Dear Film Critic: SeaWorld vs. “Blackfish”, a documentary about Tilikum the whale and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau


Though it doesn’t open in Orlando until sometime in August (stay tuned for more coverage when the film comes out), the initial NY/LA release of Magnolia Pictures and CNN films’ Blackfish is coming this Friday, and buzz is beginning to build about the film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which seeks to shed light on the problems of long term orca captivity.

The film — and the promotion of the film — is highly critical of SeaWorld in particular, and of the practice of sea mammal captivity for the purpose of entertainment in general, featuring interviews with more than a half-dozen former trainers from SeaWorld’s three parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio.

The film’s main focus is on Tilikum, the largest orca currently in captivity, who has been responsible — at least in part — for three deaths since being captured in the wild in the early 1980s. The latest came in 2010 (shortly after another trainer’s death in Loro Parque in Spain in 2009), when head trainer Dawn Brancheau was reportedly pulled underwater by her ponytail after a routine performance at Dine with Shamu in the Orlando park. (The real Shamu died in 1971, which is sort of like finding out that there is no Santa Claus.)

(This video cuts well before anything goes wrong.)

Due to the controversial nature of the film, SeaWorld Entertainment sent out an email to film critics over the weekend that alleges that the allegations made against them in the film are allegedly bogus. You can scroll to the bottom to read the email in its entirety, but in summary, the email warns to take the film as a “powerful, emotionally-moving” direct appeal in advocacy of orca rights but that the film shouldn’t be taken as fact, calling the film “shamefully dishonest”.

The email claims that claims in the film about SeaWorld’s practices — removing orcas from the wild, removing them from their family structure, bullying amongst captive orcas and whether or not the lifespan of a wild orca is significantly longer than a captive orca — are “deliberately misleading” and that what the film “presents as unvarnished reality is anything but.”

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Pacific Rim – Guillermo del Toro (2013)


Bro, the world is about to end. It’s been 15 years since these crazy fucken monsters — they call em the kaiju, whatever that means — began appearing from some kind of intergalactic hole in the ground at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, taking out whole cities like San Fran and Malaysia just cuz. There used to be months between their visits to ruin all, but now they’re coming even few days and speeding up. Bro, listen. Time isn’t on our side, but we got these giant goddamn robots, and they are.

Dude, I know what you’re thinking, that robots are no match for giant monsters with shark grills that spit acid. But it’s not the robots, it’s the dudes (and chicks) inside the robots, all right?  They’ve got some personal shit to overcome before they can do that mind meld thing and throw down with those badass robot weapons, but so do the rest of us. And they have to, because, yo, just like that ridic wall they want to build around Mexico that dad’s all for, this anti-kaiju wall shit ain’t gonna work. It’ll probably come at the last second, because that’s always how this shit works, but they’ll save the day. Bro, I know they will.

Yo, it’s kinda funny. Watching those things fight is kind of like the sock-em-rock-em robot thing dad used to have the basement that he wouldn’t let us touch because it was worth too much on eBay, except one of the robots is a monster. Or those weird ass cartoons all those AV club dorks used to watch while not hanging out with any girls, ever. All that crazy Japanese stuff that you had to read to watch. Who the hell wants to read a movie anyway? But this shit is real. If one of those things like killed mom or you, Bro, you know I’d be in one of those robots, wrecking those bastards like Hulkamania for real.

And when it was all over, and the movie came out, and they cast that guy from the badass biker show to play me, all that death would be kind of worth it, you know? Because Bro, it comes down to this: if you can’t turn the brain meat off and sit back and enjoy Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi and Idris Elba beating the crap out of some monsters then, dude, you’re the monster.

In Your Queue: “Boy” and “Call Northside 777”


Boy – Taika Waititi

Set in New Zealand in the mid-80s, Taika Waititi’s Boy should have been a critical darling, beloved by everyone and then eventually hated by everyone else when the love got too gooey, but the film went as underloved as it’s titular main character, Boy (James Rolleston), an 11 year old who loves nothing more than Michael Jackson, his pretty classmate Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell), and his father, Alamein (Waititi), who is pretty much the best dad ever except for the fact that he isn’t around. Tales of his father’s perfection at every endeavor attempted, from wood carving to soldiery, abound, mostly from Boy’s wild imagination. But when Alamein finally comes home one night, Boy might have to confront the fact that his father isn’t so perfect.

