The Last Shaman


White privilege personified.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) James Freeman, Pepe, Sherry Haydock, Mason Wright Freeman, Ron, Guillermo, Kate. Directed by Raz Degan

 

Depression is not a medical issue to be trifled with. Every year, approximately 40,000 Americans take their own lives; anywhere from 50-75% of these suicides were motivated by depression. It affects over 25 million Americans, many of whom are unable to get treatment for it. In general, the medical industry treats depression with mood-altering drugs although regular psychotherapy is also used.

James Freeman has a severe case of depression. A young man born of wealth and privilege, both of his parents are physicians. They were able to afford to send him to the Phillips Academy, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation and a feeder school for Ivy League universities. However, schools of that nature put an enormous amount of stress on the students to excel. As Freeman graduated and later attended Middlebury College, he began to develop suicidal thoughts.

He did what he was supposed to. He saw psychiatrists, took the pills prescribed. He attended therapy sessions. As his condition grew more and more extreme, he even underwent electroconvulsive therapy, a kind of brain reboot which isn’t unlike electroshock treatment that is no longer practiced. Nothing worked. Freeman felt dead inside and his relationships with his parents and his girlfriend Kate suffered. James was a different person.

Desperate for solutions, he discovered testimonies about a plant found in the Peruvian Amazon called ayahuasca which had helped a number of people who were suffering from clinical depression. He decided to go down to Peru and find a shaman to administer the plant to him. His estranged father, who had approved of the electroconvulsive therapy, was not altogether pleased about the ayahuasca escapade; his mother also attempted to discourage him, but James was adamant. He felt that this was his last attempt to save his own life; if it didn’t work after ten months, he would be okay to kill himself as he would have tried everything.

So off to Peru and James finds that in some ways that ayahuasca is becoming commercialized. He meets several shaman and they seem more interested in money than in healing. Even a bantam-like America named Ron who had studied the rituals and knowledge of the Peruvian shaman ruefully exclaims “Every foreigner down here is out to exploit these people, myself included.” At one of the rituals, James witnesses the death by overdose of someone who shouldn’t have ingested the drug (and whom, the shaman emphatically states, he tried to talk him out of doing just that).

Finally, in a remote Shipibo village, he finally meets Pepe who refuses to take payment for his treatment. James is made to undergo a 100 day diet of tobacco and rice in isolation before undergoing the ayahuasca ceremony followed by being buried alive, for seven hours, then dug up and “reborn.”

During his isolation, James keeps a video diary and talks about having visions of the plants themselves (or representations thereof) talking to him and explaining that he is to be reborn. Following all of this we see James smiling, interacting with people and playing with local children. He seems to have been cured – but at a cost. Pepe is removed from the village for giving medicine away without charge. It seems the Non-Government Organization working with the village is trying to get them to use their medicines for profit and the betterment of the lives of the villagers. The capitalist rat race, it seems, has reached the Amazon.

The jungle locations are breathtaking at times, and also Degan gives us a glimpse into the local culture which is also welcome. Both of these items are what make seeing this documentary somewhat worthwhile. Unfortunately, the director makes some serious missteps. Much of the documentary feels staged, from James’ massive mood change and the shots of him interacting with the locals to the mood shots of the mom staring out the window in concern and particularly the sorta-psychedelic shots that are meant to convey the effects of the drug on James. Those moments don’t help the documentary at all and take the viewer out of the experience every time Degan utilizes them, which is fairly often.

The documentary also has to overcome James himself. It’s hard to sympathize with someone who is able to afford to fly off to South America for exotic cures; most people who suffer from depression can’t do so. It’s not really fair to minimize depression; it’s a very real and often deadly mental illness and there’s no doubt that James had a severe case of it. Mostly, it’s the perception of the audience; James often comes off as privileged and a little bit arrogant. The scene of him being paddled along a stream to the Shipibo village reeks of colonialism, even if unintentionally.

The film also comes off as an advertisement for drug use. We get almost no scientific reflection on the use of ayahuasca and how efficacious it might be. All we get is essentially anecdotal evidence. It’s like the stoner claims that marijuana is completely harmless; the fact of the matter is that nothing not part of the body that is added in excessive amounts is harmless. Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

It also feels that James isn’t confronting the source of his depression but merely medicating it. Maybe that’s something he intends to do and maybe I’m overindulging in armchair psychology but a lot about this documentary feels wrong. This is the rare instance in which I wish there’d been more talking heads; some expert commentary from psychiatrists, pharmacologists and physicians would have been welcome. I have to admit that I would be hesitant to recommend this line of treatment for anyone and despite the disclaimer that comes during the end credits, I can’ help that the filmmaker is advocating for just that.

