So how many years has it been that I’ve not seen El Mariachi? A lot. (mumble) What? I said twenny years. TWENTY YEARS, I SAID TWENTY YEARS, OKAY? Cripes, I remember Roger Ebert recommending it on Sneak Previews, that should tell you something about how long I’d successfully avoided it.
This is, of course, Robert Rodriguez’ first feature, made with borrowed equipment and press-ganged actors, made for an initial cost of somewhere around six to seven thousand dollars. Rodriguez got his seed money by serving as a human lab rat at a research hospital, testing a cholesterol control drug. Apparently the villainous gringo in El Mariachi, Peter Marquardt, was a fellow lab rat, just to show one of the ways Rodriguez got his cast.
Now, Mariachi did get a fair amount of post-production money poured into it when somebody smart determined it was too good to be passed off as a direct-to-video flick, but there’s a difference between polishing a turd and enhancing an already solid base. El Mariachi is an amazingly proficient piece of filmmaking. The tight pacing and snappy editing necessitated by a budget that won’t buy you a used car becomes a plus instead of the lead weight that has sunk many another first feature.
The story has a nicely classical setup: the Title Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) travels the country looking for work in bars to perfect his craft. He hits town at the same time as Azul (Reinoi Martinez), a minor league drug lord determined to wreak vengeance on his double-crossing partner (the aforementioned Marquardt). Azul likes to dress in black and carry his many weapons around in a guitar case. Marquardt’s character is the only person who’s actually seen Azul. And so the mistaken identity shenanigans and body count begin.
Mariachi has a number of surprises with exciting chase scenes through blissfully unaware crowds, a couple of thrilling stunts, and a willingness to make fun of itself with some sped-up comedy scenes. It’s a wonderfully entertaining flick, and I liked it a lot more than I liked Desperado, Rodriguez’ better-budgeted follow-up with some, you know, actual name stars.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions (I don’t need a special occasion to lie to myself), but if I did this year I would have sworn to broaden my movie-watching base, and I could have spent most of this post crowing about how I’d accomplished that. It’s exceedingly rare that I watch even one of the Best Movie nominees in any given year, and yet, here on the list, I have two contenders from a few years back. That would be The Hurt Locker, which I hope to get to in the next week or so, and There Will Be Blood.
There Will Be Blood has some strikes against it for me right out the gate because of its unfortunate parentage, by which I mean it is based, however loosely, on a novel by Upton Sinclair, Oil! Mr Sinclair and myself have not spoken since I was forced to read The Jungle back in 11th grade. But the name Paul Thomas Anderson is a balm for many old wounds, so here we go.
The movie is about the progression of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) from prospector to “oil man” to tycoon though the change from oil field hustler to mansion-dwelling sociopath is achieved by the most severe compression of narrative I’ve seen since Gone With the Wind. Given the Sinclair lineage – and that his book was based on the Teapot Dome scandal – we can be pretty sure that Plainview is not going to turn out to be a very nice person. The fact that Day-Lewis is this generation’s foremost portrayer of complete assholes bears this out. Anderson and Day-Lewis are confident enough to let us see bits of decency shine through Plainview, but these, like anyone who stands in the way of his pursuit of black gold, will eventually be trampled underfoot and buried in shallow graves.
The greatest pleasure for me – beside admiring Day-Lewis’ rock-solid work – is the painstaking re-creation of oil field technology from mudhole in the ground to wooden derrick. The first fifteen minutes of the movie, devoid of dialogue – is mesmerizing. Overall, not a movie I loved, but certainly worth the watch. If nothing else, I’m glad to finally know what all this “milkshake” business the last couple of years was about.
Let’s close this out by proving that I haven’t totally left my roots. I discovered to my great joy that Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate was on Netflix Instant. I came this close to seeing this in a theater. It was playing in one theater – one! – about forty minutes drive from me, in its native 3-D, for one damned week. I made plans to make a pilgrimage to see it on Memorial Day, but other events conspired against me, and I didn’t make it.
This is the third version of Dragon Gate Inn I know of, and each version just gets wilder. In its most basic form, the story concerns three factions with good reasons to kill each other instead concealing their various identities while they huddle at the title desert Inn, riding out a massive sandstorm. Most of this intrigue is jettisoned in this latest re-telling, substituting treasure hunting, vicious government agents seeking a pregnant woman (on orders from am ambitious concubine who wants no possibility of an Imperial bloodline but her own) , and Jet Li as a righteous warrior determined to kill all the corrupt government types.
CGI-enhanced wirework is the order of the day here, so get used to the idea and ride with it. I started getting unto wuxia movies back in the 80s when I realized this was best example of a comic book reality translated to film, I had ever found, and Flying Swords, with multiple daggers and swords helicoptering all over the screen to milk the possibilities of 3-D, really does look like the most berserk combination of Jademan comics/manga/Marvel I’ve seen. By the time Jet Li and the chief bad guy Chen Kun elect to continue their duel in the interior of a tornado, it all seems quite logical.
Like Hark’s other big “comeback” movie, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, the plentiful CGI is a little too obvious, and I begin to wonder if this isn’t a cultural thing. The tendency in the West is to look at something like this and think, “Man, that looks fake.” Is the Eastern tendency more toward regarding every element onscreen as a part of the picture, and judging the picture as a whole? I don’t actually have the answer to that. I mean, we know the imaginary world on the screen is just that: imaginary. Over the course of my lifetime we’ve gone from painted glass shots to traveling mattes to CGI. We’re aware that the extraordinary stuff we see on screen can’t be real. So as long as the stuff is not patently ridiculous, like the hovering birds in Birdemic, why make such a big deal out of things being too real, too sharp, too well-defined?
Maybe we got spoiled by Blade Runner and its constant rainy mist. Most of the really obvious CGI in this and Detective Dee is stuff that takes place on a clear day. Perhaps there is still some shading that could be done to dull the sharpness of the image, some atmospheric effects; but that’s not done, and you begin to wonder if it ‘s intentional, and then suddenly you’re not talking about the movie anymore. Sorry.
Anyway. I found Flying Swords of Dragon Gate a little long, but fun. Lots of colorful characters, plenty of fights where you can generally tell what’s going on, and a pleasant return to pre- Chang Cheh days, where women could be expected to kick just as much ass as men, if not more. (PS. Gwei Lun-Mei as the Tartar Princess – rowr!)
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