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Dead-on: Mortensen in Appaloosa.

There Will Be Pay Dirt

By Ann Morrow


Directed by Ed Harris


It’s been eight years since Ed Harris directed and starred in Pollock, an explosively vigorous artist’s biopic. In Appaloosa, he takes the reins of the Western genre, playing Virgil Cole, a gunslinger-for-hire. Cole and his partner, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are recruited by a law firm to patrol the 1880s frontier town of Appaloosa, which is on the brink of boom time. Cole and Hitch enjoy gunfighting—it’s all they’ve ever done—and Cole draws up a list of new laws so he can “button up” the town. The decorously Victorian lawyers (including Timothy Spall in an almost comical performance) hastily sign the contract when a posse of drunken ranchhands sling their guns in the local saloon. Three of them are shot dead, and though the lawyers are appalled at the violence, they don’t say anything, as the previous marshal was gunned down on a ranch owned by Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). Bragg has a mysterious source of wealth and connections in high places, and considers himself the fastest gun in the West. Whether he’s faster than Cole or Hitch is the film’s lengthiest strand of suspense.

Appaloosa is filmed in a stagy (but not showy) style that pays homage to the westerns of yore, especially those by John Ford, eschewing the gritty realism of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and the recent westerns inspired by it. The pace is as leisurely as a moseying herd of cattle, and the art direction is tailored and polished to the gloss of a Ralph Lauren ad. Dialogue meant to be classic is laughably shopworn: “You’ll never hang me,” sneers Bragg when he is apprehended (in an outhouse with a cigar in his mouth). At times, the film is a snooze. But its parallels to today’s homeland-security issues grow in subdued power. Cole and Hitch are cold-blooded killers who work on the right side of the law to ease their consciences. And the lawyers are more concerned with protecting the town’s monetary interests than preserving its freedoms.

Harris is compellingly authentic as Cole, who tries to better himself by reading Emerson and improving his vocabulary. As the film slowly reveals, Hitch, his quiet sidekick, is the more intelligent, and possibly more ruthless, of the partners. Mortensen’s smoldering intensity fits the role like chaps on Levi’s, and his chemistry with Harris gives the film a burnished depth that the slowpoke direction doesn’t quite achieve.

Less interesting is the influence of a new arrival in town, Allison French (Renée Zellweger). Allie cozies up to Cole right quick, but her status as a respectable widow soon becomes more questionable. Since she’s not a whore, a wife, or a squaw, her improprieties have an unsettling effect on the men in town, especially Cole. And Hitch. And Bragg. Played with cutesy affectation by Zellweger, the role is an obvious attempt to give the film a feminist slant on a par with (and a reversal of) Frances Fisher’s whore in Unforgiven.

But all is forgiven when Appaloosa’s slow-boil of a conclusion picks up steam. The final shoot-’em-up would make John Ford mighty proud.

One for the 16-Percenters


Directed by Larry Charles

Given that comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher hasn’t kept his disdain for religion a secret all these years, it’s no surprise that his documentary Religulous (directed by Seinfeld and Borat pal Larry Charles) drips with scorn for Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It is a surprise, however, that Maher doesn’t quite run the concept into the ground, which makes this comedy a good deal more entertaining than one might expect.

That is, unless you’re a person of faith: The God-fearing probably will be angered and appalled.

Maher spends the first, and longest, part of the film shooting fish in a barrel—er, interviewing fundamentalist Christians. From a truck-stop chapel to an ex-gay preacher to the actor playing Jesus in a really bizarre Jesus theme park, Maher walks a fine line. He treats his interview subjects with respect, and their beliefs with contempt. Maher isn’t out to meet anyone halfway; to him, worshipping three gods in one, on one day in seven, is a kind of self-imposed mental illness. He talks with his Jewish mom about his intermittent Roman Catholic upbringing to provide context, but makes it clear that his own spiritual feelings never progressed beyond making crude “deals with God.”

