About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys, Aliens, Time Machines, Robots, Monsters, Outer Space and Giant Mechanical Steampunk Spiders

The upcoming Cowboys and Aliens from Iron Man director Jon Favreau may seem like it was inspired by a Youtube mashup. While that may be true (though it is also based on a popular graphic novel), the movie is also part of a long history of cinematic pairings of cowboys and unlikely SF, Fantasy and Horror co-stars. It is a hybrid genre that has taken the legendary cowboy and put him into some bizarre and entertaining juxtapositions.

For instance...

Cowboys and Monsters

The ultimate outlaw cowboy. The ultimate Gothic monster.

Yep. All you need to know about Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) is in the title. There. I can only imagine some mid-60's producer of direct to drive-in movies thinking "Cowboy pictures do well. Frankenstein pictures do well....hmmm...".

Two weeks later you've got:

The film was followed by the equally commercially and critically successful
Billy The Kid vs. Dracula.

Sadly, plans for the subsequent Wild Bill Hickok vs. The Mummy and Geronimo Meets The Zombie Apocalypse were scrapped.

Notice that veteran Hollywood actor John Carradine (David and Keith's dad) plays Dracula. This is his fourth of five appearances as the infamous vampire.

For those who prefer their Cowboys and Monsters movies on to be on a grander scale, there's The Valley of Gwangi (1969).  This film features (to quote the tag line on the poster), "Cowboys and dinosaurs in the strangest round-up of all".  Yep. Cowboys discover a lost valley of dinosaurs in Mexico. They try and round up them big lizards to put 'em in a touring Wild West Show.  

Why weren't there more cowboy and dinosaur movies? That is one of the great unanswered question of cinema history.

The Valley of Gwangi  features some of visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen's most memorable stop motion animation work.

Forget Cowboys for a moment. Native Americans also get to see some dino action along with some long overdue sympathetic screen treatment in Turok: Son of Stone (2007), an animated direct-to-DVD feature  based on the classic comic book.

The story in a nutshell: Native American hunter Turok find himself trapped in a lost valley full of dinosaurs. Thankfully, this adaptation stays faithful to the old school original Turok premise of the comics of the 50's and 60's and not the later cyber time traveling Turok of the 80's and 90's.

Cowboys and Outer Space

In the Cowboys and Outer Space genre, the cowboys are bit more metaphorical images of cowboys and not so much actual cowboy who suddenly find themselves in outer space (though that movie would be fun).

In Outland (1981), Sean Connery plays the Marshal of a mining colony on one of Jupiter’s moons. In the classic Western tradition of the lone lawman, O’Neil refuses to turn a blind eye to the illegal activities of the colony’s corrupt, drug smuggling General Manager, Shepard (Peter Boyle, in a very strong performance).  In a plotline similar to the 1953 Western classic High Noon, O’Neil must stand alone against a group of hired guns sent by Shepard.  The 19th century wind up analog wall clock of High Noon counting down the hours till the outlaws arrive on the next train is replaced by a 21st century digital clock readout of Outland, counting down the hours till the outlaws arrive on the next interplanetary shuttle.

The High Noon plot (whether you recognize it or not) comes off as a tad clich├ęd in the midst of an otherwise exciting showdown in space.  Much of the production design of the movie has more than a passing similarity to the original Alien (1979). The sets are claustrophobic and often dark and not at all like the wide open spaces that most Westerns are known for. The feel of the film is, at times, more Raymond Chandler than Zane Grey.  Nonetheless, director Peter Hyams (2010, Capricorn One) sure knows how to direct some riveting chase scenes through the generically atypical and derivative settings.  Outland is also one of Sean Connery’s finest performances.

Josh Whedon’s Serenity (2005) is also a really solid entry into the Cowboys in Space genre.  Serenity, of course, is the feature film version of Whedon’s cult TV series, Firefly.  In Serenity and Firefly, Whedon has crafted the most sophisticated and subtle marriages of the two genres yet.

Set in a future that it clearly a post American civil war analogy in the stars, much of the look and feel of the series and the movie is very Western. Space cowboys abound. For Whedon, though, nothing is that simple. Cowboys and Outter Space is often merely a motif in which much more complex science fiction concepts are woven.

The feature film version of the series was made largely for the show's hardcore cult fan base who, along with Whedon, were disappointed by its cancellation of the show and its perceived lack of support from the Fox network.

To be fair, while the show and the film are both thematically and narratively fascinating, the whole affair turned out to be just a tad too esoteric for widespread mainstream success. Ya gotta hand it to Whedon, though. He coulda hedged his bets and gone with a much more on the nose Cowboys and Outer Space premises; like Buck Jones in the 25th Century or Marshall Bravestarr: The Motion Picture.

Thankfully, he took the riskier route.

