On DVD: A Little Box of Butters

For many, Eric Cartman was, for a long time, the reason to watch South Park; he is to that show what Bart once was to The Simpsons. But just as Bart was overtaken by Homer in terms comedy value and viewer interest, Cartman's dominance was decisively split by the arrival and increasing centrality of Leopold "Butters" Stotch. Butters showed up during South Park's third season, but didn't really come into his own until the fifth season finale episode, "Butters' Very Own Episode." 

Whereas Cartman is profane, devious, arrogant, racist, truculent, selfish, and a cheat, Butters is polite, trusting, credulous, happy, and honest. He is the embodiment of a goody-goody, who generally swears or says something crude only out of bulletproof innocence or an inability to suspect others of having ulterior motives. His topknot of bright blond hair may as well be a halo, for without intending it, Butters is something of an angel. He's also a put-upon patsy, often taking the fall for one or another of the boys' many schemes, an easy dupe who never suspects his erstwhile "friends" of dishonesty or meanness, going along with whatever they have planned. Sometimes Butters' "victimhood" extends to the plots of his very own family and other town elders, as in the episode "Cartman Sucks" (included here).

Butters' huge value the show also has something to do with his peculiar, antiquated use of language. Phrases like "Oh, hamburgers!," "boy-howdy," "gee whiz," and "fellas" sound perfectly natural. While playing alone, Butters can be heard singing to himself, "Loo loo loo, I've got some apples / Loo loo loo, you've got some, too..." And so on.

South Park Studios and Comedy Central have now released A Little Box of Butters, the show's second character-based compilation (the first was The Cult of Cartman in 2008). This two-disc set collects thirteen Butters-centric episodes in a clever package designed to resemble the fourth-grader's pencil box. Each episode in the baker's dozen is a gem, showcasing Butters at his best. Butters' endearing gullibility, enthusiastic willingness to please, and cheerful idiocy are brought to life by South Park's exceptional writers and the inspired voice work of Matt Stone. 

The set opens with the fifth season's "Butters' Very Own Episode," which served as the character's coming out party, raising him to a new level of prominence. While Butters was temporarily Kenny's replacement in the fifth and sixth seasons, he's never truly been a part of the show's central quartet. And this is appropriate, given Butters' unique personality and the cynical worldliness of the others. "Butters' Very Own Episode" served to codify the character's position in relation to that group, as well as his own persona.

The two discs continue with episodes that include the Stan-and-Wendy breakup show "Raisins," and the classic two-show arc that begins with "Professor Chaos" and concludes with "The Simpsons Already Did It." The final episode on the set is from the currently in-progress fourteenth season and has therefore never been released on DVD before: "The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs." All told, it's an excellent selection of shows that captures everything you need to know about Leopold Stotch. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky

Sometimes, good things come in threes; on other occasions, the third time is the charm. The latter is certainly true in the case of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, a strikingly good film by Jan Kounen. It follows the lifeless made-for-TV Coco Chanel, and the stuffy Coco Before Chanel with Audrey Tautou. Unlike those two films, this one takes an artistic plunge, unafraid to engage in intuitive, free-flowing artistic interpretation, in what is ultimately a cinematic fictionalization of a hazy period in the lives of these two towering cultural icons.

Working from a novel (and screenplay) by British writer Chris Greenhalgh, Kounen opens his film with an extraordinarily bold sequence: a recreation of the disastrous 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky's ballet, The Rite of Spring. Chronicling this event in incredible, dramatic detail, Kounen's roving camera captures Stravinsky's (Mads Mikkelsen) backstage agony, the stoicism of his doting wife Katarina (Elena Morozova), and the pleasantly perplexed response of a noteworthy spectator, Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis). Beyond a swift introduction of the three main characters with near-silent efficiency, this remarkable sequence treats us to a good chunk of Stravinsky's music, as well as Nijinsky's original choreography.

Unfortunately, the Parisian audience does not take kindly to Stravinsky's supremely radical work. The crowd erupts into a near-riot, and the performance is halted as police rush in to contain the melee. Chanel, however, could not be more impressed, and when she meets Stravinsky at a party several years later, she invites the composer, and his wife and four children, for an extended stay at her country home so that he is able to concentrate on his work.

The sickly Katarina spends enormous amounts of time in bed, diligently copying Stravinsky's scores. Her husband and Chanel have an almost immediate, unspoken attraction in which they are slow to indulge. But when they do, they don't hold back. Although the pair attempts to honor some semblance of discretion, Katarina is no fool. Yet despite the difficulties caused by their ill-timed affair, Chanel and Stravinsky serve as mutual muses over a period that is crucial and productive for them both.

