Friday, March 18, 2016

Nosh 7: 'Embrace of the Serpent,' 'Room' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER (Reviews of  Embrace of the Serpent and Room)
Jungle films are usually dense with hot, humid colors. Embrace of the Serpent, from Colombian director and writer Ciro Guerra, has a look of impeccably engraved silver, its black and white images of the upper Amazon basin giving the story a memorial glow, a shimmer of enraptured lamentation.

The star, both a superb camera object and a fully present actor, is Nilbio Torres as Karamakate, a virtual 'last of the Mohicans' to his tiny, dying tribe. He is a young, wandering, heartsick shaman, a remnant of the ecological wisdom of an Amazonia ravaged by rubber exploitation and colonial Catholicism. In1909 he grudgingly helps a deeply ill, German ethnographer (Jan Bijvoet) to find a rare plant that has curative and hallucinogenic properties. The searchers bond through the virile, often accusing pride of the shaman and the vulnerability of the scientist, who hauls along his precious collection like a millstone of cultural guilt.

When the Indian says things like "All your science leads to violence" we detect the heavy cargo of Universal Significance. Guerra doubles down on that, jumping the story ahead 40 years (with different actors) to the old, lonely, bitter Karamakate, who guides a haughty young scientist deeper into the shrinking forest. As the two stories twin in overlap we get more lessons in brutal white imperialism. At times, Serpent is a snake engorging a prey too stuffed with big ideas for lucid digestion.

At its best echoing Aguirre, Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now, at its worst recalling the slacker Dennis Hopper bits in the later film (and Hopper's cracked South American vision The Last Movie), this picture maintains the magnetic allure of themes that seem both timely and timeless. The final, revelatory head-trip, on a holy mountain, is a little limp. But by then you're either hooked or you have slumped into slumber.

There was surprise last month when young Brie Larson took the Best Actress Oscar for her work in Room. I saw it later and was disappointed. Larson plays an Akron mom, abducted and kept in a drab shed locked down by Nick, the creep who drops in almost every night for some forced sex and intimidation. The extra torment is that her son by him, now 5, thinks the room is life, with the larger world reduced to a blurry TV and a small skylight.

Lenny Abrahamson's movie, with its mood-dripping claustrophobia and TV-scaled realism, veers into trauma-therapy soap (with modest appearances by Joan Allen and William H. Macy as relatives). Downplaying her prettiness, Larson is quite effective, yet
most of the expressive power is from Jacob Tremblay as the imaginative boy. He certainly has visiting rights to that Oscar. Even better, pass the gilded baldie to Jennifer Lawrence for her exciting, surefire wok in Joy, or to Cate Blanchett for her immaculate subtlety in Carol.

SALAD (A List)
The recent death (Feb. 28) of George Kennedy brought to mind a rich memory. No, not his amusing Oscar role in Cool Hand Luke, but his big Herman Scobie in Charade, terrifying Audrey Hepburn with his industrial-strength hook hand and almost dispatching Cary Grant off a Paris roof. In his honor ...

My Favorite Movie Villains: Eddie Albert, Attack!; Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men; Alfonso Bedoya, Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Steve Buscemi, Fargo; Bette Davis, The Little Foxes; Dan Duryea, Ride Clear of Diablo; Ben Gazarra, The Strange One; Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, The Maltese Falcon; Alec Guinness, Oliver Twist; Bob Gunton, The Shawshank Redemption; Dennis Hopper, Blue Velvet; John Hurt, 44-Inch Chest; Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune; Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Brown; Ben Johnson, One-Eyed Jacks; Leopoldine Konstantin, Notorious; Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate; Charles Laughton, Mutiny on the Bounty; George Macready, Paths of Glory; Lee Marvin, Seven Men From Now; James Mason, North by Northwest; Ted De Corsia, Crime Wave; Robert Mitchum, Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter; Agnes Moorhead, Dark Passage; Jack Palance, Shane; Parnell Roberts, Ride Lonesome; Robert Ryan, Billy Budd and Crossfire; George Sanders, All About Eve; George C. Scott, The Hustler; Conrad Veidt, Casablanca; John Vernon, Point Blank; Eli Wallach, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; J.T. Walsh, Breakdown; Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds, and Orson Welles, The Trial. And, of course, the Dark Lord himself: Ralph Fiennes's Voldemort, Harry Potter

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
I always thought that the black singer's "picnic" song in Citizen Kane was a simple fragment contrived for the movie. In fact in 1940 Citizen Welles went "to see Nat 'King' Cole (and his trio) playing at the Radio Room, the club across the street from NBC in Hollywood. Orson went away humming Cole's version of 'This Can't Be Love' ... (He) developed it into something else entirely: an extended interlude of carousing picnickers serenaded by Cee Pee Johnson's ensemble, performing a louche-sounding pastiche of Cole's song ... 'I kind of based the whole thing around that song." (From Patrick McGilligan's fine book Young Orson)

ENTREE (Starlight Rising)
"I had been hooked on Arbus's art for years, but it took Fur to open for me Patricia Bosworth's great Diane Arbus. Inspired by her book, the movie became its poetic distillate. A ledge-walker, Fur never loses poise. 'I don't see Fur imitating life as a bio-pic might,' remarked actor Jane Alexander, because 'if you're going to talk about the creative spirit of somebody, what better way to go than nto the realm of the fantastical, magical world of her mind." (From the Fur/Nicole Kidman chapter of my book Starlight Rising, coming soon from Luminare Press.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it's a distillation.

Nicole Kidman and Ty Burrell in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (Picturehouse; director Steven Shainberg, cinematographer Bill Pope)

For previous Flix Nosh posts, scroll down.


  1. Villains: Nicky Katt in "The Limey"; John Huston in "Chinatown"; Michael Madsen in "Reservoir Dogs"; Stig Helmer in "The Kingdom" (technically a Danish miniseries, but shown here as a [VERY long] movie); P.J. Soles in "Carrie." Special mention: the queen in "Aliens."

  2. Excellent choices, Arthur. I could have gone on and on (Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, Stephen Boyd in The Oscar, Victor Jory in The Fugitive Kind, John Marley in The Godfather, Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, Jack Elam in so much,etc.) but it's a case of ad infinitum diabolicum. By the way, you were never a villain at the UT! Indeed, a hero.

  3. Stephen Boyd in "The Oscar" -- what a villain! Sneaky, snarky, nasty, vain, vicious and so much more, don't you think?

  4. Thanks, David. I didn't want to have to see Room, and now I can take it off my list, despite its Oscar!

    1. Thanks, Carlene. Rather than Room, try A Room With a View.

    2. Hmmm, a trip to Florence is probably just what I need....