Blog Archives

The Lies Our Memory Tells: A Review of “The Affair”

Grade: A

Showtime’s newest drama, The Affair premiered last night with a cast of deeply-complex characters and a riveting new format. The pilot episode tells the tale of Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) as they meet for the first time and, as the show’s title gives away, will soon become entangled in a complicated love affair. The two meet when Noah, along with his wife and four children, head to Montauk for the summer where they’ll be staying with Noah’s well-off and forever-pompous Father-in-Law (John Doman). Stopping first for a bite to eat after just arriving in town, Alison is the waitress at the local diner blessed with the task of taking their order.

Affair1 The story starts off from Noah’s perspective. He’s recounting events to a man who is questioning him. We’re not sure who the man is, but it seems like a police interrogation and we get the feeling that a lot of time has passed. We know not what crime he’s being questioned for. As Noah recounts events we watch him interact with his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), in a seemingly happy marriage, battle with his children of all differing ages and angst-levels, and try his hardest to calmly and coolly get his family all packed up and off to their grandfather’s.

Noah’s family is nothing if not chaotic. As if his son orchestrating a pretend suicide attempt before they leave the house, and his eldest daughter’s refusal to eat anything over 10 calories isn’t enough, the family-drama culminates at the diner when his youngest daughter begins to choke on a marble at the table as they place their breakfast orders. Amidst panic from the family and with Alison watching on in fear, Noah is able to beat on his daughter’s back and dislodge the item she was choking on.

The event has clearly traumatized Alison. Noah takes notice and does his best to comfort her and assure her his daughter is fine and there’s nothing to be upset about. But their interaction doesn’t stop here. Later, he runs into her again on the beach. She is flirtatious with him and asks him to walk her home where they take a look at her outdoor shower. There, Alison asks him if he’d like to try it out. When he declines and insists he should be getting home, she undresses in front of him and climbs in for a shower of her own. A bit rattled, he avoids the situation and heads for home, but not before witnessing Alison and a man who turns out to be her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), fighting with her in the driveway vehemently, violently dropping his pants, and forcibly bending her over the hood of his car.

Episode 101The screen goes black, and part two begins—Alison’s story. We start off at the morning of the same day. Immediately, the tone is much more somber and Alison seems considerably more damaged than she did in Noah’s recounting of events. Cole, on the other hand, is not the menacing man Noah has led us to believe either. He’s troubled by something, surely, but eager to please his wife which turns out to be a difficult task. We get the feeling that his attempts to win her over have been falling flat for quite some time. We soon learn that they lost a child recently and that today would’ve been the little boy’s birthday.

Alison, too, is recounting the events to some sort of detective and we can tell that much time has passed. Right away, as soon as Noah enters her story, we as viewers realize that their memories differ in complex ways. As an onlooker, this subtle reveal is riveting to watch. The table-chaos when Noah’s family places their order at the restaurant is different than it was in Noah’s recounting of events. When Noah’s daughter starts choking, it’s not Noah who heroically saves her, but Alison who beats her and dislodges the item she’s choking on. Noah, for the most part, idly stands by as Alison takes charge. The two continue to interact because Noah comes back to Alison again and again as a way to thank her for saving his daughter’s life. And later, on the beach, it’s Noah who is coming on to Alison. It’s Noah who asks to walk her home. It’s Noah who asks to see her outdoor shower, and it’s Noah who asks to try it out. Alison is taken aback by his behavior. Noah even goes so far as to kiss her on the cheek in a way that upsets Alison and she tells him to leave. The shirt he is wearing is different than in Noah’s retelling. The dress she remembers wearing is less revealing than he recalls. And the sex against the car that Noah witnesses between Cole and Alison is still violent, yes, but Alison asked for it be that way, preferred it that way, and the event followed an intimate conversation between Alison and Cole about the pain associated with the loss of their child.

Both Noah and Alison recall events in strikingly different ways. Who is right? How does that change things?

affair2The show is able to offer an enticing study on memory and the impermanence of our recall. It’s a study on the lies we unintentionally tell and how remembering wrong, even inadvertently, can forever change the tenor of events. Still, the ways in which we twist things in our minds often make sense. Of course Noah would perceive Cole as this awful, menacing, rapist of a husband. He’s going to have an affair with this man’s wife—anything to make that act seem better, to make it seem as if someone is benefiting in the seemingly selfish act is something he’d cling to. And of course Alison would remember herself as being hesitant to his coming-on, unwelcome even. She’d want to believe that it wasn’t her choice to start an affair, that she wasn’t looking for that. She wants to believe her innocence so she remembers it that way. Noah heroically recalls saving his daughter and defending his family—the ultimate protector. He’d like to think of himself as the one keeping everything together, as someone they’re dependent on, especially considering we know he’s certainly disrupted his family’s life with the affair he chose to have. By hearing both sides of the same story, the characters immediately become more complex and we learn more in the short one-hour we’re given than we would otherwise. It’s a refreshing and brilliant way to break down a character’s motivations, fears, and hesitations and the show’s creators, Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, deserve a bevy of kudos for coming up with it.

This idea goes even beyond the characters on the screen. The defectiveness of memory is universal and it’s something the show forces us to acknowledge. Sometimes our memories fail. Do we admit our shortcomings ever? Of course, but we tell ourselves little unintentional lies. This idea is a fascinating concept in the context of something as complex and “he said/she said” as an affair. It’s a perfect move that the writers have made. There’s a police interrogation. Blame for some nameless crime is certainly being pointed somewhere. What better way to create intrigue in the audience than to make us wonder who of our narrators we can trust? Whose memory is most accurate? I’m curious to see what format the show will continue to follow. Will there continue to be such discord between sides of the story, or will Noah and Alison gradually find common ground as their lives become more entangled? Will their memories become “truer” as we get further in time and closer to the time of the interrogation? Will each episode be told in two parts like this or was this just the way to get the ball rolling? Can the showrunners keep it up without the format becoming cumbersome? And, better yet, what else is there left to reveal? Why are the police in the mix? Who is the father of the kid Alison tells the detective she must pick up? And what happens to all the other players involved?

A long list of lingering questions is a good sign of a successful pilot episode. They certainly have me hooked.

Advertisements

Time Heals All Wounds: A Review of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Grade: A-

There are stories that need to be read and there are stories that need to be viewed. There are stories better told through written words on a page, and stories best suited for the screen. Of course, some overlap, some are appropriate for either medium, but there are certain stories that can reach a whole new depth when the creator chooses the correct canvas to paint it on.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a story built for the screen.

Eleanor1Why? I’ll tell you, but first, an example: Atonement is an outstanding film directed by Joe Wright and adapted for the screen from an equally-impressive novel by Ian McEwan. There’s a scene in both the novel and the film where the main character, Briony—a nurse during World War II—tends to a wounded soldier moments before his death. She has never met him before, but she’s keeping him company until he breathes his last breath. In the book, we are given the character’s inner thoughts. I remember reading the moment when the boy, confused and incoherent, asks if she loves him and she says yes with the accompanying explanation, “No other reply was possible. Besides, for that moment, she did. He was a lovely boy who was a long way from his family and he was about to die.” A simple, seeming inconsequential thought, but this passage stuck with me as a reader. It amplified the entire scene. It gave it even more weight than a scene with a dying soldier would on its own. And although the movie did employ the use of narration at times, there was no narration in this scene. We’re asked to watch Briony watching a man die and we, as viewers, are supposed to come up with our own ideas of what must be going through her mind. In the novel, we don’t have to ask—we just know. Would I have assumed she’d reach the same realization about his family at that moment on my own? Maybe not. Do I need it to appreciate the scene? No. But that moment alone was what made it memorable for me. This particular scene functioned better in the novel than it did on the screen because the event is so emotionally charged that the character is thinking multiple thoughts at once. We need and want to know Briony’s specific thoughts. We need to be steered in the right direction or else risk not imagining her thinking what the author intended us to.

Eleanor Rigby, on the other hand, is a character entirely shut off. Her “disappearance” is both literal and metaphoric. She is emotionally withdrawn. Film works best for her story because she doesn’t want to share what she’s thinking, she doesn’t even know what she’s thinking, she doesn’t even want to talk. She’s pure evasion. We’re better clued into her inner turmoil by watching her, not by hearing what’s in her head. Her thoughts are intentionally sparse which is why her story is so well suited for the screen. We gain more access to her by watching her because she’s unwilling and incapable of giving us anything more.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (directed by Ned Benson) follows the lives of a married couple, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), whose relationship has just lost the final thread it was hanging from. Once blissfully in love, things have taken a turn for the worst—Eleanor has disappeared and Conor is desperate to find her and fix the relationship in whatever way he can. We, as the audience, are intentionally kept in the dark. We know something major happened to propel the downward spiral, but we don’t know what—mostly because both characters refuse to talk (or think) about whatever it is that went horribly wrong.

Eleanor2jEleanor is all about avoiding. She moves back home to live with her parents following a failed suicide attempt and we learn very early in that she doesn’t want to talk about whatever it is that made her jump from that bridge. She wants to escape. She’s disappeared not only literally from her old life, but inside her head as well. The number one rule of storytelling is that each character has to change. They need to progress, they need to start at one place and end up somewhere else. The filmmakers know that in order for us, as the audience, to see Eleanor’s growth and progression we need to be treated just like everyone else in her life who try to help her but can’t. We need to be in the dark. We need to try to find clarity and fail. We need to feel we’re making headway and then hit a dead end. We need to feel just as helpless as she does in order to understand her journey. For that reason, the filmmakers intentionally and artistically keep us in the dark. We have no idea what Eleanor’s thinking. And it’s awesome.

