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2 out of 17 people found the following review useful:
Cogent chronicle of rise and fall of early Gangsta Rap group despite overtones of hagiography, 4 June 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Straight Outta Compton chronicles the rise and fall of the seminal hip-hop group, N.W.A., who broke on the scene in the mid-80s. N.W.A. was one of the first hip-hop groups to employ "gangsta rap," a heavily street-infused parlance marked by blunt verbal jabs, often incorporating phrases considered "obscene" in more "polite," white society.

The purveyors of hip-hop (i.e. of the gangster variety) have been criticized for encouraging violence, as often the lyrics involve one threat or another to an intended rival (whether that be a specific individual or a more generic group). Defenders of the genre maintain that "gangsta rap" merely reflects the realities of the street and should be considered "artistic expression" protected by the First Amendment. The reality is that this type of music is nothing more than braggadocio and is very much akin to a violent video game—it is of course up to the "player" or "listener" to recognize that the fictional content of a gangsta rap song or violent video game is exactly that— fiction—and is not necessarily intended to encourage violence in real life.

The story of N.W.A., particularly in its first half, pulls you in just like any good police procedural. There are the three principals, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, who come from completely different walks of life, and you want to know just how this diverse crew end up becoming successful in the music business. The first scene is startling as Easy escapes a police raid on a crack house. Dre is determined to follow his dreams despite the fact that his mother feels that he's not being practical by pursuing a career in music. And Ice Cube, a high school student with a notebook of clever lyrics, almost becomes the victim of gang-banger violence, when a thug boards his school bus, pulls out a gun and threatens to shoot some of the students on board.

When a more "professional" group of rappers decline to become involved in the new start-up, Dre convinces Eazy to perform a potential hit song himself. The song, Boyz-n-the-Hood, becomes a big hit, which attracts the attention of Jerry Heller (played adroitly by the ubiquitous Paul Giamatti), who gets the group a contract with Priority Records.

Police harassment is a constant theme in Straight Outta Compton, and when group members are harassed by members of the LAPD outside their recording studio, this inspires Cube to write and record another big hit, "F—k the Police." While members of the band and Heller despise the negative and overly aggressive stance the police take toward the black community, there is never a suggestion that there are any good apples at all in the police department. What's more, given the fact that police officers face ultimate annihilation by real criminals in places like Compton every day, it's understandable that many of them are on edge. The lack of professionalism and over aggressiveness can be justly criticized by rappers like Ice Cube, but there are always two sides to a story—and the juvenile exhortation to "F—k the Police," is certainly not always a helpful one.

Indeed, the reality of a bigger problem than police violence in the black community (i.e. black on black violence) becomes apparent in the tragic scene involving Dre's younger brother, murdered by other youths from his community back home. Indeed, for all the Rodney King-like incidents (overly highlighted in the film), they pale in comparison statistically to the murders that occur every day between members of the same race in the so-called "ghettos" of US cities.

As we reach the mid-point, there's more fascinating stuff especially with Cube's decision to quit the band after claiming Heller is intentionally withholding his contract. Ice Cube subsequently becomes successful as a solo act and a "rap war" ensues between Cube and Eazy, with Eazy claiming Ice Cube is a "Benedict Arnold," and Cube responding with his infamous "No Vaseline" track.

Heller turns out to be the film's main antagonist, with Dre and Eazy also eventually turning against him. The accusations against Heller are perhaps the least convincing aspect of the film; there is a rather lame scene where Eazy's girlfriend is going over the "books," and claims, without any in-depth explanation that Heller gypped all of the NWA artists. In the face of a recent lawsuit instituted by Heller against the film's producers, we'll see who's telling the truth when the lawsuit is over.

The second antagonist here is Suge Knight, the founder of Death Row Records, along with Dr. Dre. Knight is ably highlighted as a thug, when he beats up Eazy who refuses to release Dre from his contract. There's also another good scene where Knight mercilessly beats up a man over an innocent dispute over a parking spot. I suspect however, there is much more to the Suge Knight story that the producers don't let on here.

Straight Outta Compton generally follows the basic history of NWA's rise and fall. But some things are left out to give the impression that the principals were not really such bad guys when they were indeed guilty of some rather noxious bad behavior. Dre's drunk driving is downplayed, a subsequent jailhouse stint is ignored along with a violent assault on a woman, resulting in a lawsuit and subsequent payment. To his credit, Dre has admitted that he did some things in his younger days he wasn't proud of, but it would have been nice to have seen some of those things in this film.

