A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 433 – Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Once Upon a Time in Mexico – May 7th, 2011

So we come to the end of our Mexico trilogy. Or rather, Robert Rodriguez’s Mexico trilogy. This is the third and final movie of the set and definitely the biggest of them. It’s not quite the same degree of difference from the second movie as the second move was from the first, but it’s certainly a few steps up in terms of the stakes and the action. Everything’s bigger in this one, which I have some issues with. But I also greatly enjoy the movie anyhow. It has some great characters and some fantastic action. I’m just not sure it fits as seamlessly with the other two as they do with each other.

Part of the problem here is just how big it’s all gotten. The plot in this movie isn’t about local problems on a city or town scale. It’s about local problems only if you define local by country. Because what’s at stake here, and at the heart of the schemes and double crossings, is the position of President of Mexico. There’s a general involved, and the CIA and the FBI and their Mexican counterparts and a US fugitive and a crime lord and a hit man, or rather hit men, and generally the scale is just so very much larger than the others. Sure, El Mariachi’s involvement hinges on a personal connection and drive for revenge (of course), but that’s not really the focus of the film, regardless of all the flashbacks we get.

There’s just too much politicking and bribing and scheming on the parts of everyone else for the flashbacks to make as much impact as they might have in a tighter movie. El is hired to help with a coup. Certain people would like the current president overthrown, but those people also don’t want the general who’s going to overthrow him to actually gain power. It just so happens that the general in question murdered Carolina and her and El’s daughter, so he’s not going to pass up the opportunity to take the man out. The thing is, in either of the other movies that would be the plot. It would all be about El arriving in the city and sizing up the opposition and making his moves against the general’s men and eventually killing him, possibly while meeting another woman in the process. But since that road had been trod twice already Rodriguez decided to toss in a whole additional plot with the man who hired El in the first place. Agent Sands is a corrupt and sociopathic CIA agent stationed in Mexico and the secondary plot here deals with his wheeling and dealing with a crime lord and his cartel and agents. Some of it involves El as well, but a lot of it doesn’t. A lot of it is Sands on his own. It splits the movie, in my opinion.

Now, this is not to say that this isn’t a good movie. It’s a great movie! But for me it doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Desperado as much as I’d like. It doesn’t feel as intimate. Yes, there’s a bar brawl scene in the beginning. It’s the scene of a story being told about El Mariachi and his deeds and how now he’s got this woman with him and she’s just as deadly. But the story is being told to Sands, who is one bad ass dude, and even the bar the brawl is in feels bigger and more expanded than the bars in the previous movies. And after Sands’ contact leaves the restaurant they’ve been taking in and we see that Sands had a hidden gun on him the whole time we know that Sands is going to be a focal point. And he’s played by Johnny Depp, who gives this bizarre agent of chaos a comedic spin while keeping him utterly terrifying in his badassitude.

So here’s my problem. I love Johnny Depp as Sands. I love how he is emphatically not a good guy. I love how he’s very much an instigator in this whole mess and how he pretty much sees that as his purpose in life. He lives in Mexico and fucks with people by setting up schemes and plots and putting them in motion to maneuver local politics and crime and he enjoys it. He says to El that his purpose is to maintain balance in Mexico, but it’s a balance that he defines. He is a strange sort of figure here. And yet you want to see him make it out of this alive. Or I do, anyhow. He’s morally reprehensible and devoid of empathy and yet he’s somehow not evil. Not in comparison to the general who killed El’s wife and daughter. Not in comparison to the crime boss, Barillo. And to be honest, he kind of steals the movie and I find myself not caring because he’s just plain fun to watch. Horrifying, but fun.

But where does that leave El and his storyline? Sort of shoved to the side. We get plenty of flashbacks, as I said, showing the general killing Carolina. We get El going to recruit two of his mariachi friends to help him with the job Sands has hired him for. We get fight scenes with El and Carolina in the past and we get more fight scenes with El in the present. We see him with Sands, we see him on his own. But thanks to there being so much that’s not related to him, his personal background and mission feel less immediate, which is a pity because that’s where the soul of the first two movies is. As much fun as this movie can be, its soul just isn’t as apparent. Probably because, as I said, Sands is much of the focus and Sands is pretty soulless.

To be honest, the whole thing with Barillo and his body double and whatnot feels like its own plot. In any other movie it would be great! But it’s so different from the tone of the other movies. I’m used to the emotional impact of the movie coming from El’s connection to the major villain and it just isn’t there. There are a couple of key characters, such as Barillo’s man, Billy, AFN agent Ajedrez and former FBI agent Ramirez, who never meet El. They’re involved in the whole coup plot, but they’re connected to Sands, not the mariachis.

Thank goodness for the mariachis, though, because they really are awesome. I can’t even knock the guitar case weaponry for being an old trick because it’s so much fun to watch. I do enjoy the scenes where they talk to El and he tells them what they’ll be doing. I love seeing them case the building they’ll be working in later, actually playing music. I love that they save the day at the end. I just wish they and El had gotten more to do. I wish Carolina had been in more of the movie. I wish the Sands plot had been its own picture, because I don’t dislike it. I like it a lot. But it distracts me from why I love the first two movies. It makes me love this one for an entirely different reason and I’m so very conflicted about that. It’s frustrating. I like this movie a lot, but in many ways I wish it was two movies. I’d love them both, I promise.

