Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)


Ain't no mountain high enough.

Ain’t no mountain high enough.

(2015) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Nilbio Torres, Jan Bijvoet, Antonio Bolivar, Brionne Davis, Yauenkű Migue, Nicolás Cancino, Luigi Sciamanna. Directed by Ciro Guerra

 

The journeys we undertake aren’t always the journeys we intend to make. We see ourselves as searching for something, but it isn’t always what we’re searching for that we’re destined to find.

This black and white masterpiece is the story of Karamakate, a native of the Amazonian rain forest who as a young man (Torres) removed himself from his tribe after white Imperialists, on the hunt for rubber, essentially massacred most of them. When a German scientist named Theo van Martius (Bijvoet) arrives at his hut, asking for help in locating yakruna, a plant with reputed medicinal qualities that might save him from the disease that is killing him. Karamakate, with a severe mistrust of whites, is disinclined to assist but Theo’s aide Manduca (Migue), also a native, implores the shaman Karamakate gives in.

Forty years later, an aged Karamakate (Bolivar) encounters another scientist, this one named Evan (Davis) who is searching for yakruna to gain knowledge rather than for any professed self-interest. By this age, the shaman is less aggressive in his dislike for Europeans and agrees to accompany Evan on the journey to find the plant, although he believes Evan already knows where it is – because Karamakate has begun to forget.

This is a movie that takes its cues from such disparate sources as Apocalypse Now!, Fitzcarraldo and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Joseph Conrad would most certainly have approved. The journey into the jungle is one that filmmakers and writers have been fascinated with for a long time, of civilized men venturing into places where no modern civilization exists. We’ve often seen these movies through the viewpoints of the outsiders; here, we are seeing the story of one of the natives, one disillusioned with the world that is changing into something that he realizes will destroy his people and his culture – even the eternal jungle itself.

He chose to film this in black and white, and forego the vibrant colors of the rain forest. Some might think he’s absolutely nuts for doing this, but I think it’s a brilliant move. By going black and white, he brings the film to its own essence and refuses to dazzle us and distract us with the vivid colors of the Amazon. The waters become murky and as ink; the shadows deepen and the light becomes more vivid. We are left instead to ponder the journey itself rather than the scenery.

Memory is another theme to the movie, as Karamakate grows older he is unable to interpret the glyphs on the side of his hut, or remember things like where the last yakruna is growing. There are various encounters that lead the filmmaker to posit that the cultures of the Amazon are forgetting themselves as the incursion of Europeans into the delta have driven cultural memory out in the insatiable urge for exploitation and profit.

The acting, much of it by natives of the Colombian rainforest, is natural. We never get a sense of people playing roles as much as people inhabiting them. The mesmerizing script is the story here as we see the results of colonialism, toxic to the Europeans as it was to the natives albeit not in the same way. The movie is based on the diaries of two real life explorers of roughly the same era as depicted here. The only misstep is a psychedelic sequence (the only color sequence in the film) near the end of the movie. It doesn’t really add anything and seems to be more of a tip of the hat to Stanley Kubrick than anything else.

This is a powerful movie, one that takes you on a journey into the heart of darkness and populates it with taciturn forest dwellers, brutal priests, broken slaves and messianic madmen. This Oscar nominee really didn’t get the kind of buzz that other movies, backed by bigger studios, received but it deserved its place at the table. Definitely one of the best movies of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A haunting and powerful treatise. Gorgeous black and white photography. Treats natives with respect.
REASONS TO STAY: A psychedelic sequence near the end (the only color in the film) is ill-advised.
FAMILY VALUES: Some aboriginal nudity, a little bit of violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from Columbia to make the final nominations for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apocalypse Now!
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: A Space Program

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Moonrise Kingdom


Moonrise Kingdom

Edward Norton and his band of brown-shirted scouts are out on serious business.

(2012) Comedy (Focus) Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzmann, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, L.J. Foley, Jake Ryan, Charlie Kilgore, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Neal Huff, Lucas Hedges, Gabriel Rush, Tanner Flood. Directed by Wes Anderson

 

There is something about young love in the 1960s. There’s something innocent about it, more so than today where kids have access to so much information, both good and bad. Few 12-year-olds are completely innocent of sex in 2012; in 1965 that was not the case.

