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movies / July 31, 2011
By Eileen Jones

Cowboys and Aliens is a big mess, sure, but I don’t know what everybody’s screaming about, it’s still better than most of the other maggoty offal they’ve been serving at the multiplex all year long. Apparently critics exhausted themselves praising Captain American—that rancid stew of Nazi-busting WWII cliches warmed over and served up to us for the zillionth retching time!—and now they’re cranky and ready to pan the hell out of something.

If you’re going to enjoy Cowboys and Aliens at all, of course, you have to be in the mood for a Western, even one scrambled together with sci-fi ingredients like we prefer nowadays. If you don’t want to see horses galloping past mesas, and men frowning over glasses of whiskey in dusty saloons, and gunfights and cactus and all that, skip the whole thing.

Personally, I like Westerns. I was prepared to focus on the horses and whiskey and gunfights and let the rest of it drift. Which was the right strategy, because there are some painfully stupid things in Cowboys and Aliens. The whole rattling machinery of the plot, bolted together by an assembly line of screenwriters who lifted the idea from a graphic novel, has to be cranked up by director Jon Favreau and his crew, and they don’t exactly do a smooth, sleek job of it.

Though it seems like it ought to be simple enough. It’s all about getting warring Western factions to unite and fight the aliens. So we have to get the mean cattle baron (Harrison Ford) to work with the mysterious no-name gunslinger (Daniel Craig) and the beleaguered town sheriff (Keith Carradine) and the nervous saloon-keeper (Sam Rockwell) and the wry preacher (Clancy Brown) and the weird babe in the prairie dress and six-guns (Olivia Wilde)—wait, what the hell is she dressed up as, anyway? And where’d she get her teeth bleached in 1875 Arizona?

But our motley little posse still needs more help, because it’s tough to return fire against those alien ray-guns shooting from the sky. So the plot machinery clanks along some more: can the town posse join forces with the outlaw desperado band, and the local Indian tribe, and the sheepherders, and the Shriners, and the PTA?

Finally they get all that sorted out, so they can have the big battle. The aliens are big slimy reptilian-amphibious creatures, as usual, and very dedicated to probing humanity. They must be destroyed! Whose Manifest Destiny is this, anyway?

Speaking of things that must be destroyed, Olivia Wilde is turning into a real problem. On TV in House she wasn’t bad, but so far in movies she’s a disaster. I realize she’s around for her looks, so it’s ironic that in Cowboys and Aliens she doesn’t look all that good anywhere. She gums up every scene she’s in by standing there blank-eyed and staring, edging into scenes like a young woman with mental problems who happened to visit the Cowboys and Aliens set one day wearing a strange Western-themed outfit and kept sidling into camera range. Then she stands there, forehead bulging, pale eyes goggling, tweezed eyebrows arching. Periodically Daniel Craig asks her why she keeps bothering him.

On the other hand, she provides a few solid laughs here and there—her nude scene is a riot.

Olivia Wilde’s zonked dim-bulb performance stands out even more next to assorted pros who apparently decided to act the hell out of this space-Western. Daniel Craig commits to his part like it’s the last one he’s ever going to get. From the moment his character wakes up in the desert with an oozing stomach-wound and a metallic bracelet as a memento of his abduction by aliens, Craig seems prepared to clench his teeth and haul the whole crazy plot-load over the finish line by himself if he has to, through sheer force of acting-will.

He’s got excellent help from skull-faced Walter Coggins (Justified), who brings his usual demented energy to the part of the outlaw gang member who keeps telling Craig’s character, in confusing bursts of homoerotic toadying, “You was alwuz mah favorite!”

Sam Rockwell does his best Rockwellian twitching as the saloonkeeper who has to learn to shoot in order to assert his lost manhood. Paul Dano slimes along as hard as he can as the loathsome wastrel son of the mean cattle baron, and Adam Beach exudes mournful dignity as the m.c.b.’s adopted Indian son who’s a thousand times better than the blood-son but never gets any credit cuz he’s an Injun. And as the m.c.b. himself, Harrison Ford, he—well, jeez, was he always such a hambone? Ford seems to be going bigger with his signature effects than I ever remember, making his dourness more cutely codgery and his softening-up twinkle more wry. Ham-on-wry, even.

But Ford rides a horse well, and that’s important. He and Craig are visible on horseback for long enough (before their stuntmen take over) to demonstrate that they can both ride beautifully. And handle guns, and wear big hats, and stride around manfully in boots. If they learned to do all that through some director-ordered, two-week horseback-riding/gun-slinging/hat-wearing/boot-walking course, it’s still pretty impressive.

