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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Sands: Have you ever seen one of these?
DVD ReviewIn the wonderful world of cinema, there are "films" and there are "flicks". A flick is always a film, but a film is not necessarily a flick. Still with me? This slang word for a motion picture often applies to testosterone-laden bullet fests, where the handsome hero suavely guns down innumerable bad guys, without sustaining so much as a scratch on his body. Not only is Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico undeniably a flick, it even goes so far as to flaunt it. When the opening credits state that Mexico is "A Robert Rodriguez Flick", it is a clear indication of what type of movie this will be. While I generally find these kinds of "flicks" less than appealing, I have to admit to finding great pleasure in Rodriguez's outrageously brazen style. Right from the opening frame of Mexico I had a smile on my face, as it was obvious that I was in for more of the Rodriguez quirkiness that I have come to know and love.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico is the third installment in Rodriguez's popular Mariachi trilogy. Heavy on style and light on plot, these films follow the adventures of Spanish guitarist El Mariachi (played here by Antonio Banderas). In the first installment, aptly titled El Mariachi, El Mariachi (played by Carlos Gallardo) becomes caught up in a gun-blazing showdown between a drug lord and his henchman after they mistake him for a killer who carries guns in a guitar case. After his lover is murdered and his hand crippled, El Mariachi sets out for revenge in the second installment, Desperado. Once Upon a Time in Mexico continues with the revenge theme, only this time the events are more complicated. A corrupt CIA agent named Sands (Johnny Depp) recruits El Mariachi to kill General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), who is working with drug kingpin Barillo (Willem Dafoe) in a coup to assassinate the president of Mexico. El Mariachi's motivation to kill Marquez is extremely personal, as Marquez is the man who murdered his wife, Carolina (Salma Hayek).
Though the plot is more dense than that of its predecessors, Mexico is still all about over-the-top action. Some viewers may be appalled by its artificiality, or even put off by the violence, but it does not take a genius to realize that Rodriguez's tongue is firmly planted in his cheek. Much like Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, nearly every shot draws gleeful attention to its excessiveness. The heroes are implausibly immune to bullets, deaths are wildly exaggerated as bad guys fly ten feet up in the air from shotgun blasts, and there is even a scene where El Mariachi slithers up a wall like Spider-Man. It is overt excessiveness such as this that keeps Once Upon a Time firmly rooted in fantasy and thereby far from offensive. Also included are several pop culture references that add to the jovial nature of the film. I enjoyed many hearty chuckles, such as the moment when Sands reveals a Clash of the Titans lunchbox, exclaiming "I couldn't find a briefcase small enough for $10,000 in cash."
While I sincerely enjoyed Once Upon a Time in Mexico, I found it to be a slight letdown after Desperado. Rodriguez may have overstepped his bounds in creating a plot that is ultimately too heavy-handed. This may seem ironic, as the plot is far from substantial, yet much of the appeal of Desperado was due to its playful simplicity. There are many more main characters this time around, and, as a result, El Mariachi regrettably does not play nearly as prominent of a role. Fortunately, Johnny Depp grabs the reigns and steals the show as the wildly entertaining Sands. It is quite impressive that Rodriguez served as writer, director, editor, cinematographer, and musical composer on this film, but his multi-tasking may have detracted from what could have been a more tightly constructed machine.
Flaws aside, Rodriguez's flair still flourishes in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and he has constructed an admirable conclusion to his spaghetti western trilogy. Now that Rodriguez has proven himself a stylistic master, I truly look forward to the day when he might create films with a bit more substance.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: What we have here is another "original aspect ratio" dilemma. Rodriguez shot Once Upon a Time using hi-definition cameras rather than film, which would generate an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. However, he cropped the film to 2.35:1 for its theatrical exhibition. I did not see the film theatrically, but I have heard several reports that it looked cropped and lacked headroom. Rodriguez has now decided to present the originally composed 1.78:1 aspect ratio on this DVD. Hopefully without starting an "OAR" debate, I must state that I do not quite know where I stand on this decision. 2.35:1 is the theatrical aspect ratio, yet 1.78:1 is the native aspect ratio, and apparently the preferred ratio by director Robert Rodriguez. So, what exactly is this film's OAR? The viewer must decide for his or herself, I suppose.
That being said, I detected no awkward framing issues within the 1.78:1 composition. Original aspect ratio or not, this is an absolutely gorgeous visual experience. The hi-definition transfer shines through with stunning clarity, displaying more subtle detail than I am typically accustomed to from DVD. The entire aesthetic is remarkably smooth and free from any distracting film artifacts. Color is the main standout, boasting lush green, red, blue, gold, and blacks that leap off the screen with a three-dimensional vibrancy. The usual deficiencies, such as edge enhancement, chroma noise, and compression artifacts are sometimes evident, yet they are so minor that anyone would be hard pressed to detect them. If this transfer is any indication of the future of DVD, consider me ecstatic.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: While the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is appropriately aggressive, it also proves somewhat lifeless in the bass department. The good news is that the surrounds are extremely active when necessary, engulfing the viewer with the sounds of whizzing gunshots. Even better, dialogue is consistently clean, clear, and intelligible. The bad news is the lack of low end. Not to say that the soundtrack is short of bass, just that it fails to deliver the essential wallop. As a result, many of the action scenes sound somewhat top heavy. While this is far from a disappointing soundtrack, it falls short of current standards for action based material.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 0 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
2 Original Trailer(s)
9 Other Trailer(s) featuring Hellboy; Resident Evil: Apocalypse; Desperado; El Mariachi; Big Fish; In The Cut; The Missing; Underworld; You Got Served
8 Deleted Scenes
Isolated Music Score with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Robert Rodriguez
Layers Switch: 01h:28m:07s
Extras Review: In this day and age of nine-disc mega-boxed sets, it takes quality, not quantity, to impress. Mexico delivers in this department, offering an impressive collection of special features that educate as well as entertain.
