Woodpeckers (Carpinteros)


Julian is on the inside looking out.

(2017) Drama (Outsider) Jean Jean, Judith Rodriguez Perez, Ramón Emilio Candelario, Mario Nunez, Aleja Johnson, Manuel Raposo, Carlota Carrelero, Toussaint Merionne, Orestes Amador, Fernando De Jesús Mejia, Cape Ramirez, Gilberto Hernández, Jose Cruz, Keunis Alvarez, Karina Valdez. Directed by José Maria Cabral

Incarceration is no joke; going to prison is not a preferable situation for anyone, anywhere in the world. In the Dominican Republican, prisons suffer from brutal punishment, terrible overcrowding and crumbling living conditions that come from having too many dangerous men in close proximity to one another. Of course, once someone is convicted most of society doesn’t really give a hoot what happens to them.

Julian Sosa (Jean) is a petty thief who gets arrested for stealing a motorcycle. As is the custom in the Dominican Republic where he lives, he is jailed in the notorious Najayo Prison outside of Santo Domingo. Prison conditions are inhuman with overcrowding, a lack of basic human facilities, brutal discipline enacted by brutal guards and of course surrounded by hard, violent prisoners.

Julian, who is of Haitian descent (which is not a very pleasant place to be in Santo Domingo) initially wants to keep to himself and just do his time but he finds that increasingly impossible. Eventually he falls in with Manaury (Candelario) who like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption is the kind of guy who can get things for you. Unlike Mr. Freeman, Manaury has a hair-trigger temper and is borderline psychotic.

He introduces Julian to woodpecking, a detailed sign language that the prisoners use to communicate with the female inmates who are housed a mere 400 feet away across a yard. Through woodpecking, romances bloom and prisoners fall in love with one another. Manaury has a “girlfriend” named Yanelly (Perez) who is a bit temperamental herself. When Manaury gets in a fracas and gets sent to solitary, he prevails upon Julian to communicate with Yanelly via woodpecking.

The problem is that Yanelly had discovered that Manaury had been woodpecking with another girl in while she was in solitary herself. As she “talks” to Julian she begins to fall for him and he for her. By the time the suspicious and paranoid Manaury gets released back into the general population, Yanelly and Julian are deeply in love. He has even managed to wrangle a work detail in the women’s prison so that the two of them can exchange a quick and furtive kiss. She arranges to smuggle her own panties to him which leads to Manaury finding out that his paranoia was justified…and for him to plot brutal revenge against Julian.

This movie played the Miami Film Festival earlier this year and is the Dominican Republic’s official Oscar Foreign Language Film submission for the upcoming Academy Awards. The movie is gritty and realistic which you know it had to be, considering the filming location and extras (only the leads were professional actors). You get a sense of the overcrowding and volatile conditions.

The movie spins around the relationship between Yanelly and Julian and if that doesn’t work, neither does the film. Fortunately despite being something of an odd couple – Yanelly is volatile and passionate, Julian introspective and quiet – the love aspect works and one ends up rooting for the couple. Both Perez and Jean do strong jobs here, particularly the former. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Candelario who seems to be screaming at the top of his lungs most of the time. It’s an over-the-top performance that makes his character more of a caricature.

Unfortunately the filmmakers can’t sustain the momentum the movie builds early on and during the last third, after both Julian and Manaury are transferred to the even more brutal La Victoria prison and a prison riot breaks out. It does lead to a final shot that is compelling and almost redeems the rest of that plot point – but not quite. Still this is a superior movie that made the rounds on the festival circuit (and continues to do so) and even had a brief New York run. It’s a little hard to find at the moment but no doubt it will get some streaming service or another to pick it up and once it does you should give it a chance. This is a fine movie from a filmmaker who has enormous potential.

REASONS TO GO: A gritty and realistic depiction of prison life in the Dominican. The love story is believable and fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses momentum during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some nudity and sexuality as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed inside a Dominican prison utilizing actual prisoners in small roles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crown Heights
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Te Ata

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Family Life (Vida de Familia)


Look what dragged in the cat.

