Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blackfish Takes Us Beneath The Calm Surface of Orca Captivity

  “Blackfish” is a name given to Orcas, popularly known as “killer whales,” by the First People of the Pacific Northwest. They believed these whales to be departed chiefs, and beings possessing great spiritual power. Today, “Blackfish” is the title of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s eye-opening documentary about the life and controversy surrounding Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld’s Orlando park. As a cetacean advocate, I was genuinely elated to hear that Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Unlike so many other feature documentaries, this film also succeeded in securing impressive domestic and international distribution deals, meaning this remarkable, even important documentary will most likely be coming to a theater near you.
 Blackfish opens with the recording of a 9-1-1 call, made on February 24th, 2010, after Tilikum attacked and killed Dawn Brancheau, his trainer. From the springboard of this terrifying, tragic event, we are taken behind the scenes of not only the tight-knit marine mammal trainer community, but into the harsh realities of cetacean capture and the captivity industry. 
 Tilikum was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, when he was approximately three years old. From the moment he was abducted, Tilikum (“Tilly”) experienced immeasurable trauma and hardship. He was first sent to SeaLand Of The Pacific, a shoddy, now-defunct dockside marine park in Victoria, British Columbia. He was subjected to bullying and injury by the female orcas with whom he was kept. Every night, the orcas were lured into a tiny, dark enclosure called “the module.” Every morning, Tilly would come out with new rake marks (teeth marks from the other whales). One day, his trainer, Keltie Byrne, slipped, and her foot entered the water. According to witnesses, it was Tilikum who grabbed her foot and pulled her into the tank. The female orcas joined him in “playing” with, and eventually killing, Keltie.
 After Byrne’s death, SeaWorld purchased Tilikum for their recently-launched captive breeding program, and he was sent to to Orlando to become a breeding bull.  This marked the second time Tilly was ripped from his surroundings and thrown into an artificial, corporate-organized pod, where orcas from different places, languages and even cultures were forced together. 
 Cetaceans are second only to humans in terms of cognitive capacity. Their anatomical brain features denote a profound intelligence, second only to humans. These self-aware, highly social beings have languages and names for each other; create art; use tools and display cultural diversity. For most captive animals, every attempt is made to replicate their natural habitat. Not so in the case of cetaceans, who are primarily acoustic beings and navigate their world by use of sonar. In concrete tanks, reflected sonar signals are disorienting -- the human equivalent of a funhouse mirror maze. Wild cetaceans may travel 100 miles per day or more. Confining a dolphin or whale in a tank such as those at SeaWorld is the spatial equivalent of locking a human into a bathtub-sized cage for life. In light of the above, it becomes readily clear how these animals become psychologically disturbed, and ultimately feature signs of psychosis. Tilikum killed twice more; the last victim being SeaWorld Orlando’s much loved and respected senior trainer, Dawn Brancheau.
 Naturally, SeaWorld -- the largest and most powerful corporation in the multi-billion dollar captive cetacean industry -- declined to participate or contribute in any way to Blackfish. Company statements are conspicuous by their absence throughout. Surprisingly, however, SeaWorld recently issued a statement directed at film critics, attempting to point out errors in this film’s content. This is fair, I suppose, but I felt condescended to by SeaWorld, who seemed to take the attitude that they had the right to tell me how to feel about this film and how to review it. Also, with a little research, I found it easy to debunk much of the rebuttal statement’s rebukes. For example, in their rebuttal, SeaWorld states that whales: “…express dominance in a variety of ways, including using their teeth to “rake” other whales, in the open ocean as well as in parks.” While superficially accurate, this claim ignores the fact, in the wild, whales can – and do – avoid confrontation, and/or escape in any direction. Further, orca tribes typically don’t mix and families are stable. 
 It’s difficult as a reviewer to judge a project with any real objectivity when its subject matter is so close to one’s own heart. If this film has a weakness, it is that  Cowperthwaite was required to lean heavily on talking head interviews due to limited free-use captive orca footage. Any documentary must achieve a comfortable balance between interviews and engaging cinematic b-roll imagery. Given the engrossing nature of this piece, however, this imbalance is easily overlooked. 
 I was impressed that Cowperthwaite spurned sensationalism and declined to use graphic footage of Tilikum’s assault on Miss Brancheau. In doing so, she honored both a personal ethos and the Brancheau family’s wishes, thereby respecting her memory and preserving her dignity. 
 Blackfish is one of those rare cinematic triumphs: a documentary focusing on a fairly obscure subject that will be seen by a large audience, and significantly impact the issue it addresses. Previous documentaries like Zeitgeist, Bowling for Columbine, or even I Want your Money, dealt with issues we must all confront every day -- modern life, guns and taxes. But Blackfish brings to light the little-known, ongoing international tragedy of cetacean captivity. Please make the effort to find this film and give it your full attention. The film, and the cause, deserve it!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Way, Way Back – The Agony and the Glory of Being 14

            We all have that one summer that we smile about, cringe over, and wish we could re-experience -- even if only for an afternoon. Usually, it’s a summer between our 12th and 16th birthdays; when we no longer feel we’re children, but the adult world isn’t a comfortable fit either. A desperately awkward period when we are searching for our adult “voice” while enduring the fear that, in our sink or swim futures, confidence might fail us and we drown in self-doubt. In The Way, Way Back, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash -- the same writing team that collaborated on 2011’s The Descendants -- take us into the world of 14 year-old Duncan (Liam James) and his awkward, break-through summer.
            Faxon & Rash’s film, which they both co-wrote and co-directed, centers on Duncan’s month at the beach house of his divorced mother (Toni Collette)’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Uncomfortable with his mother’s romance with the passive-aggressive control freak, Trent, Duncan escapes into a secret part-time job at the local water park, Water Wizz. There he finds a clown prince mentor in Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen goes through pains trying to teach the poor kid how to laugh and enjoy himself, while also showing him the ropes of the water slide business -- like how bikini-clad girls will patiently “hold” at the top of a slide, never suspecting the park employees just eyeing their glistening, perfect butts. Through Owen’s dealings with Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), the park’s resident “Wendy” to its team of Peter Pans, he also teaches Duncan about proper, grown-up relationships.
Newcomer AnnaSophia Robb plays Susanna, Duncan’s one peer-aged friend and long-suffering daughter of boozy neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney). Miss Robb portrays Susanna perfectly, with just the right mixture of amiability and teen-aged aloofness. Together, Duncan and Susanna share the oft-forgotten emotional damage that divorce can inflict on children. The two are, for all intents and purposes, their parents’ old baggage, both literally and figuratively, a truth of which they are acutely aware. Also, they seem to share the understanding that they both know what’s going on in the adult world, but are still too young to do anything about it.
Duncan eventually finds his adult voice, ending the beach house vacation with the beginning of a confident new life -- and, hopefully, a brighter future for him and his mother.
Faxon and Rash’s script for The Way, Way Back is funny in its presentation of life’s awkward moments and heartbreakingly realistic in depicting the troubled ones. Indeed, it would be easy to dismiss this film as run-of-the-mill, coming-of-age summer fare, but for the strong characters and performances that elevated the otherwise banal story. Liam James plays Duncan as a kid whose life is completely shattered by his parent’s divorce, with such a drab moodiness that even I was irritated by him until he hooked up with Owen. Sam Rockwell’s Owen is a character of such rapid-fire comedy and wisecracks that, 30 years ago, this role would have gone to Bill Murray. As it turns out, Rockwell brought a slacker charm to Owen that made him fun and eminently likeable. Allison Janney appears as the obligatory wacky neighbor, the alcoholic divorcee and fretful mother, Betty. Janney turns in a performance of great humor and motherly love for Betty that is also unflinching in its rendering of a pathetic middle-aged woman trying to hold onto youth for just one more summer. Steve Carell is cast out of type as Trent, and it was good to see him stretching his acting repertoire. While it might not be a far reach to envision Carell as the type of guy who rigidly quotes the rules of the game Candyland, seeing him do so with Trent’s seething, serious tone was impressive and disturbing. Faxon and Rash appear in their film as Owen’s two employees, Roddy and Lewis. These seemingly hackneyed characters are made human by very good writing and well-crafted performances.
I’m not completely sure who the target audience is for The Way, Way Back. The 80’s music and references made the grown-ups’ “spring break for adults” part of the story nostalgic for me, but the film’s central character was a 14-year-old boy, so I felt lost as to where my attentions should go. Teen-aged viewers might be put off by some of the intense themes of this film, and find the humor lacking for their adolescent tastes.
