Project Nim

Nim Chimpsky (it's like Noam Chomsky)

James Marsh, the documentarian who rose to prominence with the Oscar-winning Man On Wire in 2008, is a master at weaving a satisfying narrative out of complex reality; a storyteller at heart, rather than a scrupulous detailer of history. This latest film charts the life of a chimpanzee, Nim, who was raised as if a human child by a group of American scientists during the 1970s, in an attempt to discover if he could learn language. Its (captivating) archive footage is intercut with dramatic embellishments to aid the ebb and flow: when Nim is described as having a tantrum and throwing a chair through a window, we see a blurry sequence depicting just that. It’s skilfully constructed, with emphasis on the ‘constructed’ – but this authorial sculpting is so clear that it barely feels manipulative.

The potential themes are fascinating – the boundary between humans and animals, language acquisition – but it quickly becomes clear that Marsh is less interested in the science of the experiment than he is in the people who conducted it, and their testimonies as recorded by his contemporary interviews. It’s a stance that’s neatly both reflective of and driven by the scientists themselves, who also appear to have been less preoccupied by the chimp’s experience than they were their own. The project’s leader, Herb Terrace, comes across as something of an arrogant creep, apparently bonking everyone in sight whilst neglecting to record any data on Nim’s progress (never mind wellbeing) during the research at all.

There’s also a lot of plain weirdness: for such apparent free-lovers, these people use horribly clinical phrases like ‘sexual contact’ when describing their relationships with each other, and seem oblivious to the fact that actions such as breast-feeding a chimpanzee might be considered outside of normal behaviour. Uncanny shots of Nim dressed in human clothing abound, and you feel sorry for him throughout. Only one truly sympathetic human character emerges: Bob Ingersoll, a primatologist who at least attempts to engage with Nim on his level (if such a thing is possible) and continuously campaigns for his improved living conditions. The contemptuous way in which this evident animal-lover dispenses the word ‘notepad’ when describing another more studious professor is a joy to behold.

The film loses some momentum in its final third, when the half-baked project is given up with vague conclusions, and the oddity gives way to plain sadness as Nim’s lonely latter years are revealed. I found Marsh’s stylistic touches aesthetically pleasing: eerie, slow pans of his static interviewees which reminded me of The Arbor, and huge white block capitals to supply a name upon each introduction. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that its central exposé – of the vanity and peculiarity that can afflict academia – was neither revelatory nor particularly important, compared with what was promised by the set-up. Perhaps the material dictates: the film is disappointing in the same way as the outcome of the botched experiment. But as such it did feel somewhat slight – an incidental, if highly watchable, piece of modern documentary.

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The Referees

'Thief... clown... fairy', according to the Poles

Start to think about football referees and the question quickly presents itself: who on earth would be one? Famous but not celebrated, physically fit but not skilled. Earning a fraction of the wages of those in the same sphere. Good jobs going unnoticed, bad jobs anything but. Does it take a special kind of madness? Belgian documentary The Referees (or Les Arbitres), released on DVD next week, doesn’t purport to have the answers – but certainly opens a window for us onto these strange, marginal and sometimes lonely lives.

The film is the result of special access granted by UEFA to director Yves Hinant, whose crew followed various officials around on their everyday business during Euro 2008. The trick is that you barely notice they’re there: those being filmed only ever talk to each other, never looking into the camera or at an off-screen interviewer. We see a wrong decision anxiously mulled over amongst the officials themselves, and a father’s pride expressed to random local over a pint. The viewer is left with the convincing illusion that there is no camera: this is genuine, fly-on-the-wall stuff.

One major effect is to swiftly eliminate the idea that referees might ever be biased. The pressures illustrated here are manifold: the respect of fellow professionals, the hopes of friends and loved ones watching on television and the incredible level of scrutiny performances are subject to, via UEFA assessments. One excruciating scene sees a poor linesman sitting through countless replays of an incorrect offside decision in a room of colleagues, having to describe his own mistake (and what he should have done instead) like a naughty schoolchild. Later, Howard Webb is the subject of death threats and comparisons to Hitler – and his family home afforded extra security for fear of attack – after the award of a last-minute penatly against Poland. Which team is fouling which is clearly never the issue here: these guys are just desperate that they get every decision right.

Then there’s the film’s true calling card: its footage of the games themselves. Tracking his subjects around the pitch, Hinant uses a compelling camera technique (one I’m not sure I’ve seen before) which somehow focuses on everything in shot – so that at times its possible to watch players in close-up, referee in the centre and baying crowd in the background all at once. What’s more, the sound is mixed so that chanting and other noises are dulled, whilst the headsets linking the referee, his two linesmen and the fourth official are brought to the forefront – much, presumably, like these men must try to do in reality. It’s fascinating to listen in: at one point a referee cautioning a particularly burly player is reminded ‘don’t back off Peter!’ and you can watch as he visibly forces himself to a stop. They shout things like ‘dive!’, ‘yellow!’, ’18!’ and constantly tell each other ‘well done’. Howard Webb calls all the players ‘my friend’.

