Film Review: Project Nim

What would happen if you allowed some people to play god?  If you think anything about it would work out well, you’re wrong.

Project Nim is the heartbreaking and yet infuriating story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee taken from his mother at only 2 weeks old and raised as a human child.  All in the name of a scientific experiment to supposedly discover if apes could develop linguistic skills, through the use of sign language, to communicate fully with humans.

Sound a bit bizarre? Surreal? Like a first draft of the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie?  This actually happened and this is a documentary about it.

Herbert S. Terrace is the catalyst for this saddening story.  He somehow got the funding to conduct this experiment on behalf of Columbia University and he recruited a raft of people who would be part of Nim’s life until the experiment ceased.

Told using talking heads, home movie footage and photos with minimal reconstructions, the documentary follows Nim’s life from the point his mother is drugged so he can be taken away in the early 1970’s through to his death, some 26 years later.

It’s the sort of story that makes you question mankind’s own abilities to be humane and what humane actually means.  This abhorrent and callous experiment as told by those involved with seemingly clear conscience almost defies belief were it not for the myriad of real footage and testimony in this film.

The film has a sense of objectivity about it, in that the talking heads seem to be naturally telling their tales and the footage is shown as matter of fact rather than with a particular slant or style.  To be fair to those giving testimony, the genuinely seem to be telling it like it was, as uncomfortable as that may be.

The film shies away from sensationalism – it could have easily become judgemental and gone for the shock factor.  After all it is a sensational story.  But, then perhaps those involved would not have been so keen to recall their time with Nim.

Despite the fact Nim does not, obviously, get his say, as the film develops, so does the viewers’ perception of Nim’s character.  I, personally, got a real sense of the confusion he must have felt at all that conflicts between what he was conditioned to do and what his natural instincts were.  He was essentially, as the title suggests a project: not a pet, not a companion, certainly not a human, but unfortunately barely an ape either.

A couple of people do come out with some credit, or at least redemption: a guy who worked at an animal experimentation lab who went on to rescue as many apes as he could when the lab closed and Bob, the guy who seems to be one of the driving forces behind this film being made who seemed to truly believe Nim was his companion: the scene where he is reunited with Nim will test even the steeliest resolve.

Herbert – the guy who started it all – and his cronies don’t come across very well, other than to admire them for their honesty at least.  There is an implied undercurrent of seediness about him and his cohorts with much made of hippy values and pot smoking and sexual freedom…none of which should a child be subjected to (if Nim were to be raised as such), but for some reason because Nim is an ape and this is an experiment, it’s ok.

It’s hardly surprising that the wheels come off the experiment more than once although bizarrely it is heartbreaking to see the project end.  In spite of everything, this experiment was all that Nim knew and removing him from it does feel sad because what will then become of Nim?  This, for me, draws massive parallels with how a child in an unsafe family environment might feel when taken out of that environment: it’s all they know and understand, so what will become of them?

The film works on many levels and had a real impact on me – I think this will stay with me for a long time and whilst not something I would call entertainment, I do feel the subject matter, more than the film, has an important place in history.

My Rating: 4/5


Film Review: Snowtown

This film is based on the true story of the infamous Snowtown “Bodies in Barrels” murders in Southern Australia during the 1990’s.

Daniel Henshall’s mesmerizing performance as John Bunting; the vigilante/serial killer and ring leader of the 4 people eventually convicted is what holds this film together.  Although Henshall seems to have little film acting experience (according to imdb) and certainly hasn’t had to carry a film before, he is absolutely electrifying and this should certainly propel him onto great things and more prominent roles.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he follows Joel Edgerton into mainstream American cinema.

I can’t recall the “Bodies in Barrels” murders making many headlines over here, unlike the “Backpacker Murders” which were around the same time and I remember distinctly.  But the “Bodies in Barrels” murders are equally horrific and Bunting is recognised as one of Australia’s most prolific and brutal serial killers.