The special force of this film is its unhurried pace and intense focus on the actors. Wisely keeping dialogue to a minimum (which reduces the soap opera factor), Kounen elicits three stellar performances. Mikkelsen's Stravinsky is a pressure cooker of erotic yearning capped only by a tenuous sense of self-respect. As Chanel, Mouglalis is beautiful, austere, self-confident, and wary of her own emotions. She embodies a rare poise rooted in masked vulnerability. Elena Morozova is a dignified Katarina, refusing to play a victim or to feign ignorance, or to give in to Chanel's "mannish" sense of superiority; Katarina is, ultimately, despite her husband's failings, his savior.

This is the third Chanel film in two years, and it wisely abandons the usual transparent bio-drama fussiness over historical "accuracy," and instead finds richer emotional truth in what is a factually speculative story. 

Read the full review here

In Theaters: The Town

The Town is an entertaining melodrama that wants to be the great criminal opera of Boston. The film's production is confident, and the movie boasts two outstanding Michael Mann-inspired action set pieces. But this leads us to the underlying problem - as co-written and directed by Ben Affleck, The Town is part The Friends of Eddie Coyle and part Heat, but it lacks the convincing, grounded character dynamics that made those earlier crime dramas classics. The Town's good cast is promising, but on balance the movie's script fails to meet its grand ambitions. Characters are flat, as are some of the film's key relationships. A decent B-grade thriller that wants to be one of the year's major films, The Town backslides into cliché and over-simplification just the way a hopped-up recidivist townie sticks up a corner store the day after getting out of stir.

Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) leads a quartet of bank robbers based in seedy Charlestown, part of Boston. Their latest caper has seen the group take a hostage - bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall), who they release, blindfolded, after the heist. MacRay wants to keep his trigger-happy compatriot Jem (Jeremy Renner) from bugging out over Claire as a liability. So MacRay begins following her, and with Claire none the wiser as to MacRay's identity, the two begin an ill-advised romance that, naturally, leads to a variety of complications. Meanwhile, bloodhound FBI agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) is on the gang's trail - and applies increased heat as the group's jobs get bolder and more violent. The situation boils to a head, fueled not only by physical danger and the unpredictability of Jem, but by inter-generational bad blood (could it be any other way in Boston?) and by MacRay's desire to leave behind his life of crime.

Let me get a prejudice out in the open and out of the way: I have a tendency to stop believing in Ben Affleck as an actor every time he smiles. I don't know what it is, or exactly how to describe it. Things can be going along swimmingly, as they sometimes do in The Town, with Affleck hitting upon small moments of something like truth as Doug MacRay - even though his monologues are a little too articulate and one-liners too snappy for an under-educated career criminal from Charlestown. But when Affleck smiles, everything stops working, because that flat grin looks like a white cartoon triangle from Archie comics pasted over a human face.

But what really matters here is the fact that MacRay is underwritten, something that applies to the other principal characters as well, particularly Jon Hamm's Agent Frawley, who has absolutely no history at all and spends most of his significant screen time barking expository dialogue about Affleck's gang - none of which we need to hear, because we've been following them since the movie began. At one point Frawley refers to them as "the not-fucking-around crew." This and other Frawley dialogue sounds like an outtake from Heat, and the parallels to Michael Mann's film don't stop there.

The relationship that develops between MacRay and Claire echoes many aspects of the relationship between De Niro's Neil McCauley and Amy Brenneman's Eady in Heat. But in The Town, I never felt for one second that MacRay and Claire had any real chemistry bringing them together. In Mann's film, two lonely characters come together accidentally, even at the expense of McCauley's personal code - and safety. In The Town, MacRay and Claire are a mere plot device, and a transparent one at that. From the moment they meet, post-robbery, we know exactly where The Town is headed. It's hard to imagine anyone who has seen Mann's film, or any of a number of other such genre pictures, in anything like suspense over where the story is headed.

To Affleck's credit, he has put together two outstanding action sequences - one of which is a daringly-staged car chase through the tiny Colonial-era streets of Boston. He also elicits some good performances from supporting actors Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, and Pete Postlethwaite. Each of these three actors brings something unique and special to their small but well-defined role.

