El Amparo


This is what a thousand-yard stare looks like.

(2016) True Life Drama (FiGa) Vicente Quintero, Giovanni Garcia, Vicente Peña, Samantha Castillo, Rossana Hernández, Angel Pájaro, Tatiana Mabo, Rosso Arcia, Jesús Carreño, Aura Rivas, Patrizia Fusco, Dixon Dacosta, Luis Domingo Gonzalez, Diego Guerrero. Directed by Rober Calzadilla

It is a fact of life that the wealthy and powerful have always determined what the truth is. After all, the poor and powerless tend to be the victims or at least are set up to be. The official version of the truth always needs to be questioned because the official version is rarely the complete truth.

In the small village of El Amparo in Venezuela near the Colombian border, a group of 14 friends took a boat out onto the Cano Del Colorada where they are told that there is some good fishing to be had. The next day when the men hadn’t returned, their nervous wives begin to make inquiries of Police Chief Mendieta (Peña). With a small force, there’s not a lot he can do but when he gets a report from a local rancher that two muddy and badly terrified men had crawled out from the swamps onto his ranch, Mendieta drives out there to pick up the two men.

It turns out that they are Pinilla (Quintero) who organized the fishing trip, and Chumba (Garcia), a young man who prefers to party rather than work. They tell a terrifying tale of the peaceful fishermen being shot up by Venezuelan military without provocation. The military for its part doesn’t deny killing the men but insists that they were guerrillas come from Columbia to set a bomb at a local oil refinery.

The town is stunned. It is a tiny little village where everyone knows everyone else. While there are some who believe the government’s account, the rest of the villagers are suspicious particularly Pinilla’s shrewish wife Rubita (Fernandez) and Chumba’s long-suffering girlfriend Yajaira (Castillo). Soon, the village is put under intense pressure to convince the men to change their story and admit to being terrorists. Bribes are offered and threats are made. Will the two men give in and take short prison sentences for the good of their village and their families or will they stick to their story which they insist is true – and which eventually forensic evidence would back up.

This is based on an actual incident that took place nearly 30 years ago. To this day, the two men who survived have been essentially classified as Colombian guerrillas and spent a lot of the past three decades exiled in Mexico, still proclaiming their innocence and demanding a fair trial. To date that hasn’t happened and it’s unlikely to happen at this point.

The movie was originally a stage play, adapted for the screen by Karin Valecillos who co-wrote the play with Calzadilla who makes his feature film directing debut here. Calzadilla does an excellent job of capturing the flavor of daily life in a rural impoverished village in Latin America. The first part of the film is really the best part as Calzadilla sets up the close ties of the residents of El Amparo and the earthy humor of its inhabitants. Life doesn’t seem half bad in a lot of ways here at all.

The massacre, like a lot of important events in the incident, takes place off-screen which allows the viewer to use their own imagination to supplement the movie. I liked that at first but a lot of things take place off-screen afterwards as well and eventually the viewer feels disconnected from the events of the massacre and its aftermath. The middle third of the movie after Chumba and Pinilla return and are jailed drags somewhat; most of the action consists of the two prisoners talking to each other in jail and being visited by their wives in jail. This is the part of the film that feels most like a stage play.

The denouement is a bit abrupt and leaves the viewer wondering what happened. There is a little bit of information given but the official version has never been investigated and likely never will be. The distribution of this film is likely to be mainly film festivals and unless some sort of miracle happens will not serve as the springboard to put pressure on those in power in Venezuela to come clean and give this town which was crippled by the loss of so many of its sons some closure.

The movie has some powerful moments – most notably when the worried wives finally realize that their husbands are never coming home – but not enough to really classify this as a great film. The tone is curiously subdued considering the subject matter and does little to inspire the outrage that it should. While it creates a sympathetic portrayal of the people of El Amparo, we never truly get a sense of how seriously the government screwed them. There is a great movie to be made about the events of the massacre of El Amparo; this is merely a good one.

REASONS TO GO: Just enough is left to the imagination. A very believable portrayal of how the massacre affected the town. The cinematography is beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit abrupt. It loses steam in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s world premiere was actually here in the U.S. at the AFI Latin American Film Festival last September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Matewan
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Cargo

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Florence Foster Jenkins


Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions, Brid Brennan, John Kavanagh, Pat Starr, Maggie Steed, Thelma Barlow, Liza Ross, Paola Dionisotti, Rhoda Lewis, Aida Ganfullina. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

We are trained as a society to admire the talented. Those who try and fail fall much further down on our list of those to admire; that’s just the way we’re wired. We worship success; noble failures, not so much.