REASONS TO GO: The Amazonian backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. The look into indigenous culture is welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very staged and self-indulgent. The movie has to battle “poor little rich kid” syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of drug use as well as a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director got involved in the story after ayahuasca was used to help cure him of a respiratory illness and also helped his mother with her own depression.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mosquito Coast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pop Aye

Origin (Bieffekterna)


Some things just shouldn't be meddled with.

Some things just shouldn’t be meddled with.

(2016) Science Fiction (108 Media) Emelia Hansson, Rikard Bjȏrk, Sandra Redlaff, Rafael Pettersson. Directed by Andreas Climent and André Hedetoft

Sometimes you find really good movies unexpectedly. This Swedish film has played a handful of international film festivals and is just now making its VOD debut in North America. While researching the film, I found almost no reviews (except of its trailer) and one interview with the filmmakers.

A trio of biomedical students at a Swedish university works with Professor Robert Bergmann (Pettersson) who is trying to find a way to control human DNA, specifically the aging process of cells. This would help eradicate sickness, stop disabilities and birth defects and extend life dramatically. They are meeting with failure after failure. Julia (Hansson) has some ideas of how to approach this but Bergmann refuses to consider them. He is getting frustrated because their lack of results may end up getting their grant pulled.

To complicate matters further, Erik (Bjȏrk) – who along with being a computer analyst is also Julia’s boyfriend – has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and months or maybe only weeks to live. Julia has figured out a way to attack the problem so without Bergmann’s knowledge she tests it and the students discover to their amazement that Julia’s solution worked. Erik and Julia, along with Rebecca (Redlaff) who has been working with them on Professor Bergmann’s team secretly set up a lab in Julia’s apartment. Meanwhile Erik is at death’s door and Julia is unwilling to wait for the months of testing before human trials can begin. So she injects her lover with the serum and hopes for the best.

The best is just what they get. Erik appears to make a full recovery and more. The serum seems to have heightened his senses and strength, turning him almost superhuman. At first it’s all fun and games but then as Erik’s behavior grows more aggressive and he becomes prone to fits of rage, Julia begins to worry that Erik is being changed in a fundamental way. Rebecca, who has been feeling like the odd person out in the trio, secretly injects herself with the serum.

That’s when the other shoe drops. It becomes apparent that Erik’s body is fighting the new genomes which will end up with his body destroying itself. The race against time begins to find away to beat Erik’s own immune system…but are they meddling with things that human beings shouldn’t?

The publicity of the film uses the term “biohacking” which apparently is a thing. They even thoughtfully provide a definition on the movie’s poster which is “the act of exploiting genetic material without regard to acceptable ethical standards, or for criminal purposes.” I call it the “Frankenstein syndrome’ – a film concerned with the ethics of science. As Ian Malcolm once put it, “you were so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you didn’t stop to think if you should.” That’s the crux of the matter here.

Like Arrival, the movie is more about the concepts than the special effects and quite frankly there really isn’t very much here if any. All the effects as far as I could tell were practical and most of the science fiction was concept. While not quite up to the multi-layered story that was told there, this is still a truly remarkable film that comes right out of left field and tells a solid story without trying to reinvent the wheel.

The acting is pretty much solid although there are tendencies to over-exaggerate hysteria when the script calls for it. You might be surprised because she doesn’t get a ton of screen time but I found Redlaff to be one of the better performers here. She has tons of potential and I wouldn’t be surprised if she becomes a big star in Sweden, or even crosses the pond to become a player in Hollywood. If Alicia Vikander can do it, it certainly can be done again.

There are a lot of pop culture references here, from Game of Thrones to certain other films and while that might end up dating the movie a little bit, they actually make for clever touchstones that Millennials would identify with and refer to. In other words, these university students act like university students, albeit post-grads.

I was thoroughly entertained and both my mind and heart stimulated. That’s a pretty good accomplishment for any film and especially one which has arrived with almost no fanfare or buzz. I’ve provided links to their current VOD streaming locations and I strongly urge you to take a chance on this one, particularly if you like good science fiction. No space battles or weird monsters here but a well-told tale nonetheless that gives insight into the line between human and something else.

REASONS TO SEE: Climent and Hedetoft are master storytellers. Makes use of pop culture references effectively.
REASONS TO MISS: Some of the acting is a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some language, violence, sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the feature film debut of Climent and Hedetoft who have previously collaborated on short films and commercials for such companies as Alfa Romeo and Cadbury.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flatliners
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Blood on the Mountain

Ghostbusters (2016)


Uncorking the genii.

Uncorking the genii.

