Jane (2017-II)


Jane Goodall in the wild.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama/Nat Geo) Jane Goodall, Hugo von Lawick, Grub von Lawick. Directed by Brett Morgen

 

In the world of natural science, Jane Goodall stands out as a titan in the field of primate study. Her work with chimpanzees has been nothing short of groundbreaking. With no formal training, no university degree, she was sent out into the field by anthropologist Louis B. Leakey to observe chimpanzees in the wild back in 1960.

At the time, little was known about chimpanzee behavior in the wild. Leakey felt that the chimps would give an insight into behavior that might have been exhibited by early man and as it turned out, he was right. The National Geographic Society, who was footing the bill, sent out photographer Hugo von Lawick to document the research on film. He was able to capture footage of chimpanzees using sticks to jab into termite mounds to extract food. This put the scientific community into an uproar because to that point it was assumed that man was the only tool-using creature on the planet; this put that myth to bed. Since then it has been revealed that other animals use tools as well.

Jane wasn’t taken very seriously because she was British, blonde and cute. However, her passion for the animals she studied is deep-seated and obvious. Morgen takes great care to emphasize that the maternal instinct in her was heightened by observing her own mother (who accompanied her into Gombe Stream on her earliest expeditions) and later, by watching the chimpanzee Fiona raise her baby Flint.

Most of the footage we are showed hasn’t been viewed in more than half a century. Goodall narrates, talking about the various incidents onscreen with a memory that is crystal clear. Taken in 16mm film with warm backlighting for the most part, these come off as almost like home movies albeit scientifically important home movies. She makes an excellent narrator and one figures that doing so must have been highly emotional for her, particularly since all of the chimps in that early footage are now dead as is the man who took the footage – von Lawick passed away in 2008. Von Lawick and Goodall developed a romance and married with Goodall giving birth to a son called, incongruously, Grub. When Grub was very young, Goodall put her research on hold while she raised her son, returning back to her love of field work shortly thereafter. Von Lawick’s work with the National Geographic and other organizations would take him further and further away from the Gombe Stream station where Goodall lived; the two eventually divorced but remained close for the rest of his life.

Much of the film revolves around the footage taken by Von Lawick and justifiably so for he was truly an artist behind the camera. Goodall’s more recent work and footage from her camp are almost non-existent and some might criticize this very unbalanced approach and I can understand why they might do so, but really what we do get is simply so riveting and so magical that you don’t really miss anything more recent.

What I could have done without is the Philip Glass score. I have never been a fan of his and quite literally if you’ve heard one Philip Glass score you’ve heard them all. Too many times during the movie I was jerked out of the film because the music was so noticeable and unnecessarily dramatic. The music drowns out the sounds of the jungle which I thought would have been far more effective.

Nonetheless, this is a riveting documentary which presents one of the most inspirational women of the 20th century who continues to be a role model not only for young women but for anyone looking to work with animals in the wild and who cares about conservation and stewardship of the wild. This is also a documentary that is made so well and so beautifully that even despite the intrusive score it will likely be hailed as one of the best documentaries of 2017.

REASONS TO GO: The animal photography is, as to be expected, marvelous. Goodall makes a wonderful narrator. The movie is both informative and inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: The Phillip Glass score is obnoxious and intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes showing animals killing other animals that may be disturbing to sensitive wee ones.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When National Geographic withdrew its grant money from Goodall and von Lawick, the completed films were archived at the society’s headquarters and remained there until being rediscovered in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chimpanzee
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Big Time

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

British rioters make it to San Francisco.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett, Ty Olsson, Madison Bell, Karin Konoval. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Most of us have seen Planet of the Apes in one form or another, from the classic 1968 original to the less classic 2001 remake. But how did it get from humans ruling the planet with apes and chimps mute and unreasoning to them becoming the dominant species on the planet?

Dr. Will Rodman (Franco) works for one of the main players in Big Pharma. He’s working on a viral component to gene therapy that if successful will cure Alzheimer’s Disease. He has a stake in this because his own father (Lithgow) suffers from that dreadful disease.

