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Laura Blum

Animal Triste

The saddest scene in movie history isn't Mammy lamenting what's gone in Gone With the Wind or even the choice Sophie is forced to make in Sophie's Choice. It's the agonized bellow that killer whale Kasata lets rips when her calf, Takara, is taken to entertain SeaWorld crowds an ocean away, as featured in Blackfish.

Gabriela Cowpwerthwaite’s documentary unfolds a damning exposé of the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry and the connection between its inhumane treatment of orcas in captivity and the resulting perils for the trainers who work with them. 

Humans may be the only species to crack out the hankies and Häagen-Dazs when things get glum, but evidence is mounting that we have no monopoly on mourning loss. "Every time we've taken a calf away from the mother, we've seen it be a traumatic experience," former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove told Film Festival Traveler following a Blackfish sceening at Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center. "The observable behavior that we saw and the vocalizations that we heard when they stripped Takara away from Kasata and transported Takara to Florida [SeaWorld] went on for days."

Not only did SeaWorld ply the wailing whale with meds, per Hargrove, it also brought in a senior research scientist from the independent non-profit Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute to anayze the vocals. Having studied orcas in the wild, the scientist determined that Kasata's cries were "long-range vocals," reported Hargrove. Plainly, she was amping up her vocalizations in oceanic search of her calf. "So if Kasaka had never even used her long-range vocals in 30 years, she knew instinctively how to do it," said Hargrove. 

Dolphins are other cetaceans known for their mournful behavior at the loss of kith or kin. In How Animals Grieve, author and anthropologist Barbara J. King lavishes examples drawn from her research on emotion and intelligence in animals. Her article in the July issue of Scientific American, "When Animals Mourn," gives a full-blooded depiction of a dolphin in a state of grief:

On a research vessel in the waters off Greece's Amvrakikos Gulf, Joan Gonzalvo watched a female bottlenose dolphin in obvious distress. Over and over again, the dolphin pushed a newborn calf, almost certainly her own, away from the observers' boat and against the current with her snout and pectoral fins. It was as if she wanted to nudge her baby into motion—but to no avail. The baby was dead. Floating under direct sunlight on a hot day, its body quickly began to decay; occasionally the mother removed pieces of dead skin and loose tissue from the corpse.

When the female dolphin continued to behave in this way into a second day, Gonzalvo and his colleagues on the boat grew concerned: in addition to fussing with the calf, she was not eating normally, behavior that could be risky for her health, given dolphins' high metabolism. Three other dolphins from the Amvrakikos population of about 150 approached the pair, but none disrupted the mother's behavior or followed suit.

Can't get enough of this fascinating topic? Pick up a copy of King's book, How Animals Grieve.

The Queen of Versailles: Funhouse Mirror of the Soul

Lauren Greenfield and Benoît Jacquot should swap film titles. Greenfield’s new documentary following the fall of Jacqueline QueenVersaillesJackieSiegel and her “timeshare king” husband David Siegel is called The Queen of Versailles. Jacquot’s new period drama outing Marie-Antoinette bears the name Farewell, My Queen.

Promptly upon The Queen of Versailles’ premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Mr. Siegel sued Ms. Greenfield over the fest’s marketing copy, which he maintained falsely portrayed his Westgate Resorts company as being on the fritz. He has since expanded his legal gripe.

Come to think of it, Cease and Desist, My King could be pretty catchy.

What a royal mess. The recession smote the dwelling that the Siegels had in the works over 90,000 square feet of Orlando. Now they and their eight children must hunker down in their 26,000-square-foot shack.VersaillesOrlando

Behold the American Dream gone wack. And learn something about your soul. Will you sympathize Jackie, whose résumé includes a computer engineering degree and stints as a waitress, model and Mrs. Florida? Even admire her sunny endurance? Or will you scorn her and her mini-Madoff and wish a pox on their house? The Queen of Versailles is ultimately a test of -- and holds up a funhouse mirror to -- our own character.

The film opens theatrically at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in Manhattan. Mark the date: July 20, 2012. 

Surely distributor Magnolia Pictures has a sense of humor. Or is it pure coincidence that on this day in 1789 revolutionary France began the “Great Fear” that would move peasants to attack manor houses, soon bringing feudalism to its knees?

"The Social Network" -- Pass the Bananas

The tribute to director Masahiro Shinoda currently underway at the New York Film Festival will naturally make you think about Japan. But there’s no obvious reason why another Festival selection, The Social Network, should transport you to The Land of the Rising Sun.


Unless David Fincher’s movie about the anthropoids who created Facebook reminds you of Iwatayama Monkey Park

At least that’s what came up for me.
Wild monkeys have free run of this nature preserve in the woodsy mountains of Arashiyama, just outside of Kyoto. There, as if to dramatize the relative moral status of animals, it’s the human visitors who are caged.
Not that people can’t wander around the grounds, but behind bars is the only place the Park approves for giving the furry tree swingers food. The rules go: “Don’t feed the monkeys outside: This encourages them to misbehave.”

Read more: "The Social Network" -- Pass the...

"Machete" and Mexico - Slices of Real Life

Machete, the new action flick by Robert Rodriguez, puts the macho – and macha – back in "machete." Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin, Robert De Niro, Don Johnson, Jeff Fahey, Jessica Alba, Michele Rodriguez and Lindsay Lohan are some of the brutes and amazons surrounding pumped star Danny Trejo in this B-film roundup of A-listers.

