Tag Archives: Ed Wall

Blackfish | Review

At least the whale knew what he was doing.

At least the whale knew what he was doing.

By Ed Wall

Is Blackfish a film with a message but no meaning, or a film with a meaning but no message?

Although it’s not immediately obvious which of these dubious honours it might have garnered, the result is certainly not particularly impressive. Bursting with information, it singularly fails to cohere – a weak sum of potentially strong, individually compelling parts. You suspect that, had there been anyone on board with the same amount of passion for the subject as the makers of, say, 2009’s The Cove [Louie Psihoyos’ angry interrogation of Japan’s dolphin hunting culture], the result might have been a very different kettle of whale.

The purported subject of this mixed bag is Tilikum, resident of SeaWorld in Orlando Florida, the largest Orca in captivity and to this date responsible (depending on one’s definition of responsibility) for the deaths of at least three people. Through a combination of historical footage, interviews and data, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite attempts to profile Tilikum both as individual and in the wider context of ‘the industry’ of whale-based amusement parts, from shady, frontier-like beginnings in the 1970s to the current SeaWorld-dominated landscape.

As a spin on the typical documentary format, Tilikum’s story is covertly presented as a kind of murder mystery/court case. It’s an unnecessary piece of directorial artifice, and the noose by which the film hangs itself. Cowperthwaite is a weak prosecutor, unable (or unwilling) to take a position beyond some bland notion of ‘objectivity’. In this context, the form is pointless; a purely superficial touch.

Cowperthwaite is a veteran of a particular breed of televisual documentaries, having worked for some of the big names (National Geographic, Animal Planet, ESPN, The Discovery Channel) in the past. There’s something in her style that’s vaguely, uneasily, reminiscent of the parades of cable TV documentaries you might flick through at hotel stopovers. There’s an indistinct impression of disinterest in the way she approaches the subject matter; some mercenary element that’s more focused on presentation and graphics than content. This commitment to superficiality imbues some weak information with too much significance, and sucks the life out of the stronger material.

While the film is happy to (rightly) suggest SeaWorld is to blame for a lack of compassion and common sense in relation to the treatment of its water-bound behemoths, the question of motivations is never explored. In an identikit series of inane interviews with wide-eyed former trainers, Cowperwaithe steadfastly refuses to pin any of them down on where exactly they think they might fit into the tragic picture as a whole.

Bar one square-headed nutter who, employing a logic that’s so perverse it’s almost laudable, tries to claim that whales performing like trained dogs for crowds of baying humans constitutes man honouring nature, one after another of these former SeaWorld devotees spit near-identical repentant/outraged tidbits. As though the goons in a fallen dictatorship had been given the platform on which to absolve themselves, Cowperwaithe presents this parade of disembodied characters spilling words and tears, tears and words – as though there was no inherent value in making sure any of it was honest.

Of all the individuals interviewed, the one who emerges from the film with the most credit is the rather brilliantly named Dave Duffus, an expert witness for OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) in the case brought by the US government against SeaWorld’s working conditions after the last of Tilikum’s ‘accidents’. Duffus’ clear respect for Orca whales and his palpable anger at the whole sorry business transcends Cowperthwaithe’s lame ‘neutrality’. Oddly, it also means that, amid the confusion, he stands out in the film to a degree that makes him feel more central than Tilikum.

As a piece of documentary filmmaking I’m pretty sure it is, if not a total failure, then at least a weak specimen of the genre. On the other hand, the agenda it has little or no interest in using its scattergun stack of information to fully support is one that a lot of the people who will end up seeing it already subscribe to: that keeping animals in a state of captivity is inhumane. As one of these viewers it’s a challenge to know how to react. Your instinct is to agree, but something makes you hesitate. It’s like watching Bono preaching about the plight of children in Africa, but with the nagging suspicion he bought an extra first class seat on the plane for his hat.

It’s confusing, painful to watch, when someone with no clear view of which field they’d rather be in positively hurls themselves onto the fence in the apparent name of objectivity, writhing around for an hour and a half before ascending to that beige heaven reserved solely for those who were pure enough to desire purgatory. SeaWorld representatives, naturally, declined to be interviewed for the film. Given the all-forgiving tolerance of the interviews here, they might now be feeling that they missed a trick.

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Frances Ha | Review

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By Ed Wall

Looking back as the credits roll on this touching and open-hearted NYC-set comedy/drama, it’s startling to think that the opening scenes could ever have felt so dubious. Something about the eponymous protagonist’s self-aware manner in those first few minutes really seems designed to rub the viewer up the wrong way. At this point, the near future looks bleak – an uphill slog through a bandwagon-jumping Brooklynite yarn. Will this be utterly, unbearably pretentious? Is Frances the epitome of annoying? You’re prepared to hate it. And then it surprises you.

Given director Noah Baumbach’s history, his documented perfectionism and meticulous use of openings to misdirect the viewer’s expectations in his prior films, you’d imagine this has been an intentionally cheeky manipulation. As important as first impressions usually are, Frances excels at not making – and then transcending not making – a good one. You fall for her, and for the film, rather despite yourself.

Although the film is set in the apparent hub of hipster culture right now, Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t easily fit any conceivable definition of cool. A reactive rather than proactive person, she’s a little lost, but not particularly concerned about it. She’s lazy, and spends time (as do a lot of us) talking about what she should be doing. Most of her flaws constitute what make her loveable: she’s a bit of a goofball, often quite annoying (but in a sweet way, unlike the character of Poppy in Mike Leigh’s irritating Happy-Go-Lucky, for example), has no self-censorship and no awareness of when she’s crossing the line with other people. As a character she feels intensely real, and Gerwig (co-writer of the film) plays her beautifully, with just the right amount of confusion and vulnerability hidden under the apparent spacey lack of awareness.

