Sunday, December 29, 2013


The tiny black eyes of a killer whale are so deeply set in their black faces that they don't seem to have eyes at all. At times, all we see are their teeth, and it seems they are smiling. They look like blindfolded giants, grinning at us. They are inscrutable. But as we learn in Gabriela Cowperthwaite's  Blackfish, if we listen, we can hear them cry.

Tilikum, the killer whale at the center of this dramatic and upsetting documentary, was captured and placed in captivity at age four. The stories of how the young whales are captured and taken from their families are deeply moving, particularly when one old-timer remembers the horrible sound of mother whales screaming. While at Sea Land, a shoddy, low rent sea show, Tilikum killed a trainer.  Obviously a dangerous creature, "Tili" was then shipped off to Sea World for breeding purposes. Somehow, perhaps because he was such a large animal and could make the all important big splash to soak the customers, Tilikum was soon performing at Sea World, too. Not surprisingly, he killed another trainer there,  grabbing her arm and holding her underwater, before mutilating her.

Killer whales, or orcas, are intelligent creatures. They are social, and like to travel about the ocean with their families. They have a complicated way of communicating, and a study of their brains have revealed these whales to possess levels of feeling we had not imagined. Blackfish puts forth a compelling argument that keeping such a bright species in captivity is akin to keeping them in solitary confinement. They go a little crazy. They get depressed. They'll kill.
Tilikum is examined in Blackfish almost like a teen serial killer in one of those A&E Biography shows. Former trainers remember him as a nice whale, with a fun disposition, but he could be moody. He occasionally charged at trainers, and at times seemed listless. We learn that he was separated from his mother at a young age, and that the female whales at Sea World bullied him. Tilikum's not alone, though. We see clips of other killer whales attacking trainers. Such attacks have been going on for years.

We learn that the whales in captivity don't live nearly as long as whales in the ocean, and that their fins seem to grow limp from lack of use. Being kept in tiny quarters and let out only to do stunts is a kind of slavery; when they attack, it's a slave revolt. Sea World doesn't cop to anything, though, and wouldn't participate in the film. We only see clips of Sea World employees, talking robotically about the greatness of Sea World, and reciting the company line about how the captive whales receive top treatment and care. (Sea World has recently issued a rebuttal to Blackfish, calling the documentary "propaganda." I suppose it's now up to Sea World to make their own documentary. Fair is fair, right?)
There are a number of former Sea World trainers in the film. They express feelings of guilt about their time there. The clips of experienced trainers working with the whales are indeed breathtaking, and I can understand why places like Sea World do such great business. But these trainers remind me of mountain climbers who crave the action and the beauty of nature, yet seem surprised when they get trapped in a crevice and die. There's a kind of naïve arrogance about them. One of them says she'd hoped the whales actually liked their trainers, and didn't just see them as the person feeding them fish. The irony is that the trainers being killed are often referred to as "the best trainer" at that particular facility. The most recent killing took place after a trainer had scolded Tilikum for not performing a stunt properly. Then Tilikum ate her. Was I wrong to be rooting for the whale?
It was easier to root for a mad whale than, say, a porn addict from New Jersey. Writer-director-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt  was hoping we'd sympathize with such a character when he made Don Jon.  This one is now available on DVD and VOD, and while watching it the other night I was struck by two things: One) Levitt actually thought audiences would care about  a Jersey muscle head who is so addicted to internet porn that even when he wins the affection of his dream girl (Scarlett Johansson, in a rare turn as an unlikable woman), he can't take a break from his nasty habit. He ends up ruining the relationship, which is ok because she was turning out to be a bitch, anyway. Two) As problematic as the film may be, it's strangely watchable, and I sort of liked it.
Perhaps Levitt's earnestness did it. He believed in this idea, and his enthusiasm shows. Or maybe it was Johansson's willingness to play an all out, ball busting shrew.  Maybe it was  Tony Danza's comical cameo as Levitt's foul-mouthed father ("Are those tits real?"). I liked how Johansson expectations of how people should behave seemed to come from romantic movies, an idea that needed more developing. I also liked how Levitt eventually tried to explain his problems to Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman he meets at night school. It's all too pat, of course, and he predictably learns about love in the arms of Esther, an earthy crunchy type who somehow landed in New Jersey, has her own problems, and for some reason feels compelled to cure this guy of his porn addiction.  A better movie could've been made about this macho jarhead bringing a woman like Esther home to meet his family. They'd loved Scarlett. They'll hate Esther. That's the film I'd like to see.
Ultimately, as an examination of the problems faced by a porn addict,  Don Jon is too glib, too simple. A porn addict, like any addict, is a troubled soul whose habits tend to effect his entire life in a negative way. Levitt makes porn addiction seem kind of fun. It's not.


Wrong Cops is the third film from writer/director Quentin Dupieux,  and while it's probably too strange for most audiences, it does have a few things going for it, namely the brusque performance of Mark Burnham as Duke, a corrupt cop who sells pot to kids (using the corpses of rats to store it in), listens to techno music, and goes on drug fueled tangents about heaven and hell. He is by far my favorite corrupt policeman in any film this year.

I also enjoyed seeing Steve Little (Stevie from HBO's Eastbound & Down) in a small role.  Little is one of the few actors who can make me smile just by thinking about him. Burnham hires Little to help dispose of a dead body, except the body turns out to be alive. That's just about the entire plot, although there is something about Little having once posed in a gay porn magazine, and there's another cop who keeps holding women at gunpoint and ordering them to show their breasts.  Marilyn Manson is here, too, in a surprisingly good cameo, sans goth makeup. I'm not sure if Manson is playing a nerd, or a male prostitute, but he's funny.
Wrong Cops may not be for everyone, but it made me laugh out loud three or four times. For a modern comedy, that's pretty good. Dupieux has his own rhythm, his own idea of what's funny, and seems to defy viewers to get on his wavelength. His stuff is unique, which doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Still, I want to see his next one.

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