Return to Mount Kennedy


There are all sorts of ways to conquer peaks.

(2019) Documentary (1091Bob Whittaker, Chris Kennedy, Eddie Vedder, Malcolm Taylor, Senator Robert Kennedy, Jim Whittaker, Mark Arm, Bruce Pavitt, Matt Lukin, Steve Turner, Leif Whittaker, Dan Peters, Dave Hahn, Blanche Montbroussous, Eric Becker, Brian Jones, Dr. Michael Ross, Rich Hayward. Directed by Eric Becker

 

Often, we compare the greatest obstacles in our lives to mountain peaks. Scaling those peaks is used as a metaphor for overcoming those obstacles. Like our own limitations, the loftiest peaks are often the ones in our own mind; once we get around to climbing them, we find they aren’t so tall after all.

Bob Whittaker lived under an enormous shadow. His father Jim was the first American to scale Mt. Everest and was a national hero. He also co-founded the REI sporting goods chain and was the CEO there until he retired a few years ago. He is named for one of his father’s closest friends; Senator Robert Kennedy, the brother of the former President and former Attorney General during his brother’s administration.

In 1965, the tallest unscaled peak in North America was Mount Kennedy in Canada. As the peak was named for his brother, then-Senator Kennedy thought that it would be fitting if he were to accompany the first team to scale the peak. Even though he had no previous mountain climbing experience, the Senator was in safe hands as one of the leaders of the expedition was Jim Whittaker. It was there that the two formed a bond that would last until the Senator’s tragic assassination in Los Angeles just three years later. Bobby Kennedy’s son Chris speaks affectionately of Jim Whittaker taking on some of his late father’s duties, helping guide the young boy into manhood.

But Jim was away a lot during Bob’s childhood and the two grew estranged. Bob became a part of the grunge scene in Seattle in the 80s and 90s, becoming road manager for the indie rock legends Mudhoney. A somewhat wild and personable young man, he became the face of the Seattle scene for many. To this day he counts among his friends such luminaries as Eddie Vedder. Bob would eventually become road manager for REM for a dozen years before moving on to all sorts of other bands.

But rock music is a young man’s game and as Bob grew older, he began to pull away from the glamour of the music scene. He began to appreciate the joys of the wilderness. He became active in creating and maintaining green spaces in and around Seattle, and then in Washington state. Like his father before him, he became an avid conservationist and outdoorsman.

As the 50th anniversary of his father’s trek up Mount Kennedy with his good friend Robert Kennedy loomed, Bob began to think about that accomplishment and what it meant to his family. He decided that it would be a good opportunity to reconnect with his brother Leif, who had followed in his father’s footsteps and become a respected climber. Chris Kennedy was also invited and the son of the late Senator jumped at the chance even though he, like his father before him, had no mountain climbing experience.

The documentary tells the parallel stories of the two expeditions to the mountain in alternating fashion, entwining the story of the elder Whittaker and the late Presidential candidate with that of their sons. Legacy plays a big part in the movie’s theme; for all three of the men, their father’s achievements are inspiration to do something important with their lives. While at times it is a burden to them – as it is to most sons – it is also a source of pride to them as well – as it is to most sons.

The movie has almost a schizophrenic nature; there are the serene, wild places of the mountains and the Pacific Northwest and there’s the loud grunge, rock and roll excess of the music scene. Both make up different sides of Bob Whittaker and both are equally valid, even if he is emphasizing the mountains more than the music these days. It couldn’t have been an easy path from one to the other; it certainly isn’t the path most take in that direction but it seems to have worked for Whittaker.

But it isn’t Bob Whittaker’s movie alone, even if he is in most respects the central character. It is about family, first and foremost; for sons paying tribute to fathers. Its friends gone but not forgotten. It also gives us a glimpse at Bobby Kennedy and even as brief and superficial a glimpse as it is, it makes one sad to think of all the good he might have accomplished had he not been murdered for no real reason.

I don’t know that this is necessarily inspirational. I didn’t feel moved to recreate my father’s greatest triumphs by watching this but I was given a certain feeling, one of knowing that like Bob Whittaker, Leif Whittaker and Chris Kennedy, I’m walking in the footsteps on the trail my own father blazed. Being reminded of that may not necessarily set the world on fire, but it is important – and comforting – nonetheless.

