Instinct


Instinct

Cuba Gooding Jr. marvels at Anthony Hopkins hair growth after a wild weekend.

(1999) Thriller (Touchstone) Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney, George Dzundza, John Ashton, John Aylward, Thomas Q. Morris, Doug Spinuzza, Paul Bates, Kim Ingram, Paul Collins, Louanne Stephens. Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 

What makes a human being? What separates us from the animals? And are we necessarily better off that way? Tough questions, any one of which would make a pretty fascinating movie. Instinct tries to tackle all three and winds up satisfactorily addressing none. However, it does make for a fine character study.

 Dr. Ethan Powell (Hopkins), a noted anthropologist, disappears while observing gorillas on a scientific expedition to Africa. When he resurfaces two years later, he is feral, homicidal, unwilling to speak and seemingly psychotic. No amount of therapy seems to be able to help, but Dr. Theo Caldwell (Gooding), a self-possessed and career-oriented psychologist with bigger ambitions, lobbies to assess Dr. Powell’s mental status and wins the job.

At first, the relationship is adversarial, but with the help of Dr. Powell’s photographer daughter Lynn (Tierney), Dr. Caldwell begins to make progress, getting the heretofore silent anthropologist speaking and finally the two begin to teach each other about life, humanity and everything else important, as we find out what really happened in Africa. Meanwhile, the brutal conditions in the prison Dr. Powell is residing in threaten that progress completely.

The cast here is uniformly fine, with Hopkins – perhaps the best pure actor in Hollywood today – giving a positively eerie performance. Gooding is likable enough, able to project the vulnerability beneath the self-confident veneer of the ambitious psychologist. Also worthy of note are Donald Sutherland as a mentor figure for Dr. Caldwell, John  Aylward as a bureaucratic warden and John Ashton as a sadistic guard.

The problem with Instinct is that for all its good intentions, it really doesn’t explore the underlying questions with anything resembling depth. Dr. Caldwell’s personal transformation is the focus here, but it seems a bit too pat. Powell’s own change of heart is a bit too abrupt and is never really explained much. It’s along the lines of “You need to see your daughter.” “I don’t want to.” “Why not?” “OK, OK, stop hassling me, you win, I’ll see her.” You get the drift. It’s like arriving at the destination without taking the journey – it may be more efficient, but then you miss the framework. Even the Mona Lisa needs a frame.

Instinct is all about veneer and the true person that dwells beneath. Civilization, according to the filmmakers, is a corrupt expression of our own vanity and greed, and should be excised. It ennobles the animal kingdom to almost preposterous dimensions. The truth about critters, folks, is that they live in the here and now, and have no other frame of reference beyond that. No right and wrong. The gorillas that Dr. Powell studies so rapturously would not hesitate in real life to tear the throat out of any crybaby scholar who violated their territory as thoroughly as he does.

Is the forest safer than an American city, as Dr. Powell suggests? Perhaps it is. But I guarantee you that the jungle has its own dangers that will take your life just as ruthlessly. Instinct posits that humans more in touch with their animal side are better for that connection may play well at PETA benefits, but shows absolutely no insight or understanding of animals…or humans.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Gooding and Hopkins. Interesting subject matter.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Takes shortcuts. Lacks understanding.

FAMILY MATTERS: Hopkins’ Dr. Powell exhibits intensely violent behavior and the subject matter might be a little much for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dr. Powell was originally offered to Sean Connery who declined it.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34.1M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Congo

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Skin

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It’s a Wonderful Life


It's a Wonderful Life
George Bailey once caught a fish that was THISSSS big!!

(1946) Holiday Fantasy (RKO Radio) Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Tom Karns. Directed by Frank Capra

There are a lot of movies that are designated as classics, and they get that kind of acclaim for a variety of reasons. Some transcend time and place, bring into focus our basic humanity and reaffirm the basic goodness that is inside all of us, even though we sometimes seem more like the greedy banker than the noble George Bailey.

The aforementioned George Bailey (Stewart) wants nothing more than to see the world, but events conspire against him. His father’s building and loan in the picturesque town of Bedford Falls is the only alternative for people to build homes as opposed to live in the squalid shacks built by the town’s greedy, grasping Mr. Potter (Barrymore), one of  filmdom’s all time nastiest villains. Time after time, just when it seems that George is going to get his dream, something happens to frustrate him.

Most of us know the basics of the story. When George hits rock bottom, his business short by several thousand dollars on Christmas Eve just when the auditor arrives and it seems as if he is going to go to jail and his family rocked by scandal, he wishes he had never been born. His somewhat bedraggled guardian angel Clarence (Travers) grants him his wish and he gets to see what the world would be like without him.

The message is that a single person can make a huge difference on the lives of those around them is perhaps not an unusual one but few films have ever delivered it as effectively as this one. A perennial Christmas favorite, the redemption of George Bailey is recognized as the redemption of us all. Like George Bailey, we often don’t recognize what we have right in front of us.

This may very well be Jimmy Stewart’s most defining role. He made a career of playing an unassuming everyman, none more basically good than George Bailey. He’s a good man doing the best he can in trying circumstances; we can all see a little bit of ourselves in George, and in his devoted wife Mary (Reed). The love between them is genuine and uplifting, and much more passionate than movies of the time were generally.

Barrymore, one of the great actors of his generation, plays mean Mr. Potter note-perfectly as a man obsessed with power and possession and in doing so creates one of the most memorable movie villains ever. George Bailey compares him to a spider and so he is, sitting in his web, spinning his plans with a worldview that is cynical, believing the people are basically corrupt and unworthy. It is the difference between Bailey and Potter that represents the two opposing views of the nature of man. We like to believe that we are more like George Bailey, even though oftentimes we act more like Mr. Potter – in our own self-interest with little regard for the world behind us. I do believe he would have found our world very much to his liking.

And yet we still believe in George Bailey. Seeing this movie always brings to mind that we are, at heart, yearning to be George Bailey, wishing that the world worked the way it does here where the good are surrounded by friends who rush to the rescue in our darkest hour. It’s a world where angels get wings whenever a bell rings, where decrepit houses can become homes and where daddies can fix broken flowers with a little bit of glue and a lot of love. It’s a world where prayers are answered and guardian angels walk among us. It is a better world. It is our world, or at least it could be.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a heartwarming classic that uplifts the spirit no matter how depressed you may be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You have the soul of Mr. Potter.

FAMILY VALUES: This is a family classic that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The American Film Institute has named this movie the #1 most inspirational film of all time, the #1 most powerful film of all time, the #3 Fantasy film of all time and the #20 film overall.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The 2-disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions include a making of documentary hosted by the late Tom Bosley and Frank Capra Jr. hosts a featurette entitled “A Personal Remembrance.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Formosa Betrayed