And then there are the ignoble failures. Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a matron of the arts in the New York City in the 1940s. She loves music with a passion that is unmatched. She even (modestly bows her head) sings a little, for which perhaps those around her should be grateful. Her voice is, shall we say, unmatched as well. It sounds a little bit of a combination of a cat whose tail has been stomped on, and Margaret Dumont with a bad head cold, neither of whom are on key or in tempo.

Mostly however she only inflicts her singing on her friends who are either too polite to point out that she really has a horrible singing voice, or on those who are depending on her largesse so they won’t risk offending her and that’s all right with her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), a failed actor who nonetheless has a very strong love for his wife, despite the fact that they never have sex  due to her contracting syphilis on her wedding night with her first husband, the philandering Dr. Jenkins.

Bayfield satisfies his carnal needs with a mistress (Ferguson) who is beginning to get dissatisfied with the arrangement. In the meantime, Florence has got a yen to perform at Carnegie Hall with her pianist the opportunistic Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) which Bayfield realizes could be an utter catastrophe. He takes great care to exclude legitimate music critics who are suspicious of the whole event. McMoon who at first is exploiting Florence with an eye for a regular salary begins to realize that she is a lonely woman who just wants to make music, even though she is thoroughly incapable of it. And there’s no denying her generosity of spirit as well as of the heart, but despite Bayfield’s efforts the carefully constructed bubble around Florence is certain to burst.

I wasn’t sure about this movie; it got almost no push from Paramount whatsoever despite having heavyweights like Streep in the cast and Frears behind the camera. Somehow, it just simply escaped notice and not because it’s an inferior film either; it’s actually, surprisingly, a terrific movie. Not all of us are blessed with talent in the arts; some of us have talents that have to do with making things, or repairing things, or cooking food, or raising children. Not all of us can be artists, as much as we may yearn to be. Some may remember William Hung from American Idol a few years ago; I’ll bet you’ll look at him a lot differently after seeing this.

Streep does her own singing and Helberg his own piano playing which is amazing in and of itself; both are talented musicians as well as actors. Streep is simply put the most honored and acclaimed actress of her generation, and that didn’t happen accidentally. This is another example of why she is so good at her craft; she captures the essence of the character and makes her relatable even to people who shouldn’t be able to relate to her. So instead of making her a figure of ridicule or pathos, she instead makes Mrs. Jenkins a figure of respect which I never in a million years thought it would be possible to do, but reading contemporary accounts of the would-be diva and her generosity, I believe that is exactly what the real Florence Foster Jenkins was.

Hugh Grant has never been better than he is here. He’s essentially retired from acting after a stellar career, but the stammering romantic lead is pretty much behind him now. He has matured as an actor and as a love interest. It’s certainly a different kind of role for him and he handles it with the kind of aplomb you’d expect from Britain’s handsomest man.

Frears isn’t too slavish about recreating the post-war Manhattan; there’s almost a Gilded Age feel to the piece which is about 50 years too early. Needless, he captures the essence of the story. We have a tendency to be a bit snobbish about music but the truth is that it should be for everybody. I don’t think I’d want to have a record collection full of Florence Foster Jenkins (the truth was that she made only one recording, which was more than enough – you can hear her actual voice during the closing credits) but I don’t think I’d want to laugh at her quite the way I did throughout the movie.

The truly odd thing is that yes, when we hear her sing initially about 30 minutes in, the immediate response is to break into howls of laughter but the more you hear her sing and the more of her story that is revealed, the less the audience laughs at her. Perhaps it’s because that you’ve become used to her tone-deaf phrasing, but I think in part is because you end up respecting her more than you do when you believe she’s a goofy dilettante who can’t sing a lick. Strangely enough, you begin to hear the love shining forth through her terrible technique and perhaps, you understand in that moment that music isn’t about perfect phrasing or even talent, although it is generally more pleasing to hear a musician that is talented than one that is not. What music is about is passion and love and if you have those things, well, you have something.

I won’t get flowery and say that Florence Foster Jenkins is a muse for the mediocre, which one might be tempted to say but she absolutely is not; the titular character is more correctly viewed as a muse for those who have the passion but lack the talent. She tries her best and just because she doesn’t have the tools to work with that a Lily Pons might have doesn’t make her music any less meaningful. It is beautiful in its own way and maybe that’s what we need to understand about people in general and how often does a movie give us insights like that?

REASONS TO GO: Streep is absolutely charming and Grant has never been better. Champions the underdog in an unusual way.
REASONS TO STAY: Unabashedly sentimental.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grant was semi-retired from acting but was convinced to return in front of the cameras for the opportunity to act opposite Streep.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/416: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marguerite
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Anthropoid

Tomorrow We Disappear


Sometimes we all feel like puppets on a string.

Sometimes we all feel like puppets on a string.

