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Day of the Dead Cartoon The Book of Life Offers Speedy Gonzalez-Level Ethnic Humor

Encouraging a sensitive boy to win over an ostensibly independent girl by, in her words, “always [following his] heart,” Mexican animated fable The Book of Life‘s hackneyed stock plot preaches tolerance while lamely reinforcing the status quo. Realistically, you shouldn’t expect penetrating life lessons from a film where balladeer Manolo (Diego Luna) digs deep inside himself to serenade sassy heroine Maria (Zoe Saldana) but only dredges up Hallmark Card–ready sentimentality: a constellation of candles, an instantly forgettable sunset, and a bad cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

But The Book of Life‘s plot hinges on Manolo and war-hero Joaquin’s (Channing Tatum) romantic rivalry, making pseudo-empowered Maria — she knows kung fu! — a human prize. Manolo and Joaquin’s contest is encouraged by Xibalba and La Muerte (Ron Perlman and Kate del Castillo), dueling rulers of the afterlife who bet on who will wed Maria. The ghosts of Manolo’s family further validate his quest by returning to help him on the Día de los Muertos.

The film’s rote right-makes-might fantasy wouldn’t be so obnoxious if pandering to the lowest common denominator wasn’t its default mode. You might be able to forgive the Shrek-worthy jukebox soundtrack, including covers of Radiohead’s “Creep” and Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.”

But you can’t escape the Speedy Gonzalez–level ethnic humor — the filmmakers literally put facial hair and sombreros on everything, including a mustachioed globe and its sombrero-shaped spiral galaxy home. Instead of swinging for the fences, The Book of Life bunts, and still strikes out.

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BAND OF BROTHERS

Today, Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal are two of the most accomplished actors, directors, producers who infiltrated American cinema in the early ’00s in a wave of thespians and filmmakers from Mexico. However, back in 2001, when Y Tu Mamá También was released, these two young men were up-and-coming indie actors with a certain gleam in their eye, and we just knew they’d hit it big. The film, about two best friends on a road trip to a mysterious beach with a Spanish beauty who’s hiding a secret, went on to win a slew of awards, and became a classic coming-of-age film. Tonight, Nitehawk reminds us why we fell in love with Luna and Bernal in the first place — as if we could ever forget.

Wed., May 21, 7:15 p.m., 2014

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Yes We Can! (Make Better Biopics Than Cesar Chavez)

The Chicano labor leader César Chávez can now join Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in the pantheon of heroes whose world-altering achievements are dutifully recounted in timid, lifeless films any substitute can pop into the school DVD player when the regular history teacher is out with the flu.

With César Chávez, Mexican director Diego Luna, who co-starred in last year’s space fantasy Elysium and explored bi-curiosity with Gael García Bernal in Y Tu Mamá También, seems less interested in making human and revealing cinema than a live-action inspirational poster. When his Chávez stands at the lectern, Luna shoots lead actor Michael Peña from the shoulders up and from the side, gazing beatifically at the awed crowd.

Curiously, though, this Chávez’s followers are few, just two or three dozen stout men in straw hats. Take away the ocher sunlight of California’s Central Valley (though the film was shot in northwestern Mexico), and the scene could be a metro section photo covering a local city council race. The sparse tableaux speak to the intimacy of Chávez’s activism, but also suggest the film’s inability to capture the scope of its subject’s influence and accomplishments.

César Chávez focuses on the famed 1965–1970 grape strike that won higher wages and better working conditions for Mexican- and Filipino-American migrant laborers. As an early scene shows, the five-year campaign was instigated by a group of Filipino workers. Chávez bridged the Asian-Latin American gap and added to their strike’s span by rallying Chicanos to their cause.

Occasionally, it’s possible to get a sense of Chávez as a man of his time — specifically, as one player in the internationalist Third World movement of the 1960s, which emphasized commonalities between oppressed racial groups around the world. “They play the races against each other,” sermonizes Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), a prominent labor leader who would eventually found the United Farm Workers union with Chávez. (Not that you’d learn that from this film, which lectures against Latin machismo and yet almost entirely expunges women’s contributions to the campaign.)

Keir Pearson’s script plays out like a highlight reel of the grape strike. It fails to effectively dramatize the slow process of converting ordinary laborers to the workers’ cause and of selling the boycott to everyday consumers. What little narrative propulsion there is comes from upsetting scenes of overt racism, as when angry white farm owners wantonly shoot at Mexican-American protesters or run them over with pickup trucks.