This approach to storytelling is what makes this film fascinating. Eleanor won’t give us her interior thoughts, she refuses therapy sessions, she doesn’t want to talk, she avoids any situation that may make her discuss what happened. To heal, she needs to just exist. We have to feel aimless with her, but we also have to feel a slight progression. We have to feel her getting out of her hole. But she can’t tell us anything to give us any clues that she is progressing because that’s her whole problem—that she can’t pinpoint her pain or her recovery. We have to watch her struggle, but we also have to see her evolution. So we’re left to map her progress in different ways—in brilliant subtle cues. Slowly, we get more and more details. We learn that she lost a son and that this is what set her off, this is what she can’t recover from. We gain insight not from what she speaks, but from how she interacts with her nephew, the telling glance at a photograph she spots hidden away in a closet, what she chooses to tell her equally-damaged professor (Viola Davis), and what she does the few times she willingly pops back into Conor’s life. It’s slow and it’s calculated, but every small action she makes deftly shows us where she is at mentally.

The story is impeccably underwritten in the very best way. You feel smart when you watch this film, you feel like you’re in on the secret, like you solved the puzzle and it’s because the filmmakers trust that the audience is clever enough to read their subtle cues without needing Eleanor to have one major outburst, or one telling therapy session that will articulate everything we need to know. They force us to do the analytical work. We don’t need all the fluff. Eleanor isn’t about the fluff. She’s real. She’s passive, but she’s actively passive and we just need to wait it out with her.

The beautiful realization you come to when watching this film is that healing is not always about talking. It’s not always about doing. Sometimes, it’s just about time. Sometimes, it’s just about waiting it out. There is no recipe for grief. Eleanor never really comes right out and shares her story, her struggle. She talks to no one. She listens to Professor Friedman and that seems to help her more than anything, but Friedman has no idea what she’s actually going through. The only one she talks to is Conor and perhaps that’s because she doesn’t have to share much with him—he knows the details without her having to communicate because the loss was theirs together. She admits to her father when she refuses the therapy he’s set up for her, “I don’t want a reminder that something is wrong” and she tries constantly to avoid any such reminder. So she floats. She meanders. She doesn’t know how to fix herself. We don’t know what she needs either, but we watch as she gradually is able to pull herself out of her funk. She needed to disappear, she needed to just exist. And ever so slowly, ever so subtly, and ever so seamlessly we’re left with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, she’s through the worst of it.

And for the viewer, that progress is more than enough.

The Eternal Pairing of Music and Breakups: A Review of “Begin Again”

Grade: A-

Music and Breakups have been together since Samson and Delilah. It’s an amicable pairing. They complement each other perfectly— Mr. Music is the soothing savior to Ms. Breakup’s destructive rage. The duo are like two peas in a pod and nothing will break them apart. Pints of coffee ice-cream and rebound make-out sessions with strangers may briefly catch Ms. Breakup’s eye and distract her, but in the end she’ll always come back to her one true staple when she needs to feel better— music.

The louder the better, the greater the anthem. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

begin againWho hasn’t, in the midst of relationship destruction, turned to Beyonce’s “Irreplaceble” as a pick me up? Or Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”, Adele’s “Someone Like You”, or Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”? Whatever your fancy, music and breakups go hand in hand. They always have. The music industry can thank relationship blunders for 90% of their songs and 90% of their profits. The two “just get each other.”

Director John Carney (Once) understood this eternal pairing of music and breakups very well, which is exactly why his latest film, Begin Again—a break-up movie/musical—manages to hit all the right notes.

In the film, Greta (Keira Knightley) has just broken up with her soon-to-be-famous boyfriend of five years, David Kohl (Adam Levine). The two were a talented writing duo, but David has chosen fame (and a hot assistant at his label) over her. After a friend drags Greta on stage to sing one of her own songs at an open mic night in NYC, she catches the eye of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a “former” music exec equally down on his luck. Dan decides Greta is the next big thing and to get the attention of his label that has lost faith in him, the two begin work on an outdoor album recorded in myriad locations throughout the city. For Greta and Dan both, this opportunity is a much-needed fresh start sure to reap leagues and leagues of benefits.

Cue the folky/pop music.

Break-up movies are easy to mess up in the same way that romantic movies are. Too many feelings. Too many opportunities for cheesy lines. Too many opportunities for sappy tears, cliché “just dumped” boxes of his junk, and sloppy rebounds. But the biggest hurdle to cross is that romance and breakups are about feelings—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and depicting these emotions on film without simply telling the audience how the characters feel in a string of sappy clichés is the challenge. Movies need to show and not tell. We don’t want to see the characters whine, but we want to understand why they might be whining without having to sit through their blubbery tantrum.

