What I am Watching: Alien Covenant 100% Spoiler Free Review

I just came back from the pre-premiere screening of Alien: Covenant. This movie had a lot riding on it. It had the unenviable job of pleasing those of us who thought Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was a mini sci-fi masterpiece, by creating more mythology and expanding of the world of the Engineers, and those who thought Prometheus was a bore and wanted a tighter bridge to Scott’s original 1979 Alien, by adding more action packed scenes and tense horror. Was it successful? That’s up to you to decide, these are my thoughts.

My biggest worry going into this film is that it would be yet another retread of the tired Alien franchise formula – reach a planet or location, find out the planet or location has some unfriendly inhabitants, die. For the first few acts of the movie it was mostly that. (This is evidenced in the trailers and doesn’t really give anything away.) There wasn’t much wonder to the exploration of new terrain, if it was all old terrain. It was by numbers enough for me to go take a quick bathroom break and head back without feeling I had missed anything important. Perhaps for the young audience who has never seen the original films this may be exciting – and, in fact, the Covenant’s crew decent onto dangerous terrain is well filmed and staged.

Once we get to the part of the movie we all know is coming – infections! – things get a bit more interesting. There is a some more mythology built in, pseudo-religious subtexts, and a bit of the heartbeat that kept Prometheus ticking. We are given a little more information on The Engineers and take a few steps to move the story forward towards direct prequel land. Although some attempts are made to flesh out the world and its characters, the movie falters a bit. It feels afraid to go too far into the territory that divided some many audiences with Prometheus. Information in this movie comes in blurbs as opposed to long meditations on a theme.

When the movie shifts into decidedly “Alien-esque” territory, it offers up some interesting material – a few that I wish would have been explored further, especially when it comes to how exactly these xenomorphs think and react to the world around them. Again, I felt that this was fear of Prometheus backlash. Ridley Scott and the studio wanted a crowd pleaser, not another starkly divisive movie. Alien: Covenant had quite a few opportunities to really build on the themes of creation and humanity, but it whimpered just as each opportunity seemed to be reaching a crescendo.

Another failure of the film was the casting. None of the characters in this film were nearly as charismatic to root for or despise as Sigourney Weaver, from the original four movies, or Noomi Rapaca and Charleze Theron, from Prometheus. Even Michael Fassbender managed to be a little less interesting here as an improved, and less curious and self-willed, version of the earlier David. It even took a while to spring on me in the movie’s final two acts who our heroin (in traditional Alien fashion) was going to be, and when I established that, I also realized that I could not have cared less if she had lived or died because the film had not done a good job in getting me invested in her. This makes the final scenes less thrilling, as we, the audience are just waiting for the inevitable ending to show its scary xenomorph face again.

Alien: Covenant is sure to please audiences who haven’t seen a good Alien movie since Cameron’s 1986 Aliens. Although the exposition is overly long and full of “stupid people doing stupid things” moments (if you thought the biologist in Prometheus was dumb when he decided to play with an alien snake, wait until you get a load of these mental giants), when the movie finally gets going it has a few entertaining action set pieces.

The heart stopping action is too little and too late, though. And again, these scenes are hampered by the sense that Alien:Covenant doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be – a serious heady movie (like Prometheus) or a call back to what Scott and Cameron were able to achieve in their first two iconic movies in the franchise. This juggling act seemed to be too much for Ridley Scott to handle – and it shows. We are never sure whether to hold on to our movie theatre seats in suspense or to sit back and ponder what a character has just seen or what they may have meant by what they just said – and I have a feeling Ridley Scott wasn’t too sure of that himself either.

I probably won’t go running out to see Alien:Covenant again, but it is the most thorough and well made Alien film since the original four. It’s certainly more enjoyable to watch than Alien 3, and headier, in parts, than the popcorn-thrills of Alien: Resurrection, but it’s not quite in the same league as the first two movies. Even the campy first installment of the Alien vs Predator series had a little bit more pop in its step and more faith in its thematic vision (blood, jump scares, and gore) than this movie. Although I didn’t hate the film, I would have preferred to have seen either Alien 5 or a Prometheus 2 – a half spirited mixture of the two just didn’t do it for me at all.

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Read my review on two Stephen King mini-series, IT and The Stand by clicking here.

Read my thoughts on Logan, Split and Get Out by clicking here.

Get ready for the season of Twin Peaks by reading this here.

Phil

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What I am Watching: Stephen King’s IT (1990) and The Stand

There seems to be a Stephen King revival of late – with many of his works getting a first time film or television adaptation and others getting a reboot or remake. Although I have seen a few of his book adaptations, others I hadn’t. I decided to look back on some of his earlier book to screen adaptations to see what all the fuss was about. Below are my reviews of IT and The Stand – two very long novels that ended up as television mini-series in order to better accommodate the length of the source material.

IT (1990)

 

IT is probably one of the most iconic King novels and adaptations. I tried to read the book as a kid, but I got me nightmares just having the book with me in the same room (the cover art was scary) so returned it to the library. I fared no better with the television movie, only catching a few scenes here and there throughout the years but being so genuinely creeped out by Pennywise the Clown that I never gave it a go. So with the announcement of the IT movie later in the year, it felt like a perfect place to start and I was pumped to give the movie its due attention.

This movie tells these two parallel stories. One is of a group of kids in 1960 who are terrorized by a supernatural force dubbed IT, who most often manifests itself as as clown named Pennywise (played by the legendary Tim Curry to perfection). After realizing that IT feeds on their fears, these kids band together as The Losers Club to try to find a way to stop him – they also make a promise to themselves to go back to their hometown if IT is ever heard from again.

The other story is set thirty years later, in 1990, and follows these kids as adults. When they hear news that IT is on the prowl again, they hold true to their promise and travel back to their hometown for one more showdown with the creature. Although IT, seems like only a bad childhood memory, he still yields enough power to create fear among the group as adults.

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The Loser Club as adults in 1990.

The main problem with this movie is that the adult characters are not as endearing and the adult story not nearly as frightening or interesting as when we sticks to 1960 storyline. The kid ensemble has better chemistry and we, the audience, are taken on a fearful ride alongside them as IT plays with their childhood phobias. Even if the movie may feel tame compared to current horror standards, we can still empathize with the children as we think back to those same things that may have scared us when we were young.

While the movie does try its best to reflect how Pennywise still affects each member of The Losers Club as adults, it’s uneven. It’s made clear to us that IT did strip them of their innocence, but the characters flit between playing child abuse survivors and a group of people who are simply on a revenge mission. Both sentiments may be true, but the motivation behind the two feelings isn’t always so well expressed in the writing, directing and acting. This lack of focus hurts the film because it removes any sense of suspense and eventually leads to an anti-climatic finale. In other words, the adult plot line is clear from the start and since they already know who IT is (due to the 1960s storyline) we as an audience are left to go with the motions along with each of them.

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The Losers Club in 1960

The kids, on the other hand, represented a bit more of what we would feel, at any age, if confronted with an out-worldly demon who fed off our fears. These parts of the movie provided the The Losers Club (and us) the natural and logical steps from paranoia and fear to the eventual courage that they would need to face the boogy man. This makes for a much more interesting story to invest in. The set pieces and fright scenes are also set up on each character’s back story which makes the fright scenes more chilling. In contrast, the adults are given very little development outside of what we already know happened to them as youths.

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Tim Curry is this movie’s true saving grace though. As Pennywise he is menacing without having to work hard for it. His voice and eyes are enough to conjure up all sorts of nasty thoughts – and perhaps he was the cause of a whole generation’s fear of clowns. There is little, if anything to fault, about his performance but that can be said about nearly every role he has ever stepped into – especially when it calls for him to play out of this world characters. Check out my review of Legend here if you want to find out about another great Curry performance.

Despite some lulls in the suspense and an uneven performance from the adult actors, IT is definitely worth watching. Fans of the source material do complain that the television movie watered down a lot of what makes the book great, but I speak for the audience that never read the book (and certainly every book adaptation has to keep both readers and non-readers in mind) when I say that it both entertained me and gave me some slight creeps. IT may not be “hide under the sofa” scary (remember this was 1990 pre-X Files or Twin Peaks network television) but the story certainly stays in your head for a while after the end.

Speaking of the end, this is where the movie does fall apart completely. After hours of build-up and suspense, we are given a rather unsatisfying finale. What had been offered a very long meditation about the fear that resides in the recesses of our minds, but instead we are given an ending which centers around killing the very real creature that lives in the sewers. This diminishes the fear factor of most of the film that came before. It would have been great it IT had been something The Losers Club couldn’t really pin down as an actual physical form, making IT harder to kill. It’s a big problem that perhaps the remake will resolve – but we will have to wait until part two of those movies to find out.

The movie did interest me enough to pick up the book and take a very long read, though. If another task of a movie adaptation is to be good enough to get people to pick up the source material than IT succeeded in that wise.

