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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Happy Feet


Happy Feet

Mumble (the big penguin, center) and friends get a glimpse of a whole new world, except that phrase is owned by Disney so they can't use it. They can't use "circle of life" for the same reason. Damn that mouse!

(2006) (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving, Magda Szubanski, Miriam Margolyes, Anthony LaPaglia, Chrissie Hynde, Steve Irwin, E.G. Daily.  Directed by George Miller

If there’s anything I learned from the documentary March of the Penguins is that it sucks to be a penguin. I’m not sure after seeing this that director George Miller didn’t get the same impression that I did.

It is said that emperor penguins have a heartsong, something that comes from so deep inside them that it conveys the essence of who they are. They use their heartsong to find a mate whose heartsong resonates with their own, creating a brand new harmony that is timeless and eternal.

Norma Jean (Kidman) is searching for the penguin with the right heartsong. While there are plenty of suitors for the gorgeous young female, only one – the somewhat unique Memphis (Jackman) catches her ear. Together they make a baby. Well, they lay an egg anyway.

The cardinal rule of antarctic egg-siting is “don’t drop the egg.” While Norma Jean is off gathering fish for her husband and unhatched child, Memphis does just that. It’s just a quick little thing and immediately picked up and set back where it belongs, but Memphis is worried that he has killed the life inside the egg with his own clumsiness.

Hatching day comes and eggs all over the ice floe are releasing cute, fuzzy little chicks, but not the egg of Memphis and Norma Jean. Memphis is just about to give up when there is some movement. First one foot pokes out, then the other. At last, a cute little ball of fluff emerges, but to the horror of Memphis, he does this shaky-foot dance. “Stop that son,” he says in his best Elvis drawl, “that’s not penguin!”

However, as his son, named Mumble (Daily) grows up and goes to chick school, the happy feet dance continues. And, to the horror of everyone in his class, Mumble can’t sing a note. All he can do is shriek. His affronted teacher, Miss Viola (Szubanski) sends him to the best vocal teacher in Antarctica, the matronly Mrs. Astrakhan (Margolyes). She has never failed to develop a chick’s voice yet, but Mumble’s proves to be the first. He becomes an object of ridicule and scorn, although his kind heart and generous spirit catches the notice of Gloria (Murphy) and as he grows up into a young man (Wood), her beauty and song (she’s the best singer in the great white South) catches his notice as well.

He is prevented from graduating with the rest of his class by the elder of the tribe, Noah (Weaving) but he goes out fishing with them anyway. After all, fish is becoming more and more scarce and with all the predators out there – bull seals, killer whales and such – it’s awfully tough for a penguin to find a good meal. Still, Mumble proves to be a good fishcatcher, despite the best efforts of slovenly skua (a seabird) Boss (LaPaglia) to steal Mumble’s fish away. However, seeing that Gloria didn’t catch one, he gives her his. 

However, more and more he is finding it easier to communicate with his feet rather than with his song, and as his moves begin to catch on, the elders – fearing that his blasphemy has caused the Great Provider from giving them fish – cast him out. He hooks up with Ramon (Williams), a homeboy of the adelie penguins and leader of the Adelie Amigos, who admires his moves. For the first time, Mumble has found someone who thinks he’s cool. 

Mumble decides to seek the advice of the great oracle Lovelace, who has a plastic six-pack ring around his neck, to discover why the fish are growing more scarce, but Lovelace has no answer. Eventually, it turns out that Lovelace is slowly choking to death because of the plastic ring. Mumble determines to go to the Forbidden Coast to find the answers and save Lovelace as well as the rest of the penguins. 

With CGI animated features becoming more and more commonplace, it requires much more than spectacular animation to get me to recommend one, and frankly, while this is as well-animated as the Pixar movies, it just doesn’t have the heart, the soul or the story to compete with the creme de la creme of CGI filmmakers. This is very standard stuff about an outcast who finds his own individuality and through his/her courage gains acceptance from the rest of his/her community. While there are certainly ecologically sound subtexts to be found here, that is not the main focus of the story, and perhaps it should have been. 

I have no quibble with the voice acting jobs – there is a stellar cast here, and they wisely lean on genre veteran Williams for three seperate roles, all of which are entertaining and completely different from one another. However, the characters are essentially bland types who don’t really add any freshness to the genre. Let’s face it – we’ve seen about all of the outcasts I can handle in CGI movies, from Boog and Elliott in Open Season to D.J. and Chowder in Monster House.

We’ve seen the traditional animation go the way of the silent movie and watched as CGI movies take over. One of the things that killed traditional animation (along with the prohibitive cost and time-intensive labor and creating them) is that the studios – particularly Disney – stopped paying attention to story and became more concerned with creating characters that were marketable for their theme parks and merchandise. Pixar, on the other hand, gets it – to create timeless classic animation, you must first start with a timeless, classic story. Once they find a good story to tell, the animation comes afterwards. Audiences respond to this and that’s why they create hit after hit.

Yes, Happy Feet did great box office, but honestly, who will remember it five years from now, or even two hours after you leave the theater. There is more to animated movies than this and while there are enough good features to give this a mild recommendation, quite frankly I’m beginning to get a bit burned out on the genre.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent vocal cast and some standout animation, nearly as good as Pixar’s best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A standard animated feature plotline about outsiders banding together to make good. *yawn*

FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly rude humor and a bit of peril but nothing too difficult except for the littlest of kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Naturalist Steve Irwin provided the voice of an elephant seal shortly before his untimely death. He had also provided the voice of an albatross for a scene that was cut from the film before it was animated; the scene was animated afterwards for the DVD release as a tribute to Irwin.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: In addition to the aforementioned Irwin scene, there is also a classic Warner Brothrs animated short whose plot is alarmingly similar to this movie and a couple of music videos. There is also a featurette showing Savion Glover’s tap dance routine being recorded on motion capture for use in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384.3M on a $100 production budget; the film was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Miracle Match