“Bodies in Barrels” comes from one of the storage methods that Bunting and his accomplices used: the bodies were placed in large barrels and covered with hydrochloric acid which, rather than dissolve the victims as they had hoped, actually mummified them.

Bunting was clearly the controlling leader of this small band of murderers.  He had already coerced Robert Joe Wagner into becoming his accomplice and that relationship is already established when this film commences.  Instead the film focuses on Bunting’s relationship and coercion of Jamie Vlassakis into their group.  The fourth member convicted, Mark Haydon, is a peripheral figure in the film which is most likely due to the fact that he was convicted of helping to move the bodies rather than taking part in the murders.

Jamie lives in abject poverty with his mum and 3 brothers.  Jamie and his 2 younger brothers are being abused by a family friend/neighbour and when this comes to light Bunting and Wagner turn up to harass the neighbour until he moves.  From this point on Bunting develops his relationship with the family and begins to focus on Jamie whom he can control and convince to be a part of his vigilante movement.

Lucas Pittaway also gives a strong performance as Jamie – there is one scene in particular where Jamie waits in one room while a murder takes place in the bathroom; the camera lingers on Jamie while we hear what is going on in the bathroom – he is a picture of confusion, fear and despair.

I found the direction of the film from Justin Kurzel to be a little disjointed.  It looks as though real poverty stricken locations are used that give it authenticity and also a documentary sense, especially as most camera shots have a hand held feel.  The film is also gritty and brutally violent, both implied and explicit which makes it quite a disturbing piece to watch.

However, my main concern with the direction, and this is where I feel it becomes disjointed, is the lingering shots of locations and close ups of insignificant objects that seems to have become a standard cliché used in many low budget and indie films.  So much so that it feels like a gimmick and, to me, means the film loses any opportunity it had to have a unique style.

Given Henshall’s outstanding performance where he treads a fine balance between jovial and frighteningly psychotic – reminding me much of Paddy Considine in A Room for Romeo Brass – I do feel he was deserving of a more complete vision for the film as a whole.

Aside from Henshall, the film’s main strength is that it is not a police procedural or a standard serial killer slasher: instead, the focus seems to be more on family and the roles within it.  Because as Bunting charms his way into the family he begins to assume the father’s role, not dissimilarly, uncomfortably, to the family friend/neighbour at the beginning of the film.

It’s not an easy film to watch, the subject matter ensures that, but for Henshall’s performance alone it is compelling viewing.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Film Review: Safe House

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Stars: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds

This is an explosive action/thriller that keeps you hooked from beginning to end.

Denzel Washington rarely puts a foot wrong with his film choices and here, also as Exec Producer, he turns in another superb performance.

He’s Tobin Frost: a famously rogue ex-CIA agent who now sells secrets to the highest bidder and spends the rest of his time evading capture.  He’s renowned for his record in the CIA as master interrogator with his uncanny ability to get inside people’s heads.  He’s been there, done it and got the cynicism to prove it.  This time Frost has the mother load: a file so full of secrets that could blow almost every secret service corruption and double-crossing across the globe wide open.  It’s valuable enough to sell for a high price and it’s valuable enough to be killed for to prevent it getting out.

Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, a guy at the other end of the espionage career spectrum: younger, eager and innocent. He’s on duty at the eponymous safe house in Cape Town, South Africa.  He spends his evening with his girlfriend and his long lonely days in the safe house dreaming of his chance to get a “proper” post elsewhere.

Following Frost’s surrender to the US consulate in Cape Town in an effort to evade being killed, he’s take to Weston’s safe house and he soon finds himself neck deep in CIA action.  Apparently the guys that want that file out of circulation don’t give up so easily and there’s no doubt that there is a mole in the CIA to contend with too.