The film gets more interesting when he starts his world tour, visiting Muslims in Amsterdam and Jerusalem, and Jews in Brooklyn and Israel. The Islamists are portrayed as defensive and evasive; the Jews as hypocritical and/or delusional. (Maher has plenty of anger to go around.)

It’s not all serious, however: Religulous is worth watching just for the Florida preacher who says he is actually Jesus reincarnated. He explains, when pressed, that if he’d been born Satan, he’d be the best Satan he could be.

There’s a stunning graphic near the beginning of Religulous in which Maher contrasts the number of agnostics and atheists in the United States with other minority groups. The 16 percent of the American population who don’t acknowledge a god—a group universally scorned in the political arena—outnumber Jews, African-Americans and other notable minorities nominally treated with respect by at least one of the political parties. That said, you’d have to be a cockeyed optimist of a Jesus-hating, Allah-blaspheming, kosher-condemning nonbeliever to think that’s going to change any time soon.

—Shawn Stone

Such a Pig

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

Directed by Robert B. Weide

It is very rare for me, especially if I’m reviewing, to make the decision to leave before the final credits. I think I’ve only done this twice: Once because a thriller just got way too gory for my taste; the second time was this past week. After having done all that was humanly possible to remain in How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, I made an exit with about 15 minutes to go.

Based on a memoir by Toby Young, about his experiences working at Vanity Fair, How to Lose Friends tries desperately to meld the bitter wit of Sweet Smell of Success with the modern dash and glam of The Devil Wears Prada. It fails miserably.

Fleet Streeter Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) takes a job working for brilliant, irascible editor Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges, sporting a Graydon Carter mop). He bumps heads with just about everybody else, including obnoxious Lawrence Maddox (Danny Huston), his lover/assistant Alison (Kirsten Dunst), the pushy agent Eleanor (Gillian Anderson), and neophyte actress Sophie Maes (Megan Fox). Sidney dresses in a manner to antagonize; on the first day at work, he sports a shirt declaring “Young, Dumb and Full of Come.” He eats with his mouth open and coughs up food on the backs of designer dresses. He rubs his groin into any member of the opposite sex, kills dogs through sheer stupidity, and evidences all the qualities of a journalistic talent as my ring finger. If we’re supposed to get the impression that he’s a latent talent, something is terribly amiss, as Sidney Young is about the most loathsome excuse for a protagonist I’ve ever seen on film.

How to Lose Friends follows Sidney as he tries to woo Sophie, whose outward vapidity is matched by an impressive nose for fame baiting. In possibly the only truly funny moment of the movie, we watch as this sex kitten plays the young Mother Teresa, complete with the Voice of the Movies intoning “In a world in which love was forbidden. . . .” Later, Sidney impulsively plays white knight to Alison’s drunk. The two end up, vomit-covered, in Sidney’s apartment, where his dad’s just in from London, his disapproving Polish landlady looks on, and Alison cavorts to wildly inappropriate rap music, all the while saying things like “I’m such a whore.” If you’re still watching the movie at this point, you’ll no doubt share my need to beat a hasty retreat, but, out of guilt, I stayed for more.

The more that I got was more boorish behavior that, with the unlikely plot thickener of Alison beginning to like Sidney, begins to go mushy. Sure, he’s a pig, but is he really all that bad? Is he all that different from the decidedly more urbane pigs like Eleanor and Clayton, just because he gropes women and sends a transvestite stripper to his boss’s office on Take Your Daughter to Work Day? Director Robert B. Weide tries too hard to glorify the boorishness and sentimentalize it. Dunst, showing why it might be fun to see a movie in which a young professional tries to make sense of the fact that she’s quickly become a working drone, is completely wasted, and the very thought of her Allison developing any sort of warm relationship with Sidney is stomach-churning. Pegg has been very winning in a series of comedies, including Shaun of the Dead and Run Fatboy Run!, but in this movie, he evokes nothing but disgust.

—Laura Leon

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