Tag Archives: B

THE SPECTACULAR NOW

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B

When you hear that James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from a novel by Tim Tharp, is about a popular high school guy who courts a smart but plain classmate, you might be prompted to say “Here we go again.” After all, it’s a premise that’s been done to death in teen comedies, and you might wonder about the nature of the bet that the fellow’s trying to win by romancing the unsuspecting girl. But it’s a pleasant surprise to learn that there isn’t any bet, and that the interest of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), who’s breaking up with his long-time girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), for Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) is the real thing, which despite the misgivings of her friends blossoms into a full-fledged, though troubled, commitment to each other.

Unfortunately, the initial meeting between the two foreshadows the major problem the two are going to have to confront. She finds him passed out in her front yard after a night of drinking, and it turns out that the glib, gregarious fellow, whose philosophy is simply to live in the moment (thus the title), fuels his days with alcohol, carrying around a silver flask that meets his needs whenever he’s not at a kegger. It’s a primary factor behind Cassidy’s decision to send him packing, and when he and Aimee start going together, he introduces her to booze too.

That points to the fact that while “The Spectacular Now” avoids the pitfall of the typical teen comedy, it doesn’t entirely avoid the temptations of the afterschool special. Sutter is obviously an incipient alcoholic; when his good-natured employer (Bob Odenkirk) tells him he’ll keep him on at the menswear store only if he can promise he won’t come to work with a buzz on, Sutter admits sorrowfully that he can’t. And the issue is taken deeper with the revelation that his long-absent father (Kyle Chandler) is a bedraggled drunk who, when his son and Aimee come to visit him, actually stiffs the kid with a bar tab before unceremoniously sending him on his way. (The genetic component of alcoholism is, of course, something that’s been the subject of considerable research.)

But if the picture has some conventional elements, it treats them with a refreshing lack of didacticism and point-making. Sutter isn’t your ordinary campus figure—he’s well-liked but a silver-tongued underachiever on the verge of failing to graduate—and with Ponsoldt’s help, Teller invests the character with a credible mixture of vulnerability and face-saving bravado. Woodley matches him with a finely-tuned turn as a brainy type genuinely surprised by—and eagerly responsive to—Sutter’s interest, but also aware of the danger in where’s he’s headed. The two are always agreeably natural in their scenes together, but make a particularly strong impression in the sequence with Chandler, and in an earlier one when they go to a dinner party at the home of Sutter’s well-to-do sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

Strong support for them comes from Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Sutter’s concerned, loving mother; Odenkirk; and Andre Royo, as a teacher who tries without success to spur Sutter to takes his studies more seriously. Among the younger members of the cast, Dayo Okeniyi is especially winning as Marcus, the school’s star athlete and student body president who’s nevertheless insecure when he starts dating Cassidy and eventually turns to Sutter for advice. The technical credits are solid down the line, with Linda Sena’s production design and Jess Hall’s cinematography nicely capturing the small-town ambience of Athens, Georgia, where the film was shot.

This might not be a spectacular movie, but compared to the stuff Hollywood usually churns out about teenagers, it’s a breath of fresh air.

BLACKFISH

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An investigative report on Sea World that feels like an extended segment from “60 Minutes” or its ilk, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary is a repetitive but still compelling piece of activist filmmaking about the wisdom of keeping orcas, so-called killer whales, in captivity for use in water shows. The argument is presented in both practical terms—as a safety issue regarding the staff who interact with them—and ethical ones—whether it’s appropriate to confine creatures whose brains are in some respects more developed than our own in an unnatural, and some will argue simply inhumane, environment. As is often the case with such films, “Blackfish” is also one-sided, though that’s not entirely the director’s fault, since Sea World representatives refused to be interviewed.

The film begins with footage of a recent episode that has become notorious through coverage on the news—the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at the Orlando Sea World in 2010. It then goes into the past to argue that for some forty years the industry has not only disrupted the existence of the whales by capturing them and violating their normal familial life, but has systematically suppressed the truth about incidents in which they have turned violent in captivity. It does so by using plenty of clips from news reports, but also interviews with past employees and patrons as well as marine experts, to which are added establishing footage and a sober narration.

The story begins with an affecting scene in which John Crowe, a diver employed some forty years ago to capture orcas in the waters off Washington State, recalls how the team targeted young whales that were seized as their mothers wailed, and how the corpses of orcas that died in the course of the process were weighted down and submerged. It then proceeds to feature two witnesses to an attack on a trainer during a show at a park called Sea Land in 1991, which involved a whale called Tilikum. Yet that whale was simply shipped to another facility, and has been implicated in other incidents since, culminating in Brancheau’s death. The contention is that Sea World executives have regularly minimized the cruelty of the conditions in which the whales are kept and soft-pedaled the danger they pose to staff and patrons in order to protect the bottom line.

Cowperthwaite makes her case convincingly, citing other incidents in which trainers were badly mauled—scenes that are captured in grainy footage—and a recent episode in which a young man was found dead in a whale tank, the details of which, she argues, park officials have manipulated in order to protect their business interests. She ends by returning to the Brancheau tragedy, contending that Sea World has employed similar tactics to downplay how it reveals their operation’s systemic problems. And the film points out that those problems are hardly confined to one or two parks, emphasizing how the industry has gone global in a segment involving a Spanish venue that Sea World’s staff were instrumental in getting underway—and where troubling incidents have occurred. The film closes with court findings resulting from Brancheau’s death that nonetheless leave the central issues it revealed in limbo.

“Blackfish” is unabashedly agenda-driven, and it sometimes allows its makers’ emotion to overwhelm its sense of journalistic decorum. One might also observe that, given the way in which businesses of every sort have been caught suppressing or shading facts in order to protect their financial interests, its sense of outrage is the equivalent of Captain Renault’s expression of shock that gambling is going on at Rick’s—and that Cowperthwaite’s indictment could easily be extended to zoos and animal preserves of all kinds. But if the film helps only to increase public awareness about the treatment of whales and similar creatures in places like Sea World—and perhaps affect their bottom line in doing so, the only thing that might ultimately bring salutary changes—it will serve a useful purpose.