(2017) Dramedy (Monument) Jorge Becker, Gabriela Arancibia, Bianca Lewin, Cristián Carvajal, Lucas Miranda, Adara Casassus. Directed by Alicia Scherson and Christián Jiménez

Most cultures in humanity revere the family. For the most part, we all love our families and would do anything for them. Those without families by circumstance or by choice are often objects of pity, sometimes of scorn but generally we don’t trust people who turn their backs on family. Of course there are those who yearn for a family of their own. We always want what we don’t have.

Bruno (Carvajal) is an academic – a professor of Chilean poetry at the University in Santiago. He has been invited to spend a semester teaching the subject in Paris and is taking his young family – wife Consuelo (Lewin) and daughter Sofi (Casassus) with him. He needs a housesitter for their posh apartment and at the funeral of his cousin he meets Martin (Becker), his relative’s son. Martin in addition to mourning his father is unemployed and has just broken up with his girlfriend who he continues to pine away for. Sympathetic, Bruno offers the job of watching his house and caring for his cat Mississippi while he’s gone.

Bruno is kind of diffident and melancholy. He strikes the family in different ways; Bruno characterizes him as “a little weird” while Consuelo is a little bit more compassionate. When Martin makes an awkward attempt to kiss her the night before they leave, she rebuffs him but is nonetheless oddly moved by the man. He is handsome and has a thing about black leather, but he is also unemployed, single and nearly 40. Not exactly a catch.

Once the family is gone, Martin seems content to just hang out around the house. He is lonely but yet is unmotivated to go out and do things. A housekeeper is hired to assist but he doesn’t really feel right letting her clean once a month but he pays her the money that Bruno left for her anyway. He tries on Bruno’s clothes and goes though the family’s things like a criminal investigator.

One day the cat is missing and Martin puts up flyers. He is annoyed later to find flyers for a lost dog pasted over his own. Irritated, he calls the number on the lost dog flyers and gives the person an earful. Eventually the dog owner, Pachi (Arancibia) or Paz as she’s called in the iMDB credits, and Martin meet. She’s a single mom, strong and forthright but she is attracted to Martin. At first it’s a sexual thing but as Martin begins to bond with her son Seba (Miranda) their relationship begins to change.

Martin convinces Pachi that he is the owner of the house; he had taken down the pictures that featured Bruno, leaving only pictures of Consuelo and Sofi. He explains that those are pictures of his ex-wife and daughter; the divorce was acrimonious and she had taken his daughter and was refusing to let him see her. At first Pachi is suspicious – he must have done something to deserve such treatment – but her heart overrides her good sense and she falls very hard for him.

Even with the impending return of the real owners of the home, Martin maintains the fiction and seems for the first time to be truly content. Still, cracks begin to form in the facade as plans are made to introduce him to Pachi’s family. How far will he take the charade and what will happen when Pachi discovers the truth?

Scherson and Jiménez have directed three other movies each, although this is their first project as a unit. This is a much more quiet film than some of Scherson’s previous efforts. It is based on Alejandro Zamba’s book (Zamba did the initial adaptation which was then refined by the directors who are also given co-writing credit) and with nearly all of the action taking place in a single apartment, there’s a bit of a stage-y feel to it.

There is a definite sense of humor here although it is not broad or filled with pratfalls. It is more of a subtle sense of humor, the way old friends sit back and reflect on the absurdities of life. That is very much within the Latin temperament although those not familiar with Latin culture might be surprised, given that the comedies that come out of Latin countries are very often overly broad and slapstick.

But this isn’t strictly speaking a comedy; there are some moments of genuine pathos such as a climactic encounter between two of the characters in which in a moment it is clear that both understand exactly what’s going on. The irony of the movie is that the perfect family life that Martin initially yearns for is not what’s happening for Bruno and Consuelo. They have reached a kind of uneasy understanding between the two of them, but the tension is clearly there; even Sofi notices it as she displays on a somewhat shocking note she leaves on her wall.

The performances here are uniformly strong, with Becker being the most notable. While the motivations of Martin are opaque at best and he is something of an enigma, Becker keeps the character grounded and while we often are scratching our head about Martin, because of Becker the character never feels unbelievable or far-fetched. His motivations may be suspect and at the end of the day he isn’t a very likable character despite all his charm, but you won’t soon forget him and that’s thanks to Becker primarily. He reminds me a little bit of a young Thomas Kretschmann which is nothing but praise.