REASONS TO SEE: Bob Whittaker’s enthusiasm is infectious. The stories from the first climb are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses a bit of focus during the last third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a bit of drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mount Kennedy lies in the St. Elias Mountain Range located in Kluane National Park, in Yukon, Canada. The peak was named for the slain U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1964 as a tribute by the nation of Canada.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Free Solo
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi

Tigerland (Taken by the Tiger)


Pavel Fomenko anxiously searches for two tiger cubs whose mother has been relocated.

(2019) Nature Documentary (DiscoveryPavel Fomenko, Amit Sankhala, Karan Singh, Jairam Ramesh, Kailash Sankhala, Yulia Fomenko, Vasily Solkin, Jai Bhati, Bittu Sahgal, Valmik Thapat, Elizabeth Kayzakova, Irina Pavlova, Belinda Wright, Indira Gandhi, Tarva Bhati, Dimple Bhati, Anne Wright, Debbie Banks. Directed by Ross Kauffman

Jack Lemmon once won an Oscar for a film entitled Save the Tiger, a title that was a metaphor for his character’s own existence. However, the title has become more literal in this day and age with right around 4,000 tigers left in the wild, down from hundreds of thousands only a century ago.

There are a lot of reasons for their decline. Human intrusion on their habitat, poaching (tiger skins remain an in-demand luxury item and tiger parts also form the basis for a good deal of folk medicine which is also a lucrative trade) and hunting – among Indian maharajahs it was considered an act of masculinity to shoot and kill a tiger with some (as well as the British colonials who followed them) shooting hundreds of the animals alone.

There are those who would halt the decline of the tigers and this film from Oscar winning director Kauffman focuses on two of them – Pavel Fomenko, head of endangered species protection for the Russian arm of the World Wildlife Fund, and Amit Sankhala whose grandfather Kailash was instrumental in directing attention to the plight of the tiger and along with then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was responsible for the enacting of legislation that protects them relatively speaking. Both men approach the problem in very different ways; Sankhala follows in his grandfather’s footsteps in creating and protecting tiger preserves in India, whereas Fomenko is more of a hands-on kind of guy rescuing individual tigers in dire need.

Fomenko gets involved with a Siberian village on a nature preserve where a mother tiger has begun to attack village dogs. With kids walking to and from school, Fomenko knew it was a matter of time before villagers would kill the tiger to protect their kids (understandably). He stepped in and captured the mama tiger to relocate her but was less successful in finding her cubs, organizing a tiger hunt in an attempt to find them before they died.

The first third of the movie dwells a bit overly much on the spiritual aspect of the tiger – how it is a symbol of power particular from a male standpoint. There’s a lot of fairly dry material on the elder Sankhala and his efforts to document the plight of the species and to convince his government to step in and save them. The movie also opens with an odd and somewhat disconnected voice over about the history of tigers and how humans have considered them, done in a child’s singsong voice as if in a nursery rhyme.

During the last third the movie picks up steam and ends up packing a wallop; we are shown the gruesome results of a poacher’s work and the danger of advocating for the tigers, especially in the case of Fomenko who is changed by the experience. There is a mournful roll call of the various types of tigers, most reduced to less than a thousand remaining in the wild and several already extinct – all within the lifetime of most of us.

It isn’t until about a third of the way through that we actually see a tiger in the wild – until then all we see are representations and drawings – and we are reminded of what a magnificent animal tigers are. Seeing them padding around their natural environment like the lords they are is an almost spiritual experience; I can only imagine how much more intense and affecting it would be to see one in person (one not in a zoo).

Kauffman peppers the film with watercolor-like animations from Daniel Sousa (himself an Oscar nominee for Feral) that enhance rather than distract. The younger Sankhala is certainly passionate about tigers but he doesn’t have the personality of Fomenko who is a force of nature. The movie really hums along when Fomenko is onscreen.

The movie has already received a brief theatrical release and is currently available on Discovery Go. It is debuting on the Discovery Channel tonight for those who prefer the broadcasting route. Documentary and nature lovers should seek this one out.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers capture the power and spirituality of the animals. The watercolor animations are lovely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the footage is graphic and disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some slight profanity as well as disturbing footage of the results of tiger mauling as well as of dead and skinned tigers.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kauffman shared an Oscar for co-directing the 2006 Best Documentary Feature Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Journey To a Mother’s Room

Hunting Season (Temporada de Caza)


Father and son don’t exactly see eye to eye.