Craig has gotten so good at the physical business of acting that all those early comparisons to Steve McQueen are sounding less crazy. McQueen was also a fine athlete and a scene-stealer who knew how to use concentrated stillness, lithe movement, and unexpectedly graceful small gestures to wipe other actors off the screen. (Hilarious bit in a TV bio of McQueen showing how he stole scenes in Magnificent Seven from Yul Brynner, who fumed but was powerless to stop looking like a stiff next to McQueen’s deft, distracting hatbrim-touches and weight-shifts and gun-adjustments.)

So if you’re looking for an erotic object at the movies—and who isn’t?—Daniel Craig is going to make you very, very happy. Presuming you like guys. If you prefer women, you’re stuck with Olivia Wilde. Film, like life, isn’t fair.

Other gorgeous animals in the film include a nice shepherd-mix dog, and a whole chorus-line of stunning horses.


Add your own

  • 1. radii  |  July 31st, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Clancy Brown … I was already to spend the $ and see it once you said he was in it … then you said Paul Dano was in it, blecchh … since it’s written-by-committee and directed-by-the-numbers by non-auteur John Favreau methinks I’ll wait for home version … but loved the ham-on-wry observation.

  • 2. motorfirebox  |  July 31st, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Goggins, btw.

    I know I don’t speak for all of malekind, and possibly not even a majority, but I’m pretty happy being stuck with Olivia Wilde. Seen through the lens of I-want-to-stick-my-penis-inside-her, what others call vacant looks become intense, meaningful stares and glares. (The meaning, of course, is that she wants me to put my penis inside her.)

  • 3. Wolf Wintergreen Longcut  |  July 31st, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    heads up on what you should know… Buckeye state is Ohio not Iowa.

  • 4. Punjabi from Karachi  |  July 31st, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    So the visuals and screen presence are all that’s good of this movie?

    I knew the plot was crappy, but hey, I guess the actors thought the same & decided they would carry the film with their acting. And from Ms Jones’ is respectful description of the acting, I guess they did.

    This does not sound like a funeral wake.

    For that, I would recommend finally reviewing Harry Potter. Ralph Fiennes turns out to be Speccy’s father and Helena Bonham Carter turns out to be his aunt AND mother.

    In all seriousness, the visuals were well done but they did not have to remain faithful to the books in the dialogue. I wished they’ld let the actors ad-lib their lines, those kids have given so much of their lives (entire preteen, adolescenceand teen years) to Harry Potter, they might as well own the characters.

    And the end of an era deserves to be noted.

  • 5. CensusLouie  |  July 31st, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Olivia Wilde was terrible in House too. Her personality began and ended at “hot”, but she was so bland and lifeless it was impossible to be drawn to her (at least Jennifer Morrison’s character had the whole Florence Nightingale thing that House could make fun of).

    The writers desperately tried to compensate by stooping to pandering and made her bisexual, but it didn’t make her any less boring.

    House is right up there with The Office for a once great show that went to complete shit after 2 seasons.

  • 6. Zhu Bajie  |  July 31st, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Re: tooth bleaching in the old west:
    “Well, I’d been selling an article to take the tartar off the teeth—and it does take it off, too, and generly the enamel along with it”, Huckleberry Finn, ch. 19

  • 7. Palnadu Veerudu  |  July 31st, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Mr. Karachi, you are back again. Seriously, I am getting tired of seeing your “overacting” comments on these pages.

    It is nice to see Eileen criticize this new actress, whats her name, Olivia Wilde. Specially after Nytimes’s suck-up article:

    just proves that if you have influential parents, in this case, journalists, you can go places. This goes for the Indian film industry as well – almost all the young actors and actresses who land the major roles come from a film family (parents or uncles are previous stars). Which is why most Bollywood films are shit with almost no “acting” taking place.

  • 8. SomethingSomething  |  July 31st, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    You get to Olivia Wilde’s tits in Alpha Dog.
    They’re not that great.

  • 9. Punjabi From Karachi  |  July 31st, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Yes Mr Veerudu, I am. If the Exiled’s web editor had a problem with my comments, he would’ve simply deleted them. As I travel so much they’ve done that before with previous avatars of mine, so my guess is they’re more or less OK with what I have to say.

    Good Day to all, and looking forward to that one review.

  • 10. Mike C.  |  August 1st, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Olivia’s pretty statuesque; in looks, and unfortunately in range. It’s difficult to see how they could saddle the actress with portraying a nihilistic bisexual with a terminal illness in House. My only explanation is that they thought repeating those abstract details could substitute for the ability to convincingly communicate them through performance.

    It’s like her method of bringing gravitas to a scene is blankly staring more insistently than usual. Staring with purpose!

  • 11. Edmund Dorkey  |  August 2nd, 2011 at 4:24 am

    This is my brain:

    doo doo doodle doo

    This is my brain on Olivia Wilde:

    oh, wait, I have no brain. Well, only the little one.

  • 12. Michael  |  August 2nd, 2011 at 5:01 am

    “Ham-on-wry” – classic.