Luna’s Chávez is a Catholic saint, not just in his religious faith but also in his dedication to the idea that mortification of the flesh is the key to a paradisiacal future. The film begins with Chávez leaving his cushy job as the national director of a Latino civil rights group, where he wears a suit (but no tie) to work; he’s soon toiling in the fields despite his chronic backaches to gain the trust of the workers. Moving his wife and eight children into a three-bedroom house in the farm towns also means holding back his own kids’ prospects to provide better opportunities for the farm workers’ children. “The kids here are idiots,” complains his son Chato (Maynor Alvarado), suddenly the target of anti-Mexican slurs.

But Luna’s Chávez isn’t a man of contradictions. Nor is he a man of action. He merely suffers: beatings by angry white farm owners, unkind words from an increasingly rebellious Chato, agony from spectacular protests like a 25-day fast and a 300-mile march. The film doesn’t seek admiration for his deeds or his force of will, only sympathy for enduring the kind of physical pain the Jackass crew used to undergo every week for MTV.

The careless diminishment of every other character that isn’t Chávez — including wife Helen, played by an utterly wasted America Ferrera in a grape-sized role — might be worth overlooking if the film provided any insights into its subject. There are intimations of suggestions of allusions to the media-savvy ideologue that Chávez actually was. (As the rightwing press is still fond of pointing out, the union man occasionally agitated against immigration, fearing that scabs would undermine the effectiveness of his strikes, and even reported a few undocumented workers who wouldn’t join his campaigns to INS.)

But the film, which earned the seal of approval from the cautious Chávez estate by collaborating with the labor leader’s heirs, is only interested in celebrating a hero. “We’re fighting for basic human rights,” the character says at one point, a line that matches its speaker in its bland, abstract sincerity. Peña, who’s proved himself a minor comic genius in 2012’s End of Watch and a season-long guest turn in HBO’s Eastbound and Down, is utterly undone by Pearson’s underdeveloped screenplay. He just seems sleepy.

President Obama evoked some political magic when he declared, “Yes, we can” — a slogan borrowed from Chávez (“Sí, se puede”). But Peña’s disinterested delivery reduces that thrilling promise — that everyday citizens have the power to create a better future for ourselves — into an interjection, a noun, and a verb. Watching his life-size cardboard cutout of Chávez shout, “Yes, we can,” I was moved, but only to wish that one of the things “we” can do is to make a resonant, dramatically rich film about a leader who forcefully but nonviolently bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice — which this inoffensive cow pie most certainly isn’t.

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Man Child en Español: How Did Will Ferrell’s Casa de Mi Padre Happen?

Casa de Mi Padre, which opens in New York this week, is a Spanish-language comedy starring Will Ferrell as a simpleminded, asexual Mexican cowboy who welcomes the return of his prodigal brother Raul (Diego Luna) to the family ranch but eyes Raul’s beautiful fiancée with suspicion. The movie is, at its base, a spoof of telenovelas and mid-century B-westerns played unflaggingly straight. Director Matt Piedmont shoots stunning natural vistas with vintage Panaflex lenses, then cuts to scenes obviously shot on a stage in front of painted “outdoor” backdrops. A Ken-style doll sometimes stands in for Ferrell’s character for a few shots, most hilariously in a sex scene. There is a music-video sequence in which Ferrell sings about his life as a beer-swilling ranchero. There is a psychedelic vision-quest scene featuring a creaky animatronic mountain lion as Ferrell’s spirit animal.

The whole endeavor could pass as the work of an enterprising college kid if it didn’t feature a huge Hollywood star speaking impeccable Spanish, supported by a host of high-quality Mexican actors, including Luna and Gael García Bernal as a drug lord so decadent, he smokes two cigarettes at once. Funnier than any single joke within the movie is the overarching meta-joke—the simple fact that the movie was made. Why—and how—does this even exist?

“It’s literally to provoke questions like that,” Ferrell said over the phone last week. “People say, ‘What do you have coming out next?’ ‘Oh, this movie I did entirely in Spanish’—and people start laughing. I don’t know if you can really analyze it much beyond that. It’s just preposterous.”

