Friday, December 27, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix Streaming: CAESAR MUST DIE (2013); BLACKFISH (2013); and SHEPARD AND DARK (2013)

(Italy - 2012/US release: 2013)

The latest from revered Italian filmmaking brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (1977's PADRE PADRONE) is an improvement over their last effort, 2007's LARK FARM (released straight-to-DVD in the US in 2010), a misfired look at the 1915 Armenian Genocide and a multi-country co-production that asked us to buy German actor Moritz Bleibtreu (RUN LOLA RUN) dubbed into Italian and playing a Turkish officer named "Youseff."  Mired in near telenovela-level histrionics and tacky splatter effects, LARK FARM was so appallingly tone-deaf that it seemed the aging siblings--Paolo is now 82, Vittorio 84--had completely lost it.  CAESAR MUST DIE is an OK rebound and won the Golden Bear at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival, but it's really not that good.  The Tavianis indulge in a little smoke & mirrors what what they're doing here, setting up CAESAR MUST DIE as a documentary, only to reveal itself as a mock documentary that becomes a meta commentary on itself.  With rare exception (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and THE CABIN IN THE WOODS are two examples), these meta movies usually end up being exercises in pretension and directorial wankery.  But the mostly black-and-white CAESAR MUST DIE is deceptively simple in its premise and execution, which makes you wonder why they chose to go with the ruse in the first place?  A straight documentary on the same subject would've been fascinating:  inmates in the high-security wing of Rome's Rebibbia Prison take part in a therapeutic theater workshop putting on a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.  The inmates are not actors (except for Salvatore Striano as Brutus; Striano was in Matteo Garrone's GOMORRAH and served time in Rebibbia but was released and pardoned), but the action is staged.  We're not watching a documentary of rehearsals--we're watching a staged re-enactment of rehearsals in the guise of a documentary.  Comparisons to Abbas Kiarostami's CLOSE-UP were numerous, and I don't really see what the Tavianis are trying to accomplish by staging the film in this fashion.  The inmates rehearse around the prison, so at times it resembles Julius Caesar re-imagined as a gritty prison drama, and again, that strikes you as another concept that would've been more intriguing than another meta venture.

For not being professional performers, some of the inmates are surprisingly credible actors with undeniable screen presence (Giovanni Arcuri as Caesar and Cosimo Rega as Cassius are standouts).  Regardless of what acts they've committed--ranging from drug trafficking to, in Rega's case, murder--putting on this play gives the men purpose and a chance to immerse themselves in art.  It's a point brought home in the final scenes as they return to their cells after their performance and it's a powerful image that the Tavianis ruin by having Rega look into the camera and make the heavy-handed proclamation "Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison."  Really, guys...we would've gotten the message.  CAESAR MUST DIE is a mixed-bag and a bit of a missed opportunity, but it has its moments.  (Unrated, 77 mins)

(US - 2013)

Produced by CNN, BLACKFISH is a harsh condemnation of the practices of SeaWorld.  Focused primarily on Tilikum, a six-ton orca at the Orlando SeaWorld, the film follows the killer whale from his 1983 capture to the present day.  Tilikum has killed three people and has shown signs of aggression since his early days at the Canadian water park Sealand, a decrepit facility where part of his training involved being bullied by the other whales. It was there that he killed a trainer in 1991 and the park closed shortly after.  He was moved to SeaWorld despite his record of aggression, primarily because the park was in need of a breeder.  We see interviews with numerous former trainers juxtaposed with old camcorder footage of these same trainers during their SeaWorld days.  All reiterate a consistent pattern of SeaWorld sweeping Tilikum's violent history under the rug.  An unauthorized visitor was found dead in Tilikum's tank in 1999, after having snuck into the park in an apparent attempt to swim with the whale.  Tilikum's most infamous act came in February 2010 when he attacked and ate trainer Karen Brancheau just after a performance (the film opens with a 911 call to an incredulous operator who responds with "A whale...ate one of the trainers?").  The former trainers, often holding back tears, tell of a systematic, calculated burying of information by SeaWorld executives who they felt had an obligation to inform them of the past incidents involving Tilikum, who still performs at the Orlando SeaWorld today.  SeaWorld representatives declined to be interviewed for the film, but of course dispute its findings.  Cowperthwaite clearly has an agenda, but she keeps the vitriol even-keeled and matter-of-fact, often letting archival footage and court records tell the story.  Footage of baby whales being captured and the anguished cries of their mothers are absolutely gut-wrenching to witness, as is the notion of these great, majestic beasts being confined to tanks, psychologically defeated, their fins turning down (SeaWorld claims this is natural but the film asserts it only happens to 1% of whales not in captivity), and, in Tilikum's case, used essentially as a sperm donor.  The film also notes that a few of Tilikum's 21 known offspring have been involved in other acts of captive aggression, indicating that the whale has a genetic predisposition to such behavior.  Emotional, enraging, and often terrifying (the footage of a trainer being yanked by his foot and remaining calm as he's held underwater by one whale is one of the most frightening sequences in any movie this year), BLACKFISH is a must-see.  (PG-13, 83 mins)