There is an awful lot of sex in the movie and those who are offended by such things should be forewarned. The pacing is a little slower than American audiences typically like, although European audiences should have no trouble with it. There is a slice of life aspect to the film that I found attractive; the life may be a bourgeois one but it’s a valid life notwithstanding.

Overall this is a solid movie. It debuted at this year’s Sundance and at the recent Miami International Film Festival won the Knight Grand Jury Prize, a very prestigious award. It’s beginning a slow theatrical roll-out in cities around the country; keep an eye out for it if it plays near here you live. If you’re looking for something that is going to make you think a little bit about the place of family in your life and what the ideal family looks like – and how it almost never is the family you get – this should be right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are naturalistic particularly by Becker. There is a sly almost gentle sense of humor that is more reflective than uproarious.
REASONS TO STAY: Martin as a character is a bit on the murky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity, sexuality and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in Scherson’s own apartment.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borgman
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Amnesia

Afterimage (Powidoki)


The professor teaches a class of delighted students.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Akson) Boguslaw Linda, Aleksandra Justa, Bronislawa Zamachowska, Zofia Wichlacz, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Mariusz Bonaszewski, Szymon Bobrowski, Aleksander Fabisiak, Paulina Galazka, Irena Melcer, Tomasz Chodorowski, Filip Gurlacz, Mateusz Rusin, Mateusz Rzezniczak, Tomasz Wlosok, Adrian Zaremba, Barbara Wypych, Izabela Dabrowska. Directed by Andrzej Wajda

When it comes to art, the act of creation is a highly personal thing. Style and subject define the artist as an artist and to ask them to create something that isn’t felt, that doesn’t come from the heart is tantamount to asking an artist to slice off a leg and having them serve it up for a backyard barbecue.

Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Linda) is one of Poland’s most notable modern artists. As World War II comes to an end, Poland is going from Nazi occupation to becoming a Soviet satellite state in the Eastern bloc. He had served in the Polish army during the First World War and had lost a leg and an arm in the process. During the Nazi occupation, he defiantly painted subjects that went outside what was permitted and was hailed by Poles as a national hero.

After the war he founded the Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz along with his estranged wife, sculptress Katarzyna Kobro with whom he has a child, Nika (Zamachowska) with whom he has a relationship that can best be described as guarded. He is teaching eager students that essentially worship the ground he walks on, particularly Hannah (Wichlacz) whose hero-worship might be deepening into something else.

His life is about to turn upside down however. The Soviet state wants art to serve the people and thus wants a style more in line with social realism; Strzeminski has been a champion throughout his career of modernism. When he refuses to adapt his style to Soviet demands, he is fired from the school he founded. Slowly rights and privileges are stripped away from him; his membership in the artist’s trade union is rescinded, meaning he can’t buy art supplies. He attempts to work a menial job essentially painting huge banners of Stalin and other communist icons.  When he is denied even this, he is unable to provide for himself. Most of his art has been taken down from the museums where they have hung for in some cases for 20 or 30 years; he is slowly starving to death and it is a race whether he will meet that fate or whether the tuberculosis which has been exacerbated by his nearly constant smoking will kill him first.

Wajda is one of Poland’s national treasures, a director with a six decade career that have created some amazing films although he remains not well known in the States other than to film buffs. He has an artist’s eye for color and design; his images are often far more than they appear to be, such as when a frustrated Strzeminski flails at store mannequins he’s been hired to dress which symbolizes art flailing away at the commercial.

He is buoyed he by Linda, one of Poland’s most respected actors who plays Strzeminski with a certain dichotomy of often contradictory characteristics; he is an amazing teacher devoted to his students but he dismisses his daughter to an orphanage with a curt “She will have a hard life” by way of explanation. When Hannah declares her feelings for him, he reacts with a stoic “That’s unfortunate” and with two words absolutely destroys her world, and she was one of the few that stuck with him to the very end.