Cowboys and Giant Mechanical Steampunk Spiders

The Wild Wild West (1999) had a whole posse of good things going for it. It was adapted from a fun and original 1960’s Western espionage TV series, it had some amazing actors in the persons’ of Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh and its director had previously directed the fun and successful Sci-Fi comedy, Men in Black. On top of all of that, the film is filled with amazing early Steampunk designs.  Unfortunately, the story is the weakest link of the movie.  That just leaves all them great elements stranded in the blazing deadly dry heat of Predictability Gulch.

It does have one very cool Giant Mechanical Steampunk Spider, though.

Cowboys and Time Machines

There seems to be something wrong with this premise. Don't get me wrong. Cowboys and Time Machines is a concept with a lot of promise. No movies in the genre seems to be able to live up to the promise, though.

In Back to the Future Part III (1990), Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd take the time-traveling Delorean back to1885 and also, coincidentally, to the franchise’s lowest point.  Marty McFly must stop the evil gun fighter  Bufford “Mad Dog” Tannen (an ancestor of Biff Tannen, the bully from the first two films) before he shoots and kills Doc Brown (yes, it’s another one of those time traveling paradox conundrums). Marty and Doc Brown also have to figure out how to get a flux capacitor working in the technologically challenged late 19th century so they can return to 1985. 

Among other things,  Part III sees Marty meet his great great grandparents. Interestingly, Marty’s ancestors look a great deal like Marty and his mom (to the point where they seem to be played by the same actors, even). It seems that the McFly family tradition of inadvertent inter-familial sexual attraction goes back even further than just the events depicted in the first film.  Despite a few clever ideas here and there (Marty identifies himself as “Clint Eastwood” to the people of 1885), the Western setting does little to offset what was, by this point in the franchise, becoming a very familiar story.

In Timerider: The Adventures of Lyle Swan, a guy named Lyle Swann somehow rides a motorcycle back in time to the wild west. Everybody says, "It's gotta be Swan!" way too much. And that, honestly, is about all I can recall about this movie...and, oh, yeah...I think it was also kinda bad. Once again, who knows why but Cowboys and Time Machines just do not seem to mix.

Yep. That's a young pre-Remo Williams Fred Ward as the titular character. Glad you got that off your mind, huh?

Cowboys and Robots

The first ever Cowboys and Robots movie is also one of the first Sci-Fi Western outings ever.

The Phantom Empire is 15 chapter movie serial, first released in 1936.  Country singer Gene “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” Autry plays himself as he discovers a technologically advanced underground civilization right beneath his ranch.  The Phantom Empire has got a lot more going for it than just Cowboys and Robots. There are bad guys sneaking around looking for a radium mine, kids unraveling mysteries, elusive futuristic horse riders and zap guns. Better than all that, though, are the robots in The Phantom Empire. They are classic low budget mechanical men of the 30's. They are cheesy robots that look like hot water heaters wearing little metal Stetsons. All of those elements have an undeniable ironic geeky hipster appeal.

Not for the uninitiated.

Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) is the Citizen Kane of Cowboys and Robots pictures. 

In a futuristic amusement park named Delos, there are three resort worlds: Romanworld, Medievalworld and Westworld.  All are populated by androids that allow the park’s guests to indulge their wildest sex and violence fantasies without consequences.  Well, that is, without consequences until the androids malfunction.  One particularly badass gun-slinging robot is played by Yul Brynner. Brynner wears almost the exact same wardrobe he wore in the classic Western, The Magnificent Seven.  Brynner’s android in black goes after guests Richard Benjamin and James Brolin(Josh's dad) with a vengeance.  He forces Benjamin in particular into a nerve racking chase that leads through, and behind the scenes of, all three resort worlds.

The events that follow could best be described as The Terminator meets Tombstone with a bit of Jurassic Park thrown in for good measure.  The last comparison is particularly apt. Twenty years after Westworld, writer-director Crichton would substitute android cowboys running amok in a theme park for cloned dinosaurs running amok in a theme park in a little novel and subsequent motion picture called Jurassic Park.

Westworld is a very effective low-key thriller.  Much of the pace of the film is closer to that of Russian director Andre Tarkovsky’s SF films Solaris or Stalker than to today’s Michael Bay action Sci-Fi Transformers style pacing.  As is the case with most 70’s Sci-Fi, Westworld is also social commentary.  In this film, the underlying message is that violence, in any form, is never without consequences.  And, as far as the action oriented Sci-Fi Western goes, them’s fightin’ words, partner.

Cowboys and Aliens

To the best of my knowledge, the upcoming Daniel Craig Harrison Ford Sci-Fi Western is the only Cowboys and Aliens movie out there.

And I haven't seen it yet.

One thing is for darn sure, partner; there's gold in that there premise.