The Medicine


The shaman prepares.

(2019) Documentary (1091) Taita Juanito Guillermo Chindoy Chindoy, AnnaLynne McCord, Kerry Rhodes, Graham Hancock, Daniel Pinchbeck, Mauricio Diazgranados, Rachel Harris, Mitra, Carlos Duran, Jeff McNair, Leonardo Cordero, Ricardo Diaz Mayorga, Jordi Riba, Stuart Townsend (narrator), Adrianna Jairsagua, Brandee Powell. Directed by Farzin Toussi

 

Ayahuasca is considered a dangerous drug here in the United States; it is illegal here. In the Amazon, however, it is an ancient plant concoction that has deep spiritual connotations; not only is it thought to be a means of seeing into another realm (it is certainly a hallucinogenic), it also heals spiritual, emotional and even physical ailments – it is thought that ayahuasca can actually regenerate brain cells, something modern science is unable to accomplish.

Deep in the forests of Colombia are the Inga people, directly descended from the Incas of Peru. They live pretty much the same way as their ancestors did, relying on the bounty of the rain forest to sustain them. Their wisdom comes from the natural world rather than the modern one. Their Taita (a term that encompasses a number of functions, including spiritual leader, medicine man and chief) but is usually one granted to older men. Taita Juanito Guillermo Chindoy Chindoy is something of a rarity; a Taita who was deemed so as a teen, he remains a vibrant young man with a gentle sense of humor.

For those who think that those native tribes to the rain forest are ignorant savages, think again; Taita Juanito has an impressive knowledge of botany, easily equivalent to a PhD. He believes that the ecological disasters are nature’s way of reacting to decades of abuse by humans and he might just have a point. Contributing to it is the rash of hatred that permeates Western culture recently.

Toussi utilizes several scientists (like staff botanist Mauricio Diazgranados from Kew Gardens in London, the pre-eminent botanical garden on the planet) to describe the science behind the spirituality; it turns out that ayahuasca isn’t a single plant but made up as a brew of two distinctive plants; one containing the hallucinogen, the other helping deliver it to the brain cells and retain it there (the effect of the ayahuasca vine by itself is only momentary by itself).

For much of the latter half of the film, we follow the journey of two American celebrities – former NFL defensive back Kerry Rhodes and actress/activist AnnaLynne McCord. The former is trying to connect with his emotions, something frowned upon in football culture; he is also concerned about the effects multiple concussions may have had on his brain and hopes that ayahuasca will mitigate them. As for McCord, she was physically and sexually abused at a younger age and now has difficulty forming romantic connections and emotional intimacy.

Both undergo the ayahuasca ritual with varying results; Rhodes seems more receptive to it and went back for several more treatments. McCord, who had a suspicion of mind-altering drugs to begin with (she doesn’t use recreational drugs or alcohol) seemed less so. Taita Juanito allowed part of the ritual to be filmed, although once the ayahuasca was introduced he would allow only audio recording.

There is some beautiful cinematography of the forest, as you’d expect. One thing I found a little bit bizarre is that the filmmakers note that they resent the lumping of ayahuasca as a drug, with the negative connotations that come with it; yet when.  discussing the effects of it, they use psychedelic imagery more common with depictions of LSD usage. The images are pretty trippy, though.

Unlike other documentaries on ayahuasca, there is more of a scientific grounding here. Yes, a good number of the talking heads here are students of Taita Juanito – some might say disciples – who seem a little redundant when you have Juanito himself available. There is no doubt that he’s a wise man, one with a bit of impishness to him and not at all what you would visualize when the word “shaman” is mentioned.

Particularly early on, the movie is kind of jumbled and a little hard to follow. Eventually it settles down, concentrating on McCord and Rhodes and their interactions with Taita Juanito. The movie would have benefitted from better organization and a little less hagiographic interviews.

The debate about ayahuasca in this country remains not a debate at all; while pharmaceutical companies have been looking into the substance, there has been no serious studies done on it nor does there seem to be a serious movement to have it reclassified. Ayahuasca treatments will remain, for Americans, the domain of the rich and daring. The benefits of the plants in the Amazon are likely to be game-changers, although given the current Brazilian regime the Amazon basin is being handled as a place for exploitation. As time goes by, the shrinking rain forest may see an end to the culture of these indigenous tribes, perhaps in the lifetimes of some of our younger readers. All of that knowledge would then be lost and knowledge lost is always a human tragedy.