In the end, The Town entertains, but does not convince. The film's conclusion, coming on the heels of a thrilling shoot-out, is an utter failure, to say nothing of the laughable final shots. But that's still a relatively minor point. Ultimately, the film is done in by characters who are malformed and unfinished. Had they been more compelling, the film's similarities to its better predecessors would have been harder to notice. Affleck has reached for great, grand drama here. He misses, but it's an admirable miss.

Read the full review here


On DVD: Wall Street

Oliver Stone's Wall Street is a landmark picture for a number of very good reasons. Its subject matter was ripe for motion picture treatment, and it was released at just the right time. Wall Street is a capsule of angst from the 1980s, capturing the morally untenable excess that defined much of that decade, and the years since. Perhaps that is the reason the film has held up so well, and why the forthcoming sequel seems appropriate instead of just opportunistic. Unfortunately, this new DVD release (the so-called "Insider Trading Edition," continuing the laughable, regrettable tradition of "named" special editions) from Fox is just that. Transparently timed to coincide with the sequel's release, this DVD jettisons the solid bonus content from the earlier "20th Anniversary Edition" and replaces it with disposable junk that adds nothing of value to the film itself, which is presented here in a holdover transfer that doesn't do justice to the film's slick visuals.

I have the honor of being the fifth person to review Wall Street for DVD Talk, so I'm going to keep the plot summary brief and to the point. Idealistic and idiotically naïve Bud Fox (fresh-faced Chuck Sheen) goes to work for the tiger of Wall Street, the oily and foul Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Bud gets rich quick, takes up with Daryl Hannah, receives blowjobs, etc. The point is that he becomes exactly the guy that his mechanic father (Martin Sheen) tried not to raise; he loses himself and destroys the company his father works for in the process.

Oliver Stone was the perfect person to take on the subject of corporate raiders of the 1980s. An era soaked in booze and dusted with coke, Stone knows excess because he was one of its practitioners, both in life and behind the camera. But Wall Street is one of Stone's more controlled films, finding the co-writer and director behaving with something like journalistic restraint. The story, as written, is largely observational, and Stone's direction favors his actors. Sheen is green enough here to be credible, and of course Douglas owns the picture with his towering portrayal of Gekko, a cold-hearted cutthroat who we know is destined for a series of heart-attacks.

The supporting cast is excellent, once you look past Daryl Hannah's totally groan-inducing part as an interior decorator. Terence Stamp plays a rival corporate raider who Bud spies on at Gekko's behest. Hal Holbrook plays honest career trader Lou Mannheim, the inverse of Gordon Gekko in terms of his influence on Bud. Perhaps best of all is Stone regular John C. McGinley at his scenery-chewing apex as Bud's obnoxious coworker.

Equal to its command of the tone and business environment of the 1980s is the way Wall Street captures the look and feel of its setting. Robert Richardson's photography is fluid and economical, and Stephen Hendrickson's production design has surely influenced every film since that takes places in a similar environment. The images of Wall Street have stayed in the collective memory as the defining version of the way corporate America looks. It's one of the major reasons this thrilling, well-acted film remains relevant and entertaining. 

Read the full review here


In Theaters: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

In 2009, Phil Spector was convicted of murdering Lana Clarkson at his home six years earlier. He was found guilty at a second trial after the first ended in a hung jury. Evidence was difficult to analyze and Spector's guilt was not easy to assign. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a film by Vikram Jayanti built upon unprecedented access to the reclusive pop music producer during the days and weeks leading up to his first trial. Jayanti allows Spector to speak for himself - and captures him in all his tarnished, self-aggrandizing, twitchy, fact-challenged glory. Spector comes off as brilliant, creepy, vainglorious, defensive, and lucid. Jayanti's film treats Spector honestly, uninterested in glorifying or vilifying this hugely influential and physically tiny legend of pop culture - and poster boy for the seamy underbelly of the entertainment business.

Jayanti's film has four elements, which are carefully layered to maximize context. First there is the core of the film, consisting of interview footage with Spector, shot in 2007. Then there are about two dozen of Spector's biggest songs, which are heard in full on the soundtrack, sometimes at the front of the mix, and sometimes beneath either Spector's voice or excerpts from Spector's first trial - excerpts that comprise the film's third element. Lastly, there are text quotations from Mick Brown's definitive biography of Spector, Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, which are utilized to illuminate the significance and impact of Spector's major songs.

