EIFF REVIEW: Montage makes all the difference in gringo-out-of-water films
What we have in “A Band of Rogues” and “Mariachi Gringo” may be a recurrent theme at the 2012 Edmonton International Film Festival (EIFF) – gringos messing around where they don’t belong.
These two films are similar on the surface. A Band of Rogues deals with a young American musician with prescription drug issues, who runs away to Argentina, where he can’t speak Spanish, but falls in love with a local woman, gets into a fight over her, applies himself to his music, learns a valuable lesson and grows as a human being. Mariachi Gringo is about a young American musician with prescription drug issues, who runs away to Mexico, where he can’t speak Spanish, but falls in love with a local woman, gets into a fight over her, applies himself to his music, learns a valuable lesson and grows as a human being.
Other than that, they’re entirely different. Mainly: Mariachi Gringo works, A Band of Rogues doesn’t – for a number of reasons, but mainly in the use of the “montage.” It’s common and effective cinematic device meant to advance the plot quickly through images and musical interlude, but it is woefully misused in A Band of Rogues, serving instead to actually prolong an already thin plot. It almost ruins the entire movie. It’s the music that actually kills it – which is strange because the songs are excellent: hipster folk-rock-worldbeat Bon Ivernian Arcade Fiery sort of tunes in a soundtrack written by Matthew Morgan. The Rogues may be idiots abroad, but they’re a pretty good band.
The main character Cesar (Luke Williams) is a member of the titular group, on tour in Argentina, where they get busted for drugs. They meet their Argentinean counterpart, Gabriel (Leonardo Santaiti), in Catholic rehab and make a break for it (somehow managing to take all their gear with them) – and thus ensues one shockingly dull rock ‘n’ roll road movie. This is also strange given what we eventually learn about the characters. We get the back story in snatches.
What must’ve happened is that the filmmakers had too much good music they didn’t know what to do with. It can’t all be underscore. Many songs accompany lugubrious scenes of the band members aimlessly bumming around the spectacular countryside, writing songs, busking, playing gigs, hanging out, waiting around for something to happen – and it brings the action to a thudding halt. Is this a concert film or a road movie? It tries to be both, and fails.
It doesn’t help that the important plot points are handled with the sort of dialogue that comes off like aimless banter (rock musicians actually do talk like this). Cue another blasted montage. One in particular with everyone hugging each other and one guy exclaiming, “I love you, man” made me laugh. Not the desired reaction.
A Band of Rogues may be a case where the soundtrack is better than the movie.
If you have to pick one gringo-out-of-water flick at EIFF this year, go with Mariachi Gringo, about a sheltered Kansas Latinophile named Edward who runs away to Mexico to become the Title of the Movie. Now THIS is how to use a montage. During one three-minute Mexicali hootenanny, he learns the secrets of his transplanted passion, kicks his meds, and deepens his relationship with Lilia (Martha Higareda), the beautiful daughter of restaurant owners who take Edward in and help him on his strange quest. Way to advance the plot, amigos. Back in Kansas, Edward had met a former mariachi legend named Alberto, who gave him good advice: “Mariachi is more of a lifestyle than a career … make it your duty to bring music to people at important moments in their lives.”
The music is terrific here, too, with especially profound performances from Lila Downs as the amazing Mexican singer who also takes the kid under her wing.
Despite a fairly predictable and manipulative plot, Mariachi Gringo touches a number of notes, so to speak: Culture shock (always fun to watch when it isn’t happening to you), a young person’s struggle for independence, and a musical journey into some of the most emotional Latin American folk music you’ll ever hear.
Maybe A Band of Rogues would’ve worked better with more of that.
A Band of Rogues plays Friday at 9 p.m., following the EIFF opening gala for Becoming Redwood; Mariachi Gringo screens Wednesday, Oct. 3 at 6 p.m. Complete EIFF schedule here.
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