The film posits the question “What does the artist owe more responsibility to, the people or himself?” It is clear which side Wajda was on. I’m not sure I agree completely with him but the man has earned the right to make his stance crystal clear.

The production design ranges from sleek and modern to dingy and colorless. The further Poland falls into Soviet control, the grayer the settings get. Soon the entire city of Lodz becomes dystopian, moving from beautiful European metropolis to soulless Soviet city where conformity is the rule of the day.

Strzeminski often reacts in inexplicable ways which are often detrimental to his own cause, but one admires the fortitude it took to stand up to a powerful and ruthless government that recognizes no other way than the one it endorses which sounds vaguely familiar these days. For those who are big fans of Wajda as I am, this won’t be disappointing. For those who are looking for an introduction to his work it’s one of his best – maybe his very best. The themes he tackles here are pretty much standard for him although the movie is a little bit more mainstream than most of his audience is used to. This is a marvelous movie which you should keep an eye out for once it gets American distribution. In the meantime, look for it on the Festival circuit.

REASONS TO GO: Wajda’s use of color and design is simply amazing. Linda’s performance is more than noteworthy. A work of genius by a master of European cinema.
REASONS TO STAY: The parallels to modern society may hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Wajda’s final film, directed at the age of 89; He died in Warsaw of pulmonary failure October 9, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Modigliani
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: When the Bough Breaks

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table


Ella Brennan, the grande dame of New Orleans cuisine.

(2016) Documentary (Iwerks & Co) Ella Brennan, Patricia Clarkson (narrator), Emeril Lagasse, Tory McPhail, Ti Martin, Daniel Boulud, Tim Zagat, Jeremiah Tower, Leah Chase, Frank Brigtsen, Dickie Brennan, Paul Prudhomme, Ralph Brennan, Drew Nieporent, John Pope, Alex Brennan-Martin, Gene Bourg, Lally Brennan, Julia Reed, Marcelle Bienvenu, Meg Bickford. Directed by Leslie Iwerks

In no other American city save for maybe San Francisco is a city’s culture so tied up in its cuisine as New Orleans. In the Big Easy there is one family who have dominated the city’s gastronomic landscape like no other.

The Brennan family has been a household name in Louisiana since the 1940s when Owen Brennan bought a struggling French Quarter restaurant called the Vieux Carré and made it a rousing success. In an era when the classic French restaurants like Antoine’s ruled the New Orleans roost Brennan – who was told that an Irish man had no business cooking authentic New Orleans cuisine – put his whole family to work in the restaurant. As it became more and more successful, it was clear a larger space was needed and they found it over on Royal Street. The move took place during lunch service with employees and diners carrying pots, pans, chairs and whatever else they could carry to the new digs. A jazz band followed them down the street; only in New Orleans, no?

The new space was renamed Brennan’s and it became famous for its signature creation – Bananas Foster, which happens to be Da Queen’s favorite dish of any sort. Ella showed a knack for running the business and was soon the restaurant’s manager and after Owen passed away, she was essentially the family business’ chief executive. But a schism developed; Owen’s widow Maude wanted more control over their namesake restaurant and Ella was forced out after having built the restaurant into a thriving business.

Undaunted, she bought a property in the Garden District called Commander’s Palace which had been a less popular drinking and dining establishment for decades after being an important eatery at the turn of the 20th century. She painted the property a bright blue to make it distinctive among the genteel mansions of the district and installed an executive chef by the name of Paul Prudhomme who would himself go on to be one of the true members of the New Orleans culinary pantheon.

Under Prudhomme’s kitchen leadership, Commander’s Palace grew to be one of the best restaurants not only in New Orleans but in the country. Prudhomme was taking Cajun cooking and elevating it, ushering an age where Cajun cooking was ascendant in American cuisine. After some years went by, Ella urged Prudhomme to open his own restaurant and he did: K-Paul’s, which remains a New Orleans institution to this day. Prudhomme also put out his own line of spices which helped make him a multi-millionaire.