Sam (Gilman) is a bit of a misfit. He’s an orphan (although it isn’t on any of his registry forms) living with foster parents. He finds great delight in camping with the Khaki Scouts on nearby Prentice Island, of the coast of New England. The island has no paved roads and is mostly uninhabited, save for a family at Summer’s End living in the old lighthouse – the Bishops, whose daughter Suzy (Hayward) is beautiful beyond her 12 years.

Sam met her at a church play when, bored, he went backstage to talk to the girls whom Sam was just discovering. The two began corresponding and soon realized that there was more than just like going on; it was love. Sam is distinctly unpopular, socially awkward and always saying or doing the wrong thing. He likes to puff on a pipe, not so much to smoke but because he likes the gravitas it gives him.

Suzy is a free spirit, whose lawyer parents Walt (Murray) and Laura (McDormand) communicate by bullhorn and display little warmth. Her fellow siblings listen to Benjamin Britton’s symphony on a tiny battery-operated record player that her brother Murry (Flood) hoards jealously.

They decide to run away together, accomplishing the feat in a manner right out of The Great Escape. They hike to an isolated cove over an Indian trail, Sam lugging all the survival gear they could possibly need while Suzy brings a collection of stolen library books (all of which are about strong heroines in magic or interplanetary kingdoms), a collection of 45s, the record player, her cat and a supply of cat food.

When Scoutmaster Ward (Norton) discovers Sam’s absence. He immediately notifies Captain Sharp (Willis) of the island police force – okay, he is the island police force. A search party is mounted and when Sharp stops by the Bishops, it is discovered that Suzy is missing too. All of this goes on while a monster storm approaches the island.

Anderson has a tendency to polarize audiences. Either you get him or you don’t; either you like him or can’t stand him. His movies have a sense of surrealism; just off-kilter enough to leave you off-balance as you watch it. Some people don’t like their realities being messed with but Anderson seems to get his jollies out of tilting people’s perceptions enough for them to gather some unexpected perspective.

Murray is perhaps his favorite actor – he uses him in almost all of his films. He is more of a sidereal character here; the sideshow, not the main attraction. In fact, most of the name actors are. The movie, instead, belongs to Hayward and Gilman. They are not precious as some juvenile actors are, nor do you get a sense that they are play-acting, as most juvenile actors do. Instead, they fill their roles and are at times called upon to do some fairly adult things – kissing, for example, and cuddling. You get the sense of the mutual attraction and Hayward has the kind of ethereal beauty that if it translates into adulthood is going to make her one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood – or the most beautiful women in whatever field she chooses.

Anderson shot the movie in 16mm and overexposed the film a bit, giving it an almost watercolor look. It has a sense of nostalgia, like a movie made in 1965 and only recently discovered but also a washed out look that is warm and inviting. Anderson is a director known for choosing color carefully and the khakis of the scout uniforms, the mustard yellow of their handkerchiefs blend in perfectly with the fields of grass that are slowly browning as autumn approaches. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, even more so in memory.

Critics have been going out of their minds with praise for this one, with several proclaiming it the finest movie of the year thus far. I am not completely convinced of it; there are times that Anderson seems to be quirky for its own sake, plus some of the sets look a little overly much like sets. A more naturalistic environment might have really benefitted as a contrast with the surreal goings-on.

Still, this is a very good movie that is going to be getting a wide opening this weekend. It has already been out in limited release since the end of May and has been doing good business indeed. This might turn out to be the sleeper hit of the summer, much like Midnight in Paris was last year. The Oscars might be remembering it in February much the same as it did the Woody Allen hit as well.

REASONS TO GO: Fine performances, surprisingly so from the juveniles. Laugh out loud funny in places, sweet in others.

REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too quirky for some – a definitely acquired taste.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexual content and a good deal of smoking. Also a bit of drinking as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot with 16mm cameras to give it a look like it was made in the 60s.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. The critics are falling all over themselves with praise.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flipped

CAMPING LOVERS: The woodcraft that Sam espouses to Suzy is actually quite valid and is taught by the Boy Scouts today.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rock of Ages