It all makes for a great chase movie.  There are times when some astonishing leaps of logic and detection are made, but in an action film such as this you have to let it slide.  It’s pretty much a rollercoaster of a movie with terse interactions between the main protagonists punctuated with adrenalin fuelled actions sequences.  It almost makes for a buddy movie too, but with a little more than the usual “these 2 guys hate each other, but have to work together” theme.  They have no reason to hate each other; they’re doing their chosen respective jobs.  Instead, cleverly, the scriptwriter David Guggenheim (with his first major movie script) uses the fact that Washington’s character too started out as a safe house operative and clearly sees much of himself in Reynolds idealistic young man.  Washington is such a good actor: at times he subtly eyes Reynolds with the look of a man looking at himself at a younger age and contemplating the choices he made to get him here…all in a look, a nuance weighted enough to make an impact without turning into scenery chewing overacting.

Reynolds too shows his chops as a leading man and for that too we must give credit to the scriptwriter and the director: the script calls for his character to react and largely be out of his depth in a way that makes the audience wonder just what he might decide to do next, whereas a hardened action man movie would clearly map out where the film is going.  The director, Daniel Espanosa, also does not make much of Reynolds’ movie star looks.  No lingering shots or needless shirtless scenes, instead Reynolds is bloody, dirty and sweaty for much of the film and in a state of near collapse and panic.

The action, by and large, is shot to give a sense of realism and I believe these stunts really did take place, as opposed to green screen or CGI, and Reynolds appears to be involved almost throughout, especially in some internal car shots that reminded me a little of McQueen in Bullitt.  There are also some fantastic moments where the action suddenly and very loudly kicks off which not only grabs your attention but echoes the feelings of the two men in that they don’t seem to be able to rest for a second.

The crux of the movie is the relationship between the two, but the file plot and the CIA mole, although a little clumsily handled, are conduits that drive the men together and keep them in each other’s company.  Washington and Reynolds bounce of each other in their scenes, of which I would have loved to have seen more, as both characters get under the skin of the other whether intentionally or not: clearly Washington as Frost wants to get inside Reynolds’ Weston’s head in order to manipulate him and his own escape, but he doesn’t count on Weston getting under his own skin by being so reminiscent of him in his younger days.  In terms of getting the most emotional connection from short scenes, this is an acting master class that could be seen as a metaphor for their own Hollywood career trajectories: Washington has done it all and Reynolds is eager to prove he has what it takes to be more than a Hollywood hunk.  From this, and other interesting career choices such as Buried, Reynolds clearly does have what it takes to be closer to Washington in terms of acting esteem than the Matthew McConaughey end of the spectrum.

In the wrong hands it could have turned into just another 16 Blocks (not a bad movie, but hardly one that grips you) and instead this gives you a great 1 hr 55 minutess of intense thrills and spills.

Film Noir: Film Noir


Directed By: D. Jud Jones & Risto Topaloski

Written By: D Jud. Jones

Starring: Mark Keller, Bettina Devin, Roger Jackson (all voice artists)

This curious animated film is an homage to film noir and in many ways it ticks every classic noir box.

Private Detective Sam Ruben (replete with narration) regains consciousness next to a dead cop at the foot of the Hollywood sign and his predicament is further complicated by the amnesia with which he is suffering.  The story follows him as he tries to discover how he got himself into this mess.

Unfortunately for this film, the style of noir has since been surpassed in animated form in the excellent L.A. Noir video game.  So, this is like watching that game play out on a black and white television and no interaction.

The animation is pretty good though, but it let down by the clumsy storyline, one-dimensional characters and a very stilted line delivery from the voice actors.  This makes the whole package come across like a student film: a good student film, but nonetheless whilst it follows many of noir’s typical hallmarks it fails to capture the true essence of bleakness of noir.

There are some explicit scenes of sex and violence, but these seem to be thrown in for effect rather than to be pertinent to the story.

If anyone remembers the “Jane” animated TV series based upon the comic strip in the early 1980’s then this film is closer to that end of the noir animation quality spectrum with perhaps Sin City sitting pretty at the other end.