Steven Jacobs (Oyelowo), the CEO of the firm is more interested in the bucks than the cure. He wants something that will improve the corporate bottom line which a cure for Alzheimer’s will certainly do. Rodman has brought his most promising formula, ALZ-112, to testing on chimps – PETA protesters take note. Everything looks pretty copacetic until the chimp goes on the rampage at the worst possible moment – during a board meeting to decide whether or not to fund further tests on human subjects. The project is then shelved and the chimps are put to sleep.

However, one of the chimps left a little present – a baby. The corporate chimp handler (Labine) can’t bring himself to put another animal down and so Will is left with the prospect of putting up the baby chimp for a few days until another home can be found for him. That’s not the only thing Will takes home with him from work – a few vials of the ALZ-112 also make their way into his pocket and then into Will’s dad.

The serum works on Will’s dad and before long it becomes evident that Caesar (the baby chimp that Will “adopted”) is much smarter than the average chimps. Apparently the ALZ-112 was passed on from mama chimp to baby. Caesar’s accelerated learning curve allows him to become fairly fluent in sign language. All in all it’s a pretty idyllic home life for Will; dad is doing fine, Caesar is a loving addition to the family and Will has found a girlfriend in Caroline (Pinto), a primatologist who helped treat some injuries that Caesar incurred as a young ‘un.

As Caesar (Serkis) grows into young adulthood, he becomes more and more aggressive as chimps are wont to do. An incident with an overbearing neighbor leads to Caesar being taken from his happy home and left in a primate care center run by the diffident John Landon (Cox) and tended to by his sadistic son Dodge (Felton). There the apes – and Caesar – are brutalized by Dodge despite the objections of Rodney (Harris), the other caretaker in the primate center.

To make matters worse Dad is turning for the worse; his own antibodies are wiping out the ALZ-112 in his system which is allowing the disease to return with a vengeance. Will is running out of time; he needs a new delivery system that will overcome our own immune system. In the meantime, Caesar is turning out to be much smarter than anyone – even Will – ever suspected and the brutality and betrayal are going to bring things to a head and the fate of humans as the dominant species on this planet hangs in the balance.

This is a nicely done story that explains how the apes came to be intelligent and able to speak; in that sense the movie is realistic. Where it falls flat, surprisingly, is in the CGI. Not the motion capture performances so much (we’ll get to that in a minute) but some of the movements of the apes looks like they were captured on an old silent-era movie camera; they’re downright choppy.

That’s basically the reason that the movie didn’t get one of the higher scores of the summer from me because everything else about it from the acting to the script is outstanding. Serkis in particular does a magnificent job of capturing Caesar as a character and giving him personality and allowing the audience to sympathize, leaving us in the odd position of rooting for our own extinction.

Franco, recently Oscar nominated, remains one of those actors who doesn’t do things the way other actors do and that makes him memorable in most of his roles. Here he has a character that is essentially second banana (pun intended) to Caesar and is terribly underwritten as an impulsive mad scientist type (see Bruce Banner and Victor von Frankenstein) but has a good heart. I would have wished to see his relationship with Caroline fleshed out a bit more but that’s a minor quibble.

The movie is particularly well-written in the sense that it is logically drawn and while there isn’t much in the way of surprises, it is at least tautly written. It is certainly well-acted with Serkis getting kudos for one of the best motion capture performances ever. Franco and Pinto do fine jobs and Lithgow does his best not to make a caricature of a role that could easily become one. Was this great summer entertainment? You bet. Was it better than I thought it might be? Yes, I’d say that was true. Was it all it could have been?  No, it definitely could have been better but for my money, it’s more than good enough to head on down to the multiplex for.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar. Nice backstory to explain how the Apes took a giant leap forward on the evolutionary ladder.

REASONS TO STAY: The CG movements of the apes didn’t seem natural in a lot of places. The story was rather predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, with some scenes that might be disturbing to more sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dodge Landon is named for the two fellow astronauts of Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes while Maurice is named for Maurice Evans who played Dr. Zaius in the original. Dodge also snarls “Take your stinking paws off of me you damned dirty ape!!” arguably the most iconic line from the original.

HOME OR THEATER: Hmmm. Tough call on this one. I think that the final battle scene on the Golden Gate Bridge might be better on the big screen but much of the rest of it would probably be just as effective at home. You make the choice.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Jack Goes Boating