(2016) Horror Comedy (Columbia) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Zach Woods, Ed Begley Jr., Charles Dance, Karan Soni, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Nate Corddry, Ozzy Osbourne, Andy Garcia, Annie Potts, Cecily Strong, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Al Roker, Susan Park, Katie Dippold. Directed by Paul Feig

 

I have to make a confession; I was not pleased about the prospects of an all-female Ghostbusters team at first; for one thing, it seemed kind of gimmicky to me, a means of establishing a bit of notoriety before the movie opened. The more I thought about it though, I figured I was just using that as an excuse; I was being a sexist so as a critic I swallowed my pride, sucked it up and tried to look at the movie as objectively as I could.

That’s not to say that it’s possible; like millions of others, the original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorite films. When you take on a remake of a classic that is so beloved, comparisons between that film and yours are going to be inevitable. Surely Paul Feig had to know that. But I don’t think he expected the venom that would be directed at his choice to change the gender the team; fanboys absolutely lost their minds, some going so far as to claim that it “ruined their childhoods” which is generally an indication that their childhoods probably should be ruined, if that was all it took.

The storyline here is pretty similar to the original; a trio of scientists – Erin Gilbert (Wiig), a physicist; Abby Yates (McCarthy) a paranormal investigator, and Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), an engineer – are brought together to investigate a haunting. Erin and Abby had once co-authored a book – Ghost from Our Past – but had a falling out. Erin was trying to distance herself from those days and when the book shows up on Amazon just as she’s about to become tenured at Columbia University, she and Abby are brought together. Eventually, Abby agrees to pull the book from Amazon on the condition that Erin allows them to investigate a paranormal activity at a local mansion that had been brought to Erin’s attention by the home’s curator (Begley).

When their investigation is successful beyond their wildest dreams, they enlist Abby’s new partner Jillian who is like a kid in a toy store on Christmas morning – she has all sorts of devices to try out, including a proton pack and a ghost capturing device. With Erin cashiered from Columbia who has found out about her somewhat unorthodox beliefs in the supernatural, the three decide to start up a ghost investigation business. During an investigation into a New York subway, they are assisted by Patty Tolan (Jones), an MTA employee with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City history, particularly the haunted kind. She joins the team as the fourth Ghostbuster (as they are now called, much to Erin’s annoyance).

They hire a receptionist to handle the calls which turns out to be Kevin (Hemsworth), a male model who gets the job because he dampens Erin’s panties more than anything – he proves to be an utter imbecile and not much use at all answering the phone. As they investigate, they discover that someone has been creating gateways allowing the ghosts to come into New York. That someone is uber-nerd Rowan North (Casey) who has some very unpleasant plans for a world that has rejected him and ignored him. When someone plans a paranormal apocalypse, who ya gonna call?

The special effects are spectacular here, which is definitely an unexpected plus – Feig has never really worked an effects-heavy film before but he does a fine job here with the CGI. It’s impressive without being overwhelming. The cinematography is gorgeous and most of the technical end of the movie is soundly executed. I also think that his casting is spot-on – on paper.

Unfortunately, on celluloid is where I have the issues. The chemistry between the team just isn’t as strong as it was for Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson (who all have cameos) and the late Harold Ramis, whose son appears in a brief cameo and who also appears as a bust outside of Erin’s office at Columbia. McKinnon is a little too over the top at times as is Jones who’s shrieking is almost anachronistic, sounding uncomfortably like depictions of African-American characters in horror comedies from say 50-75 years ago.

Wiig and McCarthy are both strong comic actresses who have given terrific performances in other movies, but they are both overly bland here. McCarthy is strangely subdued; I sometimes complain about her characterization in other comedic roles but I would have welcomed more of that energy she brought to those roles here. Wiig is generally an extremely understated performer and was completely miscast; they needed someone who had a little more of a presence. This may surprise some, but I think Leslie Jones might have been better suited for the role of the physicist/doubter, Kate McKinnon better as Abby, Melissa McCarthy more fun as Patty and maybe a different actress – Amy Schumer for example – as Jillian. But still, just reshuffling the roles might not have helped; the ladies just don’t seem as comfortable around each other as they should be.

Despite all of the issues I have with the team, the script isn’t half-bad and there are some very funny moments. The cameos are welcome, but also serve to remind us of how much better the original was than the remake and Feig might have been better advised to leave them out, particularly since he chose to do a reboot rather than a sequel, which I think might have been a better move. Still, one has to give him points for trying, but trying doesn’t save a movie that’s just average.

REASONS TO GO: The effects are impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: It simply doesn’t hold up to the original.
FAMILY VALUES: Some somewhat rude humor and a bit of supernatural action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The book Ghost from Our Past supposedly co-written by lead characters Erin and Abby, is really for sale on Amazon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Haunted House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Legend of Tarzan

New Feature for Home Video Reviews


New and ImprovedOnce upon a time, most recent major motion picture releases and the major independent releases would make their way to Blockbuster eventually. With the dynamic of how we watch movies at home changing, Cinema365 in an effort to be more user-friendly will begin listing where our movies that have received a home video release might be located for streaming and DVD/Blu-Ray rental. Unfortunately, I can’t check every service there is available but I will let you know if the movie being reviews is available in the following places:

Netflix Streaming
Netflix DVD/Blu-Ray
Blockbuster Online
iTunes
Amazon
Crackle
Hulu

We may add or delete services here as the need arises. Hopefully this will be useful to you in determining whether or not and how to watch something that catches your interest on this site. Happy viewing!