REASONS TO SEE: Taita Juanito is a compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really a linear documentary; organized in kind of a scattershot way.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is – I gotta say it – drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ayahuasca is listed in the United States as a Schedule 1 drug which indicates no medical benefit, despite never having been tested for such.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Shaman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Where Sleeping Dogs Lie

Ceremony


All that's needed is a sexy R&B tune and you have a perfect romantic scene.

All that’s needed is a sexy R&B tune and you have a perfect romantic scene.

(2010) Comedy (Magnolia) Uma Thurman, Michael Angarano, Lee Pace, Reece Thompson, Rebecca Mader, Jake Johnson, Brooke Bloom, Harper Dill, Nathalie Love, Charlie Moss, Lisby Larson, Paul Amodeo, Philip Carlson, Catherine Russell, Jack Koenig, Jerrin Holt, Von Jeff. Directed by Max Winkler

Love is tricky. It is the ultimate expression of selflessness – putting the needs of someone else ahead of your own. It is also the ultimate expression of selfishness – we fall in love because of the way we feel, not because of the way we make someone else feel.

Sam Davis (Angarano) is an author of children’s books who, let’s face it, isn’t very good at what he does. His books are unnecessarily violent and profane and when he gives readings, only his pal Marshall (Thompson) is apt to show up and even that isn’t a given. Sam and Marshall have been squabbling of late and Sam decides to take Marshall out to a nice home out in the Hamptons to get away for awhile.

Marshall should have known that Sam was up to something. His ex Zoe (Thurman) is getting married to the egocentric and insufferable documentary filmmaker Whit Coutell (Pace) whose home it is they are going to and Sam intends to crash the wedding and win Zoe back. Marshall kind of goes along with this and Zoe certainly seems to be against the whole idea but Sam is nothing if not persistent.

Somewhat unbelievably, Sam is invited to stick around by the pompous Whit and sets out to win his girl back, despite the fact that on the surface they are far from suited for each other; Zoe towers over Sam, for example and is old enough to be his mom. However that’s just surface fluff; love goes much deeper than that and Sam is confident that Zoe will come around.

Different story for the rest of us. Winkler’s full-length feature film debut is unsatisfying on a lot of different levels. For one thing the characters here seem to be more of a collection of quirks and one-note characteristics – he’s suicidal, she’s a slut and so on and so on – and less genuine human beings who you would meet and want to hang out with. These are more like people who exist to advance a plot, or to provide elements of humor. Think of a film populated with sketch characters from the late-80s SNL and you get the idea.

Angarano has shown promise in movies like Almost Famous and more recently in The Forbidden Kingdom but hasn’t really fulfilled it yet. Like many young actors in Hollywood he is looking for that right role that will define him and push him up to the next level but to date he hasn’t found it yet. His character can be a bit overbearing and tends to pontificate and speechify more than speak. He’d be one of those cats you would never take on a road trip because you’d end up leaving him stranded at a truck stop or something.

Thurman seems to be slumming here. She’s a terrific actress who has come a long way since being know mainly for being beautiful (and she still is) but she’s acting in a different movie than everyone else here. I wish I’d been watching her movie; it seems far more interesting than this one.

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t completely devoid of charm and there are some moments that are genuinely funny but not enough of them. I think Winkler was going for quirky in  a Wes Anderson kind of way and wound up being quirky in a Lars von Trier kind of way. The way that makes an audience stare longingly at the exit.

Winkler seems capable enough a director and visually this is a good looking film. I think he has some good films inside him but the Hollywood learning curve can be brutal. I hope he gets a chance to make those good films coz I’d hate for this to be his cinematic legacy.

WHY RENT THIS: Some funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Characters tend to be one-note caricatures instead of three-dimensional human beings. Sam is annoying and borderline creepy.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few curse words here and there, some sexuality and a bit of drug usage.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winkler is the son of actor Henry Winkler, better known as the Fonz.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A faux documentary by Whit is one of the features here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22,270 on an unreported production budget; it’s extremely unlikely that the film was profitable during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Made of Honor

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Croods