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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Apocalypto


These fellas want to talk to the critics about the negative reviews.

These fellas want to talk to the critics about the negative reviews.

(2006) Adventure (Touchstone) Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Amilcar Ramirez, Israel Contreras, Israel Rios, Isabel Diaz, Espiridion Acosta Cache, Mayra Serbulo, Iazua Larios, Lorena Hernandez, Itandehui Gutierrez, Sayuri Gutierrez, Hiram Soto, Jose Suarez, Raoul Trujillo, Gerardo Taracena. Directed by Mel Gibson

Hey, does anybody remember when Mel Gibson was one of the pre-eminent directors in Hollywood? When Braveheart won Oscars and he was the sexiest man alive and the darling of talk shows? I can’t think of a single actor who fell as far as Gibson did through mostly his own doing. Lindsay Lohan comes to mind but even her fall was less spectacular because she never achieved the heights that Gibson did in his heyday.

On the heels of his unexpected hit Passion of the Christ which was the first film to show Hollywood the box office power of the Christian audiences and essentially gave birth to a whole new subgenre – the Christian-funded and directed films which are largely promoted through churches and group sales, Gibson turned his attention to ancient Mesoamerica. This movie, with dialogue entirely in native languages (ancient Mayan although how accurate the language is can only be verified by scholars; I don’t remember any objecting at the time this came out) is supposedly taken from portions of the Popol Vuh, an 18th century collection of ancient Mayan myths and oral histories written down by a Spanish Dominican priest and was acted largely by a cast of locals.

Jaguar Paw (Youngblood) lives in a quiet village on the modern Yucatan peninsula with his pregnant wife and child. He is young, handsome and as the son of the tribal chief already starting to gain the respect of the tribe. While on a hunting expedition he and his friends come upon an unfamiliar tribe who ask politely for passage through their territory; their own homeland was overrun by a vicious tribe of Mayans and they are refugees trying to find a new place to settle down.

Jaguar Paw is disquieted by this and his misgivings turn out to be merited; the same vicious tribe attacks his own tribe. Jaguar Paw, already a bit paranoid, manages to secret his wife and child in a deep pit where they can’t be seen by the invaders. The rest of the tribe are raped, gutted or captured to be taken to the Mayan city to be sacrificed. Jaguar Paw knows that he has to somehow get away and make his way back to the now-deserted village or else his wife and child will surely starve to death.

Gibson is no stranger to violence and cruelty in his movies. Even his more mainstream films can show some fairly extreme brutality and this film may be the most violent in his filmography. There are hearts ripped out of chests, jaguars ripping faces off, arrows protruding into basically anywhere on the body an arrow can protrude from, people eviscerated with dull blades…the list goes on. Some critics took issue with this at the time, pointing out that the Mayan culture was also responsible for advances in mathematics and astronomy. The American South also had some of the finest writers and musicians of the 19th century but oddly enough nobody bitched about 12 Years a Slave failing to portray that part of Southern culture nor did it need to. It always blows my mind when critics miss the point so badly. I certainly disagree with the critics who said that the final images gave them a sense of relief. From my take, it was more a sense of foreboding.

Then again, Gibson was already under fire about his drunken anti-Semitic remarks for the first time, an incident that occurred while the film was in production which undoubtedly soured a number of critics on the film. Not that I agree with Gibson’s point of view in that regard, but part of what we’re supposed to do as critics is separate the work from the worker, the art from the artist. My opinions of Mel Gibson the human being shouldn’t inform my opinions of the films he directs. Braveheart is still a terrific movie. The Lethal Weapon series is still entertaining.

This is a gorgeous looking film (if you overlook all the blood and gore) and Rudy Youngblood in the heroic lead is astonishing. I thought that he had all the screen charisma needed to become a huge star but sadly that didn’t happen, or at least not yet and not here. Looking at his performance now, he captures the feeling of a smart hunter, one who operates more on instinct than intellect and one who knows the jungle and its dangers intimately. He is out of place in the city of the Mayans and the escape sequence is nothing short of thrilling.

As someone who loves history I have to applaud Gibson’s willingness to tackle an era and a place not often explored in the movies. I wish that other films since then went back to the ancient Mayan civilization and looked at it from different perspectives but to date that hasn’t really happened much. Hopefully some filmmaker with little regard for Hollywood’s restraints will go that road someday.

I have mentioned the violence and the gore several times and I will admit that as time goes by in the film you get kind of numb to it and those who are sensitive (if they last that long) may find the blood and guts wearying after awhile. However, I have to also point out that these things are part of the story and necessary to the point Gibson is trying to make. It isn’t necessarily a pleasant one and the brutality certainly gets your attention.

