Thursday, 2 May 2013

Chimpanzee Review

Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield

Writers: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, Don Hahn

Synopsis: Disneynature’s new documentary follows the life of an energetic yet vulnerable young chimp, Oscar, living deep within the Taï rainforest.

Introducing children to the natural world may be a daunting prospect for a parent – it’s full of copious mating, fights to the death, and often nightmarish imagery. Whilst David Attenborough’s seminal series of wildlife documentaries are not to be missed, they are not always toddler-friendly. In response to this Disney have created a new independent film label – Disneynature – to show the twee aspects of animal life, as well as some of the perils.

Being a Disney product, Chimpanzee is decorated with many darling elements, such as bouncy music, funny recordings of animals falling or hitting one another, and scenes of tenderness. As well as this, they also introduce a narrative not-so-dissimilar to their animal-led classics such as The Lion King, The Fox and the Hound and The Jungle Book, with villains roaming and danger lurking. Showing a story unravel, and having characters and a “plot” to follow will inevitably make this easier for the little ‘uns; it promotes the basics of story-telling and simplistic ethics – “acts of evil and good appear like this, or like this”.

The story of the chimpanzee protagonist, Oscar, was supposed to follow his early life with his mother and nothing much more. However, mid-way through the shoot Oscar’s mother sadly died and the filmmakers recorded something miraculous happens – his adoption by the alpha-male of the group. This is Disney’s serendipitous injection of joy and hope into the film and it works wonders. Unfortunately, this event happens very late in the movie and the focus on it is not that extensive. There are a few moments where Oscar learns different tricks of the trade, and these suffice as fillers to a quite average chronicle.

We also continually crossover to the villainous chimp tribe, led by Scar (another discernible Disney reference), who, when coming into contact with Oscar’s family, can never be told apart. Without the forbidding score and occasional displays of rage, there is a lack of tension. Perhaps it’s diluted due to the documentary’s demographic but it’s certainly short of the drama in their fictitious films. Having some disequilibrium is required and welcomed, though better execution of such scenes could have improved the momentum.

Overall, it runs for the correct amount of time, especially with regard to the kids’ attention-span. For the adults it impresses with some often astounding cinematography (centred on the landscape and wildlife rather than the chimps) and the odd funny quip from narrator Tim Allen. It’s a loving portrait of an innocent animal and a relatively-new side to Disney that leaves their next venture, Bears, something to look forward to.


By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Flickering Myth

Sundance London 2013: In A World... Review

Director/Writer: Lake Bell

Starring: Lake Bell, Fred Melamed, Demetri Martin, Michaela Watkins, Ken Marino, Rob Corddry, Alexandra Holden, Nick Offerman

Synopsis: Since the death of industry legend Don LaFontaine the position of the new voice-over star is open. Daughter to a highly-regarded trailer narrator, Carol (Bell) wants to follow in the footsteps of the greats by competing for a highly-coveted voice-over job on a new and popular film trailer. 

Less known over here in the UK, many British audiences will still appreciate the basis of In A World... – the infamous voice-of-God that plays over various movie trailers. “In A World...” was the catchphrase of Don LaFontaine (watch this Youtube video for a brief, and hilarious, overview of Don’s career) and has defined that side of the movie industry. Lake Bell’s film follows a group of announcers trying to fill the man’s shoes by competing for a trailer job of Hunger Games box-office proportions.

The underdog story – in which Bell’s Carol plays the underdog – is a clichéd and formulaic narrative. In this regard, you can easily foresee the ending of In A World... leaving it less original than it thinks it is. Bell’s writing is sharp at points yet never of the standard required for cult or commercial success. The concept is an amusing alternate view of Hollywood, but still bogged down by stock characters and plot.

Bell as the writer, director and lead has not let the pivotal positions go to her head and, if anything, her part seems to be least memorable. The side story of her sister and brother in-law, played by Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry, respectively, develops the story better than most arcs (Corddry never better and mightily pushing the film forward). It’s then the job of Fred Melamed and Demetri Martin to provide the majority of laughs.

Bell does pen herself some great zingers though it’s usually at the expense of others (Valley Girls, for example) rather than an isolated achievement. She’s cute and clever – a great feminist figure in the film and out – surely to garner greater attention after this. However, there’s nothing that special about her writing or screen-presence (as harsh at that seems). The best thing to take from In A Wolrd... is the ability to compare it to her progression in the film industry and her future auteur efforts.

A moderately entertaining directorial debut with solid editing and casting. Some may find the fresh perspective on jobs within the film industry rousing and funny, but there are far better examples of it.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

Sundance London 2013: Touchy Feely Review

Director/Writer: Lynn Shelton

Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page, Josh Pais, Scoot McNairy, Alison Janney, Ron Livingston

Synopsis: When a massage therapist suddenly finds herself repulsed by human skin, she finds her romantic relationship and work-life in ruins. Meanwhile, her brother, a dentist, undergoes a life-altering bout of success in his practice. Crossing back and forth between the stories, Touchy Feely explores the subjects of interaction and progression.

Lynn Shelton’s canny ability to write and visualise awkward human interaction has given her a string of critical successes. Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister were excellent character-pieces, lovingly crafted with humour and heart; it then becomes a disappointment to find her latest, Touchy Feely, plain dull.

Scratch beneath the surface of Touchy Feely and there is a rich set of themes (humanity’s obsession with contact, desire and repulsion, and the idea of spirituality or intuition). Sadly, these are ideas too profound to explore in an 80 minute comedy/drama and Shelton’s attempt to investigate drains the film of life.

It’s a film packed with too many characters, motifs and story arcs – having a damning effect on the wonderful cast. All graciously at ease with their minor characters, it appears none of the fine character actors employed for the film saw an issue with screen-time. Contemporary favourites such as Alison Janney, Ron Livingston and Scoot McNairy have all-too brief moments (especially Livingston) but fail to make an impression. If you see any of the other cast in different films, you (usually) walk away adamant to seek out more of their work. McNairy is fast becoming a star (or at least should be) but it’s doubtful that this film will have cinemagoers intent on finding out his filmography, as he’s barely written in efficiently.

In the lead as Abby, Rosemarie DeWitt is allowed a decent amount of screen-time, as well as her on-screen brother played by Josh Pais. As DeWitt has continually found herself part of smart, funny indie films you look toward the lesser-known Pais. He plays the nervous, withdrawn type well enough to get him typecast, with perhaps the only laugh out loud moment where he attempts to relax for the first time. It’s his arc that happens to have the better material, leaving the likes of Ellen Page (as his daughter) and newcomer Tomo Nakayama (“cured” by Pais’ dentist and encouraging a wealth of new clients for the practice) in the shadow of the only appealing plotline.

An ensemble of some of the best actors around given little to do with material that feels so very flat after Shelton’s last two films. Call it a lack of artistic vigour but one should hope that this isn’t the beginning of a downward spiral for the writer/director.
By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

Sundance London 2013: The Summit Review

Director: Nick Ryan

Writer: Mark Monroe

Synopsis: During a climb to the summit of K2 in August 2008 11 out of the 24 climbers tragically died. The Summit looks at the expedition of 2008 and also compares it with the 1954 attempt made by Walter Bonatti and others.

It’s a struggle to criticise the editing of The Summit after it was awarded the Documentary Prize for Editing at Sundance (US). Nevertheless, even with this accolade it should not rule out a judgmental analysis of its structure. The Summit is incredibly engaging, with reconstructions of the event so realistic you wonder how they were accomplished. But, even with its edge-of-your-seat story-telling, there still remains the jarring arrangement of the tale(s).

Following most of the 24 climbers’ stories is a tricky task to pull off yet director Nick Ryan manages it well. It makes for a much more absorbing film to watch – having recollection upon recollection to grab your attention. Despite all this, though, the chronology of the film is a mess. We begin by reading about the deaths of the 11, onward to the interviews and reconstructions. In between scenes is a chronicle of Walter Bonatti’s successful expedition in the ‘50s. Bonatti’s scenes are placed so oddly within the narrative that his account is often confusing (with names and dates being lost in the viewer’s mind once it’s cut away from). The film then recaps information already processed (such as Ger McDonnell’s story told twice over) and rewinds itself to show another perspective that barely differs from the main outline.

Past the dodgy formation of scenes is a thought-provoking film questioning so many elements of humanity. At the heart of this exploration is the topic of ethics. Up on the mountain you have to look out for yourself lest you expire; so many of the stories show the struggle and aftermath of these decisions. Partners, lovers and friends in amongst the climbing crew see or suffer loss – each interviewee trying to articulate these consequences of climbing. Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, one of the survivors, adds the most to the documentary – one who’s enduring experience on K2 has given him an elucidate attitude on the perils of it all.

Certainly a documentary to provide shock and drama (and similar to the terrific Touching the Void) but poorly constructed. Certain shots – emphasising the beauty and reason of climbing – warrant its cinematic enterprise though it’s nothing you need to rush out to catch at the cinema.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms