REVIEW: Project Nim

30 01 2015

Director James Marsh won an Oscar for combining archival footage, recreations, and present-day interviews around Phillipe Petain’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in “Man on Wire.”  (Good luck to Robert Zemeckis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in their attempt to top it with their fictional “The Walk.”)  His documentary follow-up, “Project Nim,” plays more by the standard rulebooks, but it still works remarkably well.

The film follows a strange cast of characters surrounding one chimp named Nim who researchers believed could develop the capacity for language if raised like a human child.  The experiment occurs in the 1970s, and it naturally draws some very curious players from more radical countercultural and hippie circles.  Their experiment raises some fascinating questions as it progress, most of which relate to our own humanity and what separates and distinguishes us as a species.

Getting to those head-scratchers, though, proves a little more emotionally engaging for unconventional reasons.  Marsh is obliged to stay faithful to the events that transpired, although that does not make watching the cringeworthy actions of some of the participants any more palatable.  As many act in manners that are at best ill-advised and at worst completely unethical, “Project Nim” becomes just as much an exercise for the jaw (which will often hit the ground in awe) as for the brain.  Marsh ought to receive special commendation for somehow maintaining neutrality when talking to people who thought it was acceptable to give drugs and sexual stimulation to a chimp.  B+3stars

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REVIEW: The Theory of Everything

1 12 2014

‘Tis the season when phenomenal performances occur in decently passable films, and “The Theory of Everything” has arrived to fit that bill.   The movie is little more than a stage for a stunning physical transformation by Eddie Redmayne and a formidable emotional turn by Felicity Jones.  Their work shines particularly brightly because the film does not present anything else nearly as remarkable as them.  And actually, this hardly proves bothersome.

Director James Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten certainly provide admirable mood and story, respectively, to bring Jane and Stephen Hawking’s life and love to the screen.  They manage to pull off “The Theory of Everything” as a two-hander, giving both characters roughly proportionate screen time and development.  Normally, this kind of tale makes the woman subordinate to the man, reducing her to little more than a support system for her partner.  (Ahem, “The King’s Speech.”)

Granted, this was not too daunting of a task given that the source material is a book by Jane not solely about his illness and ingenuity but about their life together.  McCarten wisely keeps her story a central component of the film.  She is more than just the opposite that attracts him once, marries him, and then sits quietly on the sidelines as he acquires his own goals.  Jane is a person with flaws and ambitions in her own right, and by allowing her struggles equal credence, “The Theory of Everything” gives her both agency and weight in the overarching narrative.

As Stephen pursues his equation to encompass relativity and quantum mechanics, Jane is putting in the labor to achieve her own theory of everything.  She wants to serve as a wife and mother as well as attain her Ph.D. in Spanish medieval poetry.  She seeks not only to give love but also to receive it, and the latter becomes a source of compelling tension when Steven’s condition deteriorates to critical levels.  Jones shines in these later scenes, illustrating Jane’s good-hearted attempts to maintain a cheery caretaker’s facade.  Behind it all, though, Jane clearly yearns for the kinds of affection which her husband can no longer supply.

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