Ice Cube's son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., steals the show playing his father in his younger days. The acting generally is quite good and the film covers most of the bases of the NWA history. Even if rap isn't your thing, this is a film worth seeing despite the limitations of hagiography.

Mr. Holmes (2015)
Glacial pacing sinks otherwise intriguing Holmes as curmudgeon who learns life's lessons, 27 April 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Mr. Holmes is based on a 2005 novel entitled "Slight Trick of the Mind," by Mitch Cullin, who posits a Sherlock Holmes who is a real-life character. As Cullin has it, Watson (not Conan Doyle) wrote the fictional adventures which the world has come to believe are the true life escapades of Holmes. But Holmes is now 93, retired and living in a country house in Sussex, England, fighting memory loss and trying to remember the details of his last case which forced him into retirement, twenty years earlier.

Holmes' present day story focuses on his relationship with a young boy, Roger, and his mother, Mrs. Munro, who's in charge of looking after him. Holmes bonds with Roger, teaching him the ins and outs of beekeeping, a hobby that has turned into an obsession.

There are also two flashbacks that constitute the other two thirds of the narrative. The first flashback concerns Holmes' last case, immortalized by Watson as "The Adventure of the Dove Grey Glove." Holmes is dissatisfied with Watson's dramatization of the events and seeks to write the true version, if only he could remember the details.

The second flashback involves a trip Holmes takes to Japan right after World War II, in an effort to find a prickly ash plant, the jelly of which may or may not stave off his encroaching senility. A Japanese admirer, Tamiki Umezaki, at first appears to be helping Holmes and brings him to Hiroshima, recently destroyed in the atomic explosion, where Holmes miraculously finds the plant which he believes will help him.

Holmes deduces that Umezaki is no expert regarding the prickly ash despite earlier claims to the contrary. Holmes angrily rebuffs Umezaki by denying his assertion that his father had met Holmes after leaving his family in the lurch and moving to England years before.

While Holmes retains some of his deductive powers, this is much more a story about second chances and redemption. At the end of his life, Holmes realizes that he's been a curmudgeon all along. This becomes quite apparent when his memory finally comes back to him and he realizes that he completely bungled the last case of his career—the so-called case of the Dove Grey Glove.

In the unfortunate case, Holmes is hired by a husband to investigate the strange behavior of his wife. The woman, despondent over the deaths of two miscarried children, is bent on committing suicide. Holmes, selfishly siding with the husband, misreads the wife's true intent, by admitting that he's suffered from loneliness like her. But when the woman asks if they can share the burden of their loneliness together, Holmes urges her to return to her husband. Soon afterward, the woman steps in front of a speeding train.

When Roger is attacked by what appears to be the bees from Holmes' apiary and is near death, Holmes finally is able to emote. He prevents Mrs. Munro from destroying the apiary, deducing that it was a swarm of wasps that attacked Roger. Together, Holmes and Mrs. Munro set the wasps' nest on fire, preventing Mrs. Munro from being consumed by anger and revenge. Fortunately, Roger recovers, and Holmes bequeaths his estate to the caretaker and the young boy.

Now armed with an epiphany about life, the curmudgeon sees the errors of his ways and decides that white lies sometime do more good than harm. Realizing that Watson was trying to protect him by creating a false narrative about the Dove Grey Glove woman, he is now bent on protecting Umezaki, by informing him that his father ended up doing honorable work for the British Empire in a secret capacity.

Holmes no longer has to beat himself up over regrets. He incorporates the tradition of the "ring of stones" which he saw in Hiroshima, into his own life, now memorializing all those he loved but are now lost.

Both Ian McKellen as Holmes and Milo Parker as Roger, steal the show, as they both learn from one another about life. Laura Linney, as the housekeeper, on the other hand, appears to be miscast—perhaps an actor a bit more dour and distinctive, would have done the trick (Linney simply brings little personality to the role).

The idea of turning the heroic Sherlock Holmes into a sad curmudgeon who must learn a series of life lessons before finally finding some meaning in life, is not necessarily a bad idea. But where Mr. Holmes falls down, is in its glacial pacing. The running time of the film is approximately one hour and 45 minutes. It feels more like two and a half hours. Director Bill Condon could have cut a good 20 minutes from the narrative and the film would have been in much better shape. As it stands now, despite its good intentions, Mr. Holmes is a very long slog to get through.

