Robert Rodriguez stunned the world with his wildly entertaining $7,000 "El Mariachi". Before going on, I highly recommend the book he wrote called "Rebel Without a Crew" where his notes about doing a film like this can be found. It's a highly entertaining read.
In "El Mariachi", the story tells the tale of a wandering guitar player who stumbles into a town looking to play his guitar, but he finds himself in the middle of a gangster's feud in a town on the Mexican border. Rodriguez is a filmmaker who knows how to catch the audiences eye with his incredibly creative visual style which includes constant movements, zooms and other tricks to make a film visually fascinating; sometimes these tricks are a little overused (I'll get to that in a moment with "Desperado").
The story is fairly similar to the second story in the series, "Desperado". The wandering singer finds himself in the line of fire and defending himself against countless gangsters. In both films, the singer meets the local lovely lady, who takes him in and believes his story. In "Desperado", the romantic element is what works best; Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek are one of the most electric screen combos in recent memory and still, I think it's Hayek's best role.
"Desperado" brings Rodriguez's visual style to a seven million dollar budget and it doesn't quite work; in "Mariachi", the visual style helped to bring the film over the smallish holes in the plot and to bring the viewer further into the film. In "Desperado", although the story is supposed to be a fantasy tale, the visual style begins to feel excessive and rather than grounding the story in a gritty reality, the shots of bodies flying through the air starts to make the film feel quite cartoonish. He's a visual filmmaker, and although they are very different filmmakers, these films remind me of sort of the film that french filmmaker Luc Besson is making now with films like "The 5th Element". All great and entertaining visuals, but the story sometimes seems a little lacking.(I do love Besson's "The Professional", though.)
Still, I really enjoyed the performances in both films; Carlos Gallardo has a good performance as the Mariachi in the first film, but Banderas opens up the role into a wilder, expanded performance in "Desperado", which also has great small roles for indie filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and indie action Steve Buscemi.
Both are excellent films(if you're a small filmmaker, "El Mariachi" is a wonderful film to watch), but the director is still only a visual storyteller. Once he combines his visual style with a worthy screenplay, he'll be a force to watch as a director.
IMAGE: Something a little strange is going on. The film was shot in 1.66:1, but the disc is letterboxed at 1.85:1, making for a few scenes where images look a little too cropped. But the images that we do see look really nice. Images are crisp, clear and wonderfully bright. If you're a fan of this film, this is definitely the best image quality that this film has likely ever been viewed at. Colors are sharp and for the most part, are vibrant. There are a few small problems. Some of the lower light scenes look a grainy and have a slight bit of noise as well as a few minor compression artifacts, but there are no instances of shimmering.Contrast and color saturation are very nice, with no visible bleeding in the colors. Reds, blues and greens look very well rendered throughout. Flesh tones as well look rendered nicely. The strange framing didn't bother me for the most part, but occasionally in certain scenes it was somewhat distracting. Again, though, for the most part, this is a suprisingly nice looking disc in terms of image quality. Some of the daylight scenes look very nice for a film of this budget level. It's unfortunate that there are a few scenes where the strange framing looks distracting. And of course, on a low budget film like this, there are some cuts between scenes that don't work right. But overall, this disc comes from a nice negative. There are only a few small scratches or instances dirt in the source used.
AUDIO: Not terribly much there. Rodriguez talks about an English language dub of the movie in the commentary that is supposed to be on the DVD, but it's nowhere to be found. The spanish language track sounds alright; the gunfire and occasional effects are clear, but not at all enveloping. Dialogue(uh,I don't know Spanish so I had to watch the English subtitles) sounds unimpressive and slightly hazy at times. But, I mean, what do you expect from a $7,000 film? If you liked the movie(which I did), you're just here to enjoy a picture of this budget level. The director talks about recording the entire film silently, then cutting in the dialogue into the film by hand, so it's a good sound job for this kind of budget, but it's not a forceful sound level. As I mentioned, the director talks about an English Language version in the commentary, but apparently, it didn't make it to the DVD.
THE COMMENTARY:It's what you likely bought this disc for. Rodriguez's commentary is quite phenomenal, going into detail about exactly how he went about making a movie for $7,000. He goes into detail about how he made the action scenes look fairly realistic for a low budget, he talks about the problems of editing the film, working with actors on a zero budget film and goes into detail on seemingly, how every shot of the film was lit, filmed and edited. This is not one of those commentaries where there are patches of silence. The director talks on a non-stop basis with great details and occasional great humor(he mentions that the opening Columbia Pictures logo probably cost more than his entire film). He also goes into the details of how he literally made money by having medicine tested on him(read more details about that in his book). If you're learning about filmmaking(any aspect, really), this is easily the best commentary you can listen to. He talks about how you really can make a great movie without having a lot of money and using the world around you for a great setting. There are mistakes made, and this is where the director really learned about filmmaking and it's fascinating to learn about the way he went about teaching himself how to direct. The wonder of DVD is fantastic here; you can listen to the commentary and turn on the english subtitles so you can sort of "watch" the movie and listen to the commentary as well, if you like. There is a strange "popping" noise at 55 minutes into the commentary, through, but it doesn't cut off any of the commentary. It only lasts for a fraction of a second and it wasn't terribly distracting. So, if you want to learn the story of how director Rodriguez took the indie world by storm with his $7,000 film, definitely take a listen.
