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

Hollywood Beauty Salon


Lookin' GOOD!!

Lookin’ GOOD!!

(2016) Documentary (Paladin) Rachel “Hollywood” Carr Timms, Sanetta “Butterfly” Watkins, Darlene Holmes Malone, Glenn Holsten, Crystal Smith, Rashida Herring, Edward Kozempel, Anthony Young, Paris Tyree, Serena Carter, Viola Wilson, Clyde Joelle, Paul Barnes, Cheryl Cobb, Irene Tindal, Margo Chavis, Marva Evans, Diane Daniels, Wilbur Ruhl, Laverne Davenport. Directed by Glenn Holsten

 

As a society we have a tendency to try to funnel the mentally ill, the substance abusers and the poor into places where we can’t see them, where they can languish largely forgotten by the world. The sad thing is that these are all human beings – troubled to be sure, but still just as human as you or I. They have feelings, they have dreams, they have hopes and they have lives. Generally, we don’t give them credit for any of that.

One glimpse of Hollywood Beauty Salon may change your minds. These aren’t drooling, feeble-minded village idiots who can’t dress themselves; at least one of them has a college degree (two of them, at that) and all of them compassion for one another. The stories they have to tell are often horrific; tales of witnessing their mothers commit suicide when they themselves are only five years old and tales of abusive relationships ending in gunfire. These are tales of bullying and foster care, of drug abuse and despair. These people have overcome some genuinely nightmarish pasts and have done so hampered by schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar disorder and clinical depression. It’s amazing that some of them are here at all.

One of their number, Rachel “Hollywood” Carr Timms, managed to fight through the pain of losing a baby followed in short order by her partner being murdered; suicidal and hearing voices, she got the help she needed and in fact got a license as a certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner, enabling her to give back to the community that helped her on the road to recovery. She set up a beauty salon in a mental health recovery complex in the largely African-American district of Germantown in Philadelphia, citing that feeling beautiful helps with the recovery process. Training some of the residents there to cut hair, do manicures and pedicures and apply cosmetics helps give the residents marketable skills they can eventually use to get employment.

But strangely despite the title, this isn’t about the salon, although it does serve as something of a center for the film. It’s about the people in it; their stories, told through dramatic recreations, animated sequences or the old-fashioned way – talking to the camera and/or to each other. Filmmaker Glenn Holsten not only shows us the stories of these people but in a curious meta sort of way, shows us how the documentary itself was put together. For my money, that’s some impressive innovation.

The gist of the film is that under the aegis of Timms, the Salon is about to put on their second annual Hair and Fashion Recovery Show, in which the various clients and stylists of the Salon not only show off their skills but also their tales of recovery. We get to meet Sanetta Watkins, who wants to be known as Butterfly – not only because she loves them and their colorful wings but because they are a symbol of herself, coming out of a self-created chrysalis of loneliness and blossoming into a functioning, social human being. We also meet Edward Kozempel, once a bright and promising flutist who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and cancer – he loses everything, including his ability to make music and lives out in the streets until the program in Germantown finds him.

Dorothy Holmes Malone tells us a harrowing tale of how she grew up in foster care, always hungry and rarely being allowed to bathe except when social workers were coming for an inspection and endured a childhood full of bullying. She allows her tale to be told through dramatic recreation, her story so affecting one of the child actresses that she bursts into tears to be comforted by Malone herself.

But it is Hollywood’s story that really is at the emotional center of the film; it is hard to imagine losing nearly everything you love in life. She contemplated suicide and only her last remaining child, Cadence, convinced her to stay with the living. “Life is a choice,” she says in typical blunt fashion. She is as compassionate as they come but she can be a drill sergeant when she has to be. To me, Hollywood is the kind of hero America really needs, someone who overcame tremendous odds and gives back to her community in a tangible way. When she is doing some glamour shots for the Show, we get to see some of her inner joy and it is contagious. Everyone needs a little Hollywood in their lives.

Given the headlines of late of terrorism, mass murder and of a Presidential election that is perhaps the most depressing event in American history, it is refreshing to see a story like this one. One might even say it is necessary to our continued mental health to know that there are people out there with the kind of hearts and courage that these people exhibit just to get through their day. Sure, they break down from time to time but for the most part, these people are just like you and me. They have dreams. They have hopes. They have lives. And I’m glad we got to share a little bit in them. It truly made my day a lot better and how often can a movie do that?