Sicario (2015)
Thoughtful meditation on over her head FBI agent coping with CIA extra-judicial actions against evil drug cartels, 18 April 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

What does one make of Taylor Sheridan's screenplay in which the principal character, FBI agent Kate Macer (played by Emily Blunt), is a passive observer for a good part of the drama? Macer is given the assignment to accompany CIA operatives to investigate the botched FBI Swat team raid of a Mexican drug cartel hideout in Arizona, where dozens of corpses are found and two agents lose their life when an improvised explosive device goes off. Macer's assignment is mandatory since the CIA must be accompanied by an FBI agent during any domestic investigation.

Macer is partnered with a CIA undercover operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) who makes it clear they're going after Sonora Cartel lieutenant Manuel Díaz. But instead of going to El Paso, Texas, they end up in Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, accompanied by the sinister former Mexican drug prosecutor Alejandro Gillick (Bernicio Del Toro). It will soon become apparent that Macer is way in over her head as Gillick refuses to play by any rules in dealing with ruthless cartel members. In fact, Macer will soon realize that Gillick is almost as bad as the cartel members he's attempting to hunt down.

On the way back to the US with Diaz's brother Guillermo in tow, Macer almost gets herself killed as cartel members attempt to rescue the hapless sibling on the Bridge of the Americas at the Mexico-US border. While Macer is undoubtedly happy to see Delta Force Special Ops come to the rescue on the bridge, their method of shoot first and ask questions later (which foreshadows some even more advanced extra-legal shenanigans at film's end), impels the intrepid FBI agent to question the entire moral imperative of the CIA team's mission.

It's only at this point that Macer becomes a more active participant in the drama that things get more interesting. First she and her FBI partner Reggie Wayne question Graver and Gillick as to their true intentions and they learn that the real target is Sonora Cartel boss Fausto Alarcón—Graver and Gillick are attempting to disrupt the cartel's drug operations which may draw Diaz out and lead them to the bigger cheese, Alarcón. But naïve Macer almost mucks things up entirely by attempting to gather records at a bank that services Diaz's money launderers (Macer is overruled in her efforts to arrest the bank officials as it could tip off Diaz and his cronies as to what's going on). Meanwhile Gillick has extracted information from Mexican illegals about a tunnel between US and Mexico at a border station.

Macer falls in deeper over her head when she attempts to have a one night stand with a corrupt Arizona cop. Gillick saves her from being strangled and later extracts information from the cop regarding other corrupt cops, utilizing methods that border on torture.

The CIA achieves its objective when they're able to track Diaz who is now going to meet with his boss Alarcón. Gillick has no time for by-the-book Macer who regards his mission as completely unauthorized and illegal. One of the film's most exciting moments is when Gillick shoots Macer (she's wearing a bulletproof vest) and he orders her back through the tunnel to the US side.

Graver explains that Alarcón's overreaching has upset the balance of power in the drug cartel world and he must be eliminated—re -establishing the Medellin cartel as the sole arbiter of power. Gillick also has a personal score to settle with Alarcón—his wife and daughter were murdered by Alarcón's thugs.

The focus shifts from Macer again with Gillick providing all the histrionics at the denouement. Proving how ruthless the drug cartel world is, Gillick murders Alarcón wife and children as the drug lord helplessly watches at the dinner table at his estate in Mexico. Then Gillick finishes Alarcón off not before mentioning the fate of his own wife and daughter to the kingpin.

The whole point of the film is that in the war against Mexican cartels, there are no rules and those assigned with the task of taking them out, will employ any tactics at their disposal to achieve their objectives. Macer, who believes in the rule of law, proves to be wholly impotent and irrelevant in the fight against evil. Her impotence is highlighted when Gillick forces her to sign a waiver at gunpoint, claiming that all his actions were legitimate.

At the beginning, we expect the heroic Macer to be successful in her quest to bring murderers to justice "by the book." But in a complete reversal, it's those who refuse to play by the book who are triumphant. Macer is simply a cog in the wheel who is completely over her head.

Despite its theme imbued with verisimilitude, not everything that happens in Sicario is completely believable (did you really believe that Gillick would have been successful in sneaking into the drug cartel boss' compound and is so easily able in disposing of Alarcón and his entire family?).

Still, Sicario raises some important questions about the nature of extra-judicial actions in the fight against evil.