(2017) Drama (Rei Cine) Germán Palacios, Lautaro Bettoni, Boy Olmi, Rita Pauls, Pilar Benitez Vivart. Directed by Natalia Garagiola

The dynamic between a father and a son is never an easy thing. Men, like myself, are great big beasts, growling and sniffing out our rivals – even our own progeny. We circle each other in an endless game of alpha male, doing damage along the way for sure but also from time to time getting through to our sons when they need us most.

Nahuel (Bettoni) is a hot-headed teen; a star on his exclusive Buenos Aires prep school rugby squad, he is angry and bitter and lashing out in the wake of his mother’s death. One of these incidents gets him expelled from the school. His kind-hearted stepdad Bautista (Olmi) suggests that Nahuel spend some time with his biological father in Patagonia. Ernesto (Palacios) works as a game ranger in a state park, also taking in extra cash as a guide to hunting parties. He is considered one of the best in the region for these.

Nahuel isn’t all that keen on heading into what is the equivalent of going to West Virginia after living in Manhattan, but he doesn’t have much of a choice. His mood is further befouled when his father is three hours late picking him up at the airport. By the time he gets to the modest home where Ernesto lives with his much younger second wife (Pauls) and their three daughters, he is about done with any idea of making nice.

He spends most of his time being sullen, sleeping and refusing to do anything he’s asked to do – in short, being a typical teenage boy. But as Ernesto begins to let his guard down and try to understand his own flesh and blood, Nahuel gradually begins to thaw. Nahuel isn’t becoming the man his biological dad wants him to be and Ernesto certainly isn’t the father his son wants him to be but maybe – just maybe – there’s room for both to accept the other as they are.

This isn’t the first film to suggest that the best means for a father-son reconciliation is a trip into the wilderness but the cinematography by Fernando Lockett does make the idea plausible. The background is a stark Patagonian winter and there is much beauty in snow-covered meadows, trees sparkling with icicles and misty mountains rearing their formidable vistas in the background.

Veteran Argentine actor Palacios is perfect for Ernesto; a man who has lived by a certain set of rules all his life only to see his one and only son living by a different set of rules. Palacios plays Ernesto with a hint of sadness as the presence of Nahuel forces Ernesto to take stock on all the really major errors of his life. Palacios can do world-weary like just about nobody else and he has enough screen presence to make his character way more interesting than it has any right to be.

The rock star handsome Bettoni is handed a character that nobody is going to like for about the first two thirds of the film. Nahuel is spoiled, selfish, angry, a bit of a bully and cruel to boot but even he can be redeemed. American audiences may not necessarily want him to be but I suppose within every bad kid is a good kid screaming to be let out, or at least so I’m told.

The dynamic between Bettoni and Palacios is the centerpiece of the film and the two actors do a great job portraying a love-hate (emphasis on the latter at first) relationship between the two men. While there are characters orbiting the two leads who take at least some of the burden off of the two of them, Ernesto and Nahuel dominate the screen time and the movie lives or dies based on how believable their relationship is. Spoiler alert: the movie doesn’t die.

The plot and denouement are pretty much predictable for any veteran film buff so be aware that you’re not likely to be surprised by any of this. However, Garagiola does a good job of making the familiar road an interesting ride and not every director is able to do that. This was one of the highlights of this year’s Miami Film Festival.

REASONS TO GO: Palacios has a good deal of screen presence. The cinematography is extraordinary.
REASONS TO STAY: It pretty much goes the way you think it will.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find profanity, violence and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Palacios wears a Bass Pro Shops ball cap throughout the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walking Out
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
10 Billion: What’s On Your Plate?

Roar (1981)


Lions and tigers and a bear, oh my...

Lions and tigers and a bear, oh my…

(1981) WTF (Drafthouse) Tippi Hedren, Noel Marshall, Melanie Griffith, John Marshall, Jerry Marshall, Kyalo Mativo, Frank Tom, Steve Miller, Rick Glassey, Zakes Moakae, Lenord Bokwa, Shamasi Sarumi, Will Hutchins, Eve Rattner, Peter Thiongo, Michael Franz, Alexandra Newman, Pat Barbeau, Michael J. Jones. Directed by Noel Marshall

Some movies are extraordinary due to technical achievements, acting performances, excellent writing, beautiful cinematography and/or sure direction. This isn’t one of those. It is extraordinary due to the fact that it got made.

Husband and wife Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren were a successful Hollywood couple in the late 1960s and early 1970s; Hedren had been an actress who’d starred in the Hitchcock classic The Birds and was one of the most beautiful women of her time. Her husband was a producer, who had among other credits The Exorcist and The Harrad Experiment to his credit.