Boy is Waititi’s second film after the equally imaginative Eagle vs. Shark, but shows off a peculiar but deep maturity in Waititi’s writing — especially the lyrical dialogue, a mix of tall tales, curses and slang that falls so perfectly out of everyone’s mouths — reveling in all things immature to reach a certain point about family and idolization. Though the film never takes anything about itself seriously, there is nothing frivolous about Boy. Unlike Eagle vs Shark, this is a serious work that happens to be swaddled in a gauzy wrapping of oddball quirk like bubblegum flavored medicine, but there is a heartbreakingly relatable story underneath it all.

Call Northside 777 – Henry Hathaway

Henry Hathaway dips into Jimmy Stewart’s darker side in this murder mystery noir from 1948. Stewart plays JP McNeal, a cynical beat reporter for a Chicago daily who can’t stomach the rules. When an ad is placed in the personals offering $5,000 to anyone with information about the murder of a police officer 11 year prior, McNeal is sent out to on a fools errand to suss out whether Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), the man locked up for the crime, might actually be innocent.

Because of films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (maybe even Harvey and The Shop Around the Corner), it tends to happen that we mostly think of the loveable aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart when he is remembered in the popular imagination. His will to be a gentle soul and blind believer in angels and invisible rabbits mark the films that made him a cultural touchstone to everyone everywhere throughout time. But in films like Northside, and like Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder, his dark, cynical side was no less profound, no less a touchstone for the everyman. In fact, his range as an everyman is remarkable, and Northside plays up both ends of it as the cynic slowly becomes the believer. In that slow turn, Hathaway keeps his distance and his hands off, allowing McNeal to come to the story at his own pace, even if he is a little slow to the punch.

In Your Queue — “Some Girl(s)” and “Europa Report”


Some Girl(s) – Daisy von Scherler Mayer

Adapted by Neil LaBute from his stage play, Some Girl(s) travels alongside with a newly successful writer (Adam Brody) as he crisscrosses the country, tracking down a series of lovers from his past before his impending marriage so he can right some of the wrongs from he old life. Or so he says, but not all of the girls are buying it. It’s well turned-over territory of course (what isn’t these days?), but LaBute’s reversals and wordplay never sag, and von Scherler Mayer coaxes standout performances from Jennifer Morrison, as the high school sweetheart he did wrong, and Zoe Kazan, as a friend’s little sister who crushed on him as a kid. Though the film barely suffers Brody’s generic charm much of the time, he does have his own moment in the Boston scene, opposite Emily Watson, that brings that brings the best out of him. As with any multi-story film, some threads are winners and some are losers, but Some Girl(s) wins more often than not.


Europa Report – Sebastián Cordero

Though Europa Report is another entry in the found footage genre, there is something slightly different about its use here. The footage — the film is told through a series of onboard monitors that catch everything — isn’t used a gimmick to mindfuck you, as it is in most films of the genre. Here, it’s a legitimate story telling tool, employed to tell the story of the first manned space expedition to Europa after something goes horribly wrong. Europa is the moon of Jupiter that is though to be the best chance for life outside of Earth because of its subsurface liquid water, and it’s exactly that chance of life that these explorers hope (and somewhat idly fear) they will find once they land on the moon’s icy surface — that is, if they can get there. Europa Report is not the hard science fiction that screenwriter Philip Gelatt wanted to make (you really have to turn your science brain off if you know anything about Europa) but it’s always been the soft science of movie logic that allows the suspense to really take shape and grip us with a sincere and exciting “what if…?”

A Hijacking – Tobias Lindholm (2013)


When a Danish cargo ship is taken for ransom off of the coast of Somalia, the shipping company’s president, Peter (Søren Malling), begins a long, drawn out negotiation with the hijackers who are unimpressed when he lowballs their demands on the advice of a kidnapping expert. The film succeeds as an intense talking thriller, but it focuses on the negotiations and miscommunication so heavily that the larger stories of the sailors (spearheaded by Pilou Asbaek) and the kidnappers are never dipped into with any satisfaction. The high tension is enough to make the film worth your time, but there is little there to make you care about either the hostages or the hijackers, who we actually learn startlingly little about.