Bring out the Cuervo, it’s Cinco de Mayo! Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day and, although Mexican public schools are closed for the day (isn’t that the real definition of a holiday?), it is celebrated more, ahem, seriously, in the United States than Mexico. So you know, the Mexicans beat the French at the Battle of Puebla and Mexican ex-pats living in Civil War-era California turned it into a holiday. Fun fact, the Battle of Puebla also marks the last time a European force invaded anywhere in the Americas (we’re talking proper military invasions – not U-boats off of Maine’s seacoast during WW2 or the 1960’s British Invasion).
But there’s not a lot that’s authentic to the holiday these days. Let’s face it, it’s an excuse to drink. So with that in mind, we’re done with the history lesson, now onto the drinking. As is customary, the Cinco de Mayo diet includes tequila, beer and Mexican cuisine (not Taco Bell). While you’re guzzling your Bulldog and chowing into some tasty enchiladas verdes, don’t forget your cinematic senses. We’ve rounded up a few Cinco de Mayo films to drink to — they aren’t at all the most authentic (Elvis is involved) or exemplary of Mexican cinema (go see “Like Water for Chocolate” or “Amores Perros” or a number of movies we list below), but they sure go well with Corona and nachos. And that’s basically the holiday now, ain’t it?
The second installment in Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi” trilogy, “Desperado” stars Antonio Banderas as El Mariachi, a Mexican gunslinger who comes toe-to-toe with a local drug lord dubbed Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida) and pre-international fame Salma Hayek as his book-selling romantic interest. After a tip from an American friend Buscemi (Steve Buscemi), El Mariachi (aka Manito) comes to town and seeks revenge for the death of his murdered love. El Mariachi is a complete badass from shoot ‘em ups involving guitar cases to facing a knife-wielding assassin played by Danny Trejo, not to mention being swoon-worthy in spite of his ‘90s-style ponytail. Rodriguez brings a refreshing excitement and humor to what some may deem “gratuitous violence,” making “Desperado” a classic and appropriate for cinephile and action fan alike (although not mutually exclusive). With a Mexican leading lady and shooting location along with a soundtrack full of Ranchera and Chicano rock music (Los Lobos, Tito & Tarantula, Carlos Santana and more), “Desperado” is also the most authentic film on this list, though that’s of course relative too. Watch out for Cheech Marin as the Short Bartender and Quentin Tarantino as Pick-up Guy. If you fall head over boots for this brand of gun-slinging action, add the rest of the trilogy to your Cinco de Mayo viewing — “El Mariachi” and the more deliciously gonzo “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” (which features a hilariously out-there Johnny Depp performance). To take it up a notch, drink every time guitars are shown or mentioned, Banderas touches his hair, anyone dies and whenever Bucho gives an order or is mentioned.
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“Fun in Acapulco” (1963)
If you want authentic Mexican film fare, this is not for you. Starring Elvis Presley, “Fun in Acapulco” follows the general Elvis formula – fun, girls and songs. This time around, Elvis plays a lifeguard named Mike (well, not just a lifeguard, but a tormented former trapeze artist and boat-worker) who finds conflict and love in Acapulco. Mike not only has to contend with his psychosomatic vertigo and on-going existential crisis, but also a budding rivalry with the diving champion of Mexico, who claims Mike has stolen his girl. This conflict comes to a head when Mike performs a death-defying stunt involving the 136-foot La Quebraba cliffs to the fear and awe of the local townspeople. Mike’s love interests (plural – it’s Elvis) include Marguerita (a timely Ursula Andress) and Dolores (Elsa Cardenas) Mexico’s top female bullfighter (there are a lot of champions, aren’t there?). The movie can get culturally cringe-worthy time to time (see Mexican child acting as Mike’s amigo/manager), but Elvis manages to handle Spanish better than you’d think when he sings “Guadalajara” and the combination of the music and laughs, intentional or otherwise, makes “Fun in Acapulco” a fun watch for this day of fiestas, especially after you’ve had a margarita or two. Although Elvis shot all of his scenes stateside (darn you, Elvis manager Colonel Parker, and your being in the U.S. illegally), a few of the exteriors were filmed on location in Mexico. Coincidentally, Encore is showing an Elvis movie a day for the entire month of May, but is saving “Fun in Acapulco” for the 9th and having “King Creole” playing on Cinco de Mayo – go figure.
“The Mask of Zorro” (1998)
Don Diego de la Vega (aka Zorro, the Californian swashbuckling Batman) has been reincarnated a near-countless number of times from the 1919 comic “The Curse of Capistrano” (so Batman is the Manhattanite gadgety Zorro?) to the 1950s Disney TV series “Zorro” to a West End musical three years ago. This makes it very tricky to choose one definitive Zorro film and therefore we won’t. Instead, “The Mask of Zorro” is included in this list as a good watch for Cinco de Mayo with its action and adventure, but if you want to expand more on the Zorro legend, we recommend the Tyrone Power-starring swashbuckler “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) and the George Hamilton-starring parody “Zorro, The Gay Blade” (1981). Playing with Zorro’s origin story, “The Mask of Zorro” begins with Don Diego (Anthony Hopkins) swooping in to save innocent men from hanging at the hands of the villainous Spanish governor (Stuart Wilson). Things happen (don’t want to spoil) and Don Diego ends up alone and in seclusion for 20-odd years. When the Spanish governor returns to California twenty years later with Don Diego’s daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a career-making role) in tow, Don Diego enlists drunk thief Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas) as a roundabout apprentice and seeks vengeance, this time it’s personal. While learning the ways of the sword and vigilante justice in 1840’s California, Murrieta stumbles upon Elena and sparks ignite, from dancing to swordplay. A rollicking good time any which way you look at it (swashbuckling, romance, Anthony Hopkins), pair with a bucket of cervezas and lime wedges.
