A trip down the Amazon with “Embrace of the Serpent”.

Embrace of the Serpent.

Embrace of the Serpent.

This is the third film from Columbian film maker Ciro Guerra and it won the main prize in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes last year, but it really ought to have been invited to be screened there in the competition proper. And it only lost out on the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film to Hungary’s Son of Saul – which, quite correctly given the subject matter, was so harrowing it was almost unwatchable.

Embrace of the Serpent is a fictionalized marrying of the twin journeys into the heart of Amazonia that were embarked upon in the first half of the twentieth century. The first was made by the German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg in 1909, and the second in 1940 by the American Richard Evans Schultes, who is considered to be the father of ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between peoples and their plants.

We begin with the German who turns in desperation to a shaman, the haughty Karamakate, to relieve him of the delirium he is danger of slipping into.

the-new-film-embrace-of-the-serpent-conjures-a-forgotten-indigenous-vision-of-the-amazon-1452186262-crop_mobileBut Karamakate has seen his land destroyed and his people decimated by the white man and his insatiable appetite for rubber, and for whatever else he can the rape the forest of. And he only very reluctantly agrees to be their guide.

Thirty years later, and the American Schultes is retracing the German’s steps in search of a wonder plant the latter is supposed to have discovered in the course of that first trip.

Shot ravishingly in black and white, the film has been described by many as hallucinogenic, but dream-like would be a more accurate description of the mood and atmosphere it evokes. Everything that happens is connected to what happened before and to what happens after, and there are reasons for the things that happen, and yet somehow events don’t unfold in the way that you would expect them to.

2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s as if classical, Newtonian causality had been suspended and been replaced by a higher logic that we’ve yet to have explained to us. You know it must all make sense, you’re just not quite sure how.

Of course, it’s not hard to see why people might resort to describing it as hallucinogenic. Very briefly and for barely a minute, the film bursts into colour in a badly misjudged attempt to imagine what the trip Schultes has gone on might look and feel like after imbibing of a local concoction – Schultes would later go on to write a famous book on LSD in 1979 with Albert Hofmann, the man who discovered it in 1938.

The fourth and final section of 2001 takes flight.

The fourth and final section of 2001 takes flight.

But it’s impossible to watch these experiments in colour and not think of what Kubrick did in much the same way for 22 glorious minutes in the final and genuinely psychedelic section of 2001: A Space Odyssey – which I reviewed earlier here.

That brief mis-step apart, Embrace of the Serpent is at times a majestic, at others an eerily haunting film that covers much the same territory as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but from the other end of the barrel of the gun. The conclusion is the same, but the journey getting there is a more isolated and therefore a more contemplative experience.

And the cacophony of chaos that that journey reveals is produced not by the machines of war, but by a jungle teaming with a life that’s being casually butchered by the white men manning the guns, and approaching from beyond the trees.

You can see the trailer for Embrace of the Serpent here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

“Tale of Tales”, ravishingly grown-up fairy tales.

??? in The Tale of Tales.

Stacy Martin in Tale of Tales.

As is so often the case, there was something mildly unsatisfactory about the prizes meted out at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Though in retrospect, given what happened at this year’s Festival, last year’s winners feel like a vintage batch. If places like Cannes keep giving the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh prizes like that, then obviously they’re going to keep sullying the cinematic landscape with more of the same.

Last year’s Palme D’Or went to Dheepan, at the expense of Carol which got the consolation prize of Best Actress for Rooney Mara. But both left you ever so slightly deflated, the former settling into conventional thriller mode, the latter being too coolly mannered. But the one that got away was Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, which somehow failed to win anything.

Rooney Mara with Cate Blanchett as Carol.

Rooney Mara with Cate Blanchett as Carol.

Garrone burst on to the international scene in 2008 with Gomorrah, his much praised adaptation of Roberto Saviani’s unmasking of Neapolitan corruption. But you always had a sense that that film had been lauded more for its moral intent than for its artistic merit. And its episodic nature denuded it of any sense of narrative drive.

There’s an episodic feel to his latest film too. But on this occasion and unusually, the separate narrative strands that seem to exist independently of one another, and only eventually meet thanks to a clumsily forced ending, produce a film that feels both natural and earthily alive.

The 2015 winner Dheepan.

The 2015 winner Dheepan.

That’s because Tale of Tales is based on three of the fifty or so fairy tales that were collated by Gianbattista Basile in 17th century southern Italy. And fairy tales are the one genre where narrative drive takes a back seat. Here, for once, it really is all about character. And what emerges is a very different Italian landscape to the one Garrone previously showed us, free here from any sense of moral lessons to be learned, and all the better and more alive because of it.

The first of the three sees Selma Hayek as a queen hell bent on being provided for with child. But the boy that is eventually produced arrives as a twin, and inevitably there’s a price for her determination to have had him.

