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

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LA 92


Where were you in ’92?

(2017) Documentary (National Geographic) Rodney King, Daryl Gates, Tom Bradley, Maxine Waters, Henry Alfaro, Stacey Koon, Bernard Kamins, Theodore Briseno, Danny Bakewell, Charles Duke, David Kim, Laurence Powell, Darryl Mounger, Eric “Rico” Reed, Terry White, Stanley Weisberg, Bryan Jenkins, John Barnett, John R. Hatcher III, Cecil L. Murray, Rita Wallace. Directed by Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. There have been a number of documentaries that have been made to commemorate the event, including Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn and Let It Fall but for my money this is the best of the lot.

Filmmakers Lindsay and Martin take the bold step of utilizing no talking head interviews; the movie is made up entirely of archival footage and contemporaneous interviews that aired on the TV news and news magazine programs of the day. That’s a bit of a double edged sword in that while there is no “Monday morning quarterbacking” there is also no real analysis of the events; we are left to come to our own conclusions.

One of the best things about the documentary is that it show that the violence that erupted in April following the not guilty verdict for the cops that beat Rodney King didn’t occur in a vacuum. The filmmakers take great care in beginning with the events of the 1965 Watts riots that left 34 people dead (mostly African-Americans) and show the various incidents that led to a powderkeg growing in South Central Los Angeles.

In the era of Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles Police Department had become the enemy in the African-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Police brutality was not uncommon in the arrests of African-American suspects and to say that the police had an adversarial relationship with the black community is something of an understatement.

The powderkeg became primed when video surfaced of a brutal beat down of Rodney King, who led the police on a high-speed chase. King, an ex-convict out on probation, was driving while intoxicated and knew he would be sent back to prison if he was arrested. When he was ordered to get down on the ground, officers thought he was reaching for a weapon. A taser was used on King and then the horrifying beating in which cops used nightsticks as well as vicious kicks to hospitalize King.

It would have not gone beyond that except that a local resident named George Holliday, witnessing the incident used his brand new camcorder to capture the beating. When the cops showed little interest in the tape, he sent it to the news media. The resulting controversy caught the nation by storm and put the LAPD under a microscope. Although by that time I was living in Northern California, I grew up in Los Angeles and remember being ashamed to be an Angelino when this was going on.

Criminal charges were brought against the officers involved and the trial was moved to the mostly white suburb of Simi Valley. When the not guilty verdict was brought in, African-Americans were justifiably outraged, particularly since Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du had gotten off without serving jail time after shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head over a misunderstanding involving orange juice that he accused her of trying to shoplift.

The riot footage is brutal and disturbing. People are pulled out of their cars and beaten within an inch of their lives because of the color of their skin. Shops are torched and looted. The outpouring of fury was exacerbated by a stunning lack of leadership in the LAPD which led to police being withdrawn from the area which was left on its own to burn.

The riots took place before the ubiquitous use of smart phones to document everything, so mostly the footage comes from news sources although there is some home video footage that is shot, including the King beating which was one of the first examples of citizens using home video equipment to capture breaking news.

As a document of the riots and what led up to them, the documentary is superb. It presents the footage unemotionally and gives us some context that we didn’t have when the riots were going on. Yes, we don’t get a thoughtful analysis of how it changed the lives of those involved or how society in general was affected by them – other documentaries do a better job of that – for coverage of the riot itself and the immediate events that led to it the film is second to none.

The LA riots have continued to resonate over the years, leading directly to the Black Lives Matter movement which seems to indicate that there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress in the past quarter century, although ironically there has been in Los Angeles where the LAPD has become one of the most tolerant and most progressive police forces in the country. Still, it is disheartening that we continue to have the problems we do with racial relationships even given the events of the past 25 years.

