By Stephanie Zacharek
By Robrt L. Pela
By Aaron Cutler
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Chris Klimek
By Nick Schager
By Stephanie Zacharek
"Making a movie is about as close as a man comes to having a baby."
Paul Rodriguez expounds on this thought. "First, you have to sleep with somebody to conceive it.
"Then you go through your morning sickness; then, when that puppy's shot, when it's born, you go through your childhood diseases. You go through the pox, you go through the mumps, where it's swollen up.
"Then, after you finish that sucker, then you hope that people won't call your baby ugly."
The inspiration for this pungent analogy is Rodriguez's own first cinematic offspring, A Million to Juan. It had a rocky delivery.
The film is a sentimental comedy, very loosely based on Mark Twain's story "The Million Pound Bank Note." Director and star Rodriguez is a popular standup comedian (familiar to "Comic Relief" devotees) and sometime film actor. He was one of an eclectic dozen--others included Jon Voight, Steve Guttenberg and Rick Schroeder--invited by Crystal Sky Communications to pick one of 12 Twain stories and adapt them to contemporary settings.
The proud father and his producer Samm Pe¤a had their baby christened here in Phoenix last week, at a benefit premiäre for the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund. Though it was made under pitiful conditions by Hollywood standards--shot in 18 days, for less than a million dollars (The posters on this film cost more than what I shot the movie for")--it is, to date, the only film from the Twain project to see a theatrical release.
Phoenix was, for Rodriguez, the obvious choice for the film's premiäre. "I've been here quite a bit," he says. "I've got a lot of friends here, and when you're trying to pull off something like this, you've got to go with your strengths, you've got to go with your friends."
No one would be served by suggesting that A Million to Juan is a great movie, and Rodriguez himself is refreshingly aware of its limitations. He says he had in mind to make "a little video that would go to Bolivia's Blockbuster, no harm, no foul." The picture may even be a tiny bit better than he gives it credit for--it has an earnest sweetness to it, and Rodriguez is charming in the lead. He plays Juan, an East L.A. odd-jobber and widowed father who is selling oranges on a street corner one day when he's handed a check for a million dollars.
This familiar premise is helped immeasurably by a terrific cast, which includes such Latino film venerables as Rub‚n Blades, Cheech Marin, Edward James Olmos, Tony Plana, Bert Rosario and the rapper Gerardo, as well as Paul Williams, Polly Draper and Larry Linville. All of them worked for scale, as a favor to Rodriguez, and Pe¤a claims that each of the musical groups on the excellent soundtrack was paid just a dollar for its songs.
While as cinema A Million to Juan is inconsequential, Rodriguez and Pe¤a hope to use it as the springboard for a continuing project of more consequence--a company called Pipe Dream Productions, which would fill the niche for light-comedy fare in the Latino market, while still staying in the mainstream.
Says Pe¤a, "Anytime you have a group of people who haven't told their story, the first stories that come out are all the heartfelt, serious ones, the American Mes, which are stories that need to be told. But Paul feels that comedy is his thing. Let everyone else do the serious stuff."
Their next production, to be directed this summer by the actor Tony Plana, sounds promising: Panchostein, which Pe¤a claims will have the distinction of being "the first Chicano sci-fi comedy." There's already a slug line for the advance posters: "Coming Alive in 95!" Hopefully, its birth will see fewer complications than that of A Million to Juan.
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