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Weekend Viewing: Appaloosa, Nick and Norah, Religulous

by Anne Thompson
October 6, 2008 9:31 AM
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Appaloosa1The younger generation--even smart cinephiles--doesn't like westerns anymore. The period is just too far away for them, they don't relate. It's a genre that isn't surviving. It had its place in American history: basically, western tropes have been absorbed into other genres like action adventures and sci-fi fantasy.

All hail the folks who want to keep this aging genre alive, and actor-writer-director Ed Harris is one of them. I went into Appaloosa with the general impression from Toronto and various reviews like this one from Todd McCarthy, that it was an okay, respectable western, slow-paced, nothing great.

Well, I adored it. Why? It's for grown-ups. It's well-plotted, based on the book by Robert B. Parker, and Harris directed the hell out of it. He and Viggo Mortensen have a wonderful, deliberate, subtle time hanging out as two "lawmen" in a world where actors actually have something to do. I'm sorry, but western heroes (and anti-heroes) are sexy.

Many critics have taken issue with the Renee Zellweger character. Clearly, she's not your ordinary Western babe. (Any western involving a significant female character is a plus.) Obviously, we have a bromance here between two men, and the woman presents a challenge to their bond. The men will never doubt each other.

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Their triangle is set within the strange warped milieu they live in: uptight Puritan morality on the one hand, wild, lawless frontier on the other. In those days if a woman wasn't a virgin, a wife, a squaw or a whore, what was she? These smart actors have a fine time playing with the genre within a naturalistic context. Of course the bad guys are real bad: Jeremy Irons and the great Lance Henriksen. Actors should love this movie. Harris and Mortensen continue to amaze. Other mature sensibilities--movie critics--appreciated the pic to the tune of 74% on Rotten Tomatoes. But will anyone go see it?

This weekend's movie lineup was a bizarre to say the least. Family comedy Beverly Hills Chihuahua (Tomatometer, 46%), about cute talking dogs, beat out everything else.

Liberal gadfly Bill Maher's Religulous (Tomatometer, 64 % did just okay on 500 screens, while David Zucker's anti-Liberal American Carol went to more than 1600 and came in ninth at the B.O. (Largely unscreened for critics, the reviews came in late and good: 75 % on the Tomatometer.)

Maybe moviegoers aren't seeking to be offended by polarizing political content. (Clearly, NY Press critic Armond White doesn't.) Religulous is funny. Maher whisks us breathlessly through his whirlwind tour of the world's religions, riding roughshod over any pretension to serious doc journalism. It's coarse comedy. But Maher can't help but condescend to stupid people who actually care about these unbelievable things. When he runs up against someone smart who can hold their own with him it works better. There might have been a way to make his arguments with a defter, lighter hand.


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Meanwhile, I'm about to give up on At the Movies' Two Bens. They prepare their reviews carefully, but when they banter they say incredibly dumb things. When they debated Flash of Genius (Tomatometer, 68%), which one could make valid arguments for disliking, Mankiewicz posited that all biopics are fake, misleading and worthless.


Meanwhile, I'm about to give up on At the Movies' Two Bens. They prepare their reviews carefully, but when they banter they say incredibly dumb things. When they debated Flash of Genius (Tomatometer, 68%), which one could make valid arguments for disliking, Mankiewicz posited that all biopics are fake, misleading and worthless.

Some producer has told the Bens that fighting over their reviews will make the show better. Now they're acting like they intensely dislike each other, and don't seem to be having much fun. Ebert and Roeper and their balcony sparring partners debated on a basis of some mutual respect. At the Movies is still wasting time on this ridiculous panel of talking heads (are they already trying out replacements?). This time they included an actual grey-hair movie critic, Variety's own Joe Leydon, who instantly sounded smarter than everyone else. Gee whiz.

Leydon knew to compare Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (67% Tomatometer) to After Hours. Saturday night, I enjoyed Nick and Norah at the Grove. Michael Cera is likeably bland, but he holds the screen and never delivers a false moment. And Kat Dennings was fun to watch. The movie reminded me of my night-prowling Manhattan youth. The night I first met my future husband, we wound up walking the closed section of the elevated West Side Highway in the wee hours of the night. Very romantic.

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

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More: Box Office, Genres, Western, Independents

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