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August 11, 2011 5:45 pm
Meet the apes of wrath. Project Nim, a documentary, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a chimp-horror prequel, are both about our ancestor and contemporary, the ape. Both arrive in the same week with gobsmacking synchronicity. Both are about whether the chimpanzee, and by allegorical extension his human-ape cousin, can ever be “civilised”. For us Britons it’s not so mad a question, in a week of atavistic riots that have seen jungle law usurp the rule of reason and social cohesion.
Going ape. It wouldn’t be a cliché if it hadn’t begun as a perceived truth. James Marsh, maker of Man on Wire, must have came to Project Nim by free association. High-wire artist in New York; anthropoid scaling tall building; King Kong ... So here is a documentary, stunningly watchable, about the 1970s American research team that explored the “educability” of a chimpanzee. Can Nim, the so-named simian, learn sign language? Can he learn social interaction? Will he keep his manners, intelligence and ability to articulate, once gained? Yes and no to that last. If Nim dislikes something he may bite you or maul you ...
Meanwhile in San Francisco (we’ll come back to Nim), James Franco, remarkably resembling a younger version of Project Nim chief Herbert Terrace – full lips, slyly watchful eyes, curly dark hair – is conducting virtually the same research. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes he adopts, clothes and nurtures laboratory chimp Caesar (played by CGI-motion-captured Andy “Gollum” Serkis) after Caesar’s lab-mates are put down in a contamination scare.
Caesar is pure adorability, until he grows up. Then, like Nim, he spends time in a primate research centre fond of using electric prods. (Caesar should have realised that Brian Cox with hair dyed blood-red and a stage-American accent is bad news). Like Nim, Caesar then gets bigger and crankier. He must choose, as a final career option, between maximum-security retirement or world-changing multi-ape mayhem atop the Golden Gate Bridge. Take a guess.
A question as large as the GGB straddles the two films. Someone in Project Nim says: “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you.” Especially when that nurturing, as documentarist Marsh compellingly shows, is as ill-focused or multi-focused as was Nim’s. His first human “mother” kept no logs and brought little science to a supposed science project, only, it seems, a possessive emotionalism. Later carers and teachers went the other way: rigid curricula, cold cell-like classrooms. No wonder Nim ended up resembling a furry Jekyll and Hyde, unpredictable from second to second. Marsh has crafted a mesmerising movie, a must-see for anyone who wanders out of Rise of the Planet of the Apes – and you will – with the feeling: “Seen it all before. Show me some ape stuff that’s new and surprising.”
With a lurching segue – or is it? – we turn to The Interrupters. On the Chicago streets the human ape is alive and well. Either that or mad, bad, irredeemable and possibly dead. We in Britain who heard the happy sound of fireworks a few nights ago – only to realise it was exploding buildings – know that the Windy City has now teleported itself to London, Manchester, Birmingham. What devils drive people to devastate other people’s lives? Are they exorcising social grievance or exercising jungle opportunism? Are they humans making a choice or animals of prey driven by violence and appetite?
Documentarist Steve James made Hoop Dreams, in which basketball became a metaphor of the American dream. The Interrupters is the American nightmare, no metaphor needed. Many of the do-gooders depicted, “violence interrupters” who work for Chicago’s CeaseFire Initiative, are ex-thugs using their knowledge of the delinquent brain to intercede, reason, redeem. They are as heroic and insightful – Eddie, the killer turned art teacher; Ameena, the motormouthed den mother; Cobe, the podgy, smiling street messiah – as the gangsters are demonic. Senseless feuds are stoked with senseless killings; revenge deaths have their own rules of multiplication. (“Do unto others as you have had done unto you.”) And yet, this long, persevering, richly documented film sets out to argue, “Chicago hope” is not just a soap opera title.
What a week. We are still not out of the urban jungle. José Padilha’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within boldly – or baldly – goes where the first Elite Squad went before. Padilha’s earlier police drama, which took the lid off cop brutality and banged it in everyone’s ears, was a hit and a prize winner (Berlin Golden Bear). Brazilians have crowded into the sequel. Padilha still bangs on about tough law enforcement, its virtues and vices. Here, though, there is more satire, more stealth of observation. The brutal BOPE, Rio’s militarised cop squad, becomes first a tool, then a virtual private army for rogue government powers. Finally, with their control of the favelas (slums), it is a combination of gravy train (payola and protection racket) and propagandist whistle-stop express for the “tough on crime” ticket.
The plot is worked out, at times, with a complexity worthy of The Godfather and characters as memorable. An extreme-right politico’s shock-jock television rants, funny and scary, make him Rio’s answer to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. Captain Nascimento, the films’ “hero”, is again played by Wagner Moura with a mixture of braggadocio and eerie good sense. The film’s power, suspense and intelligence go up to the final frame, though “final” may not preclude the possibility of Elite Squad 3.
Simple, old-world human charm: what happened to that? It can be found in Italy, while stocks last. Gianni Di Gregorio makes self-starring seriocomedies about late middle age and matriarchal domination. 2008’s Mid-August Lunch is followed by The Salt of Life (awful UK title for Gianni e le donne), a gentle, wispy, funny tale of – well, just about nothing. Pensioner Gianni gets up, does a day’s non-work, potters in and out of his mother’s card-playing hen parties (mum played again by bouffant-wigged, fright-makeup’d Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni) and, a virtual bachelor for all we see of his recessive wife, daydreams of other women. Imagine Monsieur Hulot re-conceived by Fellini ... No, on second thoughts don’t imagine anything. Just go and see the film. Lustrous, effortless, entrancing, it infects your mood as happily as a hazy Roman afternoon.
Audrey Tautou’s doe eyes and elfin simper in Amélie made me keep reaching for the sick bag. She was a hole in the screen, vapid and decoratively edged, in The Da Vinci Code. Now, when my opinion of her could not worsen, she gets better. She is almost bearable in Pierre Salvadori’s Beautiful Lies; it is the film that isn’t. Salvadori made The Apprentices, a slight and deftly wreaked comedy. Now he thinks we can swallow Nathalie Baye (post-New-Wave diva of The Return of Martin Guerre) as a divorcee steered towards romantic consolation by a hairdresser daughter (Tautou) deploying, implausibly, her own lovestruck admirer (Sami Bouajila). The film is full of sub-Marivaux comic contrivances, ersatz Gallic charm – the kind you can squeeze from a tube – and whimsical improbability.
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