Saturday, July 27, 2013


 4.5 / 5 

Revise the basic storyline of Blackfish just a bit and make the central character a human instead of a killer whale, and this would be the stuff of Robert Louis Stevenson, even Shakespeare:

A young child is stolen away from his family by heartless bounty hunters, then sentenced to live a life in soul-sapping captivity.  For the next 40 years, he cannot leave the confines of his prison, and can't even eat unless he performs entertaining acts for the powerful beings who control his every move.  At long last, his mind snaps, and he attacks the descendants of his captors, and everyone professes great shock at the actions of this innocent, lost soul, further punishing him until all he can do is wither away in his prison, fated never to see freedom again.

If he were a little boy who grew into a man, we could understand his aggression and even root for him to escape.  But escape isn't possible for Tilikum: He is an enormous, graceful, fiercely intelligent whale who performs for people.  What's surprising isn't that he killed the vivacious, big-hearted woman who worked with him, or even that he had apparently killed people before -- the biggest surprise that comes from watching the riveting documentary Blackfish is that he was normally so patient and even kind, and that he was able to be this considerate of his captors as long as he was.

Tilikum still lives (barely, if you can call it living) at SeaWorld Orlando, three years after he grabbed, attacked and killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, who had worked with him for years.  He's a valuable corporate asset, and has been ever since he was captured in the North Sea; not long after the state of Washington banned the capture of orca whales from the waters of Puget Sound.

Blackfish follows the shocking, heartbreaking story of Tilikum, from the time he was captured until recently, after the fatal incident with long-time whale trainer Brancheau, in which she died in a particularly gruesome, savage way.

But why did it happen?  That's the question Blackfish aims to answer, and it does so impressively, spinning a potentially dry, talking-head documentary into one with a fascinating dramatic rhythm.  It's one of the most dramatically lucid and compelling movies you're likely to see this summer -- all year, for that matter.

Interviews with former SeaWorld Orlando trainers and employees are the core of Blackfish, and they're absorbing and thoughtful, in part because these people aren't just angry; they feel cheated.  They spent years dreaming of working alongside 12,000-pound killer whales as part of the elite "show" team at SeaWorld.  They came to believe, whether through corporate training or simply sincere passion, that they were doing something wonderful, something joyful that should be celebrated.

After the horrific death of Brancheau on Feb. 24, 2010, in front of an audience at the "Dine with Shamu" show, an expensive add-on "attraction" that is still held at the theme park, the half-dozen former trainers begin to rethink everything they knew about their work -- and the motivations of the company that employed them.

For its part, SeaWorld has launched an aggressive campaign to answer the movie's, mostly trying to fault the filmmakers for using illicitly obtained footage. But SeaWorld had a numerous chances to be involved, and declined. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite also manages to get SeaWorld's views communicated by incorporating courtroom testimony that makes them look bumbling at best and sinister at worst.

Starting with a frightening 911 call the night of the attack, Blackfish includes substantial footage shot of and by SeaWorld Orlando, emphasizing how much SeaWorld emphasized form over substance, appearance over safety.

But this is not a Sea-World-is-Evil story (well, not entirely).  It is a sweeping story that only ends at SeaWorld, and one of its most emotionally candid moments comes when one of the gruff, grizzled whalers who took babies from their families talks about the deep regret he feels and says that of all the things he's done in his life, that was the worst.

Other experts explain how and why whales communicate, and Blackfish works as a primer in orca knowledge that is at least as skewed as the "education" we get at theme parks, and helps us understand the film's most pressing question: How do we resolve the moral dilemma of keeping massive, and massively intelligent, creatures in a tiny pen for their entire lives?

There is room in Blackfish for opposing views, but they are undermined by footage of other shockingly violent, non-fatal incidents.

The urgent, offended, haughty response SeaWorld has given to Blackfish is quite understandable, actually: What else could its executives possibly say?  They're more or less caught red-handed here.

You may have enjoyed SeaWorld before, and been impressed by its claims that the animals in its parks are happy, well-adjusted and carefully monitored. But Blackfish presents damning, incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, and once you see it, you'll hope never to set foot in SeaWorld again.

Viewed July 25, 2013 -- The Landmark


Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Fruitvale Station"

 5 / 5 

There were so many ways writer-director Ryan Coogler could have gone wrong with Fruitvale Station,  but his film avoids the kind of righteous anger that would have been entirely justified yet hollow, leaving it feeling like a docu-drama-style recitation of facts.

The facts themselves are, indeed, angering: Early on New Year's Day 2009, a 22-year-old, unarmed man named Oscar Grant III was shot and killed by a police officer on the platform of a BART train station in an impoverished area of Oakland, Calif.  The shooting incited rage, and led to protests and riots, while the officer who killed Grant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in prison.