Danny Trejo in Machete

Dancing blood, 'tude so thick it coagulates – not since Grindhouse has violence seemed so sexy and campy.

As fans of that 2007 Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino gorefest know, Machete picks up where one of its faux trailers left off. Maiming to rock 'n roll is a mainstay of the Tarantino school of filmmaking, where Rodriguez has long since become co-headmaster.

This latest lesson in lawlessness takes us to the Tex-Mex border for a bead on such political perils as immigration and the drug wars.

We first meet Machete (Trejo), a rogue former Mexican Federale roving the Texan streets after drug lord Torrez (Seagal) cleans house. Political flak and local businessman Benz (Fahey) sics Machete and his killing skills on crooked Senator McLaughlin (De Niro). Betrayed by his contractor and hounded by a vixenish US immigration officer (Alba), the reluctant hitman takes help where he can get it: from his God-fearing brother (Marin); from a gun-slinging rich girl (Lohan); and from a dishy taco vendor (Rodriguez).

Trejo's face alone supplies enough twists. He spooks and charms, droops and rises all at a flick of the mane. A whiff of his jailhouse grit clenches makes you laugh, gasp and wish you too were pushing 66. You'd swear he's a comic book superhero sprung to life.

The punch line of the movie comes at the end, when we're told that two sequels await us: Machete Kills! and Machete Kills Again! Trejo should still be going strong throughout these productions, as should the real-life ferment across the border.

During my own recent jaunt to northern Mexico, I had a chance to hear how the shoot-em-up violence plays out in the daily lives of ordinary citizens. What they wouldn't give for it to be as fun or cool as films like Machete would have them believe.  

Chihuahua-based producer Salvador Valdes told me that the saddest part about "this swamp of madness" is "learning to distrust everybody, and to care only about ourselves." As opposed to the good old days -- not that many years ago -- when people didn't even lock their doors, he no longer regards strangers "as a friend that I haven't yet met, but rather as an enemy that wants to hurt me." Innocence is nostalgia. "We have to play inside, watch out for any stranger or anybody that approaches us on the streets," he said.

A location scout Salvador works with echoes his lament. (She prefers to go unnamed, so let's call her Scout.) Scout described how she has "defriended" many school chums, and not in the Facebook sense. Who can be trusted when, at 1,000 pesos a murder, anyone reared on values of "ambition and greed" can buy what advertisers are selling them? This goes for street sweepers and scions of privileged families alike.  

"Suddenly they began to kill people in broad daylight using weapons of high power, and the words 'hitman' and 'shootings' entered into daily use," she recounted. "First there was the unease of not knowing what's happening and reading news of death and threats…but soon it became normal to see a drug chief in a local convenience store."

"With all these people killing in the streets, it has unleashed insecurity, not just of being caught in the crossfire, but also of being attacked by groups of criminals who'll take your car and then, once you've emptied your bank account, go to your house and at gunpoint in broad daylight take away everything you have worked for."

Businesses too are mobilized for the narco-economy. Scout described the money laundering they're forced to provide and the infamous "installments" they're demanded to pay "to maintain the panic."  

A local university professor we'll dub Prof took me for a spin on the town. One of the first things he did was to check in with his wife, as he does every two hours, whether by voice or text. After work, the young couple tends to stay in, even though this has meant no more singing at night clubs for the missus. "Partying has become more of an extreme sport, because you might run into a balacera," Prof noted, adding that he preferred not "to meet a bullet."  

Pointing to an SUV, he explained that driving a fancy car could either mean that you're a "narcotraficante" or a target, but that anyone using a navigator may as well be saying, "kidnap me!" Prof also regaled me with some chilling tales of the ambushes that have terrorized substance abuse support groups, given how uneager drug lords are for their cadres to detox and spill the beans.

He fondly remembered a period of relative calm that accompanied the pragmatic policies of former governor Patricio Martínez, who let the cartels do their thing without harming civilians. The top cartels, Prof clarified, adhered to an honor code that kept them from hurting a flea outside of the business – while the lesser gangs preyed on the populace to give the cartels a bad name and to try to level the playing field.

Though Salvador, Scout and Prof are hardly fans of the violence, they share with many of their fellow Mexicans an ambivalence about the drug trade. 

As Scout put it, "On the other side there is no denying the importance, not only in Chihuahua but in Mexico, of drug trafficking since it is an important part of the economy. I am not saying that this is good or bad, only that it is a fact that the process by which they take your money and wash it -- using restaurants, shops, brokerage houses and a multitude of business – serves to employ people and influence the economy."

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Just as the drug cartels have more weaponry than the Mexican army, their contribution to the country's coffers is undeniable, and cracking down may not be all it's cranked up to be.  

What would Mexico be like if it just said no to drug revenue? "God knows what would be left from the debris of the catastrophe," said Salvador.

"TV and film are so eager to sell us a society that cares only for money, status quo, consumerism and sex," he rued. It's a sentiment that Scout, Prof and the rest of Sal's entertainment industry friends sharply endorse.  

"Is there any hope?" Sal wondered aloud. The answer I heard from every Mexican I asked: "Go back to our original values."

Meanwhile, Machete should be a big hit around the country.  

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