Next Sunday

Published at: Sept. 1, 2003, 6:50 p.m. CST by staff

I am – Hercules!!

No new HBO series yesterday, and no new HBO series next Sunday either. Next Sunday the pay network offers instead a TV movie, "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself."

The review below is way positive, but it’s not a plant. The reviewer, “Roj Blake,” has been grinding out AICN TV reviews for some time now.

Thursday night I was lucky enough to go to a premiere screening of the new HBO film "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself" here in San Antonio, at the beautiful Majestic Theatre in downtown S.A. Film screenings held at the Majestic are few and far between, so for me (and most everyone else at the screening) this was quite the treat. The film’s star Eion Bailey (“Band of Brothers”) and Executive Producer Josh Maurer (F/X’s “The Pentagon Papers”) were on hand – both were very pleasant, down to earth gents by the way. Maurer spoke passionately to the audience about the project, and it’s clearly his baby – he spent five years researching the subject. Bailey stood outside the theatre afterwards and signed autographs.

Being a made-for-TV flick, I was expecting some kind of video projection, but I was quite surprised to see that HBO had struck a gorgeous film print! (I was told by HBO rep Mike Hopper afterwards that they’ve done this with a number of their recent films.) It’s unfortunate that very few people will ever view this film on the big screen where it clearly deserves to be seen. Absolutely feature film quality from frame one onward. With film prints being made, hopefully more HBO fare will find its way on to the big screen in the future.

Anyway…on to the movie.

If you're anything like me, you're bored to death with "movies about making movies" - but at the same time you're exhilarated when one comes along that bucks the trend and is genuinely worth the time invested. “And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself” is one of these films.

Set way back in 1914 when silent filmmaking was still the rage, the movie follows film pioneers D.W. Griffith (Colm Feore) and his partner Harry Aitken (Jim Broadbent) and their interest in capturing the exploits of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas) on film for the world to see. It’s well worth mentioning that the idea to do this is not Griffith’s or Aitken’s – but rather Villa’s himself. His grand plan? Offer exclusive rights to film the revolution against Mexican president Victoriano Huerta in exchange for $25,000 in gold against 20% of the profits!

If the film weren’t based on fact, you’d swear it came from screenwriter Larry Gelbart’s (“M*A*S*H”, “Tootsie”) prolific imagination.

Griffith is intrigued, but at the same time doesn’t want to be bothered, so he sends Aitken’s young nephew Frank Thayer (Eion Bailey) to Mexico along with a small camera crew to capture the madness.

The ensuing story repeatedly blurs the comedy/drama line. Villa and Thayer become unlikely friends with a respect for one another. Villa is a ham for the camera, but also wants the best and truest film possible to come of the endeavor, so at least for a time the two work from the same script. As filming commences, complications arise, egos & tempers flare, battles are fought, lost, and won on both sides of the camera, and eventually even Griffith’s company, Mutual Films, is revealed to have its own agenda outside of merely documenting the revolution.

“Pancho Villa” is a fascinating cinematic glimpse into both film and political history. Maybe because I live in San Antonio, and I’m surrounded by Mexican culture on a daily basis, the film speaks louder to me than it will to people in other parts of the world. But I really don’t think so - the story is too strong and the characters are so richly drawn. It’s possible that the material is currently more relevant than ever, given the way today’s politics and entertainment continually overlap and influence one another.

Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is that it’s a reminder of a long lost cinematic treasure, “The Life of General Villa”. The chunks of the original silent film recreated within this piece appear to be incredibly spot on. For every “Metropolis” and “Nosferatu”, there are probably a dozen “Life of General Villa’s” – movies that marked the beginning of the greatest art form the 20th Century has known; movies that are now simply lost forever, along with pioneers like Frank Thayer who helped create them.

The acting is top notch across the board. Banderas is often easy to write off due to nonsensical fare like “Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever”, but he really comes through with his portrayal of Villa in a big way. I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed him this much since, well…I’ve probably never enjoyed Antonio as much as in this role. He chews, tears and glides his way from scene to scene. The portrayal is his own personal symphony, and he’s determined to play every note with precision. He embodies the central character in a way that convinces you nobody else could ever have played the part. (Watch the film and try to picture somebody like Andy Garcia in the role and you’ll see what I’m talking about.) A buddy of mine used to always say “slicker than whale shit in an ice flow” – and that’s as good a description as any for Banderas in this film.

Bailey’s Thayer is the quiet antithesis of the hotheaded Banderas – it takes a great actor to deliver such a subtle performance, and Bailey pulls it off from the word go, always knowing when to hold back and allow Banderas center stage. With his good looks and boyish charm, it’s not a stretch to see him becoming a major Hollywood player in the next couple years. “Buffy” fans may want to tune in for a few scenes with Anthony Stewart Head. Oh, and then there’s Alan Arkin playing a grizzled American mercenary working for Villa - Arkin’s got some great material in this flick. “Farscape” fans take note – Matt Day, who played Councilor Tyno in Season 2’s epic “Look at the Princess” trilogy, shows up as American journalist John Reed. (Day’s done plenty of other Aussie film work, but how can I, Roj Blake, post a review to AICN and not mention “Farscape” if at all possible?)