At times, the structure can get a bit cluttered, but Jayanti's goal, while seemingly simple, is a multifaceted and difficult one. Jayanti avoids overt editorializing, allowing Spector's bizarre self-image to remain front-and-center. Occasional editorial flourishes - particularly in the juxtaposition of Spector's songs with trial footage - lend a certain bite to the proceedings, but these are few. For the most part, Jayanti is only interested in Spector himself.
A towering figure in the history of pop music, Spector had spent over two decades out of the public eye, living more or less alone in a gigantic mansion, before Lana Clarkson was killed there. But he was always eccentric, to say the least. In the documentary, Spector regularly compares himself to Galileo, Michelangelo, Alfred Hitchcock, and Leonardo da Vinci. He disses Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan. He also discusses the assassination of close friend John Lennon as if it were a rational, logical event. 

Jayanti's use of Spector's music on the soundtrack helps illuminate Spector as a creative personality and as someone with a dark inner life. While it is a familiar trope to discuss creativity born of pain or suffering or joy, Spector's songs here resonate with something close to madness, and more than a hint of Spector's demons. There is joy, too, but the songs that are joyful don't seem to come from experiences of joy, but rather desperate dreams of it.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is in limited theatrical release in the United States. Director Vikram Jayanti has assembled a portrait on film that goes a step or two beyond other "tortured genius" stories. By arranged Spector's words in a context that relates to his groundbreaking music, the film provides us with a deep-set way into Spector's mind. Beyond Lana Clarkson's tragic murder, it's his self-loathing and capacity for delusion that disturb us.


On DVD: Welcome

In the tradition of filmmakers like Ken Loach and Gillo Pontecorvo, Philippe Lioret has crafted a diligently-researched and heartfelt portrait of an ongoing contemporary social issue that is too often abstracted by political interests, paranoia, media hyperbole, and a fearful public. Illegal immigration continues to plague the western world because our way of life is often attractive to others, but reactions to this issue are usually ass-backwards in both short-term efficacy and long-term diplomatic viability. France has a reputation for being highly reactionary regarding immigration, a reputation that may allow some Americans watching Welcome to wishfully suppose that the fictional events depicted therein couldn't happen here. But there will be just as many stateside viewers who see only parallels and portents in Welcome, with our own wholly unproductive immigration debate having created such a divisive and surreal atmosphere of content-less acrimony. (As an aside, it's worth pointing out that viewing Welcome one week after Robert Rodriguez' Machete was a stark and bizarre object lesson in stylistic intent.)

Lioret's film begins with Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a teenager from Kurdistan, arriving in Calais via various illegal modes of transport. On his way to cross into England, where he hopes to join his girlfriend Mina, Bilal is stopped by police. Trapped in Calais, he takes up learning to swim at a public pool with the intention of crossing the channel himself. His teacher is former Olympic gold medalist Simon (Vincent Lindon), who takes Bilal under his wing despite pressure from local police, who energetically prosecute illegal immigrants and those who aide them, including Vincent's estranged wife (Marion), who operates a soup kitchen near the harbor. As Bilal's determination to swim the English Channel grows, and as the authorities start to close in, Vincent becomes more committed to helping Bilal.

Lioret and his creative team have clearly conducted a lot of research into how illegal immigrants survive in a country where they are unwanted and pursued. Merely stepping into the daylight is dangerous, let alone trying to make contact with people in a position to assist them. Bilal's world is one in which he's expected to wear a plastic bag over his head during transport in order to avoid inhaling exhaust - in other words, there's no guarantee that he'll even make it to his destination alive. Young Firat Ayverdi plays Bilal with wide-eyed determination combined with soul-weathered weariness - although he'd give anything to be able to stop running, he won't do so until he reaches Mina once again.

As Simon, Vincent Lindon has the face and body of a one-time champion, now beaten by time and experience. His bloodshot eyes tell us almost everything we need to know about the character, and we understand that his desire to help Bilal at least in part stems from a sense of his own failures. 

The characters of Welcome elevate the film well above its social and political subject matter. The story is not provocative for the sake of it; Lioret carefully crafts the film around its characters and their particular motivations. This is not Oliver Stone territory; Bilal and Vincent are not just cinematic marionettes whose sole purpose is delivering a message. Lioret cares about his characters because he knows that they - not he - will make his point stronger than any polemic ever could. Welcome resists easy answers for complicated problems, and its conclusion only suggests that we rely on our own best impulses rather than reactive, fear-based "solutions." 

