Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Basically the same story as the French film Innocence, which I reviewed a ways back, and based on the same source material about young girls at a boarding school. Where Innocence was lyrical, pastoral, mysterious and engrossing, this film takes the same material and instead focuses on darkness, cruelty, and paranoia. I liked the other film much better. *

KON-TIKI (2012)
I first read the book Kon-Tiki when I was in seventh grade, and I was immediately fascinated with it. What this film (dramatizing the story of Thor Hyerdahl's ethnographic journey across the Pacific Ocean to prove that ancient Peruvians with balsa wood rafts could have colonized Polynesia) did for me was to find the place deep inside me where the 12-year old who was full of excitement and wonder about this journey was hiding and pulled it to the surface. This movie made me feel the danger and exhilaration of exploration in the way I imagined it as a child, and it made for a surprisingly emotional experience. ****

Chaplin as an escaped convict mistaken for the new parson in a small Old West border town. Slight and even half-hearted at times; I think he didn't really put the effort in to his last film for First National. It feels more like something made to satisfy a contract and nothing more. Probably he was much more interested at the time in moving on to United Artists and making A Woman of Paris. **1/2

Western spoof with Gary Cooper as an easygoing man mistaken for a vicious bandit. Gary Cooper is pretty likable in it, and Loretta Young is wonderful, but it just didn't connect for me. I didn't think it was bad, but it just didn't catch fire for me, either. **1/2

Powerful film about a Belgian woman who becomes a nun, intending to become a nurse in the Belgian Congo, and the sacrifices she is forced to make. What really captured my attention about this movie is that Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn, in an excellent performance) doesn't just become a nun and then that's it. She struggles with what she has to do, the parts of herself she has to give up in order to be a servant of God. Always, she's torn between her duties and her pride, her will, and even her humanity. It's a powerful struggle to watch. ****

Not what I was expecting. This is a true story about a family of tourists who experience the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. I was kind of worried about seeing another one of those movies where a foreign experience is filtered through the eyes of white people, but the filmmakers here make a good choice to make it a story of survival. What struck me most about this film is that it acknowledges the sometimes horrifying reality of our world: that it is not subject to the order we impose on it and characterize it with. What helps us through this is what this film really highlights in an emotionally profound way: love, family, community, helping others, patience. I was not emotionally prepared to watch this movie at all, so it really took me by surprise. It's a beautiful movie, one of the best of 2012, and one of the few films of last year that I saw that was really about anything without being precious. ****

Vivien Leigh is excellent as a stage actress, recently widowed, who moves to Rome before catching the attentions of a young gigolo (Warren Beatty, with an accent that is distracting and occasionally hilarious, but damn, he looks good). Despite some excellent performances (Leigh, Lotte Lenya as the woman using Beatty to get money out of rich widows), I never became truly absorbed in the film. I really can't stress this enough: Leigh and Lenya are excellent, and without them, I think the film would've fallen into sultry, overheated silliness. I think they elevate material that's not really as layered and interesting as the film pretends it is. **1/2

Engrossing documentary about Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee that researchers attempted to teach sign language in the 1970s. The thing that's so interesting about this movie is just how weirdly deluded the project is. Hebert Terrace, who initiated the project, seems so... ineffectual about it. He seems more interested in having sexual affairs with all of his female researchers rather than studying language in apes. He first hands Nim off to a female student who raises Nim as though he were one of her children, as though socialization will somehow magically make Nim start communicating as a human; you can tell this isn't going to bear fruit as soon as you find out that neither she nor her husband nor her children actually use any sign language. Nim is then taken to a facility where he can be taught more rigorously, but he becomes manipulative and goes through a series of teachers who leave one by one after sexual affairs with Terrace and/or repeated attacks by Nim as he matures and becomes more naturally aggressive (some of the people involved seem not to have taken into consideration that Nim, as a wild animal, would not be a house pet). After the project folds and is concluded a failure (the degree to which the project failed is about the only thing under debate here; the whole thing seems like someone's whim rather than a serious scientific experiment), Nim is moved around, is variously lonely or happy, and has a brief time as a lab animal. It's emotionally harrowing; the documentary (by James Marsh, who also made Man on Wire) focuses on the ethics and the emotional experiences of Nim and the people involved. It's honest without being damning (though some of the subjects damn themselves and/or others with their revelations), and it's ultimately very sad. In the end, the project was a failure, but Nim was the victim of that failure. ***1/2

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