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HBO presents
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003)

"The movies have come to Pancho."
- Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas)

Review By: Jeff Rosado  
Published: May 27, 2004

Stars: Antonio Banderas, Alan Arkin, Jim Broadbent
Other Stars: Eion Bailey, Michael McKean, Anthony Stewart Head, Matt Day, Colm Feore, Kyle Chandler, Alexa Davalos
Director: Bruce Beresford

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (strong language, violence, partial nudity)
Run Time: 01h:51m:35s
Release Date: May 11, 2004
UPC: 026359212321
Genre: historical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In 1914, the Mutual Film Corporation received an intriguing offer from a very unlikely source. Fighting an uphill battle to change his image to Americans, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas) needed to make a bold move to make such a vision a reality. With newspaper headlines like "Pancho Villain" and "Robin Hoodlum" becoming increasingly dominant, even the most creative press agent would have found such a challenge beyond accomplishment.

Enter future film legends D.W. Griffith (Colm Feore) and Harry Aiken (Jim Broadbent), two of Mutual's bigwigs. Huddling together, they sent fresh faced, eager-to-please junior executive Frank Thayer (Eion Bailey) to the Texas/Mexico border to talk shop with the ruthlessly fearless foreign fighter. In the end, a legendary collaboration surfaced in the form of The Life of General Villa. Not only does it accomplish its goal of a remarkable turnaround in public opinion for its namesake, but its production marked a number of firsts, including what could be described as the debut of a soon-to-be popular cinematic lure: the newsreel.

Sadly, due either to the ravages of time or poor handling, this legendary piece of celluloid appears to have been lost to the ages. But the multitude of stories and tall tales too maddeningly vivid to be entirely dismissed endured into the next century, serving as the basis for And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, a spiritedly rousing biopic that comes up as another ace in HBO's deck of excellent cable features. Able to shrug off the stiffness that occasionally plagues similar projects with an appealing blend of exciting action, sly comedic flourishes, and just plain great storytelling, Villa is one of those rare pictures of its kind to achieve a crossover effect; movie buffs, history nuts, and adventurers will lap this up in equal measure.

On a creative roll as of late (Shrek 2, Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Broadway's Nine), Banderas may very well add Emmy nominee to his list of credits via an excellent performance of a very complex figure who wasn't quite the monster the press initially made him out to be, but no shrinking violet by any stretch of the imagination. Also impressive in smaller roles are Oscar winner Jim Broadbent, Early Edition's Kyle Chandler as real life actor and future director Raoul Walsh (who got his big break playing a younger Villa); Alexa Davalos (of Angel fame) perfectly embodies the typically luminous silent screen starlet of the times, and newcomer Eion Bailey as the sometimes befuddled yet gung-ho executive is reminiscent of early Jimmy Stewart. Nearly pulling the rug out from under all of them is the phenomenal Alan Arkin (one of the industry's most unsung actors), whose patented crankiness runs on all cylinders as Pancho's combination mercenary/translator/go-between Sam Drebben walks away with some of the film's most memorable dialogue ("He was expecting Charlie Chaplin.")

Adding to the effectiveness is a well-written screenplay by Joshua D. Maurer and Larry Gelbart (best known as the co-creator of television's best comedy series, M*A*S*H), Bruce Beresford's energetic direction and superb cinematography from Peter James (who also contributed eye-catching visuals in past collaborations with the director including Driving Miss Daisy and Paradise Road). From thrilling action sequences to comic relief that comes in at just the right moments, Villa is one of the most exhilaratingly entertaining television films to come along the pike in a long time.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Absolutely stupendous; maybe the best transfer I've seen for an HBO film to date. Peter James' excellent cinematography emerges with such detail, from the fabric of the uniforms to the crystal clarity of a bullet vest; words escape me to describe just how impressive this looks. Only a couple of daylight shots come off as a little hot, but otherwise excellente!

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Spanish, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Although it falls short of the finesse of its video companion, the 5.1 mix does a great job at providing a wide soundstage for Joseph Vitarelli's terrific scoring. A surprising, powerful jolt from an unexpected explosion tightly isolated in the rear right channel early on hinted at a Saving Private Ryan-esque isolated sound effects display, but after such an impressive beginning, the action sequences aren't nearly as forceful as one would hope. Still, the subwoofer gets a fairly good workout in the heat of battle. All of the usual technical aspects are up to par, particularly the well-recorded dialogue.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Angels in America, HBO Films
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Co-Writer-Executive Producer Larry Gelbart
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:01m:01s

Extras Review: Though not as packed as one would like, most of HBO's DVD offerings are equipped with at least a making-of feature and/or commentary. That tradition continues with an informative but much too short behind-the-scenes look at Villa featuring brief soundbites from Gelbart, Maurer, and Arkin, but just when it starts to build momentum, the credits come up. However, co-writer Gelbart's audio track is superb compensation; a low-key yet engaging speaker, he proves very knowledgeable and well versed in the film's historical backgrounds, all aspects of the production ("You see every dollar of it on the screen") and points out many factors that aided in the effectiveness in the project (e.g. Beresford's painstakingly constructed, religiously followed storyboards, which aided in the action sequences coming off so stirringly).

Rounding up the bonuses are a nice trailer for HBO's film division (including plugs for Iron Jawed Angels and Everyday People) and a :30s teaser for the highly anticipated home video debut of Angels in America.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

One stirring good ride of a history lesson, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself continues HBO's quality hitting streak with fine supplementary material. Superb performances by Banderas and Arkin combined with Gelbart's wonderful commentary elevates this disc beyond the usual "rent first" advisory. Highly recommended.


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