I liked The Way, Way Back a lot. If you come across it, definitely don’t pass it by. Strong writing and wonderful performances make this otherwise cookie-cutter, Year-My-Voice-Broke-at-The-Summer-Place film something special, but unique in its own style. Sort of like how we came out of that one summer way, way back, ourselves, we may not be as special as we’d like, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t worth knowing and appreciating.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Lone Ranger Rides Again – It’s Legendary Fun!

     In the pantheon of American lore, there are a handful of iconic heroes. Superman and Batman come to mind; perhaps Audie Murphy, the all-American soldier and the original G.I. Joe. Lurking in this shared national memory are tales from days of yesteryear when The Lone Ranger rode the old west in the name of justice. Yeah, written like that it sounds pretty corny. However, The Lone Ranger recognizes its source material’s inherent corniness and plays it for fun (Unlike The Legend of The Lone Ranger, which took itself way too seriously when it galloped into theaters in 1981, went through the screen, out the back door and on to cinematic oblivion). This latest incarnation allows us to forgive and forget the old-fashioned cornball and enjoy seeing the masked man ride again.
The tale of The Lone Ranger begins with John Reid (Armie Hammer) returning to his Texan hometown; a lawyer hoping to bring civilized law to a lawless land. Reid accompanies his Texas Ranger brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), in a posse to apprehend psychotic outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). The lawmen are ambushed, leaving John Reid the sole-survivor. Reid is rescued and resuscitated by Tonto, and the two partner up to bring Cavendish to justice. Reid and Tonto have very different reasons for seeking justice, and very different ideas on its execution. If the Lone Ranger’s trail is one of holy vengeance, then Tonto’s is one of redemption. Reid wants Cavendish for the murder of his brother. Tonto sees in Cavendish a profound evil, born from the lust for silver that brought about the destruction of his village - which Tonto unwittingly aided as a child. Reid does capture Cavendish, but when he brings the villain back to town, he discovers a level of corruption for which law school had failed to prepare him.
There is some recognition in The Lone Ranger of the treachery experienced by Native Americans at the hands of progressing “white” civilization. An Indian War is manufactured to poach silver-laden Indian land. Also, during a raid, a Captain Fuller (Barry Pepper) is aghast by the blood on his hands. Only then does he realize that his mission has been a product of lies, not the noble advancement of the United States’ manifest destiny. These themes, while present, are displayed subtly so as not to drag down the film’s entertainment value.
It is probably common knowledge by now that Johnny Depp’s Tonto virtually carries this film, like Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Depp’s larger-than-life character and performance are the real draws here. Tonto is cool, mysterious, somber yet comical, and yet accessible; a bridge to the audience as he regales this film’s story to a young boy in 1933. Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger, on the other hand, is a prim dweeb and a goody-two-shoes. In school yards, backyards and playgrounds, children will probably now argue over who gets to play Tonto in their imaginative adventures.
     Depp has once again teamed with director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer for this picture. Together, this trio created the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The Lone Ranger certainly feels like the opening installment of a new franchise. Sadly, I’m afraid it lacks the same magic that made the Pirates films so popular. Combined with flawed timing and genre, I just don’t see this picture faring as well as its makers had hoped (It already lost its opening night battle with Despicable Me 2). In the past month, we’ve seen five other big budget/big action releases; there just might not be enough adrenalin left in moviegoers this weekend. Also, the Western genre is, frankly, all but dead. There have been exceptions - Django Unchained and True Grit were critical and commercial successes - but they were just that: exceptions.  The genre no longer speaks to us as it did 40 or 50 years ago. I may be wrong, but only time, and this holiday weekend’s box-office receipts, will tell if The Lone Ranger spawns another franchise.
     There is no denying that The Lone Ranger is pure fun! It plays off the cornball brilliantly, as when John Reid first dons his big white hat and his brother asks if they didn’t have a bigger one. Filmed in New Mexico and Utah, this film also boasts some of the most scenic locations the American West has to offer. It delivers an edge-of-your-seat, climactic chase sequence (complete with the William Tell Overture) and – in true Depp, Verbinski & Bruckheimer form – ludicrous, Harold Lloyd-like stunts. I left the theater smiling and I do hope to see another Lone Ranger film. So, as John Reid declares at the end: “Hi-Ho Silver, Away!” Corny? I know, but it’s all good. Tonto immediately orders him to “Never do that again!”