“Blackfish” review

blackfish

Sea World was never really my favorite place in the world, mostly because marine animals seem unnatural to me. Yeah, you can have tons of fun with the silly otter shows, but, at the end of the day, they know a couple of giant squids that will gang up on you (and now that Pacific Rim has exposed the existence of Kaiju, they are more than willing to put the beat down in retaliation). However, there was definitely a period of time when I thought Shamu was the bee’s knees, and wanted to grow up to be him. (only 11, 800 pounds to go!). The killer whale has truly permeated culture as the badass of the sea, floating where no man has floated before, and doing tricks for minimal compensation that no man has done tricks for before.

In the words of my hero: “They aren’t tricks, Michael. They’re illusions!”

GOB: 1. Me: 0.

Blackfish is one of the rare films that can immerse you entirely in a world you had never considered. This movie succeeds because it doesn’t make the case that “Killer whales are intrinsically predators and should be let go”, or merely “They’re hurt inside their cages and made to do things that are innately unacceptable”. Instead, the filmmakers decide to go the far more intriguing route and portray the blackfish (title drop!) as near-human, particularly with the whale Tilikum that is portrayed as the “killer”. Being ripped away from his mother as a calf, regularly beaten by his companions, and generally misunderstood by those training him (a drastic oversimplification, but still true) present a scenario befitting the formation of a serial killer. Watching these horrible things happen to Tilikum inspire sympathy and understanding, and, most interesting, relation. The audience truly feels that his actions, though horrifying, are somewhat justified.

Thinking back on this film, I am impressed that the only way I can discuss Tilikum is as a human. Everything about him seems so relatable, from the interviews with his former trainers to the people who have watched him in the audience, that he becomes one of the most prolific animal beings to have graced the screen (my apologies to Uggie, whom I actively campaigned for to receive an Oscar nomination for The Artist).

However, one minor flaw with the film is that Tilikum cannot communicate with us. This whale that has killed two trainers (and a strange man who broke into his tank) will never demonstrate if this was just an act of playfulness gone wrong or an innate will to kill. Despite much speculation as to this regard, the film resolves to not make a straight answer. The two camps on either side, though, rise against the claims of the Sea World Corporation, who assert that the death of Dawn Brancheau was due to fault of her own.

This leaves Blackfish as a puzzling feature, in that we feel pity for such a majestic and beautiful creature but realize the power and terror he can inspire. It truly plays like an episode of a Criminal Minds-esque thriller. Though no questions are finally answered (except for the age-old adage, “Fuck big business”), Blackfish is engaging and memorable, and one of the most interesting pieces of film work I have seen in a long time.

Oscar Chances: The Documentary categories are always strange for Oscar, and they often leave off beloved choices for more politically-aware options (Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, you were mistreated). However, this has enough political punch and engaging story telling that I see no reason why it should be left off the Documentary shortlist.

Brief side-note, before you go back to the Internet: It is high time a documentary gets nominated for Best Picture. One of the most shining examples is Man On Wire, which you should watch the moment you get an opportunity. What does a film that shows real life have to do to get recognition?

That’s an essay for another time.

“Only God Forgives” review

only god forgives

Before I start discussing Only God Forgives, let me just say I loved Drive, the film that universally showed us that Ryan Gosling is a star whether he talks or not.

Until today. Mr. Gosling, you can’t ride this train forever. You can start talking in your movies again. We made a grave mistake.

Only God Forgives. the latest film by Nicolas Winding Refn, might definitely mean something. I just have no idea what it is. The amount of violence and general human depravity in the film has been thrown around as a reason why people dislike it, but it really has no bearing on my opinion- to me, it was no more graphic than any other R-rated action film. Then again, rarely do those films have so much riding on them.

I thought this movie would establish Refn as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, a Tarantino that pours less into the screenplay and more into the visual insights, the balance of light and art and film all into one (not that Tarantino neglects these things, but he’s mostly concerned with his ability to say the N-word, permission that was apparently granted in a secret ceremony that only Samuel L. Jackson was invited to attend). To be fair, Refn’s flair for production design and striking visual images is what keeps the movie afloat.

But I really, really didn’t like it.

The lack of a succinct screenplay really upset me, more than I thought I would. As you will come to learn through my writing, I herald the screenplay above all else with a feature film, but there are ways around that. If you have phenomenal actors and a thrilling director, you can make a brilliant movie. Hell, Pacific Rim only had one of those (and yes, I would say Pacific Rim is brilliant, in a robots fighting monsters kind of way). But drive was definitely lacking (heh) in Only God Forgives. I felt like I was watching the Kodak slide show of the vacation from hell. Let this be a lesson to all young directors- you probably think a movie can come together through only your unique vision. This is probably not the case, and, if it is, you’re only allowed to prove it after you have three pictures cross the $100 million mark and you win an Oscar.

The problem is a lack of respect for his audience. Refn is aware that his audience is, largely, American men under the age of 50. This is the age group that has idealized Gosling’s character of “The Driver”, and what he stands for. His calming silence, ability to get shit done, and his desire to do what is morally right in his mind made him the new “Man With No Name”. Refn took that character we came to respect, and made him awful. I have no problem with taking a character to new depths- indeed, Gosling is not even technically playing that role again. But the intricacies of the way both roles are acted indicate that they come from the same place. Refn is too smart to think that audiences won’t see similarities, and the result is what truly darkens the film. Julian, played by Gosling, isn’t so much deliberate in his silence as he is……silent. There’s a difference between silence and acting, Ryan, I’m sorry Mr. Refn misled you.

And the ending. Fuck that ending. I won’t give it away, but let me say this: I used to joke that a show like Breaking Bad, a really taut drama with numerous twists and turns, should end the final episode with nothing happening. Like, Walter White goes into a restaurant, eats a meal, and leaves. Done. After seeing Only God Forgives, I would never wish that ending on my worst enemy.

All in all, maybe I’m overplaying my disappointment. I somewhat enjoyed the picture (although it was a fairly boring film, despite the fact it was designed to “elicit reactions”). The other actors were fair, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm being the biggest stand outs in two vastly different performances. At the end of the day, though, I will probably see the next Refn picture, oddly enough. I’d rather see a director divide an audience than please one all the time. I’ll accept this as an artistic exercise, and see him on his next go-around. Here’s hoping it means more.