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Monday, December 11

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The Matador
Much as he did in The Tailor of Panama, Pierce Brosnan tampers with our image of him as James Bond, not by completely throwing that character out the window but by showing us how a real-life version of him might appear. In Panama, Brosnan played a spy; in The Matador, he plays cocky assassin-for-hire Julian Noble, who wears hideous Hawaiian shirts and drinks too much. While on a job in Mexico City, Julian runs into Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), a salesman for a growing company that might grow a whole lot bigger if the deal he is currently working on goes through. He's in Mexico to make the pitch and is terribly nervous. The two meet in a hotel bar and swap life stories. At first Danny thinks Julian is full of it, as he tells tales out of school regarding his hitman lifestyle, but soon Julian convinces him he's telling the truth.

We get a little glimpse of Danny's life at the beginning of the film as a tree limb crashes through the kitchen window, scaring the crap out of him and his wife, Bean (Hope Davis). The couple has recently lost their only child, and they are in the early stages of rising out of their grief and enjoying each other's company again. Danny's Mexico City pitch means much needed money for the business and the family.

In Mexico, Julian proposes taking out the head of the firm competing for the account Danny is there to land, staying at the same hotel. Danny doesn't dismiss the idea immediately. Writer-director Richard Shepard (who made a pretty cool late-90s film called Oxygen that you should all track down) does a fantastic job on a number of fronts in The Matador. The fast friendship between these two vastly different men seems very real. The relationship between Danny and Bean is sweet and believable as well. For once, we get a wife character who isn't some whining harpy thanks to some considered work by Davis. Shepard's screenplay is sharp, as the events at the hotel are kept from us until near the end of the film. The story jumps ahead many months as Julian comes to visit Danny at his home looking for assistance, but some nicely placed flashbacks to Mexico City reveal the depth of their friendship.

Philip Baker Hall and Dylan Baker provide some groovy, sinister work as the men who hire Julian for one last job. The path The Matador takes is too good to give up, but Julian is slowly losing his touch, and let's just say that his employers don't have a traditional pension plan waiting for him at the end of his run. The Matador is a charming, funny, slightly dangerous and ultimately quite touching work about coming to grips with where your life has taken you. Oh, and it's also about some kick-ass killings and a master vulgarian who looks a little bit like a certain superspy.


Hostel
I was hesitant to review Hostel because I'm friendly with its writer-director, Eli Roth, who made the abysmal throwback horror event Cabin Fever a couple years ago. Much as they did with Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses, a lot of horror film fans praised Cabin Fever not because it was good, but because it got made and did fairly well at the box office. But these facts didn't take away from the fact that the film was sloppy. Much as Zombie did with his extraordinary The Devil's Rejects, Roth has grown up (a little) and made a resoundingly better horror film the second time around, one that is both easier and more difficult to watch.

Hostel concerns a group of three backpackers—two Americans (Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson) and one European dude they picked up along the way (Eythor Gudjonsson)—making their way across Europe. They stop in Denmark, get stoned and have loads of wacky sex in places where women are treated like slabs of meat in a store window. The three get a lead on a hostel in Eastern Europe where young, good-looking men and women cohabitate, party and just generally act irresponsible for as long as they can handle it. Right off the bat, the three are rooming with two gorgeous, free-spirited women (including the stunning Barbara Nedeljakova as Natalya). No sooner have the Americans begun to enjoy their heaven-on-earth, when their traveling partner vanishes. Since the point of the trip is to have as much sex as possible, his absence doesn't strike them as that odd, but when Richardson disappears, Hernandez begins to panic.

Without giving too many of Hostel's secrets away, let me just say that the boys learn a lesson about what it's like to be treated like meat. Much like The Devil's Rejects, Hostel relishes the practice of torture, and some fairly creative torture at that. The nature of the venue where the torture takes place is perhaps the film's most inventive aspect, and those doing the tormenting are some of the nastiest characters I've seen in horror films in a long time. These people are not masked creatures; their faces are all too visible and their features all too human. My particular favorite is Rick Hoffman as an American businessman who seems like he's on speed and treats the act like a sporting event.

I'm not going to lie to you. Most of you cannot handle Hostel. I'm not calling anyone a wimp or trying to imply that I'm made of stronger stuff than you pansies, but Hostel is hardcore brutality. But Roth has also created wonderful murky sets and atmospheres that are part rusted metal, part organic, part flesh tone. Then you just spray a whole lot of blood over everything. I never in my life want to step into a place like the one shown here. Hostel certainly has its genuinely scary moments, but more than that, it has a cringe factor that is unrivaled by films like the recently released, mediocre Wolf Creek, which also has a torturing villain. Will you feel a little dirty, a little shameful for enjoying Hostel? I hope so.


Be Here To Love Me
If you're like most people (including me), your first exposure to the music of Townes Van Zandt involved another singer covering one of his songs. It might have been someone like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Mudhoney, Cowboy Junkies, Norah Jones or Gillian Welch picking over one of Van Zandt's melancholy cowboy ballads. I remember hearing Emmylou Harris' cover of "Pancho & Lefty" and wondering who had penned such a desperate tale. But for many, their first recognition of Van Zandt's stunning abilities as a songwriter came shortly after Harris' version was released, when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made the same song a Number 1 country hit.

Alongside the likes of Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Guy Clark, both Nelson and Harris deliver loving testimonies in the honest, sometimes painful-to-watch biography Be Here To Love Me. The wisest thing director Margaret Brown does is let Van Zandt speak and sing for himself. The film is filled with his haunting music and evidence detailing his tragic life, which included shock treatments, alcoholism and an unquenchable restlessness. Brown has unearthed some priceless home movies that show Van Zandt being charming, being creative and being a complete son of a bitch. In other words, he was exactly what his songs would lead you to believe he was. But what won me over was the rare filmed performance footage. Van Zandt had a gritty-sweet voice that made every song he sung seem 100 percent authentic.

The final third of Be Here To Love Me is incredibly difficult to sit through, as it covers the months leading to Van Zandt's death in 1997, after years of boozing. Examples of Van Zandt's rambling, disoriented concerts are shown in all their glory, and every attempt to revitalize his career was torpedoed by the man himself. Interviews with his two still-young children might actually make you hate Van Zandt just a little for leaving them behind. Like many influential artists, Van Zandt's impact on music was never fully realized until after he was gone. Director Brown doesn't present his life story as a cautionary tale, but merely a look at a modest man who made a huge impact on music. Be Here To Love Me is a modest look at an extraordinary singer-songwriter whose later years and demise were all too cliché. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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