May 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 432 – Desperado

Desperado – May 6th, 2011

Last night when we finished El Mariachi I insisted we put Desperado in right away. Not to watch completely, but for the opening and for the eventual shoot out in the bar. After all, they are two incredibly bad-ass scenes and they have direct callbacks to the first movie. So we put it in and we watched until the bit where our hero meets our heroine and then we turned it off and went to bed because crap, it was late and we needed to get up in the morning for work. But really, this is that kind of movie, and it was difficult to turn it off and not just watch it all the way through and call it done. And we probably still would have put it in tonight. It’s just that good.

What’s interesting about this movie is that it’s a direct sequel to El Mariachi, but the two movies have such wildly different budgets and scales. The first movie was as low budget as they get and this movie has fancy explosions and people like Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek. It’s a huge difference in terms of the money spent to make it, and it does show in things like film quality and effects and cast. But then too, in terms of the writing and humor and drama and action? It’s very much in the same vein as the first movie. It’s got that sly winking humor along with the pathos of a man consumed by the need for vengeance and regret for that need. It’s fantastically balanced, which is one of the things I love so much about the first movie.

We pick up the story a couple of years after the first movie. El Mariachi is now hunting down drug lords and their gangs, taking them out with the weapons he pulls from his guitar case. The opening of the movie is perhaps one of my favorite opening scenes ever. Steve Buscemi (who is credited as ‘Buscemi’) walks into a seedy bar. He is as white as white gets and proceeds to tell the bartender (Cheech Marin) and the rest of the bar regulars a story about this huge Mexican man he saw in a bar a few towns away, and how said huge Mexican man wiped out everyone in the bar but himself. Buscemi narrates the story quickly and neatly, with little touches of humor, while we get to see El Mariachi do everything he describes in a shadowy imaginary bar. It’s a fantastic introduction to what’s happened to the lead character since the first movie without actually needing to reintroduce him. Buscemi does it for us. And of course he’s working with El Mariachi, setting up the locals to test them, see if they know of the man El is looking for. And they do.

What follows that is very similar to the first movie in many respects. El Mariachi shows up in town, ends up killing a lot of people, gets taken in by a smart and tough (and beautiful) woman who is, of course, linked to the very man El Mariachi is looking for. Except this time instead of being unwitting in the whole situation, our hero came looking for it. He hasn’t been accidentally pulled in because of a passing resemblance to a killer. He is the killer. And there’s even another case of mistaken identity here! It’s wonderfully done to both follow up on the first movie and retread many of the same steps while not being a complete rehash. And as a bonus, while the lead character is now played by Antonio Banderas, Carlos Gallardo, who played him in the first movie, gets to be a bad ass mariachi still. He shows up as a friend of El’s in the climactic showdown scene, with some fantastic weapons of his own (he also shows up in a dream sequence, playing backup to El).

I really am impressed with the compare/contrast one can do with the first movie and this one. I think it’s a testament to Robert Rodriguez’s talents that he was able to make something so close to the first but not have it feel like a copy. And while having seen Gallardo in his cameo in this movie I think he likely could have pulled off the title role again, I like Banderas in the part. The one tricky thing for the character is that while in the first movie he’s a somewhat carefree musician who lucks into the kills he makes, in the second movie we need to believe him as an utter bad-ass. We need to know he’s had a tough few years and hardened because of it. And while Gallardo does a good job in the action scene he’s in, Banderas smolders and stalks and is just plain dangerous. And let’s face it, he’s a name, and names pull audiences. He’s also a good actor. I’m conflicted on it, to be honest. I would have loved to see the character continue with the same actor, and I don’t doubt he was up to it. But at the same time I do love Banderas in the role, so. Yeah.

I also utterly adore Salma Hayek as Carolina. She’s got several points in her favor. One, she’s the sort of gal who’s not shy about speaking her mind. Two, she’s the sort of gal who will look to a medical textbook in order to do some quick and dirty bullet removal. Three, she’s the sort of gal who will open up a book store in a town that’s never had one. She’s got some spirit to her, and all in the name of literacy and reading and well, I’m partial to that sort of thing. And when she loses the book store? Dude, I’d want to kill the jackass responsible too, no matter how nice he’d been to me beforehand. It’s definitely something I like about both this movie and the first one: Solid and strong female leads.

And then there are the action scenes. There are a couple and they’re all done beautifully. They are a joy to watch, both for the carefully orchestrated action itself and for the humor that’s evident in the weapons of choice in the climax and the ceiling fan in the bar. When I think about this movie I think of it as being a wonderfully cohesive whole, but I also think of each action scene on its own. That’s not easy to achieve, but it’s the case here and I love it. Because every scene in between the action just supports those scenes as being more than mindless violence. There’s a purpose behind it all and regret on El’s part that he’s done the things he’s done. It makes the bad-ass character sympathetic still, even if he’s not as innocent as he once was. It’s a great development of both the character and the story and if it wasn’t so late I’d probably watch it again right now.

