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HTF REVIEW: One Upon A Time In Mexico

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#1 of 34 Michael Osadciw

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Posted January 15 2004 - 07:04 PM

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Once Upon A Time In Mexico

Studio: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
Film Year: 2003

U.S. Rating: R
Canadian Rating: 14A
Rated for

Film Length: 102 minutes
Genre: Action

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, French 2.0 Surround
Subtitles: English, French
Closed Captioned: Yes

Layer Change: unnoticeable

SLP: US$28.95

Release Date: January 20, 2004

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Once Upon A Time In Mexico is director Robert Rodriguez's final chapter in his El Mariachi action trilogy. I have not seen the first El Mariachi, the independent film made on a budget of only $7000 which developed a cult following. That movie is based on a traveling Mariachi (guitar player) who is mistaken for a murderous criminal and has a gang out to kill him. The follow up to this film is Desperado (now on a larger budget), and takes off after the first one with Banderas playing El Mariachi and acquiring the suitcase full of guns. This was a great flick with plenty of charm and humour, and many DVD releases from Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.

In Once Upon A Time In Mexico, Antonio Banderas returns to his roll as the classic Mexican hero, El Mariachi. He's called out from his hiding by a renegade CIA agent named Sands (Johnny Depp), who has a plan to intervene on the assassination of the Mexican prime minister by a drug lord named Borillo (Willem Dafoe).

Between Desperado and Once Upon A Time In Mexico, El Mariachi had a few action experiences with Carolina (Salma Hayek). We learn they had a life together and begun a family until tragedy struck them as they were murdered. Since El Mariachi believes he has nothing else to loose, he accepts Sand's plan.

What makes Banderas's character so great and mythical is his silence; his graceful moves are like a bullfighter and a dancer. He seems to get himself into so many situations and it is amusing to see him get out of it. Despite the film's violence (and like Desperado), one really can't take it all seriously because of the way it's presented. It's exaggeration of people being blown away from gunshots coupled with the upbeat Latin-style music. It really makes you laugh rather than gasp, and this movie is packed with fun action! There are quite a few action packed flashbacks with Caroline, and these are scenes that Rodriguez wished he did in Desperado but the cost of the technology at the time was preventing it. Now we can see them in this story.

While the first half of the film kept true to the method of delivery of Desperado, I felt the story became a little unfocussed about half way through due to the epic aspirations of the moviemaker. The movie started to become a little bigger than what it should have been. The focus drifts from El Mariachi and focuses on Depp's character, Ruben Blades's character (who plays a retired agent), and a character coming clean played by Mickey Rourke. This, in combination with the chaos near the end of the film, takes our attention away from El Mariachi (and his sidekicks, one played by Enrique Iglesias) and focuses on the vengeance of all who were recruited by Sands. Even Sands himself is in for a little vengeance of his own. The charm that surrounded El Mariachi character got lost in the rubble of gunshots and double-crossing. It became less about him and more about several characters mixed in the triangle. It can be cleverly written as these stories are taking place once upon a time in Mexico, and El Mariachi just happens to get pulled into the mix of it all.

Rodriguez shot this movie using High Definition cameras. It is no surprise this movie was mastered in High Definition either. Because Rodriguez chose to have an "epic" look to this film, the theatrical release was in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. By doing so, the theatrical release was using less of the resolution than the HD system gives because he isn't using the full area. Its no secret Rodriguez is a Digital lover, capturing all of the performances before and after the take. HD lets the director keep rolling since there is an hour of tape, and tapes don't cost much like film does. After using HD so much, he basically questions the traditional use of film and says the only use of it today is for nostalgic purposes.

I have a few issues with this disc though. What I didn't like was that the moment you pop in the disc there are trailers for Hellboy and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Use your skip arrow if you wish to go past it. I hope this does not continue on future releases because it is just another painful step to get to the film. The other annoyance again is not using burned in subtitles and having the DVD player doing the work instead. Arrrgg!

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The video quality looks really good. Aside from a little bit of compression artifacts crawling in the background in a few scenes, this movie looks clean as DVD can be. Contrast is excellent, and the use of lighting was monitored in each scene by viewing it on a calibrated high-definition monitor to achieve the desired look. Shadow detail is excellent, although a few darker interior scenes look a little plugged up. The image is very warm to highlight the dry Mexican landscape, and the warm sunsets. Only in some instances the colouring is too warm giving a reddish appearance that isn't very natural. This affects flesh tones as well as the environment such as grass, appearing as a sick pink-brown rather than a dry yellow. Resolution and depth perception is amazing for DVD making this release a reference for video quality. I did not notice any edge enhancement on this release, other than what was being added from the rest of my video chain.