Are they mad? Perhaps, but no more so than the rest of us. The foibles uncovered by Hinant here include a melodramatically delivered hotel-room speech about ‘courage’, a bizarre kissing routine performed moments before a match, and – most endearingly – one linesman practising his flag-waving technique in front of the dressing room mirror. These human touches are a relief; indeed it’s difficult not to leave the film with the impression of a football world which could do with taking itself less seriously. The clearest and most sensible comment is made by one Swiss referee, in the midst of battle, to a raging player. ‘We are not gods. We make mistakes. I am sorry.’

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The Devil’s Double

Cooper, trooper

More of me elsewhere: I reviewed the slightly odd The Devil’s Double, a film chock-full of Dominic Cooper and which comes out tomorrow, over at HUH Magazine. It involved going to a swanky press screening and everything. You can read the result here:
HUH Magazine – The Devil’s Double

There are also some new and exciting additions to the links section on the right, so check those out too if you fancy it. Otherwise, carry on.

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How do you like them apples?

Every Korean film that arrives on these shores seems to involve rape or death – or both – and Poetry is no exception. It shares its narrative trigger with Park Chan-Wook’s trend-setting Oldboy: the suicide of a teenage girl, throwing herself into a river following an act of sexual deviance. And some of the shots here are incredibly similar – I fancy director Lee Chang-Dong might even have used the same bridge. But compared to Oldboy and its increasingly violent successors, Poetry turns out to be a much tamer, more contemplative watch – a film which washes over you like the deceptively cool waters of its opening and closing shots.

The protagonist here is Mija, a ‘chic’ but unassuming sixty-something living in a modest flat where she cares for her teenage grandson, Wook. At the outset, she is struck by two disturbing pieces of information: first, a diagnosis from her doctor of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and secondly the discovery that Wook was involved in the circumstances leading to the girl’s suicide. She divides her time between cooking for Wook, earning money as a maid to a housebound stroke-victim, and meeting with the parents of the other boys implicated in the wrongdoing, who are seeking damage-limitation. Amidst it all, she decides to join a poetry class.

Actress Yoon Jeong-Hee, who was lured out of retirement for the role and spends almost the entire duration on screen, keeps most things internal, understanding that film acting is often about the merest twitches on an otherwise unperturbed face. It’s a perfect performance for her character, who barely confronts her grandson about the central unsavoury incident and ‘forgets’ to bring it up when sent to the victim’s mother to do just that. Only in her classes does she articulate any real emotion – she yearns to write a poem but cannot rediscover the inspiration of her youth (when she had ‘the poet’s vein’ – defined by her sister as ‘liking flowers and saying odd things’).

Somehow two and half hours pass with no let-up in the film’s gentle pull, despite the lack of major narrative development. Instead, there’s a weight of sadness that builds incredibly effectively – almost surreptitiously – as the scenes roll by. Interspersed with the basic plot are beautifully delivered, highly personal monologues by the poetry group’s members, many of whom have no other lines in the script. Shot exclusively as talking heads, we assume these confessions are being delivered to the rest of the class, but can’t be sure. Are these characters stepping out of the film to talk directly to us?

The ending reaches for the profound and transcendental, less clunkily than The Tree of Life, but nevertheless in a fashion which left me bewildered rather than swept away – and certainly under the impression that writer/director Lee’s true gift for ‘poetry’ exists in images, rather than words. But I think he earned this final extravagance. Poetry is a film of considerable craft and with a huge heart – a graceful, melancholy, meditative treat.

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Haneke love

Great man

I need to get more into lists, I think. One man who’s got them down to a tee is David Harris, esteemed author of Chop’s Top Fives and (more importantly) Fulham fan. When he asked me to contribute, I took the opportunity to express my admiration for Michael Haneke, genius director and (more importantly) author of the very words from which this blog’s name is derived. To see what I had to say, click here:
Chop’s Top Fives – Top Five Haneke Films

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Most of the film was this colour

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is officially a cinema sensation, bringing a record-breaking £23.75m worth of people into the cinema during its first three days of UK release. By contrast, The Tree of Life, which some big noises in France recently adjudged the best film of the year, made just over £400,000 in the same time period when it opened last week. The universally praised A Separation has taken more than two weeks to generate half of that.

I thought I’d take my haughty self along, then, to see what all the fuss was about before it finally came to an end. As a literary and cinematic Potter virgin, entirely ignorant of my horcruxes from my griffindors, I was relying purely on cultural osmosis to help me through. Plot-wise, it was surprisingly ok: I don’t think I got everything, but I got the gist. What I hadn’t realised was how derivative JK Rowling’s world is – of JRR Tolkien (the battle bits), Enid Blyton (Englishy/school bits) and even Jim Henson (goblin Griphook channelling Labyrinth’s Hoggle). No bad thing, necessarily; all the best stories are old.