Replacing Prudhomme as executive chef was a young man named Emeril Lagasse. His natural charisma made him a natural on-camera personality and he frequently appeared on local TV shows cooking various dishes from the Palace’s menu. Emeril took the focus off of Cajun dishes and while many of Prudhomme’s recipes are still on the menu, Emeril added his own stamp to the Palace. As with his predecessor, Ella urged Emeril to strike out on his own and as one of the Food Network’s earliest celebrity chefs, Emeril has since gone on to found a restaurant empire that rivals that of the Brennan family.

The documentary is certainly a love letter to Ella and her accomplishments which are considerable considering that she faced extra resistance because of her gender. Not only did Ella break through the glass ceiling, she shattered it and paved the way for many women to become successful restaurateurs. Ella is an absolute icon in New Orleans and her influence on New Orleans cuisine cannot be overstated. Commander’s Palace has been a fertile breeding ground for great chefs who have gone on to open incredible restaurants of their own.

The stories that are told about the Brennan family are classic and one gets a sense that the closeness of the family – the schism between Maude and the rest of the family notwithstanding – is one of the reasons that their restaurants are so successful; those who go there are made to feel like family. I can attest to that personally; we had travelled from Orlando to New Orleans to celebrate Da Queen’s birthday some years back and we went to a trendy eatery in the Quarter for the actual day. It was an utter disaster; the restaurant was badly designed with sound bouncing all over the place and it was so loud that we had to shout across a table for two to be heard. The food was good but overpriced and not one mention of my wife’s birthday was made until a manager chased after us as we left to shout out a very tardy and not well-received happy birthday.

The next night we had reservations for Commander’s Palace and when we arrived there were balloons and decorations. Throughout the evening Da Queen was made to feel like an actual queen and we ordered the prix fixe tasting menu. When my wife asked if she could substitute the Turtle soup for the one on the menu, she was told they would add the turtle soup and so they did, at no charge. She was given a chef’s hat at the conclusion of one of the most amazing meals we have ever had (second only to the one we had at L’Atalier du Joel Robuchon in Paris) and given a menu autographed by Toby McPhail, the current executive chef. We have been back since and we make a point of going every time we visit New Orleans. Something tells me that’s exactly what Miss Ella intended from the get-go.

One of the things I really like about this documentary is that Iwerks doesn’t just make it about Ella Brennan, although she would be forgiven if she had – Ella is an engaging personality who thinks nothing at 90 years young of dancing in the aisles of her restaurant during her famous jazz brunch. But Ella is tied in very much to New Orleans and the city is a presence throughout the film. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina also plays a role – Commander’s Palace was severely damaged by the storm and was closed for almost a year. The citizens of New Orleans are a particularly amazing bunch and the film acknowledges it not only through how they got through Katrina but how they celebrate life and Ella Brennan helps with that in a very significant way.

So perhaps yes, my judgment is impaired by the good memories I experienced at Commander’s Palace but I think I am being fair in saying that Ella Brennan’s story is inspiring and Iwerks, an Oscar-nominated documentarian, presents it in an entertaining way. Certainly viewers will be more likely to visit both Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace (the Brennan family owns something like 15 different restaurants as of this writing) and well they should; both are well-known for serving unforgettable meals that are in fact unforgettable experiences. This isn’t just an ad though; it is a story that represents the best of America, how someone can overcome odds and obstacles to create a business that is not only successful but iconic. Ella Brennan did that and it deserves to be celebrated – preferably with a great meal at her restaurant.

REASONS TO GO: Some wonderful stories are told. Iwerks wisely makes New Orleans an integral part of the film. You can almost taste the gumbo.
REASONS TO STAY: This might not mean as much to anyone who hasn’t visited the Crescent City
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly acceptable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2013, the Brennan family re-acquired Brennan’s restaurant; Ella, who hadn’t set foot in it for forty years, returned and ordered Bananas Foster.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Georges
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Cries From Syria

Cargo (2017)


Floating in the big blue.

(2017) Drama (Best Ever Film) Warren Brown, Gessica Geneus, Omar J. Dorsey, Persia White, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Jamie Donnelly, Sky Nicole Grey, Jason Elwood Hanna, Dana J. Ferguson. Directed by Kareem Mortimer

Film production is pretty much global these days and that’s a welcome development. Points of view vary from place to place and it is always wonderful to get the perspective of people who live in different places. Cargo is the most ambitious film to come out of the Bahamas and it made it’s world premiere right here in Florida at the Miami Film Festival.

