September 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”) and Ethan Maniquis (debut)
Written by: Robert Rodriguez (“Planet Terror”) and Alvaro Rodriguez (“Shorts”)

Continuing where he left off after teasing audiences with a faux trailer in 2007’s “Grindhouse,” filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”) serves up a dish of entertaining mayhem and timely political satire in the form of “Machete.” It’s a contemporary exploitation flick with all the aesthetics of the hardcore vigilante films of the 70s, but with one discernable difference: This time a Mexican’s in charge.

In “Machete,” veteran actor Danny Trejo (“Con Air”) stars as the title character, a former Mexican Federale out for revenge against the men who set him up during an assassination attempt against racist politician Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro). The senator, who spends his free time playing border enforcer and shooting Mexicans who cross into the U.S., is betting that his idea to eradicate all illegal immigrants and erect an electrified border fence will garner enough support to win the upcoming election.

Tied to the senator is Torrez (Steven Segal, who was smart to take this role instead of embarrassing himself in “The Expendables”), a drug cartel kingpin who just happens to be the same man carrying the sword that beheaded Machete’s wife.

On the run, Machete is reeled into “Operation Network,” an underground group of activists fighting for the rights of Mexican immigrants everywhere. Led by a revolutionist known as Shé (an obvious homage to Ché Guevara), “The Network” is a complex system of justice-seekers watching out for their fellow hombres.

Michelle Rodriguez (“Avatar”) plays Luz, a taco-truck owner who may or may not be a major part of “The Network,” but takes care of her own nonetheless. Jessica Alba (“Sin City”) is Sartana, an official with the U.S. Immigration Department who is forced to choose between the law and her empathy for the cause. Precious time is wasted on a topless Lindsay Lohan (“Georgia Rule”) as April, Booth’s meth-head daughter who is on screen long enough for her to flash her breasts and dress like a nun for the final shootout.

Already labeled as a “Mexploitation” film, “Machete” doesn’t disappoint in delivering incredibly campy violence by way of swords, surgical tools, and even a customized weed whacker with a little extra cutting power. No matter what, if any, political stance the film takes, Machete himself is simply a fun character to cheer for despite his lack of real personality.

Nevermind how much disarray immigration reform is across the country, Machete has actually taught us something that can’t be learned from watching Fox News or CNN. He’s taught us about survival. He’s taught us that a man can only be pushed so far before he starts pushing (slicing in this case) back. Most importantly, he’s taught us that whoever coined the first rule of modern warfare – “never bring a knife to a gunfight” – didn’t consider what a vengeful Mexican could actually do with a bad attitude and a blade.

The Perfect Game

April 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Clifton Collins Jr., Cheech Marin, Jake T. Austin
Directed by: William Dear (“Angels in the Outfield”)
Written by: W. William Winokur (debut)

It’s not easy to swing for the fences when the pitcher can’t even get it over home plate.

Therein lies the problem for “The Perfect Game,” the true story of the first Mexican baseball team to win the Little League World Series. While the material is there to develop an inspirational underdog sports movie, director William Dear and screenwriter W. William Winokur seem more comfortable lobbing Wiffle balls into the air when all the narrative is begging for is something with a bit more momentum. Sadly, “Game” plays like a lightweight athlete despite its big, misplaced heart.

In the film, a group of ragtag kids from the poverty-stricken, industrial town of Monterrey form a baseball team to compete against the best in the world. They enter the tournament when Cesar (Clifton Collins Jr.), a washed up local who was recently fired from the Major League, agrees to coach the boys and turn them into a competitive team. Cue the formulaic training montages and siesta jokes.

While “The Perfect Game” is exactly the type of story Hollywood needs to sit up and pay attention to, there’s no sense in supporting something that feels so unauthentic and glossed over. Never mind that the movie is in English (at least the kids fall back on their thick, cartoonish Mexican accents), the real eye-rolling should begin during a scene where a baseball literally falls from heaven. Then there’s the scene where the team recruits a player based on how hard he hits a piñata and another where the team stops for lunch at a diner and proceeds to dip their fried chicken into chocolate sauce to make molé.

The best line in the movie comes from team pitcher Angel Macias (Jake T. Austin) when he asks his coach where he learned how to throw a fastball.

“Who taught you how to pitch?” the young ballplayer asks.

“Cardinals,” Coach Cesar says referring to his days with the professional team in St. Louis.

“From the Basilica?” Angel asks with a sweet innocence.

There are a few other cute moments like that one when “Game” gets away with flaunting its cloying script, but those moments don’t come close to outweighing the massive amount of sports, religion, and cultural clichés from both sides of the border.

“It would take a miracle to make these kids into a real team,” Cesar says at one point.

It would take a heck of a lot more to make “The Perfect Game” as interesting as the black and white photos of the real-life players it displays during the closing credits. That’s the story everyone should really be rooting for.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua

October 5, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Drew Barrymore, Andy Garcia, Piper Perabo
Directed by: Raja Gosnell (“Never Been Kissed”)
Written by: Analisa LaBianco (debut ) and Jeffrey Bushell (debut)

It might be easy to dismiss the idea of “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” if you associate the movie with heiress Paris Hilton carrying a pooch in her purse down Rodeo Drive or think of nothing but a bunch of talking mutts, but make no, er, bones about it, “Chihuahua” is surprisingly one of the best family films of the year not starring a trash-collecting robot.