Once Upon A Time In Mexico is presented in the High Definition 1.78:1 format. The theatrical release was 2.35:1 and covered up recorded content. I'm not sure who made the decision to release this "open matte" (if it is safe to call it that). The benefit of this decision is to use the full resolution of the widescreen display of the image captured providing it was also framed for this aspect ratio. On the downside, we do lose the "epic scope" that Rodriguez was shooting for on this last film. Given that Rodriguez worked closely on this release, I can bet he made the 1.78:1 release decision himself. In any case, I don't want to call this a full frame release on a widescreen monitor. Clearly this is not pan and scan, but rather taking off the masked area on the theatrical release and making a larger area for home viewing. I had no problem with the 1.78:1 release. At no time did I think I was seeing information I shouldn't. I think this format was kept in mind during shooting, which is why the video presentation is flawless in the HDTV aspect ratio.

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The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is just about as flawless as the video. It is clear sounding and dynamic, and the use of surrounds is always present. There is some great LFE in the music score that features some very detailed sounding guitar work. Since music plays a huge roll in this film, it is no surprise a lot of work went into the development of it. At the same time, after watching the special features of how the music was recorded, a little magic is taken away because I'm left thinking "I could do that too!"

There is always a natural ambience in the rooms people are in. Sound effects spread across the whole front soundstage rather than being isolated in the centre channel. Dialogue is well integrated, but just a touch forward for my liking. Again, and I'll give a reference point this time, there is some high frequency noise surrounding some dialogue. If you listen to Banderas's voice during the church meeting with Sands in disguise, you can hear noise around his dialogue (sounds like metal grinding). I find this very annoying and it's usually in a few places in every movie. Thankfully there are only a few isolated moments of this in this film. Regardless of this, this is a great well-balanced soundtrack that is sure to please.

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There are some pretty neat features packed into this single disc release. Six featurettes are playable in the sub menu totaling to about 80 minutes. I found them to be very well presented on a personal level from Robert Rodriguez. His level involvement with this release is excellent, and I wish other creators and directors can have the same level of enthusiasm as Rodriguez for their releases. Although in the case of the release, this might be partially due to the fact that most of this film was put together in his own house in his "Troublemakers Studio". This is what some of the special features shows us.

The first two featurettes are enhanced for widescreen TVs while the rest are not. First Rodriguez gives us a little lesson on filmmaking, er, video making in the Ten Minute Flick School (9m04s). Amateur filmmakers, take note of these features! This feature expresses the ease and convenience of shooting in "digital" rather than on film. The sequence is pretty basic: record your scene and view it in full HD on the spot. If you like it, take the finished product and pop it into the computer, add your effects, and put it all together and you have a movie. He emphasizes that when using HD, one can move very fast in recording scenes and the movie can get done much quicker.

Furthering this, the Inside Troublemaker Studios (11m21s) featurette gives us a walk around in side of his studio in his home. Wow, this is every boy's dream to have this level of equipment and control right next to where you sleep. Rodriguez believes with the studio in his house, and with shooting in HD, it allows him to "move at the speed of thought". He believes in his house is where the dreams are, and it allows him to work with little error. We see him give examples of creating the music soundtrack. Software and hardware used are from ProTools, Gigastudio, Digital Performer, AVID. I'm drooling...*

Rodriguez seems to be having a little fun with his film and thus provides a neat little featurette called 10 Minute Cooking School (5m48s). He teaches us how to make Sands's favorite dish of Puerco Pibil, the slow roasted pork he shot the cook over. I think I'm going to try this sometime. I love food and it looks tasty so I think I will try this one. He does say a very true statement: if you cook at home, don't try to cook everything under the sun. Pick four to five of your favorite dishes and learn them well to become professional at what you like to make. Then one day you can make your own menu of things you specialize in when you cook for people.

Now that you've tried this recipe, you can watch Film is Dead ¨C An Evening with Robert Rodriguez (13m17s). On July 17, 2003, he spoke in front of a live audience at Sony Pictures Studios' Cary Grant Theater, in L.A., CA. His talk was of why shooting digital is far better than shooting with film. He tries to put the past negatives aside of how you can't do slow motion, how you have to put a lot of diffusion on it (none used on Once Upon A Time In Mexico), how there is too much detail and that it isn't warm enough. Rodriguez interestingly says that there is actually more detail in film but it's present only on the negative. Since we don't view the negative and see only the final film print, much of that captured detail is lost in that process. I wonder how much actually is lost, and if anyone works in this industry and knows how much for fact, feel free to post in this thread.

