It's Weekend Ticket Stub time -- though I'm saving all 3 onstage performances this month until this Friday, so stay tuned for Forbidden Broadway: SVU, The Goat, and more...

* The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada -- Sometimes the smallest movies are the most rewarding, and this directorial debut by Tommy Lee Jones is a great example. A deceptively simple border fable, written by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros), the film flickers back and forth in the life, untimely death, and unsettling afterlife of the titular Mexican ranchhand. Melquiades is accidentally shot by a callow young border patrol agent, played with perfect All-American detachment by Barry Pepper. As we find more unspoken (and illicit) connections between the inhabitants of this dusty backwater, they start turning on each other, with Jones' grizzled gringo finally kidnapping Pepper, barefoot, to carry Mel through the desert back to his homeland. With such a simple structure, the film quickly draws you into these small lives and their surprising twists and turns. A few scenes of gruesome cruelty are all the more vivid compared to the alternating moments of humanity and connection. The story is carefully paced, and the smallest details are used to evoke so much -- you hear the faint clank of spurs as the men walk, without a gratuitous shot of their boots. Jones seems to know just how to group and shoot his actors for devastating effect, as in Levon Helm's cameo as a generous, blind hermit, or when his own character gets ruefully tanked at a crumbling country taberna draped with twinkling white christmas lights. It takes a deft touch to swing convincingly from border politics to the ineffable mysteries of friendship and back again, and here Jones succeeds. (A)

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