Category Archives: Reviews

First Contact?

At first, I was excited. It’s not every day that an anthropological documentary drops on Netflix. “First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon” started streaming online recently and while the title gave me pause because it sounds like something straight out of the 60s I had to give it a watch.

“First Contact” does feel like it’s something straight out of the sixties, down to the British narrator who waxes poetic on the virtues of simple living and the misrepresentation that this is first contact at all.  As the title explains, the anthropologists and filmmakers are viewing and reflecting on a “first contact” encounter with members of the Sapanawa tribe who fled colonial death squads in Peru in 2014. The narrator informs us that this encounter became a viral video success on YouTube. However, interviews with Xina, the primary informant, indicate that he has had plenty of “contact” already.  The film endeavors to dig into the conflict occurring between the “civilized world” and “uncontacted tribes” in South America but fails to deliver on exposing the deeper structural problems that are fueling it.

It’s unfortunate that the film spends so much time on the moment of contact instead of the why. It also displays an overwhelmingly outdated and offensive perspective of tribes who have chosen to live in isolation by falling back on the same old tropes which simplify and infantilize indigenous people.

The most disappointing moments of “First Contact” comes in the last five or so minutes with an abrupt tonal shift that could have made for a much more responsible documentary.

“First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon” premiered in February 2016 and is still streaming on Netflix.

Here is Survival International’s response to the film.


The Fountain: A Love Poem to Death

Darren Aronofsky once said that his inspiration for The Fountain was his own mid-life crisis and that the film was his love poem to death. That concept, of approaching death with love, was quite foreign to me. Death was not something I particularly feared. Which is not to say I wasn’t afraid of dying, but as long as it wasn’t a death by drowning, I was rather at peace with the fact that one, hopefully far in the future, I would die. In part, this stems from my Jewish heritage. While we do now conceive of an afterlife, Judaism prior to the Babylonian Exile (circa 586 BCE) had almost no conception of life after death. One died, got buried, and that was that. Of course, post Galut, when life seemed rather unbearable at times, the notion of some kind of reward for our suffering in this life became much more desirable.

I have to admit here that the primary reason I wanted to see The Fountain in 2006 were my “strong feelings” about Hugh Jackman. In fact, I think the three roles he plays here are the finest performances of his career. Next to Wolverine (obviously). The story forces his character to go to vulnerable extremes on several occasions.

In my view, the key to The Fountain’s success as a film is two-fold: themes and visual execution. This is the kind of movie you want to see twice just so you can pick up on the subtle cues that echo and foreshadow throughout the story.

And what a story. Well, it’s three-part tale taking place in the early days of Colonial Spain, the modern era, and far in the future (where astronauts travel in very unique spaceships). If that’s not tricky enough, there’s also Mayan-Judeo-Christian mysticism with a Buddhist flare to pique your sensibilities. The politics of having a white guy be the hero of tale influenced by non-white religions is another post for another time. While each story does not exactly mimic another there are through lines in imagery and dialogue the remind the viewer that there is a deeper connection between these characters than the fact that two are played by the same actors.

The visual effects choices made in The Fountain are superb, particularly with regard to the most sci-fi element, traveling through space towards a dying star wrapped in a nebula (I’m not sure if that’s cosmologically accurate). At first, you might think that nebula is crafted with amazing CGI. You would be wrong. Those are actually practical effects, on an almost microscopic level. What you are watching is massively enlarged footage of chemical reactions in a Petrie dish. Yeah. Think on that.

The Fountain has the kind of ending I like in artsy-fartsy movies (and I mean artsy-fartsy in the most respectable way). It is slightly ambiguous but not overly confounding. After pulling roughly at the viewers’ heartstrings, it allows us to wrap death in a loving embrace.