In the movie, Kevin (Brown) is an American ex-pat living in the islands after leaving the States under somewhat dark and mysterious circumstances – and if you’re going to flee a dark past, the Bahamas are an excellent place to do that. However, no matter how far you run from your problems, you generally bring the cause of them – yourself – with you and even in this island paradise Kevin, a gambling addict, has found it difficult to make a new start.

His wife Berneice (White) has essentially given up on him. She’s tired of the promises and the excuses as to why things aren’t working out. Kevin has enrolled their son in an expensive private school which he can’t afford. Berneice has also been taking care of Kevin’s mom who has severe dementia and sometimes smears her own excrement on the walls.

Kevin needs an immediate infusion of cash and gets it as he uses his boat to smuggle desperate Haitian workers to the Bahamas who will from there be taken by another boat to Miami. At first, it works out. Kevin hires a caretaker to take the burden off of Berneice. The new hire is Celianne (Geneus) who is herself an illegal immigrant from Jamaica. Also, being who he is, he embarks on an extramarital affair with a waitress at his favorite café just as things are starting to get better with his wife. There’s a storm brewing on the horizon however and things aren’t going to remain good for very much longer.

It is good seeing a slice of Bahamian life onscreen. Usually we see the island as tourists see it – a Caribbean paradise with beautiful beaches, casinos and women in skimpy bikinis. We don’t see the life that ordinary Bahamians lead and for giving us that glimpse the filmmakers are to be commended.

In many ways this is an ambitious film as Mortimer is not only looking at the effects of human smuggling but on the effects of immigration in the Bahamas as well and in many ways that muddles up the story. I think he would have been better served to focus more on Kevin and the effects of human smuggling on the smuggler – that is a storyline not often seen in the movies and would have made for a much more riveting experience, but adding subplots and extraneous characters only serves to bloat the film unnecessarily.

The acting is not up to the standards of a Hollywood film in many ways. Brown as Kevin is occasionally a bit flat; what the character is feeling is not conveyed as effectively as it might be. Kevin is always saying “I’m going to fix this,” to the point that it becomes kind of a mantra that even he doesn’t really believe; it’s more a way of deflecting Berniece’s constant nagging and condescending, cutting remarks. It is the curse of men to believe that everything can actually be fixed.

The movie is visually beautiful. There are few places on Earth so visually congenial as the Bahamas and the filmmakers make full use of that congeniality. There is something of the timeless in the Bahamas; often you will hear the phrase “island time” in connection with the Caribbean islands. It is a declaration that nothing is so important that it must be seen to immediately. Things happen at their own pace in the islands and there is a certain style in that. You get that the film is on island time in many ways and those who are less patient will have a hard time with this film.

This is definitely the product of people who are making a first stab at things. That gives this film a bit more of a pass than I would give to a Hollywood film that carries the same issues. I hope that Mortimer makes more films and that they improve with each one. I hope that he and others like him kickstarts a vibrant Bahamian film industry. As far as I’m concerned, the world can use that.

REASONS TO GO: There are some beautiful images. Nice to see a slice of Bahamian life onscreen.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and too much story; some of the plotlines should have been eliminated. The acting is on the wooden side. The movie feels like it’s going on too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and sexuality as well as a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortimer’s interest in human smuggling came when he was a boy and news footage of Haitian migrants trying to make it to Florida whose bodies washed up on shore in the Bahamas stayed with him. He recreated the scene for the opening of the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Sleepless

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

Are We Not Cats


Someone needs a little hair tonic.

(2016) Romance (Tri-Coast Worldwide) Michael Patrick Nicholson, Chelsea Lopez, Michael Godere, Dean Holtermann, Charles Gould, Adeline Thery, Alice Frank, Tuffy Questell, Theodore Bouloukos, Joe Buldo, Ernst Zorin, Marika Dacluk, Bill Weeden, Alex Goldberg, Willy Muse, Carson Grant, Kelsea Dakota. Directed by Xander Robin

Some movies are easily described while others beggar description. This is one of the latter even though I’m about to give it a try.