  • 13. Bongo McLoskey  |  August 2nd, 2011 at 9:04 pm


    Brother, this was a giant stinking lazy pile.

    You’re better than this, as evidenced by your love of True Grit.

    And please, the talent free Paul Dano needs to go away.

  • 14. Mike C.  |  August 2nd, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    You misspelled “Leonardo DiCaprio.”

  • 15. Retro Man  |  August 2nd, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Olivia Wilde pales in comparison to this magnificent creature.

  • 16. CensusLouie  |  August 2nd, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    I honestly can’t decide if I want to jump Olivia Wilde or not. Is it still necrophilia if the cadaver is super hot?

  • 17. Flatulissimo  |  August 3rd, 2011 at 6:33 am

    Ah, mediocrity in Hollywood is now the best we can hope for.

  • 18. Trevor  |  August 3rd, 2011 at 8:19 am

    This movie does look like fun, even if it is another godsdamn comic book movie. At least it’s a comic that only the really fanatical dweebs would know about, that keeps the internet noise down.

    And why the hate-on for Olivia Wilde? I never understood that but I never liked Cameron on House. Too much a caricature of The Chick (you know the type).

  • 19. Hussayn Khariq  |  August 4th, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    She’s Cockburn’s niece. And they say progressives never get any airtime.

  • 20. Anathame  |  August 5th, 2011 at 3:08 am

    Oh, she was in that House, the TV Show for people who like to play as being smarter than they are.

    I had to search for her name because it didn’t stand out.

  • 21. Greedo's Speedo  |  August 7th, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Good review, but I think I’ll wait for video.

    Also, Walter Coggins = Walton Goggins

  • 22. John Drinkwater  |  August 7th, 2011 at 11:06 pm

    I hope there’s going to be an Exiled review of The Change Up. Unlike the other ‘comedies’ like Horrible Bosses and The Hangover, The Change Up is actually funny, offensive and brave. Jason Bateman kicks ass in it. Plus, another Olivia Wilde role…

  • 23. my talkative ringpiece  |  August 12th, 2011 at 3:31 am

    Judge Dredd was a pretty damn good comic. They turned it into a crappy movie.

    I’ve looked around (supposedly they were serializing the first 50-odd pages of this comic online but I couldn’t find it, only the “pre-episode”) and this was a crappy comic, that was made into a great movie.

    OK I have no taste. Guess what I had for dinner? Take some finely cubed bacon and fry that, then scramble 4 eggs (hey my hens lay lil’ ones) and dumb that in and cook that up, then dump a can of Stagg chili on top and simmer, with enough Sriracha sauce to choke 4 ordinary round-eyes. Simmer for a bit then dump in a large bowl and eat. Yum!

    OK so the movie. I’m gonna spoil it here. The baddies go around wiping out planetary people and the woman is the sole survivor of one. She ends up on Earth where the ship has landed, maybe she was in the ship, hiding out? Anyway, she knows the Earthlings are next, so she goes out and looks for the closest thing to a killing machine she can find among the Earthlings in that area. Which turns out to be the biggest stagecoach-robbing gangster around. She appears as a beautiful Earthling woman, and gets him to fall in love with her. He goes out and double-crosses his gang to bring a bunch of gold home to her – she looks at is in horror because she knows it’s what the baddies are after. That’s when the baddies fly over, melting and sucking up the gold coins on the table, and snaring her with one of their fishhook things. He pursues them, they both end up on the baddies’ torture-tables, she gets vaporized before his eyes, and when he’s about to get the Jeffery Dahmer treatment, he fights back, apparently accidentally gets the bracelet, and bugs out of there. He then wakes up in the middle of the desert, not knowing who he is, or where the bracelet came from – this is where the movie begins.

    She seems to be able to reincarnate, at least once.

    The baddies aren’t mining gold from the land, they’re mining it from *people*.

    On the way back from seeing it, we were discussing it. Why didn’t the aliens get gold from space asteroids etc. somehow, or just mine it from deposits and leave the people alone? I’d just eaten sushi with one of the group, I said, “I just had sushi, which means real fish had to suffer and die. We could come up with artificial fish grown from yeast or something, that could taste even more delicious, but we don’t do that because we’re descended from fishers and hunters”. The baddies were harvesting gold from *people*. Back in that time, a lot of people had gold teeth, gold watches, etc. Gold was money. Gold nuggets/dust were currency. They were probably eating the people too, they looked like healthy buggers who need their calories.

    I love how aliens in the movies are always gross and slimy etc. They’re always a combination of what we think is gross, so take a little ape, a insect, a little octopus, some toad, some fish (gills) etc. It actually looked to me like the nest/rocketship was arranged like a wasp nest, with a “queen” or leader, fighters, a “nursery” section the woman goes into to blow it up, etc.

    The movie, if you can get into it, is like a good comic book. The comic book? Feh.

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