“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.

“The Conjuring” review

For my first ever article for The Russell Bulletin, it seems fitting that I should talk about The Conjuring, one of the best horror films to debut in several years. I feel like I have to keep my love of horror movies a secret from the general public, and my friends to an even greater extent. Some of my earliest memories involve my dad and me going to the video rental store (insert “those are gone now” joke here, people who can’t get past the fact technology changes) and picking out some of the scariest classics: the original House of Wax or Night of the Living Dead when I was younger, graduating to Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street when I was older. None of them, though, ever came close to the horror of The Exorcist.

The Exorcist was a movie of legend around my elementary school. If your parents let you watch The Exorcist, you got to be king of the playground. Kids would let you win at tag. No joke, one kid said that during his Student Government speech, and it got him elected Student Body President. My parents, though, were mostly sane and knew I would cry myself to sleep for the subsequent three years after seeing it, so they told me to wait until I was older. I resorted to only pretending I had seen it. (“Yeah, I’ve totally seen it. Remember when her head spins around? So totally tubular.”)

I apologize for the previous flashback, I was in my Rocket Power phase in 5th grade.

It wasn’t until high school when I made the call that I could watch it and would not cry. I talked my dad into renting it (I was very dependent on his desire to watch these movies also, in retrospect), and watched it on a cold rainy night in October.

Oh, how scared I was.

I always had a minor fear of the devil, so that movie ballooned it like Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. I had to buy holy water from my Catholic friends in the most wacky misunderstanding of a drug deal the school administrators had ever seen. I thought that was the tops of scariness. I would never be scared again. And, in a sense, that was true. I thought I’d seen it all. Movies ever since have done little in terms of innovative scares. Every once in a while, you’ll have the calculated horror of Funny Games or The Strangers, or even the rotating fan camera action of Paranormal Activity 3, but nothing new really strikes out as, “Yes! I have never been scared like that before! You, film-makers, have added a new phobia to my list of things to remember to tell my girlfriends.”

Which brings me to The Conjuring.

The Conjuring is really nothing new. A scary doll, a family being tormented. These are all things that you can find in a McDonald’s in Pasadena right now. The impressive thing is the caliber that improves this often-gimmicky genre.

The acting is among the best I’ve seen in a horror film, particularly from Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren and Lili Taylor as the mother looking for safety for her family. The screenplay is not particularly revolutionary (usually a problem for me, as an aspiring playwright), but the passion that director Joseph Wan clearly has for the horror genre apologizes for these small missteps with a subtle flair of creepiness, in place of goriness. His concepts in movies such as Saw, Dead Silence, and Insidious have established him, in my opinion, as the leader of this often critiqued genre.

To quote my father: “Anyone can be gory. Add blood. There, it’s gory! Creepy, now there’s something.”

Truly, though. The production design of this film is reminiscent of a non-indulgent Tim Burton. Everything is in just the right amounts to make sure we understand something is off. Not dangerous or innately scary, but just….off. The camera work is usually awful in scary movies, but this struck me as everyone in the film business saying, “Hey, we haven’t made a good one of these in awhile. Let’s try this time.” Maybe that’s ultimately frustrating (or maybe I just have no idea how Hollywood works). The Conjuring succeeds because it trusts the movies that have come before it, and loves them, and shows them to the audience with the utmost respect.

I always watch my films with the end goal of the Oscars in mind (just wait for me around award season, kids), and I see little hope. Only one scary movie has ever made it to the Oscars, and that was that scary movie from my childhood, The Exorcist. I wonder if those kids knew that they were watching history in the making. If it got one nomination, I would consider it a success. Production Design is a long shot, but it would be deserved. Make-up and Hair would be the closest possibility, but horror movies are often overlooked for period pieces……or The Hobbit (curse you, Peter Jackson!). Too bad inanimate objects can’t win awards, because then I would have to give Best Supporting Actress to Annabelle, the doll that’s too big to be small and too little to be life-size, but sure knows how to look like Amy Winehouse’s final hours.

Is that too soon?