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that shows a whole lot of heart but brings a whole lot of tears. The stories as horrifying as they sometimes are all are triumphant in their own way. The animations truly enhance the story.
REASONS TO STAY: The story jumps around a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very adult themes coupled with some sexual references and allusions to violence and drug/alcohol abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over the course of four years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life, Animated
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Ghostbusters (2016)

Side Effects


Is this what depression looks like?

Is this what depression looks like?

(2013) Psychological Thriller (Open Road) Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, David Costabile, Mamie Gummer, Vinessa Shaw, Michael Nathanson, Sheila Tapia, Ann Dowd, Debbie Friedlander, Polly Draper, Marin Ireland, Katie Lowes, Elizabeth Rodriguez. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

As a society we’re drug-happy. Our physicians and psychiatrists prescribe willy-nilly and Big Pharma encourages them to. Modern American medicine has largely become a matter of knowing what pill to prescribe. That’s not to deny there haven’t been serious advances in pharmaceuticals – but the question has to be asked if we rely on them overly much.

You would think Emily Taylor (Mara) would be happy. Her husband Martin (Tatum) is getting out of prison after doing four years for insider trading. Sure, their lives which had been all about privilege and pampering had gone to a more hand-to-mouth lifestyle but at least they’re together. Emily though suffers from depression and after a failed suicide attempt is sent to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), an expatriate Brit plying his psychiatric trade on American shores.

Various prescriptions of anti-depressants prove to be ineffective until Jonathan runs into Emily’s former shrink Dr. Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones) at a conference. They discuss her condition and Victoria recommends Ablixa, a fairly new drug, as an alternative (she’s even got a promotional pen to give him). Dr. Banks agrees to give it a try.

At first it’s everything advertised; Emily feels a lot better, her sex drive has returned and things are looking rosy. There are a few blips on the radar – she’s sleepwalking which is a common side effect of Ablixa but that’s not worth stopping the treatment. That’s when a tragedy occurs that changes everything, turning Emily’s life upside down and calling into question Dr. Banks’ abilities as a psychiatrist and threatening to destroy his life as well.

Soderbergh excels in these sorts of psychological thrillers and while this isn’t his best, it’s still a solid effort. He has a strong cast (particularly among the lead four) and casts Law perfectly into a role he specializes in. Law is equally adept at playing heroes and villains, largely because he is a bit twitchy to begin with but is also likable. That serves him well here as he is somewhat morally ambiguous although clearly he’s also having his strings pulled.

Mara has only had three leading roles thus far but she’s been excellent in all of them and here she plays a completely different character than her last big part – seemingly mousy, frightened of the world and everything in it, somewhat high maintenance. She’s a bit of an enigma and the movie relies on her being so. Plenty of actresses can be enigmatic but Mara makes her engaging enough that you want to see her get better, want to protect her and take care of her. That’s exactly what the part calls for.

Longtime readers know I’m not especially a fan of Tatum’s acting but in all honesty he does pretty darn well here. He’s certainly morally ambiguous – all of the characters are, a Soderbergh trademark – but he’s also much more warm and likable than I’ve ever seen him. I might just have to revise my opinion about the man.

Zeta-Jones has of late done some fine character acting. She’s still as beautiful as ever but her range has always been much greater than she’s been given credit for and she gets to stretch it a bit here. I’ve always liked her as an actress and she’s given me no reason to think differently now.

While well-written and even brilliant in places, writer Scott Z. Burns falters in the middle third. However the beginning and the last 25 minutes or so are taut and imaginative. You may see some of the solution coming but it’s unlikely you’ll see the whole picture unless you’re pretty damn clever and observant. This is an effective thriller that is sharp, brainy and sexy – everything you want in the genre. That’s not as common as you’d expect.

REASONS TO GO: Skillfully written thriller. Law and Mara deliver fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity to skewer Big Pharma. Middle third muddles about a bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sex, a bit of nudity, a surfeit of foul language and some sudden and graphic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Soderbergh has said that this will be his final feature film as a director (he’s currently putting the finishing touches on a premium cable mini-series) although he hasn’t ruled out coming back to the profession in the future.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100; the film has been getting good reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Firm

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Warm Bodies