(2014) Documentary (Old Friend) Puran Bhatt, Maya Pawar, Rahman Shah, Dilip Bhatt, Krishnan the Juggler. Directed by Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber

Florida Film Festival 2015

The slums of India tend to be among the worst in the world; poverty in India is as abject as perhaps anywhere else on the face of the planet. Children play on exposed electrical cords, the smell from fly-infested canals filled with standing algae growth and from excrement and filth in the streets can be horrific.

The Kathputli Colony in New Delhi is at first glance much like any other slum until you take a closer look. The inhabitants are mainly folk artists, street magicians and contortionists, all carrying on Indian street arts that are quickly disappearing. They have lived here for generations, passing down their art to their children and making a meager living performing in the streets of Delhi.

A developer has purchased the land that the slum sits on from the Indian government and proposes to build a multi-use skyscraper with high end apartments, a shopping mall, restaurants and entertainment. It will be New Delhi’s first skyscraper, something the entire city can be proud of.

However, to the residents of Kathputli, it is troubling. Part of the deal that the government of India made with the developer is that those being displaced by the project must have proper housing built. A temporary relocation camp has been constructed to house the residents while their final homes are being built.

Three residents of the colony take differing viewpoints about their displacement. Puran Bhatt is India’s premiere puppeteer, having toured the globe promoting the distinctly Indian version of this art and having won a National Award presented to him by India’s president no less. He is the most famous person living in Kathputli, and he is very troubled by what he sees as a direct threat to the colony, the traditions that live there and the unity of its residents. He fears that this will signal the end of these valuable and culturally defining art forms that are already becoming scarce on the Indian cultural landscape.

Rahman Shah is a street magician who is finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. Corrupt police officers expect bribes in order for him to perform and often the amount they ask for is more than he takes in during a performance. His sons worship him as young sons will worship their fathers, eager to follow in his footsteps and yet he is still pessimistic about the future of his art. He feels that it is being pushed out of the way by corruption and indifference and will eventually disappear from view entirely.

Maya Pawar is an acrobat who sees the change as something positive, an opportunity for the colony and its people to grow and flourish. She is concerned that the desperate poverty of the colony actually inhibits the creativity of those who live there, and better living conditions will allow them to devote more time to their arts. She doesn’t feel the same connection to her art that Puran and Rahman do; she’d be just as happy teaching school as she is performing acrobatic feats.

The residents band together for protest marches and while the developer tries to assuage their concerns, when they tour the temporary relocation camp it feels like their worst fears have come true; the dark and ugly flats, hastily built with shoddy workmanship, are not places to live so much as they are places to die and what was promised to be a transitional place to live for a year or two looks to be their homes for much longer than that and given the corruption that often exists in these matters may certainly end up as permanent dwellings if the developer reneges on his promises.

The first part of the documentary is actually quite powerful as we get to meet the colorful people of Kathputli and see the pride they take in their home and their art. As poor as their lives are, they decorate their little corner of the world with bright colors, electric light from rickety jury-rigged wiring, and a sense of humor that they maintain even in the worst pressures being brought to bear on them. There is a sense of change overwhelming the people of the Colony and most aren’t quite sure how to react or what to do. It is heartbreaking in some ways and in others an interesting study of a traditional lifestyle being decimated by the needs of modern life. Whether modernization is a good thing for the inhabitants of Kathputli is certainly open for debate.

The trouble is that in the second part of the documentary, things fall apart a little bit. We get a lot of shouting matches between colonists and developers, and amongst the Kathputli residents themselves. The sense of unity that the residents had is disintegrating which might account for the more chaotic feel of the second half. It feels though in some ways that the story has lost its momentum and we’re just watching things deteriorate which is an unsettling feeling for the viewer; it might well be what the filmmakers were going for in order to give the audience a sense of what the people of Kathputli are going through, but it left me feeling like the movie just lost its momentum.

The story is ongoing and the people of Kathputli continue to fight relocation; late last year police raided the colony, beating colonists in an attempt to intimidate the hold-outs to move into the relocation camp (these events took place after filming of the documentary had been completed and aren’t referred to by the filmmakers). The story remains in a bit of flux, which often real life stories tend to be. This isn’t something that will be settled quickly which you get a sense of from watching the film, although you don’t really see beyond the developer’s promises just how much the government is arrayed against the colonists. I would have liked to have gotten a better sense of that.

The first part of the movie does tend to trump the second; the people are so extraordinary, so indelible that you won’t soon forget them. Whether or not you agree with their stance regarding the relocation of the colony (and I tend to be skeptical that the developer and the government will keep their promises), i think you will agree that should these artists and their art disappear from view it will be a terrible blow for India and their cultural heritage.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Residents of slum are interesting people you want to get to know better.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses steam during the second half. We get very little sense of the forces arrayed against them or the corruption surrounding them.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mild bad words.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival a year ago.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hamara Shahar
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Proud Citizen