Thankfully, with Begin Again, Carney has expertly found a way to have us perfectly understand what the characters are thinking and feeling without them having to tell us—he makes them tell us through song.

The characters are songwriters. It’s perfect! It’s fool-proof. All the things Greta would confide in a sappy monologue she can now perform—the words she sings are the truths she’s feeling. And it’s not melodramatic. And it’s not driven into us until we’re forced to get it—we just get it. We get what she’s feeling. We get what she’s thinking about. We get where she’s headed next. We understand because of the words she sings and the ways in which she sings them.

The most satisfying moment in the film where this happens is when Greta comes home to discover that David has just won some sort of “Best New Artist” award. His image is plastered all over youtube and he thanks his adoring fans for their support. Naturally, Greta reacts by throwing back some whiskey and writing a song. The next shot we see is of her iphone, duct-taped to a pole like a mic, and David Kohl’s name on the front of the iphone screen. And then she starts singing. She pours out her heart, telling him everything she’d wanted to say but didn’t get the chance to—in a simple, succinct ballad sent straight to his voicemail.

And we get it. We get exactly what she’s thinking, what she’s doing, and how far she’s come with this drunken act of defiance. It hits us like a gust of stale subway air blowing up our dress and exposing us— exposing us to the vulnerability and the truth of the act we’ve all lived before. Because we’ve all had times where we’d kill for this moment. The chance to say what you need to say to the one who did you wrong in a way that is neither dramatic, crazy, or desperate. We never have to shake our head at Greta’s behavior or slap ourselves on the wrist for having done the same thing ourselves. We’re neither embarrassed for her, or uncomfortable, or cringing at the cheesiness that other, lesser movies may have created. We just get it, without Greta having to speak a word.

In this way, the complicated situation of a breakup becomes simple, pure, manageable, and easy to deconstruct despite its apparent complexities. And the perfect pairing of music and breakups gets us there seamlessly.

 

 

 

An Unconventional Study of Human Relationships: A Review of Spike Jonze’s “Her”

Grade: A

Spike Jonze’s none-too-distant future is a world oozing in coral hues, baggy 70’s-esque fashion, rampant train travel, and technology “comfort food” that’ll soothe your broken heart better than mama’s mac and cheese ever could. Inventive video games, voice-activated email, minimalist (yet cozy) design…it’s a future that seems inviting, safe, and efficient. It’s a future we’d root for and hope to see into fruition. Still, despite the world’s gumdrop exterior, beneath the surface lurks a scentless plume of unsettling loneliness. Is the world itself to blame, or does it simply reflect human nature?

HERSpike Jonze’s beautifully fragile film Her tells the tale of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a mopey employee of a personal letter writing service whose marriage with wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) has recently ended. Bored with his daily schedule of work, video games, phone sex, repeat, Theodore installs the new upgrade for his personal OS and his life is forever changed. His new Siri-esque assistant, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), evolves the more he interacts with it, and before you know it, Theodore has fallen in love with the compassionate, supportive voice on the other end of his earbud.

Unlike Lars and the Real Girl and other non-human/human relationships in films in the past, there is nothing awkward about the relationship Jonze has created between Samantha and Theodore. Yes, Theodore’s in love with his computer, but she seems every bit as real as the next woman and offers him everything a relationship would—support, motivation, sex, conversation. The only thing she lacks is a body and while this deeply bothers Samantha, Theodore is hardly affected by it. He’s happy with her.

What is marveling about the world that Jonze’s has created is how he has shaped a setting where this relationship between Samantha and Theodore is not only plausible, but accepted by its audience. It’s not difficult to see our current technology evolving into something like Jonze’s OS, but when we imagine it ourselves, it’s disturbing and something reserved for the creepy man who lives by himself at the end of the cul-de-sac. Samantha and Theodore’s relationship is not creepy, it’s authentic, and its authenticity is exactly what draws the audience to it. Their relationship is as true as anything any of its viewers have experienced. Samantha’s insecurities about what she provides in the relationship, her bouts with jealousy as Theodore meets his ex-wife, as well as her urges to “talk it out”, ring true to any female’s romantic worries. The way she wakes him in the middle of the night just to hear his voice and say goodnight, and the way she checks in when she detects anything off in his voice, is perfectly reminiscent of the female role in a relationship. As the relationship takes a turn for the worse, and the audience can detect its unraveling, the film becomes more and more difficult to watch because of its relatability. When Samantha asks Theodore if they can talk but she wants to wait until after work when he’s home, we know what’s coming. We’ve all been there before. We sympathize with Theodore and Samantha not only because we know the feeling, but because we’re rooting for them too.

her-movie-2013-screenshot-laughingJonze’s world is striking, specific, and unique. The setting is mostly colorless except for beautiful pops of coral pastels throughout. The clothes aren’t gaudy or flashy, but simple. Los Angeles is more futuristic, but also cleaner, sharper and in some ways, plainer. The clothes reference 70’s fashion of the past but with a twist, and the décor features lots of warm woods and clean lines. Each and every frame is recognizable as Jonze’s Her and it’s this perfectly envisioned mise-en-scène that gives the viewers a space to place Samantha and Theodore’s story in their minds where it’ll haunt long after the credits roll.