Bessie (2015) (TV)
Despite some invented conflict between characters and truncated scenes, Queen Latifah shines in solid biopic of noted "Empress of the Blues", 16 April 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A good number of years in the making, Bessie is an HBO biopic chronicling the life of Bessie Smith, aka The Empress of the Blues. Queen Latifah does a fine job not only depicting Bessie's both irascible and generous personality but sings some of her big hits that add to the overall verisimilitude of the film.

Bessie's parents died when she was very young so her older sister Viola took over raising all of the younger siblings in the family. There is no evidence however that Viola acted punitively in raising Bessie and that there was this great conflict between them. This is one instance in the film where history was bent in order to perhaps give the story some extra needed conflict.

Bessie's relationship to the noted blues singer, Ma Rainey (played convincingly by Mo'Nique), also was altered somewhat to perhaps give the narrative a little more spice. In reality, Bessie first became associated with Ma Rainey at the much younger age of 14. There is also little evidence that Bessie and Ma Rainey were at odds with each other and had a falling out over a purported rivalry. Later in the film Ma Rainey is seen to be joyfully dancing to one of Bessie's records and that's consistent with an account from Rainey's accompanist (as noted in the article "How Accurate is Bessie?" by Laura Bradley in Slate Magazine).

Bessie's relationship to her second husband, Jack Gee (played by the excellent Michael K. Williams of Boardwalk Empire fame), is fairly accurate, culminating in the true-to-life abduction of Bessie's adopted son by Gee, who left her after Bessie found out he backed a rival singer.

There are many more interesting things we find out about Bessie throughout the narrative—I found the scene of her first recording with Columbia Records fascinating as the primitive nature of recording music at that time (Bessie sings into a large drum) is quite apparent.

Other scenes prove quite gripping including Bessie being stabbed in her hometown after an argument in a club, her encounter with a racist novelist at an upscale part in New York City as well as Bessie chasing a bunch of Ku Klux Klansmen away from one of her tent concerts down south.

Some of the script feels truncated as the film's scenarists provide little buildup regarding a few major events in Bessie's life. I'm thinking how they gloss over how Bessie lost most of her fortune at the beginning of The Great Depression (did she lose a lot of her money in the stock market or was she also over generous with friends?); these are questions I would have liked answered. In addition, there is no context to her decision to adopt her young son, Jack. You never see her talking about adopting the boy—suddenly he appears at the family dinner table, out of the blue.

With changing musical tastes, Bessie's popularity dwindled somewhat in the 1930's. It was up to famed producer John Hammond, to arrange for Bessie's big comeback concert and last recordings in NYC. But Hammond was quoted as saying much later on that he was a little disappointed that Bessie declined to sing her trademark blues substituting more popular big band songs of the time.

Writer/director Dee Ree's decision not to depict the car crash that claimed the life of Bessie Smith may have been a missed opportunity to clear up a persistent myth about her death promulgated by the likes of such luminaries as playwright Edward Albee in his play "The Death of Bessie Smith." It was Albee's thesis that Smith may have survived the car crash had she been allowed admittance to a nearby "whites only" hospital. The truth of the matter was that Bessie already was severely injured having lost a large amount of blood with part of her arm being severed. In addition, due to the racism of the times, no hospital that catered to whites would have considered treating Bessie, and those at the scene of the crash would not have considering bringing her to one.

Bessie is a well-done biopic that captures the life and times of Bessie Smith. Queen Latifah does an excellent job in depicting the positive and negative sides of the famed singer's personality. In the name of dramatic license, some conflict between the characters was invented to enhance the story. Other events feel a bit rushed—although most of events depicted are fairly true to life. Bessie is recommended as it depicts an important chapter in both African-American and American musical history.

Well-intentioned, computer-animated Depression-era baseball yarn sets bad example for kids, 5 April 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Partially directed by the tragic Christopher Reeve, the computer-animated Everyone's Hero was released in 2006 and featured parts voiced by such luminaries as Rob Reiner, William H. Macy, Brian Dennehy, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Wagner, Joe Torre, Mandy Patinkin, Forrest Whitaker and Reeve's wife, Dana.

While primarily aimed at children, there are enough references in it to keep adult baseball aficionados happy. The story focuses on Yankee, a kid who lives with his parents in a tenement in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium in 1932 (the clever animation replete with the reproduction of old newsreels provides a panorama of the depression era, palatable to a pre-pubescent audience).

