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), his parents 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, elite schools of that nature tend to put an enormous amount of pressure 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

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My Love, Don’t Cross That River


Love transcends everything.

Love transcends everything.

(2014) Documentary (Film Movement) Byeong-man Jo, Gye-Yeol Kang, Doh-yeong Jo, Kaum-yeo Hyun, Daeh-yeong Jo, Bong-nam Kim, Keum-ja Jo, Sang-hyeong Jo, Ho-soon Cheon, Myeong-ja Jo, Myung-kyu Eom, Soo-yeong Jo, Yeong-whan Song, Seong-baek Jo, Seong-do Jo, Myeong-wha Jo, Seong-eun Jo, Soo-ah Kim. Directed by Mo-Young Jin

 

Seneca once wrote that “life, if well lived, is long enough.”  The truth is that a life well lived need not be an extraordinary one. It need not be world-changing. Sometimes, a simple life is the most well lived life of all.

Byeong-man Jo and Gye-Yeol Kang have been married for 75 years, give or take when this documentary was filmed. He was pushing the century mark, she was turning 90. The two “100-year-old lovebirds” as they are described, live in a rural village in the Gangwon Province of South Korea in a small but cozy home. They gather firewood for heat during the fall to prepare for the winter; they rake leaves from their doorstep. They care for their dogs and they cook rice in an electric rice cooker. They go on picnics with their local senior center. He sings songs for her and the two do traditional Korean dances.

They wear clothes in matching colors and they are almost always touching. He can’t sleep if he isn’t touching her. They cuddle and their love for each other is palpable, so true and quiet that it you can’t help but smile. As you watch them assist each other with their chores, it’s not just like seeing your own grandparents but much-beloved ones. You can’t help but love them both.

Filmmaker Mo-young Jin followed the couple for 15 months starting in 2012 through 2013, watching the changing of the seasons through their eyes. Both of them are aware that their time on this Earth is winding down but it becomes much more real when one of them develops health problems. This leads to anguish in the other, knowing that they will have to carry on without someone who has been right by their side for three quarters of a century.

This is a beautiful movie in every sense of the spectrum. The emotional core of the movie is the love between Kang and Jo, and that emotion is so obvious that you get caught up in it. Those who have someone special in their lives will be reminded of them; those that don’t will long for someone like that. I jotted down in my notes as I watched my screener that “this is what growing old together is supposed to be” and that’s exactly the case. It’s what all of us dream of when we find someone we want to spend the rest of our lives with. This is what it looks like.

All the senses are excited, from the achingly beautiful score by Min-woo Jeong to the often breathtaking cinematography of Jin. There are some sad moments, like an argument that breaks out between two of their six surviving children (six others were lost to the measles in childhood) on Kang’s birthday, causing her to break into tears until a grandchild comforts her. There are some cute moments, as when one of their dogs has a litter of some of the cutest puppies you’ll ever see. They have two dogs – Kiddo, who has the puppies, and Freebie who they paid nothing for. Jo further endeared himself to me by being a dog person, and clearly he has a deep connection with our canine friends.

This is a movie that reminds us that the things in life that are most important are those we love. It is a movie that stands as a testament to the endurance of that love. There is nothing loud or cantankerous about this movie; it washes over you like a gentle wave, guiding you to a shore where loved ones await. You will cry a lot during this film – often tears of joy, but certainly tears of catharsis. This movie will make you feel.

Some people don’t like that. I read in a couple of reviews accusations that the movie was staged, that the couple were too perfect to be real. I don’t know – there’s no concrete evidence other than a reviewer’s suspicions. Me, if I were going to accuse a documentarian of staging scenes for the camera, I’d want to have a little more evidence before throwing opinions around as if they are facts. I personally think that some reviewers don’t like to feel deep emotions during a movie, so they find ways to dis a film that makes them feel. Of course, I have no evidence that it’s true in these specific cases, but I have my suspicions.

That bad juju aside, I have to confess that I didn’t just cry watching this movie; I bawled. I was a blubbering, puddle of goo in front of my laptop, leaving a puddle of salty tears on my keyboard. I’m quite frankly surprised I didn’t short out my laptop. But thinking about this film makes me misty again. It reminds me of the good things that I have in my life and the good things to look forward to. It reminds me that it is the little things, the simple things that are important. It also reminds me that if you have somebody who loves you, even if you have no money at all you’re still wealthier than Donald Trump will ever be. This is the movie to beat for the best film of 2016 as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO GO: Renews your hope for humanity. The beautiful score enhances the entire film. Revels in the simplicity of life. Gorgeous cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it too emotional and low-key for their tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is the most successful independently released feature in South Korea to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Message From Hiroshima
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: The Lobster

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)


Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

Moments of delight amidst the horrors of war.