This lasting world is familiar while being new. It’s cozy while being distant. It’s inviting while also being unsettling. The romantic relationship is simple despite its complex creation. Jonze’s film is a compilation of contrasting ideas which only aids in its truth. It’s this grey area that makes up our current world. It only makes sense that a similar, future world would also be masked in opposing elements.

Similarly, Jonze’s process of blowing up and complicating the idea of romantic relationships actually permits him to strip them down to their purest forms. A relationship between a lonely, yet functional, man with his computer is a complex idea, but the progression of this complicated relationship, in the end, allows the audience to contemplate why we need romantic relationships at all. What purpose do they serve? How do we benefit? What do we gain from the pairing? If not for procreation, can’t we obtain the same joy from any sort of relationship—human or otherwise? Isn’t joy all we’re really looking for and when we have it shouldn’t we hold onto it as long as we can? Or do we need something more?

Jonze’s Her gets closer to answering these questions than any film I’ve seen to date. The film is so much more than simply a movie about a man and his computer, and it’s exactly the type of complicated film we could use more of.

Essential 3D, but an Inessential Story: A Review of Gravity

Grade: B-

As a viewer who hasn’t quite jumped aboard the 3D bandwagon, there are times when 3D works and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is one example. All too often, 3D it’s just an excuse to create some buzz and hike up the ticket prices. It needs to have a function. Did the three-dimensional iceberg in Titanic in 3D create more suspense? Not really. Did Andy giving his toys away in Toy Story 3 hit you harder when the box he’s packing them away in protrudes from the screen? No. It’s unnecessary. It does nothing to support the story. 3D, if it’s used to tell a story, needs to have a function. 3D has a function in Scorsese’s Hugo (read my Hugo review here). It coincides with the enchanting, snow globe of a world that Scorsese wanted to create—a world you need to feel like you are inside to understand. More importantly, this 3D world needs to be felt and seen in order for Scorsese to use it to preach to the power of cinema. In a movie that so lovingly tells the tale of film in its very silent, black and white beginning, 3D was a way to show exactly how far cinematic-storytelling had come.

Until Gravity, Hugo was the film I pointed to when I needed to show 3D done correctly. The difference between the two films is that Hugo could’ve survived as a film without the 3D element, Gravity absolutely could not.

3D has never been more necessary in a movie than it is in Gravity, but it’s necessary in a different way than in Scorsese’s Hugo. It isn’t for theme. It isn’t to mirror lessons taught in the story, but it’s used to enhance the entire experience and plant you firmly in the chilling mise-en-scène. In order to feel for Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she’s left entirely alone in outer space, you have to sense what it must feel like to be that alone. To feel it, we have to see it. Being lost in space is not a situation that the average human is privy to. Despite being separated from your parents as a child in an amusement park, or lost alone on a dark highway, or on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, we’ve never been as lost as Ryan is in this film. We can’t begin to imagine how she feels. To experience her fear and desperation, we have to get as close to her eyes as we can, we have to see what she sees.

Black. Bleak. Hollow. Nothingness.

3D helps achieve that sensation better than 2D ever could. We feel like we’re in outer space.

That being said, where the film strays is in its story. The film’s characters are lacking, and the filmmakers know it. They know it and they know they don’t need it. It’s not necessary to make George Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski, well developed. We know so little about him. We know he’s a natural leader, we know he’s calm in crisis, we know he likes to tell his tequila-tales of debaucherous nights past, but apart from that we know nothing. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone is no different. We know she lost a child, we know she likes to drive at night to escape the pain from that ordeal, but is this enough to make us like her? Are a few jokes cracked by Matt back to Houston enough to make us root for him? Is this enough to make us care whether he lives or dies? It isn’t. But it’s George Clooney. That voice we’ve known since ER, that face, that grin, that silver hair. We see him, we hear him, and it doesn’t matter what he’s saying—we’re rooting for him. The only problem is we’re rooting for George Clooney, not Matt Kowalski, but we trick ourselves into thinking they’re one in the same. Can you blame us? We’re protective. We don’t want anything happening to our George. Why worry about a multi-dimensional character when your audience will like him no matter what as long as he’s played by the right actor?

What would we have if the character wasn’t played by George Clooney? What about Matt Kowalski would make us remain as invested if he was played by some nameless actor? Nothing. The story is too sparse. And mirroring the setting’s bleakness to the plot, I’d argue, was not the filmmakers’ intention. There just isn’t enough there. Especially not with the characters, and not with the plot either.