The star of the show, Daniel Radcliffe, has a thankless task as the dull-as-dishwater all-round good egg at the centre of it all. Or perhaps it’s just that he can’t act: something about his face does seem fundamentally vacant, and he carries himself around with shoulders locked, as if searching for gravitas, à la George W Bush. Towards the end, his reaction to learning of his own impending death is not unlike the facial expression one might expect from someone realising they’d left an umbrella on a train.

Then there’s his two sidekicks, Hermione and Ron, who – in this film at least – appear to serve little purpose at all, other than as sounding-boards for our hero Harry’s thoughts. In three separate scenes during the first half-hour, they literally stand in the corner of the room, silent, whilst Radcliffe carries out expository conversation with the person they’ve gone to meet.

I'm still not sure what a 'deathly hallow' is

What’s notable is the way in which this personality vacuum at the centre of the film is so bountifully surrounded by the great and the good of British acting. Helena Bonham-Carter, Jason Isaacs, Michael Gambon and John Hurt all get their few lines – the camera even whizzed past Jim Broadbent a couple of times – and with all that talent gathered in one place, it’s difficult not to begin to think of what might have been in a parallel universe, in which the kids were killed off in episode one.

Ralph Fiennes is the highlight here. Not unlike Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life, he whispers to children in voiceover – although one quickly suspects that Voldemort is somewhere at the other end of the good/evil spectrum. His anti-nose make-up is brilliantly creepy, and he slithers every line out with gleeful malevolence – although Alan Rickman as Severus Snape wins delivery of the film for his fantastically over-the-top discharge of the phrase ‘equally guilty’ during a particularly ominous headmaster’s announcement.

I suspect I might have enjoyed the more heavily school-based plots of the earlier films over this one. At least in the Hogwarts sections there was the occasional suggestion of some much-needed wit: one of the film’s only throwaway lines (and a welcome tonal respite) sees Maggie Smith tell Julie Walters ‘I’ve always wanted to use that spell’ after summoning some particularly solemn looking rock-based guards. Otherwise, for a kids film about magic and goblins, it does seem to take itself incredibly seriously.

The filmmaking itself is perfectly accomplished, if unremarkable – a reminder that these Potter releases are not so much films as services to the books, whose revered status amongst a loyal and large-scale fanbase was always going to compromise any serious invention on screen. Would I have been more moved had I sat through all eight? Perhaps. As it is, I must confess that my interest continues to lie in the incredible box-office – by definition, getting people into the cinema that never normally go – but little else.

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The Tree of Life

Cinematography = good

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a high-minded, high-concept, sincere and solemn film. It begins with what appears to be a ray of light and some choral music, then a fifteen-minute surge of words and images – boys playing, Brad Pitt glaring, Sean Penn worrying – that hint vaguely at a plot but will not let us settle. It’s a memorable experience – the camera, aptly, swoops in and amongst these scenes in disorientating, near-nauseating fashion. I think I liked this bit.

Then, all of a sudden, abstract CGI shapes and colours fill the screen. I was confused, not to mention worried that Malick was following Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void in attempting to extract profundity from Windows Media Player visualisations. But then: ah, planets forming. Dinosaurs roaming. This was some kind of history of the cosmos, like an updated Fantasia or high-budget Discovery Channel doc. Occasionally someone from the cast (who knows who) would offer breathy voiceover about the ‘way of nature’. I’d worked out what I was watching, but it remained unclear why.

After a full 40 minutes, the decent film within this froth finally gets going. Malick places us in the company of small-town, middle-income American family living in the not-too-distant past. We watch as three boys are born to Jessica Chastain, an angelic figure who speaks exclusively in whisper and is at one with butterflies. Pitt is her disciplinarian husband, a more complex, tortured soul who ‘hugs’ his children by grabbing them into his midriff and batting them on the head.

The boys’ upbringing makes for gripping and distinctive drama, excellently conveying childhood confusion, love, fear – and a sense of potential violence that’s achieved despite never showing much. I think this is partly down to Pitt’s superb performance, his eyes all troubled and jaw permanently clenched, and also the brilliance of Hunter McCraken, playing the eldest child Jack, shuffling around with extreme awkwardness and always looking ready to flinch.

The film concludes with a section apparently depicting the afterlife which I can’t even be bothered to describe. I love Sean Penn’s world-weary face but he is wasted here as the adult Jack, wandering around on a vast, grey beach, hugging what appear to be the lost souls of his former family. I found it overblown and meaningless.

The most powerful moments in cinema are often those which occur in our own minds as viewers – implied on screen but not spoken, or taking place just out of shot. The Tree Of Life works best when, in its middle section, it reins itself in and allows its messages to seep in slowly, under your skin. But this is ultimately a maximalist film which refuses to leave anything to the imagination: if Malick wants you to think about religion, he will impose continuous disembodied utterances about ‘the grace of god’; if he wants you to consider our place in the universe, he will actually depict the creation of the universe. A germ of a stunning piece of work is in there somewhere – but this is a film that leaves you wanting less.

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