Chimpanzee (2012) PICK
Double Indemnity (1944) PICK
Harvey (1950) PASS
From the makers of Planet Earth, DisneyNature’s Chimpanzee is another visual triumph of family-friendly nature-documentary filmmaking, with an extraordinary, heartwarming twist in the lives of a chimpanzee community.
It’s a pity that, like other recent big-screen nature flicks, the material has been dumbed down for family audiences. Disney execs require heroes and villains, and the filmmakers dutifully comply, with Tim Allen providing comical narration for a contrived tale of nice chimps and nasty ones.
But there’s nothing contrived about the extraordinary story of a young chimp the filmmakers call Oscar, whose story takes a tragic turn, followed by a gratifying twist revealing an unexpected side of chimpanzee behavior. Remarkably, this development celebrates both strength and tenderness in a father-figure archetype, an ongoing rarity in family entertainment.
For grown-ups, the best bet in the latest crop of home-video releases is Universal’s Blu-ray release of Billy Wilder’s influential film noir Double Indemnity, with boldly cast-against-type Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck as a pair of adulterous lovers who conspire to murder Stanwyck’s husband and collect on his life insurance and Edward G. Robinson (best remembered for playing gangsters) as a likable, sleuthing claims adjuster.
What makes Double Indemnity morally more interesting than many another noir is that, without sacrificing suspense and drama, Wilder manages to allow the protagonists to be as unsympathetic as their crimes warrant. The film’s chiaroscuro black-and-white cinematography (with Venetian blind lighting, evocative of prison bars) and voice-over became clichés of the genre, but the mood they establish here remains indelible.
Also among Universal’s latest Blu-ray releases, the Jimmy Stewart film Harvey is a much-beloved classic that I am largely alone in not liking. Stewart plays an amiable drunk named Elwood P. Dowd whose best friend is an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit (actually a "pooka," a sort of Celtic fairy or goblin) and whose interfering sister (Josephine Hull) tries to have him committed.
The movie’s outlook seems to be that harmless eccentrics are better off than the rest of us, if not better, period. "In this world," Elwood says, quoting his mother, "you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. … Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant." And another character warns Elwood’s sister if her brother takes a serum to stop him from "seeing the rabbit," he’ll become "just a normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are."
With few exceptions, when a movie doesn’t ask its protagonist to change, it doesn’t work. In my book, Harvey isn’t one of the exceptions.
Bonus pick: Steven Spielberg’s enjoyable action romp Jurassic Park is new on Blu-ray.
Content Advisory: Chimpanzee: Chimp violence and menace; a dramatic scene of chimps hunting a monkey (almost nothing shown); some potentially disturbing developments involving parental separation/death and a youngster in dire straits. Kids and up. Double Indemnity: Much innuendo; adultery theme; elaborate murder plot (nothing shown); lots of smoking. Could be fine for teens and up.