Both were animal activists, particularly when it came to big cats, and kept nearly a hundred animals on their ranch in Soledad Canyon, near Los Angeles. They hit upon an idea to make a movie that would inspire audiences to conservation and preservation as many big cats were hitting the endangered species list. Oddly, they decided to use their own wild animals rather than trained ones that were more used to human company.

The production was plagued with problems from the start. What was supposed to have been a six-month shoot would stretch out for seven years – this after it took four years to get the financing together to make the movie in the first place. However, two years into shooting, the financing was withdrawn and Marshall and Hedren were forced to use their own funds to complete the movie, putting up their own property and possessions as collateral. Animal attacks during the shoot would lead to 70 confirmed injuries, some of which were serious (an assistant director had his throat partially torn out and cinematographer Jan de Bont, who would go on to make Speed had most of his scalp torn off in a wound that required more than 200 stitches). A flood and brush fire in 1979 wiped out the set and took out most of the completed footage, and feline disease took the lives of many of the cats, including Robbie, who plays the King of the Cats in the film.

Still, the filmmakers persevered and the movie was completed but after all that it tanked at the box office; especially galling was that it didn’t get a release here in the United States. However, Tim League of the Alamo Drafthouse chain found the movie at a local video store and fell in love with it. He arranged to buy the rights and is giving it a brief theatrical re-release before bringing it back out on DVD and Blu-Ray later this year.

The movie’s plot is simple; Hank (N. Marshall), a scientist living in the African veldt trying to protect big cats from poachers while examining their co-existence with humans in a wild state, invites his family to come visit him. Due to a set of unforeseen circumstances, he ends up being late to go fetch them from the local airport so while he is off going to get them – no easy feat – they find alternate transportation to his ranch. They are horrified to find dozens of ferocious predators inhabiting his home and spend much of the movie running from room to room trying to escape.

The movie definitely has a 70s vibe to it, with songs that would appeal to the James Taylor/Carole King crowd and clothes and hairstyles that date the movie. So too does the broad sense of humor complete with sitcom musical cues. Noel Marshall as an actor makes a great producer; most of his lines are half-shouted and his character seems completely out of touch with reality. His Chicago accent sounds a bit bizarre on a scientist studying cats in Africa – and Africa by the way except for a few establishing shots, is Southern California. At least here. Marshall, incidentally, passed away in 2010 having never acted again.

Someone had to think this was a good idea and it’s a good bet that some sort of drug use was involved with the decision making process. Put a cast and crew in among a hundred wild animals whose actions would be unpredictable to say the least? Sure! Because of that unpredictability give the cats co-writing and co-directing credit? Why not! Encourage people to support conservation and animal rights causes by depicting multiple harrowing animal attacks on humans by those same animals? That’s gotta work, right?

I’ve heard this film referred to as less a movie so much as a carnival sideshow and there is something to that description. This is a movie that has to be experienced; describing it doesn’t do justice. Ratings therefore go out the window, which is why it has essentially a 50% rating here. You are either going to love it or hate it, you’ll get it or you won’t. Me, I vacillate wildly between loving the movie and the heart that is obviously put into it, with the footage of the big cats doing their things and wondering what on earth these people were thinking. Words can’t possibly do this film justice.

REASONS TO GO: Curiosity factor. Some beautiful cinematography and the animals can be delightful.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a product of its time. The acting is not so good. The comedy is awfully broad and occasionally inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: Animal attack footage that ranges from comical to gruesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While no animals were harmed during the film, 70 human injuries were reported and at least one was life-threatening, although thankfully not fatal.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: When Animals Attack
FINAL RATING: 5/10 (but a N/A would be more applicable)
NEXT: Amy

How to Train Your Dragon 2


Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

(2014) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kit Harrington, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kieron Elliott, Philip McGrade, Andrew Ableson, Gideon Emery, Simon Kassianides, Randy Thom. Directed by Dean DeBlois

Becoming who we are is no easy proposition. It’s a search of discovery and the answers can be elusive, particularly when we’re not especially sure who we want to be.