Ferrell met Piedmont and Casa screenwriter Andrew Steele when the latter two shared an office as writers at Saturday Night Live. “Andrew and I did a lot of the Robert Goulet stuff,” Ferrell remembers, and, in fact, Casa could be thought of as a conceptual descendant of the sketch in which Goulet rolls up in front of a painted backdrop in his convertible to promote his new album of hip-hop covers. Part of that joke is the unapologetically “bad” production value; another part is the non sequitur of the blatantly artificial ram that shows up at the end for a “staring contest” with Goulet; part of it is Ferrell as Goulet repeatedly saying “nigga.” Casa de Mi Padre similarly revolves around a potentially racially insensitive gimmick, which is diffused by everything else being patently ridiculous.

Despite their shared history with Ferrell, both writer and director say they had reservations about the concept. When Steele first heard the idea from Ferrell’s producing partner Adam McKay, “I kind of rolled my eyes,” he admits. “Just an extended sketch of a telenovela for a parody didn’t really do it for me.” But then he and Piedmont fleshed it out, expanding the one-joke premise into a wide-ranging, anything-goes pastiche, with a subtle but persistent thread of social commentary.

“As much as we’ve been doing comedy for our entire careers, I think we all have a love-hate relationship with comedy,” Piedmont says. “We also have a big love affair with all kinds of movies—spaghetti westerns, Mexican cinema of the ’60s and ’70s. We thought, ‘What if we could throw that all in there and play it deadly serious?'”

“This movie was so much about chance and restraint,” Steele says. “We have every opportunity to make it jokey, but we just didn’t want any of that desperate sweatiness there, so we kept pulling back. To people like us who have been around comedy for a long time, there’s a kind of comedy just in that.”

Indeed, in many scenes, there are no obvious cues for laughs. In one, Ferrell’s Armando Alvarez has a conversation with his brother—a slick operator who the naive cowboy is just starting to realize is a narco gangster—that ends up being quite possibly the most straightforward, unsentimental assessment of the War on Drugs ever seen in a Hollywood star vehicle.

“We did want to make it something a little—without sounding pretentious—a little more politically charged,” Steele says.

Casa is hardly a minstrel show: As much as Ferrell’s sore-thumb visual otherness in his family is the underlying joke of the movie, it was important to the actor—who only spoke Spanish at a high school level before the shoot—to sell that joke by becoming as fluent as possible.

“If the joke was just me speaking bad Spanish, then I think you cross over a line that’s not acceptable,” Ferrell says. “And it’s a joke you’ve seen before.”

That said, all involved expect the log line of “white American playing Mexican” to induce knee-jerk hand-wringing. “Someone’s going to find it racist,” Piedmont says. “I just think whenever you enter into this territory of an [American] actor playing a Mexican, that’s just going to happen. But we were very careful to be respectful of, you know, humans.”

“Within the realm of comedy, it’s our right and our job to take chances like this,” Ferrell says. But he also notes: “Many of the Latino press who have talked to me are like, ‘How did you guys know about the narcos? It’s funny, but the way you tell the story is kind of true.'”

“I know that when Will came and pitched us the story, he was a bit worried about offending people,” says Darlene Caamaño Loquet, a Cuban American whose company, Nala Films, provided Casa‘s budget (which she’ll only say was “under 10 [million]”). “And it was a smart move on his part to partner with a company like ours because we are Hispanic.”

In fact, this Spanish-language film made by non-Spanish speakers is being pitched specifically to the Hispanic audience. “The Latino market in the U.S. doesn’t want to see films made just for Latinos,” says Paul Pressburger of Pantelion, a joint venture between Univision parent company Televisa and Lionsgate, which is opening Casa on 350 screens. “They want to see movies that are general Hollywood movies but that have something special about them that resonates with Latinos.”

Pressburger says the film’s appeal to the Latino demographic was apparent through internal screenings. “The first thing that happened is that they screened it for the Lionsgate executives,” he says. “So all of the Hollywood white executives go into the room, and they watch it, and they thought the movie was entertaining and funny. Then my team, which is a bunch of Mexican Americans and Latino Americans, go and see the movie, and they liked it even more. And then I had the executives from Mexico up [for a screening], and they were on the floor, rolling with laughter. So, the more Latino you were, the more Mexican you were, the more you appreciated how funny it was.”

Nala and Pantelion are blatantly hoping to exploit Ferrell’s star power to reach a larger audience than the average Spanish-language movie. But though Ferrell is surely a big star, his attempts to step outside of his expected niche have not exactly caught fire with audiences. (Think of last year’s indie Everything Must Go or his turn as Woody Allen’s surrogate in Melinda and Melinda.) And even if Ferrell’s ability to propel an indie to breakout status on his star power alone wasn’t in doubt, Casa is for all intents and purposes a foreign-language art film. Not only is it subtitled, but in its multitiered homage and intentional sloppiness, it requires a certain level of media literacy in addition to just plain literacy.

