Summer 2013 Preview

The blockbuster season is so close you can smell the shrapnel.  Luckily for us movie fans the studios have begun trotting out some of the big tentpoles early ever since the year 2011 when Fast Five broke the mold and opened a week before the typical Summer launch which has been the first weekend of May for over a decade.  The Vin Diesel-led action-sequel turned out to be a roaring success, even besting final grosses of the almighty Thor which kicked off the ‘season-proper.’  Now the studios are realizing audiences will pay to see a big movie any time of year if the anticipation is there.

I haven’t done this for a few years, but I miss the optimism in looking ahead to the movie season rather than the disappointment in looking back.  What movies are on my radar this summer?  Actually quite a heap.  Nearly every weekend has a movie I’m eager to see which is likely a major problem for studios as supply is very high this season and the competition will be fierce.  Hopefully my adoring wife will hold my hand through them all… or most.  I’m sure there will be big winners and major losers in this bunch.  But the real question is: will there be any surprises?  And which am I looking forward to most?

The Dark Horses:

pangPain and Gain (4/26): We have seen a lot of Dwayne Johnson lately.  And he will be around a lot more yet.  With Snitch and the G.I. Joe sequel still in theaters, he’s about to star in an uber-violent action-comedy from Michael Bay about criminal bodybuilders.  Johnson co-stars with Mark Wahlberg, Ed Harris and Tony Shaloub.  The trailers for the film definitely have some personality and signature Bay visuals—tan human beings drenched in sweat (or is that the camera lens), gunplay, car chases and explosions.  But I’m not sold yet.  The film looks a little more niche than expected and may play just as well at home if it’s any good at all.  TRAILER.

greatgatsThe Great Gatsby (5/10): It’s not the first title that comes to mind when I think ‘summer.’  That might be because the studio moved it from its Christmas award season slot last year to May 10th where there will be less… competition.  Right.  The trailer looks visually arresting and I’m surprised to see the film getting a 3D release.  As a film adaptation directed by Baz Luhrrman and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this could be fantastic, but I’m not entirely sure it will break out at this time of year. TRAILER.

This-is-the-End-2013This is the End (6/12): A slew of comedic actors who’ve all shared the screen together in some capacity star as themselves caught up in an apocalypse.  Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, Aziz Ansari, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Mindy Kaling, Danny McBride… Yes, they’re all in this movie and they all play their celebrity selves.  Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the film.  They also wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express.  And Green Hornet… and The Watch… If you are still reading they also wrote Drillbit Taylor (Remember that movie?  Owen Wilson was in it.  No one saw it…)  Their latest movie, looks like an intriguing concept…which could in fact turn out to be The Watch all over again (and that movie was a complete disaster).  But the trailers have me convinced this could be funny… or maybe too raunchy for my tastes.  Sadly this is one of the few comedy choices we have this coming season so we can only hope. TRAILER.

The-WolverineThe Wolverine (7/26): What?? Not in my top ten?? No.  Ever since Director Darren Arronofsky famously dropped out of the this dark prequel/sequel/standalone/spinoff or whatever it is, my anticipation went down.  I want to see it, but I’m not particularly excited.  James Mangold is a capable director.  But Walk the Line and Knight and Day aren’t exactly titles that tell me he was the right choice to revive this installment after the dumping ground that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Hugh Jackman has the chops to still deliver a great solo Wolverine movie, and the trailer looks pretty good, but how can a trailer for this movie not ‘look’ good?  TRAILER.

despicable-me-2-picture03Despicable Me 2 (7/3): I have to admit I really enjoyed the original surprise hit featuring the voice talent of Steve Carell.  Will this movie be a simple cash grab or a worthy follow-up?  I don’t know.  Time will tell.  Sequels to animated films generally don’t retain the magic of the predecessors, but I have no doubt that the writers could come up with something truly special.  Or maybe those yellow minions will be incredibly annoying the second time around.  TRAILER.

the-heat-trailerThe Heat (6/28):  Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock as hardcore law enforcement?  Sounds like comedy to me.  But will this movie have enough wit in the script or will it be an onslaught of profanity substituted for genuine ideas?  I believe both of these actresses are capable of delivering a very entertaining comedy and would likely make a dynamic pair, but I’m on the fence and entirely not blown away by the trailer. TRAILER.