The Stand (1994)

Another Stephen King project that is constantly up for a possible remake is The Stand. Because of its considerable length it was also made into a television mini-series and again, having never read the book, I am giving my opinions solely based on what I saw on screen.

This story deals with an end of the world (or just America) plague which leaves a group of survivors behind who begin to have visions. In these visions they see an old lady named Mother Abagail playing guitar on her porch and a man named Flagg embroiled in fire. Both these characters ask the survivors to go to them – and the fate of the rest of humanity holds in the balance depending on which way the people go.

The Stand was definitely more even throughout than IT – as there wasn’t any distracting difference in quality between two parallel storylines – but that isn’t to say it’s better or worse than the previous film. In fact, they are both at about the same level of made-for-TV movie quality. The Stand benefits from a slightly better cast (including Gary Sinise and Ruby Dee, who do their best with dialogue which can get pretty trite at times) and a character-driven story which doesn’t really rely too heavily on horror tropes. The movie is about these people’s choices to go one way or the other and it works pretty well for a while – but only for a while.

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Mother Abagail in Nebraska

The first two chapters, “The Plague” and, “The Dreams” I found to be very entertaining and imaginative. While there is a supernatural element which is slowly introduced, it doesn’t detract from the post-apocalyptic world where bodies are strewn across the street and where people are trying to sort the mess out. Their visions give them hope that there is an escape, though. It drives the plot at a steady rhythm as they travel either towards Mother Abagail in Nebraska or Flagg in Las Vegas.

The first two chapters of The Stand also feel very current, given how much we have been force fed apocalypse movies. A point that The Stand has in its advantage, though, is that while it certainly does show a world in ruin, it also tries to reinforce the idea that some people won’t go completely mad in a dead world. It reminded me of the underrated second season of The Walking Dead where, until Rick’s group arrived, Hershel and his farm seemed to be operating along just fine. The Stand delivers this more peaceful side of the story without making it boring or feel like we’ve been transported into a Disney movie.

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A tight jeans assemble for Flagg in Las Vegas.

The Stand begins to lose steam when the supernatural elements go from being a backdrop and take center stage in the story. We come to understand that there is a fight between good and evil that must play out, but it’s never really fully fleshed out as to why and to what end. We can surmise that God and The Devil want to take the opportunity to start the world anew with their “flock,” but this theme is only a spark that never truly burns into a satisfying flame. Mother Abagail seems to be unsure of how to go about explaining the importance of stopping Flagg and the only threatening thing about Flagg is whether or not he will force everyone to wear jeans as tight as his.

The third part of the mini-series, “The Betrayal,” was the most boring, and it only half kept my attention. As each person chooses his or her side in this final “Stand” (the name of the movie is repeated quite a few times in dialogue in case we don’t get it) there isn’t any real explanation as to why they want to be aligned with good or evil other than just “I’m a good guy and I’m a bad guy.” Not including this greater study of the two-dimensional scope of something as thematically powerful as the thin line which divides good and evil is where the movie fails. It becomes a simple adventure story where Mother Abagail sends out some of her men to go take Flagg down while Flagg tries to stop her from foiling his plans.

The last chapter, “The Stand,” is anti-climatic but well produced. It leads up to the final confrontation between Mother Abagail’s group and Flagg’s group. The conclusion to this face-off, for reasons I just mentioned, is lackluster and falls flat, though. Without giving us any hints as to the importance of the act of killing off Flagg or the reasons why any of the characters would choose either side of the battle, there is no investment in wanting to see him die other than knowing he is the bad guy and bad guys don’t win. Much like in IT, the supernatural force which can lead us into the hell inside our minds is reduced to a physical element that can be struck down with a good wack from a hand.

That said, The Stand didn’t bore me. I finished it rather quickly and recommend it to anyone who has some extra hours to spare. It’s not embarrassingly bad, even at its worst. It’s a great story which one can only imagine had many more layers in the source material – and that may benefit from someone remaking it for today’s audience. For what it’s worth, this is yet another success story for an adaptation which made me want to pick up yet another very long Stephen King novel.

Long live the King.

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What I am Watching: Kids and movies that actually came out this year!!!

Kids (1995)

When Kids originally premiered in 1995, it created quite a stir. It was called everything from exploitative to borderline child pornography. It was slapped with an NC-17 rating, and a bunch of my classmates ran around quoting bits of it without actually having seen it. I was one of those kids that didn’t see the movie, and I am glad that I only caught it for the first time now. It is a strong film, that requires a mature eye to understand and appreciate.

The story follows the day in the life of Telly – an adolescent boy in love with doing nothing and deflowering very young girls. One of the girls which he has had sex with, Jennie, finds out that she is HIV-Positive. Since he was her only sex partner, Jennie spends the day trying to find Telly.

He is a difficult boy to find, though, because after having already managed to have sex with one virgin, which is the film’s opening scene, he is on a mission to try to have sex with his second virgin of the day – a first for him.

Despite the nihilistic and even criminal outlook on life, Kids treats its characters with respect – even the vilest of the bunch. It’s filmed in a pseudo-documentary style which acts as a shield so as to not judge its characters or influence how we should think about them. Director Larry Clark is much more concerned with showcasing the emotional despair which can come from modern adolescence and turn it on its head by simply stepping away and letting its character’s breathe.

These kids have no time for angst – there are drugs to try, alcohol to consume, and people to fuck. They are in hyper-living mode as way to drive out the demons of the monotony of oncoming adulthood. Some kids will go through these phases and come out okay on the other side – others won’t. This film is not concerned with that – it simply wants to present us that moment in an individual’s life.

Larry Clark created a mini-masterpiece with this film. It is a slice of 1990s New York and of American teenage drive. These kids (like me) were probably the last generation without social media and internet. We had to discover the world in a much more tangible and scary way – which mean actually being out there to get kicked in the mouth.

Some of the things we saw weren’t pretty – some of them were marvelous. Kids brought me back to that time of uncertainty even if I wasn’t nearly as wild as these characters. This is an independent movie classic that should be watched by anyone who loves real non-filtered America cinema, and films that go full throttle with their attempt to say something about the world around them .

Get Out (2017)

There have been a million reviews of this movie, and mostly all positive, so there is nothing I want to add on that front because I agree with mostly all of them – Get Out is a cinema gem.

Director and Writer Jordan Peele managed to take a worn story and spin it on its head as a tale about racial tension and the anxieties faced by black Americans in society.

I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about this movie – from the script to the camera work to the acting to the spectacular editing and set design. This is a film for today – which is brave in asserting its themes and message: racism in the modern age is veiled, it’s sneaky, and one won’t be perceive it unless it is being looked at through the eyes of those who experience it daily.

Daniel Kaluuya, who plays the film’s protagonist, Chris, are those eyes. The movie is a slow burn until Peele is sure that we see what Chris sees and shouts along with one of the other characters of the movie “Get Out!”

I highly recommend this movie and I hope the film academy remembers it next year.

Split (2017)

Let me get the cheesy joke out of the way – I am split on this one.

One the one hand, it was great to see M. Night Shyamalan back in action. He is a hometown Philly guy, and I feel that even when he misses the mark, he is nearly always trying to make his movie. He may have lost his way a bit in the last decade or so, but Split puts him right back in the driver’s seat to tell the stories that he wants to tell. The movie is freaky, well paced, and there’s even a nice little twist and nod to an earlier film of his at the end.

On the other hand, the protagonists of this movie irritated the hell out of me. There was chance after chance after chance for them to escape or harm their capturer – in his many iterations, but they didn’t. Even when the psychologist, who I thought was the smartest character in the movie, decided to step in, she wasn’t much help either. The rest fell into predictable horror movie motifs with blood and guts to spare.

This movie, like a lot Shyamalan’s work since the fabulous Sixth Sense, has B-Movie appeal with A-Movie elements in the acting and directing department. But these elements aren’t enough to really bring any real depth or layers to a paper thin plot that quickly goes from would-be psychological thriller to slasher film.

I wouldn’t say to run out and watch this film now, but I also wouldn’t say to never watch it. It’s a passable flick – and may pump Shyamalan fans up to a possible return to form. And if you are a fan of one of his early films, you will definitely get excited about the little coda at the end of the movie.

Logan (2017)

I wish I could say I enjoyed this movie – I really do. The truth is much harsher though. I thought Logan was pretty boring and introduced nothing exciting and new to either the superhero genre or the Wolverine’s character aside from some F-Bombs.

The story is set in the future, with an aged and dying Wolverine. He rides off with Professor Xavier (played by a very frail Patrick Stewart) to protect a young girl who, by way of some genetic engineering. may be Wolverine’s offspring.

The little girl, X-23, played by Dafne Keen, is the most entertaining part of the movie. She has blood in her eyes, and spirit in her voice (when she finally decides to talk). She ads the unknown element to the movie while both Jackman and Stewart go through the motions.