“Listen, it’s a tough one,” Loquet admits. “Because it is in a different language, and you’re asking people to read subtitles. [But] if you look at the numbers of who’s really spending money at the theaters, Hispanics are the number one indexing group. For us, as long as it makes the U.S. and the film business realize that Hispanics are the mainstream, that’s success enough.”

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No Success Like Failure for Bernal and Luna in Rudo y Cursi

Not quite The Further Adventures of Cain & Abel, the second coming of Beavis & Butt-Head, King Kong vs. Godzilla Redux, or Peyton Meets Eli, but energetic fun nonetheless, Rudo y Cursi is a multiple brother act: It’s written and directed by Carlos Cuarón and produced by elder sibling Alfonso, director of Y Tu Mamá También, which Carlos co-wrote, and reunites Mamá‘s co-stars (and childhood friends) Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, playing half-brothers to boffo effect.

Nearly as popular on its home territory as the first Cuarón hit, Rudo y Cursi is a similarly manic, if less psychologically fraught, exercise in male-bonding and fraternal rivalry—rooted in a road-trip that the Cuarón brothers took in their twenties. It’s also a sports-inspirational story with a distinctively acrid twist. The self-deprecating attitude toward their homeland is apparent from the onset—a montage of rustic, rundown, empty soccer fields, followed by Cursi (Bernal) schlepping bananas at the rustic, rundown plantation, someplace in backwoods Jalisco, where Rudo (Luna), works as the assistant to the assistant foreman.

They’re a ripe pair of bumpkins—one needn’t understand much Spanish to catch their exaggerated patán cadences. Rudo, whose sobriquet means “tough,” is irascible and inarticulate; Cursi, dubbed “corny,” is expansive and voluble. Each, however, is a potential soccer star—or so we’re told by the good-natured little hustler, Batuta (Argentine comic Guillermo Francella), who, in discovering the brothers and providing the movie’s voiceover narration, more or less conducts the action. (The scout also supplies an appropriately macho running gag, showing up in every scene with a different tall, silent, well-endowed young woman in tow.)

Batuta can only take the brothers with him to Mexico City one at a time; thus we can enjoy their miserable digs, mind-blowing exposure to frozen food, locker room hazing, and heady success twice. Happy-go-lucky Cursi may be an unstoppable scoring machine and taciturn Rudo the greatest goalie in Mexican history, but the sports action runs a distant second to character comedy. Larded with hilarious crowd reaction shots, the only actual soccer game in the movie is the climactic match-up between the two brothers; the real competition is which of the two can be more self-destructive. Tone-deaf Cursi dreams of being a pop star; jealous family man Rudo is a compulsive gambler. Together, they make the archetypal doomed movie palooka, bewitched by bimbos and beholden to gangsters.

Rudo y Cursi is as fatalistic as any film noir, but it’s played for cartoonish screwball comedy. At once smooth and frantic, filled with cozy clutter and vulgar jive, the movie subsumes its moralizing in frat-house entertainment. What justice can you expect from a world where a man turns on the TV and learns that he’s been dumped by his fiancée, or a death threat is followed by the request for an autograph? At the height of their joint triumph, the brothers return home—their half-sister is marrying the local druglord—and compete over who will buy their mother a house on Chololo beach. (Three guesses as to which of them will prevail.)

Despite an undercurrent of violence, Rudo y Cursi eludes the tragic ending that seems to be its destiny. But even if the movie’s final shot is a Pacific paradise, the denouement is pretty downbeat—at least by the grotesque standards of the conventional North American sports movie. The rocky road to success is just a dead end (or a big circular drive). Circumstances may vary, but character is unchanging. As Octavio Paz wrote of his countrymen in The Labyrinth of Solitude, “To us a realist is always a pessimist.”

