At the Movies

“Once upon a Time in Mexico”
by Jeff Frost

Let’s talk about things that are cool. Guitars, for one. Guns, hot chicks, Mickey Rourke, explosions and hotter chicks also make the list. Now let’s put them all together in the boiling pot of Mexico. Antonio Banderas is having a dinner party, my friends. And everyone’s invited for just desserts.

It seems there is a war brewing betwixt the Mexican president, Mexican military and biggest drug cartel south of the boarder. CIA Agent Sands (Johnny Depp) stands to walk away from the battle with quite a few pesos, but only if he can fix the outcome. If there’s one man who can take on drug dealers, soldiers and the government all at once, it’s El Mariachi (Banderas). So the legend puts down his six-string for his six shooters and gets to work. But the Mariachi isn’t doing it for money. He has some scores of his own to settle and nothing to hold him back.

Writer and director Robert Rodriguez has created an absurdly violent, unexpectedly humorous and fiercely passionate mosaic of good guys, bad guys and everyone in between. Each shot is as richly textured as the action is loud and hard -“El Mariachi” and “Desperado” were just the beginning. The film’s story is rather complicated, and at times almost overextends itself. It works, however, because it is treated more as a myth than a serious action drama.

Banderas turns in a ferocious yet low-key performance as the gun-fighting guitar player. He’s perfected the quiet, nameless loner role in a way that hasn’t been done since Clint Eastwood so long ago. Depp’s presence can take any film to a whole new level, and this is one is no exception. Willem Dafoe, Rourke, Eva Mendes, Enrique Iglesias and Ruben Blades all round out the cast nicely. And Salma Hayek. Oh sweet, sweet Salma.

“Once Upon A Time In Mexico” (Columbia Pictures) is an excellent saga that stands head and shoulders above most other genre films of late. It’s more than worth the eight-year wait.

“Lost in Translation”
by Giancarlo Isaias

Big cities can be intimidating and impersonal. Nevertheless, they make perfect settings for characters isolated from within. Tokyo is no exception in “Lost in Translation” (Focus Features), written and directed by Sofia Coppola.

This is a charmingly funny tale about a chance encounter between two lonely Americans – Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) – who kindle an unlikely relationship amidst a fast-paced technology-driven Japan.

Bob Harris, a middle-aged actor in the waning days of his career, travels to Tokyo to promote a Japanese whiskey brand for the handsome sum of $2 million. Out of place in a foreign land and ignored by his aloof wife back home, Bob resorts to drinking himself silly at his hotel’s bar, only to meet Charlotte, the estranged young wife of a workaholic photographer (Giovanni Ribisi). Together they tour the Japanese nightlife and poke fun at each other as they find themselves in peculiarly Japanese situations. The two realize their friendship has given them a fresh perspective on life. An obvious attraction begins to ensue. Yes, this does sound simplistic, but the movie’s strengths do not lie in the complexity of its plot.

Bill Murray’s realistic performance is subtlety warm as it is powerful. Reminiscent of his work in “Rushmore”(1998), Murray masterfully uses slight facial gestures and body movements to communicate the inner workings of his character and detachment from his surroundings. And, not surprisingly, Murray’s subtleties make for several hilarious scenes.

This is not to say that his performance is the only worthwhile feature of this film. Johansson has an equally realistic performance.

Coppola, critically acclaimed for her directorial debut “The Virgin Suicides” (1999), has proven herself to be a talented writer and director. Although this story might be simple in nature with some scenes unnecessarily long, the dialogue is spoken from the heart and realistic.
“Lost in Translation” is a refreshing change for a summer saturated with big budget action movies. Don’t be surprised to see Bill Murray get enveloped in Oscar buzz this year.

“Matchstick Men”
by Jesse Stanchak

“Matchstick Men” (Warner Bros.) is meant to be fun. Right from the get-go you can tell the film’s intention. From director Ridley Scott’s playful opening title sequence to the Sinatra-drenched score to Nicholas Cage’s wild facial tics, it’s clear that everyone involved is trying as hard as they can to make this movie leap off the screen. But it doesn’t. Instead it curls up in the corner, vainly looking for a place to die.

“Matchstick Men” is a Ridley Scott picture, so everything feels bigger than it is – unfortunately that includes the space and connections between the characters. The cinematography here is well-crafted, even if it doesn’t always fit the mood of the picture. Instead of trying to create some sort of half-hearted attempt at visual irony, Scott should have been paying attention to the lack of emotional ties between his matchstick thin characters.

Cage is over-the-top fun as Roy, a con-artist with obsessive compulsive disorder – think the USA network’s “Monk” in reverse. But whereas “Monk” wins the audience over with a sympathetic lead character, Roy is bland and flavorless. The twitches, stutters and manic rants are fun right up until the end, but there’s nothing to make the audience care what happens to him. In the hands of screenwriters Ted Griffin and Sean Bailey, Roy becomes a one-dimensional gag.

But, the film’s makers should receive a little credit; they did try. “Matchstick Men” spins the tale of desperately lonely Roy’s meeting with the 14-year-old daughter he never knew he had and the conflict that arises between his new desire to be a father and his work with partner Frank, played by Sam Rockwell (“The Green Mile”). Rockwell does what he can with Frank, an absentee character if ever there was one, his scenes proving to be some of the more enjoyable to watch. Halfway through the movie the audience will wish that Roy would just ditch his daughter and get back to con people.

Roy’s daughter Angela, played by Alison Lohman (“White Oleander”), is meant to be a breath of fresh air in Roy’s life. She disheveles his obsessively ordered home, throws off his routines and scampers around the screen like a supremely annoying wood nymph. The performance is cloying and her interaction with Roy is schmaltzy and predicable. Within five minutes of Angela’s appearance, it is readily apparent where this train wreck is headed, and it’s easy to predict the action all the way to an alleged twist ending.

Movies like “Matchstick Men” should be full of surprises. Like a good con victim, viewers should stagger away in disbelief, muttering to themselves, “Gee, I didn’t expect that.” Watching the film is more like hearing someone say “I told you so” over and over for two hours. “Matchstick Men” always does what you’d expect, except entertain.

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