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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with BLACKFISH, STILL MINE and IN THE HOUSE!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

There's one particular fact that stuck in my mind after watching the sickening, heartbreaking documentary BLACKFISH, which concerns the practice of keeping killer whales, or orcas, in captivity for entertainment or breeding purposes at venues like Sea World, where in 2010 trainer Dawn Brancheau was dragged under the water during a performance and torn to pieces by a massive orca named Tilikum, a whale that was likely responsible for two other deaths in its history as a performing animal. Someone in the film makes the very important point that, although there are hundreds of reported deaths and injuries to trainers by whales held in captivity, there has never been a single attack on human beings by orcas in the wild.

BLACKFISH isn't just about Tilikum, although the whale's long and troubling past is certainly the focus of this documentary that seeks to expose Sea World and places like it for its barbaric practices when it comes to housing, training and exploiting these 8,000-lb. creatures. What's more maddening, as the film exposes, is how the various water parks cover up or deny the fact that their holding facilities are in any way the cause of these attacks by literally driving these animals crazy.

The filmmakers don't simply hurl allegations; they collect a large number of former whale trainers — mostly from Sea World; many of whom knew Brancheau—to detail the park's practices and policies. Tilikum has lived in captivity for 30 years, since it was captured at age two near Iceland. And several animal experts make the fairly obvious case that anything in captivity that long would likely be driven insane; I believe someone even uses the word "psychotic." But more horrifying, although we are spared any graphic video of Brancheau's death, there is plenty of other footage of captive whales attacking trainers. One particularly terrifying bit of film involves an orca dragging its trainer to the bottom of its deep tank over and over again like its a game, mangling the man's leg in the process. Good luck with that one.

But the message of BLACKFISH isn't to be afraid of killer whales; it's to urge sea parks to give up what is admittedly their number one attraction. Trained orcas are more impressive than, say, trained dolphins simply because of their size, but that always makes them far more dangerous when they decide they don't like being held captive any longer. What's most infuriating about Brancheau's death is the way Sea World executive tried to blame her death on trainer error, saying her ponytail hitting the water somehow provoked the attack, but those who were there tell a different story.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite's exhaustive research into every aspect of this unnecessary death and the practices that caused it will stick with you for a long time to come, and you'll certainly think twice before going to Sea World again or buying one of their cute little stuffed orcas. BLACKFISH is fascinating, harrowing food for thought.

The only reason I won't label the sweet little film STILL MINE "quiet" is because lead actor James Cromwell is so angry and occasionally yelling, usually at the local bureaucrats in his community, so we get where he's coming from. The true-life story concerns Cromwell as independent farmer Craig Morrison, whose wife Irene (Genevieve Bujold) is clearly in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and she is having trouble remembering even the simplest things about getting around their two-story house. In an effort to simplify their living arrangements, Morrison decides to build he and his wife a smaller, simpler, one-story home right next to the big house, and so he starts cutting wood and begins to build it himself. End of story, right? Not exactly.

Morrison's father was a shipbuilder, so the knowledge of wood and building a solid structure is in the man's blood. But that doesn't stop the local building inspector (played as sympathetically as possible by Jonathan Potts) from sticking his nose in and demanding the building cease until blueprints are drawn up and submitted, and the work done so far is inspected by him. Naturally, the man finds dozens of nit-picky violations, most of which Morrison deals with as instructed, but he doesn't take kindly to having his sound work delayed, and he takes it out on this man with the red tape.

What follows are meetings with lawyers (including Morrison's attorney, played by Campbell Scott), inspectors, city planners, and eventually a court case, after Morrison just decides to start building again after he gets tired of sitting around while his wife suffers. Director Michael McGowan has woven together two very nice stories into Still Mine. One is the never-sappy love story between Craig and Irene, which is tested and wrought with his stubbornness and her frailty. Despite the urgings of their grown children, Morrison refuses to put his wife in a home. The other is a surprisingly subversive movie about standing up to the government and that common sense must win out over the letter of the law sometimes.

No pun intended, but there isn't a whole lot of new ground being broken with STILL MINE, but I believe time has proven that Cromwell is one of the most highly watchable actors working today, and he elevates the material into something quite moving at times. And it's great seeing Bujold in anything again. Highly recommended if you're looking for something safe to take your parents or grandparents to.

I missed this film when it originally opened in the U.S. a couple of months ago, and I'm glad I was able to catch it since because it's a brilliant, mildly sleazy slice of wonderful that you should check out if given the chance. Those who follow French cinema know that a new work by writer-director François Ozon (UNDER THE SAND, 5x2, SWIMMING POOL, POTICHE) is reason to take notice, and IN THE HOUSE is certainly gives us an excuse to get excited. Based on the play by Juan Mayorga and adapted by Ozon, the story involves Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a high school literature teacher bored with his life, and his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas).

To amuse himself, he assigns his class to write a personal story, something akin to a journal entry, but what he gets from one student, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), is something far more interesting. He turns in the beginnings of a story about becoming friends with Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), so that he can get into the other boy's house to watch his family's behavior. Rapha's mother, Esther, is played by the radiant Emmanuelle Seigner, so you can imagine at least one of the reasons he wants to spy on this family. As Germain and Jeanne read Claude's story, they get completely caught up in his storytelling, and want more. So Germain cleverly critiques the boy's work and asks him to continue.

What is so interesting about the way In the House is told is that we never know for sure whether what Claude is telling us is true or only partly true or a complete fabrication. At various times, we suspect each. But Ozon keeps us guessing and it makes Claude's behavior all the more creepy. Speaking of creepy, there even comes a time when Germain's over attentiveness to the boy is called into question. Without even realizing it, Germain goes from coaching the boy in writing to telling him what he should do next with the family he's carefully observing, and in the process, the film transforms from a clever mystery to an outright thriller.

With stories like this, we know that all of this deception is going to blow up in someone's face, and we're pretty sure we know who throughout IN THE HOUSE, but that doesn't make it any less fun waiting to see what for the explosion will take. It's a beautifully smart little film armed to the teeth with great actors doing amusing and edgy work. Scott Thomas is particularly good as an art dealer trying to find the right exhibit for her museum before she gets fired by her ridiculous bosses. She uses these stories as an escape from her tense life, and to forget that her husband hasn't touched her since he started reading these stories.

IN THE HOUSE is a commentary on how our society has become one of watcher and not doers. Voyeurism (through reality shows, the paparazzi, etc.) has left us content to sit at home and watch version of who we used to be live out lives that we clearly could in most cases, if we'd only turn off the TV and put down the magazine long enough to go outside. The film in no way expresses this overtly, and it doesn't need to. Ozon is too smart for that, and this film is a tremendous cautionary tale about not getting too caught up in the lives of others.

-- Steve Prokopy
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