Fran’s friendship with Sophie (an impressive Mickey Sumner) constitutes Frances Ha‘s central relationship. As Frances refuses to meet her impending thirties head-on, the pair start to drift apart – a plot thread which accounts for much of the film’s emotional impact and dramatic tension. It’s also a blessed relief to see a contemporary comedy focused almost exclusively on a single female lead that isn’t ultimately concerned with the male love interest; the brilliantly casual way in which Frances casts off her first boyfriend is a good indication of the film’s lack of interest in her sex life.

In a number of ways, Frances and the film mirror each other. Frances is often casual to the point of being non-present, and while Frances Ha is ostensibly a comedy, its humour is often so low-key as to seem almost unintentional. This is a definite strength, in that it never seems to be actively looking for laughs. Baumbach’s choice to shoot in black and white doesn’t feel like an act of pretension so much as a Frances-like avoidance of having to choose colour schemes (although the film is visually rich, in a nicely understated way). It’s also brilliantly edited. Frances’ daily activities, often used as bridges between scenes, are briskly summated in montage-style vignettes which cut in and out of random exchanges and personal moments. In keeping with the film’s winning combination of frothiness and mild spikiness, these sequences at once lightly mock and highlight the bizarreness of peoples’ routines and behaviours. By making these observations awkward by robbing them of their immediate context, the film portrays life as a series of random, beautiful but ultimately meaningless instances. Yet, of course, the meaninglessness is what makes it all interesting.

I must admit I found the film emotionally affecting in a way I rarely find. Frances’ willingness, in the end, to open herself up to ridicule perhaps won my sympathies. If Lena Dunham’s fantastic Tiny Furniture (2011) was a film that encapsulated the knowingness of being in your early twenties, Frances Ha is definitely older, more world-weary, but conversely also more openly optimistic. It’s something like a pep talk to dreamers. The possibility of failure manifests throughout the film, daunting, concrete. And yet Frances’ steadfast refusal to allow that reality to exist (despite it so obviously existing) means the chance of a lucky break never seems beyond her. We create our own luck, it says, through an insane, bloody-minded refusal to believe there is no such thing as failure.

Frances Ha is in cinemas from Friday courtesy of Metrodome Pictures. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) | review

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“It was worthwhile for what you see on the screen. Who cares if every grey hair on my head I call ‘Kinski’?”

Werner Herzog’s triumphant anti-epic concerning man’s crazed will to power – over nature, other men and adverse shooting conditions – is now being brought back to the big screen by the British Film Institute in all its compelling, insane glory.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God was Herzog’s first collaboration with genius/maniac Klaus Kinski, who works to evil, haughty effect in the role of the vaingloriously ambitious Don Lope de Aguirre. Towering, glowering, hyper-intelligent and totally unhinged, Aguirre hacks like a zealous devil through an unwelcoming Amazon on his singularly quixotic quest. With the mythical treasures of Eldorado as his goal, promises of boundless wealth, fame and power burning in his fevered imagination, Aguirre is the ostensible leader of an ever-more rag-tag group of lost conquistadors as they stumble towards their stifling Equatorial graves. With the uncomfortable nearness of the jungle translated vividly on screen, its dispassion and tactile intrusiveness so directly expressed, you imagine the film crew feeling a great kinship for this group of doomed fools as they followed their own bloody-minded leader into the unknown.

The film follows its own linear path, heading towards its destination with unremitting purpose, not so much written as bluntly forced into being. Which isn’t to suggest it is in any way brazen or simplistic. Rather, it’s incredibly nuanced, perversely conjuring poetic tragedy and weightiness through being light and actually somewhat silly. As Aguirre, Kinski’s performance is totally absurd and hilarious, but you wouldn’t dream of laughing within 20 miles of his face.

Within a barrage of sledgehammer blows, Herzog is engaging in subtle connections. Though the film is intently focused on its lead, there are some fantastic supporting characters: the noble yet short-sighted Don Pedro and his beautiful wife Inez, blind to the tide of fate that’s turning against them; the corpulent and childishly entitled Don Fernando; the grubby and sycophantic priest Brother Gaspar, calmly reshaping his influence to suit the interests of whoever happens to be the group alpha of the moment. And, of course, the Amazon itself: churning brown water framed by impenetrable jungle, untamed and unforgiving.

Herzog’s genius lies not just in his ambition. It’s in his intuitive feel for what lies beneath, the hidden nature of things. Stripping away all the bombast and bullshit he shows the stickily glistening pulse at the core. From the breathless opening shot, men and women the size of ants forging their hesitant way down a mist-swathed Andean face, he places a supposedly cultured humanity back in the cycle of that same fierce nature which for years it seems to have been deluded enough to believe it had escaped. Back in the midst, oft-vaunted civility is openly revealed as a lie.

And there’s the kicker: on some level, everything which seems alien to us about what this film portrays is actually incredibly, intimately close at hand. As remote as Don Aguirre is, a coldly burning star in the void, like all anti-heroes there’s something painfully knowable about him. Despite the grandstanding, his motives are as simple, as proximate – as inane and ultimately pointless – as our own. There’s an absurdly comedic horror that as everything falls apart he only grows more certain; that, in the face of impeding failure, he’s only more committed to what he sees as the authenticity of his actions.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God is on limited release now. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.