As far as a curiosity piece goes and to extend your exposure to film noir it is well worth finding and watching, but don’t expect to be blown away or wishing for a sequel.

Noir Cynicism 05/10: arched eyebrows and lingering looks suggest no one can be trusted, but its more pantomime than noir
Noir Femme Fatale 02/10: Pointless, one-dimensional and subjected to explicit nudity for no reason other than to perhaps create a talking point.
Noir Anti-Hero 06/10: Private Detective with his own narration, but he’s detached from the whole thing and you don’t identify with him.
Noir Crime 05/10: murder and all that good stuff, but none of it really matters..
Noir Dough None that I recollect
Noir Body Count 3
Noir Style 06/10: good effort, but doesn’t quite hack it.


Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads…?

Hard to believe this was now so long ago…

Film Noir: The Yakuza


Directed By: Sydney Pollack

Screenplay By: Paul Schrader & Robert Towne from a story by Leonard Schrader

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Ken Takakura, Brian Keith, Herb Edelman, Richard Jordan

Robert Mitchum as a Private Investigator?  It can only be film noir.  Well, not necessarily in this case.  The Yakuza is often cited as a neo-noir in that it utilises the main elements of film noir, but brings modern themes and visuals.

Here we have Private Detective Harry Kilmer (Mitchum) asked by old army buddy Tanner (Keith) to go to Japan and negotiate the safe release of his daughter who has been kidnapped by the Yakuza (essentially the Japanese mafia).

Why he asks Kilmer and why he so readily accepts is revealed as the film progresses.  Much of the film is exposition about the time that Kilmer spent in Japan following the end of WWII.  At times the pace suffers for that, but the violent action sequences that punctuate the film become much more gruesome and carry more impact because of that.

The film also spends a lot of time explaining the codes of conduct of the Yakuza and why a seemingly simple case becomes more and more complex and the violence escalates beyond all control.  It is surprisingly violent and treats the violence in the same cold blooded way it is handed out.

It’s not a “fish out of water” story like Black Rain or Rising Sun: Kilmer is possibly better adapted to life in Japan than the US, so Dusty (Richard Jordan) provides the dumb looks and questions to which all is explained.

But it is engrossing enough to involve the viewer and have a reasonable pay-off that may surprise first time viewers.  The exposition also sinks in, so that when you reach the end of the movie, you are as clued up as Kilmer and understand what must be done.

Mitchum is excellent and looks as world weary as ever and he is more than ably supported by Ken Takakura who is superb as “the one who doesn’t smile”.  Keith and Edelman are adequate, but although their characters go back as far as Mitchum’s and Takakura’s, they seem to lack the depth.  The film has also unfortunately dated quite badly and Pollack’s direction now seems a little leaden and amateurish with some sequences looking mishandled – this may be a sign of the times though and it is quite likely that Pollack’s use of handheld camera in 1974 was seen as cutting edge.

With Schrader and Towne combining to create the screenplay the script is not as tight and the dialogue not as snappy as you might expect.  But they have a hell of a lot of explaining to do throughout and its credit to them that the amount of information coming out of the screen does not seem too much like a lecture on Yakuza culture.

It’s a good film that treats its subject matter with the same reverence that permeates throughout the characters involved.

Noir Cynicism 02/10: although there is some double-crossing, the focus is more on honour and obligation.
Noir Femme Fatale 05/10: Keiko Kishi seems like no femme fatale, but powerful secrets make her not all that she seems.
Noir Anti-Hero 08/10: Mitchum was born for noir and his character here carries enough baggage to visibly weigh him down.
Noir Crime 06/10: kidnapping and gun running soon get pushed aside for something more precious to the Yakuza: honour and respect.  And a lot of violence!
Noir Dough The initial money for guns almost seems insignificant in the end.
Noir Body Count Easily over 30 – it’s almost impossible to keep count in the end
Noir Style 06/10: Neo-noir might be pushing it a bit, but there are some pure noir moments and Mitchum exudes noir style without even trying.


