SFF 2011: Project Nim & Hobo With A Shotgun

As the days begin to blur, my fourth day of the festival brought yet more delights in what is turning out to be one of the most consistently good run of films I have experienced in quite a while. My mediocre festival diet is starting to blur my perception of reality. The wet, wintry streets glisten in a psychedelic haze as I slip and slide along the sidewalk between sessions. Today marked my first 'dickhead with a mobile phone' experience. Surreptitiously flicking your phone on one or twice throughout a screening to get the time is one thing but openly holding it up and texting is totally another. The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas recently made some noise on the interwebs after kicking out a person who was texting during a session (see the ad they made below containing the voicemail message from the angry customer in question). I bit my tongue this time but I hereby give an open warning to all phone users in the future. Keep it in your pocket!
PROJECT NIM is a simply beautiful film. Charming, harrowing and thought-provoking in equal measure, this documentary tells the story of Nim, a chimpanzee that was raised in a human family and taught sign language in the 1970s. James Marsh, who previously made the Oscar winning, Man On Wire, solidifies his position as one of the slickest and sharpest documentary filmmakers working today. While the story Marsh tells is relatively straightforward and chronological, the position he takes on the subject matter is anything but simplistic.
Initially the story of Nim tells the tale of a fascinating experiment. The first act of the film follows Nim's early years as he grows to see himself as a human and learn quite a substantial amount of words in sign language. These sequences are intellectually intriguing as we watch an animal essentially being taught to think of itself as a human being but as Nim grows bigger and bigger we see his keepers struggle with how to keep such a strong animal in line. Inevitably Nim's story takes some harrowing turns and to Marsh's credit, he never loads an overt level of judgement onto the film. While objectivity is an illusion in documentary filmmaking, Marsh is careful not to blatantly judge either the misguided scientists behind the experiment or even exploit the push-button issues surrounding animal testing.
The best compliment I can give PROJECT NIM is that it stimulates rich discussion post-film. To what degree did Nim really understand the words he was communicating? While animal testing may be an important part of the scientific process, what responsibility do we have to the animals being experimented on? How sentient and truly self-aware did Nim ultimately get? Was the whole experiment a mistake or merely badly conceived? Marsh leaves all these questions open for viewer to consider and it is a credit to his presentation that he didn't take the easy route with this story which could very easily have become a manipulative issue piece on the perils of animal testing. This is not the first time this festival I am gonna say this but I cannot recommend PROJECT NIM highly enough. It may be too slick a documentary for elitist cineastes but I have no hesitation in saying this is top-class, modern non-fiction filmmaking.
After some hectic program shifting I ended up with only one more film today and it could not have been more different from what was previously viewed. HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN began its life as a fake trailer that director Jason Eisener made as part of a competition connected to the release of the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse double feature. Eisener won the competition and later on was given the funding to turn it into a feature length film, the second Grindhouse trailer to do so after Machete. HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN had no right to be this good. Its general concept (a hobo gets so mad as hell with the level of crime in his city that he buys a shotgun and brings justice to all those that do wrong) is as one-dimensional as a film can get. I can say with genuine surprise that this film is not only one of the most enjoyable midnight movies I have seen in ages but also a pitch-perfect homage to 80s video nasty, neon drenched VHS films.
Rutger Hauer regains legend status as the titular Hobo who has one goal in life, to buy a lawn-mower. Yes, a lawn-mower. I honestly wasn't prepared for the current of glorious absurd humour that runs through this film. It is packed to the brim with quotable one-liners (verified by my friends and I for an hour after the screening) and jammed with truly surreal violence. Eisener knows his source material perfectly and unlike the other Grindhouse films that seemed to be obsessed with crusty early-70s exploitation films, his target is different. Here we step forward into the early 80s, with technicolour neon visuals, a city in crisis plotline and some killer John Carpenter-esque synth music. We even get a great little montage late in the film that will please horror fans greatly.
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN is easily the best thing to have come out of this Grindhouse re-imagining that has burgeoned over the last few years. It is exceptionally well-paced, somehow avoiding the requisite mid-film lull I was inevitably expecting, never outstaying its welcome and reintroducing the world to the badassery of Rutger Hauer. This won't be to everyone's taste but those that tune into it's ultra-violent, perverted, absurdist vibe will have an obscene amount of fun with this one. Get a group of friends together, sneak some booze into the theatre and get noisy. This is that type of film.