The movie takes place five years after the first one. Hiccup (Baruchel) has been successful in integrating dragons into the daily life of Berk which has become a much happier place as Vikings and Dragons are living in harmony. Dragon riders show their stuff in highly contested dragon races (a kind of combination between Quidditch and Rollerball). While his father Stoick (Butler) is eager for his son to take over the family business and become chief, Hiccup spends much of his time making maps of the surrounding islands, expanding the world the Vikings have lived in into a much larger place. He is also continuing to invent things, in this case a flying suit so that he can soar with his best friend Toothless (Thom) as they explore.

Unfortunately, finding out what else is out there in that wider world can be a good and bad thing. For Hiccup, the good is in finding a Dragon Rider whose ice-riddled island hides many secrets including more dragons than anyone has ever seen in one place – and their human protector, Valka (Blanchett) who turns out to be Hiccup’s mother. This is something of a surprise since Hiccup had heard all his life that Valka had died protecting him from dragons when he was a baby but it turns out that Valka, who had always defended dragons to a Stoick who was deaf to her pleas had left in order to protect her family from the dragons – and vice versa.

On the bad side, Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (Ferrara) as well as their buddies Snotlout (Hill), Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (Miller) and Ruffnut (Wiig) have also discovered a tracker named Erit (Harrington) who captures dragons for the villainous Drago (Hounsou) who wishes to create a powerful dragon army under the control of his gigantic Leviathan dragon who can control the dragons – and whom Drago controls through torture and violence. This is a challenge the likes of which Hiccup has never had to face and when a tragedy strikes Hiccup closer than he could have possibly imagined, he will have to find the strength to lead his people to overcome this threat – or else lose their dragons and their freedom forever.

In many ways, this isn’t a typical summer animated feature, although it appears to be the most likely to be the kidflick hit of the summer at first glance. The tone here is much darker with a main character being killed and the abuse of animals being a central theme. That may have made some parents wary to bring their kids to the multiplex for this one, which has underperformed at the box office although it seems likely to be profitable enough to warrant further sequels. I’m sure DreamWorks Animation executives were expecting windfall profits considering that there would be no animation competition this summer essentially other than from the sequel to Disney’s Planes which although a surprise hit didn’t look especially promising as a blockbuster.

Baruchel’s nasal, deadpan delivery is perfect for the character of Hiccup and while he isn’t nearly as awkward as he was in the first movie, continues to have a kind of gawky, outsider quality that is endearing. Butler endows Stoick with plenty of proud papa and – when he discovers that Valka is alive after all – tender love and caring. Craig Ferguson also returns as Gobber, mainly as comic relief.

While I thought the first film was really meant for smaller kids, this one isn’t so much. I get the sense that they wanted to grow up along with their core audience and while younger kids will still be delighted with the variety of dragons and their often goofy behavior as well as the cartoonish depiction of humans (this isn’t photorealistic CGI animation by any stretch), the kids who fell in love with the original will have matured some and the movie gives them credit for that and treats them accordingly. That’s a pretty refreshing point of view for a genre which often reads as a giant advertisement for toys and merchandise geared at kids.

I’m giving this a rating just a smidge under the first film because I think that parents may want to be wary about letting the more sensitive and immature young ‘uns in their brood see this – at least one little tyke at the screening we went to had a very adverse reaction to one of the darker scenes in the movie. I also thought the plot could have used a little more originality but essentially those who really like the first one will really like this one and those who didn’t care for the original will feel the same about the sequel. They’re essentially interchangeable in many ways but I will admit that I am much more intrigued to see How to Train Your Dragon 3 than I was to see this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some really beautiful moments.  Treats kids with respect.

REASONS TO STAY: The dragons are often too cartoonish. May be too dark for the impressionable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of animated cartoon action and some rude (but not offensively so) humor. There is a moment in which a young man deals with an event that might be upsetting for really young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeBlois, who co-directed the original, accepted the sequel on the condition that he be allowed to direct a third film to make up a trilogy. The third film is already scheduled for June 17, 2016.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle for Terra

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Druid Peak


This is the West.

This is the West.

(2014) Drama (One Small Thing) Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Wilson, Rachel Korine, Damian Young, Nathaniel Brown, Armand Schultz, Lanna Joffrey, George Joe Smith, Bernadette Cuvalo, Ian Jan Campbell, Rebecca L. Baldwin.. Directed by Mami Zelnick

Florida Film Festival 2014

Nature versus nurture is an ongoing debate to explain why some kids turn out to be okay and others turn out to be monsters. Is it an environmental thing that turns kids into bullies, or is it some DNA misfire inside them that makes them predisposed to that sort of behavior?

