Embrace of the Serpent

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Release: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Ciro Guerra; Jacques Toulemonde Vidal

Directed by: Ciro Guerra


This  review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I would like to give a shout-out to James for allowing me to talk about this unique cinematic experience. 


Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de La Serpiente) was Colombia’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards, proving that for director Ciro Guerra the third time is the charm. His first unsuccessful submission happened to be his very first feature, the 2004 drama Wandering Shadows, and the second in 2009 for The Wind Journeys. Guerra of course lost to Son of Saul director László Nemes, but he shouldn’t have. In fact this is the kind of experience that just begs the question, why can’t foreign language films also be eligible for Best Picture?

Guerra’s epic excursion through the beautiful but harsh Amazon rain forest is not just last year’s best picture (and by a mile), it’s one of the most raw, most vital experiences you are ever going to have. It’s a religious experience (quite literally in some senses) — an unforgettable journey whose spiritual and cultural pulses are so tangible the film ceases to be a film and instead becomes a snapshot of a reality many of us have conveniently forgotten. Though the account is fictional, portions of the narrative have been inspired by the experiences of early 20th Century western explorers and their encounters with the indigenous peoples of Colombia. The drama is so authentic it induces pangs of despair that only documentaries on harrowing subjects like genocide and other forms of persecution are able to. Of course this film, at least tonally, isn’t quite as heavy as something like Son of Saul, but it touches upon a subject that is just as heartbreaking: the devastation of native populations in the wake of western expansion.

Embrace of the Serpent, shot in a seductive grayscale, follows two stories set roughly 30 years apart. The first finds German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) searching for a cure for a serious illness he’s come down with having spent many years in the Amazon. The scientist’s actual journal entries form the basis for Bijvoet’s outstanding performance and they also play a prominent role in the narrative itself. Said diaries are filled with illustrations and scribblings he fully intends to bring back and use as a communicative tool between vastly different societies. In his quest to avoid dying a miserable, jungly death Theo seeks the help of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last of his own tribe. As a younger, more hostile man he is portrayed by Nilbio Torres in a performance you simply must see.

That a white man has encroached upon his territory unsettles Karamakate deeply and he’s unwilling to help until Theo makes it clear he isn’t here to profit like most westerners have by extracting the rubber from rubber trees, a practice that has led to the enslavement, torture and eventual diminishing of “savages” across numerous western outposts. Theo has been traveling by canoe with a more westernized local, a twenty-something named Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) who is constantly chastised by Karamakate for betraying his own people by adopting western customs like wearing a tee shirt and pants. Everyone is on edge and it is in this state of utter distrust we beat a path through the dense jungle, in search of the (fictional) yakruna plant, whose hallucinatory powers are considered Theo’s best chance for survival.

Guerra entwines this saga with Karamakate’s experiences in 1940 with American explorer Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis). He’s hoping to continue Theo’s work by similarly documenting his travels. He too holds an interest in the yakruna plant, only Karamakate claims he can’t remember where it can be found. Thirty-one years older and that much further removed from the customs and rituals of his people, he is portrayed as an impossibly lonely and broken man by Antonio Bolívar. His lowest moments confirm that sometimes the most powerful evocations of human emotion come in the form of the quiet sob.

There’s a brilliant symmetry to the way Guerra has chosen to structure the piece. The earlier timeline firmly establishes the tenuous trust-building process while the latter proves specifically how that trust can be so easily violated (there’s something we don’t quite buy into with the American explorer; Theo somehow seemed more genuine). The split narrative also affords the internal conflict churning inside Karamakata room to breathe and become an almost unbearable weight. He doesn’t give the outside world direct access to all he holds dear just the once; he goes against his better judgment twice. Embrace of the Serpent, then, becomes more about his resilience and his perspectives. He’s not exactly a man without flaws and his occasional misgivings about the white man can sting deeply (not all of us are monsters). Even so, the way the film concludes leaves little doubt as to where our sympathies should ultimately lie.

Guerra’s vision is distinctly his own. Embrace of the Serpent is an entirely immersive experience that taps into primal human behavior, one that is as cerebral as it is physical. One of the main concerns of the older Karamakata is not being able to recall his ancestral history because of past actions he himself has taken, while Schultes laments not being able to dream because of his work. But it’s not all about suffering. There’s a lot of beauty to be found as well, particularly in the visual aesthetic. Crisp black-and-white photography lends a sense of timelessness and an ethereal quality to the jungle. It’s an artistic flourish that contributes immeasurably to the sense of insulation we feel as we make our way towards the striking round domes of the Cerros de Mavecure, where the yakruna can be found.