After Yankee discovers a talking baseball (Rob Reiner) who eventually becomes his pal, he visits his father who's employed at Yankee Stadium as a maintenance worker. At the behest of the rapacious owner of the Chicago Cubs, a Cub pitcher breaks into the locker room and steals Babe Ruth's (talking) bat Darlin' (Whoopi Goldberg). Yankee witnesses the theft but his father doesn't believe him and back at home sends him to his room. Soon afterward, Yankee's father loses his job as he's held responsible for the theft.

The rest of Everyone's Hero focuses on Yankee's sojourn to Chicago in his attempt to recover the purloined bat and return it to the Babe. Along the way, he meets baseball players from the Negro Leagues who give him a ride to Chicago where the Yankees face the Cubs in the 1932 World Series.

While well-intentioned, the films' scenarists strike more than one wrong note in trying to please both children and adults. The biggest sin is casting the Cubs (represented by their maniacal but goofy owner) as the bad guys and the Yankees as a group of sportsmen who can do no wrong. By taking sides, Chicago's baseball team is unfairly maligned, which sets a bad example for kids, not only because it's untrue but it also promotes an aura of unhealthy competition for kids to emulate.

Another sin involves the introduction of the Negro Leagues into the narrative. On the surface, it appears the films' scenarists should be commended for making the Negro Leagues' players part of the story. Their disgraceful exclusion from the national pastime prior to World War II is a sad chapter in American history that all Americans should study and at the minimum, be made aware of.

Unfortunately the whole idea that Negro League players were excluded from baseball is not made clear in the film and the depiction of the players being "happy-go-lucky" does a disservice to the historical reality. Perhaps it was felt that children would not be able to digest the ugly history but in some way the screenwriters should have found a way to communicate the reality of racial discrimination without offending juvenile sensibilities.

Finally, the narrative takes a turn at the denouement that perhaps only younger children will enjoy but will effectively turn off more sophisticated kids and accompanying adults. I'm referring to the absurd turn of events where Yankee is allowed to bat in a World Series game and hits an "inside-the-park" home run, winning the game for the Yankees. While talking bats and baseballs may be interpreted as a figment of a kid's imagination, no such interpretation can be made on the silly conceit of a boy being allowed to bat in a major league baseball game.

While very young kids might enjoy Everyone's Hero, anyone older should be turned off by the overwhelmingly goofy tenor of the characters' machinations. Mix that in with the rather ugly turn of favoring one team over another and surprisingly you have a children's' film that is pretty much unfit for children.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
German Prosecutor's quest to bring former Auschwitz functionaries to justice proves fairly gripping, 27 March 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Labyrinth of Lies deals with a pretty much forgotten chapter in German history—the 1963 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. State prosecutors in the German city of Frankfurt brought former mid-and-low level functionaries of the Auschwitz death camp to trial despite opposition from Nazi sympathizers and an apathetic public. Perhaps the most surprising thing one learns from the film is just how ignorant the general population was of Auschwitz and the Nazi era when the story begins in 1958.

The protagonist is a composite character, Johann Radmann, based on three real-life prosecutors, played by the popular German actor, Alexander Fehling. When we're first introduced to Radmann, he has a low level job in the prosecutor's officer handling traffic violations. His by-the-book demeanor immediately becomes apparent when he refuses to allow a pretty Fraulein, to pay a reduced fine for a traffic infraction.

Through the efforts of Tomas Gnielka, a journalist obsessed with Germany's embrace of Nazism, Radmann soon gets wind of a former Auschwitz guard now working as a school teacher. Radmann is rebuffed by the lead prosecutor in the office who disparages him for taking an interest in the former Auschwitz guard—in the lead prosecutor's view, this will only open up a can of worms. But a higher-up, Fritz Bauer— the Attorney General-- is sympathetic toward efforts to uncover the crimes of the Nazi past, and appoints Radmann as the special prosecutor responsible for prosecuting those responsible for crimes at the death camp.

Radmann gets his first leads from Simon Kirsch, an Auschwitz survivor, introduced to him by Gnielka. Kirsch is uncooperative at first but later, along with other survivors, provides important testimony that will aid Radmann in his quest to bring various Auschwitz functionaries to justice. Radmann also digs up evidence from files at an US Army base. Director Giulio Ricciarelli does well in chronicling the extreme state of denial many Germans were in as they grappled with the legacy of Nazi horrors.

There are also sympathizers who do everything they can (including throwing a rock with a swastika on it, through Radmann's window), to derail him from finishing his job. You would never guess that the actual Auschwitz participants who now have ordinary jobs were stone-cold killers, just a little over a decade before.