The Rundown


The Rock smells what this little guy is cooking.

The Rock smells what this little guy is cooking.

(2003) Action (Universal) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Seann William Scott, Rosario Dawson, Christopher Walken, William Lucking, Ewen Bremner, Jon Gries, Ernie Reyes Jr., Stuart F. Wilson, Dennis Keiffer, Garrett Warren, Toby Holguin, Paul Power, Stephen Bishop. Directed by Peter Berg

Hollywood is in short supply of action stars these days, with the usual suspects getting long in the tooth, short at the box office or departed to other careers. But the search for new blood netted a real find in The Rock. Wrestling star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a success in The Mummy Returns and its spin-off, The Scorpion King. Now he’s cast in a more mainstream action flick, and the Hollywood powers-that-be were anxious to see if The Rock could open a movie that doesn’t have a built-in audience.

With material this good, he sure can. Here he plays Beck, a beleaguered bounty hunter who really wants to be a chef. He does the bounty hunting gig to pay off a debt to Walker (Lucking), a shady character who arranges to clear Beck of all obligation and supply him with enough stake to open his dream restaurant if he can retrieve one last item: the gangster’s son Travis (Scott) from the Amazon. Beck agrees to the deal.

With an incomprehensible Irish pilot named Declan (Bremmer), Beck arrives in a pimple of an Amazon town that’s run by the nefarious Hatcher (Walken) as his own personal kingdom, brutally forcing imprisoned laborers to mine gold. Beck wants no part of this; he’s just there for his man. However, Travis has actually found the location of a priceless treasure called El Gato. The local rebels want it to finance their fight against Hatcher; Hatcher wants it because he’s greedy. Travis wants it to make his reputation.

The pair go into the jungle to find the item, accompanied by the beautiful bartender Mariana (Dawson). Along the way, they run into a pack of libidinous monkeys, combative men of tiny stature with a predilection for vines and kicking the Rock around like a bitch, and an interesting fruit that gives the consumer a unique viewpoint.

It’s hard to classify this; it could be a comedy with action, or an action film with comedy. Both sides of the equation work marvelously. The Rock is able to lampoon his own persona while enhancing it, and has plenty of acting chops. The time is not far off where he will be tackling roles that we wouldn’t ever have associated with a pro wrestler.

Walken is, as always, worth the price of admission all by himself. A scene where he tries to explain the Tooth Fairy to a group of tribesmen is a classic. Scott, best known as Stifler in the American Pie movies, is satisfactory as a second banana. He’s smarmy and self-centered, but audiences can still empathize with him. Dawson has become a terrific leading lady; previous to this she had appeared in Men in Black 2 and had been intriguing there.

Director Peter Berg also did a wonderful black comedy called Very Bad Things which was in fact a very good thing. As with that film he deftly weaves the action and comedy elements into a cohesive whole, a very much more difficult task than it sounds. While best-known to the public as an actor on the Chicago Hope series, he’s also directed some fairly decent films since this one including Friday Night Lights and Hancock. However, in the interest of full disclosure he also directed the alien invasion film Battleship as well.

Had this been released during the summer, The Rundown would have been a massive hit. As it stands, it came in under the radar to a very large extent; it didn’t make my list of must-see fall films that year and as a matter of fact, a lot of critics wrote it off until they actually saw it. What it did turn out to be was the movie that was the bridge the summer blockbusters with the fall and winter hits in 2003. It’s safe to say we can all smell what The Rock is cooking: stardom and this was a very key ingredient in that dish.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock’s charisma and charm is in full flower. Well-written, poking fun at the Rock’s image while enhancing it. Nice action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Rock wasn’t as good an actor as he would later come to be and some of the scenes are a bit awkward. A bit cliché in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of violence (although nothing too over-the-top) and some crude dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There is a cameo by legendary action star Arnold Schwarzenegger as a patron in the bar scene. He happened on the set while filming an appearance as The Terminator for the Super Bowl. He was approached to do the shot and was agreeable. Fans have pointed to him saying “Have fun” to Johnson as a passing of the torch from one action legend to another.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on actor Christopher Walken and a parody feature on an E!-style channel about the monkeys.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $80.9M on an $85M production budget; the movie was unsuccessful on its theatrical run although I understand it has since become profitable on home video.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Tamara Drewe