(US - 2013)

Actor/writer Sam Shepard has been friends with Johnny Dark since 1963.  Even as their lives drifted in different directions and they'd go a year or more without seeing one another, their bond remained.  Shepard, of course, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and busy Hollywood character actor.  Dark lives a quiet life in Deming, New Mexico, working at a supermarket, content to live among his books, smoke a little weed, and write stories and essays on his ancient PC.  In 2010, Shepard was asked to donate his personal papers to the University of Texas and takes the opportunity to go through some letters he received from Dark over the decades.  Dark, meanwhile, saves and archives everything and has his life meticulously mapped out in scrapbooks and photo albums.  Shepard reaches out to Dark to share the letters sent to him and put their decades of correspondence in a book.  Shepard tells Dark that he set up the book deal because he's got no money coming in (Shepard doesn't appear to live extravagantly, but it's doubtful that needs the money), but part of it is that he wants to help his old friend out and build him a bit of a financial cushion.  As the two men reconnect and reminisce, it's great fun watching them laugh at decades-old inside jokes as they sift through letters in a corner booth at Denny's (there's also some footage at Shepard's 67th birthday dinner, where he's joined by pals Harry Dean Stanton and T-Bone Burnett).  But as they get deeper into the project, director Treva Wurmfeld gradually reveals vital details to the audience:  Dark's late wife Scarlett was the mother of Shepard's first wife, actress O-Lan Jones.  The four lived together for years and they all took care of Scarlett after she survived a brain aneurysm.  By 1983, Shepard's acting career was taking off and he met Jessica Lange, eventually deciding to leave his family and run off with her.  It was a decision he agonized over, especially since he was hesitant to leave his and Jones' 13-year-old son Jesse, but he did it anyway, leaving Dark to be a surrogate father to the boy.  Shepard and Lange were together until 2009, and the breakup is still heavy on Shepard's mind at the time of this book project.  Dark surmises that this project was really just Shepard's way of dealing with it and being able to put it away and move on.  Shepard is clearly haunted by his decisions, he's critical of his selfishness ("I've hurt people," he says, shaking his head) and going through the letters rips open old wounds and takes him back to a place he wasn't ready to go (not just with Lange, but with his alcoholic father), or at least isn't ready to share with Wurmfeld. 

What starts out as two friends jovially reconnecting after some time apart turns into a devastating self-examination for Shepard.  It's hard watching him reflect on the choices he's made and the guilt he still feels over leaving his wife and son.  There's a line in a Shepard play that Wurmfeld spotlights about "how unprepared we are to face the truth," and Dark illustrates just how much of Shepard's life--his father, the guilt over leaving his family, the recurring "responsible brother" figure (meaning, Dark)--is in his work (think of Stanton leaving his son in the care of brother Dean Stockwell in Wim Wenders' Shepard-penned 1984 film PARIS, TEXAS).  Dark is content with his life and never had the restlessness or the need to wander like Shepard has, though he does confess that he frequently feels more like Shepard's sidekick than his best friend.  Wurmfeld very cleverly and deliberately lets the story build as it goes places no one--Shepard, Dark, the viewer--expects it to go, and she doesn't sugarcoat things to make Shepard look better.  A frequently remarkable gem, and one of the best films of this year that you've heard nothing about.  (Unrated, 88 mins)

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