Labyrinth of Lies gets bogged down when Radmann becomes obsessed with tracking down the notorious "Butcher of Auschwitz", Dr. Josef Mengele, in spite of orders to desist from his boss Bauer. Radmann's efforts to capture Mengele prove fruitless, despite having learned that Mengele has been returning to Germany from South America to visit his relatives. Since we already know that Mengele was never captured, there is very little point in chronicling Radmann's unsuccessful quest for a good part of the second half of the narrative.

Radmann has his "dark moment" of the second Act, when he becomes overly self-righteous in holding his fellow Germans to account for their indifference during the Nazi years. It turns out that Gnielka, the fanatically anti-Nazi journalist, was actually a 17 year old worker at the death camp; and Redmann's girlfriend, Marlene, has been making profits in selling clothes to the wives of former Nazis. At one point Radmann quits the prosecutor's office and signs on with a hot-shot attorney but eventually sees the light and agrees to finish his prosecutorial duties.

Labyrinth of Lies is a valuable film in that it paints an indelible portrait of a society coming to grips with its dark past. While not everything works in the film (the Mengele sequence is particularly overdone), the exploration of this largely forgotten chapter in German history, is most welcome.

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Search for hallucinogenic plant in Amazon rain forest during two different time periods proves fascinating but denouement is a let down, 1 March 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent is based on the diaries, written approximately thirty years apart, by German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American ethno-botanist Richard Evans Schultes. Jan Bijvoet is cast as the German Theo and Brionne Davis as the American Evan. Guerra inter-cuts the story of the two men in different time periods beginning in 1909 and later in 1940.

Both explorers meet up with Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman, the last survivor of the Cohiuano, an Amazonian tribe killed off by the rubber barons. Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar are excellent as the Young and Old Karamakate respectively, who reluctantly guide the intrepid explorers in their quest to find a sacred plant, Yakrana.

When we first meet Theo, he appears to be dying of malaria and the Young Karamakate wants nothing to do with him as he views all whites with suspicion, as he holds them responsible for both the annihilation of his people and destruction of his culture. But when Theo claims he's met surviving members of his tribe, Karamakate agrees first to nurse Theo back to health (he blows a medicinal preparation into his nostrils)—he then takes the explorer and his trusty guide, Manduca, up the Amazon River in a canoe, in search of the elusive Yakrana.

Along the way they encounter a Catholic school of young native boys, run by a sadistic priest who flogs the children whenever he suspects they may be falling back into their "pagan" ways. Later, when the Older Karamakate takes Evan on his journey, they encounter a cult run by a Jim Jones-like character who believes he's the Son of God. Karamakate heals the crazed man's wife who then invites his followers to consume his flesh.

Shot in exquisite black and white, Embrace of the Serpent reminds us of the destructive power of "civilization" and its deleterious effect on indigenous cultures. The once proud Karamakate is reduced to a sad figure as he bemoans his inability to no longer communicate with the natural world.

While most of Embrace of the Serpent is riveting, Guerra boxes himself in with an unsatisfying ending. When Evan finally finds the healing plant, there is a rather trite scene suggesting man's consciousness merging with the infinite. Somehow the power of hallucinogenic plants is reduced to a rather typical scene of a 60s-like psychedelic acid trip. The value of hallucinogenic plants is much more cogently explained in the writings of Carlos Castaneda, which assuredly should be read as a companion piece to this fairly absorbing film.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Gritty tale of real-life heroin addict is compelling but you'll be glad it's over at film's end, 24 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

If you are interested in the life of heroin addicts, Heaven Knows What should be for you. Brother directors, Ben and Joshua Safdie, discovered the film's star, Arielle Holmes, a heroin addict, panhandling on the streets and encouraged her to write her life's story down on paper. Holmes along with screen writing partner, Ronald Bronstein, wrote the script and Holmes stars as Harley, the film's protagonist. Bronstein has a supporting role as Skully who urges Harley to break up with her boyfriend Ilya, after Harley slits her wrists at Ilya's behest (he declares that he has no interest in dating her anymore).

Shot in documentary style, the plot is rather lugubrious and has an unrelenting texture. In other words, this ain't easy to watch! We follow Harley after she shacks up with Mike, another addict and they spend time attempting to obtain money to support their habits (the usual means include of course panhandling, shoplifting and stealing). Mike gets into a fight with Ilya in Central Park and Ilya stabs him with a makeshift weapon but soon afterward Harley tells Mike that she's still crazy about Ilya.