In “Chihuahua,” Rachel (Piper Perabo) is left to dog-sit her Aunt Viv’s (Jaime Lee Curtis) most prized possession: her spoiled Chihuahua Chloe (voiced by Drew Barrymore). Treated like the furry queen of the castle, Chloe enjoys the finer things in life like designer doggie clothes, choice cuts of meat for dinner, and her time at the day spa. But when Chloe is dog-napped during Rachael’s spontaneous trip to Puerto Vallarta with her friends, she must fend for herself or become a four-legged casualty on the stray-filled streets of Mexico.

“Beverly Hills Chihuahua” is entertaining first and foremost because of the great voice work by some talented actors. As Delgado, a former police dog who saves Chloe from participating in an underground dog fight, Andy Garcia is fantastic. Who knew you could get so much enthusiasm to come out of mouth of a German shepherd? Edward James Olmos is also noteworthy as Diablo, a fiendish Doberman on a mission from his owner to hunt down Chloe and get his paws on the diamond collar she is wearing.

As a smitten Chihuahua named Papi, George Lopez brings a humorous “Lady and the Tramp”-like perspective to the film. Between serenading Chole with Spanish love songs and calling her “mi corazon,” Lopez’s Papi might be too flashy at times, but every story needs a little romance even when the suitor comes with a wagging tail. Cheech Marin is great as one of the very few non-canine characters, Manuel, a cunning mouse who works the streets as a con artist with his iguana friend Chico (voiced by Paul Rodriguez).

Not only does “Chihuahua” showcase some well-cast actors, there is a surprisingly sweet message that wins through without becoming intolerably stereotypical or corny. Sure, we could do without insubstantial one-liners like “Hold your tacos” and the always overused “We’re Mexican not Mexican’t,” but there’s plenty of value for kids and adults alike when “tiny but mighty” pups are teaching us about inner-strength.

As far as live-action talking animal movies go, “Chihuahua” isn’t speaking the language of “Babe” or “Charlotte’s Web,” but it’s charming. Don’t let the unpromising trailers fool you. This dog definitely has some bite behind its yappy bark.

Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong – Light Up America Tour

June 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

It all started in the front seat of a rusted-out 1964 Chevrolet Impala.

“If there were only one image people will always have of Cheech & Chong, it’s of two guys smoking a big joint,” Cheech Marin, 62, told me during an interview to promote the reunion stand-up tour, Cheech & Chong: Light Up America, which strolls into San Antonio March 13-14. “That’s what really defined us.”

After they released a number of comedy albums in the ’70s, including Los Cochinos and Big Bambu, the Cheech & Chong brand went household when studios started financing their counterculture humor in films such as Nice Dreams, Still Smokin’, and The Corsican Brothers.

Their run together would last until the mid-’80s, when Cheech sat down to write the screenplay for what would become 1987’s Born in East L.A., and didn’t include a part for his longtime partner.

“We had been together for so long,” Cheech said. “Not only together, but together-gether. We were with each other 24/7 for 17 years. We had done a bunch of album and movies and tours. It felt like we had reached the end, really.”

“Truth is, Cheech shut me out of his life,” Tommy, 70, said. “He shut me out of the act, and I was understandably bitter.”

With Tommy credited as the director of five of their seven blockbuster movies, Cheech wanted something to call his own. He didn’t see any other way to do it but to break ties with Tommy and move on.

“I think Tommy got his feelings hurt when Cheech went on to do that movie Born in East L.A. without him,” said Shelby Chong, Tommy’s wife, who is the opening act for Light Up America. “He had made a Cheech movie instead of a Cheech & Chong movie.”

While Cheech was eager to shed the token Mexican persona he had built his career on, Tommy didn’t want to rid himself of his pot-smoking, hippie reputation. This might explain why, during the past 24 years, Cheech has branched out and starred in several movies, including Tin Cup and The Lion King and a six-season-long role on the TV show Nash Bridges, while Tommy’s most memorable character has been a pot-smoking hippie on That ’70s Show.

Along with small parts in a few movies and TV shows, Tommy started his solo stand-up career by recruiting his wife as his new partner.

“The split turned into a plus,” said Tommy, who admitted on a video blog that he experienced “Mexican withdrawals” after Cheech left. “I got to teach my wife how to do stand-up and it also gave Cheech what he wanted, which was to get out from under my shadow and show his talents.”

During their time apart, they would communicate with each other a few times a year but weren’t quite sure if there was anything left to save of their friendship. And while talks of another Cheech & Chong movie would occasionally pop up, nothing ever came to fruition, partly due to artistic differences, and partly due to Tommy’s nine-month stint in federal prison in 2003 for selling drug paraphernalia over the internet.

“There was always love there but there was always that resentment, too,” Cheech said. “We had to find a way to work through that resentment. We got to that age where we were like, ‘Hey man, if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do it now!’”

Although they had begun corresponding through email over the last few years, Chong’s messages to his former partner weren’t as gently worded as they needed to be if a reunion was ever going to happen. One day, Tommy and Shelby’s son Paris intercepted an email and, with his mother’s permission, decided to make a few changes to the note.

“Cheech is pretty sensitive, and I knew if he read them he would get his feelings hurt again and there would never be a reunion. All that time Cheech thought Tommy was writing to him. Everything just fell into place like a puzzle.”

Chong admits the duo probably wouldn’t have reunited if his emails hadn’t been edited for insensitivity.

“We needed all the help we could get,” Tommy said. “We both had the same goals, we just had different ego issues. But they’re all resolved now.”