(1988) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Akemi Yamaguchi, J. Robert Spencer (English version), Corinne Orr (English version), Amy Jones (English version), Veronica Taylor (English version), Crispin Freeman (English version), Nick Sullivan (English version), Dan Green (English version), George Leaver (English version), Shannon Conley (English version). Directed by Isao Takahata

Offshoring

The horrors of war don’t begin and end on the battlefield. War effects everyone, not just the combatants. Sometimes the worst aspects of war are felt at home.

In the waning days of World War II Seita (Tatsumi/Spencer), a teenage boy and his four-year-old sister Setsuko (Shiraishi/Orr) live in the port town of Kobe in Japan. American bombers are a common sight and when they come to Kobe, they come bearing napalm. The city, mostly built of paper and timber, burns like a firecracker. Their mother (Shinohara/Taylor) is badly burned and eventually succumbs to her grievous injuries. They go to live with their aunt (Yamaguchi/Jones).

However, as food shortages become acute, their aunt becomes more and more indifferent to their plight, raging against their inability to “earn” what she cooks and after they sell their mother’s kimono and buy rice with it, keeps the lion’s share of the rice for herself. Seita and Setsuko decide to strike out on their own and find a nice hillside cave to take shelter in.

Although Seita has some money from his mother, enough to buy food, there is no food to be bought and he is reduced to thieving and scrounging. As the children slowly starve however, they manage to find moments of delight – a gaggle of fireflies that light up the cave one night, or playing with air bubbles in a local river. But the need for food to survive trumps all and the children are in dire straits. Can Seita find a way to keep them both alive?

The answer to that question comes at the very beginning of the movie. I won’t spoil it for you here but most of the movie takes place as an extended flashback, and the viewer’s knowledge of the fate of the children colors the entire film. Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful emotional experiences that has ever been committed to celluloid, something that stays with you and haunts you long after the film ends. Many critics, as jaded moviegoers as can possibly be, who see the movie speak of being moved to tears and being unable to watch it a second time, although they are near universal with their praise.

The animation here is beautiful and occasionally delightful even though the subject is grim (having a child watch his mother’s burned, maggoty corpse being carted away is something Pixar is unlikely to ever display) it is startlingly breathtaking looking at the bombs, flying down from the sky trailing cloth streamers, or the fireflies dancing in the cave, or the children making play food out of mud.

It has been described as maybe the ultimate anti-war movie and while the director has objected strenuously to that depiction, referring to it as more of a relationship film between the brother and sister, the effect is nonetheless very much about the stark and brutal realities of war regardless of the director’s intentions. You cannot watch the plight of these children and be unmoved.

The reason for that is because both Seita and Setsuko are more than just cartoon characters in a literal sense; they are given personalities that make the tragedy all the more awful. While some complain about Japanese anime as being too cutesy (a charge that isn’t without merit), despite the gigantic eyes and tiny mouths that is characteristic of the art form, these children remain unforgettable, indelible images that will haunt you weeks after you see it.

Some may be hesitant to see this movie because I’m making it sound like an endurance test in watching it and that’s not the case, not really. Certainly it will tap into powerful emotions and some may find that to be uncomfortable. However, it is certainly a film that is experienced rather than watched; you cannot simply passively sit on your couch and dismiss the movie half an hour after it’s over. It demands your immediate and intimate involvement and no matter who you are, it draws you in and forces you to feel. The catharsis of a movie like this is incalculable.

Some movies simply transcend the genres that are ascribed to them and become something different, something more – a human movie. Possibly because this was based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nosaka Akiyuki whose sister did die of starvation during the war, and whose death has haunted him the rest of his life. His anguish is palpable in the novel and Takahata has managed to transcribe that anguish to the screen. This is a movie everyone should experience at some time in their lives.

NOTE: It should be noted that the movie is currently out of print on both DVD editions although it is still available for sale on Amazon both in new and used formats. While the Blu-Ray was out of stock as of this writing, hopefully it will soon be back on the shelves and available for purchase.

WHY RENT THIS: Will create an emotional response in everyone. Beautifully crafted and animated. Powerful themes and thought-provoking concepts.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dark themes may be too intense for some children.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes; may be too dark and intense for some children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only film adaptation of her work that Agatha Christie was ever truly satisfied with. She attended the premiere in 1974 and would die 14 months later in 1976.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD includes an interview with the late Roger Ebert on how the film succeeds where other films fail, as well as a round table discussion of the historical perspective of the war in 1945, the portrayal of the war in the film and how it reflected the facts of the times, and a look at the locations portrayed in the film and how they looked both then and now. The more remastered DVD edition doesn’t include these features but the overall look of the film is far superior, so make your choice accordingly.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Not currently available but will shortly be re-released), Amazon (not available), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wind Rises
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Far From the Madding Crowd

Jiro Dreams of Sushi


Jiro Dreams of Sushi

The face of the world's greatest sushi chef.