I am a big fan of the Wolverine character, and can even tolerate the solo movies, but this one tried to hard to be “adult” and “balsy” but it ended up cutting short the fun, excitement, and harshness which Wolverine should bring to the screen. He was a lame duck here, and the movie suffered for it.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Nostalgia meets a few new songs and a lot of CGI. I loved this version of Beauty and the Beast as much as I enjoyed the original animated classic. The sets were beautiful, the story pretty much the same magical fun, and the music fabulous as ever. There was very little Disney could do wrong in trying to do a nearly shot by shot adaptation of their earlier classic, and they really did not take many risks to alter that outcome.

There are a few added pieces of background information – especially on Belle and Gaston’s characters – which make both feel a bit more rounded. There are also a few new songs that didn’t take away from the old ones, but felt right in place with the stand-bys.

This is a great movie for older and newer generations to enjoy. In a world of bombs, death, and hatred, Beauty and the Beast felt like a real refreshing bath of good vibes and fun.

Power Rangers (2017)

Continuing on the nostalgia vibe, Power Rangers was a movie I was really looking forward to seeing. My hope was that they would try to update it a bit so that it could be taken more seriously than the cheesy show I loved as a teen, while still keeping its tongue firmly in cheek. Well, it managed the serious part alright, but perhaps it went overboard.

These five kids spend the first hour and twenty-eight minutes of the movie in angst, doubt, and reaffirming each other that they are not losers. I felt like I was watching an episode of Party of Five meets Degrassi High – considering I may have probably watched an accumulated five minutes of both shows due to my general dislike for teen angst drama, I spent over an hour in excruciating discomfort.

When these five losers finally figured out how to Morph – after many failed attempts and doubts as to whether they should even morph – the fight scene was accompanied by some weird art-house music that didn’t match the level of excitement that these scenes should have conveyed.

Power Rangers should have been made with the same lively style of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot – which despite its imperfections, breezes by without taking any of itself seriously – instead we had this pseudo-emo movie for disillusioned millennials with a good dash of Zach Snyder DC gloominess.  Power Rangers were never about that – it was about kicking Rita’s butt in giant dinosaur Zords and half-baked kung-fu moves.

If you have kids, I guess it’s worth giving this movie a try. If you are just on a nostalgia trip, like me, you may want to skip it.

Sully (2016)

A late comer to my Oscar watch list, Sully was a straight forward film directed by a straight forward guy, Clint Eastwood. It tells the story of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks), who successfully landed a passenger aircraft on the Hudson River in 2009.

I thought the film was great as it delivered on its promise to tell the untold story of what happened behind the scenes during the media madness that surrounded Captain Sullenberger in the weeks following the successful water landing.

There is nothing too flashy in this movie. There are no big emotional monologues. There is no over the top action (even during the excellently filmed Hudson River landing scene). It simply wants to tell a story in the clearest and quickest way possible. I highly recommend this movie.


That’s my short list for now. I am going to dip back into movie madness again soon. More horror movies and a few older ones I imagine. As always thanks for reading and tip me off to anything I should be seeing.

P. Ray

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Fabulous Nature Hike Just Outside of São Paulo Capital – Trilha do Índio (The Indian’s Trail)

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View from the bridge of our final destination off in the background. We came from the trails on the right and slept near the tunnel on the left.

Escaping the brick and concrete jungle which is São Paulo does not always require traveling that far outside the city. Both this year and last I went on a hike down the Trilha do Índio (The Indian Trail) organized by my good friend John. It is a roughly 30 km trek that begins on a Friday evening in one of the southern-most neighborhoods of São Paulo, Barragem, and ends in Itanhaém, a beach city on São Paulo state’s south coast.

This hike is requires more stamina than physical agility, as it starts in the highland and makes its way down the mountainside to the beach. It also requires a guide, and there are Forest Rangers situated throughout the first leg of the hike to turn lone hikers around.
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2016 we went in the winter.


On Friday night we meet up somewhere in São Paulo City and make our way down to Terminal Paralharelos and take another city bus from there to the neighborhood of Barragem. We arrive sometime between ten and eleven p,m. and wait for our guide, an indigenous fellow named Geraldinho. Geraldinho also acts as our liaison when we reach the Rio Branco indigenous village at the foot of the mountains. They don’t always like many visitors on their land and usually ask for food donations and candy for the children as “payment” for us letting us stay or pass through.

Once the group is settled in Barragem, we begin the hardest part of the hike. It is a roughly 10 – 12 kilometer walk to the mouth of a tunnel where we camp out for the night.
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Old Evangelista Train Station which is now completely in shambles.

The path begins on a dirt road situated about a ten minute´s walk from where the bus let us off at its last stop. We walk this road for about an hour and a half until we reach a railroad.

We take a quick break to eat and drink something there before hopping onto the tracks and heading left towards the now defunct Evangelista train station. From there we walk on to one of the tunnels where we will camp out for the night.

It´s important to note that walking on train tracks is illegal and we are only allowed to do so because of our guide´s deal with the Forest Rangers. We have been stopped on this path before, but Geraldinho has taken care of any issues every time.  
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There is nothing good I can say about these tracks.


I’ll be blunt, walking on train tracks in the middle of the night is not very enjoyable. The key is to have a good pair of shoes on, a comfortable backpack, and a flashlight. T
he first time I did the railway section, I felt like my feet were going to fall off as I kicked rocks and the occasional loose pieces of iron. Worse is when one steps into recesses between the wooden planks of the track that catch one by surprise in the pitch black night.

It takes about two hours to get to Tunnel 24, our resting spot. The first year we managed to get there in good time – around two in the morning. This time the trip took a bit longer because we were slowed down by the higher amount of trains passing by. They are very long and required us to step off the tracks and wait for them to pass before continuing forward. We arrived after four a.m. at the tunnel, but I was equipped with better footwear and a lighter bag, so the whole trek was a bit more manageable.

At the tunnel we are afforded some time to rest our legs. Some people choose to sleep under the bridge while others camp out by the mouth of the tunnel by the tracks. With a train passing every thirty minutes to an hour, sleep wouldn’t be the exact word to describe the experience – it’s more of a body rest.

 

The joke that goes around among the hikers is that if one makes it this far on the journey, the rest will be a cake walk. The railroad track does indeed separate the weak from the strong and this year it caused enough of a knee injury to one of the hikers to make him have to turn back when the morning came.

 

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From atop the bridge we spy our final destination in the background.

Day two, Saturday, means setting off at about 10 a.m. to reach a rest spot by a river to have lunch. We have a quick breakfast and marvel at the views from a top a bridge that lies just before the tunnel then cross the to the other side of the tunnel where just a bit ahead lies the entrance to the mountainside.

 

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Going down the mountain. It begins very steep and then slowly levels off.

We make our way down the steep slope for about twenty minutes before it becomes a bit more level to walk down – but it’s still a one way journey down with plenty of slips and falls. The mood is generally lighter, though, and people love to shout out “Selva!” (Jungle!) when someone makes that inevitable splat on the dirt.

After about an hour, the sound of the river roars below us. This is a hopeful sound which means rest is coming. We walk on for about another hour before we find a rest spot to lay out our tarps and make some food.

 

The courageous ones, namely the younger crowd, waste no time to take a dip in the ice cold water. This year I took my small cousin, Jose (13), and his friend, Seba (14), and they wasted no time jumping right in.

After about an hour we get back on the trail. It was time to head over to where two rivers meet to find a place to camp out for the evening. Crossing this river is always exciting. Due to the heavier currents, slippery rocks, and water that goes up nearly to the knees. One must measure their steps as there are places that seem like stable footholds but are actually very slippery rocks that can cause a rough tumble.

 

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Hanging on to each other so as to not fall.

Last year we made this crossing  but decided to continue on to the indigenous village. This was a mistake, as we ended up walking through the forest in the cover of moonlight for nearly three hours, in what felt like circles, before reaching the village. The pain that rushed through my body on that night was from another world, and I needed to take some muscle relaxants in order to get some sleep. This time around we played it smarter and stayed for the night.

 

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Our 2017 group where we camped out for the night.

The group set up their tents and I made a tarp to protect my cousin, his friend, and I in case it rained. We slept fine, but the rain did fall and it poured down hard and consistently nearly all night. In fact it rained so hard that the bottom of the tarp fell from the branch where it was hanging and the weight of it landed on my face. I woke up punching, kicking and screaming thinking I was being attacked by someone or something. I also let out a savage yelp that brought the whole camp out of their sleep.

Once I reassured everyone that I was not being eaten alive we had a good laugh. I was certainly in kill or be killed mode.

The next day we hung a bit by the river, had a big community breakfast, skipped stones, and took some pictures. We left around ten a.m. with the intention of reaching the indigenous village at midday.