After Harley saves Ilya from an overdose, they decide to take a bus to Florida but Ilya abandons her on the way down and ends up consumed by a fire inside a vacant house.

Nothing very much dramatic occurs at the denouement: Harley returns to NYC and watches Mike inside a fast food restaurant, as he boasts to his friends.

There's not much more to tell here. The Safdies have done well here in bringing us Holmes' gritty narrative. But after a while, the actions of the principals mimic one another to the point where we're kind of happy it's all over. Holmes must be commended for overcoming her heroin addiction and now trying to break into the movie industry (probably harder to do than overcoming a heroin addiction!). For her next role, I'd like to see Holmes take a role that doesn't involve drugs. Then we'll see if she can really act instead of just playing herself!

Girlhood (2014)
French director's take on French-African teenager's travails with girl gang is incisive, but denouement feels incomplete, 20 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

French director Céline Sciamma's new film is called "Girlhood," probably named that way in English to capitalize on last year's similar moniker, "Boyhood." But in French, it's translated as "Girl Gang," which to my ears is a more appropriate title.

Citing the lack of French films dealing with black people, Sciamma, who is white, decided to hang out with some French-African teenagers to learn more about their culture and perhaps fashion a film based on her experiences. The resulting product features non-professional actors culled from what is usually referred to in the US as "the projects," rows of drab apartment buildings in a lower socio-economic section of the city.

The opening scene is most telling as Sciamma depicts a group of high school girls playing American style football. As they walk home and continually pass by groups of loud, hostile-acting males, they gradually peel off, finally leaving us with the film's protagonist, Marieme, a 16 year old teenager who later refers to herself as "Vic" (for Victory).

Marieme's mother is too busy working to pay much attention to the teenager's needs and her brother is a macho creep who occasionally physically abuses her. After she fails to get into college because of poor grades (and faced with the prospect of attending a vocational school instead), Marieme develops a crush on a boy who is friends with a gang of three girls—she soon falls in with the group and gradually is transformed from a shy teenager to an aggressive rebel.

The leader of the three is Lady, whom the other girls look up to. Sciamma chronicles the misadventures of the girl gang as they traipse around Paris (mainly in shopping malls), shoplifting, extorting money from other girls and acting as obnoxiously as they can. Sciamma appears to take no stand on their behavior, merely depicting their loutish shenanigans as typical of wayward, rebellious teenagers.

The main plot involves Lady's fall from grace after she is beaten up in a fight with a girl from a rival gang before a fairly large group of people. Lady retreats from public review after her father forbids her to pursue further rebelliousness activities. Marieme takes up the group's mantle when she in turn beats up the teenager who defeated Lady.

Sciamma's gritty depiction of the activities of the girl gang and their rivals works well--akin to some of the more interesting cinema verité efforts here in the US. Not only does she capture their anti-social side with cogent verisimilitude but also highlights the teenagers' sense of camaraderie (the highlight being the group dancing to Rihanna's song "Diamaonds").

Unfortunately, Sciamma's resolution to Marieme's story is not completely satisfactory. Marieme eventually parts with the rest of her group and begins working for a local drug dealer, Abou. At one point we see her disguising herself as a boy, perhaps to avoid being hit upon by rapacious males who are part of Abou's group. Later, Abou does just that at a party and Marieme declares she's through working for him. Marieme's boyfriend's suggestion that they get married falls on deaf ears and the aimless former gang leader is rebuffed after she tries to buzz herself into the family apartment.

What are we supposed to conclude about Marieme's fate? Is she the victim of a society that favors the upper middle-class and the rich? Is it all racial—that because she's black, she can't get ahead? Or is it Marieme's own choices that stymie her? Perhaps she could have gone to vocational school instead of falling in with her girl gang rebels. Sciamma again perhaps takes no sides but her tale feels incomplete— perhaps we'll have to wait for the sequel to find out what happened to her.

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Pointless "Horror Western" gore-fest is guaranteed to offend most members of the Native American community, 18 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Bone Tomahawk is the creation of one S. Craig Zahler who is listed in Wikipedia as a jack of all trades: "author, screenwriter, songwriter, musician, director and cinematographer." Zahler's concoction fits into a literary sub-genre known as "weird west"—again thanks to Wikipedia we learn that this sub-genre "combines elements of the Western with another literary genre, usually horror, occult, or fantasy."

