Tuesday, March 4, 2014

“Blackfish” is this year’s most unlikely thriller

Four Stars

I don’t know how this didn’t get an Oscar nod. Excuse the pun, but that smells fishy to me. “Blackfish” is a powerful documentary about SeaWorld. Now that may not sound like much. SeaWorld? It’s a stupid amusement park. Who cares? What this documentary proves, is that SeaWorld is much more symbolic for a bigger problem. It’s symbolic for corporate greed and abuse. Using the story of the trainer Dawn Brancheau, who is killed by the whale, Tillikum, who has killed three people over his career at SeaWorld.

Tracing the history of SeaWorld, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite interviews an old fisherman who was hired by SeaWorld in its early days to kidnap killer whales from its families in the ocean. The fisherman says, “This is the worst thing I ever did.” SeaWorld, after Dawn’s death, blames her for her death. Cowperthwaite interviews former SeaWorld employees, all telling horror stories from their time working there from a whale being separated from his calf to people being almost killed by the whale and SeaWorld’s higher ups simply not caring as much they should.

SeaWorld seems like a narrow topic, but SeaWorld becomes a symbol for a lack of accountability for corporations. Skillfully using scenes of SeaWorld’s family friendly image, she spends a good amount of time talking about the mental condition of the whales. One neuroscientist says all whales in captivity are traumatized. Experts talk about how killer whales are more emotionally complex than we give them credit for.

That entire aside, though, it does beg the question of how absurd it is to build a billion dollar business around killer whales doing stupid pet tricks for a cheering audience. The government investigates SeaWorld and they lie. It’s sad to listen to these people who worked at SeaWorld, because obviously a lot of these people are sincere in their love for animals. Once again, it all comes down to money. These killer whales are worth millions of dollars.

It’s a very upsetting film, in parts, but it’s also hopeful that one-day people will stop using animals for these various purposes such as entertainment or money operations. It’s more than that, though. This film is about how certain companies would do anything for money even at the expense of a living, breathing creature. It’s unbelievable, though, that Tillikum is still at SeaWorld. The trainers in this film plea for SeaWorld to free Tillikum and let him live out the rest of his days in the wild. SeaWorld probably won’t listen. They need Tillikum to breed and it’s worth too much money.

Gabriela Cowperhwaite does an incredibly good job at making this film powerful, and I thought about it days after I saw it. It’s a powerful piece of work, and this is great documentary filmmaking. I’m not saying that documentaries have to be on depressing topics, and they too can be uplifting as well. I am not against the documentary on back up singers winning the Oscar this year, but at the very least, this great piece of documentary filmmaking should have been nominated. This was a powerful film that stayed with me. It may or may not change anything, but non-fiction filmmaking is important, and this needed to be made. It’s one of the year’s best films.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

“Philomena” is a Powerful Film

Three and a half stars

The movie “Philomena” is a powerful new movie on the true story of a women searching for a son she gave up years ago. Based on a book by Martin Sixsmith, “Philomena” brings together two people who are both reeling from problems in their past. One is a journalist who had a very public firing and the other a women who is haunted by the son she was forced to give up. Judi Dench gives a powerful performance as Philomena, who is constantly having a look of pain on her face but also keeps a positive outlook on her faith and forgiveness of those around her. Martin (Steve Coogan) is a bit more cynical, as he doesn’t share her faith in the very church, which made her give up her son. Together they go from Britain to America, trying to figure out what happened to her son. Steve sees it as a human-interest story at first but along the way, learns to put away some his snobbery and see things from Philomena’s point of view.

The film is directed by the wonderful Stephen Frears, who has directed some very good movies like “Dirty Pretty Things”, “The Queen” and “High Fidelity”, which is one of my personal favorites. He does a very good job of shooting this movie, using real footage of Philomena’s son intercut with the movie. I like how he didn’t make it overly dramatic and more of just a story about this women figuring out what happened to her son. Of course, something that has to be addressed is the role the Catholic Church played in this film. They are the ones who took Philomena and her son in, when she was young. They are also the ones who made her give up her son. They do not come off looking good, but I wouldn’t say this film is anti-Catholic. Philomena is a very good person throughout the film, and that is in part to her keeping her faith. She is forgiving.

I like the relationship she develops with Martin. They together have good chemistry and learn to understand each other a bit more. Martin gets angry at what has been done to Philomena. Judi Dench is always good in just about everything she is in. The pain on her face is very believable throughout the film. Steve and Philomena start to develop a very deep respect for each other, and there’s a scene towards the end where Martin finally starts to see things through Philomena’s eyes and does something very nice.