The second revolves around John C. Reilly as a king whose selfishness results in his failing to more properly administer to the needs of his daughter. And the third, and the most tangibly tactile of the three, follows a magnificently debauched king, played with lusty gusto by Vincent Cassel, as he is led forever by his desire to pursue whatever it is that has momentarily caught his fancy.

Fellini looks up at la Seraghina on the set of 8 1/2.

Fellini looks up at la Seraghina on the set of 8 1/2.

Though when that eventually leads him to Stacy Martin draped in nothing more than a cascade of fiery curls that just about preserve her modesty, you could be forgiven for wondering whether selfishness might not be being given something of a bad rap.

Sumptuously photographed and shot entirely on location at various castles throughout Italy, Tale Of Tales is a wonderfully grown up and magnificent beast of a film. And Garrone has that Felliniesque urge to cast as much for an actor’s physical presence as for their ability to deliver lines. Franco Pistoni’s turn as the necromancer is particularly striking, and the wollowy form with hollowed cheeks that bares down on the Queen was never going to be the barer of good news. And so it proves.

Tale of Tales demands to be seen in the cinema, and is released in Ireland and Britain this June. You can see the trailer here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

New albums from Sturgill Simpson and Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop.

A Sailor's Guide to Earth.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

There’s been a lot of noise about Sturgill Simpson in the world of country and it’s not hard to see why. His third album, A Sailors Guide to Earth is, if anything, even more ambitious than his breakthrough album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music from 2014.

It should have been a complete disaster. A concept album, which is bad enough, in the form of a letter to his newly-born son, which, obviously, is even worse, whose touch points are Sgt. Pepper’s, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Beatles-inspired, late Otis Redding. Amazingly, he lives up to those lofty ambitions whilst somehow still managing to deliver up what is undeniably an alt country album.

Otis Redding.

Otis Redding.

He might balk, albeit a tad effortfully, at that distinction, between country and alt country. But usually there’s a world of difference between the powerfully plain and straight as a die world of country and the more nuanced, quietly sophisticated realm of alt country.

But impressively, Simpson manages to straddle both worlds, and then some. The horn and string arrangements on a number of the tracks here are very specifically designed to recall the rustic, guttural rhythms that came out of Stax with their string and horns (and if you haven’t already seen the doc on Stax, reviewed earlier here, treat yourself). The results call to mind early Van Morrison. But then there’s also a very sombre cut of Nirvana’s In Bloom re-imagined as teenage angst.

This is an impressively ambitious album that is every bit as substantial as everyone has been suggesting – it gets an 8 from the boys at Pitchfork here. A serious album from a major artist. You can see the video for In Bloom here.

 

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

Love Letter for Fire.

Pop is so ubiquitous and the results so invariably saccharine and offensively MOR that it’s easy to miss the few grown-ups who work in the genre. Sam Beam has been recording as Iron and Wine for the last decade or so, and after beginning in roots Americana mode he has slowly but surely settled in the world of pop – his last album was reviewed earlier here.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

He produces the same kind of thoughtful, articulate yet unabashedly emotional pop that you get from Jenny Lewis and Christopher Owens, and earlier from Squeeze and Everything But the Girl (in their earlier incarnation), and, from before again, with Carole King and Harry Nilsson (see the doc on him, reviewed earlier here).

On this latest album Love Letter for Fire he teams up with Jesca Hoop, who was mentored by Tom Waits after she landed a job working for him as a nanny.

The bad boys, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.

The bad boys, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.

Like all he best pop, these songs manage to be introspective yet upbeat with just a hint of melancholy. Their smooth, boygirl harmonies washing over you before disappearing again into the ether. Together with country, it’s the only other genre to resist black influences and not be rendered hopelessly redundant ever after.

They get a 7.5 fromt the boys from Pitchfork here, and you can see the official video for the single Every Songbird Says here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every month on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

Transparent, yet another perfect US dramedy.

Transparent.

Transparent.

Transparent sounds for all the world like one of those punchlines from an early Simpsons episode, one of the ones when, God be with the days, they were still funny. A California family have to deal with the emotional havoc caused when the family patriarch comes out and decides to live out the autumn of his years as the woman he’s always known he really was.

Written, directed and mostly starring women, all it needed was to be set in a hippy commune at the Joshua Tree run by a latter day Janis Joplin figure, played of course by Holly Hunter, who takes under her wing the emotionally lost stray waif played by the blondie one from Girls.

transparent03

Jeffrey Tambor, right.

When the show’s creator and showrunner Jill Solloway gave an interview in the New Yorker with Ariel Levy here, and she mentioned her cameo as a gender studies professor in one of the episodes, she seemed to be discussing those kind of views with fervour rather than the hint of irony one might have been hoping for.

Happily, Transparent is nothing like that. It’s about a completely normal family, that is to say a gloriously dysfunctional one, who just happen to be financially comfortable and fantastically Jewish – it makes Curb Your Enthusiasm look positively preppy.

Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

The three grown up children are all apparently successful if secretly rudderless and quietly lost. So when their father decides to come out in episode one, yes that emotional turmoil is to some degree explained. But more to the point, it’s yet another complication that they all have to deal with.