LonerangThe Lone Ranger (7/3): This actually looks very entertaining, regardless of the naysayers.  This honestly just looks like a fun movie—batty, goofy, action-packed, impressively shot.  But it still has an iffy air about it and so it didn’t quite make my top ten list.  But Johnny Depp as Tonto strikes me as awesome.  Armie Hammer as the Ranger?  Hopefully a star is made out of him.  Plus Gore Verbinski is directing, and if he can recreate the magic of his first Pirates of the Caribbean film, then we may have something here.  TRAILER.

MonstersUMonsters University (6/21): Pixar Studios have been wanting sequels left and right all of a sudden.  It’s been off-putting for me as they typically come up with great original storytelling.  The teaser trailer for this Monsters, Inc. prequel also rubbed me the wrong way portraying monster college to children as a mindless wild party atmosphere (just without the booze).  Then a follow-up trailer filmed as a university advertisement was a bit more daring and original.  I think Monsters Inc was a very solid movie, but I’m not enthused for another.  TRAILER.

AftEarAfter Earth (6/7): My biggest question mark of the season… M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth.  The studio hasn’t been putting his name in the ads.  Why?  Because you probably laughed out loud when you read his name.  The man has been cursed.  At one point in his career everything he touched turned to gold.  Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs.  He was the next Spielberg.  Then… The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender.  Make it stop!  After Earth, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith looks both good and bad.  I don’t know.  I suppose if this wasn’t a Will Smith-starrer I would look the other way.  I don’t see it as a resurgence for Shyamalan, but anything is possible.  Maybe it’s just that southern drawl in the actors’ voices that has me confused.  TRAILER.

world-war-z-trailerWorld War Z (6/21): I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead TV show mainly because of the high production values and searing drama amongst the human cast.  World War Z, which appears to be a very loose adaptation of its novel source, looks like a solid suspenseful ride.  But I have my doubts about Marc Forester directing (not to mention the highly-public troubled production)—he was behind Quantum of Solace and Finding Neverland.  The zombies look like dodgy CGI creations on speed, sort of like I am Legend.  Brad Pitt stars which adds some leading man power, but despite a promising trailer, I have a feeling Forester will deliver a completely digital film that misses the human element, the realism, and the drama.  Will I still see it?  Um, yeah.  TRAILER.

The Top Ten:

1183878 - WHITE HOUSE DOWN10) White House Down (6/28):  Okay.  I just saw Antonie Fuqua’s version of this movie and it was bad.  But come on.  The trailer for this Channing Tatum-Jamie Foxx version looks surprisingly good.  I’m game for another White House takedown movie even if it stars Channing Tatum because Director Roland ‘Independence Day‘ Emmerich is taking it down… and he has a profitable history in doing so.  Hopefully the villains, the heroes, the script, the plot, the visual effects and everything else in between are better than Olympus Has Fallen.  TRAILER.

Fast-Furious-6-Official-Super-Bowl9) Fast & Furious 6 (5/24): Remember how Fast Five came out two years ago and blew away expectations?  I have a feeling returning Director Justin Lin will take it to a whole new level with this sixth installment.  I can’t believe I’m writing these words.  I mean, the awful Tokyo Drift was three movies ago!  Actually, Fast Five didn’t blow me away like everyone else, but I did enjoy it enough to be very excited for the entire cast returning for even bigger action, bigger chases, and even further ridiculousness.  Just don’t try and follow the titles of these movies, because they only want you to be confused.  TRAILER.

elysium-neil-blomkamp8)  Elysium (8/9): —UPDATE: The trailer arrived and it did not disappoint.  In fact, I should be moving this film higher on my list.  It looks great!— I have not seen a single frame of a trailer for this movie, but the production stills have me intrigued enough.  Plus the Oscar-nominated hit District 9 was my favorite movie of 2009, and Director Neill Blomkamp is now back with this new sci-fi action-thriller starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.  What’s it about?  IMDB lists the synopsis as: “Set in the year 2159, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.”  Sounds good to me! TRAILER.

now_you_see_me_xlg7) Now You See Me (5/31): This trailer jumped out of nowhere and arrested me at gunpoint.  Magicians who rob banks, but for what purpose?  Is there something greater going on behind the curtain?  Count me in.  It has the intrigue of The Prestige with the fun of The Italian Job.  Plus the cast is absolutely top notch.  Something good in the script must have attracted them all.  Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Isla Fisher, Michael Caine, Mark Ruffalo.  Ticket.  Bought.  TRAILER.