Of course this would not be a proper review without discussing the serpent itself. Guerra restrains himself impressively in terms of how he allows the serpent’s mythological symbolism to influence his narrative. Derived from Latin (‘serpens’), the most obvious metaphorical application is the duality of good versus evil. In truth, you can apply it as metaphorically or as literally as you like: Guerra uses the birthing of a snake in an early scene to remind us that snakes are indeed a very real and dangerous entity, while Karamakata later describes the birth of creation as the descending of a serpent from the skies.

Spiritual connectedness also features prominently. At one point Karamakata is shown a picture of himself and, rather than recognizing the image as a moment frozen in time, he believes it to be his ‘chullachaqui,’ a hollow spirit form. Throughout we’re reminded once and again of a complex belief system thought to maintain order in this otherwise hostile and unpredictable environment. We’re never asked to embrace it but we are challenged to respect it. Karamakata believes Westerners are limited by their own ignorance (scientists can only think in terms of facts and observable phenomenon; those who seek riches can only think in terms of money and material possessions, etc.), whereas the native inhabitants of the jungle are much more attuned to the grander hierarchy of existence. This in and of itself is enough to open the flood gates for lively debate.

Embrace of the Serpent isn’t just a memorable watch, it is a significant cinematic achievement. Guerra’s assured direction and the mesmerizing performances from his small cast combine to form a visceral, challenging experience that simultaneously defends a dying way of life and homages some great survival/adventure films. Flavors of The Jungle BookLord of the Rings and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo — even Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto — are all sampled, but a part of me feels that this particular film reaches some psychic level that none of the aforementioned quite managed. It reaches far higher than the vast majority of Best Picture nominees have in recent years.

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Recommendation: Utterly compelling stuff and hands-down one of the most extraordinary things this reviewer has ever watched. (Interestingly, in a year that has given us a lot of disappointments . . . A LOT . . . I have also been able to find two films that might make my all-time greats list, the other being the delightfully bizarre indie Swiss Army Man.) Embrace of the Serpent is a film whose dialogue is delivered primarily in native tongues but eight other languages factor in as well. Don’t let the subtitles scare you out of this. You simply just have to get your hands on this.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 125 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.vox.com

Hurricane

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Release: Wednesday, August 31, 2016 (Vimeo)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Christiano Dias

Directed by: Christiano Dias


This short film review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. A tip of the hat to James, who runs the show over there.


Hurricane is the brand new film from Christiano Dias, an experienced short film director who has managed to fit 20 writer-director credits under his belt in the span of a decade. His latest puts a humorous spin on anti-Communist sentiments running rampant in 1950s America.

It tells a darkly comic tale of a couple, Oslo (Corey Page) and Eva Alduars (Lisa Roumain), experiencing some strange happenings during the course of dinner. A tense argument over the meal soon focuses on the radio they have playing in the background, which crackles in and out before eventually going silent. It reminds Oslo of a similar incident that apparently happened at a neighbor’s house, in which a man had discovered a wiretapping device inside his radio. Supposedly that same man had disappeared from the area not long after that. Oslo suspects the Commies got him.

Moments later, a knock at the door. A boy introduces himself as Benjamin Shaw (David Jay), and appears to be selling newspaper subscriptions. But something just doesn’t add up. Oslo begins to think the timing of these events is no coincidence. Meanwhile, a storm closes in on the house outside. Dias challenges us to consider all of the possibilities here, including what seems most unlikely.

What’s most apparent with Hurricane are the production values. Crisp colors and retro shapes and objects transport you back into the Cold War era, a physical sense of time and place conjured from wisely chosen props and set decor, not least of which is that pesky radio — virtually a character unto itself. Thick curtains drawn across large windows occupy considerable space within the frame, a not-so-subtle nod to the Red Scare.

It’s not just visual cues that tip us off, either. There’s a lot of strong eye-acting going on here, whether it’s an accusatory stare from over the top of Oslo’s glasses or the intense look of irritation, borderline anger, in Eva’s. Watch as the look turns from one of disgust to concern as she watches the man steadily come undone. The period details even is evident in the tones of voices used, the cadence with which the characters speak. Paying attention to these little nuances is more important than to the acting itself, which can be pretty shaky.

Those details add up to a unique and at times disconcerting experience that plays with notions of how paranoia and mistrust can lead us to make poor decisions and act irrationally. The set-up is simple but effective, making for a short film that I really kind of have to recommend.

Recommendation: An interesting take on the atmosphere of paranoia, fear and mistrust in the years leading up to and certainly including the Cold War. Juggles comedy with dramatic beats pretty effectively, even if the acting is at times a bit shaky. On the whole, though, these are 14 minutes very well spent. I enjoyed the strangeness of it all and this makes me really want to check out more of Dias’ work. An easy recommendation to make. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 14 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . .]

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Photo credits: http://www.screencritix.com; http://www.vimeo.com

Windsor Drive

Release: Friday, August 28, 2015 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: T.R. Gough

Directed by: Natalie Bible’


This review happens to be my fourth contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I’d like to thank James for giving me the chance to check this one out!


While there are some momentary glimpses of inventive horror film-making, there’s little doubt the short format would have served Windsor Drive‘s purposes better and that’s the only thing that’s clear after sitting once through.

Obscured by an overwhelming number of confusing and convoluted scene changes and music video-style edits, Windsor Drive strives for conjuring a moody, noir-esque vibe but instead results in an exasperating experience lacking in logic and inspiration. Knoxville, Tennessee native Natalie Bible’ has something on her mind about the degree of psychological asylum people are willing to sacrifice for the sake of a shot at the big time (specifically for an acting gig in this case) but unfortunately whatever that message is supposed to mean to anyone not in showbiz is extremely difficult to access.

In fact, trying to deduce what Windsor Drive is saying — other than that crazy people are drawn towards crazy professions like acting — is like digging through a stack of needles to find a single straw of hay. It’s painful and damn tedious. I’m having flashes of Shawnee Smith in Saw II, rummaging through a knee-deep stash of filthy syringes dumped into a pit in that decrepit home. I may not have bled as much (or at all), but the effort to keep going was, well . . . cut to the shot of her Amanda falling to the ground after finding the key and having completely expended her physical and psychological strength.

Film features a bevy of soap opera stars who are as easy on the eyes as they are grating on the ears. These relative unknowns unfortunately aren’t convincing in the slightest; luckily T.R. Gough’s haphazard script doesn’t have much time for dialogue, so most of the awkwardness presents in the stiff way these people carry themselves. With the exception of star Tommy O’Reilly fully committed to the fragile actor role — his River Miller’s archetypical tall, dark and handsome physique offers a fairly threatening character — supporting roles, mostly female, are sketches of actual people. Samaire Armstrong’s Brooke, one of River’s exes, is relegated to line rehearsals like, ‘No, please don’t leave. You should stay and have sex with me again,’ only the dialogue isn’t quite as profound.

River moves to the L.A. area to find a proper acting gig, wanting to leave his past behind in which a girlfriend tragically took her own life. He takes a room in a house run by two hipsters, hipsterly named Wulfric (Kyan DuBois) and Ivy (Anna Biani) who have, I don’t know, something weird going on. Most of the narrative is spent in this place, a brooding ground where the three roommates occasionally interact and ruminate on how hard it is to find a good gig as an actor. Then River finds out there’s a small part in a remake of the Windsor Drive movie. Bible’ teases out a few of the lines he has to rehearse in a sequence of admittedly brilliant shots that blur the line between the head space he gets in in character and the one he leaves behind in the real world. There needed to be more of that.

Should Bible’ have gone the short film route, one of the piece’s most nagging issues would have most assuredly been eliminated: feigning creativity in order to reach a certain run time. Shots cut and re-cut so that they play over and again upside down, in reverse and in different color palettes (all semi-related, of course) and framing speeds become so commonplace it’s clear that passing time is the primary objective. Best case scenario, Windsor Drive is amateurish with a bit of potential; at worst it’s one of the more pretentious bits I’ve seen. Condensing the timeline might not have guaranteed its salvation, but tightening the focus would have steered the project away from pretense quickly.

Recommendation: Windsor Drive features a few pretty cool scenes but there are far more minuses than pluses to this one. I can’t really recommend the film on its acting or directing pedigree but it does look good despite the horrible decision to cut it like an extended music video; and the lack of dialogue in favor of visual cues makes for occasionally stimulating viewing. Though rough, this film won’t stop me from keeping an eye out for Bible’ going forward.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 78 mins.

Quoted: “Some might find it a little odd, strange perhaps, but there is a method to the madness. There are only two relevant human emotions, love and fear. All others are meaningless.”