I have always assumed there is less resolution shooting in HD now for future uses because it's a given that our television system will someday outrun the 1920x1080p format. I am under the assumption that a frame of 35mm film could be equivalent of about 3500x2000. Fixed pixel displays will someday reach this level of resolution to optimize 1080p source playback. At this resolution, we can begin to truly realize the level of detail in film in the home once film transfer equipment can take film frame snapshots beyond the ~1200x1080p resolution I've been told it currently exists at. Based on information at a Fixed Pixel Display seminar I took, film in motion only equates to approximately 800x600 in most theatres, and this is short of the HD images we see. So even though HD currently can look better projected digitally in a theater than film, in the long run it is film that will surpass current HD tapes for higher resolution purposes. That is my take on this subject.

Next up is The Anti-Hero's Journey (18m02s) and it is a well-explained documentary of the El Mariachi character's journey through the three films. The Good, the Bad, and the Bloody: Inside KNB FX (19m02s) explores the prosthetics and the make-up used in the film.

I found the two commentaries very interesting again because of Rodriguez's enthusiasm in the project. He speaks pretty fast, and much of are many discussions put together for one long continuous talk. The first one is a director's commentary discussing casting, locations, and ideas about the film. The second commentary was my favorite, a music and sound design track with commentary. The dialogue is absent so we can hear different elements of the music and effects as Rodriguez gives his input all the way through and references us to different chapters on the disc to clarify his points.

Eight deleted scenes with optional commentary are also on the menu. Each of them is around a minute except for one of them. Many of them feature Johnny Depp, and one of them with Mickey Rourke is pretty funny. All the scenes don't add much more to the film so they really aren't missed, and you can find out why they were cut by listening to the commentary. They are widescreen, but not enhanced for 16:9, and are in DD2.0. Also check out the filmographies and the trailers.

There is a DVD-ROM feature called The Lotteria Game and the Shooting Gallery. I haven't been able to check this out as I write this because I haven't installed my new DVD-ROM drive yet. I can imagine this is a game to test your accuracy to hit the targets.

There is no chapter list insert, just a card to enter a contest for "An Authentic Trip to Mexico". The disc case is also slipped inside an outer paper cover and is accessible from the bottom.


Rodriguez successfully presents the final chapter in his El Mariachi trilogy. While it didn't quite have the same flair as Desperado did, it does stand well on its own. If you liked the first two films, I believe you will find this flick equally entertaining. This film proves what amazing things can be done in a quick shooting schedule and a lower budget and using HD. This could be the beginning of a whole new moviemaking era on a low budget. Once Upon A Time In Mexico proves that with the use of digital technology you can make a damn good film. I'm sure there is some consumer gear that mirrors pro-equipment, and this should be enough to inspire more young moviemakers who want to make a successful debut like Rodriguez did with the original El Mariachi.

Michael Osadciw

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#2 of 34 Ron Reda

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Posted January 16 2004 - 01:00 AM

I missed this one in the theater so I'm really looking forward to viewing it at home. Great review! Posted Image
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#3 of 34 Chad A Wright

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Posted January 16 2004 - 02:09 AM

This movie dissapointed me a little. It felt like it could have been a lot better with just a little tweaking. Oh well, I'll probably pick this up anyway because I'm such a big fan of Rodriguez. He puts out generally great films and always great DVDs.

#4 of 34 Ron Reda

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Posted January 16 2004 - 04:26 AM

I'm a fan of Salma Hayek!:wink:
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#5 of 34 Reagan


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Posted January 16 2004 - 05:20 AM

I'm really surprised that the video is open-matte. The 2.35 theatrical presentation was the best looking thing I have seen from the digital world. Losing the widescreen feel that was there is a huge loss.

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#6 of 34 Cameron Yee

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Posted January 16 2004 - 05:47 AM

Once Upon A Time In Mexico proves with consumer technology you can make a damn good film.

Did he actually use consumer grade digital cameras? Or the type Lucas used for Star Wars? If the latter then those are definitely not "consumer technology."

Thanks for the review.
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#7 of 34 Michael Osadciw

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Posted January 16 2004 - 06:49 AM

No, the cameras were not consumer grade, they were indeed pro. ...sorry for that mix-up, I've made the correction. Software is also pro, but presumably accessible for consumers if you have the $$$.

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#8 of 34 Clint


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Posted January 16 2004 - 07:00 AM

I was so pysched up for this movie in the theaters. Sad to say that it was very, very dissapointing. I'd recommend a rental for those on the fence.

