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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Death at a Funeral (2010)


Death at a Funeral (2010)

Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence wonder if they should have remade Four Weddings and a Funeral instead.

(2010) Urban Comedy (Screen Gems) Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Loretta Devine, Danny Glover, Peter Dinklage, James Marsden, Luke Wilson, Zoe Saldana, Ron Glass, Columbus Short, Regina Hall, Keith David, Kevin Hart. Directed by Neil LaBute

A funeral is a time for somber reflection, to celebrate the life of someone who’s passed on. It is not a time for hi-jinks, which is why a movie about such tomfoolery is ripe to be funny – and was, in a 2007 British movie on which this was based.

The patriarch of an African-American family has passed away and his son Aaron (Rock) is organizing the funeral at the family home per daddy’s instructions. Aaron has dreams of being a writer, like his successful brother Ryan (Lawrence). Aaron’s mother (Devine) wants a grandchild, the lack of which she attributes for her husband’s death. His wife Michelle (Hall) is with mom, but she also wants to see Aaron give up on his dream and get to reality.

There are others coming to the funeral. Cantankerous Uncle Russell (Glover), Norman (Morgan) the hypochondriac, Elaine (Saldana) who has accidentally slipped her nervous white boyfriend Oscar (Marsden) a powerful hallucinogenic, and Derek (Wilson), Elaine’s ex who would love to get her back.

Throw in Frank (Dinklage), who had a homoerotic affair with the deceased and now wants to get paid (which astonishes Aaron that his brother is upset about it – not that Daddy’s butt buddy is short but that he’s white) and a mix-up regarding who’s in the coffin and you’ve got hi-jinks at a funeral, which is pretty much what a good comedy pitch would be.

Director LaBute has some of the most accomplished comics of our generation working in this movie; in all honesty, this should have been way funnier than it was. The problem here is not with the talent but with the energy – it seems to be more shtick than inspired. There are plenty of bits and some of them are rather funny – Marsden nearly steals the movie with his spaced out yuppie. Mostly the problem is that the characters are just so one –dimensional; they seem to exist to fill spots in the shtick, rather than to be living, breathing people for the viewer to relate to.

Rock, who is one of the funniest men on the planet when he is doing his own material, seems curiously subdued and even bored. He goes through the motions to my mind, and in many ways that’s the most egregious disappointment here. I really like Rock as a comedian and a comic actor but this seemed to lack energy and focus. I suspect he found the role to be so underwritten that he kind of just decided to phone things in.

Lawrence fares a little better but only a little bit. He has a bit more manic energy than the others, which helps him stand out. At the end of the day, however, his character is a bundle of clichés that never really gels into a cohesive whole. He does his best with it but by the end of the movie you can scarcely remember who he was playing or what motivated him.

Other than Dinklage and Marsden, most of the supporting cast is equally as forgettable and that’s a bloody shame. There is enormous talent here and it’s almost criminal that it was squandered so miserably. The movie that this was based on (and re-written by the original scribe) had some issues as well – that movie went for stuffy a little bit more than it needed to. Somewhere in between that movie and this one there is a comedy classic, but sadly it never really manifested itself in either movie. There are moments here that underscore the potential, but not enough to make you wish that the movie was the one in the coffin.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some great comedians in this movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: They don’t really have a lot to work with.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug use as well as a fair bit of foul language and a bit of sexually based humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Dinklage is the only actor to appear in both the 2007 movie and the remake in the same role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel and on the opposite end of the spectrum, a featurette in which the cast gives their thoughts on death and grieving. Huh?

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49.1M on a $24M production budget; the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Jane Eyre (2011)