Mortensen in Appaloosa.
Will Be Pay Dirt
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.
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
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.
for the 16-Percenters
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.
to Lose Friends & Alienate People
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.
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
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.