Whatever the answer is, Owen (Clark) is a bully. He seems angry at everyone and everything. He’s intimidating to his fellow students and is known to get physical. He lives in the coal country of West Virginia in a town which doesn’t have a whole lot going on. When his actions lead to a tragic incident, his fed-up mother and stepfather put him on a plane to Wyoming where he will stay with his taciturn father Everett (Wilson), who monitors the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park.

At first this seems like a match made in Hell. Owen is angry and surly – one of his first actions when he arrives in Wyoming is to steal some of his dad’s money – and his dad doesn’t seem too interested in being the nurturing sort. With there being even less to do around his dad’s isolated cabin than in West Virginia, Owen decides to go for a walk.

There he encounters a wolf – and by encounters I mean up close and by a wolf I mean not a Doberman. The encounter piques Owen’s curiosity and he begins to seek out the wolves in the wild. Before long he has become adept at tracking them – “thinking like a wolf,” as his father puts it. The curiosity grows into a genuine affinity.

Before long, Owen begins to exhibit some real changes. He has found something to care about and a purpose to his life. However, the world of wolves isn’t all running in the woods and howling at the moon. Local ranchers, embodied by McGill (Young), have some real concerns about wolves from the park raiding their livestock for a free meal. Owen also develops a bit of a crush on Zoe (Korine), McGill’s daughter. When the wolves are removed from the endangered species list, freeing local hunters the opportunity to go after them, things may never be the same for Owen or his father.

Zelnick, who has been producing and writing films for several years, makes her debut as a director here although you’d never know it. Her work on Druid Peak is as assured and efficient as if directed by someone with decades of experience. Every shot here matters and while there are the occasional beauty shots of the landscape, even those help set the tone for the film.

She wrangles a terrific performance from Treat, who has been a child actor for some time (and in a number of excellent films) and most recently appeared in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. He makes a good impression here starting Owen off as surly, bad-tempered and outright mean. The bully though morphs into an advocate for the defenseless and while the change might seem extreme taking place as it does over a single summer, both Zelnick and Clark make it organic and believable.

Wilson is a presence as Everett and while he has a kind of hippie eco-fanatic vibe to him, there is a practical core underneath. While I do wonder not so much why Everett and Owen’s mom split up but how they got together in the first place (which is explained neatly in the film by the way), I can see how Everett ended up in Wyoming. My own Wyoming experience is in the Eastern portion of the state where it is miles and miles of miles and miles, but my Colorado-bred wife assures me that the area in the Tetons, where this was filmed (near Jackson Hole but not in Yellowstone itself) is just as breathtaking as any in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

While the story takes a little while to get going – mostly as it is established what a rotten egg Owen is, the scenes of which might be a bit traumatic for those who have been bullied before – once the plane touches down in Wyoming the magic really begins. This is a very solid first feature and one which bodes well for some really great filmmaking down the line.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Nice performance by Clark.

REASONS TO STAY: Takes awhile to get going. Bullying scenes may be disturbing to watch for those with similar life experiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and some acts of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Andrew Wilson is the older brother of Luke and Owen Wilson.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flicka

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Forev

Blackfish


Tilikum performing.

Tilikum performing.

(2013) Documentary (Magnolia) Tilikum, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove, Carol Ray, Jeffrey Ventre, Kim Ashdown, Dawn Brancheau, Daniel Patrick Dukes, Ken Balcomb, Howard Garrett, Keltie Burns. Directed by Gabrielle Cowperthwaite

Children are for the most part fascinated by the animal world. Animal parks like SeaWorld and Animal Kingdom as well as traditional zoos and aquariums are well aware of it – the animals on display in these parks are siren calls to kids and their parents. Performing animals can bring oohs and aahs to kids of all ages.

However on February 24, 2010 things got serious. SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, one of the most respected and safety-conscious trainers in the business, was killed in an incident during a “Dine with Shamu” performance at SeaWorld Orlando. The incident involved Tilikum, an orca (popularly known as a killer whale) who was one of SeaWorld’s mainstays and a veteran performer.

As time went by, there began to be questions asked about SeaWorld’s policies. One of the first facts to come out was that this was the third human death that Tilikum had been involved with; one involving trainer Keltie Burns in Sealand of the Pacific where Tilikum had been brought as a young whale and then later a bizarre incident when Daniel Patrick Dukes apparently entered Tilikum’s tank illegally after hours and was found the next morning naked and draped across Tilikum’s back.

