. Lots of great books and movies have been made from it.  Unfortunately, it feels like this movie ran out of inventive steam shortly after the elevator pitch one imagines got it started: it’s a Western—with aliens! and Han Solo!

In the beginning, there were moments that suggested it might have more to offer than that elevator pitch. The local preacher, Meacham (Clancy Brown), had that real, authentic Western feel initially, but his character degenerates into caricature pretty quickly. He’s there to bang on about absolution to the film’s other figures, particularly Lonergan and the town saloon keeper, Doc (played by Sam Rockwell, Zaphod Beeblebrox in the lamentable film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from a few years back). Doc’s name should have warned us that the scriptwriters were running out of ideas fast. The fact that the town’s name was Absolution, and that this emerged as a key thread in the script, might also have been a warning.

If Sergio Leone had made the film, no one in Absolution would have been absolved; damnation would have been more likely. But instead, we get the safe restoration of all the alien kidnap victims—though there seems to be no real reason they were taken, much less kept alive—and absolution for all the bad guys—Dolarhyde becomes a good citizen and his son is reformed; Lonergan is effectively pardoned by the sheriff, and even his outlaw gang seems to have been integrated into the community. It’s a “one big happy family” scene at the end, with all of them drinking together in the saloon. With one exception.

The Indians aren’t part of the celebration. The group of Apaches that the rescue team encounter join them in attacking the aliens because their loved ones have been kidnapped as well. But while the nasty outlaws get invited to the wrap party at the saloon, the Apaches seem to be absent. I guess it was easier to imagine vicious, smelly murderers getting recuperated by the shared experience of vanquishing alien hordes than it was Indians.

Maybe because there is a real fracture line in the film around Indians and the West, and Westerns.

Like most Westerns—like almost all Westerns—Cowboys & Aliens is set in the period between the end of the American Civil War and the “closing of the frontier,” when the last groups of free and independent Indians were brought under the heel of the federal government.  And as in many of these Westerns, the Civil War lurks in the background, here in the form of Colonel Dolarhyde whose power and violent nature were shaped by that war, and whose war stories get told in the course of the movie’s quest.

Another great theme/setting for Westerns is the conflict between cattlemen and townsfolk, the range wars, and this is clearly also at play in Cowboys & Aliens, between Dolarhyde and the townsfolk—particularly in the beginning, when Dolarhyde’s son Percy rides into town and starts shooting things up. It’s straight out of any number of Wyatt Earp/OK Corral-inspired movies, with the confrontation between the forces of law and order and the unruly cowboys. The only twist is having Lonergan the outlaw stand up to the cowboy.  (The cowboys riding into town to free one of their own from the sheriff’s hoosegow was the whole plot, really, of one of my favorite Westerns, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo.)

So the filmmakers were aware of the West, of at least of Westerns.  And were not without wit and intelligence, as in, for instance, the “lassoing” of the townsfolk, and the earlier scene where they “mutilate” some of Dolarhyde’s cattle. But given all of that, you might have expected something more to come out of the fact that aliens have invaded the West to mine gold, and that this makes them obvious stand-ins for the Europeans invading Indian lands for resources (land, buffalo, gold). But instead, the fallout (literally, of gold) from the defeat of the aliens means the town will grow rapidly, and while it brings the cowboys and townsfolk together, the absence of the Apache from the closing celebration is a clear token of things to come as far as they are concerned.

There’s a certain amount of irony around the title here. The title suggests that the aliens occupy the space of the Indians—Cowboys & Aliens instead of the normal “cowboys and indians”—but in fact, by invading the land to take the resources, they are more like cowboys. And the attack by the film’s cowboys—Lonergan, Dolarhyde and co., joined by the Apaches—on the alien structure is a bit like an Indian attack on a fort in an old western. It’s really the cowboys who are the Indians, not the aliens.  But only until the closing. Then it is back to business as usual: the cowboys are cowboys again, and the Indians are missing in action.

The filmmakers missed a real chance here to be a bit wittier and smarter, and make more of a revisionist Western, by highlighting these ironical reversals, developing them more and having them lead somewhere.  It’s clear that this was on their minds—or at least some of their minds, to some extent. Maybe it died on the cutting room floor to make room for the romance angle between Craig and Olivia Wilde, which frankly I thought was another unnecessary distraction from what I’d come to see, what the title promised: cowboys and aliens.

As for that also unnecessary nastiness which bugged me in the beginning, it continued, like an irritating, intermittent whine.  The cowpoke dropping his drawers to take a dump in the river, which the boys found so interesting, didn’t do much for me, and I was even less impressed with the subsequent scene of Dolarhyde torturing this cowboy because he somehow suspected… what? That the cowboy was responsible for a whole herd of cattle being blown up, fried and eviscerated? How would that have worked?

Ford’s Dolarhyde is at the center of much of the nastiness that follows the first scene—with the torturing of the cowpoke and then a gruesome story he tells a kid about cutting someone’s throat.  I don’t mind violence and blood.  In their place, they can be crucial to a movie.  I just didn’t think the nastiness was crucial to this movie, and didn’t see what it added. I suppose I was just super-sensitive because I knew how much flak I was going to catch from those boys’ mom when she found out. But no—it didn’t add anything, and took up screen time that could have been much more profitably and appropriately  used.

I’m sure I would have been much more miserable at The Smurfs, and felt even more guilty about inflicting on the boys what I am pretty sure would be a really stupid movie rather than some blood and violence which was more upsetting for me, thinking of them and their mom, than it was for them.

The British Board of Film Classification gave Cowboys & Aliens a 12A classification, meaning that the film is not considered suitable for children under the age of 12, though they may go if accompanied by an adult. The wording for the American PG-13 rating seems a bit less strict, merely holding that “Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.”  I might have thought twice about taking these kids, both of whom were under 12 (albeit just), to this movie if I’d know it had a 12A certificate, but the truth is, finally, that it was my bad.  I grew up watching movies with cowboys and aliens—and Harrison Ford—and I thought this would be more like them. I should have known better, really.

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, film buff and occasional reviewer, and former private detective. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.


What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.





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