Wednesday, November 13, 2013

DVD Review | Blackfish (2013)

Blue Water, Black-and-White Death
by Thomas Delapa

Oceans away from the feel-good New Zealand fable Whale Rider, Blackfish swims in the same roiling documentary school as The Cove, the Oscar-winning 2009 exposé about the grisly annual slaughter of dolphins at a seaside Japanese village.

But Blackfish strikes closer much to home and lands like a punch to the gut. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite methodically reels us into her fact-heavy investigation that fatefully begins with the much-publicized death of a SeaWorld Orlando orca trainer in early 2010. “Death” is an innocuous term for what happened to Dawn Brancheau, who was caught and shredded by Tilikum, a six-ton, twenty-foot killer whale. 

Cowperthwaite—a TV sports documentarian—is never sensational in recounting the gruesome details of this and other attacks by Tilikum since he was captured off Iceland in the 1980s. The darkness lurking at the heart of Blackfish is that the attacks were suppressed by SeaWorld officials, if not altogether deep-sixed, at least according to the gallery of former SeaWorld trainers interviewed for this scathing tract. The sheer number and sincerity of these testimonials will likely convince audiences that this is no mere mammal-hugging fish tale. And those still not hooked need only note the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 2012 ruling and fine against SeaWorld in the wake of Brancheau’s horrid death. 

Cowperthwaite constructs her tract as equal parts horror story, mystery and marine-biology lesson. Few recent documentaries have so deftly utilized video and film footage to make such a devastating, if didactic, case. In our sea-to-shining-sea world of security and surveillance cameras, seeing is believing, and we’re afforded compelling replays of the events in chilling detail. It’s almost as if Cowperthwaite were on the trail of a cold-case murderer, as the life of “Tilly” is traced from his capture to his stay at a low-rent Canadian sea park and finally on to Florida, where his aggressive past was ignored and he became the “big splash” at Shamu Stadium.

SeaWorld visitors on any coast know that these majestic creatures (called blackfish by Native Americans) are the stars of the show, performing with their trainers in a revue of risky tricks and stunts in big-top outdoor pools. To the casual observer, the whales are happy, docile, gentle giants—Flipper’s super-sized cousins. But the ex-trainers and experts testify to a dark side, speaking candidly about the volatile nature of these massive, intelligent predators that can turn on their handlers in a heartbeat. From a natural habitat of the wide blue sea, living in tight matriarchal family “pods,” these captured orcas are torn from their kin, trained (mostly by amateurs) through strict behaviorist discipline and housed essentially in underwater cages—the net long-term result often being neurotic and aggressive behavior.  

Of all the chilling footage featured by the filmmakers, perhaps none plunges deeper into the shadowy sea-park abyss than the sight of trainer Ken Peters as he’s helplessly dragged underwater like a bathtub toy by an angry orca. Adams survived to tell about it, but Brancheau and several other mangled victims weren’t nearly as lucky.

Audiences may well agree that the tagline hook for Blackfish could be lifted from a poster carried by a recent SeaWorld animal-rights demonstrator: "Free Tilly."

Blackfish, a Magnolia Pictures release, will be available on DVD Nov. 12, 2013.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Film Review | Argo

Watch your back, Lincoln.  After Golden Globes upsets, Argo just may be the smart-money candidate for the Oscar Best Picture award....

Praise, Don’t Blame, Canada 
by Thomas Delapa

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that there are no second acts in American lives.

Just a couple years ago, after a cluster of bombs like Gigli and Jersey Girl, it was almost curtains for Ben Affleck’s Hollywood career. But since he's taken a bow in his new role as director starting with 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, the jeers have been disappearing. His taut, true-life espionage thriller Argo is a movie for grown-ups, and may even garner him Oscar applause.

If all you remember of the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis is bad news, ABC’s Nightline and Ted Koppel's hair, then Argo is just the ticket for prime-time counter-programming. This isn’t the story of the 52 Americans held hostage in the U.S. embassy by Islamic revolutionaries for over a year. Rather, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio switch the focus to six other Americans who fled the Tehran embassy and hid out in the house of the Canadian ambassador, and their daring run for freedom.