But Fruitvale Station isn't about the shooting itself, and it almost certainly takes liberties with the facts.  It tries, instead, for something more: to get us to understand who died that morning, and to appreciate that no matter what we might think going on, Oscar Grant was a real person who died a tragic, senseless death.

After opening with the now-familiar video of the shooting, taken by a BART passenger, Fruitvale Station defies expectations: This is not a movie about a young hoodlum trying to escape the oppressive ghetto, nor does it try to glorify (or condemn) the drug-fueled existence around him.

Rather, Coogler and the extraordinary young actor Michael B. Jordan anchor the story in the final 24 hours of Grant's life, emphasizing the awareness Oscar has that he needs to get a grip on a situation that is rapidly spiraling out of control.

He loves his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter, but he's been cheating and she isn't sure she trusts him anymore.  He needs a job, but he's not mature enough to keep one.  He knows selling pot is an easy way to money, which he desperately needs, but he's increasingly aware it's a dead-end life.

In short, Coogler's screenplay sets up Grant as a perfect screen hero, a character who desperately wants to be better but doesn't know how.  He's surrounded by a loving, supportive family, especially his mother (Octavia Spencer), who has been very clear about her disapproval of the choices that have already landed him in prison once.  But she loves him, and it's easy to see why.  Jordan is a winning, charming actor who brings a sad, defeated edge to his portrayal of Grant.

It's worth saying this again: Fruitvale Station is not a documentary or a fact-based procedural.  It's a deeply felt, engrossing drama that paints a rich, complex picture of a life already filled with loss but tinged with hope; one exchange between Oscar and a white yuppie on a downtown San Francisco street has the potential to take the movie off the rails of disbelief but instead feels true and honest, emphasizing how close -- emotionally and physically -- Oscar was to the kind of life he hoped for, but how out of reach it was for him.  In the Bay Area, one short BART ride is the difference between affluence and desperation.

We know how this story will end.

Oscar won't be able to pull himself out of his past, he won't even make it home on that first day of the year.  If the movie is a little maudlin at times, it has every right to be:  It's a tragedy about a life cut senselessly short, but even more than that, it's a tragedy about the way life gets too much in the way for some unlucky people, about how no one can see past their color or economic condition, about how much it hurts to hope for something that can never happen.  (It also, not inconsequentially, offers a visually satisfying solution to the problem of depicting how people communicate in today's endlessly wired world.)

By showing us the small details of Oscar's final day, Coogler has made a beautiful, thoughtful elegy for an entire life, a powerfully but quietly anguished film that shocks and angers in equal measure.  The shock isn't just because of the forceful brutality used on the BART platform, it's because what happened that morning robbed one deserving, striving, imperfect person of the rest of his life.  

Fruitvale Station began with characters I thought had no relation at all to my life, and ended with me openly weeping for them.  It is undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year.

Viewed July 21, 2013 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Saturday, July 20, 2013

"The Conjuring"

 3.5 / 5 

Strip away the existential anguish of The Exorcist and you've got The Conjuring, a movie that claims to be just as certain about the existence of demonic possession but lacks the sincere religious inquiry of William Friedkin's punishing 1973 classic.

Released almost exactly 40 years after that movie, The Conjuring is a surprisingly, refreshingly straightforward and restrained horror movie, a ghost story that adds on fear of the Devil, or perhaps an exorcism movie with a ghostly twist, but either way, it's a tense and memorable movie that continues the recent (and encouraging) trend of scary movies that are actually scary, not simply bloody.

Director James Wan also, interestingly, made the torture-porn Saw, a movie I can't bring myself to watch.  In The Conjuring, though, there are just two or three moments where the red stuff pours out.  Mostly, this is a movie filled with rattling doors and dread-laden shadows.

Set in 1971 and based on an allegedly true story, The Conjuring begins three years earlier with the introductory tale of two young nurses and a very unfriendly doll, who unleashes such a frenzy of haunted activity that they turn to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, both of whom are both impossibly attractive and very effective).  The Warren are a husband-and-wife team of ghostbusters whose practice is oriented toward demonology -- they believe in evil spirits, and they have both the emotional scars and the physical artifacts to prove it.  They spend their days battling angry ghosts and their evenings giving lectures on college campuses.

(The Warrens were also involved, a few years after the events of The Conjuring, in the Amityville Horror incident, which paved the way for the kind of campy movie that this could have been, but isn't.)

Meanwhile, a middle-aged couple and their five daughters move to an old, rundown farmhouse in the middle of the New England countryside -- just where, it so happens, one of the Salem witches died, but not before cursing the land.  But Carolyn and Roger (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston, both unexpected, unglamorous casting choices, and both terrific) can't turn down a bank-auction deal, so in they move.