The whole time I was watching Gravity, I was thinking how the story would function so much better as a short story. I know that contradicts my “necessary 3D” claim, but plot-wise, the short story medium would make the plot more acceptable. There are conventions we accept for film and there are conventions we accept with literary fiction. When we’re watching a movie with two blockbuster stars, we expect certain things. We expect a “happy” ending. We expect a resolution. We expect a grand, action packed, race to the finish. I’d never dream of knocking cinema, but there are certain things that a written story can get away with that a film cannot. Call me a cynic, but I didn’t want a “happy ending.” I didn’t want a resolution. I wanted a true, brutal lesson about the bleakness of space, about the different levels of loneliness, about desperation. I wanted them to make bad luck appear somehow poetic with subtle back story, inner monologue, and a strong sense of what’s going on in the character’s heads. But I didn’t get that. A short story could’ve provided that without the audience feeling gypped by the ending. Do I appreciate that they allowed the audience to fill in the blanks, that they didn’t bombard us with backstory? I do. But then they had to go and get conventional. They had to make us chant “Girl power!” at Sandra’s success and leave the theater feeling like we, too, just battled for survival and won. They had to take us on a ride. They had to give us that Hollywood ending. And I was left shaking my head, awed by the 3D spectacle, sure, but wondering if a smaller, bleaker story, with richer characters (and without Clooney and Bullock) might have given the film more of that lasting punch it so desperately needed.

More than anything, I was left with an unanswered question—Who is Ryan Stone? It’s a question I should never have to ask. It’s a question the filmmakers surely didn’t want the audience to have to ask. We just need a little bit more.

Unexpectedly Different, but Still “Woody Allen” at its Core: A Review of Blue Jasmine

Grade: A-

Judging by the sold out showings and the throngs of people lining up around the block to see Woody Allen’s new drama Blue Jasmine, I think it’s safe to say that the 77-year-old (and one of the few remaining true auteurs) still has it.

A crowd-pleaser that’s already generating early Oscar-buzz, Allen’s Blue Jasmine will likely join the ranks with his other critically-acclaimed classics. Still, this one has a unique flair all its own.

It’s no secret that Woody Allen is my favorite director, favorite screenwriter, favorite filmic-mind. I adore his unique style and storytelling perspective, and I’m continually spoiled by his one-film-a-year ritual that repeats like clockwork. I’m familiar with his style—his quirks, his film motifs—and what struck me the most while watching Blue Jasmine was how this film blatantly strays from Allen’s norm.

The film follows Jasmine (played expertly by Cate Blanchett) who must leave her NYC life of luxury and move in with her little sister (Sally Hawkins) after her husband (Alec Baldwin) swindles away their fortune and hangs himself in prison. In her new home in San Francisco, she aims to recreate herself in a much-less-lavish setting, all the while popping Xanax between panic attacks as frequently as she passes judgment on her sister’s less-than-optimal dating history.

Allen is known for making the settings in his films characters of their own. What would Midnight in Paris be without Paris’ cobblestone streets? What would Annie Hall be without Annie’s New York driving or Manhattan without shots of the Queensboro Bridge? The setting for each of Allen’s films has always been so pivotal that the same storyline couldn’t be set anywhere other than where it is. This is not the case for Blue Jasmine. San Francisco just happens to be where the characters eat and breathe (or pop pills as the case may be) and other than the passing comment, “If you can’t fall in love in San Francisco, you can’t fall in love anywhere,” we hardly even realize San Francisco is where the film takes place. This is strange for an Allen film.

Similarly, Blue Jasmine strays from the Allen canon with its lack of art and cultural references that usually ooze from the characters’ mouths. In Blue Jasmine, the only references to art are the high-fashion brands that Jasmine clings to from her past—her Louis Vuitton luggage and all her leftover designer duds from her previous life. A Woody Allen film without a scene in a movie theater or an art museum? A Woody Allen movie where you don’t have to laugh along with the crowd as you fake understanding of the reference he makes to some author or philosopher you’ve never heard of, or pat yourself on the back when you actually do understand? His characters always want to outdo each other with their knowledge of extraneous information, but in this film, Jasmine’s only real quest is to outdo everyone around her with her ability to choose an advantageous partner and to appear as if her high-status has never wavered.

Despite these major differences from Allen’s usual films, Blue Jasmine still has the complex characters that we’ve come to expect from him. Blue Jasmine may lack the humor and the multiple storylines of Allen’s other classics, but he is able to create characters, as always, who straddle the grey line between right and wrong in the same moment they teeter between likability and abhorrence. It’s this expert balancing-act that makes Allen’s characters complex while insuring the films themselves are a joy to watch.