Argo unfolds like a fact-based Mission: Impossible—and, yes, it does all sound too absurdly impossible to be true. Low-key, if thoughtfully stolid, Affleck is Tony Mendez, the CIA undercover agent who dreams up a fantastic plot that could only happen in the movies: Create new identities for the six as Canadians scouting Iranian locations for a phony Hollywood sci-fi fantasy, called Argo, and then spirit them out of the country.

It’s a screwball pitch, but Mendez’s superiors in Washington (including Bryan Cranston from TV’s Breaking Bad) reluctantly take a swing, as do a profane Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) and a make-up artist (John Goodman), who agree to create a fake production to lend cover to the ruse. The pretext is Affleck’s cue to take a flurry of roundhouse punches at Hollywood, and even himself. (“You can teach a rhesus monkey to direct in a day,” Arkin snorts.)

Terrio’s wry, lean script (based on an 2007 Wired article by Josh Bearman) is a hairy balancing act, crossbred between Tinseltown satire and topical thriller. Affleck’s casting choices for the drama are boldly non-Hollywood, mostly unknowns who add grit to the life-and-death, documentary-like luster. Along with the shaggy hair and super-sized ‘70s glasses, you may also spy stealth jabs at Star Wars-era American escapism, standing in stark contrast to the dark times that found the U.S. empire at a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate low.

In Argo's sly “meta” metaphors, Affleck isn’t only the film's director, but acts as director of the six players who must pose as Canadians, drilling them for their roles. (Their motivation: um, to live). It will be his impossible mission to lead them through a dress rehearsal, into the airport and out of the country, negotiating a gauntlet of Iranian security agents, like Moses with a movie camera. Unlike the over-the-top special effects and superhuman feats of a Tom Cruise, Affleck and his Argo-nauts do something more improbable—dramatizing real, ordinary human beings forced to do the heroically extraordinary.

As director, Affleck also does something heroic, holding shots to organically draw out the tension and suspense. The conventional (i.e., stale) wisdom in the Hollywood action movie is for breakneck editing that holds the audience hostage, throttling them into submission. Affleck and editor William Goldenberg let the scenes play out, lending to the air of pulse-pounding realism. But Big Ben also gets bogged down in a Directing 101 trick, milking his crosscuts between parallel lines of action to juice up the pulpy intensity.

In a 2012 America seemingly desperate for a patriotic story—and in the midst of interminable Mideast turmoil—Argo reaches back into an ominous dark cloud to yank out a silver lining trimmed in red, white and blue. For Ben Affleck and company, that silver lining may also rain Oscar gold.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Good Reads Often Lost in Translation to the Screen

Written on the Wind
by Thomas Delapa

It’s not a novel conclusion that great books commonly make for bad films, and that middling—or downright bad—books are more readily re-booted into good movies. 

The cinema is papered with best-sellers transformed into box-office boondoggles. For every Lord of the Rings or Gone with the Wind, there are a dozen blustery duds, whether Bonfire of the Vanities, Beloved, Breakfast of Champions, The Shipping News, the Robert Redford Great Gatsby or the Demi Moore Scarlet Letter, to name only a few. And who can forget (or remember) last year’s abysmal John Carter, an Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation that bled red ink by the buckets for Disney.

The Godfather, arguably the greatest studio picture of the modern age, was sired not by a literary classic but a mass-market Mafia potboiler. While Steven Spielberg’s watershed Jaws may have taken a bite out of  Moby Dick for inspiration, the actual pages came from the pen of Peter Benchley, not Herman Melville. Ditto, Billy Wilder’s archetypal 1944 film noir Double Indemnity paid off handsomely from the lurid prose of James M. Cain.

Hefty, reputable books are weighed down with baggage, whether based on character complexity, narrative density or unique technique. When a book is underlined as “unfilmable” in Hollywood, it usually means the end of the story for would-be adapters. Complex narration, multiple story lines or anything remotely stream-of-consciousness are a slippery slope on the screen. That means most anything by James Joyce, William Faulkner or their modernist followers. By contrast, 19th-century Jane Austen and Charles Dickens have long been go-to film favorites, both for their linear plots and singular heroes and heroines. In 2002’s wacky Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman poked fun at the Hollywood treatment, turning Susan Orlean’s nonfiction The Orchid Thief  into a satirical "meta"-movie about the thorny problems of transplanting an acclaimed book to the screen.

