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

Concussion


The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

(2015) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Mike O’Malley, Eddie Marsan, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Moyer, Richard T. Jones, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson, Sara Lindsey, Matthew Willig, Bitsie Tulloch, Kevin Jiggetts, Gary Grubbs, Joni Bovill. Directed by Peter Landesman

Football is our modern coliseum and the players our modern gladiators. They are admired, respected and beloved pretty much throughout the United States. When a character here says that the NFL “owns a day of the week – it used to belong to religion, but now it’s theirs,” he isn’t kidding. Football is a mania and nearly a religion itself.

But the game takes a toll. It is a game of violence, when behemoths smash and crash into each other like meteors in the asteroid belt. Helmets go flying, players wobble off, tottering on their cleats and sometimes, people get concussions. However, the National Football League takes precautions, don’t they?

When Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (Morse) dies unexpectedly at the age of 50, the city of Pittsburgh mourns. That he died homeless and some would whisper crazy is glossed over in the torrents of grief marking the loss of the city’s warrior. When it comes time to autopsy the body, the task is given to Bennet Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian immigrant who happens to be the forensic pathologist on duty at the Allegheny County Morgue.

What Omalu sees puzzles him. Apparently, Webster was in excellent shape. There were no toxins in his body that would explain his heart just stopping, or his erratic behavior in the years prior to his death. Why is this man dead, wondered Omalu although an antagonistic colleague (O’Malley) urges him to wrap it up. However, Omalu can’t do that. He orders expensive tests – that he pays for himself – to look into the why of Webster’s demise. What he finds is shocking.

Apparently repeated blows to the head can cause trauma that eventually causes early dementia, excruciating headaches, personality changes and suicidal tendencies. That condition is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE for short) and as he passes on his findings to his sympathetic boss Cyril Wecht (Brooks), other players like Dave Duerson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Andre Waters (Jones) and Justin Strzelczyk (Willig) begin to show signs of the same problem.

When Omalu takes his findings public, at first the NFL ignores them but as the good doctor persists to the point where the issue can’t be ignored, they go on the offensive and suddenly Omalu’s competency as a doctor is question as well as his status as an immigrant. In the midst of building a life in America with his new Kenyan wife Prema (Mbatha-Raw), his American dream may be turning into an American nightmare.

In some ways this is a very important story. The safety of the players should be of paramount importance to the league (you would think) as the players are their commodity. However, the NFL chose to fight against the safety of their player, reasoning that these findings could kill the game altogether. Maybe the game should be killed in that case – no game is worth dying for. I’m sure many readers will find that sacrilegious.

However, Landesman chooses to frame it in the love story between Prema and Omalu and then they draw Prema up as support girlfriend 101, with very little character to the character. She’s so bland that the only reason you can see Omalu falling in love is because Mbatha-Raw is so extraordinarily beautiful. However, the blandness isn’t Mbatha-Raw’s fault – she’s proven herself an outstanding actress. The fault is of the writers who chose to put most of their efforts into Omalu but also the male supporting characters, like Dr. Julian Bailes (Baldwin), a former Steeler team physician who becomes one of Omalu’s staunchest allies, and Dr. Wecht, whom Brooks imbues with a kind of menschiness, as New York Daily News reviewer Allen Salkin so aptly put it.

This is Smith’s movie however and he runs with it like Adrian Peterson through the secondary. Smith is often underrated as an actor because of his laid-back charm and his Fresh Prince grin. One forgets that he has two Oscar nominations (for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness) and some truly memorable performances in other movies. While his filmography of late hasn’t had the kind of success that he’s used to, he still has skills and he could very well get his third Oscar nomination for this performance.

&The movie doesn’t have the emotional punch that it probably should have, although being a non-football fan it might not resonate with me as much as it might. However, parents whose kids want to get into the game would do well to look into CTE and ways of preventing it (there are some excellent pads out there that protect players from concussions in the brain but also in the heart). The NFL certainly comes off here as a somewhat indifferent corporate entity more interested in maintaining the profits rather than the player’s long-term safety. It makes me wonder how the movie got permission to show the logos of the various teams and helmets on-camera and use game footage of NFL games. However, this is a movie in which the performance is better than the overall film. That’s not the last time you’ll hear that particular analysis of a film this holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: One of Smith’s best performances. An important issue for any fan or parent of a player.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian in places. Wastes Mbatha-Raw.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Willig, who plays Steeler defender Justin Strzelczyk in the movie, played in the National Football League for 14 years for among others, the Jets, Packers, Niners, Panthers and Rams (twice).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imitation Game
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Emperor’s New Clothes