The family dog senses something's amiss and refuses to come into the house, and Roger finds a boarded-up cellar, while Carolyn and the girls experience strange incidents at night and all the clocks stop at precisely 3:07 a.m. every night.  (In the logic of the movie, there's no room for questioning things like what would happen if someone set a clock ahead 10 minutes.)

The Warrens are called into investigate, and they stumble onto the mother lode of demonic possessions.  The house is a hotbed of paranormal activity, and even they're a little skittish about taking this case.

The discovery of who and what is in the house with the family allow for fun tension to mount, and director Wan is almost shockingly restrained; his scares are genuine, rarely the result of simply being startled by a crash of music or a smash-cut visual shock.  Oh, they're there, of course, but mostly they're earned and work within the context of the story.

It's a good, old-fashioned horror movie.  It works in every possible way you'd want a movie like this to work.  While it lacks some of the visual panache of the low-budget Insidious, The Conjuring is damned scary -- and also quiet and relaxed when it needs to be.  Wan and his screenwriters, Chad and Carey Hayes, trust their material, so we trust them.

It's not a deep movie, and lacks the disturbing, unforgettable challenges of faith and belief that The Exorcist forced upon its audience (and it's worth comparing the two, since there are signs The Conjuring would like to be taken that seriously.

But as an example of what can be done when a screenwriter, a director and a group of actors are determined to make a top-notch, compelling piece of entertainment -- not just a "franchise" or a merchandise-ready cinematic product -- The Conjuring excels.

Add in some nice period touches and great costuming, and The Conjuring turns out to be one of the summer's most unexpectedly compelling and fulfilling entertainments.

Viewed June 20, 2013 -- AMC Burbank 16


Sunday, July 14, 2013

"The Way, Way Back"

 4.5 / 5 

The Way, Way Back was written by the same two guys who wrote the masterful screenplay for Alexander Payne's The Descendants, and this time they're sharing the director's seat, too.  The Way, Way Back shares with The Descendants a full, perplexed and ultimately happy appreciation for the quirks and difficulties of life without every resorting to being quirky the way that Little Miss Sunshine was.

Although it's not set in Hawaii, The Way, Way Back also recalls The Descendants in the way water proves vital to the plot and to the enjoyment of the movie.  You can almost smell the over-chlorinated water that pours down the tall, twisty slides of the Water Wizz theme park, and you certainly understand what makes 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) want to spend so much time there.

Everything about Water Wizz has the kind of easygoing, sunny charm that Duncan's life is missing.  To say this kid is at an awkward stage is putting it mildly.  From his mother's mean-spirited boyfriend (Steve Carell), to the younger kid with the lazy eye that decides to latch on to him, to his sagging Toughskin jeans, absolutely nothing about his life fit.

His equally confused mom (Toni Collette) is still reeling from divorce, and she's taken to the smarmy Trent because -- well, even she's not sure about that one.  But as a mixed family (his sullen daughter comes along), they're going to spend the summer at Trent's slightly rundown Cape Cod beach house.

Whether he likes it or not, Duncan is going to have to put up with pop-in visits from the brash, boozy neighbor (Allison Janney) and her kids -- including the gorgeous Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who unexpectedly takes a liking to this dorky kid.

Duncan can't imagine any worse way to spend a summer than surrounded by adults on a grown-up version of spring break, and just when he figures there's no way to escape, he runs into Owen (Sam Rockwell), Water Wizz's stuck-in-adolescence manager, who recognizes in the kid a meek desperation.  Duncan takes the job on the sly, never revealing it to his preoccupied mother or Trent.

At Water Wizz, Duncan discovers he's got worth, people might actually like him, and it's just possible he can make a contribution, even if it's to a rundown roadside attraction.

The Way, Way Back -- which is named after the backward-facing far seat in a station wagon -- isn't quite as straightforward as a plot summary makes it sound, nor is it peopled with loopy, zany caricatures.  From the start, the acting is what really distinguishes the movie; Janney's first appearance as the next-door neighbor may be one of the most memorable entrances of the past decade, and James is a wonderfully natural actor, unafraid to let his own actual pre-teen awkwardness shine through.

Much has been written about how Carell goes against type as the "villain" of the movie, a despicable lout who takes pleasure in intimidating his young charge.  But Carell and Sam Rockwell as Owen are the mirror opposites of the father figure Duncan is missing, and I liked the way the movie's screenplay made Carell's browbeating frequently understandable, and Owen's juvenile behavior frequently pathetic.  Neither man is Duncan's savior, because only Duncan can ever be that for himself.

The Way, Way Back puts a breezy, easy sheen on a dark, difficult story, and lets every character (except, perhaps, Carell's -- deservingly) discover some truths about themselves during the summer. 