#9 of 34 Aaryn Chan

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Posted January 16 2004 - 07:02 AM

This movie has Spy Kids action for adult.

#10 of 34 Sven Lorenz

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Posted January 16 2004 - 08:15 AM

The other annoyance again is not using burned in subtitles and having the DVD player doing the work instead. Arrrgg!

This is so annoying.
One of the reason why I started buying R1 DVDs was that some European companies used player-generated subtitles instead of the burned-in subtitles.

And now US companies start doing this too.

Player-generated subtitles are ugly, often not timed correctly and keep you from using the real subtitles - a friend of mine is almost deaf and when he turns the subtitles on he misses all of the "used-to-be-burned-in" subtitles.

#11 of 34 Michael Reuben

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Posted January 16 2004 - 08:23 AM

Good review. Terrible film.

It felt like it could have been a lot better with just a little tweaking.

A real script might have helped.

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#12 of 34 stephen^wilson


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Posted January 16 2004 - 09:21 AM

I also like the way that columbia have kept the burned in subtitles on the movie that identify the locations and use player generated subs for the dialogue.That makes it worse in my opinion.And what is going on with columbia packaging of late.Both this and Bad Boys 2 come in an amaray case with a cardboard slipcover.Once Upon A Time In Mexico has the original artwork on the outer sleeve and what has to be the worst artwork i've seen in a long time in the amaray case,a silhouette of el mariachi going from the front of the cover all the way round to the back and a silhouette of johnny depp on the front.It doesn't even have the title on the spine!

#13 of 34 ChrisBEA



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Posted January 16 2004 - 09:24 AM

I really enjoyed the film, but it tried to be too much of an epic and not focusing on the Mariachi. This would have been more enjoyable had it not been part of the Mariachi films. That said, I do plan on picking this up, as I still enjoyed it.

#14 of 34 Donnie Eldridge

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Posted January 16 2004 - 06:29 PM

it tried to be too much of an epic and not focusing on the Mariachi.
My thoughts exactly, so in that respect I was disappointed. I'll still pick it up though.
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#15 of 34 Jordan_E



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Posted January 17 2004 - 03:37 AM

Now I'm wondering if I should revisit the first two before watching this movie. Opinions? Or will it be like Return of the Jedi in comparison?
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#16 of 34 Tony Whalen

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Posted January 19 2004 - 05:46 AM

Not sure I'll be picking this one up. I loved the first two flicks, but this one failed to live up to them, in my opinion. I was a little disappointed with it in the theaters. We'll see...

But a great review! Thanks! Posted Image

#17 of 34 Dave Mack

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Posted January 19 2004 - 10:48 AM

great, Player generated subs... oy... my player has the glitch that every time they are triggered, they stay on until you manually shut them off...

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#18 of 34 Jonny P

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Posted January 19 2004 - 11:50 AM

Many individuals that I know were somewhat disappointed with this follow up to "El Mariachi" and "Desperado."

As a filmmaker, I admire Robert Rodriguez quite a bit. His willingness to cut costs and film mean-and-lean is admirable in these days of exploding budgets.

Quentin Tarantino encouraged him to make a third film in this series to complete a trilogy that Tarantino felt had a similar feel to Sergio Leone's "man with no name" trilogy.

The reason "Desperado" is such a classic is that it is simple and intimate (for an action movie). It doesn't try to be too big, and it doesn't attempt to throw in everything bug the kitchen sink.

"Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is over-the-top. There are many instances of this during the film. I won't go into specifics. I'll simply say that the film goes over the line of ridiculousness at a certain point.

Does that mean it isn't worth owning?

It is still a very stylish and entertaining film. It is one big jumbled hodge podge of action movies and westerns mixed up into the cinematic equivalent of salsa.

I think many people's expectations were high after Depp's great performance in "Pirates of the Carribean." To be honest, he does a good job putting life into the material he is given -- and his typical level of "weirdness."

I think "Mexico" -- much like Tarantino's "Kill Bill" -- will be remembered more fondly in the future than they are today. Both had an "in your face" level of shock and absurdity that can be tough to swallow on initial viewings.

#19 of 34 TonyD


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Posted January 19 2004 - 12:16 PM

the hellboy trailer trips the DD EX on my denon 3803.

#20 of 34 Dean Kousoulas

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Posted January 19 2004 - 03:41 PM

Now I'm wondering if I should revisit the first two before watching this movie. Opinions? Or will it be like Return of the Jedi in comparison?

I enjoyed this very much, not seeing the first two films first. I still haven't seen El Mariachi yet, but I did get around to seeing Desperado, but I didn't think much of it. Go figure...
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