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Tricksters on the Borderlands, on the Throne.

A few days ago I was watching Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’ fevered monument to America’s fear of and fascination with the Border, which opens with that famous three-minute tracking shot…It hit me (weirdly, I guess, but I spent way too much time thinking about sports) that this shot contained everything you needed to know about the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry.

In Grantland, Brian Phillips looks to the border for insights into the US and Mexico soccer teams. To be honest, I’m not really sold on ESPN’s Grantland experiment just yet. Too much of the site exudes the terrible taste and fratgeek sexism of its editor-in-chief, “Sportsguy” Bill Simmons. Frequent contributor Chuck Klosterman is another red flag to me, for the same reasons. Both consider themselves pop culture arbiters and both are compulsively readable but – Simmons on the NBA notwithstanding — they’re also usually irritating and often wrong.

Still, Grantland does publish worthwhile culture pieces now and again — Hua Hsu on Watch the Throne today is another good one. And, speaking of good Watch the Throne commentary, Matt at Fluxblog has a particularly keen observation on it: “Kanye can’t help but project his intense insecurities – he’s emotionally transparent at all times, and it’s part of what makes him such a fascinating and magnetic pop star. Jay-Z, however, is the radical opposite – his every word and movement is focused on controlling your impression of him…In this way, Kanye is analogous to the Marvel Comics model of whiny, introspective, persecuted superheroes [Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk] and Jay-Z is more like DC Comics’ Superman and Batman, who thrive when creators trade on their stoic, iconic qualities.

The Last Boy Scout.

I’m a free-market guy. Normally, I would leave this to the invisible hand of the market, but the invisible hand of the market has already moved over 84,000 acres of production and over 22,000 farm jobs to Mexico, and shut down over a million acres of U.S. farm land due to lack of available labor. Because apparently, even the invisible hand doesn’t want to pick beans.

As you no doubt know by now, and like his White House correspondent’s dinner speech in 2006, the inimitable Stephen Colbert came to the Hill on Friday to deliver his expert testimony on the plight of migrant workers, a topic the media would otherwise have completely ignored in favor of whatever crazy thing Sarah Palin tweeted today.

For those making the ridiculous argument that Congress was horribly besmirched by Colbert’s satirical testimony, I have two words: Twain and Elmo. For everyone else, it was very funny and, as per Colbert’s usual m.o., spoke truthiness to power. “[I]t just stands to reason, to me, that if your coworker can’t be exploited, then you’re less likely to be exploited yourself. And that, itself, might improve pay and working conditions on these farms, and eventually, Americans may consider taking these jobs again.

Cuts like a Knife.

So…Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one, partly because by two weeks later, the movie has already passed its sell-by date. But regardless, a film like this is basically critic-proof anyway: After all, we’re talking about a purposefully cheap-looking, 90-minute Mexploitation flick based on one of the joke trailers from Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse — Does anyone really expect a good film here?

So having said that, I doubt that it will surprise anyone that Machete is more bad-bad than fun-bad, even going in with low expectations (and after libations.) I didn’t have a terrible time watching it, and I guess the movie basically succeeds at what it promised to be — an “ironic,” splatter-filled homage to and/or parody of terrible films of the ’70s. But the whole enterprise still felt really uninspired. In the end, Machete hits its marks, but it definitely doesn’t improve on the 90 seconds we saw of this flick in Grindhouse. (Hopefully we can expect more from Edgar Wright’s Don’t, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving, or Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S., once they all get their inevitable day in the sun.)

While Danny Trejo plays the titular badass — a former Federale-turned-illegal-immigrant for whom “day labor” means cleaving through bad guys — with an admirable Lee Marvinish deadpan, a lot of the joking around in Machete involves stunt casting. This includes Steven Seagal as the Big Bad Mexican drug lord (has Seagal ever been in a good movie? Well, Under Siege, maybe), Robert De Niro as a sleazy race-baiting Senator (more on him in a sec), Jeff Fahey as the Karl Rove of Arizona, Lindsay Lohan as a druggy burnout, and the Nash Bridges team of Don Johnson and Cheech Marin as a racist cop and man of the cloth respectively. (Rounding out the cast: Jessica Alba is ludicrous as a INS detective on Machete’s trail, and Michelle Rodriguez once again does her Michelle Rodriguez thing as underground guerrilla leader “She” — inexplicably pronounced “Shee” insteady of “Shay.” Way to step on your own joke there.)