What makes Transparent so good, and it really is very, very good indeed, is that like Girls and Louie before it, it is first and foremost a drama, out of which the comedy evolves.

With a sitcom, even ones as sophisticated as Curb Your Enthusiasm or the late great Larry Sanders Show, their primary, indeed their sole duty is to make you laugh. But a comedy drama has to involve you emotionally, so that the laughter that arises from the mess the characters make of their lives is tinged with sadness and recognition.

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams.

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, those crazy Girls.

Of course you have to care about the characters in your sitcom for the jokes to have their full effect. But that’s not the same thing as being moved by them.

What makes Transparent so powerful is the forceful way that it engages you emotionally in the lives of its protagonists. So that by the time you get to the finale of season one, you’re left an emotional wreck after the carnage they wreak upon one another, in a way that only families can.

The genuinely great and now late Gary Shandling.

The genuinely great and now late Garry Shandling.

The writing, acting and production are almost painfully spot on, and the series glides confidently from the present day to the recent past and back again giving the whole family portrait an added poignancy.

If you were wondering what to do with your evenings, now that you’ve got through seasons one and two of Girls, look no further.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

A Death Row Tale; making a storyteller.

Making A Murderer.

Making A Murderer.

Of the many, many depressing things about the deeply disturbing Making A Murderer, the most troubling is the idea that not one but two juries of twelve men and women good and true managed to find Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey guilty.

As is the procedure with every jury, their duty was explained to them both plainly and repeatedly. They needed to be sure of the defendant’s guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.

To see him so obviously framed, couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game" Bob Dylan, Hurricane.

“To see him so obviously framed,
couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
where justice is a game.”
Bob Dylan, Hurricane.

And yet, these juries were able to hear how two men of significantly lower than average intelligence were able to violently murder a woman in their own home, before chopping her up and burning her in their back yard, without leaving a shred of evidence or a single drop of blood behind in the house as evidence, without having any doubt whatsoever as to their guilt.

I’m ignoring obviously the ludicrously placed car key that magically turns up in the middle of the floor in Steven’s bedroom, in an area that had already been searched six times.

Michael Peterson, astonishingly, behind bars.

Michael Peterson, astonishingly, behind bars.

That a jury could hear the evidence in the Avery and Dassey trial, Making a Murderer, in the Michael Peterson case, The Staircase, in the Adnan Syed case, Serial season 1, and in the Tim Cole case, from Paul Kix’s recent New Yorker piece ‘Recognition’, and not see in front of them a mountain of doubt forming before their very eyes is quite simply hard to credit.

Which is not to say that they were all necessarily innocent, just that there was some doubt as to their guilt. That anyone could have heard any of those trials and not come away with at least a few, reasonable doubts almost defies belief.

The most charitable thing that can be said, and I’m clutching at straws here, is that it is no longer reasonable to expect ordinary people to be able to ignore the media circus that inevitably springs up around the more lurid cases. And that the sort of uninformed, gutter, tabloid journalism that that produces is impossible for a jury to steer clear of in this age of twenty-four hour “news” coverage.

Adnan Syed, whose story is told in Serial.

Adnan Syed, whose story is told in Serial.

Perhaps it is time to dispense with the jury system when it comes to murder trials. At least then, all we would have to deal with is the gross ineptitude of the judicial system, and the blind prejudices of some of its practitioners determined to profit by it.

So it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch A Death Row Tale: The Fear of 13. After watching Making A Murderer, The Staircase, and listening to Serial, all of which are captivating if incredibly depressing, and Serial season 2 by the bye, is every bit as good as season 1 though in a somewhat different way, the prospect of witnessing yet another unimaginable miscarriage of justice really didn’t appeal to me.

I’ll not give any of the details of Nick Yarris’ extraordinary story away, except to say that eventually, and mercifully, it has a happy ending.

Masterful storyteller David Yarris.

Masterful storyteller Nick Yarris.

I’m almost embarrassed to have to confess that this is yet another Storyville documentary that I’m recommending (reviewed earlier here). But then I remember all those over-produced, idea-free franchise films, all those pedestrianly produced television programmes and all those needlessly published books that get foisted on us every week, and I remind myself that the likes of Storyville need to be celebrated loudly from the tops of every and all available rooftops.

But the last word has to go to Nick Yarris. It was incredibly brave of film maker David Sington to make a film made up almost entirely of one man sitting in a chair and talking to us. But then again, what a man.

When Nick Yarris went to gaol at the age of 22, he arrived there as an anti-social drug addict who was barely able to read and write. And yet, through nothing than his his own force of will, he re-made himself as a thoughtful, educated and deeply intelligent man, who would eventually be transformed into a dazzlingly brilliant storyteller. And what a tale he has to tell.

You can see the trailer for A Death Row Tale here, for Making a Murderer here, and The Staircase here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every month on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.