Theory of Everything, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ph.D. student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is given news that he has two years to live. After a thorough examination, doctors conclude that he has a motor neuron disease which will inevitably result to gradual muscle decay, wasting away, and his ability to control voluntary movement will be lost entirely. We all know that Dr. Hawking will surpass the given life expectancy and so one of the challenges of the film, adapted to the screen by Anthony McCarten from Jane Hawking’s memoir, is to construct an arc that feels complete, from the moment Hawking received the terrible news until the publication of his book, “A Brief History of Time.”
Throughout the course of the picture, I admired Redmayne’s very human performance. He is able to turn a renowned astrophysicist into just another person afflicted by a disease that has no cure and yet provide colorful, complex layers, especially during the final third in which the subject is no longer able to speak. I imagined how difficult it must have been to play the character convincingly because every limb and facial expression must be on point—even if the camera is capturing images only from the chest up.
To be consistent in his portrayal take after take must have required a lot of effort, research, and determination. The way he is able to contort his face and fingers appears highly uncomfortable but nonetheless convincing. To top it off, not once does Redmayne forget to communicate with his eyes. They are always strong and alive even when the character’s body is weak and frail.
I was surprised and disappointed that the picture is not really about the science behind Hawking’s theories. There are some science, simplistic enough to be understood by laymen but still interesting enough for those who would like to know more. The movie is more about the relationship between Stephen and Jane (Felicity Jones) and the love they shared. Although their partnership comes across as too glossy at times, there are enough moments of honesty that are painful, like Jane having to push herself to be with Stephen in their later years even if it no longer felt right. The push-and-pull between Jane wanting to stay and leave is great drama because it is essentially a question of doing the right thing. But for whom?
Although the score is a bit overbearing at times, the picture is beautifully photographed. The first half is bathed in a bright yellow glow, signifying optimism, youth, a surplus of energy and inspiration to tackle what the world has to offer head-on. The second half, on the other hand, is considerably less saturated, as if to reflect the subject’s physical decay. The characters move a little slower, their faces more saggy, a bit grey. A certain level of acceptance is in the air.
“The Theory of Everything” is able to hone in on what is important to Stephen and Jane, together and respectively, and that is why it works. I felt a bit of dread when I began to realize that the romance would comprise about half of the running time. Instead, it surprised me because I grew to invest in Jane and Stephen as a couple, that romance is not just reflected in maintaining a marriage but in the compatibility of souls.
Project Nim (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
In 1973, a baby chimpanzee was taken from its mother to be raised by Stephanie LaFarge, wife of a rich hippie poet, in the upper West Side in New York City. The experiment was led by Dr. Hebert Terrace, professor of psychology in Columbia University, in which he hoped to discover whether or not a chimpanzee, given that it is raised like a human child in every way possible, could learn sign language not only by means of communication but also constructing sentences and following set grammatical rules.
Directed by James Marsh, “Project Nim” is a fascinating look at the successes, failures, and difficulties of working with an animal to further knowledge. Although I knew that the chimpanzee, amusingly named Nim Chimpsky, was able to learn hundreds of words using sign language, I did not know much about him and the scientists involved outside of psychology and linguistics textbooks.
That is why I appreciated the interviews from the researchers who had first-hand experience with the primate. The camera is able to capture the energy and glimmer behind their eyes as they reminisced about how wonderful it was to work and communicate with something so close to our species yet so alien at the same time. I liked that the movie does not simply throw out tiny, seemingly superfluous details like how holding a baby chimpanzee feels like compared to how it is like to hold a human baby. Given that my only experience with a chimp is only as far as me hastily giving it a banana, I could not help wonder how it must be like to physically interact with it.
The documentary goes beyond words. There are nicely assimilated archival footages during and between interviews. It seems like the more time we observe Nim, the chimp begins to share more similarities with a very hyperactive child who wants to touch and get inside everything even if it is something as nondescript as a cardboard box. I wondered if Nim, like a child likely would, imagined that the box was like fortress. Was he able to feign emotions like fear during pretend play?
