The only agenda in this documentary is to craft a compelling narrative
by Alicia M. Cohn
Chimpanzee is the most simple form of nature documentary: one without any agenda but to craft a compelling narrative.
Following a formula that Disney has branded Disneynature, the family-friendly film company pieced together some awesome footage from West Africa, filmed over the course of four years, and used narration and effects such as slow motion and ultra close-ups to set the tone of a story arc.
The narrative follows Oscar, a baby chimp carefully nurtured by his mother and "homeschooled" by an "extended family" of 35 chimpanzees. There is no gore in the movie (the film is rated G), no signs of the outside world-no science lessons, either-and barely a hint of innocence lost when Oscar becomes an orphan.
Much of the footage in the film is so crisp it could be fake, and at times it is almost too much like a Disney fairytale. The narrative is only partially manufactured-Oscar really was adopted by his group's male leader after his mother's death, according to the filmmakers-but the rivalry between two chimpanzee "gangs" follows a confusing timeline and lacks tension, especially when the narrator concludes at the climax that "teamwork has beaten brute force."
Nature itself can be dangerous, but the film skirts the edges of that type of drama in a clear attempt to avoid scaring the younger members of the audience. Suspenseful music, though, may scare some children.
At less than 90 minutes, the movie still struggles to hold attention. Adults will likely feel impatient after 20 minutes, since watching is like experiencing a sneezing panda video that goes on too long. Tim Allen's friendly narration is an attempt both to turn the apes into distinct characters and to make them relatable, like the pet you pretend can talk back.
There are enough extended montages of Oscar hanging upside down or looking confused to satisfy any chimp lover, but those old enough to understand what is going on will likely be looking for more insight on this jungle world than the film's detailed explanation of group grooming.
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Kirk Cameron's documentary traces the footsteps of the pilgrims
by Megan Basham
Let's be clear about one thing-whatever you may have seen on CNN or ABC or Alan Thicke's Twitter update, there's nothing in Kirk Cameron's documentary, Monumental: In Search of America's National Treasure (rated G), about gay marriage, homosexuality, Rick Santorum, contraception, or the federal health insurance mandate. There's not even anything in it about media manipulation of born-again former heartthrobs (though I imagine there will be in his next documentary). What is in it is a passionate, old-fashioned, and occasionally surprising lesson on the Christian separatists who fled religious persecution in England for hardship and freedom in an unknown land.
Attempting to uncover the earliest principles that made the United States a great nation and asking whether we can use them to address our current cultural and economic woes, Cameron traces the footsteps of the pilgrims from their first rebellious worship meetings to their influence on the Founding Fathers. The picture he presents of a group of people fiercely dedicated to God and to each other will be a revelation to those who grew up learning that the pilgrims were mercenaries, morons, or both.
Throughout Cameron touches on intriguing details-like that the Mayflower was originally a wine cargo ship and the pilgrims once sentenced one of their own to death on the testimony of two Native Americans-that give legs to his depiction of a heroic group of people. When he describes the cold, sickness, and starvation they endured, modern Christians will feel a new resolve not to squander the freedom to worship, evangelize, and shape the culture they gave us.
What Cameron does less well is make the connections between the pilgrims and the problems facing the United States today. Too often, rather than digging deeper and presenting further evidence that our path forward lies in looking behind, he restates what his few experts have already said. This, along with lingering shots of Cameron staring earnestly into the camera acts as visual filler, wasting a lot of time that could have gone to making Monumental as serious and inspiring as the subjects it covers.
Undefeated shows the disaster of fatherlessness and the difference one committed man can make
by Megan Basham
"Feel-good movie of the year" is rarely a label that applies to documentaries. Yet, the Oscar-nominated Undefeated, which follows one season of an impoverished inner-city Memphis high school football team, may turn out to be exactly that.
When lumber salesman by day and volunteer football coach by evening Bill Courtney first assumes responsibility for the Manassas Tigers, the team hasn't won a game in 10 years. The program is so underfunded, its players are participating in a pay-for-play arrangement-they agree to act as tackling dummies at wealthy schools' homecoming games in exchange for some free pizza and a few fat checks. Things begin to change after Courtney takes over. He organizes Manrise, a booster club to raise funds, and convinces some promising eighth-graders to stay in the district. By 2009 the Tigers are in position to achieve something the school hasn't managed in its entire 110-year history-to win a playoff game.
Big, blustery, and often emotional, Courtney gives pep-talks that sound like they came straight out of a Friday Night Lights script ("Young men of character, discipline, and commitment end up winning in life. Football doesn't build character, it reveals it," he reminds his players.) He also prays with the boys and spends so much of his time trying to help them envision greater possibilities for their lives, he worries he's shortchanging his own kids.
An old-school straight-talkin', rough-housin' type, Courtney admits he has to ask for forgiveness on Sunday for all the things he's said on the field Monday through Friday. If there has been a concern in recent years that Christ's church is suffering from a lack of masculinity, then men like Courtney are the antidote. His faith isn't the arm's-length, pew-proper kind, but rather the getting-your-hands-in-the-nets-with-the local-fishermen type. (The PG-13 rating earned by his frequently salty language fondly remind me of my grandfather who, while the best example I've had of faith prompting works, also sometimes slips into sailor-speak.)
Responding in the Daily Beast to critics who contend their movie about a white man coaching black kids avoids issues of race, filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who lived in Memphis and followed their stars closely for almost a year, said, "It wasn't an issue. If we had made it an issue it would have been irresponsible of us." Something Lindsay and Martin do make an issue of, however, is the specter of fatherlessness that hangs over nearly everyone in this film.
In the midst of suffering, Romans 8:28 can feel like an empty bromide. But when Courtney talks about the pain he experienced when his own father abandoned him and how it drives him to reach out to his players, we see how his seemingly bound-up wounds are being used to a glorious purpose. The boys he's coaching need someone who can empathize with the anger and lack of discipline that come from growing up without a father but who doesn't use it as an excuse to set low expectations for them. What makes a man in general, and an honorable man in particular, is a frequent topic of conversation between Courtney and the three young men the film highlights most.
More often than not, Courtney's players rise to the standards he demands of them. As expected, given the chaotic and impoverished background most of them have endured, the ascents aren't always smooth, and they suffer plenty of juvenile setbacks. But with their coach's alternating encouragement and berating, they achieve victory over their destructive impulses.
Whether those victories will continue as their subjects grow into manhood, the filmmakers cannot say. But we are left with the feeling that if enough Bill Courtneys come into their lives, they will.
Those who complain about the negative portrayals of Christians in film should not miss this opportunity to celebrate a first-rate entry in the underdog sports genre that also happens to offer a striking portrait of Christ's love in action.