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TOGETHER AGAIN

The 2001 coming-of-age indie hit Y Tu Mamá También singlehandedly put Mexican cinema on the Hollywood circuit. Thanks to the on-screen chemistry (sexual and otherwise) of childhood friends and leading actors, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna—and the talents of director Alfonso Cuarón and his brother, screenwriter Carlos Cuarón—the demand for these actors and filmmakers skyrocketed. Eight years and many successful films later, Bernal and Luna are back together in the new dramedy Rudo y Cursi, directed by Carlos Cuarón, as stepbrothers who quit their farm jobs to play professional soccer in Mexico City. Although this film can be categorized as the typical rags-to-riches story, the real draw is the intense dynamic and impeccable comic timing between the two stars. We only wish they were in every film together. At tonight’s preview screening, both Luna and Bernal will be on hand for the introduction. There better be a medic on site.

Wed., May 6, 7 p.m., 2009

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Cutting Remarks

To land your movie in the Tribeca Film Festival, it might help to use your vagina or even just to get one. RICKI LAKE did well with that up-close-and-personal birthing documentary. (“Watching myself give birth with 350 strangers was challenging,” Ricki admitted to me recently—meaning at the screening, not in the delivery room.) And ALEXIS ARQUETTE shook up the festival with She’s My Brother, the attention-getting doc about his sex-reassignment surgery. (IMDb.com says that if you liked it, it also recommends The History of Masturbation, My Penis and I, and Dirty Pretty Things. Or just watch it again.)

At the film’s after-party at Fig & Olive—but no nuts—Alexis was enchanting as usual and lit up when I told her she looked a bit like LIV TYLER. (“I love hearing that!” Alexis exclaimed, in between posing with some shirtless hunks that happened to be there.) But let’s cut, as it were, to the chase: Did she keep her sizable, world-famous dick in a jar? “They used it to make the vagina,” Alexis informed me. “All of it!” Wow—that’s got to be the biggest vagina on earth! At least Alexis has one of those names that could work either way, unlike, say, David, Rosanna, or Patricia. But how will this genital switcheroo affect the roles she gets? “They dried up, hon,” Alexis replied, deadpan. “I can’t work as a male actor anymore because I’m only interested in transgendered female roles.” Are there all that many of those? “We’re underrepresented,” she admitted. “Taxation without representation! And I’m only taking offers—no auditions. I have a huge body of work.” And a body with some huge work. “Eventually,” she went on, “I’ll be able to do a LINDA HUNT and play a male again, but right now I can’t.” I only hope she doesn’t lose the few transgendered female roles there are to FELICITY HUFFMAN.

Even a man bearing a documentary turned up at the festival—namely, DIEGO LUNA, whom some call “the other guy from Y Tu Mamá También,” though I just call him “the guy from Y Tu Mamá También—and a close personal friend, ba dum pum.” He’s now the guy who directed the boxing doc
Chavez, which non-jocks like me attended mainly to see the dreamy-eyed Luna emerge afterward for a cutely self-deprecating Q&A. “Somebody want to complain about the film?” he said, smiling, as we all melted. No one complained. “Your advice for young filmmakers?” someone asked. “I don’t know if you should trust me,” Luna replied, trying out the self-dep again. “You have to be a good storyteller and scratch the surface. And the toughest thing is to convince everyone around that you can make it.” He then told a long, involved, vividly hilarious story that I can’t possibly repeat here. Because it was in Spanish.

Covering a much more competitive arena than boxing, the Drama Desk had a nominees reception at Arte Cafe, bringing out theater people being wildly theatrical about having been recognized for being wildly theatrical. Legally Blonde‘s always fun ORFEH said she was “apoplectic” about this and her Outer Critics Circle nod. “I screamed really loud when I got the Outer Critics nomination,” she said, “and I had to see Dr. Kessler. Eight shows a week don’t get me to the doctor, but the nomination got me!” Whoever Dr. Kessler is, awards season must be his or her boom time.

Non-screamer JAN MAXWELL was also there, nominated for the dickless, I mean Dickensian, epic Coram Boy, which in a reverse Arquetteism has some women playing boys. But does she play a woman? “Yes,” Maxwell said, smiling. “Not like at home.”

To get closer to my home, I stepped outside, where Some Men‘s FREDERICK WELLER was arriving on a skateboard as everyone’s tongues dropped even lower than they do in Legally Blonde for UPS man ANDY KARL. (Or anywhere for my good friend Diego Luna.) Blonde‘s director/choreographer JERRY MITCHELL was entering too—by a more conventional vehicle—and smirking, “I drank enough on Sunday!” And finally, I had a sexually elevating conversation with Spring Awakening‘s director MICHAEL MAYER, who told me he’s in love with his cast (“They don’t know how to phone it in”), though he’s a little concerned about how the inevitable
Forbidden Broadway sketch will spoof them. (“The microphones are so phallic!”). In the meantime, Mayer assured me there have been no heart attacks in the audience, despite the racy rock material that spans circle jerks, incest, suicide, and bad-hair days. “I keep waiting for the trauma and it hasn’t come,” Mayer said. “We haven’t even had a stroke. Or a hemorrhoid. Though I couldn’t tell for sure about that.” Ask Dr. Kessler, I guess.