ALSO: We get the director's original short film, "Bedhead". The short film is full frame and the video quality is fairly nice. We also get "10 Minute Film School", a short documentary that compares the original footage of some of the scenes with what ended up in the final film. This is a supremely educational extra; it's incredible how the director made some of the footage work. It's incredible how wildly creative Rodriquez is: watching the original footage and hearing how he made these scenes work if something may have gone wrong is really interesting and educational. The director mentions that the footage that we are watching is not from the print that we've watched on the DVD, it's from the original video that the director sent out to movie studios. This full-frame footage has really wonderful image quality. There are discs out there that seem to put every last bit of extra footage or feature they could find on their discs. That's wonderful. That's absolutely a great thing, please keep doing that. But there are discs like this that may not have as many extras, but the quality of the commentary and this "Film School" suppliment that I'm talking about currently is so strong and educational that I found this more interesting than most of the other commentaries I've listened to. Really, if you're a filmmaker or especially if you're a student filmmaker, pick up this disc. It is supremely valuable for those who are interested in a future in filmmaking.
The trailer is also included.
MENUS:Very cool, although non-animated menus that are easy to navigate. The backgrounds are parts of the image from the poster art.
Grades For "El Mariachi":
(I have nothing against subtitles, but what happened to the English language track mentioned in the commentary?)
IMAGE: Columbia has done a really nice job on this side of the disc: the 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced image is excellently clear and crisp, coming sharply close to the kind of image quality that I remember seeing in the movie theater. The reds and wonderful tones of the surroundings and the buildings in the local town are rendered with wonderful attention to detail on this transfer. The blues of the sky are deep and rich. Color saturation is absolutely perfect on this disc and there is no bleeding in any of the colors. There are no instances of visible compression artifacts. Contrast is also quite excellent on this image; flesh tones are rendered excellently as well. Shadow detail is consistently fantastic. This is an extremely pleasing presentation, a disc made with absolutely fantastic attention to detail. The picture maintains a consistently film-like feel with wonderful dimension. The black level in the image is incredibly definitive.
SOUND: Phenomenal. Director Rodriquez isn't just a visually stylish director, he does incredible things with the style of his sound mix. This is an incredibly forceful sound with some amazing action sequences: the sounds of these sequences are richly detailed; not only are the sounds enveloping in the middle of the action, the little details such as the bullet shells hitting the floor are clear and crisp. The wonderful, beautiful score by Los Lobos sounds incredible on this disc; it sounds full and well-integrated into the rest of the action. Dialogue sounds wonderfully clear and at perfect volume; it has that kind of quality where you feel like the actors are speaking in the same room . The big bar shootout is one of the really great scenes I've ever viewed in terms of sound detail. The director talks in the commentary about how he loves to do work on the music aspect of the sound mix and it shows here; the music sounds really, really excellent.
EXTRAS: COMMENTARY:Another really great commentary by Rodriquez, this time going into detail about working with a bigger budget and more widely known actors. Where "El Mariachi"'s commentary was more a lesson in the way to make a $7,000 film look good and move well and entertain, this commentary is a lesson in how a director can make a $7,000,000 action film look more along the lines of a film that cost 3 or 4 times that much; which means that it's still neccessary to be creative in the way that the film is put together. You'll find out how Rodriquez put together such incredible shootouts, how he worked with the group Los Lobos to bring together a great score, what it was like putting together a larger film with still what would be considered a small crew of people, there are a few scenes that didn't make the film(that are only discussed, not included for viewing, unfortunately). Again, this is not a commentary in the way that most commmentaries are in the way that they generally tell the speaker's feelings about what's on screen or maybe a story. Some commentaries just basically re-state what's going on on-screen. This is a commentary that is technically educational; we're taken into the rich and fascinating details of what went on and exactly how almost all of the scenes were brought to life. The commentary isn't always quite as fascinating as hearing about what it took to put together the $7,000 "El Mariachi", but it's still one of the best commentaries I've heard. The amount of technical details are absolutely incredible. Again, like on "Mariachi", the director doesn't pause during the commentary: the entire length of the film is packed with a detailed talk by the director.
ALSO: We get another "10 Minute" documentary called "Anatomy of A Shootout" detailing how the director put together the more expensive film. We see most of the storyboards, but also learn about how the director "visually" storyboards a lot of the scenes with a camera. There are also details on what went into the action scenes that come into play later in the movie. Again, this is a very valuable resource for future filmmakers. Also included on this side is a trailer.
Menus: Again, non-animated but very nice looking and easy to navigate. Also, the backgrounds are styled from the movie poster.
Grades For "Desperado"
Notes about this disc: This is a disc that was long-awaited and long delayed, but I think it's definitely worth the wait. The commentaries on both films are absolutely incredible and wonderfully educational. "El Mariachi" may not be a disc that you will use to demonstrate your DVD player, but it's a very good movie and the commentary by the director on how he achieved great visuals for a $7,000 budget is educational. Leave the DVD demonstration material to "Desperado". "Desperado" contains an incredibly beautiful transfer as well as absolutely wild, detailed and explosive sound. The commentary on "Desperado" is also very interesting. Remember, this is a very technical commentary and if you're interested in the details of how these picture were filmed and made,I'm sure you'll find this disc quite entertaining. The two documentaries are also very educational, especially the "10 Minutes Of a Film School" documentary. If you enjoyed this film, this is an absolutely great disc. If you can find it online for around $30.00 or so, definitely pick it up. It's an excellent value. I really enjoy this feature where two films are included on the same disc like this, hopefully it's an idea that can be used again in the future.