 

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Where two rivers meet.


What a relief it was to do this part of the trail by light of day. It was an absolute breeze, with the last difficult part being a wide section of river so cold that it hurt my toes for about ten minutes after crossing.

 

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Entering the Rio Branco indigenous village.

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In 2016 we slept at the school inside the indigenous village but it took a little negotiation.

At Rio Branco village we spoke to the indigenous residents, who were quite friendly. With them I am never sure if they are putting on appearances or plotting to kill us. That is why respect and politeness are paramount and entering their land without a guide is not recommended.

Last year, for example, we arrived at their village around 9 p.m. and there was some confusion as to the agreement to let stay there for the night. It took some convincing on the part of Geraldinho (and perhaps a few extra Reais from our group leaders) to smooth the deal out.  This time around we simply hung around for a little while and waited for a van that would take us back to São Paulo.

 

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Our 2016 group suffering on the dirt road.

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The 2016 group fatigued but finally at the end of the hike.

This brings up another important change in plans: We didn’t walk the nearly 15 kilometer dirt road which leads to a small bar where we waited to take a bus to the Itanhaém beach last year. This dirt road was my undoing. I had decided to donate the shows I had been wearing to the indigenous people and then I put on a pair of shoes that weren’t quite as worn in as I had imagined. It only took about a kilometer or two of dirt and rocks before my right knee succumbed to the pain.

 

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The endless dirt road and it´s banana plantations.

My friend John lent me his walking stick, and I trudged slowly on until after another few kilometers my left knee gave out. I was a no good and slowly gimped the rest of the journey with the help of the stick and a friendly lady who lent me her shoulder for support. I also tied a scarf for around my more busted up knee to stabilize it. It was ten kilometers of torture – not counting the ride back home. 

 

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Last year we made it to Itanhaém beach.

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Fighting the pain.

Fortunately, this year I did not have these issues. Whereas the previous year I had to take Monday and most of Tuesday off to recover my knee, this year I was up at 6:30 a.m. to begin a day that ended at 7:30 p.m. As I write this on the bus ride home I feel great. Proper shoes and managing weight are two keys to survival on these hikes. Take only what you need and a few items in case of emergency.

The hike itself is probably at an intermediate level. Like I said, I took my two kids with me and they did just fine. The year before many more kids from my friend John’s church’s
 scout group went and they fared alright.

São Paulo city is mostly known for its concrete jungle, but the southern and eastern points of the city are marked by more green than the average traveler can imagine. And one only needs to slip a few kilometers outside the city limits before being swamped by seas of Atlantic forest. I highly recommend exploring this wilderness that surround the urban jungle.

If you know of any great hikes that are easily accessible please leave information about them in the comments below and let me know if you ever want to join me on one of mine.

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Safety Tips for São Paulo

With nearly 60,000 homicides in 2014, there’s no debating that Brazil is a very dangerous country and São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest capital city, is no stranger to violent crime. With more than 20 million people (if one counts the greater metropolitan area) it´s natural for someone to feel uneasy and have safety concerns when first arriving to the city.

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A view of downtown São Paulo.

So what can a traveler or a new resident do?

The bad news is that in many ways one can’t do much to prepare or predict how or when crime is going to happen in São Paulo. An incident can spark off anywhere and at anytime. At the end of this article I will talk about possible ways to react during a criminal act.

The good news is that although São Paulo leads Brazilian cities in homicides in absolute numbers, it actually drops off the list of dangerous cities when one considers per-capita murders.

So yes, if that is of any consolation, chances of being killed in São Paulo are not as high as in other places around Brazil. Unfortunately, other types of crimes such as rape, robbery, and theft have seen a sharp increase in the last few years.

With that reality in mind, here are some practical tips from someone who has been around the big city of São Paulo for a while and has experienced both its highs and lows.

1. RELAX A BIT AND ENJOY THE CONCRETE 

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Avenida Paulista is closed off to cars on Sundays so people can enjoy the strip.

I don’t like to sugar coat the living experience in the city, but the fact is that statistically speaking you are safer in São Paulo than in most other regions of the county, so don’t let the scary homicide figures or crime rate scare you off. Although crime can and does happen anywhere – it’s more apt to happen in certain dodgier areas in the suburbs of São Paulo.

If you walk around São Paulo like someone is going to jump out of a bush and put you in a sack, chances are you are going to attract criminals. This is not some, “The Secret” or “Law of Attraction,” type of advice, it´s simply the honest truth – criminals like easy prey – don’t play that part of one and make it easier for them.

If at first you feel unsure about tackling the city alone then go out with a friend or group of friends. Enjoy your time out and get to know your surroundings. On top of that, always walk with your head high and with an air of assurance. Don´t be a victim before you are one. 

2. BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS

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Paraisópolis is São Paulo´s largest favela. Its proximity to this posh area of Morumbi makes the neighborhood a bit dangerous. But unlike Rio de Janeiro, most of São Paulo´s favelas are segregated off in the far away suburbs of the city. 

São Paulo’s poor and rich are mostly segregated. There are but a few examples, like the Paraisópolis favela in the heart of the very rich Morumbi neighborhood, where the poor of the favelas interact directly with the upper classes or tourists. And even in places like Morumbi, residents manage to keep themselves separate enough to mark a noticeable difference between social class and neighborhood conditions.

What this means is that if you are in an area that looks sketchy, you will most likely realize so before it gets to be too sketchy. Pay attention to the quality of the roads and houses as you wander about. Look for deprecated walls or accumulated rubbish on the streets, and the all around exterior of a place, to tip you off that you may be entering a more complicated area.

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This Gas Station on the corner of Rua Peixoto Gomide and Rua Augusta marks the start of Lower Augusta – where anything can happen.

One clear example of this is the popular night-time hangout, Avenida Augusta. The first section of it, which is close to Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s main strip, is relatively nicer – but as one slowly makes their way down Augusta towards Center City the landscape changes and it gets grittier and rougher. The touristy area at the top of the street with a bunch of open air bars and restaurants turns into a red light district called “Baixa Augusta” (Lower Augusta) with whore houses and dubious night clubs on each block. This is not to say you can´t have fun in this or other less posh areas of São Paulo, but it matters to know where you are and how you got there. Pay attention when walking so that you’ll notice the shift before you are in the lion’s den. Here´s a tip about where Baixa Augusta starts – it’s after the gas station on your right.

3. DRESS APPROPRIATELY FOR THE LOCATION

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Shoppers at the famous early morning fair at Brás – a neighborhood famous for its textile district. Brás can be a complicated area to navigate based on volume of people alone. But though the street shoppers are casual, they don´t dress completely down.

Before you move to São Paulo find out about the city and its different neighborhoods and districts. Every neighborhood and district, or “zona” (zone), is quite different than the other. Knowing how people interact, dress, play, and get around is of key importance with fitting in and staying safe.

In Brazil, crime is mostly committed on a “I want what you have” basis. If you are moving into (or visiting) a poorer or middle class area, than don’t wear those designer shirts all the time – you are telegraphing your social status to every bandit in the region.

This doesn’t mean you have to walk around like a bum. São Paulo likes to think of itself as a chic city (rightly or wrongly), so even the bandits will be dressed reasonably well.  I had a friend who was mugged in one of the city’s large business districts (an area called Berrini) by a guy on a motorcycle wearing a suit and tie. You’d be surprised how even in the favelas Paulistanos (what the residents of São Paulo are called) do their best to look their best – for better or for worse.

So take a moment to look around and fit in to your surroundings – every area of the city has its own style. You don´t have to trade in your sneakers for a pair of sandals, but designers tags and expensive sports watches aren’t necessary everywhere you go.

4. LEARN SOME PORTUGUESE

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Keep Calm and Speak Portuguese

This should go without saying – the more you know about what people are saying (and especially about you) the safer you will be.

Portuguese is not the easiest language for some foreigners, but if you had some basic Spanish as kid, or have been around or speak other romance languages, you may be able to pick up the basics pretty quickly.

Not only bandits, but shop owners and merchants, love to target foreigners who haven’t a clue as to what is going on around them. In this respect being in São Paulo is no different than being in many foreign countries – but Brazilians in general are infamous for their “malandros” (tricksters) who will waste no time in trying to get one over on someone who makes themselves an easy target for a scam or worse.

5. WATCH YOUR BELONGINGS

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São Paulo is not a city where you can lackadaisically pull out your mobile device in the middle of the street to check messages or make sure Google Maps is taking you in the right direction. If I have to go somewhere new, I check the directions on my computer and take a picture of the screen to check quickly on my phone later. And unless I am completely confident about my surroundings, when I do check my messages, I make sure to look around and hold my phone with both hands near my chest or my lap if I am sitting down.