Well, ok, stunt casting is fun. In fact, one of the things I appreciated most about Rodriguez’s half of GrindhousePlanet Terror — was both Fahey and Michael Biehn kicking around the movie. That being said, “Ha, it’s Robert DeNiro slumming it!” would probably work better as a joke if DeNiro wasn’t constantly, you know, slumming it these days. When he showed up in Meet the Parents ten years ago, it seemed pretty funny. Now, a la late-career Brando, Pacino, or Nicholson, it just seems kinda sad. (And like David Arquette outacting Harvey Keitel in The Grey Zone, Fahey probably gives a better performance than DeNiro does here. Trejo does for sure.)

Similarly, the meta-joke driving Machete — “Look, Robert Rodriguez made an intentionally bad film!” — suffers from the unfortunate fact that, ironically (From Dusk Til Dawn, Planet Terror) or not, Robert Rodriguez pretty much always makes B-movies. Even El Mariachi, the film that first put him on the map in 1992, is rather unmemorable, in my humble opinion. (I mean that literally — I can only remember the last 15 seconds of that flick — the pit bull and motorcycle and whatnot — which is still more than I can say for both Desperado and Once Upon a Time In Mexico.) For me, the one time Rodriguez struck gold was with Sin City, and that was mainly due to the wise, direct pilfering of Frank Miller’s “storyboards” — i.e., the original graphic novels.

All of which is to say, it’s hard to figure out in the end if Machete is a deft send-up of a bad movie or just a plain bad movie. (I had the same problem, to a lesser extent, with Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police.) Like Kurt Vonnegut said in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I guess Rodriguez may just be pretending to be a hackish director of forgettable, derivative B-movies, but at this point he’s fooled me. (Maybe he should keep them trailer-length.)

Speaking of that original trailer, I’d recommend just watching that for your Machete experience, along with perhaps Machete’s Cinco de Mayo message to Arizona. Given both the virulence and the abject nonsense driving a lot of anti-immigrant hysteria these days, as well as the unfettered cravenness of the right-wing freakshows who most often push it, there was obviously room for some choice satire in this film. But, a few lines here or there aside, Machete is much more interested in playing with Z-grade movie tropes — breasts, blood splatter, and 70’s sound effects, say — than delving into any real political content about the borderlands. Eh, so be it — It’s Machete. It may be a missed opportunity, but it never pretended to be Traffic anyway.

The upshot here: Machete is (to no one’s surprise, I’m sure) eminently missable. But if you’re at all inclined to board this train, the two trailers cover 95% of the good stuff, so save yourself an hour and a half and just watch those. Having gone for the full ride myself, I left the theater with only one thought in my head: I’d just f**ked with the wrong Mexican.

Clinton: Mea Culpa, Mexico.

“‘I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility,’ Clinton told reporters accompanying her to Mexico City a day after the Obama administration said it would send more money, technology and manpower to secure the Southwestern frontier and help Mexico battle the cartels.” During a visit to our ailing neighbor, Secretary of State Clinton admits American culpability in the exacerbating of Mexico’s drug war. “‘Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,’ she said. ‘Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians… Clearly, what we have been doing has not worked and it is unfair for our incapacity… to be creating a situation where people are holding the Mexican government and people responsible,’ she said.’That’s not right.’

Well, cheers to Sec. Clinton for being honest about some of the causes of Mexico’s escalating drug violence. Still, in pledging tighter borders, more troops, yadda yadda yadda, she and the administration are still dancing around one of the more obvious solutions to the problem.

Monday Fiesta.

How do you say “St. Patrick’s Day” in Spanish? A very happy Cinco de Mayo to you and yours.

The War on Drugs is Lost.

“All told, the United States has spent an estimated $500 billion to fight drugs – with very little to show for it. Cocaine is now as cheap as it was when Escobar died and more heavily used. Methamphetamine, barely a presence in 1993, is now used by 1.5 million Americans and may be more addictive than crack. We have nearly 500,000 people behind bars for drug crimes – a twelvefold increase since 1980 – with no discernible effect on the drug traffic. Virtually the only success the government can claim is the decline in the number of Americans who smoke marijuana – and even on that count, it is not clear that federal prevention programs are responsible. In the course of fighting this war, we have allowed our military to become pawns in a civil war in Colombia and our drug agents to be used by the cartels for their own ends. Those we are paying to wage the drug war have been accused of human-rights abuses in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. In Mexico, we are now repeating many of the same mistakes we have made in the Andes.

