Tuesday, January 31, 2006

'Matador' and mayhem in Mexico

A hitman and a salesman walk into a bar...

Sounds like a bad joke. But it's the tagline (and the set up) for "The Matador," the hilarious, quirky new film from writer/director Richard Shepard.

Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is the hitman. He is a sleaze. A louse. A jerk.

The first time we see him is the morning after a tryst with a hooker. He wakes up, looks around, and paints his toes black with her nail polish.

He's definitely a guy you don't want to be standing next to in, well, a bar. But that is where Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) finds himself one afternoon in Mexico City. Danny thinks he's just closed a deal that will put him back in the black. He's celebrating. Julian's boorishness almost runs him off.

But they start talking. They strike up something like a friendship south of the border. They go to a bullfight. And then Danny finds out what Julian does for a living.

Six months later, Julian finds himself unable to continue in his unique profession. He's seeing himself as a young boy when he aims at his targets. So he goes searching for his only friend. He finds Danny and his wife, Bean (a hilariously quirky Hope Davis), in Denver. And he knocks on their door at Christmas with one last request...

Brosnan's first movie following his well publicized split from the James Bond series is a tour-de-farce. Julian may be killing people, but it's sure not for the British government. And while he has a certain charm, it isn't the polished sophistication of 007.

Shepard, who also wrote the screenplay, delivers a funny, if raunchy, film. You laugh out loud a few times. You wince. You have a good time.

Having caught a couple of interviews and reviews for the film, I was expecting an offbeat, artsy type entry. And it is some of that, but is delightfully accessible and quite funny. Audiences used to seeing Brosnan in a tux drinking a martini every two or three years will be in for a shock.

But it's a good jolt. This is the best character part of Brosnan's career.

I have no idea what bad stuff Shepard inhaled to come up with this outlandish idea for a movie. But I wish he'd send whatever it was to other moviemakers.

"The Matador" is rated R for adult language and strong sexual content. This movie IS NOT suitable for children and those with prudish sensibilities.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Barnabas Collins rises again

OK, so it's a guilty pleasure.

The writing is pretty bad. The acting is worse. The sets fall down. The whole thing looks cheap.

But, boy, is "Dark Shadows" a lot of fun.

The campy supernatural "soap opera" ran on ABC daytime from 1966 to 1971. After starting its run as a more or less straight soap, creator/executive producer Dan Curtis decided to put a ghost on the show to boost ratings. It worked.

So Curtis put another ghost on the show. And a phoenix. And finally a vampire.

The guilt-ridden Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) was just the spark the show needed. It caught fire. At its peak, the show attracted 20 million viewers a week. It was silly, pretty campy. But it was definitely original.

"Dark Shadows" aired regularly on the Sci-Fi Channel for about a decade beginning in 1992. I watched the show on and off during the period, but it was often difficult to keep up with the rigors of what once was a daily serial. Having to watch a show every day in the days before TiVo was a chore. Even VCRs didn't help when you're talking more than 1,000 episodes.

I noticed that Netflix offers the programs as part of its catalog and put the first disc of the series on my rental list. It was a delight. I had forgotten how addictive that silly stuff can be. Before I knew it, it was nearly midnight and I had watched the entire 10 episodes on the disc.

Watching the show as an adult, it's easy to see the program's appeal. For all of its silliness and less than stellar production values, "Dark Shadows" stirred the imagination like few programs do -- especially daytime shows. And it was unique. For better or worse, there has never been another show quite like it.

And it's touching now to see the naivete behind the censorship of the period. Barnabas' "victims" looked like they tangled with a rosebush.

The intellectual in me feels like I am wasting time watching such fare. Perhaps. But as a smart sage once said, "A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men."

Good advice indeed. Everybody needs a little mindless fun from time to time.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

All the Pretty Horses

It grabbed me. Took control. Kept me up late. I had to finish no matter how much sleep I lost.

Don't you love it when a good book will do that to you?

I had checked out Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy from the library a few days before the new year. My mother had given me McCarthy's latest novel, "No Country For Old Men," as a Christmas present and I wanted to look back at his earlier work.

I had tried to read "All the Pretty Horses" once before, five or six years ago, just after college. He had been recommended to me years ago by a friend who, like me, can't get enough of anything having to do with horses, loners and wide open spaces.

But I couldn't read it. Couldn't get used to McCarthy's literary style. I read about 100 pages, was moved by a passage or two, but cast the book aside.

It was worth the second attempt.

"All the Pretty Horses" is a dark and almost ethereal novel about a young Texas drifter named John Grady Cole. Cole and a friend, Lacey Rollins, leave home one day in 1949 and head to Mexico. Trying to capture one last fading slice of something.

They pick up a younger ne'er-do-well, Jimmy Blevins, who promptly gets the trio into trouble. Cole and Rawlins ultimately find work at the ranch of Hector de la Rocha. It is here that Cole meets Alejandra, the girl who changes his life.

But theirs is a forbidden love. Cole and Rawlins are soon arrested. Reunited with Blevins, they enter the horrifying world of a Mexican prison, where survival looks bleak. When the duo are finally released from the hell, it comes at a price.

It is difficult to convey the power that lies within the pages of this book. Certainly part of it is McCarthy's way with the written word. When it gets going, the book lumbers along at a gallop, as expansive and as rocky as the terrain Cole and Rawlins trek.

It isn't an easy read. McCarthy apparently doesn't believe in quotation marks or other forms of punctuation. One has to work at it. But the journey is worth it.

The passages near the end of the book that culminate Cole and Alejandra's love affair are the best in the book. They are filled with a passion and with an empty yearning that only those who have ever loved in vain can understand. Such scenes can be cliched and trite. In McCarthy's hands, they become something almost poetic, something that keeps you awake on a Monday night contemplating life.

If one hoped for more from the book's conclusion, well, it doesn't matter anyway. This is the first part of a trilogy, and one expects that McCarthy left the reader wanting more for a reason.

Director/actor Billy Bob Thornton brought "All the Pretty Horses" to the big screen in 2000. I still haven't seen it. I probably will now, even though the reviews were mixed, and movie adaptations hardly ever are as satisfying as are the scenes a reader conjures inside.

According to a fan web site, McCarthy lived in or near Knoxville for many years. He makes his home in the southwest now and doesn't take letters or phone calls.

It's too bad. I wish I could thank him.

That's the least one could do for someone who created such a work as this.