Mini Reviews (December 2013)
Blackfish, Short Term 12, Antisocial, Secret Admirer
Blackfish (December 6/13)
An absolutely heartbreaking documentary, Blackfish details the mistreatment of killer whales, particularly an orca named Tilikum, at SeaWorld's Florida location. It's an inherently engrossing subject that's employed to captivating (and eye-opening) effect by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, as the filmmaker offers up an unflinching behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of SeaWorld and its ilk - with the inclusion of historical context, detailing the initial capture of killer whales for entertainment purposes back in the 1970s, effectively rounding out the proceedings and confirming its place as an absolutely essential piece of work. There's little doubt, too, that Blackfish, though often awfully difficult to sit through, is as mesmerizing a documentary as one can easily recall, as Cowperthwaite heightens the movie's compulsively watchable atmosphere by offering up a handful of compelling and palpably heartwrenching stretches (eg an orca is forcibly removed from its mother, a trainer's attack is captured on amateur home video, etc, etc). It is, as a result, impossible to walk out of Blackfish without feeling that something needs to change in the world of water-based amusement parks, which ultimately ensures that the movie will, in the years to come, stand as an important and pivotal example of activist filmmaking.
Short Term 12 (December 9/13)
Written and directed by Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 follows Brie Larson's Grace, a foster-care staff member, as she's forced to confront a variety of personal issues in the wake of a troubled new arrival (Kaitlyn Dever's Jayden). Filmmaker Cretton has infused Short Term 12 with a deliberately-paced and low-key feel that proves an ideal match for his subdued screenplay, with the early part of the movie devoted mostly to the various happenings within the title care facility (eg the staff prepares to say goodbye to one of their charges, Grace confronts her boss over a bureaucratic issue, etc). It's interesting stuff that's perhaps not quite as engrossing as one might've hoped, and yet there's little doubt that the film benefits substantially from the pervasively authentic atmosphere - with this vibe perpetuated and heightened by the efforts of a uniformly strong cast. (Larson's absolutely mesmerizing performance is matched by an impressive supporting cast that features, among others, John Gallagher Jr., Keith Stanfield, and Rami Malek.) There's little doubt, then, that Short Term 12 improves steadily as it progresses, with Cretton's growing emphasis on Grace's personal issues, ie her increasingly compelling relationship with Dever's Jayden, paving the way for an impressively captivating second half. (It doesn't hurt, either, that Cretton has peppered this portion of the movie with several unexpectedly moving interludes, including a riveting sequence in which Jayden reads a disturbing self-penned story to Grace.) By the time the effective (and affecting) final stretch rolls around, Short Term 12 has definitively established itself as an engaging, emotional little drama that bodes well for Cretton's future endeavors.
Antisocial (December 29/13)
Though it does improve slightly in its final half hour, Antisocial is, for the majority of its running time, an entirely underwhelming horror effort that's rife with incompetent, amateurish elements - which is too bad, certainly, given the promise of the movie's (admittedly familiar) setup. The narrative follows five university students as they're forced to fend for their lives after an unknown epidemic strikes, with the movie, as expected, detailing the paranoia and suspicion that inevitably ensues among the squabbling quintet. There is, at the outset, very little contained within Antisocial that's able to successfully (or even partially) hold the viewer's interest, as the movie has been suffused with elements of a decidedly less-than-skillfull nature - with virtually everything here, from the performances to the dialogue to the visuals, coated in a sheen of ineptness that proves impossible to overlook. (In a shot that's completely emblematic of filmmaker Cody Calahan's slapdash sensibilities, a central character picks up her phone to answer a text and clearly holds it upside down.) The arms-length atmosphere is perpetuated by a repetitive midsection that's devoted primarily to bickering and squabbling among the one-dimensional protagonists, and it is, as a result, awfully difficult to work up any real interest in or sympathy for the characters' increasingly perilous exploits. It's just as clear, however, that Antisocial picks up considerably once it passes a certain point, as Callahan offers up a final stretch that's jam-packed with precisely the sort of over-the-top gore that's otherwise absent from the proceedings - which ultimately does confirm the movie's place as a decent short film trapped within the confines of a mostly unwatchable feature.
Secret Admirer (December 30/13)
A rather forgettable romantic comedy, Secret Admirer details the love triangle that ensues between three love-letter-sending teenagers (C. Thomas Howell's Michael, Kelly Preston's Deborah, and Lori Loughlin's Toni) and the impact that their shenanigans have on various supporting figures (including Dee Wallace Stone's Connie and Fred Ward's Lou). It's ultimately clear that Secret Admirer fares better in its first half than its second, as the film is, at the outset, concerned primarily with the wacky misunderstandings and mixups that stem from the aforementioned anonymous romantic notes - with the inherently irresistible nature of such sequences establishing and perpetuating an easygoing, lighthearted atmosphere. (It doesn't hurt, either, that the movie boasts a charismatic assortment of performers, with the central trio, especially, transforming their familiar characters into affable, likeable figures.) There reaches a point, however, at which the movie begins to palpably fizzle out, as filmmaker David Greenwalt, along with co-screenwriter Jim Kouf, slowly-but-surely places the focus almost entirely on Michael, Deborah, and Toni's conventional (and hopelessly predictable) love triangle - which is a shame, really, as Secret Admirer effectively, in its early stages, manages to avoid the usual trappings of the teen romance genre. The end result is a passable yet underwhelming 1980s comedy, and it's ultimately obvious that the movie is notable more for its impressive roster of familiar faces than its actual content.