Nothing in the movie is resolved, except for the fact that sometimes institutions don’t do right by their own people. The church that Philomena lived at as a young girl didn’t do right by her, or her child. They are so stuffy they can’t even get over the fact that they considered what she did a sin. The film focuses, though, mostly on bringing these two people together in a kind of understanding of each other. A comedian, Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the film’s screenplay, plays Martin and he does a very good job. He goes from stuffy, and the audience sides with him at times because we know he is right about the injustice of what the church did to Philomena and her son.

However, we also see the world through Philomena’s eyes. She isn’t quite ready to get angry at the church that separated her from her son. She says in one scene that she wants to forgive because she doesn’t want to remain angry. Martin doesn’t quite get why she would forgive. However, at the end, he does learn a bit about why she needs to move on. Sometimes moving on is the only way people can forgive. Philomena didn’t do anything wrong, despite what the Church considers a sin.

It should be noted, though, that this is a movie that works because of the people who made it. It’s not a movie of the week. It’s a sad and true story. We may not walk out of the theater quite understanding in our modern takes on things why Philomena is so willing to forgive, but we do understand Philomena’s willingness to move on because of the great performance of Judi Dench. Forgiveness is easy. Moving on is hard. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

“Saving Mr. Banks” is A Story Within A Story

Three and A Half Stars

I think "Saving Mr. Banks" is a really touching story about my favorite kind of people, storytellers. “Saving Mr. Banks” is the story of P.L. Travers, who wrote the Mary Poppins books. She sells the book to Disney, because she mainly needs the money. Yet, she also, through the process of selling and visiting Disney, has it bring up many things that she remembers from a painful childhood. Often an author sees what they had written differently than those who adapt it. The film isn’t really too much about Disney and the creative process as much as it’s about the childhood of the creator of the works Disney is adapting. I was a bit surprised at how much the film was about P.L. Traver’s childhood. The scenes with the ever stubborn author driving the screenwriter and the Sherman Brothers ,the movie’s song writers, crazy are delightful at times, and at other times, a bit sad because she is seeing this adaptation differently then they are. Emma Thompson is great as the stoic Travers, who is unmoved by the wonder and magic of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his crew. She is simply in this for the money, but also she is concerned about them making a cartoon of her story. Her story is really more about her personal history then her fictional one. Much like J.K. Rowling will tell you Harry Potter is about her depression then simply wands and magic, P.L. Travers sees Mary Poppins as about her awful childhood.

Walt Disney doesn’t quite understand what is wrong with Travers, the charming fellow he is. He has charmed the whole world with his stories and characters, so why not her? In fact, her real name isn’t P.L. Travers and she really isn’t British. She hides behind this all, because of her less than staller childhood with an alcoholic father. Her father is played by Colin Ferrell and is his best role in years. He doesn’t seem like a bad man, as he loves his daughters. However, he can’t seem to get out of his own way, as he is constantly drinking. The script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith goes back and fourth between P.L. Travers as an adult and herself as a child, spending much time in her childhood. The film’s shoots of her childhood are beautifully done. The little girl who plays Travers as a child does a great job, too. That should be noted.

One of my favorite aspects of his film is it’s understanding that the people who create magical tales are often the least magical people themselves. It takes a lot for someone to create fantasy, as it really is an alternative to his or her real life. Fantasy is an important escape, and this film seems to make the case for the importance of escapism. The escapism of writing Mary Poppins is so important to Travers that she cuts off the very real people who care about her. However, Walt Disney himself embraces the escapism of his own world, and doesn’t see why Travers doesn’t either.

I don’t know if this film is entirely what happened as it is produced by Disney Pictures, but I do give them credit for going a bit edgier in this picture. Travers and Disney seem to have a lot in common, however, when we come in the end, we realize that the difference is Walt chose to move on and Travers didn’t. My favorite scene in the film is that conversation between Walt and Travers. Also, I love the scene where the Disney driver, played by Paul Giamatti, says his disabled daughter gave him the Mary Poppins book before he left and he couldn’t stop reading. It made me think of J.K. Rowling, and it made me think that these types of storytellers haven’t really changed much in many years.

It is a serious, somber movie for the Disney Studios, and that’s what surprised me the most. This movie is a somber tale for anyone who’s ever tried to tell a story and the reasons why they tried to tell it in the first place. Sometimes we tell ourselves stories to cope, but at the end of the day, the most important story is our own.