Many areas of São Paulo are too crowded and don’t offer quick and easy escape routes for traditional armed muggers. Although this means that you may avert having a weapon pointed at you, there are a lot of snatch and run incidents to compensate – not to mention the unavoidable pick pockets.

All it takes is a moment of your distraction looking in another direction while your phone is your dangling in your hand for a kid to come dashing by on their bike and take that phone with them. Surely this is less traumatic than an armed mugging, but it is a pain nonetheless.

Like in any big city, keep your wits about you and your eyes open – and depending on the area, be extra wary.

6. DON´T GO ALONE IF YOU DON´T HAVE TO

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Night tourists in São Paulo. They don´t look too scared.

After a while, getting around alone in the city won’t feel like a major undertaking. I have friends of all ages, sexes, and builds who go just about everywhere in São Paulo by themselves. But at first, it’s always good to have a travel companion – especially at night.

Criminals are looking for easy targets, and two or more people makes their job harder.

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Pedestrian Bridges on Raposo Tavares. These can be perfect spots for assailants nearly any time of day.

Even when you are alone, though, you can try stay with the crowd. For example, I live near a big highway and to get to the other side I need to cross a long pedestrian bridge. Depending on the time of day, I prefer to wait for a group of people (or even just one other person) to hitch a ride with to the other side. One never knows what can happen – and I have even been involved in a few incidents on these pedestrian bridges before (more on that later).

Safety in numbers is something we are taught since kindergarten and it´s a great tip for getting around São Paulo. 

7. GET TO KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD “STAND-BYS”

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Your friendly neighborhood cigarette salesman may know more about your neighborhood than people who actually live in it. 

Nearly every neighborhood in São Paulo will have what I like to call its “stand-bys,” which are people who work on the streets standing there selling an assortment of things like cakes, corn, cigarettes, and even drugs. Other stand-bys will watch parked cars for a few Reais or they are paid by members of a community to be official watchmen. Stand-bys usually don’t have much money, live in poorer areas, and bust their butts every day working, which normally affords them protection from the gangs and thieves.

Although some may consider these people a nuisance, it’s not bad policy to drop them some money every once and/or greet them with an, “Oi” (Hello) or, “Como vai” (How are you?).

If you form a genuine camaraderie with your local stand-by, word gets around – as they don’t like their clientele messed with.

I escaped a mugging in my neighborhood once by yelling at the thugs and telling them that I knew all the guys who watch cars in front of the shopping mall (and I really did) and that I would always drop them some extra change when I had it or even some food.

Although my intent when helping the car watchers was genuine, it payed off in the end when the thugs left me alone. The general rule applies that criminals shouldn’t shit where they eat or mess with people who are either from the favelas or help others in the favelas. Creating this network with your stand-bys is not a full-proof way of evading trouble, mind you, but in this case it worked.

Another friend of mine, who lived many years in the heart of dangerous downtown São Paulo, would always make it her business to help out the street lurkers in her neighborhood with a few Reais. In return, they would always watch out to make sure nobody messed with her when she was on her way home late in the evening.

One hand washes another – and ten or twenty Reais every week or so is worth the price of not having to buy another 800 Reais cell phone.

8. DON´T STOP TO TALK TO PEOPLE YOU DON´T KNOW

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Be smart about talking to strangers. Not everyone is out to do you harm, but not everyone is out to do you good either.

One way criminals operate in the very busy city of São Paulo is by finding ways to stop you in your tracks. As I mentioned before, the more crowded streets make it harder for a bandit to pull a weapon out on you and then get away without being beaten down – and I have seen the beat downs before and they are not pretty. So, instead they will ask you to stop for a minute or try to ask a you question. Unless you feel completely certain that that you are in control of the situation, don’t do it. Say, “Sorry, I´m in a rush,” (Desculpa, estou com pressa) and keep moving.

One minute of distraction is enough for someone to reach into your purse or bag or to snatch a belonging and run.

It’s also not a smart idea to follow anyone who is asking for help. Sometimes the sob stories you hear will be Oscar worthy and the criminal will want to show you where their starving family member is sleeping, but this is only a ploy to get you to go to a less crowded area and rob you. Children are used a lot in this type of operation – don´t be fooled by their innocent faces. If you want to help a kid on the street (and São Paulo has a lot of them) then you pick them out and bring them some food, clothing or money – not the other way around.

Your mission on the streets is to get from point A to point B – don’t allow anything to come in the way of that. Remaining in the driver´s seat in São Paulo will save you from a lot of trouble.

9. ACKNOWLEDGE A PERSON THEN GET OUT OF THE WAY IF YOU SENSE DANGER

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Catch someone before they do something.

If you are walking down the street and see an individual or group of people coming your way, don’t look down – let them know you see them. Criminals prey on fear and having your head down will either be read as a submissive act or as being someone who is distracted – both easy targets for them.

When I see a group of people coming my way, I keep my head up and see where their hands are while doing my best to assess the situation. I don’t necessarily make eye-contact, but I keep my destiny in sight while not breaking stride.

If I sense that the people may be altered in some way or just too raucous and unpredictable for my taste, I do one of two things (especially when I am alone at night) – stop and wait for them to pass me or cross the street.

If you do this, always remember to do it with purpose. There is no need to be afraid – you are simply stating to the other party that you see them and would prefer to not be part of whatever it is that they are a part of. There is no shame in that.

You may also be surprised that when you acknowledge someone on the street it is sometimes they who change directions. Always remember – street criminals are mostly cowards and they don’t want to work harder than they must to get over on someone.

10. HAVE 360º VISION

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Spin that head around and look all ways before proceeding.

São Paulo is full of noise and distractions and things and people can sneak up on you quickly; the least you can do is try to prepare for it. Being able to turn your head 360º, Linda Blair style, is a must.

As you get off the bus or leave your home, look left, right, front, and back – be fully aware of everything and everyone around you.

I have avoided some possible incidents by simply looking behind me and seeing someone there that had not been there a second before. In those cases, I may cross the street or speed up my pace. Maybe who I saw was not criminals but maybe they were. Why should I want to play Russian roulette alone on a dark street at night?  

In fact, the two times I have been mugged in São Paulo where a direct result of not having 360º vision.

The first time it happened was when I had just arrived in Brazil. I left a club downtown at three in the morning drunk and with my head in the clouds . A guy approached me while I was staring into space and demanded that I give him my cell phone. I was a bit dazed but told him I didn´t have a phone only some money.

A few seconds later his much bigger cohort came up from behind asking him what was taking so long. I gave them about 40 Reais while they searched my bag. When they were sure I wasn´t hiding anything extra they said, “Thanks,” and walked off. I went off in the other direction. Fortunately, I had remembered to stuff my cell phone in my underwear.

The second time I was mugged is when I had just come back from a trip to Europe and again was walking around with my head in the clouds. This time two guys approached me and started a conversation on one of those pedestrian bridges I had mentioned before. They accompanied me to the other side and once there they switched their friendly tune and demanded my belongings. I had an old cheap cell phone that I handed over and that was that.

I was shocked. I had come back to the city on a Thursday only to get mugged on a Sunday. How could I have been such easy prey? Perhaps my spirit was still in Paris. Needless to say, my brain reverted back into São Paulo alert mode very quickly after that.

The moral of these stories is that both incidents could have been easily avoided if I had been more alert (which is not to take away the culpability of the culprits).

Looking back, I can see that the first mugging was a result of my not having been in the city long enough to utilize my “spidey-sense,” and the second mugging was a result of having been away from the city long enough to have forgotten to turn my “spidey-sense” back on once back. Both times the criminals were in plain view. I simply did not look beside or behind me to see them coming at regular pace from a mile away.

WHAT IF I AM BEING MUGGED!!!!!

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Traffic jammed roads are easy targets for assailants. Sometimes many assailants will join forces and rob various people at once. This is called an “arrastão”.

Unfortunately, things being how they are in São Paulo and in Brazil, crime is not something we can always avoid. So what do you do if you are being mugged or worse?

The most important thing to do is to stay calm.

As I stated above, most criminals want your stuff and not your life. If a bandit is pointing a weapon at you, you really are at their mercy depending on how prepared or unprepared you are to combat that attack.

Becoming anxious or agitated may only aggravate the already tense situation.

Remember that some of the small-time thieves may be just as nervous as you when committing the crime – nervous criminals pull triggers. Conversely, the more seasoned criminals will be as cold as ice and will have a ball trying to scare you – don’t play into it. It’s part of the act. Let things proceed and move on.

TO REACT OR NOT TO REACT

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Reacting during an mugging is a decision which carries many risks, yet, some people come out on top.

The majority of news organizations, politicians, and even crime specialists in Brazil will always tell you to never react during a armed assault. Although this is good advice – a cell phone or even a car isn’t worth your life – there are times when people react and come out the winner.

That said, I cannot be responsible for your individual choices nor their consequences; therefore, I will not tell you what you should do in this circumstance. I can only speak from my own experiences and I have been in situations where I have reacted and others where I haven’t.

