'El Mariachi': Pratfalls and stumbles in a tale of mistaken identity

September 10, 1993|By Scott Hettrick | Scott Hettrick,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

EL MARIACHI

(Columbia TriStar, rated R) 1993

"El Mariachi" drew some attention at film festivals perhaps as much for its having been produced for a mere $7,000 by a film-school student as for its actual caliber or quality.

The film smacks of a film-school production, complete with jerky editing for effect rather than fluidity, attempts at laughs by speeding up the film, and slow-motion dream sequences that were probably needed to pad the running time (which is still only 81 minutes). Also, all the sound was dubbed later, making it sound like a foreign film that has been dubbed in English, except here the actors still speak in Spanish (there are English subtitles).

The thin plot involves a traveling guitar player (co-producer Carlos Gallardo) who wanders into a small Mexican town and is mistaken for a convict targeted for assassination by a drug lord.

But there are definite signs of talent in writer-director/co-producer Robert Rodriguez' action yarn. For one, he injects a well-timed sense of humor in what easily could have been simply a stream of graphic violence. An attractive bar owner who questions his identity springs in on him while he is bathing and pokes a letter opener under the water and between his legs, demanding that he sing her a love ballad to prove he is a musician.

Consequently, the result is a disarmingly amusing and inventive movie on the order of "Mad Max."

ALIVE

(Touchstone, rated R) 1993

There are many compelling elements about "Alive," a dramatization of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes Mountains involving a team of Uruguayan rugby players and their families and friends.

Of course, there's the crash itself, spectacularly depicted by director Frank Marshall, with a view from inside the plane when its rear half is ripped off as it scrapes the top of a ridge.

Then there's the cannibalism thing, for which the incident is best remembered. As days went by with no sign of rescue for the two dozen survivors (of the original 45 on board), it was decided that the only way to survive in the bitterly cold mountains was to eat the flesh of the dead passengers. This is without a doubt a gruesome and unsettling aspect, and Marshall doesn't soft-pedal the depiction at all. But he does manage to keep it in balance with the other elements, including a horrifying avalanche that buried the survivors inside the plane's fuselage, killing eight more.

But something is missing here. We never feel the sense of frustration, anguish, desperation and mental and physical exhaustion that must have been prevalent with each passing day of the unbelievably long, 72-day ordeal. Many of the survivors seem almost flippant about their situation.

Among the petty distractions is a lack of South American accents, which would have lent authenticity to the setting. From the action, it's difficult to gauge the passage of time, leaving the viewer shocked each time a new subtitle is flashed indicating the number of days gone by. And, it's hard to keep track of the survivors, both in terms of their identities and the number of them. Just when we think there are only a few left, the camera shows a group of about 20.

Based on Piers Paul Read's best-selling novel, Marshall's film takes a myopic viewpoint, putting the audience in the same predicament as the survivors in that we have no idea what is happening in terms of a rescue or the group's proximity to civilization. This is particularly frustrating when an airplane passes overhead and wags its wings in response to their frantic waving; however, we never learn why help wasn't sent. We also never learn what exactly caused the crash.

All these questions are adequately answered in the excellent (and in some ways superior) companion documentary produced by Marshall, "Alive: 20 Years Later" (Touchstone, $39.99). The 51-minute program features fascinating interviews with many of the survivors, and original photographs and film footage from the crash, the rescue and the subsequent media attention sparked by the revelation of cannibalism that took place.

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