“Three Amigos!” (1986)
“Wherever there is injustice, you will find us. Wherever there is suffering, we’ll be there. Wherever liberty is threatened, you will find… the Three Amigos!” “Three Amigos” stars Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short as three out-of-work silent film actors mistaken for their onscreen counterparts – the Three Amigos – who accidentally agree to rescue the fictional Mexican village Santo Poco from the notorious El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) and his gang. Thinking they were going South of the border to perform their act, the trio is woefully unprepared to face Mexican thugs, let alone tequila. With a superb comedy trio like Chase, Martin and Short, the film is somewhat lacking in witty repartee. It’s just not as funny as it should be. That said, some of the deadpan comedy is still pretty great and it’s less the jokes (many of them lame) and the delivery that sells this movie and has turned it into somewhat of a comedy classic (even though admittedly, we have a soft spot for it, but it ain’t a great movie). A send-up to silent Westerns and schtick comedy, you will enjoy if you are a fan of John Landis movies (though not his best, certainly not his worst). Generally panned by critics, the late great Roger Ebert gave it one out of four stars. But forget that. Remember, you are meant to be drinking and laughing and this film is perfect for both those endeavors. There certainly are “Three Amigos” fans out there roaming the streets besides us (Justin Timberlake included), as evidenced by their recent reunion of sorts on SNL. This past March, the Three Amigos reunited briefly onscreen during Timberlake’s opening monologue and included their customary salute (albeit with only Martin Short performing it, but that’s still enough to geek out about). “The Three Amigos” is the extra cheese for your nachos and who doesn’t want more cheese.
“Viva Zapata!” (1952)
“Shout excitement! Cry adventure! Thunder fury!” exclaimed the 1952 trailer for the Marlon Brando-starring, John Steinbeck-written, Elia Kazan-directed “Viva Zapata!” (yeesh – what testosterone!) Based on a true story, Emiliano Zapata (Brando) leads a peasant revolt against Mexico’s corrupt dictator President Portfirio Diaz (Fay Roope – no really, that’s the actor’s name) and becomes president himself with his brother (Anthony Quinn) at his side, at least at first (“I love you, but I do not like you.”). Apparently, off-screen Quinn wasn’t too happy either, particularly about Brando getting the lead, Quinn being an authentic and talented Mexican actor and all. The actors decided to settle the squabble with a literal pissing contest across the Rio Grande. Brando won the contest, but Quinn got the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. While shooting the film, Brando was a handful from serenading onscreen love interest Jean Peters at three in the morning to setting off fireworks in the hotel lobby. For all of its attempts at authenticism, “Viva Zapata!” was not filmed on location, but rather in Colorado, Texas and New Mexico. It met mixed reviews from the NYT writing that the film “throbs with a rare vitality” to Variety claiming the film’s direction had failed in its quest for personal intimacy. It’s certainly not the great Elia Kazan’s best that’s for sure, but still worth checking out for completeists of his work. And since it’s the more serious film of this list, “Viva Zapata!” is the movie that earns you a shot (or flask) of tequila.
We’re sticking to five, not just because it is the 5th of May, but you should be out celebrating, at least for part of the day. Don’t be a scrooge – swing at that piñata, head-bang to some Chicano rock, sing along with a Mariachi band, eat some arroz y frijoles, drink some tequila (maybe with a worm in it), recover with Mexican hot chocolate and a plate of huevos rancheros, and feel free to do any or all of the above in any order you please.
Other films to watch include some biopics, chick flicks and a few films that you really should see sober, so maybe reserve for Seis de Mayo or any other day of the year. If you’re in a biopic mood, check out Salma Hayek and her unibrow in “Frida” and Lou Diamond Phillips as Chicano musician Ritchie Valens in “La Bamba.” For fans of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (who features in Viva Zapata!), there is a plethora of options (and we don’t use that word lightly), including “Life of Villa” and “The Life of General Villa” starring Villa himself. From Villa flicks starring Wallace Beery to Yul Brynner, we’d recommend the 2003 TV movie “And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself,” with Antonio Banderas. Some decent chick flicks include “Tortilla Soup” about a Latino family with three grown daughters in L.A. and “Real Women Have Curves” with America Ferrara (in her film debut) as a teenage sweatshop worker with hopes of attending Columbia. Some not-so-good chick flicks include “A Walk in the Clouds” where Keanu Reeves finds love and helps out at Anthony Quinn’s vineyard and “Fools Rush In,” a rom-com both Matthew Perry and Salma Hayek would like the world to forget. The ones you must see at some point in your lifetime and hopefully pay attention to include the John Huston classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” the Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna starring coming of age tale “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” the award-winning twisted fantasy film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and those from Luis Bunuel’s Mexican period, particularly “Los Olvidados” and “The Exterminating Angel.” And obviously anything by the the modern day three Mexican amigos — Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu is highly recommended even if they’ve all moved beyond their South of the border roots. Now– salt, shot, lime.