Simply stated, reacting to a crime in process requires reading the criminal and seeing whether or not you can get away with fighting back or not – this assessment must be made quickly and assuredly. 

As a rule of thumb, if the perpetrator doesn’t show a weapon then screaming, hitting, or running is not an unreasonable gut reaction. If the criminal is showing a weapon, then you should think twice about your next move.

Again, reacting is up to you – I cannot stress enough that I am not responsible for what happens if you make this decision. I am only presenting possible outcomes based on my experiences (and some experiences of others) here in São Paulo.

I will say this first, though, I strongly believe that the more a population pushes back, the more a criminal with think twice before deciding to walk around unfettered to terrorize our lives.

So, if you do choose to react to a crime you must be quick, assertive and decisive. Showing any sign of strong resistance usually makes the average street punk run off to look for easier prey. The more experienced criminal may fight you back, in which case, you must be prepared to take them down or offer enough resistance to make them give up and run off.

Something you should always consider when reacting to a crime is that bandits rarely work alone. Although you may be facing one individual, another bandit (or more bandits) can show up and hurt or kill you.

It’s also important to note that Brazilian law may favor the criminal if you hurt one badly enough or take their lives. You can be charged with assault and battery for using excessive force or  homicide if they die. It becomes a question of legitimate defense and whether or not you should have stopped hurting them at some point in your reaction to a crime.

In the case that you choose to not react and the criminals run off with your stuff,  get out of the location if you can and ask for help immediately.

Also, make a police report (B.O. in Portuguese). If there is not a police station nearby, police reports can be filled out online here. Depending on the region, the police will redouble their efforts at monitoring for crime if enough reports are filed. So although it may feel like police reports go into some deep dark Brazilian bureaucratic hole, they are not a complete waste of time.

Whatever you choose to do, remember to always be calm and focused. Criminal acts happen quickly and no criminal is like the other. Some of them may be drugged up and others may really be out to hurt someone. Your best option is usually to trust your gut instinct and do what you can to come out the other end with a story to tell.

LAST THOUGHTS

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A common bar scene in São Paulo in Vila Madalena, one of the city´s most frequented spots to enjoy the endless nightlife. 

When one comes to São Paulo they need to come with their city mentality and street smarts in tact and on full alert.

This city is huge and its varying landscapes, which range from tall buildings to quiet residential neighborhoods with with houses and squares, will require different thought patterns and wits.

Although, most of these tips can be utilized in many large cities, one must consider that the vast social and economic inequalities, moral turpitude, and all around disorganization of São Paulo blows everything up a notch. São Paulo may be Brazil´s richest city and boast some rather lavish locales, but it´s still very much a city of the developing-world with developing-world problems.

If you feel you are New York City or London tough than be New York City and London tougher. Always remember that unlike some first world cities that do have their crime problems but which are mostly restricted to gangs and inner cities, São Paulo is a place where violence and crime can happen anywhere. So, always be on watch.

Lastly, this post is meant to used as a tool. My intent is not to scare anyone away from the city.

I have been fortunate to travel to a few other places in Brazil – and I continue to enjoy the city of São Paulo the most despite its problems. Perhaps that is a sign of a mental disturbance, but I like to think it´s because the city has its fair share of laid back neighborhoods and hidden spots to get away from the madness. I have plenty of friends, both foreign and national, who have lived here longer than I and have never had a bad crime experience.

São Paulo is is a very diverse city. It is a place where you can have some wonderful experiences. I have walked these streets at all hours of the day and night and with all sorts of people. Bars and restaurants are always full and Paulistanos are always busy on their way somewhere. If you live in a state of constant fear, you will not enjoy yourself here. Not living in a state of fear does not mean living in a state of obviousness, though. Play is smart and stay safe. In the end São Paulo is what you make of it. Be Smart. Be Aware. Be Alive.

Phil Ray.

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What I Am Watching: Werewolves, 80s Fantasy Movies, and a little Taboo.

I love werewolves and I hate that, aside from yet another Underworld movie, they are mostly left to the back burner or watered down as the Zombie craze continues to capture the current main stream horror imagination.

I love werewolves so much, in fact, that I spent nearly two hours of my life finally getting around to watching New Moon – the second movie in The Twilight series and one of the main culprits in the watering down process. My review of this movie is short and sweet – if you are into hot, muscular, semi-nude young men running around, then this is a cinema classic. It wasn’t an impossible movie to get through and there is an awesome Tom Yorke song to be found on the soundtrack, but I came dangerously close to the passing the limit of brain cells I have allowed myself to turn off for a movie experience.

After finishing New Moon I went in search of other werewolf movies that might scare the pants off of me and which included a little less teen angst. I searched a few online forums for titles and spent a weekend binging. Here are some of my take a ways.

The Wolfman (2010)

Production-wise this movie was great. It’s an homage/remake of the original Wolf Man (1941), starring Lon Cheney Jr., while adding some modern day visual spark. The problem is that neither the story and even the great Benicio del Toro and Sir Anthony Hopkins were enough to entertain me for the full running length of the film. The movie tried too hard to be epic while it should have just focused on practically – it would have been shorter and scarier to boot.

After a bit of a stutter start with The Wolfman I then ran through some 80s werewolves movies because the 80s was the heyday for werewolf cinema culminating with An American Werewolf in London and Teen Wolf – I skipped both for this little foray.

I began with The Howling (1981).

This is a movie about a reporter that goes to a secluded retreat to try to recoup from a traumatic ordeal with a stalker. It ends up that the people at the retreat get a little wild on a full moon. This movie looked and felt dated and I honestly can’t remember much from it. The werewolves weren’t particularly scary nor were the set ups for when they showed up. Although the transformation sequence is alright, it’s nothing one hasn’t seen a million times before. I would skip it unless you are a werewolf film historian.

Silver Bullet (1985)

This was a slightly better film, but not by much. It’s based on a Stephen King novela and like in even the worst of Stephen King movie adaptations, it manages to have some bits of intrigue – just not enough. The movie does star Gary Busey who manages to be entertaining only because he looks as if he showed up for the paycheck and a few drinks. The hero is an annoyingly geeky kid in a super power wheel chair he calls the Silver Bullet. Halfway through the movie I felt like putting a rock on the road where this kid tread – I sincerely hate movies that try to endear us to characters who go beyond curiosity and instead enters the realm of stupidity by foolishly veering themselves into danger (in this movie rather literally by way of pimped out wheelchair) at every turn. The werewolf is scary in parts, but looks very cheesy in others.

Last, I watched an Angela Lansbury vehicle from the 80s called The Company of Wolves (1984).

It’s actually not one long story, but a series of vignettes about classic fairy tale themes – albeit with a sinister twist. The werewolf story is the first and it’s short, bloody, and sweet. This movie looks completely aged but it is worth watching for the werewolf fanatics

Although most of these 80s movies probably had scare power back in their day, they mostly felt aged and corny. Their pacing was also ridiculously slow. And though I love practical effects, some of them left me with too much of a “guy in a suit” effect.

I sprung out of the 80s and into a few more modern tales.

Skinwalkers (2006)

This is a low budget movie that tries to marry Native American lore with the werewolf myth – it fails miserably. I managed to get through about thirty minutes of this flick before getting distracted. Apparently the bad werewolves have to capture some little boy who is the key to continuing the werewolf bloodline while some good werewolves would rather be done with the whole werewolf curse business – there’s a gun fight and there is a chase and then there was me falling asleep. It’s total B-movie cheese but without enough “so bad it’s good” charm to be interesting.

Now there were some better werewolf films in my little binge.

Red Riding Hood (2011)

This was not a great movie and their werewolf is just a regular big wolf with werewolf transformation powers, but it was earnest and didn’t try too hard to be something more than it was – which, essentially, is a visually fun movie with likeable characters fashioned for the teen crowd. The soundtrack and smart action sequences makes it worth the hour and half you’ll spend dazzled by the colorful village. Oh, and Gary Oldman shows up – that can almost never be a bad thing.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

This is a British film set in Scotland that trumped most of the American ones I had seen when it came to pure scares and fun. It follows a group of British soldiers who end up getting more than what they bargained for while training in the thick highland forest. The first half of the movie had me totally hooked, but as the werewolves begin to show up in greater number, the movie tends to fall apart a little and plays off of a more campy horror angle. It’s still pretty good though, and it offers enough ridiculously funny dialogue and creative swearing from these no nonsense soldiers that I recommend it.

Wer (2014)

This movie had me going for about 3/4 of the way until it falls apart under its own weight. It treats the werewolf myth as a real psychological illness as a defense attorney tries to prove the innocence of a man who has been accused of a brutal animal-like attack on a vacationing family in France. This investigation keeps you guessing as to where it will go for most of the movie – and provides enough tension for some legitimate jump scare scenes. When it all just falls neatly into predictable patterns it destroys what could have been a much edgier conclusion – but it was still the best of the bunch.