The show, Mayer told me, has become an offbeat family musical for offbeat families. “You see mothers and daughters, fathers and sons—different combinations,” he said. “You see the dad sink down a little and the girl lift up. You know conversations will start happening.” Recently, WARREN BEATTY and ANNETTE BENING brought their offbeat family to see the show and dined with Mayer afterward. “From the beginning of the conversation,” said Mayer, “you could tell this was going to engender some serious birds-and-bees talk.” Considering Warren’s romantic track record, you’d think his kids would just automatically know.

And suddenly it was time to stop the conversation and actually see some of the damned shows.
Coram Boy, it turns out, has theatrical sweep, shrieking melodramatics, and Handel music, and though the couple next to me couldn’t run fast enough at intermission, the remainders leapt to their feet at the end, buoyed by the rousing conclusion and the encore consisting of the Hallellujah Chorus. But I’m the only one who got the literary reference when the boy (played by a woman) found his voice cracking. It was straight out of The Brady Bunch!

TV-land favorites don’t figure in the Weill jukebox musical LoveMusik, a/k/a
Good Weill-brations, though the actors’ Hogan’s Heroes–like German accents result in lines on the order of, “I’m zee biggest lunkhead in zee world” and “Look what zee cat dragged in.” The utterly admirable show drips in all the right trappings of Weill/Lenya artistry, but with its shoehorned songs and erratic pace, it verges on being zee fabulous misfire and zee beautiful bore. “It needs a double bass,” murmured a musician in the audience.

Another doomed love battle, Deuce has the only two straight female tennis players in the world reuniting to indulge in cliches (“How the mighty have fallen”), self-important pronouncements (“We were pioneers!” “We were tennis stars. Huge, huge tennis stars!”), and strained old-fogeyisms (“They all grunt now!” one says re today’s huge, huge tennis stars). The lumbering result is vastly elevated by ANGELA LANSBURY and MARIAN SELDES, who bring decades of timing and craftsmanship to the stage, but watching them lift this thing on their aging shoulders is like seeing your two favorite great-aunts get slimed by mud as a careless truck careens by and almost kills them. Toward the very end, the play does manage some kind of woozy grace, and without the use of the Hallellujah Chorus, but by then I had joined the grunters.

From tennis we go to Radio Golf, August Wilson’s last play—his Curtains, as it were—which starts off a little static and heavy-handed, like a very special episode of
Sanford and Son, but develops steam, its haves-versus-have-nots theme crackling more intensely as the characters get angrier. And even middle-drawer Wilson is better than Angela Lansbury having to make cute wisecracks about her bowel regularity.

Finally, 110 in the Shade has a guy named Starbuck bringing an ailing town a much-needed liquid—no, not medium-sized iced mochaccinos, but rainwater, and lots of it, even for the front row! The lovingly done revival unveils a lovely, absorbing show, and though the production is smallish (only eight townspeople!), AUDRA MCDONALD can fill any stage with her genius, even when pretending to be “plain” and unmarryable. Plus, JOHN CULLUM‘s delightful as usual as Dad, and as the adorably dumb brother, BOBBY STEGGERT proves an irresistible triple threat who’s destined for stardom. He aroused my privates—and they’re in a jar!

musto@villagevoice.com

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‘Cowboy del Amor’

Not the Hispanic remake of Brokeback Mountain starring Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna that its title would suggest, Cowboy del Amor is a quirky documentary about the most colorful matchmaker since Dolly Levi. Ivan “The Cowboy Cupid” Thompson herds lovelorn gringos across the border and fixes them up with eager (sometimes too eager) Mexican brides. A happy couple offers a sincere testimonial but—call me a cynic—it’s just a straight business transaction. We see Thompson accompany Bachelor No. 1 on a 12-hour bus ride to Torreón, place a personal ad in the local paper, and set up camp in a fleabag motel to interview (with the aid of a translator) desperate housewives-to-be. She gets a green card, he gets a live-in maid with benefits, Thompson gets $3,000. Everybody wins.