2_Guns_26) 2 Guns (8/2): An action-comedy in vein of Lethal Weapon starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg.  It looks action-packed, but most surprisingly, it looks funny!  I can’t remember the last time Washington ran for some laughs.  This has all the right ingredients for a good-old buddy-action-flick and also looks to be a fresh break from all the comic book heroes and science fiction running amok.  TRAILER.

oblivion201212109117055) Oblivion (4/19): Summer starts very early this year and Tom Cruise is prime set to deliver a sprawling sci-fi actioner about a post-apocalyptic Earth and the aftermath of humanity leaving the planet (which is also the synopsis of After Earth).  Joseph Kosinski directed and the man is a visual talent, but can the story also deliver?  His previous film was Tron: Legacy which I actually enjoyed a lot.  I think Oblivion has grown on my radar the more ads I see for it.  Plus Cruise rarely stars in a bad film, especially his big budget fare.  I’m in.  TRAILER.

three-new-posters-for-pacific-rim-123740-02-470-754) Pacific Rim (7/12): Okay.  I know.  Giant robots versus giant monsters battling to the death.  I know!  But come on.  There’s people inside the giant robots manning controls.  And Charlie Hunnam who is a force to be reckoned with on Sons of Anarchy has what is potentially his big breakout role here.  Plus!—this is a Guillermo del Toro film who is a fantasy genius and he creates incredible creatures and worlds.  He’s the man behind Blade II, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hellboy movies.  I think he’s got us covered.  Pacific Rim looks like Transformers meets Godzilla with hopefully more brains than either of those.  And it looks awesome!!  TRAILER.

ironman3-poster-jumbo-jpg_1621423) Iron Man 3 (5/3): This ‘proper’ season kickoff will be huge.  Iron Man 3 luckily has the advantage of looking like a sequel to The Avengers (which everyone loved, and that film nearly doubled Iron Man’s previous domestic audience) rather than the mild disappointment that was Iron Man 2 three years ago.  New movie.  New director.  New tone.  And it looks like Tony Stark may have a lot to lose this time around.  I swear looking back—did anything actually happen in Iron Man 2?  Now the chips really start to crumble for Stark and it looks like an absolute blast.  TRAILER.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS2) Star Trek Into Darkness (5/17): J.J. Abrams is the new deity of dorks.  But cool people love him too.  So now there really isn’t such a thing as dorks anymore.  Abrams is a genius… yes I’m in that camp.  And no, I haven’t seen Lost.  But his movies get better and better.  Mission Impossible III, Star Trek, and Super 8.  Soon he will deliver Star Wars Episode VII.  But for now let’s talk Star Trek and the upcoming sequel.  It looks amazing and I’ve only grown more fond of Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot over the years.  He did everything right in making Star Trek accessible to a mainstream audience.  The film was action-packed, funny, witty, well-acted, and the nods were everywhere for hardcore fans.  But if you missed them as a casual moviegoer, you still loved the movie!  So how can I not be ecstatic for the new Star Trek?  TRAILER.

mosposter1) Man of Steel (6/14): As I’m typing this I feel absolutely blown away that Man of Steel is in my number one spot.  I’m not a Superman fan!  I just don’t dig the character.  I don’t dislike him.  I just think he’s not that exciting of a character.  He’s basically indestructible, so where is the fun in that?  But Christopher Nolan is producing.  Zack Snyder of 300 and Watchmen is directing.  And the trailers look… amazing.  I’m honestly still skeptical, but I can’t deny that I’m most interested to see how this one turns out.  Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Henry Cavill (as Clark Kent)… that’s a solid cast.  The visuals looks great.  The emotion looks in place.  The story and themes seem to be just right.  It has that Nolan-feel.  Maybe that’s it.  We had this same anticipation experience back in 2006 when Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was set to usher in a new era for Superman.  The movie was a box office disappointment (only because Warner Bros spent way too much on the film because it performed exactly the same as Batman Begins the year prior) and people went from worshiping the film to outright hating it over the years.  I don’t know how people keep repeating these phases in moviedom.  The same thing happened to Indiana Jones 4 and Terminator 3 and Prometheus… and okay I’ll stop there.  But I really think Nolan and Snyder will deliver a Superman movie that finally makes me a fan.  TRAILER.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Yo-ho-ho.  A cash cow for Disney.  Arguably the most lucrative and popular financially viable franchise sets sail… again four years following the last outing.  Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides marks the third sequel, and there may be more yet to come.  Why would actors Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally, and Johnny Depp want back in?  Probably for the same reason series regulars Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom jumped ship.  The series has ran its course and claimed plenty of booty, but there are still air pockets of gold left to mine.  What life could be left in the franchise?  Only the scarcest of signs actually.