I think that this is a brilliant, underrated film. If you can get past Gibson’s sins as a person and simply look at the movie as if it were directed by someone else, you may find yourself appreciating the artistry and the independence from the Hollywood mainstream. This isn’t like any movie the major studios have produced before or since and likely ever again. This is one of those movies that may take a little bit of getting used to but it is worth the investment.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed. Exhilarating action scenes. A look at a time and place rarely seen in American cinemas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The violence and sadism wears on you.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some very graphic violence as well as some pretty disturbing images; not for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The digital special effects crew playfully added a single frame of Waldo from Where’s Waldo? lying on the pile of dead bodies.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.7M on a $40M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Road to El Dorado

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Inside Llewyn Davis

Rio


Rio

Linda (foreground, in the blue) gets her inner samba on.

(2011) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, George Lopez, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, Jermaine Clement, Carlos Ponce, Jane Lynch, Wanda Sykes, Thomas F. Wilson. Directed by Carlos Saldanha

The benchmarks for animated features have been Disney for traditional animations and Pixar for computer animations. While some recent entries into the field have shown some promise, for the most part the best animated features to come from places other than the Mouse have largely been those with their own style and subject matter.

Fox has had success with their Ice Age trilogy (a fourth entry makes its way into theaters next year) and the makers of those films have turned their eyes to more sultry climes, the Brazilian paradise of Rio de Janeiro. However, things start off initially in the Arctic-like environment of Moose Lake, Minnesota where lives Linda (Mann), who found a blue macaw that had been stolen from the rain forests of Brazil and sent to the United States for purchase (except it had fallen off the truck). Blu (Eisenberg) lives a very pampered life, warm and secure in Linda’s bookstore, wanting for nothing and being provided with every little need by the doting Linda. They have a wonderful life together.

Into their life walks Tulio (Santoro), a Brazilian ornithologist who informs Linda that Blu is one of only two blue macaws left in the world and that it is imperative that he be mated with the last female, who is in Rio. Because they have a controlled environment available in his bird research center, it is decided that it would be easier to bring Blu to the mountain rather than the mountain to Blu. Reluctantly, Linda agrees to it although she’s not too enthusiastic about leaving home – she has no desire to see the world, somewhat refreshing amongst spunky animated movie heroines.

Blu is flown down and shoved into a lovely environment with Jewel (Hathaway) who wants nothing more than to escape captivity. She is not really interested in mating, particularly with a pampered pet that can’t even fly. The two don’t get along at all which means of course they are going to get along GREAT by the end of the movie.

An amoral poacher named Marcel (Ponce) sends a couple of thugs and a nasty cockatoo named Nigel (Clements) to kidnap the two blues, knowing that as the last of their species they’ll fetch a hefty price. Together Blu and Jewel manage to escape and flee to the rain forest where they are aided by a crafty toucan named Rafael (Lopez), a couple of disreputable looking birds named Nico (Foxx) and Pedro (will.i.am) and a drooling doggie named Luis (Morgan). With Nigel and a barrelful of monkeys looking for them, Blu unable to fly and Linda and Tulio desperately searching for them, it will be a long walk back home. Oh, and did I mention it’s Carnival time in Rio?

In many ways this is the most Disney-like of all the Blue Sky/Fox films. From the score to the musical numbers, this looks and sounds very much like a traditional animated Disney film, from the bright colors to the cute, cuddly anthropomorphized parrots. This is going to appeal to the very young and the merchandising that’s sure to go on is going to drive the kiddies absolutely bonkers and their parents to the poorhouse.

The problem here is that all the color is on the screen – none of it went into the characters, who are all as bland as can be and could have been culled from dozens of animated movies and television shows. And for a movie set in Brazil there’s little to no spice and this movie could have used some. Brazil has some beautiful, exotic locations but one gets the feeling that the farthest the animators went to research their drawings was the Jungle River Cruise and Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland.

Sure, it’s a great looking movie but I for one am getting tired of animated features that extol kids to believe in themselves. Judging from surveys, self-belief and self-confidence isn’t something our children are lacking. Rio looks good but in the end it’s like cotton candy – colorful but lacking any substance.

REASONS TO GO: Lush and colorful, with some beautifully drawn images.

REASONS TO STAY: Stock characters and story; trying too hard to be Disney-esque and wind up without much of an identity.

FAMILY VALUES: This is absolutely fine for any family – nothing for parents to be concerned about for any ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The makers of the wildly popular Angry Birds game created a version of the game set in Rio as a tie-in with the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: It’s beautiful and the kids are gonna insist.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Hanna