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posted: 7/25/2013 6:00 AM

Doc shows orca safety not always a black-and-white issue

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  • Tilikum, a six-ton orca, performs at SeaWorld after killing a trainer in 2010, in the new documentary "Blackfish."

    Tilikum, a six-ton orca, performs at SeaWorld after killing a trainer in 2010, in the new documentary "Blackfish."

  • Tilikum, a six-ton orca, performs at SeaWorld after killing a trainer in 2010, in the new documentary "Blackfish."

    Tilikum, a six-ton orca, performs at SeaWorld after killing a trainer in 2010, in the new documentary "Blackfish."

  • Video: "Blackfish" trailer


Mini-review: "Blackfish"
A warning: Watching Gabriela Cowperthwaite's powerful, action-spurring documentary "Blackfish" might change your plans to visit any of the many "SeaWorld"-like establishments that feature killer whales as performers.

There has never been, according to this doc, a report of killer whales ever harming a human being in the wild. So when Tilikum, a 6-ton orca, killed Dawn Brancheau, an experienced Sea World trainer, in 2010, Cowperthwaite asked the question "Why?"

Through revealing video footage and bluntly honest interviews with orca trainers, she gets the answer: putting orcas in confined spaces, no matter how elaborate, drives the whales nuts. They are so frustrated they actually attack each other in a phenomenon called "raking." (Graphic footage captures the results of this harsh practice.)

Cowperthwaite discovers that Tilikum has been responsible for killing three trainers. But because the expensive star is such an attraction, its owners spin the deaths to make it sound as if the trainers were at fault, not the whale.

Cowperthwaite digs up amazing footage (with cover shots and close-ups, thanks to a multicamera system at the aquarium) of a trainer being held underwater by a supposedly gentle orca. Only the trainer's cool -- and large capacity lungs -- save his life.

"Blackfish" is no nonfiction remake of the popular movie "Free Willy." It's a strong piece of video journalism in which images and the interviews deliver the information, and we reach our own conclusions.

Last week, SeaWorld officials issued a statement calling this doc "inaccurate and misleading." Yet, SeaWorld officials refused to be interviewed by Cowperthwaite back when they had an opportunity to correct the "inaccurate and misleading" information at the get-go.

"Blackfish" opens at the Century Centre Cinema in Chicago and the Evanston CineArts 6. Rated PG-13 for violent and graphic images. 80 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Whale of an interview
Gabriela Cowperthwaite credits the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the astonishing, sometimes visceral footage she obtained for her documentary "Blackfish."

"The footage in the movie we got from every possible source imaginable, even people's personal archives," Cowperthwaite said during a recent telephone interview. "A lot of footage was made available through FOIA, when OSHA took SeaWorld to court.

"After months and months of requesting that stuff, I was able to get my hands on some of that footage. I flew down to OSHA to tell them I was in for the long haul.

"There a million ways they can tell me no. But I could not have done this movie without access to footage from SeaWorld. Period."

The Denver native was inspired to make "Blackfish" by the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

"I couldn't understand why a top SeaWorld trainer would be killed by a mammal that we consider to be our friend. I couldn't understand why he would have killed a trainer that he presumably loved."

Cowperthwaite said that some documentaries can be extremely agenda driven, but she emulates those that seek to find truth.

"I am humbled by truthful, investigative documentaries," she said. "They really go to the mat. They delve vertically, really dig deep into the subject. That's a product of time."

So why do this? Why spend months and months researching a subject to make a movie that may never be seen and will never recoup the costs of creating?

"I think I'm driven by a desire to never stop seeking answers. If you are an eternally curious person, what keeps you going forward is that you just might have the luck to hone in on an answer, if you keep at it long enough."

That's it?

"That's what drives me, I think. I don't do this to change the world. I only do it because I have to answer questions. It's in my DNA."

Mini-review: "Stranded"
Exactly how does a meteor storm go "rogue"? Did it bolt from the herd of other meteor storms and seek out Earth's moon to attack at will?

This is one of many silly questions posed by Roger Christian's laughably amateurish "Stranded," a science-fiction thriller that owes its ripped-off plot to "Alien" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

The cheap, obvious tabletop models used to depict a U.S. military moon base tips us off that "Stranded" has skimped on quality all around -- in the visual effects, the acting and the writing.

A "rogue meteor storm" pelts the moon base with meteor chunks, some of which contain alien spores that replicate the human crew under the command of Colonel Gerard Brauchman (a slumming Christian Slater, who can barely suppress wincing while uttering sophomoric dialogue from director Roger Christian and Christian Piers Betley).

A researcher named Ava (Amy Matysio) cuts her finger on a broken spores test tube, but doesn't tell anyone. Five nanoseconds later, she gives birth to a menacing whatchamacallit that runs through the air ducts and starts duplicating the humans.

The other crew members disregard everything Ava says because the oxygen scrubbers have been damaged, so increased carbon dioxide means the humans might have hallucinations.

(Maybe I heard it wrong, but I could swear the actors kept referring to "carbon monoxide," not "dioxide.")

"Stranded" is such a cheesy, inept mess of moviemaking that Christian (the director, as opposed to the actor Christian and co-writer Christian) could only have improved it by cranking up the camp factor and turning it into a parody of science-fiction classics.

"Stranded" opens at the Streets of Woodfield in Schaumburg. Not rated; contains violence, adult language and nudity. 88 minutes. ★

Film notes:

• This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the biggest "Star Wars" blunder ever committed by George Lucas' entertainment team.

Shortly before the anxiously awaited release of "Return of the Jedi," a shipping error sent 600 copies of Marvel Comics' adaptation of the movie to Moondog Comics stores in Schaumburg, Palatine and Mount Prospect.

The comic books revealed everything in the movie, including the secret relationship between Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. The comic books weren't supposed to be released until after the movie's national premiere on May 25.

Moondog owner Gary Colabuono tipped me off to the shipping blunder. He'd sold out all his "Jedi" comic books, except for one he saved for me.

Now came the supreme film critic test. Do I reveal the secret of "the other" to Daily Herald readers and do my job as a journalist by breaking the biggest entertainment scoop of the decade?

Or do I stifle my journalistic instincts, remain silent and let zillions of "Star Wars" fans discover the surprise for themselves?

Not a tough call really.

I never published what I knew.

A short time later, syndicated columnist James Brady revealed everything, diminishing the "Jedi" experience for untold numbers of "Star Wars" fans.

Apparently, he wanted to be a plotty-pooper worse than I did.

• "Midnight at the Tivoli" presents George Lucas' classic coming-of-age comic drama "American Graffiti" at 12:01 a.m. Friday (technically that's Saturday) July 26 at the Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove. Admission costs $5. Four classic period car replicas will be parked outside the theater. (Thanks to JD Classics of St. Charles.) Go to

• The Third Annual Chicago French Film Festival cranks up this weekend at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, Chicago. General admission costs $10. All-Access Passes $75. Nine-Film Passes $50.

• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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