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Photo credits: http://www.traileraddict.com; http://www.imdb.com

Clinger

Release: Friday, October 23, 2015 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Michael Steves, Gabi Chennisi, Bubba Fish

Directed by: Michael Steves


This review is my third contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I’d like to thank James for providing me the opportunity to take a look at this film.


Clinger tells a story about an obsessive young man who, after losing his life in embarrassing fashion, comes back to haunt his girlfriend by insisting that the two were destined to be together forever. And ever.

Intended to be a fresh entry into the rapidly expanding subgenre of horror-comedy, the film is decidedly more of a comedy tinged with horror elements, featuring absurd performances, brutally silly killings and psychotic teddy bears. It takes place around a fictional high school for which our heroine, Fern Petersen (Jennifer LaPorte), runs track and is hoping to get into MIT on a scholarship based on a combination of her athletic ability and impressive academics. She’s driven and has a bright future ahead of her . . . at least she did until she met Robert Klingher (Vincent Martella).

The pair’s meet-cute at the track, where Fern is attempting to shave seconds off her lap time and Robert’s playing an acoustic guitar alone in the bleachers (for reasons unknown), stems from Robert’s concern for Fern’s health after she plows headlong into a hurdle having been distracted by his John Mayer impression. It’s an odd encounter, though nothing ostentatious. Nothing compared to where Clinger decides to go a few short minutes later.

The film stumbles through the relationship-building, transforming a friendship into a romance over the course of a couple of scenes, but that’s not entirely the film’s fault. You see, something’s wrong with Robert. He likes rushing into things, obsessing over making every single moment perfect. He’s the kind to celebrate the one month, three-week anniversary. It would be a sort of sweet sentiment if it weren’t a quality that extends to his undead . . . self. After he gets killed in an entirely underwhelming scene that’s intended to be funny but just . . . isn’t . . . he begins stalking Fern from beyond the grave. He visits her often, wanting to remain by her side.

When she makes it clear she’s trying her best to move on with her life, things go from weird to downright bizarre (#undeadsex . . . . . . . . how’s that one, Mutey?), with Robert determined to do whatever’s necessary to make Fern his eternal lover. As well as marking a major tonal shift, this point is, somewhat unfortunately, where the film falls apart, collapsing under the weight of significantly amateurish writing, acting and essentially every major facet of the filmmaking process.

There are some interesting ideas at play — the juxtaposition of the living and the dead create some amusing and at times moving scenarios (what happens when the only person who can ‘see’ Robert insists that the two should stop seeing one another?) — but in terms of execution, this seems closer to a first draft than a finished product. What starts off as a fairly shaky but still inviting teen-centric narrative descends alarmingly quickly into a mess of uncoordinated, juvenile and quite frankly dumb antics, most of which aim to appease the 13-year-old in all of us but instead inspire face-palms. The acting is perhaps the most grating of all, particularly when it comes to Martella’s sweet/creepy serenades to his still-living lover.

Clinger takes a pretty cynical approach in examining young love and its obsessive tendencies, and for that it should be praised. It’s refreshing. By shoving the world of the undead and the world of the living together, Michael Steves and company hope that some elements of this bizarre pseudo-zombie comedy (zombedy?) end up sticking. It’s obviously not an exact science and this slapdash film is unfortunately proof of that.

Recommendation: Sorry to say that this one just doesn’t do enough to merit a recommendation from me. I get where they were going with this, but the execution is pretty poor. The special effects in particular is a low point. I grant the film it’s minimal budget but in this day and age, where some films have accomplished extraordinary things on low budgets, that’s just not a good enough excuse anymore.

Rated: R

Running Time: 81 mins.

Quoted: “We just don’t fit into each other’s life plans . . . or death plans, sorry.”

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Photo credits: http://www.filmaffinity.com; http://www.filmpulse.net 

Addicted to Fresno

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Karey Dornetto

Directed by: Jamie Babbit


This review is my second contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I’d like to thank James for giving me the chance to take a peek at this one! 


In her fifth feature film Jamie Babbit fixates upon life in a Californian town where nothing seems to happen — nothing good, anyway. Attracting an impressive cast of almost exclusively comediennes — Natasha Lyonne, Judy Greer, Molly Shannon and Aubrey Plaza — the film regrettably misuses the talent it has been afforded by stranding them in a dispassionate and thoroughly unconvincing narrative that will have viewers actively searching for the comedy.

Addicted to Fresno concerns two sisters working as hotel maids in Fresno. Lyonne is Martha, a hard-working, upbeat woman who is determined to make something of her life in these doldrums, while her older sister Shannon (Greer) has recently been released from sex rehab and is trying to put her life back together by working a steady job. Unfortunately Shannon can’t fight temptation and ends up sleeping with a hotel guest who she accidentally kills in an ensuing struggle. Desperate to keep her job, she enlists Martha’s help to get rid of the evidence, insisting she was raped and that it was not, in fact, consensual sex.

When the pair try to pass off the corpse they have concealed in a hotel hamper as a dog they want buried, they invoke the irritation of two local pet cemetery owners who insist they be paid $25,000 to keep quiet. Oh, and the money must be delivered in three days. Martha, once again bailing her sister out of a tough situation, reluctantly turns to robbery. It’s a harebrained scheme that will involve a porn shop, where they make off with a hamper filled with sex toys they will later sell to a lesbian softball team that just so happens to stay at the hotel. Convenient. (Not so convenient is their realization that porn shops don’t carry much cash in the register.)

The plan goes from bad to terrible when they find themselves still short of their total and decide that an upcoming event — a Bar Mitzvah — hosted at the Fresno Suites will help them considerably. Meanwhile, Martha strikes up a friendship with Kelly (Plaza), a Krav Maga instructor who gets denied a few first dates as Martha attempts to keep the other situation from spiraling out of control. Kelly may be cool, but she isn’t cool with being perpetually put off for the sake of Martha’s unapologetically reckless sister.

Greer channels more than a hint of her deranged Archer personality, Cheryl Tunt (or, is that Carol?) but the key difference here is that . . . well, other than being a live-action character, Shannon just isn’t funny. If she’s not all sour grapes over the fact that Edwin (Ron Livingston), is reluctant to keep having an affair with her and would rather end his current marriage and be with her than have it both ways, she is sabotaging her sister’s personal and professional life. Martha may be the more empathetic character, yet her older sister is both the center of attention and whom Babbit intends for us to eventually embrace. Come the film’s conclusion we can’t bring ourselves to do anything of the sort. Instead we wonder how and why Martha has put up with this for so long.

Plaza fares better in an understated role as the fitness instructor who takes an immediate liking to Martha. Rather than reigning queen of the deadpan here she plays it straight (so to speak), although increasing her screen presence would have helped offset the unpleasantness pervasive throughout. Molly Shannon is frustratingly superfluous, adding a couple of lines to contextualize the life of the victim of Shannon’s sexual aggression earlier in the film but absent is her spunky personality. I do need to single out Edward Barbanell who, playing Fresno Suites Executive Maid Jerry, manages to convert his real-life Down Syndrome into comic relief that works fairly well.

Unfortunately Fresno‘s reliance upon raunchiness, save for a scene in which a member of the hotel staff happens to find herself in the right place at the right time when dildos begin raining down the laundry chute, doesn’t translate into many laughs. The cast is clearly having a field day with the material — it would be hard not to with this many funny women on the same set — but sadly we feel out of the loop watching on, trying to justify how a hotel staff could possibly overlook this kind of a farce, one that is happening right in front of their eyes. I suppose I’m focusing on the wrong things, but then that wouldn’t likely have happened if there was something else to entertain my overactive imagination.

Addicted to Fresno is a relationship comedy with few addictive properties. Under almost any other circumstance, that would be a plus but when it comes to entertainment, we should be left at the end eager to come back for more.

Recommendation: As a comedy, this doesn’t offer much in the way of originality. Featuring a central character that’s too easy to loathe, the film misjudges raunch and vulgarity and misses some opportunities to explore both romantic and familial relationships on a much deeper level. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 78 mins.

Quoted: “It’s hard letting go, isn’t it? If only Pop-Tart could have spoken up and told me what was bothering her. But turtles can’t let you know what’s going on, can they? Robots can’t, either . . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.fastcompany.com 

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets

Release: Friday, June 19, 2015 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Marc Silver

Directed by: Marc Silver


This review marks my first contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings, which I am happy to announce will be an ongoing process where I will publish a review or two each month. I’d like to thank James for this opportunity and for introducing me to this film.


3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets is a quietly devastating, award-winning documentary that tells a story no other genre nor filming style could. It follows the trial of Michael David Dunn, a 45-year-old software developer who was involved in an altercation with a group of black Jacksonville, Florida teens in which he fatally shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis. The November 23, 2012 slaying only added fuel to the public outcry fire as it marked the second high-profile case (the February shooting of Miami teen Trayvon Martin being the first) in which self-defense and bigotry created confused situations that both ended in tragedy.

