Notes from the back row 

Mexican, American

Autumn in the movie theatres means Hollywood starts thinking about character-based Oscar Bait films and Halloween gore-fests. But first, dipping into the same B-Grade pool that made Piranha 3D one of the best films of the summer, Machete slices and dices its way into the Village 8 this week.

Based on the faux-trailer from 2007's Grindhouse and billed as a "Mexploitation" flick, Machete stars Danny Trejo as a head-chopping, ex-federale turned hitman out for some serious revenge when he's double crossed by some slick Texans with an anti-immigration agenda and ties to south-of-the-border drug cartels. Think Rambo meets the Punisher with a hankering for tacos (and taco-selling revolutionaries).

Although he shares directorial duty on this one with Ethan Maniquis (his longtime editor) the overall style remains classic Robert Rodriguez with a shotgun-toting priest (Cheech Marin,) Latino Heat (Jessica Alba) and killer stunts including using a dude's intestines to swing out a window. Machete is funny and self-referential (Lindsay Lohan plays a slut) but never fully transcends the homage aspect and even limps through a few overly talky sections designed to drill home the flick's political messages. Kudos for timing on the immigration issue but Rodriguez is a bit heavy handed with his delivery and not quite as slick as the exploitation films he's tipping his hat too.

Coming right after the epic Piranha 3D doesn't help Machete either. The violence is decent but not groundbreaking. Nor is the sex, and realistic dialogue has never been Rodriguez's ace in the hole. As the first Latin-superhero in Hollywood it is good to see a journeyman actor like Trejo (he's done over 200 movies) finally get top billing alongside DeNiro, Don Johnson and Steven Segal - usually those guys are killing Trejo's characters.

Rodriguez's energy and Trejo's badassery keep things going but overall, Machete could have used a bit of sharpening.

A Sharp looking George Clooney stars in The American, in role that's very unlike the ones that catapulted him to superstardom. Based on Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American is a sort of espionage-thriller about an assassin who screws up a job in Sweden and must hide out in the Italian countryside, laying low as he builds a super-high-end sniper rifle for a mysterious contact.

With only four or five other characters in the whole film (including a hot prostitute with a heart of gold) Clooney spends most of the time almost silent and in deep introspection so The American feels much like an old western - a killer trying to escape his past in a small town, meets a girl, etc.

Director Anton Corbijn places Clooney up against some fantastically shot backdrops - dramatic valleys, lakes and mountains - perfectly catching the mood of a lone-wolf on the run. The film falters at the end, however, when Corbijn attempts to tie things up neatly and humanize his character. And who didn't see the twist coming?

The American is a not an American film, it watches slowly, more like the old Euro-character-thriller classics like Michael Antonioni's Blow Up, but Clooney (who's company produced the flick) is a huge American star and should be commended for stepping outside his oeuvre. Don't worry though ladies, there is still a steamy, extended sex scene to make things worth the ticket price.

It's a good thing Clooney brings the romance because it has been a shit-ass summer for romantic comedies and Going the Distance, the new Drew Barrymore long-distance-relationship romantic comedy is unfunny and poorly shot, and even the foul-mouthedness of it seems a bit stupid. Even hot-ass Christina Applegate, playing the clichéd crazy older sister, couldn't save this one. So long summer lovin', bring on the Halloween remakes and sequels.



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