Read the full review here

On DVD: Sparkle

Sparkle, written and directed by the team of Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter, is hard to pin down. The script is uneven but features good characters and realistically-drawn situations. The performances are mostly solid, but the direction is clunky. The film often feels unsure of its footing, and the PAL video visuals don't do it any aesthetic favors. Yet there is charm here, helped along by good performances and some smart scene-building.

Sam (Shaun Evans) is new to London, and takes a job as a personal assistant to PR maven Sheila (Stockard Channing). He's in his twenties and she's much older. They begin sleeping together immediately, but the relationship isn't going anywhere, even though it satisfies Sam's bloated ego. In addition, Sam's strained relationship with his mother, Jill (Lesley Manville), a single budding singer, has a somewhat Freudian resonance upon his dalliance with Sheila. But an even more important woman is about to enter his life: Kate (Amanda Ryan) is nothing short of Sam's dream girl, and his immediate devotion to her challenges his thinking as to how the other women in his life deserve to be treated. Conflicts naturally arise among and between Sam and the women, all of which contribute to Sam growing into a self-respecting adult.

I liked the characters of Sparkle and their dynamics. Sam is arrogant, but believably and sympathetically so. We know that, like George in The Magnificent Ambersons, or Pip in Great Expectations, he's going to get a comeuppance of sorts, and even though Sam's isn't as painful as the lessons learned by those earlier characters, he does learn humility and comes to see the pain he has inflicted upon others - particularly his mother - through his careless egotism. Shaun Evans always manages keep Sam more or less likeable throughout the film, despite his flaws. 

Sam's relationship with Kate begins with a nice, believably tentative quality, brought on in large part by Sam's guilt and mixed feelings about his relationships with Sheila and Jill. Amanda Ryan is charming as Kate, just as the rest of the cast does an admirable job. Bob Hoskins is on hand as Sam's father figure, a friend of the family who has romantic designs on Jill. And Channing is typically excellent as Sheila, conveying authoritative coldness with a good English accent.

Despite interesting characters and good performances, there are some important things in Sparkle that don't work, like the pacing and the directorial style. Scene transitions are clunky. We are often unsure as to how much time has passed between scenes or sequences. The confusion over these technical transitions is sometimes mirrored by minor but hard-to-track changes in character motivation. Just as important is the strange visual style of the film, which looks like it was shot on video with a very dated television lighting scheme. The movie has that phony "TV" look of EastEnders or other British (and American) television programs. It's a strange choice for a film shot in 2007. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: Orlando

A deserving but unlikely candidate for a new "special edition" treatment on DVD - but, strangely, not Blu-ray - Sally Potter's 1992 art-house favorite remains one of the most direct and honest statements about gender ever put on film. Its reputation as a film that explores multiple permutations of gender roles throughout history is well-deserved, but Orlando is also remarkable because it positions its challenging themes gently, in visually lovely settings, and without the kind of political dogmatism that one might expect from a film that drives head-on into such sensitive and unsettled thematic territory. Orlando moves swiftly and pauses just long enough on each of the many eras it touches upon to provide us with a tantalizing glimpse into how and why gender roles have changed over time.

Working from a novel by Virginia Woolf, Potter's film casts Tilda Swinton as Orlando, born as a man during England's Elizabethan era to wealth and privilege. A meeting with the elderly Queen Elizabeth (Quentin Crisp) proves fateful when she asks Orlando to never age. Flashing forward to the year 1610, we see Orlando inheriting his parents' huge estate and courting a Russian ambassador's daughter who ultimately rebuffs him. Now convinced that women are untrustworthy and fickle beyond comprehension, the film begins to take 50-year leaps, each segment showing Orlando in a new situation. He tries his hand as a poet, and fails. Next, in 1700, he travels to the east as an ambassador to a Muslim sultan. Upon his return, Orlando discovers he has turned into a woman. He is nonplussed by the transformation, and claims to feel no different.

As a woman in the 19th century, however, Orlando finds herself sued several times over; the chief accusation is that she was always a woman and therefore had no right to inherit property. Orlando weathers these years, however, with the help of an American suitor (Billy Zane) who proves as unreliable as everyone else she's come into contact with throughout her lifetime. Ultimately, Orlando makes it to the end of the 20th century, with a child, and regains her right to own property once again.

Potter's single most brilliant storytelling maneuver is extending the central concept of Woolf's novel, thereby making social change the main concern of the film. Watching the effects of these changes through the eyes of a single character is a powerful conceit, and it highlights the often arbitrary nature of the fluctuation of law, governance, and social norms.