To their credit, those left-wing hippie radicals at National Review said as much way back in 1996, and HBO’s The Wire has dramatized the dismal consequences of the conflict for several years now. Now, coming to the same dour conclusion in 2007, Rolling Stone‘s Ben Wallace-Wells explains how America lost the War on Drugs, and argues that continuing to perpetuate it in its current fashion — with its “law and order” emphases of crushing supply, international interdiction, and mandatory minimum sentencing — is tantamount to flushing money and lives down the toilet. “Even by conservative estimates, the War on Drugs now costs the United States $50 billion each year and has overcrowded prisons to the breaking point – all with little discernible impact on the drug trade…The real radicals of the War on Drugs are not the legalization advocates, earnestly preaching from the fringes, but the bureaucrats — the cops and judges and federal agents who are forced into a growing acceptance that rendering a popular commodity illegal, and punishing those who sell it and use it, has simply overwhelmed the capacity of government.” (Found via Jack Shafer’s endorsement at Slate.)

Sixth and Rising.

In happier news, the US qualifies for the 2006 World Cup with a 2-0 victory over archrival Mexico.

Mission Compromised.

When writing about Touchstone’s new version of The Alamo, I find myself in a very similar situation as I was post-Hellboy. Part of me really wants to say nice things about this movie. The occasional film flourishes aside (such as Davy Crockett’s last stand), I think The Alamo for the most part tries to get the history right…Dennis Quaid’s Sam Houston is more a whiskey-doused speculator than American hero, Crockett is something of a congressman on the make, and there’s at least a nod to such ugly realities as American slavery and the land-grab nature of the whole Texian enterprise. Moreover, the Mexican view of the battle is also more fleshed out than we’ve come to expect in Alamo movies, even if Santa Anna is played like a straight-up Bond villain. Heck, compared to Gods & Generals, it’s like this movie was written by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.

But, frankly, The Alamo turns out to be kinda dull through most of the middle hour. The set-up is well-done, the payoff is well-done (notwithstanding the twenty minute foray into the Battle of San Jacinto, which reminded me of the Doolittle Raid in Michael Bay’s lousy Pearl Harbor), but the twelve days of siege that comprise much of the movie is ultimately a bore. “Well, Col. Bowie, we’re all going to die.” “Yes sir, Lt. Col. Travis, that’s correct, we’re dead ducks. What do you think, Davy?” “I’m with you fellers. Mincemeat.” Part of the problem in this second act is that the film keeps slipping away from the history in favor of lapses into movie convention. We’ve got Davy Crockett and fiddle having their “King of the World” moment on the eve of the final battle. We’ve got the vaguely rousing “we will go down in history” speech by Travis. We’ve got Jason Patric — surely, the only actor who’s been poised on the brink of the big time longer than Billy Crudup — dying of consumption for interminable stretches, with all the deathbed movie tropes that entails. (Jim Bowie’s bout with sickness holds very little dramatic impact, given that we know he’s on the way out anyway.) For almost all of this section of the film, even as a history buff, I was fidgeting for the big battle to start, and I couldn’t help thinking (and feeling guilty about it) that all of this men-under-siege grimness was done better a year ago in The Two Towers.

Yet, the one major respite from the middle hour’s blandness is Billy Bob Thornton as Davy (“He prefers David”) Crockett. While Sam Houston is sidelined, William Travis is a (pretty good) unknown, and Jim Bowie is moaning and clutching the sheets, Billy Bob’s Crockett is just trying to keep his chin up, and he’s the only character here who seems both realistic and larger-than-life. Throughout the film, even when forced into the most goofy lines or plot devices, Billy Bob/Crockett has a grim, self-deprecating smile on his face that says both “Can you believe it? I’m Davy Crockett!” and “How the hell did I end up dying in this backwater mission?” And some of the best sequences in the film involve Davy ruminating on his own myth, or remembering his days as an Indian fighter. In sum, Billy Bob is so good here that I spent most of the film contemplating who else I’d cast alongside Thornton for the definitive American History miniseries. Christopher Walken as 1850 Henry Clay? Fred Thompson as James Buchanan? Adrien Brody as Mexican War-era Lincoln? The possibilities are endless.

The Complicated American.

What the World Thinks of America, from Gary Kamiya of Salon (premium). A fascinating read.

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