Yet the bold-faced question marks that always surround highbrow novels didn’t cause 2012 filmmakers to holster their highlighters. Three major fall releases—Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi and Anna Karenina—were mapped out first on the page; none should make audiences want to pass up their library privileges.

Based on David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas is the Wachowski siblings’ (Andy and Lana, formerly Larry) lofty, fog-bound attempt to tell six intersecting stories in six time periods spanning from the 19th-century past to the post-apocalyptic (aren’t they all?) future. Despite all the Wachowskis’ Hollywood cred earned from The Matrix blockbusters, the big studios wisely passed on the project, sending the siblings and co-director Tom Tykwer globe-trotting to Germany for a reported $100 million in financing. The modern Greece of fall films, Atlas lost most audiences in its dizzying storytelling, whipsawing between far-flung ages and places and likely giving its cast, including Tom Hanks (in, yes, six roles), a historic case of motion sickness. Had the filmmakers read up first on D.W. Griffith’s legendary 1916 folly Intolerance—which tried to intertwine four different historical sagas—they might have predicted Cloud’s soggy forecast.

Oscar-winning director Ang Lee had brighter results with Life of Pi, even if his cinematic equation doesn’t add up to the strengths of Yann Martel’s 2001 prize-winning adventure tale: It’s a Kiplingesque survival story at sea, which might seem unsinkable on paper, at least in the wake of Titanic. Much of the film takes place aboard a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean, where a shipwrecked East Indian boy (Suraj Sharma), nicknamed Pi, must fend off and outsmart a ferocious feline stowaway, namely a Bengal tiger. Shot in 3-D, Pi is a yeasty concoction of realism, fantasy and rich visuals, but the drama drifts into the shallow end. Lee and screenwriter David Magee’s treatment founders in stretches, primarily because the story isn’t firmly anchored in any buoyant dialogue to speak of. 

Does anyone remember Robert Shaw’s gripping interlude in Jaws re-telling the USS Indianapolis tragedy? And at least Alfred Hitchcock in Lifeboat gave his World War II audiences a crew of chatty malcontents and a Nazi; even director Robert Zemeckis gave Tom Hanks' Robinson Crusoe-like Cast Away a volleyball to bounce lines off. But the best Lee can muster is the sight of the tiger’s hungry, hungry stare as the beast threatens to take a piece out of Pi. With scant narration, the movie lists back and forth to an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) mundanely relating his yarn to a journalist. In 3-D, the mostly digitized cat may fool younger audiences, but in standard projection he looks as scary-real as Tony the Tiger.

Crewing again with his lithe Atonement and Pride and Prejudice star Keira Knightley, British director Joe Wright reaches higher on the literary shelf in Anna Karenina, which has been film and TV fodder countless times, including in 1935 with Greta Garbo as the doomed Russian aristocrat. In search of a fresh take, Wright and famed screenwriter/playwright Tom Stoppard boldly turn Leo Tolstoy’s 900-plus page tome into a stylized, modernist musical of sorts—but, um, without any songs. Nearly all of it takes place on and around a visible stage, with the actors weirdly maneuvering through sets and rustic backstage machinery: i.e., Brecht does Tolstoy. The idea, I guess, is that Wright and Stoppard want to shine a spotlight on social role and performance in rigid 19th-century Russia. (Plus it saved the production a ton of money not to have to shoot on authentic sets or location.) 

But what might have worked on an actual stage seems doubly artificial and jarring on film, and we search in vain for a sense of a convincing time or place that Anna, her bourgeois husband (Jude Law) and her vain lover (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) inhabit. As striking as Knightley is with those supermodel looks, she always has come across as a resolutely contemporary woman, with ungirdled body language, and seems no more suited to play the pathetic adulterous victim than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the end, despite the jeers or cheers, the movies will always check out the good, great and near-great books for source material. In recent weeks, U.S. theaters have unwrapped at least three more adapted classics, including the Beat bible On the Road, the musical Les Miserables and director Peter Jackson’s premier part to his super-sized Hobbit trilogy, with Bilbo, Gandalf, Gollum redux, lifted from the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien. In Hollywood and beyond, popular novels are still precious ore, if not always worth their weight in box-office gold.