I watch a lot of movies. You’d be surprised at the ways that movies can generate new ideas in you, or take you in new directions. I haven’t written any film reviews in a while, so I thought this would be a good time to take a break from some of my more serious posts in recent days. Here are my impressions on a handful of recent films.
Embrace of the Serpent (2016)
Director: Ciro Guerra
I saw this film in Rio de Janeiro on a rainy day, and somehow these external conditions managed to give it a special resonance. The plot: A shaman named Karamakate in a remote part of the Colombian Amazon forest is approached by a European scientist and his native assistant. The shaman is the last of his tribe; the others have been wiped out by rubber tappers. The white man needs the help of the shaman. In return, the white man promises the shaman that he will help him find the remainder of his lost tribe. So the three set out on a journey.
We are then fast-forwarded some decades later. We have the same shaman, who is now much older. A different white man approaches him and wants his help in finding a special medicinal plant that he read about in the earlier white man’s diaries. So another journey begins.
So we have the classic vehicle of the journey up-river as a metaphor for revelation and exploration. The film expertly cuts between these two journeys. They are made even more poignant by our knowledge that we are seeing the same man at different points in his life.
All of this has a purpose, but we do not fully appreciate it until the very end. There is some New Age and anti-colonialist boilerplate here, of course, but they never detract from the film’s exotic beauty and spiritual resonance. The jungle, shot in black and white, retains its menacing and enveloping aspect, and the performances hit just the right notes. What we are left with is a lushly photographed meditation on life and loss, and on the inexorable passage of time.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Just when you thought that nothing new could possible come out of the beaten-to-death Rocky industry, we get a surprisingly good film that manages to take us in a new direction. Here the story centers around Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis Johnson Creed.
Adonis wants to become a boxer, of course. But he’s not certain that he can fill the shoes of his deceased father. So he sets out to prove himself, and as part of this plan, he seeks out his father’s old friend, Rocky Balboa, who is now running (of course) an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia.
This is a very well-done film. The fight scenes are expertly choreographed (how far we’ve come from those old Rocky movies from the 1980s), the drama is authentic, and the moral struggles never seem forced. Everyone loves an underdog story, and this one will actually restore your faith in the boxing film as a vehicle for serious moral commentary.
Mississippi Grind (2015)
Director: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
What we have here is a road movie about two gambling addicts looking for some sort of redemption by taking a meandering journey following the Mississippi to New Orleans. On the way (they travel by car) they hit up sleazy bars, gambling joints, and other places where the riff-raff dwell. It’s a character study that comes perilously close to being a directionless movie, but never does.
What saves it is the great acting by the leads: Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds have genuine chemistry and a weird sort of enthusiasm, and this carries the movie from one dimly-lit scene to another. There is a sort of redemption here, but the viewer is left to figure out for himself what precisely it is. See this movie together with the underappreciated 2014 Mark Wahlberg film The Gambler.
Director: Gareth Edwards
This one was a disappointment. The plot: Earth has been subjected to an invasion by extraterrestrials. Six years later, various parts of the world have been declared “infected zones” due to the presence there of the aliens. People have to wear gas masks there, but we’re not exactly sure why. A journalist (Scoot McNairy) agrees to escort an American woman to the US border through an infected zone in Mexico.
Not much happens here at all. Some critics have called this a great drama, but I’m not seeing it. Two wide-eyed actors stumble through various scenes of devastation that are meant to remind us how serious it all is. The problem is, nothing feels serious, and we’ve seen this all before. When we finally get a look at the aliens, the descent into absurdity is complete.
In The Heart Of The Sea (2015)
Director: Ron Howard
This brilliant film delivers on every level and deserves multiple viewings. It isn’t easy to bring the days of sail to the big screen, but this project by Ron Howard shows great care in ever aspect of its production. Expertly weaving CGI, models, and real-life shots, this film tells the true story of the ill-fated whaler Essex, which was sunk by an enraged sperm whale. The incident provided Herman Melville with the inspiration for the dramatic conclusion to his immoral novel Moby-Dick.
Director Howard doesn’t just rely on drama and scenery to tell his tale. This is also a character study of men under duress. We see heroic first-mate Owen Chase (greatly admired by Melville) in action, as well as the growth of the green-horn captain from selfish whiner to man of integrity. This is the one of the best sea stories in recent decades, and makes a great companion to the brilliant Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2003).
Paris By Night (2012)
Director: Philippe Lefebvre
The French title of this film is Une Nuit. By whatever title, this film fails to generate any momentum or provide the viewer with a meaningful experience. The plot (if there is one): A police commander Simon Weiss makes his nightly rounds of some of Paris’s seedy bars and clubs to keep everyone in line and collect his payoffs. And that’s about it. Not much else of significance happens. A great deal of talking goes on, but very little action.
The cast of stock characters is just about what you would expect. Everyone is angry, and everyone is cynical. And by the end of this film, you will be also.
Look Who’s Back (2015) (German title: Er ist weider da)
Director: David Wnendt
This sly satire is one of those movies that is hard to categorize. Is it a black comedy? Social commentary? Or a mixture of both? The plot: Adolf Hitler awakens from his bunker and finds himself in modern Berlin. Everyone thinks he is an actor or a lunatic. He begins to make pointed observations on German pop culture and society, and people begin to listen to him. Soon he becomes a media sensation. What follows is a pointed study of social dynamics, mass psychology, and the power of delusion.
There is some obligatory politically-correct boilerplate here, of course, but director Wnendt makes surprisingly few concessions in this direction. We never feel lectured to, we never feel drowned in guilt. In fact, the whole spectacle is so weird and bizarre that we don’t really know what to think. And I suspect that’s why the film is a success: Wnendt manages to pull off the whole show in an intelligent, deft way. This is not easy to do, and we have to give him credit for having the stomach to tackle this project.
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