A 60-year-old eccentric with a knack for self-promotion, Thompson makes an engaging documentary subject. But his plainspoken charm and cornpone shtick can’t dispel the film’s lingering aftertaste of exploitative condescension. (His habit of comparing women to animals doesn’t help: His work is “just like going fishing,” he says. “You don’t know if anything’s going to bite.”) Still, you have to admire a guy with the gumption to defuse critics of his chosen profession by saying, “Christ got criticism for his.” Can I get an amen?

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With Tobacco as a Stimulant, Lovelorn Mexicans Flirt With Destiny

The great theme of the Mexican New Wave—the relationship between chance and destiny—fuels the fast-paced and stylish comic caper movie Nicotina, a film, its co-producer says, about “the darkest part of the cigarette.” Unfolding in real time, Nicotina‘s three separate stories (each one featuring a frustrated smoker) come together during the course of one night in Mexico City.

Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También) stars as Lolo, a lonely computer hacker who manages to crack a Swiss bank’s secret code but still can’t make his way into the heart of his lovely cellist neighbor (Marta Belaustegui). A pair of amateur thugs—Nene (sexy newcomer Lucas Crespi) and his aging sidekick (Jesús Ochoa)—team up with Lolo to sell the bank’s information to some Russian mobsters. Their paths intersect with those of two unhappily married couples: a meek-mannered barber (Rafael Inclán) whose harridan wife (Rosa María Bianchi) dreams of a more luxurious life, and an irritable pharmacist (Daniel Giménez Cacho) whose long-suffering spouse (Carmen Madrid) has finally (and hilariously) had enough.

A collaboration between three Argentine-born filmmakers—director Hugo Rodríguez, screenwriter Martin Salínas, and co-producer Laura Imperiale (working with Martha Sosa Elizondo, producer of Amores Perros)—Nicotina has an international feel to it. Its characters are recognizable types (perhaps a touch too much so); its seedy Latin downtown could be just about anywhere. Skillful editing and Salinas’s sassy script keep our attention focused, from first puff to last drag. What does it mean? Not all that much, really—just a pleasurable hour and a half passing, like an extended cigarette break.

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NY Mirror

For those who believe in life after “Believe,” Cher performed at the Roxy, providing an orgy of star quality that was brief and muddled, but tres gay and super-intense. The diva’s visit to clubdom was no surprise; she’d been everywhere that week, even popping up on Prime Time Live to say, “If I had tits on my back, that would be my business“—though she added that she hasn’t had all the surgery people think. (I guess she’s not Michael Jackson, even if they’re both white women who prefer the company of young boys.) And despite whatever artifice she does employ, Cher’s still the realest thing in showbiz, her “fuck you, this is me” attitude making her the world’s longest-living punk.

The Roxy performance? She went on 45 minutes before the scheduled 2 a.m. gig, while unaware disco bunnies were still lining up outside in the rain. But the sea of gays who did get in screamed and threw their hands in the air so vivaciously you would have thought someone had announced, “Free steroids!” Looking like Snow White’s wacky aunt, Cher made some appreciative comments, but the mike wasn’t working and her sound guy wasn’t even in the booth yet, so you had to read her lips through her darting tongue. And then her latest single—”(This Is a) Song for the Lonely”—suddenly pumped out like a Milli Vanilli tune, her voice ringing loud and clear. (She was lip-synching—or let’s say “singing along”—and so was I.) “I love you guys!” my diva said, evaporating in a cloud of pixie dust, but not until collecting her $20,000 check. Was she good? I don’t know, not having been able to see much. But two seconds later, one queen cornered me and said, “Thank God it was $25 to get in and not $40, or I’d go kill her. But I want a man now. It’s $12.50 for Cher and $12.50 to suck some dick.” Fine and economical words to live by.

And that wasn’t the end of disco divas performing in cocksucking situations! Laura Branigan was the star attraction at the most recent Homocorps, the gay rock night at CBGB, and the invite specified, “This is not a drag queen pretending to be Laura Branigan. This is the real Laura Branigan!” How did they know?

And suddenly it was time to hit some serious theaters, but only the ones with seats that could accommodate the tits on my back. I started with the sung-through relationship musical The Last Five Years, which is very Tick . . . Tick . . . Boom meets I Do! I Do! on the pool set for Aida, if you follow my references. Whatever you think of the show, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie René Scott are wonderful, Butz bravely venturing into a boat again after the ill-fated Thou Shalt Not!

Another pool, this one with actual water, figures in Mary Zimmerman‘s Ovid update, Metamorphoses, and wisely no critics are seated in the front row or they’d end up moist, chlorinated, and truly out for blood. The alternately wry and moving pageant—spanning drag, incest, and therapy—has been mounted with so much dedication you don’t even miss the Sondheim songs that would easily fit in. Myth Thing Zimmerman’s also done works by or about Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Proust, and Galileo. On opening night, I asked her if she only bothers with the old classics or if she might ever try, say, Neil Simon. “He’s an old classic,” she replied. “I like these old stories. They’re kind of foolproof. They were always oral stories, so they fit in the theater.” As for the pool—which also fits in the theater—Zimmerman said it’s filtered, and though some cast members have gotten sick from it, it’s not because the water’s unsanitary, but because there are lots of chemicals in the mix. Just then, one of the actors walked by, wheezing and choking. Still, it’s worth it to be on Broadway!

Let’s stay there, lose the pool, and talk about One Mo’ Time, the feel-good cakewalking musical set in dry (except for all that bourbon) ’20s New Orleans. It isn’t exactly a model of construction—there’s a song, then a backstage scene, then a song, then a backstage scene—and the UPN-style script is so wispy they throw it out by the end and just sing. But who cares? The quartet of stars is gutsy and compelling, and the net effect put the jelly back in my rolls (of flesh).

We just got one mo’ Crucible revival, which is piercingly loud, probably to drown out not Roseland next door, but Elaine Stritch across the street. As for Edward Albee‘s new bray, I mean play, Das Goat, I’ll tell you next week if it got my goat or if it has a good bleat, but I can reveal now that the title creature’s been cut out and her agent is furious. They should try Oklahoma!

Movies? I walked out of the paper-thin Festival in Cannes even before Faye Dunaway‘s cameo, so you can imagine how painful it was. But though I at first rejected Kissing Jessica Stein as another romantic fantasy about two women who aren’t really lesbians, it ends up addressing that very doubt, providing a built-in defense of the Anne Heche-like it-just-happened-ness of it all. Talk about your foolproof oral stories. And even if it annoys at times, the whole thing is so darned likable that one of the supporting players is getting giddy from the good feelings; she just sent out a mass e-mail listing the 26 theaters Jessica‘s showing at around the country. I’m waiting to get the showtimes.

For Eating Out Jessica Sanchez—I mean Y Tu Mamá También—you should look up your local listings, check it out, and bring your mamá también. The Mexican film—a sort of Summer of 42 Blowjobs—is a coming-of-age road trip that’s remarkably similar, plotwise, to last year’s Nico and Dani. (You know, two teen boys help each other jerk off in between their nonstop poontang search, all while subliminally lusting for each other.) At the film’s bash at the Guggenheim, the two young stars, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, charmed me with their youthful insouciance and limpid pools of eyes. “Yes, the characters love each other,” Bernal insisted, “but in a fraternal way, not an intimate way. But who knows? I myself might be gay when I’m 40. Right now, I like girls.” (Note to self: Call the little hombre in 17 years.)

Is Bernal a huge star south of the border? (The flick was bigger than Harry Potter there; the sexual frankness seemed irresistible even—no, especially—to traditionalists.) “Big star like a wrestler?” he said. “No! Big star like a singer or soap opera actor? No! Like a porn star, yes!” (Note to self: Try 17 minutes.)

I didn’t bring up how one of the two guys is perhaps not such a big star. (The director says a prosthetic penis was used in one scene, for whatever reason.) But I did wonder how they approached the muy caliente three-way scene. “We realized we were getting paid,” said Luna, sensibly, “so I had to do it.” Hmm, that porn star thing was starting to make more sense. Luna left me with a fab tip for curing insomnia: “I had a great nap with Ocean’s Eleven. If you have jet lag or you want to sleep, Ocean’s Eleven is great.”

As for September 11—oy, these segues need work—all you post-trauma fans will be glad to know that irony’s back in spades. First, Monica Lewinsky did a 90-minute TV special about how she wants her privacy. And then Gary Condit, who stonewalled the cops and Connie Chung, was suddenly desperate to tell his story for a book, in order to make money for his (ultimately failed) campaign. They’re both going to hell, where they’ll certainly meet under a table. And now I’m off to find a $12.50 blowjob.