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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Westerns

'Cowboys & Aliens': Five lessons to take away

August 1, 2011 |  9:55 am

Cowboys & Aliens Daniel Craig

This post has been corrected. Please see the note at the bottom for details.

There haven't been many film experiments in recent months more interesting than "Cowboys & Aliens." A genre mash-up not based on a widely known property, Jon Favreau's expensive new movie also rode in with several high-profile personalities, including an A-list actor from this generation (Daniel Craig) and an equally big name from a previous generation (Harrison Ford).

Yet the science-fiction western could pull off only $36.2 million in box office receipts this last weekend. That's barely more than the other big summer action movie that wasn't part of a known franchise, "Super 8," which opened to $35.5 million without the help of A-list stars. "Cowboys" didn't even win the weekend, at least not yet, finishing in a rare tie with the less promoted (and expensive) "Smurfs" reboot.

So what does the "Cowboys" performance tell us? A quick synopsis.

Hybrid hiccups. Genre mash-ups can go one of two ways: They can unite disparate audiences or they can alienate them. "Cowboys" seems to have done the latter, with younger fanboys in particular unsure of what to make of the western element (nearly two-thirds of the audience was older than 30, writes my colleague Amy Kaufman). That seems to be the larger trend. Last year's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" -- which combined martial arts, video games, comic books and romance -- was a miss. We'll see how "Attack the Block," which combines horror with science fiction and comedy fares. The movie performed only decently in limited release this weekend.

Favreau's foibles? Jon Favreau is the rare Hollywood personality who regularly toggles between studio acting and big-ticket directing. How's he doing on the latter front? After "Iron Man" gave his career a jolt in 2008, things have been a bit choppy. "Iron Man 2" made a boatload of money but got lukewarm reviews from many critics. (Shortly after, he left the franchise.) And now despite an all out-Favreau blitz, his new film has opened to a disappointing sum. Sure, it was better than 2005's "Zathura" -- but that isn't saying much.

The Craig effect. Perhaps the most intriguing of all the object lessons. Daniel Craig is undeniably a movie star, having helped resurrect the James Bond franchise with "Casino Royale" five years ago. But do we only want to see him inhabiting an icon? We didn't really care much about him in "Munich" (which came out a year before "Royale"). And we didn't necessarily warm to him here. Troubling news for those behind the upcoming thriller-horror film "Dream House." And it raises the inevitable question about the extent to which we'll embrace him in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

Publicity pushiness. It's impossible to quantify how much promotion "Cowboys" actually received. But the film was certainly hard to avoid. A stream of TV spots in the last few weeks, plenty of actor talk-show appearances and a big Comic-Con premiere last weekend still couldn't will the film to a decisive weekend win. It all suggests that publicity can offer diminished returns if a movie's concept doesn't go down well with potential audiences. Consider this: "Battle: Los Angeles," a film that was promoted far less but that had an easily digestible concept and trailer, opened to just about the same amount.

A dinged model Ford. Harrison Ford's career has been in the doldrums for a while. A return to the kind of fanciful action that made him a movie star could have ushered in a larger comeback, at least  more than a dramatic vehicle like last year's "Morning Glory." But it turns out we may not want much to see Ford chasing bad guys across exotic landscapes much anymore either.

For the record, 12:44 p.m. Aug. 1: An earlier version of this post referred to "Cowboys & Aliens" as a 3-D movie. It was released only in 2-D.


What happened to Harrison Ford?

Jon Favreau is lassoing up everything

In a surprise, Smurfs rivals Cowboys & Aliens

--Steven Zeitchik

 Photo: Daniel Craig in "Cowboys & Aliens." Credit: Universal Pictures

A western with Leonardo DiCaprio?

July 29, 2011 |  3:37 pm


EXCLUSIVE: Westerns are continuing to have their moment in Hollywood, with this weekend's "Cowboys & Aliens" looking to pick up where last winter's breakout "True Grit" left off.

Now another project is gathering heat. "The Creed of Violence, a western-flavored script based on the 2010 novel from cult author Boston Teran, has attracted the attention of Leonardo DiCaprio, who's eager to play one of the lead roles, according to a person who was briefed on the actor's plans but could not talk about it publicly because he was not authorized to speak for DiCaprio. DiCaprio has been offered a lead part but has not decided whether he will accept it yet, a source said.

The movie has been in development with "In the Bedroom" director Todd Field for several years; like "Cowboys & Aliens," the film is set up at Universal. A studio spokeswoman did not immediately have a comment on DiCaprio's interest. A DiCaprio spokesman declined to comment.

"Creed" tells the 1910-era story of a criminal named Rawbone who tries to take a cache of weapons into Mexico as part of the country's revolution but is caught and then accompanied by a government agent who, it turns out, shares a secret past with him.

DiCaprio could play either of the two characters, said the source. If he plays the government agent, it would continue a recent pattern of law-enforcement roles in movies ranging from "Shutter Island" to the upcoming historical biopic "Hoover." If he plays the bad guy, it could mark the second time he's going back to a harsh period of American history to do so: He looks to come aboard as the villain in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained."


Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained: Are you read to see him play the bad guy?

Cowboys & Aliens: Jon Favreau is lassoing up everything

Cowboys & Aliens: Movie review

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Boston Teran's "The Creed of Love." Credit: Counterpoint Books

'Cowboys & Aliens' hosts a genre marriage [Trailer]

April 15, 2011 |  2:41 pm

There's a quiet, almost soulful moment at the beginning of the new trailer for "Cowboys & Aliens," when an amnesiac Daniel Craig has dropped in from another world, that suggests an intimacy you don't often find in summer-blockbuster filmmaking. It's not long before it gives way to the necessary quick-cut explosions. In-between, at least, we do get glimpses of a story, which apparently has to do with Harrison Ford's character's family being kidnapped by the aliens and Olivia Wilde's character fearing what the interplanetary interlopers will do to her people, challenges Craig's Jake Lonergan is tasked with when he's not trying to remember who he is.

It's still too soon to tell if the mash-up of westerns and science-fiction conventions will come off as interesting  or incongruous.  What does emerge from the trailer is that the movie doesn't skimp on the western atmosphere — something we suspect will play a lot better in a post-"True Grit" world — and that there isn't as much humor in Jon Favreau's July release as there was in the director's "Iron Man" movies. Still, the western cliche of a horse chase is nicely subverted with pursuit from an alien craft, and at the end there's even a nod to Ford's Indiana Jones shoot-the-swordsman moment from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," when Craig one-ups bad guys with a more sophisticated weapon.


— Steven Zeitchik



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James Mangold rides back to the Wild West

December 16, 2010 |  5:53 pm

Western fans and critics were mostly enamored of James Mangold's remake of the classic "3:10 to Yuma" when it hit theaters three years ago. So they might be interested to know that the director is returning to that territory.

The filmmaker,who's also behind "Walk the Line" and "Knight and Day," is coming on to direct "The Gunslinger," an original story of vengeance centering on a Texas Ranger. If that sounds like a certain other movie that's about to hit theaters, it should. The Coen brothers' "True Grit" is also a tale of vengeance with a Texas Ranger playing a key role (though it is, of course, in period; "Gunslinger" is a modern-day story).

We're a long way from a western renaissance. But "The Gunslinger," which will be set up at the Fox-based production company New Regency, suggests some savvy dealmaking: if "True Grit" becomes a hit, we could see another western coming in right behind it, only with a Mangold-ian instead of Coen-ian touch.

-- Steven Zeitchik


 Photo: 3:10 to Yuma. Credit: Lionsgate


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