We begin with Ten Minute Flick School, a fantastic featurette that primarily focuses on the secrets behind many of the visual effects. Rodriguez has several interesting tricks up his sleeve; watching the film, I had no idea that several shots used effects, because they were so tastefully executed. For aspiring filmmakers, Rodriguez offers tips on how to shoot wisely, effectively, and how to hopefully wrap under budget. Though brief, a wealth of material is covered in this ten minutes.
Next is Inside Troublemaker Studios, where Robert Rodriguez takes us on a tour of his home studio. The filmmaker has everything he needs to complete the post production process right in the luxury of his own house; color me green with envy. Rodriguez not only offers explanations of how his equipment works, but also thorough demonstrations that will certainly help wannabe filmmakers. It is obvious why Rodriguez prefers to manage every aspect of the filmmaking process, as he not only has the means and the talent, but also has loads of fun doing it. This featurette may not be as entertaining for those who have no interest in the filmmaking process, but I sincerely doubt that anyone reading this is not at least somewhat interested in the art of filmmaking.
The Ten Minute Cooking School is actually only about five minutes, and thankfully so. While I assumed that everyone reading this was interested in the art of filmmaking, I did not necessarily assume the same about cooking. Nevertheless, Rodriguez takes time to teach us how to cook the pork dish that Johnny Depp's character enjoys so much in this film. This is not a very relevant extra, but I suppose it is a nice bonus for those who want to learn how to cook. Ultimately, this is merely Robert Rodriguez shamelessly expanding on his many talents.
Film is Dead: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez is a glimpse at a seminar with the filmmaker and an auditorium of hopeful filmmakers. Rodriguez speaks praises about the wonders of shooting with high-definition, and how he will never go back to shooting on film. Brief mention is also made of the decision to crop the 1.78:1 ratio to 2.35:1 for the theatrical exhibition of Mexico. While I do not necessarily agree with all of his claims about the benefits of HD over film, I found his lecture interesting and informative.
The first of two documentaries is The Anti-Hero's Journey, which follows the progression of El Mariachi through the course of the three films. While most of this documentary consists of conventional interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, it does serve as a nice recap for those who may not be familiar with Desperado and El Mariachi.
The Good, the Bad, and the Bloody: Inside KNB FX is an in-depth look at the various visual effects created for the film, including prosthetics and makeup. Quite a bit of information is covered in 19 minutes, including the challenges of integrating effects into the hi-definition realm.
Next is the feature-length commentary by Robert Rodriguez. The zealous filmmaker speaks so quickly that it is easy to miss much of what he is saying. He does apologize for his hastiness from the get go, however, explaining that he truly enjoys commentaries and records them as much for himself as he does for the home viewer. With such a rapid delivery, a great deal of information is covered in this commentary, and most of it is pertinent and interesting. Overall, this is an excellent track.
Even more compelling than the audio commentary is the music and sound design track, which also contains commentary by Rodriguez. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, this is a fantastic mix of the musical score and sound effects, including early computer demos courtesy of Rodriguez. Not only does Rodriguez offer insight into his inspirations behind creating the score, but he also provides a navigational roadmap, telling us exactly which chapters to jump to in order to hear the various orchestral themes. Note to studios: we need more of these wonderful isolated music and sound effects tracks!
Eight deleted scenes are offered with optional commentary from Robert Rodriguez. Displayed in nonanamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen with 2.0 sound, this is a pleasant presentation, though nowhere near as admirable as the main feature. None of these scenes are terribly worthwhile, yet it is interesting to see them and realize why they were cut. The most interesting element of this section is the commentary by Rodriguez, who explains that deleted scenes are his favorite DVD special feature since they allow him to justify shooting scenes that may end up on the cutting room floor.
Rounding out the special features is a filmographies section, two excellent trailers for Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and nine other trailers, including Desperado, El Mariachi, and a wonderful, lengthy trailer for Guillermo del Toro's upcoming Hellboy, which is presented with Dolby Digital EX sound.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsAfter eleven years, Robert Rodriguez has finally completed his Mariachi trilogy, with Once Upon a Time in Mexico providing a flawed but enjoyable finale. I strongly urge OAR sticklers to look past the questionable aspect ratio and appreciate this DVD for what it is worth. Created under Robert Rodriguez's supervision, the 1.78:1 framing looks fantastic, and the clarity of the image is one of the best live action transfers I have seen.
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