Notes from the Back Row 

Alien western can't shoot straight

With westerns, there are rules. You don't mess around.

A good western has a preacher in it and the kind of stoic hero who says things like, "Leave the Bottle." A true western has a musical number and it always helps to have a child character that lives through the bullet-riddled finale, thus truly learning the hard, nation-building lessons of the Wild West.

Clint Eastwood once commented that jazz music and the western film are the only truly unique American art forms and so the western is the Holy Grail of Hollywood - there are rules and the most successful westerns know when to hold onto these rules, and when to fold 'em.

Director John Favreau plays 'em pretty straight (a little too straight), in his latest flick Cowboys and Aliens - the characters and plot are pure Rio Bravo meets The Searchers but the bad guys in this flick are body-snatching insectozoid bastards from another galaxy.

Daniel Craig stars as an amnesiac loner with a mysterious futuristic manacle on his left hand. He ends up in a hostile town run by Harrison Ford, a villainous cattle baron. Olivia Wilde ( Tron: Legacy) assumes the position of femme fatale in a sweet looking corset and Noah Ringer ( The Last Airbender) plays the kid. Then the sky rains fire.

Cowboys and Aliens is not bad. It's a slick, Spielberg and Ron Howard-produced, well-shot genre mash-up full of Grade A acting talent. The first 35 minutes rule but then an inconsistent script starts unraveling the tension, and despite everyone's best efforts things get a little bland and cliché. (Plus the aliens are kinda weak and the ending is awfully "kumbaya.")

It's still cowboys battling aliens for 119 minutes, but it's not all that smart, and nor does it do any real justice to either the sci-fi or western genres. This one had the potential to be better. Favreau and his six screenwriters really squandered their shot.

One cool thing is Cowboys and Aliens also stars Adam Beach, one of Canada's best actors. Beach is a snappier, sharper-looking Graham Greene for the new generation who's been in 32 films since 1991. It's good to see him up onscreen holding his own with James Bond, Indiana Jones and Han Solo. Cowboys and Aliens opens this Friday at the Village 8 in Whistle-town and the Garibaldi 5 down in Squampton.

The other new flick, screening in Whistler only, is Crazy, Stupid, Love starring Steve Carrell as a forty-something everyman whose wife ditches him and unravels his life. Devastated, Carrell begins tagging along with suave charmer Ryan Gosling, learning how to pull chicks just as his mentor does a 180-degree character shift and gets sappy lovesick over the always smoking hot Emma Stone. There's a lot of talk of "soulmates" but I suppose Crazy, Stupid Love is decent for a Rom-Com - albeit a tad lacking in the "Crazy" and heavy on the "Stupid" and the "Love."

The last film opening is The Smurfs, starring Hank Azaria as Gargamel and Neil Patrick Harris as a successful NYC adman/father-to-be who one day wakes up with Smurfs in his life. There are a lot of toilet and public urination jokes and Katy Perry voices Smurfette. This one looks weird enough to be either the worst or best acid movie of the 21st century, depending on how well you know your chemist.

The download of the week is hard-to-find Johnny Guitar, a twisted chick-western starring Joan Crawford that is a perfect example of how to play within the rules yet still do something new.



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