Swinton's performance is remarkably rich, restrained, and commanding. As Orlando the man, she adopts a very male walk and directness of speech. As Orlando the woman, the transformation is not physical but attitudinal; here, Orlando experiences a gradual awakening as to her predicament and the odd poetic justice of having had the tables turned. Given all that she has seen over 400 years, she faces her transformation with equanimity.

Potter's visual achievement in Orlando is as lush and memorable as the best costume drama, making particularly striking use of icy winter scenery during the film's second segment. Footmen move about on skates, conveying their attendees on sledges, and nighttime performances take place in the middle of frozen lakes.

Orlando is a fully-realized film that is never weighed down by potentially unwieldy themes. Sally Potter shows and never tells us what is important and why - and her unconventional narrative is buoyed by Tilda Swinton's brilliant lead performance. 


In Theaters: Machete

Machete is an insanely heightened energy drink of a film, splattering gore and tossing severed heads with an unchecked ferocity that dares you to turn away within the first two minutes. The film is indulgent, self-aware, graphic, manic, ambitious, voracious, and propelled by an unstable fury. It's also enormously entertaining, often hilarious, and deliriously inspired. Co-writer and co-director Robert Rodriguez (who scripted with his cousin Alvaro and split directorial duties with editorial colleague Ethan Maniquis) has packed all of his quirks, obsessions, strengths and weaknesses into this massive tribute to the grindhouse bloodbaths of the past and come up with something that both works and is borderline original. It's Rodriguez's best film to date and a hell of a lot of fun.

The plot need not overly concern us, even though it is worth pointing out that the Rodriguez cousins have honed the script in a way that truly mimics both the style and themes of exploitation films of the 1970s. There is a rejected hero, left for dead. There are corrupt politicians. Current social and political issues are addressed and wielded with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. These and other elements raise the storyline of Machete, for what it is, well above the level of the pastiche hackwork of The Expendables and other films (Hot Tub Time Machine also comes to mind) that attempt to recreate or pay homage to past genre conventions without really demonstrating a solid understanding of them to begin with.

The title hero is played with a stoic wit by Danny Trejo, who carries the bulk of the film with ease. Machete is an illegal day laborer in a Texas border town, struggling to make ends meet while calmly waiting for an opportunity to visit well-deserved vengeance upon drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal). In the meantime, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy led by Benz (Jeff Fahey), an aide to anti-immigration US Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro). While he unravels the plot that will eventually lead him to Torrez, Machete also avoids and then partners with immigration officer Sartana (Jessica Alba) and aids Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who operates a taco stand and funnels money to help illegal immigrants.

Machete is ideally cast with one exception, which I'll address in a moment. Almost every actor is matched perfectly to his or her role. Alba is aggressively sexy as an unlikely immigration and customs officer. Rodriguez tones down some of her more grating tendencies and is convincing, once again, as a woman to fear. Fahey is perfect as only Fahey can be, with that squint cranked up to Max., and Seagal is dully threatening as the smirking supervillain. 

The single misstep in casting is an important one. As arch-conservative anti-Mexican Senator McLaughlin, Robert De Niro is called upon to play a fool - a very broad fool with a Texas accent. Historically, De Niro fails when called upon to act silly. This is not to say he can't be funny - he can, and has been, in The King of Comedy, Meet the Parents, and Mad Dog and Glory. But De Niro is not comfortable with broad comedy, and his performance here betrays that discomfort. 

But De Niro's presence is limited, and we can enjoy the truckloads of absurdity Machete delivers with such ease and confidence. It's difficult to describe the sheer energy of the movie - and it's not a "nice" energy. It's something born of an enormous consumption of bad movies, and only Rodriguez could have upchucked such a coherent vision of awful films gone right. Machete reflects a creative process that is both meticulous and possessed, gleefully embracing anarchy and the capacity for sin - the juxtaposition of Lindsay Lohan's bare breasts and her subsequent appearance in a nun's habit being the most obvious manifestation of this get-the-fuck-out-of-my-way insistence on doing things that are obnoxious and surprisingly successful. Machete is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, because it embraces a genre that is shrugged off as abrasive and indulgent. But being opposed to indulgence is to pretend we are not human, and Machete offers a king's banquet of vicarious sins that should safely sate most of us for a very long time. Machete is grotesquely entertaining, hugely funny, and skillfully made, and with one exception, it's the best time I've had at the movies this year.