By showing us video clips without dialogue, the picture gives us a chance to ponder about many possibilities. I can imagine a young aspiring scientist watching this film and being inspired to take the experiment a bit further given that we have technology now that was not yet available in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
However, Nim’s interactions with humans are not always positive. Despite its child-like behavior, the picture makes the point that Nim, despite being raised as a human, was still a wild animal with specific needs. The scientists recalled the negative side of working with Nim and some of the details are quite scary. For example, some of them were actually hit on the head on purpose (one woman’s head was bashed on the pavement) because Nim was in a state rage and others were bitten to the point where several of them had to go to the hospital for emergency surgery. As Nim grew up, there were many more complications that the scientists were not prepared for or did not expect to deal with.
“Project Nim” runs a bit too long mostly in the latter quarter but the subject remains consistently interesting. If I happen to see a chimpanzee the next time I visit a zoo, I will think twice about those eyes looking back at me.
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
The West Yorkshire police hired Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) to help out with the Yorkshire Ripper investigation. Initially, the police were cooperative with Peter, giving him everything he wanted like unlimited access to files relevant to the case and even bringing in people he trusted such as John Nolan (Tony Pitts) and Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), the latter with whom Peter had an affair with. I enjoyed this film more than “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974” because it actually focused on the investigation of the Ripper. As a procedural, I thought it worked because we had a chance to observe the protagonist interviewing potentially important individuals that might lead to the identity of the killer. The pacing was slow and the tone was darkly morose but there were enough rewards dispersed throughout to keep me guessing. But as Peter got deeper into the investigation, it seemed as though the West Yorkshire police force slowly but actively hindered the progress of Peter’s assignment. It was interesting that main character had to battle corrupt men in position of power but at the same time having to face a faceless killer in which the only lead he had were some handwriting and a voice. We even had a chance to learn about Peter’s home life involving the wife (Lesley Sharp) being unaware of her husband’s infidelity and their struggle to bring a child to the world. It was easy to want to root for Peter to succeed, despite his indiscretions in his romantic life, because he genuinely and eagerly wanted to bring justice for the women who were murdered. More importantly, he was not willing to be corrupted. But I had important question about the victims. In the first film, children were the victims but, in this installment, it was more about women. In fact, no one mentioned anything about the child murders, so I found that a bit odd and somewhat confusing. Perhaps the inconsistency was done on purpose and the third movie would help to explain everything. Based on the novel by David Peace and directed by James Marsh, “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980” was a strong follow-up to an interesting case about monsters in various positions of power. It posed several interesting questions, one of which was who we should fear more: the blood-thirsty killer or the people who we were supposed to trust to protect us? The killer may have killed a dozen or so but how many have the cops murdered in cold blood to prevent the truth from being exposed?
Man on Wire (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This is a beautifully crafted documentary–full of thrills and the use of reenactments are amusing–but I think it’s been getting way too much praise. Yes, it’s important to recognize Philippe Petit’s amazing feat in 1974 but I couldn’t help but get tired of the film’s slow and saggy middle portion. I love the beginning because the soundtrack is rousing and it instantly grabbed my interest. It was like being dropped in a first-rate heist movie. I love the ending because it deals with issues like friendship, what it means to accomplish one’s dreams, and the fact that it didn’t result to discussing the 9/11 attacks. (Although it’s related because of the landmark being featured, it would’ve been unfocused because the core of the film is Petit’s infamous wirewalk between the Twin Towers.) I had my reservations prior to watching this documentary because I thought it would just be about wirewalking from one tower to another. As it turns out, it’s so much more than that. It’s about careful planning with friends and strangers who want to see a person reach his goals, transgressing the law to achieve one’s dreams, and to make art that no one can ever take away. Still, I would’ve loved to see more actual footages of the wirewalk, not to mention what Petit’s life is like before and after the event. Since I didn’t fully know his background, Petit seemed selfish to me especially toward the end when someone came up to him and said she’s willing to go with him “wherever his destination” may be. Granted, this is a documentary and no one is perfect but it would’ve been nice if I knew something else about Petit that is not about the wirewalking. I feel that James Marsh, the director, could’ve taken the film’s title to another level instead of just making it so literal. I wouldn’t say this is one of the best documentaries of 2008 but it is one of the most fascinating.