I did mention way at the start the I saw the new Underworld movie, Blood Wars (2016).

Watching Underworld sparked my binge so here is a little more of what I thought of the film. Although it brings nothing earth shattering new to either the werewolf mythology nor the Underworld franchise, it still manages to entertain and move along a steady clip. Selene is still one of the best movie heroes out there and  Kate Beckinsale, who plays the character, proves she still has the look and the moves to kick some serious butt. Different than the last few Underworld films, Blood Wars left me willing to see more.

There are plenty more werewolf movie to see, but I felt I was going to have a transformation if I didn’t switch modes, so I decided to go digging into movies I remember as a child or teen but had never actually sat down to watch start to finish.

My two victims were two 80s Fantasy movie: Willow (1988) and Legend (1985).

Willow came first as I only recalled seeing clips of it as a child, but I never had too much patience to sit and trudge it out. It seems my childhood self and my adult self haven’t changed much. It took me about a week to finish this movie with many pauses to go do something else in-between. I found it beautifully filmed and the costumes and set pieces charming – there is also little to fault in both Val Kilmer and Warwick Davis’ performance – but it seemed to be trying to built a universe that was lacking a main ingredient: real heart and real magic.

This article here gives a pretty good break down as to why Willow wasn’t a bigger hit in its day. It essentially boils down to George Lucas trying to remake Star Wars with dwarfs and medieval castles  – been there, done that, and most importantly, done it better even in Return of the Jedi. Ron Howard is behind the camera, and though I do like some of his films, this one lacks any central theme, style, or emotional buffer.

I know this movie has a cult following, but unless you really like to nourish your inner eight year old it’s a waste of film.

Legend was next. I used to catch this one late at night on cable and Tim Curry as the Satan-liķe, Darkness, would make me turn the channel – he is genuinely scary.

This movie is pretty insane. It’s a Ridley Scott film, so expect great set pieces and camera shots, but the story is all over the place and you need a bit of patience to get to the good parts. Mr. Scott overplays the start of the film a bit in trying to push the “goodness” and “innocence” angle so that the shadows of the latter half of the film have more zing to them – it makes for a boring “throw up in your mouth” beginning that is too sweet for its own good.

However, if you can get through the first twenty or thirty-odd minutes, the story manages to both scare and entertain. It also manages to be one of those 80s style kids movies that weren’t afraid to give the little ones genuine nightmares – I can value this movie on that aspect alone; kids are too soft these days.

Other notable parts of the movie are a young Tom Cruise, who is not embarrassed to show off his legs and crotch nearly every shot, and Oskar Matzerath (of The Tim Drum fame) who plays a sidekick elf named Gump which bad dreams are made of. Although he is one of the good guys, he upstages Tom Cruise at nearly every turn by being nearly as creepy and unpredictable as the movie’s main villains.

And of course there is Tim Curry who masterfully steals the show as Darkness. His rich voice and sly innuendo makes his splendid costume and make up combination reach devilish heights. He appears to be having real fun with the character and this movie is worth its lagging moments only for the pay off which is his appearance on screen.

I recommend Legend. It’s totally off kilter in parts – especially the start – but the practical effects, the sinister characters, and Tim Curry alone are worth the price of admission. It makes you wish kids movies had a little bit more balls these days – this movie goes a long way to prove that innocence may only be an illusion and that the temptation of darkness is right around the bend – welcome to adolescence kiddies!!!!

Finally, I recommend Taboo (2017) – although I have only watched the first three episodes.

This is a strange tale of a man who was thought to be dead but who has come back to London to claim his part of his deceased father’s will. What his father has left him is something of great import to the British – who are not so keen about letting him have what is legally his. The show is set in the early 1800s, in the midst of a conflict between newly formed America and the British, and it tows a fine line between the possibly supernatural to the strangely historic. Although I have not seen the last three episodes I am anxious to see what the pay off of this bizarre story of one man’s fight against the system to get what is properly his.

 

This has been a very long post! Stay tuned for more – as I have also spent some time watching some stuff that came out this year!

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Brazilian Social Justice Warriors Strike Again -the story of a white girl and her turban.

postthuaneA young white girl wearing a turban is at the station. Like many other people, she is minding her business and going about her day. Suddenly she is met with hostile stares and is then confronted by a group of black girls that go up to her and explain that she has no right to be wearing that turban because she is not black. She removed the turban and explained to them that she wore it to cover up her bald head – a result of chemotherapy. The girl posted her account on social media and quickly other militant social justice warriors came in like hawks to defend the actions of the black girls who berated her, also accusing the girl of cultural appropriation.

These girls and their partners are clearly in the wrong not because cultural appropriation doesn’t exist but because like many other real things such as racism, sexism, homophobia, feminism etc, the extreme leftists and their social justice warrior (SJW) militants have bastardized the meaning of the term and turned it in against itself – blocking the road towards real progress and meaningful discourse between peoples.

Real cultural appropriation is truly dreadful. It is marked most clearly by an interplay of power, as in, the powerful take what they consider to be the best elements of a conquered or weaker people for themselves and discard the rest.This has been the modus operandi of conquering nations since the beginning of time – regardless of race. One can even find examples of it in scripture. In the First Book of Maccabees 3:48, the author explains how during the Greek conquest of the Isrealite’s lands the Greeks had destroyed and defiled many cultural and religious areas and artifacts. To add insult to injury, they even went so far as to attempt to paint their images in the Isrealite Holy Books.

This show of dominance by the Greeks of attempting to destroy any vestige of a prior culture is the first step towards cultural appropriation. The second step is taking what is worthy enough to be assimilated into one’s own rewritten history. This sort of action is no doubt the inspiration for many science fiction villains, notably one of Star Trek’s most popular foes, The Borg, who assimilate only the “useful aspects” a culture’s identity and make it their own in a show of force and superiority. Christianity is also replete with mythology which mirrors almost exactly that of other prior civilizations like the Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, and the pagan Romans. This is because as the Catholic Church rose to power it became the proprietor of the agglomerate cultural and religious history that came before it, and still is to this day even with the various off-shoots of Christian theology. But again, this sort of appropriation is not specific to the people who ruled during the rise of The Church, as there is no doubt that the cultures that came before also stole from each other as each one overtook the next.

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No doubt these ancient cultures also appropriated from each other.

Cultural appropriation is a far cry from cultural exchange, which happens when two people are on equal ground and actively make an trade cultural knowledge which can extend to dress, food, religious practice and the arts. Cultural exchange benefits both parties, cultural appropriation does not.

 

As the world is no longer in the business of empire building, at least no openly, and shifted more towards the notion of globalism and oneness, cultural appropriation is less evident. This does not mean it still doesn’t exist.

One example of modern cultural appropriation can be found in America in the the use of Native American iconography for non-indigenous run and operated sports teams. This appropriation is only possible because Native Americans remain at the bottom of the rung in terms of societal status in the country. Certainly no sports teams today not run by blacks could get away with a mascot in black face with stereotypical big lips and nose calling themselves The New York Blacks, or imagine a non-Jewish run team with a yamaka-wearing mascot spinning a dradle for a team called the Pennsylvania Jews. And I definitely can’t fathom a slant-eyed mascot with a bowl of rice on hand for a the California Yellow Skins. So why are the latter examples not going to happen while the prior one does? There are two big reasons.

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First, it’s distasteful and people of all walks would most likely make a scene about it.

Second, and most important to the discussion of cultural appropriation, is that these other ethnic groups (different from Native Americans) have managed to implant themselves firmly enough into American culture to garner the respect to demand that their likenesses not be appropriated and used in such fashion by other peoples. In short, they have power and equal footing under the law.

And that is where modern cries of cultural appropriation fall apart – the power interplay.

Black people in the West have risen up from their days of being nothing more than property and second class citizens under the law, despite the struggles which they still face. They have assimilated into their slave capture’s culture, many have thrived in it, but all while still keeping their identity. Blacks are as much their own ethnic group as they are American, or Brazilian, or Cuban, or Jamaican – one does not need to be exclusive from the other.

While Africa may still be the original home of Western Blacks and fueled the need for some of them to approximate themselves to the continent, it is more a symbolic home than anything because tracking one’s family heritage is nearly impossible. Here in Brazil, the records for blacks were so badly kept that a friend of mine recently told me he wasn’t sure if his great grandmother was a slave or not (although given the time table for when slavery ended in Brazil, 1888, chances are she was).

If one can’t even go back a little over a hundred years, think of the  hardships of trying to find one’s village back in whatever country his and her ancestors were ripped from.

This is the most likely reason why Black people of the West have adopted their capture’s flag – not out of want but out of necessity to have a home. But in this meantime they have also made much of themselves – becoming prosperous, influential, and world changing.

