Big Screen Review: Cowboys & Aliens
The Review: In the normal cycle of summer movies, it’s inevitable in the search for unique concepts that one genre may no longer be enough to satisfy audiences who’ve grown bored of superheroes and giant fighty robots. If you were looking for genres to splice together, near the top of your list would likely be sci-fi, a sure fire summer winner, and the Western, possibly the most distinct American genre and the most likely to appeal to the widest possible audience. So in the attempt to appeal to every possible demographic, mashing together the sci-fi and the Western genres should certainly have a pretty broad appeal. Want to guarantee your audience? Then how about picking one of the hottest directors of summer properties working at the moment, with two Iron Man films under his belt, and then pick two actions stars of the highest calibre to fill your two lead roles. How about Indiana Jones and James Bond? Huh? HUH?
The concept, the casting, the snappy title. There’s no way that this could fail. Which can only mean that complacency must be the reason why Cowboys & Aliens is a tedium-fest of the first order. It’s difficult to know where to start with this, so let’s aim for somewhere around the hour mark. This is about the point when the first thing of any interest and excitement happens in the entire running time, and even then it’s over mercifully briefly. Before that, we’ve endured an hour of set-up, which could and should have gone one of two ways. If you’re going to have cowboys and aliens, you should either make lots of subtle (or not-so-subtle) references and in-jokes to those genres, or in bringing them together you should find something new and refreshing in one or both of them. The assumption here is that purely having Cowboys & Aliens together is such a wheeze, having them on screen together is enough. It’s not, by a long chalk.
You’ll struggle to find a blander Western than the one the aliens stumble into. Daniel Craig does brooding and steely about as well as anyone, but here he’s been robbed of his memory, so that’s all he gets to do, and other than occasionally beating people up in frustration there’s no investment in him, because even he’s got no idea why he’s beating them up. Harrison Ford is some way short of his best, which normally occurs when he’s allowed to imbue his role with his natural charm, but gruff landowner fatally stifles that charm for vast swathes of the running time. In terms of the other characters, most of them get one-note roles, from Olivia Wilde (token woman) to Sam Rockwell (can’t shoot straight) and it’s only Clancy Brown as the town preacher who seems to have any warmth or depth to him. It also seems that Paul Dano only makes westerns these days, which serves as an instant reminder of how much better the other ones he’s been in are.
It’s the same old story, in more ways than one. Six credited writers and not one of them manages to come up with anything approaching a coherent story; it’s just a sequence of events that happen to the same people, developments generally just happen rather than being earned by the actions of the characters and little of it makes a jot of sense. It gets a little more interesting in the second hour, when the cowboys’ normal screen partners start to turn up in numbers and when they help the cowboys to take the fight to the alien interlopers. But this could have been so much more; instead it’s a flaccid excuse of a film, limping out in a sea of summer movies with superheroes and giant fighty robots that all turned up with more plot, character and charm than this. A few Daniel Craig moments and a large scale, if odd, climax, aside, then this is just one more indication why such disparate genres just don’t mix.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s not short of scale and wide open spaces, it’s just short of pretty much everything else. But if lots of shots of the Old West are your thing, then you’ll not be disappointed.
The Score: 4/10
The Pitch: Oh my god, they falsely imprisoned Kenny! You bastards!
The Review: True stories have always been a staple of cinema, and when it comes to recognition, either from audiences or their peers, then it’s sometimes the sheer magnitude of the events that can determine how much attention you should give. So try this one for size: guy gets arrested, tried and imprisoned for murder but proclaims his innocence. OK, you’re thinking, so far so typical, but then how about this: sister of imprisoned murderer believes his innocence but can’t find a way to convince anyone, and their poor background means they can’t afford fancy lawyers. So she decides to become a fancy lawyer herself, attempting to put herself through a degree, law school and then to attempt to overturn the conviction.
If it sounds like a TV movie of the week, then the material might well be a staple of that genre, but the acting talent here raises things up a level or two. Sam Rockwell is one of the most versatile actors of his generation, so manages to inhabit Kenny Waters successfully to the extent where he fully engages your sympathies, but that you still believe he might have been capable of the crime in question. Taking the other main role of his sister, and carrying the film for long stretches, is Hilary “I’ve got two Oscars me” Swank, portraying a naivety at first, then a grim determination to see her quest through, and at the same time rid herself of the giant Eighties hair she’s portrayed with at the start of the film.
This is one of the side effects of the passage of time the film portrays; not only through a large chunk of adulthood, but the film also has a choppy narrative which allows it to cast back to the childhood of Kenny and Betty Anne, putting valuable context around their later situations and strengthening the bond between them, so we can understand exactly why Betty Anne gave up such a large part of her life on this quest. There’s a few famous faces along the way, including Minne Driver as Betty Anne’s best friend at law school and Juliette Lewis as a key witness at the original trial; Melissa Leo has also picked up a Golden Globe this year for her efforts in The Fighter, but she may be the only one from this cast to trouble the engravers at awards time and her role here is tiny.
The reason for that is not the strength of the acting, which is at least good across the board, or the story itself which is compelling, but the direction, from Tony Goldwyn. You might remember him from such films as Disney’s Tarzan (he was Tarzan) or Ghost (he was the creepy bad guy), but you might not remember him from his other directorial efforts, which have been predominantly TV shows, and this TV background does show through, unfortunately. The story, despite its epic sweep through the characters’ lives, does occasionally get bogged down; at the point when one crucial piece of evidence is missing, the characters spend so long looking I was tempted to offer to help myself. The movie also leaves out one crucial detail about the lives of the characters after the events of the movie that could have put an entirely different, and possibly more interesting, spin on the outcome. That said, if true stories with good acting are your thing, then I’m convinced you’ll get something from Conviction.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s the performances more than the visuals that will draw you in on this occasion, although there is the occasional well-framed image that deserves a big screen outing.
The Score: 7/10