As is the case with Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in Match Point who tries to get away with the murder of his mistress, Allen is able to surprise the audience by making them root for a person they’d normally despise. The pleasure of watching his films comes from our almost subconscious realization that he’s turned a switch in us, that despite a character with irredeemable qualities and chastisable actions, we find ourselves rooting for them. Suddenly, the audience discovers they’re crossing their fingers for an unfaithful murderer as is the case in Match Point, or supporting a creepy relationship between an older man and child (Manhattan and Whatever Works) despite never expecting we would before.

Allen’s themes and characters are never black and white and this couldn’t be truer than it is of Blanchett’s downward-spiraling portrayal of Jasmine. The characters may be unlikable, but we care for them. We may hate what they do, but we always understand why they do it. Often, as is the case with Jasmine, their actions are entirely based on their extreme level of desperation. For whatever reason, desperation is a quality we can identify with. It’s a quality we understand. Watching Blantchett in a mesmerizing performance as Jasmine splashes and flails in the metaphoric hole she’s dug and is drowning in, we can’t help but sympathize with her struggle. She knows of the mistakes she makes. She’s made the bed she lies in, but her mistakes are human ones.

Woody Allen achieves with Blue Jasmine what he does in all his films, he has the audience going in expecting to feel one way about a character or an action, builds that up like a sand castle, and then amazes us when he shifts everything and the castle still stands. He opens a new perspective, and as outlandish as the events may be, they’re still real, relatable and always keep us thinking.

Our intellect stays turned on. As always, Allen makes sure of it.

Lock Up Your Shamu Dolls and Proudly Boycott All Things SeaWorld: A Review of Blackfish

Grade: A

I was the little girl who at six or seven years old sat in the bleacher seats at SeaWorld with a neon pink fanny pack strapped to my waist, disposable camera in my hand (wind, wind, click. Wind, wind, click), sunburned shoulders, and a grin on my face almost as wide as the tails of the creatures I was gazing at. Wide-eyed and entranced, I’d watch the sea life in awe—the funny-faced beluga whales, the laughing dolphins, the clowning sea lions. I loved the splash, the spectacle, the enormity of the animals, but most of all I loved the killer whales.

Free Willy was my first favorite movie. In the film, the bad guys after Willy were cruel, diabolical, and villainous. Not like SeaWorld. SeaWorld was different. SeaWorld whales were happy, right?

One of those happy whales I saw as a seven-year-old at the Orlando SeaWorld clutching my Shamu doll was Tilikum. Tilikum—the biggest whale. Tilikum—the biggest splash. Little did I know that Tilikum was also a bullied, soon to be three-time murderer. That part was kept hidden. His smile, size, and tongue sticking out sold a lot of Shamu dolls and there in the spotlight Tilikum stayed.

Now, Tilikum has a new role to add to his résumé— unconventional star of the summer’s eeriest murder documentary, but in this case, the tables are turned. Tilikum, the murdering whale, is not the sinister villain cloaked in black dishing out poisonous apples. SeaWorld is. And instead of apples, they give out Shamu dolls, splashes, and smiles on seven-year-olds’ faces unaware of the horror that looms behind the curtain.

Luckily, we have Gabriela Cowperthwaite to do the unveiling. In her documentary, Blackfish, she tells the tale of Tilikum’s life in captivity—from baby, to bullied, to murderer—all the while condemning money-hungry SeaWorld for its total lack of ethics and value of life for both the whales they hunt, buy, and raise, as well as their trainers who blindly trust they’re doing what’s best for the beautiful creatures they love. What Cowperthwaite achieves with her film will take your breath away as it shocks you. Let’s just say if I knew where my Shamu doll was I’d lock it up out of shame for owning it, for giving SeaWorld a shred of my parent’s money, and for feeding the fire that SeaWorld has successfully swept under the rug again and again—until now.

Cowperthwaite’s argument is sound and well evidenced. Focusing on the trainers who’ve dedicated their lives to the killer whales, the film starts with them. For each, the story is the same—they were enthralled with the majesty of the whales at a young age, were determined to become whale trainers, and quickly found to their delight that the job required little education or training. A winning personality and the ability to swim fast being the only real requirements for the job.

For sympathy, and to immediately place the audience on the side of the trainers, Cowperthwaite pulls real emotion from the interviewees—lots of tears, lots of shock and awe at what they’d been manipulated to do, and lots of worry for the whales they’ve left behind.

This sympathy method is used throughout—countless instances of experts crying at what they saw and what they did for SeaWorld. It’s an effective ploy and for the most part Cowperthwaite doesn’t abuse the tactic—the events really are that emotional and that jarring. With or without a crying expert, it’s hard to see what was done to these whales and trainers without becoming emotionally invested yourself. Cowperthwaite piles on the facts and instances supporting her claim that SeaWorld has no value for life and will do anything for money and to maintain their shiny image. It just so happens that the majority of the people interviewed are sobbing through their walk down memory lane.