Eli (Nicholson) seems to have a stable if unsatisfying life; he has a girlfriend, a steady job and an apartment in New York City – it’s a decent enough life. In a matter of hours though he loses all three and on top of that his parents decide to vacate New York for the heat of Arizona. “Visit us!” his mom exclaims once Eli has loaded all their furniture in the moving truck. That doesn’t seem likely given his situation – he’s essentially homeless and is sleeping in the delivery van that is his only source of income.

He gets a job delivering an engine to a small upstate town that will at least keep him afloat for a few months where he meets Kyle (Godere) who is having the engine put in his car but unfortunately Eli arrives with it too late for Kyle to drive out of the repair shop that day so Eli gives Kyle a ride home. In turn, Kyle takes Eli to an underground party in an abandoned warehouse space where he meets Kyle’s girlfriend Anya (Lopez) who seems to be the hippest person in all of New York State and that includes the five boroughs. Eli is quite smitten with her but Kyle gets mad at the attention Eli is giving Anya and he hits her. Anya seems to find that amusing but I guarantee most audience members won’t.

In order to stay nearby, Eli takes a job where Kyle works much to the dismay of both Kyle and Anya. When Kyle has to leave on some sort of trip, Eli keeps Anya company while he’s away. At first she is firm about keeping things on a friendship level; the two have a lot in common and seem comfortable with each other but both of them are hiding something; Eli is suffering from trichotillomania (a compulsion for pulling out one’s own hair) while Anya has trichophagia (a compulsion to eat human hair). We discover that Anya has been wearing a wig the whole time and is nearly bald from the yanking out of her own hair and consuming it. The two eventually have sex and while Eli sleeps Anya consumes his luxuriant head of hair, leaving him looking like a radiation victim as she does.

One of the consequences of trichophagia is that it can create massive hair balls in the intestines, effectively blocking the normal digestive process and this is what happens to Anya. Being that she lives in the middle of nowhere in a loft in which she has created a machine that creates light shows and kinetic movement by the sounds of a record played on an old-fashioned turntable, no help can arrive for hours so a distraught Eli realizes he has but one option – to perform surgery on her himself.

Yes, that’s essentially the plot and yes, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. I will give Robin props for at least coming up with an original concept here even if the execution isn’t always what I might like it to be. There is a little bit too much shaky handheld camera shots for my taste, but others may be okay with that. This is definitely going to appeal to Millennials as Eli and particularly Anya pretty much are almost stereotypical characters from that generation. In some ways, the whole film is an allegory for what it is to be from that generation; the characters have nowhere to go, nothing to do and are bored out of their minds. At least, to a mind of the generation that essentially fucked things up for Millennials.

Nicholson and Lopez are appealing actors who don’t appear to mind taking chances. Certainly it couldn’t be easy either having their hair shaved to look like victims of an atomic bomb or more likely to wear wigs that make them appear that way. During scenes in the middle of the movie, Lopez wears blue lipstick that gives her a corpse-like appearance and presages the scenes in the latter stages of the movie where she is getting her home surgery done.

That scene is fairly bloody and visceral and it may upset those who are affected by such things. There is a kind of absurdist humor that’s going on during it though that does lighten the mood considerably and in fact the whole situation is kind of abstract in a way – I don’t think you run into people who would willingly perform surgery (particularly on someone they are fond of) without any training whatsoever. Either Eli is an idiot, in a panic or self-confident beyond rationality. I’d probably choose the second explanation if given a choice.

The landscapes are pretty bleak here and most of the movie feels grimy and post-apocalyptic even though it’s clear that society continues to function in the movie (if you consider what society is doing right now “functioning”). Unfortunately the story feels disjointed and confusing and I had trouble at times figuring out why people were acting the way they did in the movie. There is a certain amount of nihilism present in modern society but if it really is as much as portrayed here, then we are truly screwed.

REASONS TO GO: It’s kind of a nifty allegory for how millennials are viewed. It’s edgy and at least tries to take a few chances.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s way too much shaky cam. The film is fairly disjointed and occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, sexuality, some disturbing images as well as a fair amount of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originally started life as a 2013 short with the same title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fly (1986)
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: A United Kingdom