Yet, it avoids the kind of formulaic, borderline silly characters that inhabited Little Miss Sunshine and Juno (the studio's marketing takes pains to refer to those films), the randy salaciousness of Wet Hot American Summer and the nostalgia-for-its-own-sake indulgence of Adventureland.

The Way, Way Back is a genuinely heartfelt, pitch-perfect comedy that may not be filled with earthshaking revelation, but is content to let us see the messy, sometimes unsatisfying way life happens through the eyes of someone experiencing that kind of confusing heartbreak for the first time, but certainly not the last.

Any movie that can engender such hearty laughter to momentarily drown out the dialogue and, convincingly, wring misty tears of recognition is something special -- and The Way, Way Back is special, indeed.

Viewed July 14, 2013 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Thursday, July 4, 2013

"The Lone Ranger"

 3 / 5 

There's a fantastic, fun 90-minute movie somewhere amid the excess of the 2 hour, 40-minute Lone Ranger.  The excess often feels like filler, sometimes amusing, frequently convoluted, and often alarmingly violent.

Even though the movie is called The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp's Tonto is listed above the title, and the movie's screenplay tries hard to make him the center of attention. Only Tonto, despite an elaborate and long-winded backstory that makes him integral to the central story, isn't nearly as interesting as the movie thinks he is.

His face again buried under layers of makeup, Depp does bring impressive depth to a character whose primary purpose is to spout inscrutable directives and do things like talk to horses.  Wearing a dead bird on his head, he becomes not just the Lone Ranger's sidekick, he turns into the movie's central character, which would be fine except that Tonto remains frustratingly one-note: He's a wise (and wisecracking) native American who communes with nature in exactly the sort of metaphysical way that makes the Indians in The Lone Ranger into the inarguably good guys, while the bad guys are the greedy rail barons who are bent on destruction.

One of those white guys is the particularly loathsome Butch Cavendish, the leader of an evil gang of outlaws.  He's so vile, he reaches right into one of his victims, pulls out a human heart and eats it, leading one of his gang to vomit on screen.  Did I mention this is a Disney movie?

Cavendish is aligned, we learn, with the awful, terrible railway builders -- one in particular who has a secret connection to Tonto, a connection that drove the Indian mad with guilt and led to his self-imposed exile from his tribe.

You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the Lone Ranger himself, John Reid, who in this version has never met Tonto before, undoing the traditional legend that had Reid raised by Tonto's tribe as a youngster.  This being the age of "origin stories," The Lone Ranger builds an entirely new one for Reid, which allows he and Tonto to be a sort of Wild West Odd Couple.

Armie Hammer acquits himself well as the strapping, heroic Reid/Lone Ranger, and he manages to find something of a character within the stereotype he's playing: the tall, good-looking, slightly befuddled man of ideals who is a fish out of water in the lawless Old West.

He and Depp work particularly well together, though Depp's deadpan delivery allows for none of his manic energy to come through, and it's hard not to wonder what an unknown Native American actor might have made of the role.

Their breezy, witty banter, though, underscores one of the movie's biggest problems: It can't decide what it wants to be.  Is it a jokey, knowing send-up of Westerns?  Is it a sincere, big-canvas epic?  Is it a manic, Indiana Jones-style action-adventure?  Is it a violent, hard-edged drama?  The answer is yes to all of them, but the combination isn't successful.

The Lone Ranger lurches from one scene to the next, and it's hard to be sure exactly how to react; just moments after a Comanche chief sadly tells Reid "we are all ghosts," the Lone Ranger and Tonto are buried up to their necks in a silly sight gag.  Earlier, the camera lingers over a number of dead bodies before setting up some frivolous moments with Tonto burying the victims and stealing their belongings.

Perhaps worrying that Depp wasn't getting enough screen time and that he was, despite intentions, still the sidekick of the hero, The Lone Ranger offers a completely unnecessary and bizarre framing device that has a very old Tonto performing in a carnival sideshow and relating the story to a young boy, Little Big Man style.  It doesn't add anything to the story, and only serves as a distraction to the central plot as the movie cuts back to Old Tonto over and over.

Nonetheless, there are moments that are ravishing (it was an expensive movie, but every dollar is visible on screen), scenes that are a lot of fun, and an earnest attempt to please, particularly on Hammer's behalf.  If The Lone Ranger had concentrated on telling the story of the Lone Ranger, it might have worked a lot better.

The Lone Ranger is enormously well-made.  It's rarely boring.  It looks terrific.  If you see it, you might be surprised by how much you enjoy it.   At the same time, it's too violent and confusing for kids, too kitschy for most adults, and too square for teens. The Lone Ranger feels like it was manufactured to please a demographically relevant marketing segment -- but in trying so hard to be a specific thing, it ends up not quite being the most important thing of all: completely satisfying.

Viewed July 3, 2013 -- ArcLight Cinerama Dome