Rounding out her evidence, Cowperthwaite speaks to whale experts who insist that in nature killer whales live longer, gentler lives. Their dorsal fins stand tall in the wild. In the wild, they live the life spans of humans. In the wild, they can flee. Cowperthwaite juxtaposes these facts with images of bubbly SeaWorld trainers wrongly insisting again and again, to crowds of SeaWorld patrons, that 25-35 years is the average life span for the killer whales and that they live longer in captivity. Bold faced lies.

What Cowperthwaite gently is able to imply is why any whale might snap. Of course we can’t ask Tilikum what led him to kill, but we see his holding cell. We see the bleeding welts on his skin from the bullying whales. We see where the whales spend their nights and many hours of the day. Of course, a whale would snap. Each and every day doing redundant tricks for some dead fish only to be locked in a cell at night with a bunch of other misfit whales—not their kin, separated from their families like a bunch of orphans? Wouldn’t you snap? Cowperthwaite’s interviewees mention again and again that Tilikum was “frustrated”, one even suggests that he’s “psychotic” but Cowperthwaite knows she can’t prove these facts, so she simply shows us images of the conditions and allows the audience to infer for themselves.

For the assertions Cowperthwaite can prove, she layers on countless evidence like the cheese, sauce, noodle pattern when cooking lasagna. Cowperthwaite has court documents from the OSHA lawsuit following the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, graphics, flow charts, ironic SeaWorld commercials, and varying news reports on each SeaWorld tragedy depicting how quickly and swiftly SeaWorld would scramble to cover up any incident.

Cowperthwaite’s claim? These accidents were not trainer error as reported. These accidents were not the whales’ faults either, but a result of the extreme conditions both the whales and the trainers were subjected to in order to make a buck.

This layering of evidence creates a reaction in the audience. Three times during the film, the audience in the theater I was in had audible reactions. Once with laughter at the ridiculous claim of one of the interviewees who insisted, passionately, that he couldn’t fathom a world without a SeaWorld-type park. Once with giggles and whispers when, in Cowperthwaite’s procreation section highlighting the monetary value of Tilikum’s sperm, a trainer clutches a whale’s penis like a fire hose. And finally with sighs and silent tears when a trainer recounts the reaction of a mother whale crying out in frequencies they had never heard, desperately trying to reach her baby for hours and hours that SeaWorld had just stolen from her and shipped to another park.

My only major fault with the film is when Cowperthwaite takes the emotion too far, when she loses confidence in the sound argument she has. Yes, we’re invested. Yes, we believe you that SeaWorld sucks. Yes, you got us with the crying mama whale. In an unnecessary aside, the film meanders to another venue—Loro Parque in Spain—SeaWorld’s backwash of a marine-park complete with a cheaper, dirtier grounds and less skilled trainers. There we are told Alexis Martinez’s story by his fiancé and his mother. Alexis is brutally killed by one of the whales shortly after becoming a trainer and quickly rising up the ranks. It’s a tragedy that shouldn’t be downplayed, but Cowperthwaite uses it to rattle the audience even more, make us more emotional, and therefore cause us to plunge deeper into hating SeaWorld. His fiancé and mother describe receiving calls that there was an accident at the park and recount being led into the room to view his body with extravagant adjectives and details between tears. Does the trauma of this event make the fact that a whale killed him and the park tried to make light of it any more true? Do we need the drawn out tale of walking towards his body, of the brutal condition of his chest and limbs? They’re trying to make us cry. We feel for the family of course, but making us feel sadder and therefore hate SeaWorld more is the film’s one cheap ploy. You already had us with the facts. We don’t need more sadness drilled into us to win us over.

Cowperthwaite wasn’t confident enough in what she had or she would have omitted that scene. She should trust what she has; her case is resolute. Still, there’s no arguing against her passion for the subject. Her documentary doesn’t do anything stylistically innovative. The infographs are strictly graphics plastered on the screen. There’s nothing too ground-breaking with the editing or even the format. We go from interview to interview to tears, interview to interview to tears, but the film doesn’t need all those bells and whistles in order to make a convincing argument. The subject is strong enough to carry this important film.

Cowperthwaite effectively guarantees that SeaWorld’s PR team is going to have to resort to extreme measures to win back the droves of patrons who will likely choose another park to go to this summer. Maybe the seven-year-olds won’t be amazed at the enormity of the animals they watch leaping into the air, maybe Cowperthwaite has ruined that experience for many of us, but she’s creating better lives for the trainers who love the animals and for the killer whales themselves whose lives can be so much bigger than a couple hundred square feet tank. Thanks to Cowperthwaite, we know when we clutch our tiny Shamu dolls exactly what we’re paying for. And the truth shouldn’t sit well with anyone by the time the credits roll.