And just when you didn’t think a cast could get any better, Michael bloody McKean shows up delivering a hee-larious, directed-by-Christopher Guest-worthy performance.

Aussie film director Bruce Beresford and his cinematographer Peter James deliver what’s probably their most successful collaboration since 1991’s “Black Robe”. The film is slick, stylish and well paced throughout.

“And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself” premieres on HBO Sunday, Sept. 7th at 9:30 PM, ET.

Roj Blake…Teleport Now!

I am – Hercules!!

Readers Talkback

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  • Sept. 1, 2003, 7:11 p.m. CST

    And starring this talkbacker as first.

    by I Hate Movies

    Time to shell out to Comcast and watch this puppy!

  • Sept. 1, 2003, 8:54 p.m. CST

    Shit...I live in Wisconsin and I'm surrounded by Mexican culture

    by Sod Off Baldric

    It's not like you're in an exclusive club there, Roj. I just have to step outside the door to my apartment to be transported to another country. Anyway, I would like to see this, but unfortunately I can't afford HBO because I'm poor like a Third World Country these days...stupid college. Oh well, it will be released on DVD eventually. Nice review, Roj. I always enjoyed reading what you had to say about Farscape on the rare occasions when Herc was generous enough to give us a talkback regarding that wonderful, wonderful show. Later.

  • Sept. 1, 2003, 10:04 p.m. CST

    Great to see ASH again, I even watched MI5

    by DyslexicHeart

    Former Buffy and Farscape actors? I'm there. Plus, being a Texan the story of Pancho Villa has been in my life a long time. I even have an uncle named Pancho.

  • Sept. 1, 2003, 11:01 p.m. CST

    Isn't it about time for Tony Banderas to give us that Zorro sequ

    by Osmosis Jones

    You know, the one that he always says is "just about to start filming", but never does? If he can do a Desperado followup EIGHT YEARS after the fact, then where the hell is the Zorro sequel?!? Tony and Cathy Zeta-Jones ain't getting any younger...

  • Sept. 2, 2003, 12:20 a.m. CST

    can't afford HBO?

    by microwavable?

    i don't know what you guys get charged, but here in omaha its under $10 a month through coaxial cable. and with DVD rentals at $4 nowdays, i say catching a couple flicks a month and an episode or two of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' on it is worth it. on the other hand, there are occassional stretches of pure dreck. whatever.

  • Sept. 2, 2003, 12:29 a.m. CST

    Antonio Banderas is a cool mofo

    by Ribbons

    Although I wouldn't know cool if it took a shit on my head

  • Sept. 2, 2003, 12:33 a.m. CST

    actually, microwaveable

    by Toe Jam

    hbo is free here in omaha (or bellevue, to be more precise). you know if you just get your phone service, high speed internet and cable all through cox you get free hbo (or 100 minutes free long distance). and since cox operates in about 37 different states, they probably have the same deal going. besides, hbo is worth the extra $10 a month, ya cheap bastards

  • Sept. 2, 2003, 12:59 a.m. CST

    Oh, it's not the cost I mind....

    by I Hate Movies

    It's the idiots at the cable store. I waited there for three hours once to get a box for a Tyson fight that ended in about three rounds. Plus, I'm like Indy reaching for the idol, trying to get that thing hooked up without having a giant rock (in this case, the TV set) fall on my ass [*Pimps geek cred not-so-subtly*].

  • Sept. 2, 2003, 1:29 a.m. CST


    by DyslexicHeart

    I'm going to chime in on this discussion about HBO. I don't have HBO either because I'm a college student and get free cable through my dorm and for a poor college student taking $10 dollars out of my drinking budget every month is a travisty. I just tivo HBO programs I want to see at my parents house when I'm doing laundry and watch it when I can. And yes I realize how utterly immature this post makes me sound.

  • Sept. 2, 2003, 2:41 a.m. CST


    by Filthy Fox

    He gave the fucking address!!! Only a plant would do something like that! Besides, this movie looks like horse shit...

  • Sept. 2, 2003, 5:10 p.m. CST

    My dad is an extra in this thing....

    by Aphex Twin

    Look for the guy dressed like Woody from Toy Story...that's my pops!

  • Sept. 2, 2003, 11:23 p.m. CST

    No one will understand what I am saying within a few weeks,

    by Sith Witch

    but those ads on the side bar of this page for "Thirteen" looks too much like a banner to a facials site...too tempting.