May 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 431 – El Mariachi

El Mariachi – May 5th, 2011

I admit I’ve sort of been saving these movies. I love them and it’s been ages since I’ve seen them and we’ve run through a lot of our series and a lot of the movies I’ve seen before. So I’ve been saving them. Not for any specific day or event, but then we didn’t have anything planned for today and it is Cinco de Mayo and hey, why not, right? Any halfway decent excuse to watch these movies would have been good with me.

Now, Desperado gets shown on television with some decent regularity and Once Upon a Time in Mexico was made most recently, though it’s not new anymore by any means. But I just don’t see El Mariachi in the television listings as I see the other two. It just doesn’t crop up, which is a shame because it’s a fantastic movie even if you don’t know how it was made. It’s got some good action, a little romance, a fair amount of wit and humor and a fun plot, even if there is a giant hole in it. It’s all in Spanish, sure, but why should that matter?

Amusingly, I think I could possibly have watched this without subtitles and still followed it. I’m absolutely horrible when it comes to foreign languages and what I’ve retained from college and high school isn’t usually enough. But for some reason the dialogue in this movie goes slower than I’m used to Spanish language movies going. And I found myself able to look down and just listen and catch the gist of what was being said. Maybe it helps that I’ve seen it before, but still. I was surprised and unsure of just why the dialogue is spoken at a speed I can still handle. Goodness knows the El Santo movie we picked up that has no subtitling was totally out of my league (and yes, I do regret that, because when we watched it, it looked awesome, but totally incomprehensible to us Spanish-challenged folks).

Anyhow, the movie is a story of mistaken identity and dueling gangsters in a small city in Mexico. A mariachi arrives in town, hoping to find work so he can continue on his family legacy of musicianship. A noble goal! Unfortunately for him, a notorious gangster named Azul is in town too, and he’s been going after the local crime lord, Moco, taking out his men with weapons he keeps in a guitar case. Since Azul kills pretty much ever associate of Moco’s whom he meets, Moco’s other men have only a sketchy description of him: He wears all black and carries a guitar case. You know what two things also describe our hero? He wears all black. And he carries a guitar case.

Now, being the pedant that I am, I feel I have to mention the gaping plot hole here. Azul? Is heavy-set and has a mustache. El mariachi? Slimmer and not a single whisker on his face. And yet various people describe them at different points and the only identifying things they can say are ‘wears all black’ and ‘carries a guitar case’. Come on, people! Can we differentiate between a leather vest and a black jacket over a white shirt? Maybe between facial hair and no facial hair? Build? Apparently not. But I guess that would unravel the whole movie and while some things could have been relatively simple to fix (similar wardrobe for the two characters, shave off the mustache, etc.) we are talking about a movie made for the equivalent of $7,000. I doubt there was much money for wardrobe and my guess is that the cast wasn’t being paid big bucks. Demanding that someone shave their mustache? Eh, I’ll get over it. To be honest, it adds to the ridiculousness of the whole film.

Really, much of this movie is intended to be over the top. There’s some sly humor to it all. The repeated joke with Moco lighting his matches off his henchman’s face? The sped up footage when people phone him to tell him Azul is in town? Things like that. When Moco sends his men to take out Azul in the beginning they pay off a woman who’s guarding the jail he’s hiding in. And then Azul pays her off on his way out after killing them. There’s the whole bathtub scene! After our hero manages to get the fantastic bar owner, Domino, to let him stay in her apartment to hide out from Moco’s men we get shot after shot of Domino’s dog’s reaction. Which is a blank and disinterested stare. I’ve never seen such an uneager pitbull, to be honest. It’s not a laugh-out-loud sort of funny. These aren’t big obvious gags and set-ups or knee-slapper jokes. They’re winks. Little teasers that let you know that the movie isn’t to be taken entirely seriously. Sure, much of it is serious, but the audience should keep a certain perspective on that.

Of course you know that eventually there’ll be a showdown between Moco and Azul, and the mariachi will get caught in the middle and since Domino’s the love interest she’ll be involved somehow too. It’s not a movie full of surprise twists and turns. Once you know there’s an innocent dude caught in the middle of a gang war, well, the end is a bit of a foregone conclusion. People are going to die and there will be consequences. What I like here is that while there is humor to the movie, the plot with the mariachi and Domino is still carried off with a nice sense of drama and emotional weight. I think part of it is that Domino is so cool. She’s not immediately won over by our hero and she’s no damsel in distress for most of the movie. She’s got a mind and her independence and she’s not afraid to enforce it. So her relationship with the mariachi comes across as genuine, which makes the ending have a great tone to it.

I remain absolutely thrilled to know how this movie was made as cheaply as it was, with shortcuts like single takes creatively edited around mistakes and improvisation to work around missing props and the like. It’s well written, well acted, well shot and well edited. Robert Rodriguez has certainly moved up in Hollywood, gaining budget potential and the ability to attract big name stars to his projects. But just look what he did with what he started? It’s fantastic and I can’t wait to watch the sequels.

May 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment