Thursday, August 31, 2006

El Mariachi es Bueno

Not exactly a review, but I'm excited and thought I'd share.

I watched "El Mariachi" on Monday. This is the first movie in Robert Rodriguez's Mariachi Trilogy, and as far as I know was the first movie that really put him on the map. I've heard very good, vague things about these movies, thought that the trailer for "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" looked awesome, and more recently had been wowed by Sin City, so I thought it would be fun to sort of go through his oeuvre in chronological order.

Watching the movie proved to be surprisingly difficult. My local video store didn't carry it, and I don't do Netflix, so for the first time in a while I grabbed a movie off Teh Internets. This always takes a while, but I'm not in much of a rush. I actually got it over a week ago, and started watching it on my media PC, and... it was all in Spanish. Which makes complete sense, of course, but I had the uneasy feeling that I really should be seeing subtitles. I watched the entire opening scene, the opening title, and the start of the movie proper, then finally acknowledged that this was not just a temporary artistic thing, and started fiddling. I've previously been able to adjust subtitles pretty easily, but in this case nothing was happening. I gave up for the night.

For my next attempt, I copied the whole movie over to my primary PC where it's a bit easier to work with. I noticed that there was a .sub text file, which one would assume contained subtitles. I tried all my available media players (VLC, Windows Media Player, etc.), but none of them showed any available subtitles. Stumped, I went online to look up the file format, and saw that it was a divx subtitle file. I downloaded the divx player, which proved to be a long download, and left it running with the expectation I'd finally be able to watch it.

No such luck. divx played the file just fine, but once again, no subtitles were available. I turned yet again to the Internet. On the divx home page, I finally found a FAQ which listed a particular plug-in I would need to download to view subtitles; oddly enough, it was a plug-in for WMP. Well, whatever they say. I downloaded it and installed, and... nothing! Still no subtitles in divx, and I never even found the option for subtitles in WMP. However, this did the trick since VLC (my player of choice) was now able to find the subtitles - both English and Chinese. (Which probably means I was viewing a pirated copy of a pirated copy, but whatever.)

After all that, of course, it was too late to watch that night, so the movie had been sitting around until Monday. The whole experience has made me more convinced than ever that if Hollywood wants to thrive, it needs to offer more choices to its consumers. As fun as the problem-solving aspect of getting this movie to play was, I would have been willing to pay a few bucks to download it and skip the hassle. I gladly pay for music (off bleep and itunes) and TV shows (off itunes) because they give me decent quality and fast service, in the format I want, when and where I want it. I don't watch movies much these days, and when I do I want something specific that I can watch at home without needing to drive around to find. I'm probably a minority, but I still represent a segment that the movie industry should try to reach.

I finally had a few uninterrupted hours with nothing better to do, so I sat in my comfy chair and started the movie. After that long introduction, my review will be very brief. This was an excellent movie. It's sort of a stylish action movie, but with more than a few creative, artistic streaks in it. In particular, I enjoyed some dream sequences which did not exactly advance the plot but which tinged the entire movie with a sense of unease and dread.

Its vision of Mexico was pretty gripping as well. Almost the entire movie takes place in one town, and the utter lawlessness there is pretty shocking for a northerner like me. Gangs casually walk down the street carrying submachine guns in plain sight, without any concern that someone will try to stop them. The bustle of the city shows that commerce still works here, but in a manner much looser and more raw than we are used to.

This didn't feel like a terribly ambitious movie, but it was extremely fun, and it did what it tried to accomplish with great success. It's definitely a cut above the typical mindless action flick, and I'm now ready to move on to Desperado.

For more details, here are some


The cast of characters is small but well-sketched. The protagonist, the Mariachi, looks an awful lot like Matthew Broderick. He's incredibly likeable, which is necessary for the role he plays here. I've heard it said that, in movies, characters don't have enough time to grow; only in television shows and novels can a character convincingly change, instead of just react. That's generally true, but despite the slim running time of this movie, the Mariachi pulls off an impressive transformation. Circumstances pull him out of his planned life and into a nightmare of violence; he is forced to transform in order to survive, but it's a transformation far different from a typical revenge flick where the pleasant guy turns hard after his family is murdered. One of my favorite shots in the movie shows the Mariachi walking down the street in the same pose we've seen the gang members walking, with a submachine gun casually held in a raised hand. He looks amazingly cool and unruffled, like nothing in the world can bother him; then the gun knocks into a light pole, and we realize that he's just numb and not even aware of his surroundings or able to think. The necessities of survival have suppressed his personality without replacing it with anything new.

The other characters fill their roles well. The two major antagonists are Azul and Moco, and for much of the movie I was unsure whether I was supposed to dislike one or both of them. Moco is clearly the superior villain, complete with the standard villain's setup - secret hideout, seemingly endless supply of henchmen, explicit ties to drug trafficking. However, Azul is responsible for initiating the most brutal violence, and (inadvertently) does more than anyone else to ruin the life of the Mariachi. It's also worth thinking about the fact that Moco is white and Azul is Hispanic, and to wonder how much to read into this. I get the feeling that Mexican viewers would have less hesitation in identifying Moco as the sole villain, a rich and arrogant northerner who takes control over and ruins a city in Mexico.

The love interest, Domino, is beautiful. It's a little hard to believe in her or in her unique situation, but then again this movie is a fantasy and shouldn't have to apologize for that. Often times the role of the woman is to redeem the hero, but in this case it feels like the mariachi redeems her... their love is sweet, and the changes it brings about in her are mostly for the better.

The minor characters are almost always comic relief. Rodriguez does this really simple but effective trick of selectively speeding up the camera in certain scenes where characters are doing something quickly. This only happens to the bit players: the keyboard "mariachi" in the first bar, the hotel clerk at the dive hotel, Azul's "bodyguards," etc. I guess this is effective - these characters' main role is to advance the plot, and if they can provide a chuckle or too along the way, so much the better. I can imagine some people being annoyed, but it worked for me.

The ending of the movie makes an unabashed announcement for a sequel, which was direct and effective. If I didn't enjoy this one I wouldn't care for it, but as it is, I'm already looking forward to seeing what the Mariachi does next.


  1. Oh man...if I had known you wanted to watch El Mariachi, I would have mailed out my dad's copy (two-movie DVD of El Mariachi and Desparado). I like the keyboard guy who's part of the technological trend phasing out mariachis.

    Did you know that they used real machine guns in the movie, but since they were using blanks, the guns kept locking up, so to portray the machine gun action, they had to cut and splice over and over? Also, if I remember correctly, as another cost-cutting measure, I think they recorded only video and dubbed over afterwards, though I might have made that one up...I don't remember. The thing about the machine guns is true though, I promise.

  2. Haha, yeah, the keyboard guy is cool. I think he may be the first guy to get the sped-up treatment, actually.

    Thanks for the info about the machine guns, that's interesting. Also, Pat has reported that the entire cost of the shoot was around $7000, and Rodriguez financed it himself. That sounds insane, but I'm sure money goes a lot farther when you're shooting (ha, ha!) in Mexico.

  3. Yeah...the $7000 figure sounds correct...there's a little documentary on the DVD we have, I think.