This is a sobering documentary in which the old adage “two wrongs don’t make a right” is very much at issue. It shows what can happen when people feel pushed into a place where there is no other way out. It is also a warning that the powderkeg in South Central is also present everywhere and not just in African-American neighborhoods. Given the right circumstances, the kind of violence and horror that unfolded in April 1992 in South Central Los Angeles can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers give the riots a great deal of context. Some of the archival footage is absolutely amazing. Some unsung heroes are brought to the forefront
REASONS TO STAY: This is definitely not for the faint of heart.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of violence and disturbing images as well as profanity including racial epithets,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for a 2017 Emmy for prime time documentary merit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: OJ: Made in America
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: City of Ghosts

Living in the Age of Airplanes


A DC-3 brings personnel and supplies to an Antarctic research station.

A DC-3 brings personnel and supplies to an Antarctic research station.

(2015) Documentary (National Geographic) Harrison Ford (narration). Directed by Brian J. Terwilliger

 

We take travel for granted. We step on an airplane and in less than a day we are anywhere else in the world. It was not that much more than a century ago that was not the case at all. Long distance travel was done by ships, or by trains. And it was not that many generations before that that the fastest travel was only as fast as the horse you rode on.

The fact is that for the first 200,000 years of human existence, the only way we got anywhere was by walking. Most human beings never ventured more than 20 miles from where they were born. We had a clearer map of the stars than we did of our own planet. What lay beyond the horizon of our sight might as well have been on the moon; in fact, we could see the moon much more clearly than what was just over the hill.

This National Geographic documentary celebrates the airplane – and I mean celebrates it. Narrated by actor and aviator Harrison Ford, this National Geographic documentary looks at how the airplane has changed the world and is divided into five different sections; the first examines the beginnings of flight and places it in a timeline of human history. Quite frankly, if you look at where the plane lies on that line, it’s barely distinguishable from its end which represents the present.

From there we look at airports as a portal to the globe; step through a gate, sit down and when you rise and emerge through the other gate, you’re in a faraway place; maybe halfway around the globe. Ford also intones that the airplane is the closest thing we have to a time machine in that it can transport us to sites where ancient civilizations once flourished, or to monuments of modern civilizations. It’s a claim that’s a bit histrionic and overly dramatic, but I can see the point.

We also see how much of the things we buy and place in our homes were transported there at least partially by air. We follow a rose plucked in Kenya with 14 days of life left to it; from Kenya it is flown to Amsterdam where it is then shipped via FedEx to Memphis and from Memphis to Anchorage to where it ends up in the dining room of an Alaskan home. We are then shown all the other items in the room that made it to that home through the air.

Finally we see the final stage. “Of all the places airplanes can take us,” muses Ford, “the most meaningful is home.” We see then the airport as a place where reunions take place. Anyone who has taken a trip where they have been separated from their families for any length of time, or visits a loved one they haven’t seen in way too long will appreciate this segment.

The music and images here are well thought out, and make for a fairly thrilling experience. There is an IMAX version of this 42 minute film and I wish I’d seen it in that format; it would have been remarkable. It’s still impressive even in the 2D presentation that you are likely to have at home.

We don’t see the down side of air travel here; the delays, the cramped seating, the expensive food and drink options, the inconveniences and the security checkpoint hassles. However, as Louis CK once said in a comedy routine, we bitch about being delayed half an hour for a trip from New York to Los Angeles that lasts about six to eight hours; a trip that once took fourteen months that the entire party taking it wouldn’t survive. We do have it a lot easier in that regard.

There’s no doubt that airplanes have opened up the world to the average person and made it possible for goods and services – and tourists – to travel the globe. It’s pretty astonishing if you take the time to think about it. While this particular documentary is a bit overly glossy in the style of an industry convention presentation or more to the point, a film in a pavilion at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT, it does remind us that air travel is something that we shouldn’t take for granted. The world would indeed be a very different place without it.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the visuals are amazing. The James Horner score reminds us what a talent he was. The flower segment is absolutely fascinating.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels a little bit like a film at an EPCOT pavilion. The subjects don’t flow and there is little connection from one section to the next.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s nothing here that’s not suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Horner, who scored the film, ironically died in an airplane crash shortly after its release.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A plethora of featurettes, deleted scenes and some content from some of the film’s partners including FedEx.
SITES TO SEE: iTunes
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Koyaanisqatsi
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness begins!