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Buffy The Vampire SlayerNext Sunday’s HBO Pancho Villa Movie - Scenes With Anthony Stewart Head
Tuesday 2 September 2003, by Webmaster
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!