Depp is back in full form playing the iconic swashbuckler we all adore.  Capt. Jack Sparrow is again a wanted man when he is ordered by the King of England to reunite with Barbossa (Rush) on an expedition to discover and secure the Fountain of Youth.  Rumors have been spreading that Jack is assembling a crew in secret to embark on his own journey.  Sparrow becomes puzzled by the talk and comes to realize an ex-lover has been impersonating him.  Her name is Angelica (Penelope Cruz), and she’s found herself first-mate and daughter to Blackbeard (Ian McShane), a sorcerer of a pirate aboard a ship with supernatural power.  Sparrow is duped into joining Angelica and Blackbeard, while Barbossa and his Englishmen as well as enemy Spaniards trail close behind.  Along the way, Jack must play for multiple sides—remaining under the watchful eye of Blackbeard while secretly keeping the English under little speculation.

In all honesty, franchise writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio bring little to the table as far as the scale of the journey goes.  The film delivers most of its goods within the first 30 minutes as our scurvy hero dodges English capture through a series of elaborate escapes and classic Jack Sparrow antics.  Once he meets up with Angelica and hits the seas with Blackbeard, On Stranger Tides loses its stride and becomes an increasingly long lull of weak plot threads.  The actual quest for the Fountain of Youth is such a disappointment.  I felt as though none of the characters had a genuine interest or drive in finding it.  There’s some talk of Blackbeard wanting to find it to potentially save his soul, however, it’s never a pressing matter.  Barbossa cares none for it.  He wants revenge on a particular foe.  Angelica seems to be after it for her father’s sake, but since he doesn’t care so much, why should we?  I really don’t think the writers thought this one out.

Making matters worse is the fact that nothing particularly memorable or exciting happens throughout the film.  The different groups of treasure hunters encounter a horde of deadly mermaids, but that’s about all the film has to offer audiences that could be considered new or remotely memorable.

This sequel has been directed by Rob Marshall (Nine, Chicago).  I will commend him on tightening up the story and presenting a much more simple and logical narrative than Gore Verbinski’s last venture At World’s End.  However, as disappointing as many audiences found the two-part sequels from 2006 and 2007, I can’t imagine them finding a more refurbished product with On Stranger Tides.  ‘Stranger’ this film is not, and if the last two predecessors had anything going for them—it was that they were at least simultaneously odd and interesting, while also boasting several impressive and memorable effects-filled action sequences.  The previous chapters were way ahead of On Stranger Tides in terms of creativity, and when they failed, they did so grandly.  This chapter storms in and teeters out with little more than a sigh.

Despite the film’s many shortcomings, I can’t fault Depp.  He delivers as always, and the Sparrow character still entertains in high fashion.  Unfortunately his movies aren’t keeping up with him, and while On Stranger Tides will undoubtedly make less than any of the previous Pirates, there will still be plenty of coin to lap up—warranting audiences another sequel.  My suggestion?  Ditch Marshall.  Bring back the strangeness, the surprise, and the suspense.  Savvy?

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Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)

Lost in La Mancha

Lost in La ManchaTerry Gilliam is one strange dude.  His films run the gamut from entertaining to head-scratching to cerebral to just plain nut-job.  He’s not exactly a household name, though chances are most people have seen at least one of his movies or remember at least one of his sketches from the heyday of Monty Python.  A visionary he certainly is, though, and after a few decades of filmmaking he tried to get a production of the classic Spanish novel Don Quixote off the ground.  Lost in La Mancha is a story of how the entire production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote went down, from the early stages of preproduction to the final nail in the coffin, and even though Gilliam’s movie never did get finished, directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were able to craft an astonishing documentary that chronicles the entire production.  In doing so we are treated to an intimate look at the process of getting a big-budget Hollywod motion picture brought to life, and how sometimes even the sharpest vision and strongest determination just can’t make a project work.

Perhaps the most apt comparison I could make with Lost in La Mancha is to Spinal Tap, but whereas the latter was a chronicle of the fictional exploits of a heavy metal rock band with the purpose of poking fun at the whole music scene, La Mancha is, sadly, an all-too-true tale of how crazy things can get during a movie production.  Like Quixote himself, Gilliam is consumed by a desire to make his film no matter how irrational it might be.  The project, the most expensive movie ever to be filmed in Spain, had to be cut drastically from its initial projections in order to come in under budget.  But such woes are the beginning of Gilliam’s troubles.  Preproduction is beset by scheduling conflicts, prop disasters, and location issues, but the crew forge ahead nonetheless with a hopeful optimism and desire to see it through to completion.

Lost in La Mancha: Terry Gilliam

Gilliam directing Rochefort, and fighting his own windmills the whole time.

From the very first day of filming, though, the hassles just continue to pile up.  Fighter jets flying overhead disrupt the initial shots, and a rainstorm that night literally washes thousands of dollars of film equipment down the drain.  And when Jean Rochefort, who plays Quixote, develops health problems that prevent him from riding a horse, it’s clear the writing is on the wall.  And yet Gilliam and his crew forge ahead, shooting scenes with Johnny Depp, posing for group photos with the project’s financial backers, and scrambling to adjust schedules to accommodate Rochefort’s continuing health issues.  Christopher Guest himself couldn’t make this stuff up if he tried, folks.  It’s as heartbreaking as it is entertaining, and through it all is Terry Gilliam–the indomitable visionary who will do everything in his power to make the film come together.

The strength of La Mancha is how Fulton and Pepe treat their subject with such a deft hand.  Neither overly melodramatic nor overly lighthearted, they simply show the events as they unfold.  Bits of footage that did get filmed, screen tests of the giants, magnificent costumes, and the exuberance of Johnny Depp as he gives 100% to a part that even he knows is never going to end up in theatres, hints at the fantastic Movie That Could Have Been.  The determination of Gilliam and his crew to accomplish the impossible against all odds, even when it’s pretty obvious that the film is really not going to get finished, is admirable but drenched with an undertone of foreboding and even sadness.  Gilliam’s undaunted spirit is well-nigh inspirational, though, and even though his Quixote film eventually gets canned, the experience, as anyone who watches Lost in La Mancha, was certainly not without merit.  And besides, word has it Gilliam is even planning to give it another shot…if things don’t fall apart again.


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Rating: 4.0/5 (1 vote cast)

Alice in Wonderland

Welcome to the confused underbelly of Tim Burton’s wild imagination, and though I wish that would make for an illustrious compliment, the large-scale director has seen his best days over a decade ago and still can’t regain his footing.  Lately the man has been choosing source material (Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) so in tune with his sensibilities that I couldn’t dare to dream why ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ perhaps the perfect mold for Burton to shine in, comes off as a lacking spectacle in every way.

Audiences seemed to be ready for this latest incarnation. It has become the biggest film of Burton’s career and marks Johnny Depp’s second film to cross the billion-dollar mark worldwide.  All that to say I can’t imagine anyone being thrilled by such an obnoxiously odd mind-trip that fancies endless oodles of hack-job computer generated visual effects and accomplished actors playing otherworldly versions of children dressed up for the circus.  While “Avatar” seems to have become the end-all to special effects extravaganzas, I think “Alice” really suffers in the wake of James Cameron’s heralded accomplishments.  Burton’s landscape barely makes for comparison, and disappoints in nearly every frame.  However, it seems easy to assume the younger demographic will still be engulfed in this CGI theme park.  But it is a bit odd that Disney went full-steam ahead on a project that lends itself to such dark corners and is a story not well-suited for its target demographic.  The only obvious choice was to saddle Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as a late-teen dreamer caught up in an arranged marriage, needing an escape to a world that awakens her to her own desires.  Down the rabbit hole she goes.

A cast of twisted talent: Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Crispin Glover and more get to lend their gravitas to the most outrageous characters.  To go into their detail would seem insignificant, but essentially Alice enters Underland with the assumption that she is in a deep-sleep dream.  Until she wakes up, she must dethrone the Red Queen (Carter) by slaying the dragon Jabberwocky.  In doing so, she will rescue the inhabitants of Underland by giving the crown to the Red Queen’s sister, none of other than the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).  The incomprehensible events leading up to this dual seem to be nonsensical filler for a story that seems to want get to an action climax.  None of it seems fitting for the film, especially the third act’s battle sequence, but every encounter throughout even leading up to this point has so little structure or any driving plot.  Several of the characters are meant to represent real humans in Alice’s world back home, but so little character development is given that this task of associating the characters becomes extremely difficult.  I watched this entire film feeling as though these characters are extras in a stage play without the focus and are compelled to keep doing something so as not to break the illusion, but their actions have no meaning.

This ‘Wonderland’ is not a terrible film by any means.  If the writers had lent just a hint of coherence to the plot, I may have enjoyed it more.  The movie plays out as a sequel without a prequel, with the realization that Wonderland is a real place underneath the earth, and that this teenage Alice has been there before and can’t remember her previous journey.  This reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” without any of the, you know, kid-friendly stuff.  It is understandable that the studio had to find a way to connect this film to young teens that turned “Twilight” into such a phenomenon.  The problem is that Mia Wasikowska never makes Alice seem fearful nor enchanted.  She seems content to tread through this world awaiting her waking moment.  Without her pulling me into this journey, despite her talent, I couldn’t react to anything.  Even still, the end result here feels completely phoned in.  Burton has crafted a film a bit edgy and scary for Disney, but not haunting enough to fully connect with Lewis Carrol’s pages.  The visual effects fail to excite the senses, and even the eccentric efforts of Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp feel like a well-worn shirt.  Nothing about the entire film strikes me as though creative effort was put to the test and wrung out for all it was worth, and that’s a major disappointment for a story that commands limitless imagination.

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Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Once Upon a Time in MexicoWe all gotta start somewhere. Robert Rodriguez, one of the few mainstream directors who could hold his own opposite Quentin Tarantino, began his career with an extremely low-budget film called El Mariachi. He soon followed that with 1995’s Desperado. And while neither film was a cinematic masterpiece (I reviewed the former and latter), they were interesting and somewhat compelling character pieces focusing on a somewhat mysterious wandering mariachi who had a guitar case full of guns and squared off against local drug kingpins.  The third in the Mariachi trilogy, however, is a different story (har!) altogether.

Before I get to the meat of the review, though, take a moment to read the IMDB plot summaries of each.

El Mariachi: A traveling mariachi is mistaken for a murderous criminal and must hide from a gang bent on killing him.

Sounds interesting enough, right?  Simple, effective, and to the point.

Desperado: A gunslinger is embroiled in a war with a local drug runner.

Again, this seems like a decent storyline with room for some good conflicts.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Hitman “El Mariachi” becomes involved in international espionage involving a psychotic CIA agent and a corrupt Mexican general.

Wait a second…hitman? International espionage?  psychotic CIA agents and corrupt military officials?  If brevity is the soul of wit, this movie has its work cut out for it.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Antonio Banderas

Antonio Banderas reprises his role as El Mariachi once again. He's ready to bust some heads, but not even he knows why.

I have no problem with thinking big.  In fact, some of my favorite movies are epic in scale.  But big just for the sake of big is usually a recipe for failure.  Unfortunately, like George Lucas cluttering up Star Wars with all sorts of meaningless characters and contrived conflicts in Episode I, Robert Rodriguez took a perfectly good character and transformed his (presumably) final chapter into a mess of politics and poorly-executed government intrigue.  The result is a movie that wanders from character to character, in which the Mariachi himself is almost an afterthought.  Meanwhile, the storyline is so convoluted that it becomes a chore to try and keep up with it all.  “Mexico” is a film that strives for too many things and ultimately succeeds at almost none of them.

With the two previous films there was no doubt about who the central character was: the Mariachi.  In the third film we have a handful of characters to follow:  Agent Sands (Johnny Depp, giving it his level best), the aforementioned “psychotic CIA agent;” Billy (Mickey Rourke), a convicted felon who is trying to right past wrongs; Ajedrez (Eva Mendez), a double-crossing government agent, Barillo (Willem DaFoe), the drug kingpin who is trying to stage a coup and take over the government…and oh yeah, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas doing an excellent job considering what he has to work with), the mysterious guitar-playing gunslinger who doesn’t actually have much to do with anything.  In fact, it’s as if Rodriguez, who reprised his role as writer and director, constructed a plot about drug kingpins, double agents, government takeovers, and international espionage and then realized he had to find a way to fit his Mariachi character into it somehow.

Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe

Mickey Rourke and Willem Dafoe, tackling issues and taking names.

Even the shootouts and gunfights–Rodriguez’ bread and butter, and a hallmark of the Mariachi films–are kind of a mess.  One that takes place inside a cathedral, with the Mariachi defending himself against a small horde of nameless Bad Guys, is stylistically impressive but emotionally empty.  The same can be said for another gunfight in the middle of a crowded street later in the movie, as if Rodriguez knew he had to throw in some violence even though it doesn’t serve much of a purpose for the overall story.  But perhaps the worst transgression of this movie is its treatment of what little there is of the Mariachi character.  The Mariachi from the first two films plays by his own rules, and does what needs to be done.  The Mariachi in Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a government agent who is ostensibly going after the killers of his wife and daughter, but is mostly content to do what he is told by shady operatives.  Worse yet, Rodriguez turns the Mariachi into a parody of himself:  at one point Antonio Banderas literally rides his guitar case like a surfboard down a flight of stairs.  Worse yet, near the end of the film one of the men in his mariachi band pulls out a remote control and literally drives his guitar-case-on-wheels through the streets and underneath a truck, at which point it explodes and kills all the men inside.  I understand Rodriguez’ tongue-in-cheek style, but this is cinematic buffoonery.

There are a few redeeming qualities to be found here, despite the movie’s myriad flaws.  Agent Sands is one of the more interesting characters I have seen onscreen in quite a while, and the plot does have its share of compelling intrigue and backstabbing.  It’s just not very well put together, and doesn’t make for a fitting entry into the Mariachi franchise.


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Public Enemies

Michael Mann’s ‘Public Enemies’ arrives just in time this season to remind audiences looking for some smart adult action, they needn’t venture into movies about robots and aliens, or endure John Travolta’s embarrassing rants and whines on a subway train. Instead, they can sit back and watch Johnny Depp, one of the greatest actors around, single-handedly take this movie and breathe life into celluloid as 1930s American gangster and professional bank robberJohn Dillinger, on the run from and on the radar of the FBI.

Now, let’s get this out here right away, however: ‘Public Enemies’ is not a great movie. It’s far from Mann’s ‘Heat’, but it’s luminous when compared to 2006’s ‘Miami Vice’ adaptation.  In fact, I felt much the same way about this movie as I did with Ridley Scott’s ‘American Gangster.’ Now instead of Denzel Washington vs. Russell Crowe, we have Johnny Depp vs. Christian Bale — and the end results are pretty similar.  Both flicks are from master filmmakers, showcasing two stars in the lead performances, and each film is interesting and competently made — but neither sizzle.

‘Public Enemies’ most certainly has two things going for it. Johnny Depp is superb in the role. His Dillinger character is dark, mysterious, but also straight-laced. In fact, Dillinger as a character seems to have been written so mysterious that the audience never fully understands or feels that heroic connection with him. But Depp plays it up even when he’s not given dramatic scenes to shine in.  Michael Mann adds to Depp’s talent. The director cooks up shootouts with great intensity. And I suppose I can’t overlook Marion Cotillard. The Oscar-winning actress has an authentic romance with Depp’s character that never comes off contrived or tacked-on. The audience truly believes in their relationship, and it works.

The drawbacks really extend from the movie not involving the audience as it should. From Christian Bale’s straightforward and uninteresting performance as Agent Melvin Purvis, the man hunting Dillinger, to the confusing supporting characters that are never given the proper distinctive treatment, and finally the lack of excitement in the bank heists — I really wasn’t engrossed in the full spectrum of the picture. I greatly admired Depp’s work, some of the film’s intensity, and much of the ‘hunt’ of the storyline, but I didn’t feel quite as connected to Dillinger’s story and the men surrounding him as I wanted to be.  While those gripes didn’t make this a bad film, because this remains satisfactory work, this isn’t greatness. And from Michael Mann, that’s what I hope for.

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