Filmmaker Cowperthwaite examines Tilikum’s story from the time he was taken from his family as a young whale until the incident with Brancheau and its aftermath. She interviews a number of former SeaWorld trainers as well as orca experts to discuss behaviors of orcas both in the wild and in captivity. She also looks at several incidents in which trainers were injured or killed, including a particularly gruesome incident at Parque Loro in the Canary Islands.

It is clear that there is an agenda here as there is with most documentary films. Cowperthwaite’s point is that the captivity of these animals is inherently wrong and inhumane and that the motivations for SeaWorld and parks like it is profit rather than the education and appreciation of those animals. While I think that there is room for argument there, there’s no doubt that SeaWorld does make plenty of profit through park admissions and merchandise sale with the visage of the orca Shamu being essentially SeaWorld’s corporate identity.

SeaWorld in fact has gone to great pains to portray themselves as good corporate citizens and it is true that they have a rehabilitation program that has helped over 22,000 injured, orphaned or abandoned animals in the wild and nursed them back to health for re-release in many cases or permanently cared for those that were deemed unfit to sustain themselves in their native habitats. They have also contributed to and encouraged contributions to conservation causes and preach respect and care for the animals that they display. These are points not brought up in the movie.

However, it is also true that SeaWorld hid from their trainers Tilikum’s dangerous past and his part in the death of Keltie Burns. It is also true that they have misrepresented the life spans of orcas in the wild vs. orcas in SeaWorld’s care (studies show they do live longer in the wild, contrary to SeaWorld’s claims). SeaWorld has an interest in maintaining their image in that the perception of cruelty or inhumanity might adversely affect their bottom line, so their willingness to go to great lengths to preserve that image is at least understandable.

In the case of Dawn Brancheau, OSHA stepped in to litigate against SeaWorld, accusing them of violations of safety standards. SeaWorld denied those allegations and defended themselves vigorously (testimony from the trial is presented in the film). OSHA did eventually win the case although it is currently being appealed. This is why if you visit any SeaWorld park, you won’t see the trainers directly in the water with the orcas; there is a barrier between them. SeaWorld’s allegations that Brancheau was dragged into the water by her ponytail wasn’t proven; it also seemed to me (although the filmmakers didn’t say so outright) that given how many cameras are stationed throughout SeaWorld that if the footage had shown without a doubt that the ponytail was the culprit, they would have brought that footage to court. Since they didn’t, we have to assume that the footage showed otherwise. Certainly the eyewitnesses to the event were clear that Tilikum had grabbed Ms. Brancheau’s arm and dragged her into the pool.

For my part, I’ve always wondered what the allure is in trained animal shows. Maybe I’m just weird but I always get more of a charge watching an animal in its native environment doing the things it does naturally. The shots of orcas swimming in waters off the coasts of Washington state peacefully and majestically was far more thrilling to me than watching one cruise around a tank waving a fluke at the audience. However it is undeniable that the audiences in the footage looked awfully thrilled at the various behaviors of the orcas here.

Cowperthwaite’s assertion that the deaths depicted here were essentially the results of psychosis largely brought about by captivity is well-presented and certainly backed up by the experts she brings in. I would have like to hear some dissenting opinions, although there was one ex-trainer who did seemingly disagree with the filmmaker’s conclusions. Still, we are told that there are no records of an orca killing a human in the wild which is misleading – there have been attacks on humans in the wild although no fatalities have been recorded which doesn’t necessarily mean that none have occurred.

The documentary is a compelling one and the love and respect for the animals is clear in both the filmmakers and the scientists and former trainers that are interviewed. There’s no doubt that the orca is a magnificent creature, graceful and gentle but capable of great power and violence. We have our own human history to refer to when discussing the adverse affects of  being taken out of one’s natural environment and placed forcibly and without permission in an alien and strange environment, separated from all that one loved. That’s not a recipe for harmony and love. While the movie may not necessarily make fans of SeaWorld think differently about the animal shows, hopefully it will give everyone pause to think about the high price that entertainment can sometimes cost.

REASONS TO GO: Communicates the trainers and filmmakers love for these animals. Some beautiful footage of orcas.

REASONS TO STAY: No rebuttal viewpoints (although SeaWorld declined to allow their executives to be interviewed for the film).

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the subject matter and images are far too intense and disturbing for Shamu’s target audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ending of the upcoming sequel to Finding Nemo was altered after Pixar executives viewed this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cove

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Baghead