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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Sinister 2


Bughuul reminds us there's no talking in the theater or else he sends these kids after you.

Bughuul reminds us there’s no talking in the theater or else he sends these kids after you.

(2015) Horror (Gramercy) James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Tate Ellington, John Beasley, Lucas Jade Zumarin, Jaden Klein, Laila Haley, Caden M. Fritz, Olivia Rainey, Nicholas King, Michael B. Woods, Tory O. Davis, Howie Johnson, Grace Holuby, John Francis Mountain, Nicole Santini. Directed by Ciarán Foy

There are monsters in this world; people who beat their wives, their children. People who create an atmosphere of fear, all so they can feel like a big man. One can run away from monsters like that; but then there’s no running away from the demons that follow you.

Courtney Collins (Sossamon) has separated from her husband with the intention of divorcing him. He is an abusive, evil man who has turned her twin sons Dylan (R.D. Sloan) and Zach (D. Sloan) into a terrified, nightmare-ridden boy (the former) and a mean, spiteful kid (the latter). She has found an old farmhouse with a de-consecrated church in the yard.

What she doesn’t know is that the house was the scene of a horrible crime in which an entire family was slaughtered – chained to the church floor and eaten alive by rats – with the young son missing. Investigating the crime is a Detective (Ransone) who was once a Deputy investigating a similar crime in the first Sinister. It weighs heavily on his mind that he couldn’t save his friend Ellison Oswalt and his family from the same fate; in fact, he was accused and later acquitted of the heinous crime, although he lost his job over it.

Now he has made it his mission to stop the demon Bughuul who is responsible for these murders. Bughuul, through the lost children he abducts, influences a child in a family moving into the home where one of these murders occurs to become his minion; when the family moves out, the child films the gruesome murders he commits. Afterwards, Bughuul takes his soul to join his legion of lost children.

Now the kids are after Dylan, showing him the murder films which stop the nightmares. The Detective is unnerved to find people living in the house – he’d been told it was vacant and had plans to burn it to the ground, stopping the demon’s reign of terror. He grows attracted to Courtney and the feeling is mutual. But with her ex Clinton (Coco) hot on her trail and hell bent on taking the kids back home with him, with no judge or law enforcement official in rural Indiana willing to stand up to the wealthy Clinton, Courtney is caught between hell and a hard place – literally.

Although a sequel pretty much to the first Sinister, this has little in common with the first film. No Ethan Hawke, for one thing – Sossamon is the biggest name in the cast which helps keep the costs low and the profit margin high. Scott Derrickson, who directed the original, is still on board as co-writer and producer but it is Irish director Foy, who has a nifty thriller called The Citadel to his credit, in the chair here.

The first film was incredibly creepy; the atmosphere was much more intense than it is here. There is more a Children of the Corn vibe which is said to be on purpose; Foy had wanted the film to be a tribute to the Stephen King story which spawned a plethora of cinematic stinkers – and has a lot in common thematically with both of the Sinister films. While some might find the homespun Indiana cornfield look frightening, it doesn’t quite do it for me personally.

Ransone does, though. Moving from a background comedy relief character to genuine horror hero, we get the kind of hero we can all get behind; he’s not brawny or a particularly good fighter (he gets beaten up at least twice during the film) but he is smart and sympathetic. He’s a nice guy whom we fear is going to finish last.

The movie’s subtext having to do with abusive husbands/fathers is welcome. Often the physical abuse is given as a reason as why abused kids turn into psychotic serial killers but here it is shown as terrifying as anything the demon can conjure up; there’s a scene where the Collins family is having dinner and Clinton eats first while the others sit in frightened silence, awaiting the signal that they can eat. It’s as stark and scary a scene in any horror movie this year. Sadly, none of the Bughuul stuff can equal it.

Part of the problem is that the kid actors in the movie who take up most of the screen time range from adequate to hard to watch. A movie like this by necessity requires a good number of child actors and that’s a double edged sword; if you can get good ones, it ratchets up the fear factor. If not, it can make your film look amateurish. It doesn’t quite sink to that level, but it certainly isn’t elevated by the performances of the children. And that’s not a knock on the kids, mind you – I don’t think it’s for lack of effort on their part, but they do have an awful lot of burden on their shoulders and that might be a little too much to ask of them.

Another issue I had with the movie is the various snuff films. The death scenes are so elaborate that to a large extent they aren’t believable. Sure, the kids are being helped by a demonic presence but it doesn’t feel like a kid could come up with these complex killing methods, ranging from putting a family on crucifixes and burning them alive to hanging them upside down above a swamp where alligators take their heads off. Gruesome fun to be sure, but not believable gruesome fun.

Even despite the deficiencies this ends up with a slightly higher rating than the first Sinister, largely because the ending of the first one was such a stinker. The ending here is a lot better; and while Bughuul is not the terrifying monster that maybe this franchise needs, the movie is scary enough in a white bread kind of way that it makes the movie worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: Fairly creepy. Ransone steps up nicely. Like the inclusion of the abusive father.
REASONS TO STAY: Children of the Corn vibe doesn’t work. The filmed death scenes too elaborate. Overreliance on kid actors.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, much of it gruesome; bloody and disturbing images, and some fairly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only returning characters from the first film are Bughuul himself and the Detective, who in the first film was Deputy So & So (he never gets a name); here he is Detective So & So.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Insidious
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mistress America