Film Noir: Odds Against Tomorrow


Directed By: Robert Wise

Screenplay By: Abraham Polonsky (as John O. Killen) and Nelson Gidding – based upon the novel by:  William P. McGivern

Starring: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Ed Begley

Probably now better known for his epic musicals (West Side Story and The Sound of Music), Robert Wise also directed some other hugely significant films during his illustrious career(Star Trek, The Haunting, The Day the Earth Stood Still).  This gem is from 1959 and is one of the first productions funded by Harry Belafonte’s imaginatively titled production company HarBel.

It is a tightly wound heist thriller that carries a bold political message about racism.

Disgraced ex-NYPD officer Dave Burke (Ed Begley), in the twilight of his years, hatches a plan to rob a bank in a quiet town in upstate New York.  The heist only needs two other men in on the job and will net them a cool $50,000 dollars each.

The small town bank holds large amounts of cash in preparation for payday and regularly receives a food order from the local deli.  With the bank staff being old and perhaps naive, Burke realises that by replacing the deli’s delivery guy, they can make their way into the bank and complete the robbery.  What makes him so confident that they can replace the delivery guy without the bank staff noticing is that the delivery guy is black.

The two men he recruits are poles apart.  Firstly, ex-con Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a self confessed bigot who initially backs out of the plan when he finds out so much hinges on a black accomplice, but goes along with it when he realises there is nothing else he can turn his hand to to make money.  Secondly, gambling addict and lounge singer Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) who reluctantly joins in order to prevent his estranged wife and his child from getting hurt by the gangster he owes money to.

Naturally, tensions run high between the two and Wise cranks up the tension as the film progresses.

Wise presents New York (superbly filmed on location) as other-worldly, depicting it as a rain-soaked, litter strewn and strangely deserted city which seems to increase the feeling of isolation the two hired men, Slater & Johnny seem to share.  They are a pretty helpless pair that have played themselves into the last chance saloon and seem, deep down, to know it.

Sure, Johnny spends the day with his daughter, but he spends much of that time calling Burke to accept the deal and dealing with mobsters than truly spending that quality time.  And Slater resents being a kept man by his lover (the much under used Shelley Winters) who clearly has a steady job and income.  They each seem to carry an air of self loathing and self-destruction.

The style of the film, from the opening Jazzy score and vibrantly hip titles through to the hip cat talk and the seemingly gorilla film making in the streets of New York, put me in mind more of the French New Wave style of A Bout de Soufflé and Cassavettes Faces (both made much later) than a film noir.  In fact, Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samurai, Le Cercle Rouge) has sited this film as a big influence on him.   But, there are enough elements to make this a good example of the heist film noir (in a similar vein to Kubrick’s The Killing) with plenty of use of shadows and stark silhouettes and angled views.

Belafonte is cool, but not so cool that he can’t seem desperate and he carries his side of the film well. Of course, he does have a musical number in it, but it doesn’t seem contrived or out of place.   Ryan rarely puts in a bad performance and he exudes menace in a fine performance here, particularly the scene involving his neighbour and also when he spits out the N-word when referring to Belafonte.  Only Ed Begley seems a little weak in his role, but then, aside from the first few minutes, little time is spent exploring his character.

It’s a superbly downbeat tale which only falls down when delivering its moral message in a hopelessly clumsy way at the end.

Noir Cynicism 08/10: bad men do bad things.  None of them have any particularly redeeming qualities.
Noir Femme Fatale 01/10: none to speak of, despite Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame appearing, they hold no true femme fatale power.
Noir Anti-Hero 10/10: How anti do you like your heroes.  These guys are a bad bunch alright, not so much as a chance of redemption amongst them.
Noir Crime 08/10: a bank robbery that is given a relatively short amount of screen time for a heist movie.
Noir Dough $50,000 each – enough to set them up for life.
Noir Body Count 3
Noir Style 10/10: if it influenced Melville it’s good enough for me!