So this raises the question of equal footing and where blacks were versus where blacks are as a people.

In The United States, for example, the appropriation of black culture ran rampant for quite a long time, as blacks weren’t afforded all the legal rights nor the means to assert themselves. It took quite some time before it was popularly understood that Elvis did not invent Rock and Roll (although he still retains the crown of King) or that the Nicolas Brothers were true pioneers in dance and Fred Astaire’s heroes. It was a slow and arduous process, but Blacks began taking back their identities – or even creating new ones.

This freedom to explore ones identity and history – and more importantly, share it with the nation – is what gave rise to personalities like Malcolm X and, later, certain factions of The Black Panthers who proclaimed loudly that black was beautiful, strong, and just as much a part of the fabric of America (and all the rights that entails) as anyone else.

This message was vibrant and was adopted by everyday people. It traveled through the nation and the world, having a big impact in Brazil, where the slave trade had brought in an estimated 4 million souls from Africa’s shores. Popular singers like Tim Maia (who spent some time in America as a youth before being deported from the country) and Jorge Bem Jor began infusing their music with the iconology and rhythms from American blacks – and dressed the part too. There was also a rise in Brazilian style soul and funk groups that sang about pride in their people in the vein of Funkadelic and James Brown.  In short, blacks not only shouted out “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” they shared it among their peers – of all races, colors, and creeds.

 

I often marvel at this era which encompasses most of the 1970s but there is a big difference in how it manifested in Brazil versus in America. In America, blacks were finally being able to assert themselves both in popular culture and in daily life, but it was not done from a place of fear but from a place of self-realization, strength, and force which opened the doors to a healthy exchange with others. It’s no coincidence that nearly no one screamed of racism or appropriation when a white person grew an Afro or donned “black garb” – it was not generally viewed as a sign disrespect, but rather, an acknowledgement of of black beauty.

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Cher and her wild hair with The Jackson Five

For the first time, black culture, fashion, song, and a myriad of other components of black life could not be stolen – they were seen as a something to be aimed for and given. This was a historic shift for blacks, because in the same way white folks had dominated nearly every aspect of what was the right and proper way to appear in public and present oneself to society for so long, blacks had managed, through much pain and struggle, to enter into that conversation – and even dominate it in some aspects. To be in this capacity and have this ability to share one’s culture without fear is to be in power of one’s destiny and to feel firmly about ones history.

Here in Brazil the same shift happened but with a few kinks. Although blacks did play with power, they never truly harnessed it in quite the same way as their American counter parts. One could argue the many reasons for this, but I find that it is mostly rooted in the oft-told fable of racial harmony in Brazil. Blacks here were not persecuted as violently as American blacks and many even managed to hold on to a lot of aspects of their African roots, namely their religions and music. While expressions of institutional racism and personal prejudice in Brazil are not as obvious to spot from an outsider’s viewpoint, the mechanisms to keep blacks on the outskirts of society were and continue to be firmly put in place.

So while blacks had somewhat more freedom of mobility, that mobility never sent them on a vertical axis. And since life on the horizontal plane isn’t always bad (even though it isn’t great either) black people seem wary of raising their voices to loudly as to not bite the hand that feeds them and keeps them on their even keel. Furthermore, when black folks do speak up about racism in Brazil, whites tend to get quickly offended. They are fast to change the conversation from racism to classism – Brazil’s true ailment. They make it a point to explain how Brazil is not like the horrid America that hanged its blacks from trees across the nation. Unfortunately, all this hyperbole or lack of conversation has created a sort of black stasis in the country. A complacency set in which, as we all should know, is the enemy of any real progress. Black people in Brazil never fought for their space in society in the same measure as American blacks, because they believed that no space was being taken away from them. Black people never saw themselves as a different people because everyone told them they weren’t.

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Anti-Racism campaign in Brazil inspired by the one at Harvard. Blacks wrote comments they frequently hear. This one stating, “Racism doesn’t exist. Remove this thought from your head!!”

Of course it becomes clear to anyone who spends any considerable amount of time in Brazil that this racial harmony fable doesn’t match reality. Black people in Brazil today live a life far different than their white counterparts, making up the bulk of the poor communities, receiving the worst health care, attending the worst schools, and naturally (as a logical progression from horrid living standards) occupying most of the the jails and prisons and being responsible for the majority of the criminal element in the country.

Things seemed as if they would change for the better in the last decade or so as black movements (some that had existed for decades beforehand) did start to rise to prominence in the country by riding the wave of the leftist PT government which promised them exposure and funded their organizations. These black militant groups expressed the importance of black pride, education and preservation of culture. This is all well and good, but there is a dark side. As any good leftist government does, PT used these groups as pawns for their own political agendas and as way to generate votes among a people who had historically always been left out of the political dialogue. Before many of these black movements could truly be black movements of influence they became leftist or PT movements.

As part of PT movements, black people also succumbed to another specialty of leftist governments – the creation of dependence to the state. Black people under this regime didn’t learn to applaud themselves for their own hard work and achievements, but rather,  to thank “Father Lula” and “Mother Dilma” for allowing them to enter into a University based on the color of their skin; for allowing them to get easy credit to buy their first refrigerator, automobile , or home simply because they were poor; and most worrisome of all, for allowing them to express their blackness in their appearance when in fact that wasn’t a right for the government to give nor was it one that had been taken away. Black people were fooled into receiving something that was already theirs. They did not affirm their own identity, they were granted it – thus it is not truly theirs to command.

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A black medical graduate who spent more time thanking Dilma for her degree than her own hard work and determination. Her sign read, “The big house goes mad when a field negro turns doctor.”

The above relates directly to how these black girls acted when they saw a white girl wearing a turban. Blacks have been brainwashed into believing a narrative for themselves which was not written by them. It is harmful and destructive.

But before I go into that, let me be clear about how ignorant these girls were to taunt this girl – regardless of any social and political backdrop. The turban is not an exclusively black invention. Many people in Africa and throughout the Middle East, and other regions, have worn turbans and other types of head coverings for a very long time.

It’s also important to note that blacks living in the west do not always have a clear path back to their roots in Africa. Just as many American blacks have adopted Egypt as their culture heritage, many blacks here have adopted dress and garb from cultures that may not be part of their direct lineage.

Just because one’s skin is dark does not mean they are from the same ethnic tribe. Black people like white people come from various backgrounds. I imagine and Englishman would no better like to be confused for a German based on his skin color than an Ethiopian with someone from Ghana. So before Western black folk begin accusing others of cultural appropriation, they should take a hard look at themselves and where that Ankh they wear around their neck, those dreads they tie so tightly on their head, or that colorful dashiki they wear to work came from – and if they truly have a blood connection to these very different places and people.

So how does these girl’s action and government brainwashing, dependence, and fed narratives negatively affect the progress of black people in a free society? The answer is simple. Blacks diminish both their place and importance in society when they proclaim that their culture is still one which is able to be appropriated.  Black dependence falsely calling itself independence is a slow acting poison that kills the soul of a people and creates victims and monsters.

This is sad to see because although I think Brazilian blacks are still far behind American blacks when it comes to societal progress, they still have managed to come a long way. Per the Brazilian Constitution they have equal rights and can come and go, buy and sell, work and study as they please. Their treatment in society as it relates to their full rights is another issue, but it doesn’t take away their full equal status in democratic Brazil.

By crying about cultural appropriation of any form these black movements and social justice warriors take society leaps backwards and not forward. They may not be aware of it, but they are shouting loudly and proudly that, “WE ARE WEAK AND THE BEST OF OUR CULTURE CAN BE TAKEN, MANIPULATED, AND USED ANY WHICH WAY THE WHITE MAN PLEASES!!!” This is sad, regressive, reductive, and slightly sick.

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When we are in power no one can take it from us – unless we give them the opportunity to do so.

When I walk through the streets of Brazil, I assert myself on a daily basis. Sometimes I wear a knitted cap I bought in Ethiopia, other times I wear the button up shirts that Europeans taught us look nice, and other times I wear light loose fabrics that a friend who visited a Caribbean or Middle Eastern nation may have given me as a gift.

I dress and express myself with respect and with respect to those whose culture I borrowed from.

People who love themselves, who are proud of their culture, and proud of what it stands for, do not get offended when an outsider wants to join them, respectfully. They instead use that as a time for teaching and discourse – where they can transform perceived appropriation into a moment of cultural exchange.

As I stated at the start – cultural appropriation still exits because in 2017 there are still people on this planet who truly do not have a voice. Black people in the West, despite all that we still have to go through to get the same slice of the pie, are not one of them. Our voices are strong, vibrant, and clamorous – in fact, they echo from the mouths of the social justice warriors nearly everyday. Too bad, that the words they speak only serve to make us weaker and create a deeper divide.

 

P. Ray

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