Zahler is content to promulgate the myth of a violent, wild west, replete with cowboys armed with six-shooters and rapacious Indians bent on scalping the first settler they see. Unfortunately, the reality is that the so-called wild west was far less violent than what we see today regarding criminal activity. You can find late 19th century photos on the internet from places like Dodge City, sporting billboards that read "the carrying of firearms is strictly forbidden."

Zahler's chief desire appears to be out-dueling Tarantino for the coveted most in love with violence writer/director award in American cinema today. Indeed, he begins his magnum opus with Tweedledum and Tweedledee killers, Purvis and Buddy, who murder innocent travelers off the beaten path. Buddy, as you may already know, falls victim to a bunch of Indians who I guarantee did not exist in the 1890s when the film takes place (nor ever existed), and Purvis then makes his way to the town of Bright Hope, which was filmed at the Paramount Ranch.

This location has been used for years as a stand-in for a small, wild western town. Unfortunately, Zahler's low budget prevented his crew from making enough alterations so that the town appears lived in. Zahler trots out a few stock characters including the sheriff Franklin Hunt (decently played by Kurt Russell), his old codger backup deputy, Chicory, and John Brooder, a more intellectual "ladies man," who attempts to summon the town doctor after Hunt shoots bad guy Purvis who can't keep himself from acting up at the local saloon. With the doctor drunk, Brooder finds the doctor's assistant, Samantha, who has just finished a steady bout of lovemaking with her husband Arthur O'Dwyer, a foreman who's laid up in bed with a nasty leg injury.

While Hunt, Chicory and Brooder investigate the murder of a stable hand (the usual "dispensable" black guy), Samantha, Hunt's regular deputy Nick and Purvis are found to be missing back at the jail. Instead of summoning help (perhaps in the form of military personnel), Hunt forms an unlikely posse including Chicory and Brooder and is talked into allowing O'Dwyer (who can barely walk with his injured leg) to trek through the wilderness, hoping to locate their missing compatriots. O'Dwyer's love (or should I say lust?) is so great that he's willing to crawl through the desert to find his lost Samantha.

Before they depart, an arrow found at the jail is examined by a local Native American wise man who links it to a place called "Valley of the Starving Men," where a group of troglodytes (cave-dwellers) is probably to blame for the kidnapping of Samantha and the deputy. The wise man (who sounds more like a professor at a local college), advises that the troglodytes are shunned by normal Native Americans and in fact are cannibalistic savages.

The next sequence (which is quite long) involves the posse heading for hostile territory. Along the way, Brooder kills two Mexican scouts and later the group's horses are stolen by rustlers. O'Dwyer re-injures his leg after fighting with Brooder and is left by the rest of the group to recuperate (before insanely trying to rejoin them, again basically crawling through the desert).

I will not detail how exactly the posse ends up imprisoned in the troglodytes' cave but suffice it to say Brooder is the first casualty. While Zahler perhaps technically cannot be accused of racism because he makes it clear that his troglodytes are an ostracized group of Native Americans, the introduction of these characters into the narrative, leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. First of all, these type of "savages" were never known to exist in the "wild west," but are still associated here with Native American culture. All disclaimers aside, the mere image of Native Americans perpetrating ghastly acts of savagery on "white people" should be enough to upset any Native American when he ponders such "untruths" in a darkened movie theater. Of course the reality is that acts of savagery occurred the other way around—it was the US military of course which was responsible for the great numbers of heinous crimes against the Native American population during the 19th century.

The pointlessness of Zahler's tale reaches its apotheosis when the audience is forced to witness the scalping of Nick the deputy and his dismemberment at the hands of the zombie-like troglodytes. If we must witness such cheap thrills, why doesn't Zahler turn his zombies into a bunch of aliens so that the perpetuation of the myth of the savage "Indian," is repudiated?

Perhaps with the dismemberment scene Zahler has gone toe to toe with Tarantino, and won. In addition to Zahler's apparent victory over the master of gore himself, I am also forced to conclude that Bone Tomahawk defies its internal logic (how does O'Dwyer manage to get himself up into the cave with his injured leg? And why does Samantha remain apparently untouched by the savage troglodytes?)

Is there a more pointless film than Bone Tomahawk among the selection of Spirit Award hopefuls? I don't think so. Not only is it pointless but offensive to boot. See it at your peril!

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