In the case of Davis, he and three friends were listening to rap at a fairly loud volume in the parking lot of a Gates gas station when Dunn approached and asked them to turn it down. The situation soon escalated as Dunn claimed that Davis began threatening his life and that he saw what appeared to be a barrel of a rifle or a large gun pointing out of one of their SUV’s windows. Dunn grabbed his pistol and fired ten shots at the red Dodge Durango, fearing for his fiancée’s life (she was in the convenience store and could have walked out at any moment). The boys left the gas station and quickly noticed Davis had in fact been hit three times.

The film does not include any footage of the confrontation, but the scene is painted vividly thanks to the testimony of key witnesses as well as the defendant himself. Marc Silver brilliantly assembles footage of the ensuing and rather protracted court case that implicated Dunn in first-degree murder, with three counts of attempted murder and one count of firing into a vehicle tacked on for good measure. These four counts alone carry a sentence of 75 years (20 per attempted murder charge and 15 for firing into a vehicle). With a camera fixated on the witness stand, Silver uses these moments to color in the lines while he sketches out the shape with interviews with Davis’ parents as well as Jordan’s friends Tommie, Leland and Tevin.

It’s an emotional scene, which might be too obvious of a statement to make, but then not mentioning it would largely ignore the art of this particular craft. The omnipresence of the camera perpetuates this feeling of privileged access — even though we have read these headlines and may have even seen it on the news (I haven’t, sorry to say, as these situations are becoming far too common and can often get lost in the media), we feel like we’re on the ground-floor of this process. Perhaps what 3 1/2 Minutes does even better than establishing the passage of time — shots of field reporters seconds before they go live to report on the case reveal fidgety people consumed by thought; court officers shuffling feet from having standing in one place for a lengthy period of time — is relaying the emotional and even physical toll these legal proceedings must take on those involved.

Once again I might be stating the obvious, but Ron and Lucia Davis appear visibly worn out from the opening shots, well before the trial gets under way. The documentary is very much of the moment, conscious of the urgency with which this family needs to find closure in this unimaginable situation. While the first trial doesn’t quite provide the ruling the Davis’ seek — that particular jury could not reach a verdict on the count of first-degree murder, though they found Dunn guilty on all others — they try again (in September) to find justice for Jordan. Meanwhile, a scene outside the court finds protestors gathering, pleading that the right decision be made. Indeed, an atmosphere of despair and sorrow hangs heavy over proceedings. If you have a pulse you will find certain revelations difficult to listen to, much less accept as fact.

And though some parts of the film wade around in a fair amount of legalese and Silver dedicates at least half of his time within a court house where not much transpires other than cross-examinations, 3 1/2 Minutes often engages the adrenaline system. Given that we are only now two or three years removed from these incidents, there’s a great tension in watching the drama unfold. Was Dunn a racist man? His fiancée’s testimony is quite telling. Did Davis provoke him? Was there actually a weapon in their vehicle? What can the state of Florida do to un-muddy the waters when it comes to describing ‘stand-your-ground’ as it relates to self-defense laws?

Wisely Silver allows the outside world to weigh in on the sociopolitical commentary: a variety of news sources, public officials and radio show hosts (and their guests) are interspersed throughout in measured soundbites that give significance and context to the potential verdict. Most voices are those of dissent, almost unanimously damning Dunn’s actions. What happens if he is found guilty? Or, what happens if he’s not?  If he gets acquitted has the legal system yet again failed those who looked to it for some modicum of peace and resolution?

If nothing else, the documentary is a barometer of the racial tensions that continue defining one of humanity’s great flaws. The senselessness of each violent act that ends up having tragic consequences is painful to recognize, but this is where we still are, apparently. We’ve certainly had this conversation before in dramatic, fictional cinema but the pairing of trial footage with interviews concerning those closest to the victim lend a perspective that is simultaneously heartbreaking and powerful. The whole package amounts to essential viewing that will remain so years down the road.

Recommendation: Packed with emotion and fascinating, revealing glimpses into a painful and costly legal proceeding, Marc Silver’s work here must be seen by as many people as possible. In an era where the public has unprecedented access to information, 3 1/2 Minutes really ought to factor prominently in any conversation about race-related violence going forward. I can’t rate this one highly enough. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 85 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com