Thursday, December 12, 2013

Film Review: Upstream Color (2013)

An important question surrounding "Upstream Color" has become: Should the film be applauded just because Shane Carruth attempted it? Carruth did not only direct, write, and star in the film (his second picture, released a decade after his first), but he is also credited as producer, composer, and editor. Carruth's effort and determination is definitely ambitious. But the film itself is a gimcrack vanity trip.

The main character, Kris, experiences severe trauma, which involves her being kidnapped, drugged (the drug contains some metaphysical worm), and hypnotized. When she comes out of her stupor she is penniless and, unable to explain her absence, loses her job.

A man named The Sampler (a separate person from the kidnapper) lures Kris to his farm by using a low-frequency sound. He removes her worm and places it in a piglet. Kris is released, and later meets Jeff, who has been through a similar frightening ordeal.

The piglet carrying Kris' worm is somehow psychically connected to her. When that pig gives birth, The Sampler puts the piglets in a sack and drowns them. At the same time elsewhere, Kris is suddenly panicked (but doesn't know why) and begins searching frantically. Jeff is equally upset. Very scared, the two lock themselves in a bathroom, hiding in the bathtub with a gun and supplies.

Carruth says he chose not to have a relatable trauma happen to the two protagonists because he was worried that if it was too specific, people would believe the commentary was an indictment of whatever that thing was. For example, if the drug used in "Upstream" was a pharmaceutical drug (as opposed to the worm capsules), it could easily be perceived as a comment on pharmaceuticals. This is wrong.

Look at a film that does use a specific subject to communicate a universal message. "Brokeback Mountain" deals with a taboo relationship between two cowboys. But the film's themes extend beyond homosexuality, as is obvious to anyone who has viewed the film.

By trying to make "Upstream Color" more relatable, Carruth does the opposite, and alienates the viewer. How are real-life trauma survivors, or anyone else, supposed to empathize with the victims of pig mind control? And the dreamlike, abstract quality of the film further distances it from reality.

After thinking about it, the similarities between Kris' in-film trauma, and some victims of real-life trauma, became clearer: financial and personal ruin; being endlessly dazed, and frightened, and hopeless, just a general mess. But even when these connections become clear, they lack impact. By generalizing the trauma the film isolates itself; it would have done better to use one specific, tangible trauma. As it is, "Upstream" creates a muddled, imprecise portrait.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Film Review: Red Obsession (2013)

"Red Obsession" makes the viewer appreciate the true artistry involved in wine making, and the asomatous beauty involved in wine tasting (ordering wine at the Olive Garden is not wine tasting.) Drinking a good wine can be an orgasmic physical experience, as well as a genuinely spiritual one. Some of the interviewed eloquently describe an exquisite wine as an enduring experience.

The scenic views of French countryside and century-old vineyards are astounding. "Red Obsession" has some of the most spectacular cinematography this reviewer has ever seen. This alone is a very good reason to watch.

The film eventually moves into the current politics of the luxury wine industry. The epicentre of this business is currently China, which is now the largest importer of Bordeaux wines in the world. The rest of the film can be summarized in a sentence spoken by one of the commentators: "When [the Chinese] buy the wine, they buy the wine as a symbol of their status." The film's content, which includes exploration of the shifting market, and the changing production and consumption of premier chateau wines, was very informative and interesting to this uncultivated viewer. But the film is as untroubled as the well-off Chinese in it, who think nothing of dropping tens of millions of dollars buying wines, creating connoisseur clubs, or purchasing antiquated French chateaus.

Overflowing with conceit and extravagance, "Red Obsession" turns out mostly shallow and pretentious. The film doesn't ask any questions, or challenge conventional thinking, or break any new ground. Yes it is a documentary, but it is not constructive filmmaking.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Film Review: Blackfish (2013)

The film "Blackfish" is shocking, and traumatizing. And it should be mandatory viewing.

The documentary opens with former SeaWorld orca trainers describing how they got their job at the park. Apparently, it is not as difficult to become a trainer as one might think. While mesmeric music plays in the background, and orcas swim through sky blue Seaworld waters, the former SeaWorld trainers remember meeting their first orcas. The creatures, they reminisce, were humongous, inspiring, and beautiful. While working at SeaWorld, the trainers formed relationships with the animals (for some of them, this is the reason they stayed as long as they did.) The information that comes after this affectionate introduction is unimaginably horrific.

Among the tragic fatalities explored is the death of top SeaWorld orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, who died in 2010 after the orca Tilikum pulled her into the water. Many of the interviewees had known Dawn personally, and had great respect for her.

There is one part of the film that I dislike, and that is the reverence toward Dawn Brancheau. Dawn's job, her livelihood, was keeping these animals in unspeakable conditions, causing unfathomable psychological and emotional torture. Dawn proudly and vocally profited from these animals' suffering. She was either ignorant of the horrific agony caused to the captive orcas, or simply ignored it. But Dawn was one of the top trainers at Seaworld... so could she really have been so ignorant? Did she think that kidnapping and imprisoning the orcas was nurturing? When the baby calfs were ripped from their mother's side, and the mother fell into a visible, catatonic depression, emitting screeching cries day and night, trying to communicate with her child... How exactly did Dawn interpret that?

The following quote is from the Dawn Brancheau Foundation's website:

"In addition to her work as a trainer, Dawn also became the face of SeaWorld. Over the years, she appeared on billboards around the world, a large mural at the Orlando International Airport, on a Budweiser beer bottle, and on many other promotional materials. She also appeared live on House Hunters, Wheel of Fortune, and FETCH! with Ruff Ruffman. Dawn was always willing to share her knowledge and love of the orcas with new audiences."
I just wonder why "Blackfish" commends the memory of a woman who was, literally, the face of orca torture. The former SeaWorld trainers interviewed were saddened by Dawn's death; so by the same hand, they're protesting orca imprisonment, while commemorating the warden? "Blackfish" beautifies Dawn Brancheau, just as SeaWorld glamorizes the lives of the captive orcas.

I was also bothered by the end shot, which shows four of the former trainers on a boat, watching wild orcas swim in their natural habitat. This is unnecessary, contrived, and redundant. (Perhaps the director was aiming for a sentimental Hollywood-ish ending.)

These two things only slightly dampened the otherwise very strong film.

Some of the messages in "Blackfish" not only apply to the orcas in captivity, but are more universal; such as how marketing can completely indoctrinate us. And especially the idea that people believe what they want to believe, and that it's always easier to turn your head away, than to take action. The orcas at SeaWorld were and are subjected to heinous physical and emotional torture. The former trainers in the film talk about how on some level, at the time of their SeaWorld employment, they understood what was happening. But externally, consciously, they ignored the warning signs. It is all remindful of the old wisdom, that if one is not part of the solution, than they are part of the problem.

"Blackfish" is a sensational documentary, magnificently enunciated and skillfully crafted. It is also one of the most horrific films I have ever seen. Within the current rating system, there is no question that "Blackfish" should have an NC-17 rating. And yet this is a film that should be mandatory viewing in schools. Everyone needs too see this film, especially young people. It is a tough movie to watch, and so perhaps appropriately, it is also an extraordinarily important one.

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