(2011) Documentary (Magnolia) Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Takashi Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto, Hachiro Mizutani, Joel Robuchon. Directed by David Gelb

 

I’ll be the first to tell you that I adore sushi. I love the subtle taste of the fish blending in with the texture of the rice, the little surprising kick of wasabi and the salty tang of soy sauce. I’m not talking about the rolls that Americans tend to prefer (although I love those too) but of the more traditional Japanese form of fish and rice alone.

Jiro Ono owns Sukiyabashi Jiro. It is located in the bowels of a Tokyo subway station. It has ten seats and only ten. All he serves there is sushi. Jiro has been making sushi since he ran away from home at age 9. He’s 85 now and has been making sushi for 70 years. You’d think that in that amount of time he’d be pretty good at it.

Pretty good doesn’t even begin to describe what Jiro does, however and the good folks at the Michelin Guide agree. They’ve awarded Jiro and his restaurant three stars, the highest rating that the guide offers and Sukiyabashi Jiro is the only sushi restaurant to possess that rating. The citizens of Tokyo are fully aware of how good his sushi is; reservations are mandatory as you might guess and there’s a one-month wait to get in.

Jiro is one of those sorts who lives to work. He is passionate about sushi; he even has dreams about it, dreams he has written down and then turned into reality at his restaurant. He pursues perfection with single-minded determination that is at once both admirable and unsettling. He doesn’t seem to have any life outside of his restaurant; he works every day all day except for government holidays and even takes those off begrudgingly. His work ethic is admirable but you can’t help but wonder, is’t there something more to life than this?

Not for Jiro and he seems happy in his life. He has two sons; the eldest, Yoshikazu works with Jiro in the restaurant and is being seemingly groomed to take over the restaurant when Jiro retires but Yoshikazu is 60 himself. The youngest, Takashi, owns his own restaurant in one of Tokyo’s most exclusive neighborhoods. It’s a mirror image of Jiro’s (literally; Jiro is left-handed and Takashi right-handed and so they have their set-ups reversed from one another). Both men labor under the shadow of their father and neither seems to mind.

We are shown the methods of making sushi, accompanying Yoshikazu to Tokyo’s main fish market, to the instruction of the apprentices to the selection of the rice (Jiro gets a special kind that the rice vendor sells only to him because Jiro’s the only person who knows how to cook it properly). This isn’t, despite the title, a movie about sushi at all, although once you see the flavorful tidbits displayed lovingly in their dishes you might get a hankering for some.

What this is about is the pursuit of excellence and its cost. Jiro is a driven man, determined to be a national treasure in Japan and one of the most influential sushi purveyors of all time. Restaurant critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, talking about Jiro’s eldest son, says wistfully that when a man’s father is as influential and as important as Jiro is, even if he’s just as good as his father was he’ll never be able to measure up. He has to be twice as good in order to escape comparisons.

In fact, Yamamoto suggests, it was actually Yoshikazu who made and served the sushi to the Michelin representative. One never gets a sense from either of Jiro’s progeny that they have the same kind of drive their father possesses. Jiro may dream of sushi but his sons might have different dreams, even though they did both choose to join their father in the sushi business.

You see, it’s really difficult to tell because there’s no context here. We don’t see Jiro at home, only at the restaurant. When he is interviewed, it is about his career and about the business of making sushi. If Jiro collects stamps, loves baseball or enjoys cross-stitching as a hobby, we would never know because we only get to see this one aspect of him. I don’t know if this is all there is to the man but I kind of doubt it.

This is mostly a mostly fascinating and occasionally frustrating movie that hits most of the right notes. I would have liked a little bit more about Jiro (he does go to a class reunion in his native village and visits the grave of his father, who abandoned him when he was a young boy) but at the end of the day, he will be remembered for his sushi and that is mostly what we see here – his driving force and his one true love.

REASONS TO GO: A study of the relentless pursuit of excellence. Interesting father-son dynamic and a lovely peek into Japanese culture – and cuisine.

REASONS TO STAY: There’s no context here.

FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes showing the fish being sold in the fish market that might be traumatic for some tots who might love their goldfish but otherwise this is absolutely fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Meals at Jiro’s sushi restaurant start at 30,000 Yen or about $370 U.S. dollars.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100. The reviews are exceptional.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

SEAFOOD LOVERS: The film shows a number of the different types of seafood that Jiro uses in his restaurant, from massive tuna to tiger prawns to haddock – both as fresh catches in the fish market and as finished product in his restaurant.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:God Bless America