Michael Gilio’s little film “Kwik Stop” needed a champion, and got Roger Ebert

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Of all the films playing in the UW-Cinematheque summer-long tribute to the late Roger Ebert, from “The Third Man” to “The Producers,” the one you’re most likely not to have heard of is “Kwik Stop.”

But Ebert wanted you to know it.

So, while the Chicago Sun-Times’ film critic’s passing in April is an unfortunate occasion to revisit “Kwik Stop,” he would probably have liked the fact that the sparkling and surprising 2001 indie film is getting another shot on the big screen. The film will screen for free at 7 p.m. Friday at the Union South Marquee Theater, 1208 W. Dayton St., with writer-director-star Michael Gilio talking about the film and Ebert’s impact on it.

For Gilio, now a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, it will be the first time he’s seen “Kwik Stop” on the big screen since Ebert screened it at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago in 2005.

“It’s going to be fun,” Gilio said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’m looking forward to talking about Ebert and remembering the whole thing.”

Ebert’s impact on Gilio’s appreciation for film came at an early age, growing up in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights and watching “At the Movies” with Gene Siskel on Saturday nights.

“I would read his movie book every year,” Gilio said. “I would read all the reviews and being kind of in rural Illinois, you didn’t have access to all these films. A lot of the introduction to film for me was just reading his reviews, and I would imagine the movie in my head when I would read them.”

As an actor and screenwriter, Gilio moved back and forth between Chicago and Los Angeles. For his first feature, “Kwik Stop,” he decided to film in his home city, using the convenience stores and motels and corner bars of working-class suburbs as his landscape.

The film kicks off in a way that makes the viewer think this will be a Calumet City update of “Breathless.” A teenager named Didi (Lara Williams) catches a sharp-eyed drifter named Mike (Gilio) stealing a tube of tartar-control toothpaste from a Kwik Stop. Mike brags that he’s heading to Hollywood to become a famous actor (in a car that seems like something out of a movie, with a cutout of Harvey Keitel in the rear-view mirror). Didi begs to go along.

But instead of being a road movie, or a crime movie, or a love story, “Kwik Stop” contains pieces of all of them, playing with genres before subverting expectations. Mike and Didi’s journey together goes to unexpected places, eventually involving Mike’s ex-girlfriend Ruthie (Karin Anglin, who may be at Friday’s screening) and a surly widower (Rich Komenich).

“Poignancy comes into the movie from an unexpected source,” Ebert wrote in his 2002 review. “Depths are revealed where we did not think to find them. The ending is like the last paragraph of a short story, redefining everything that went before.”

Looking back, Gilio says “Kwik Stop” was made in one era in American movies and released in another. When he began making the film, independent films were hot, and in addition to independent distribution houses like ThinkFilm or Newmarket, studios had their own thriving distribution arms like Warner Independent or Paramount Vantage.

“It was just a totally different age,” Gilio said.  “The narrative went if you could get a couple of dentists to contribute you could od a little movie on the cheap, and then you could break out at Sundance and get picked up by one of the independent companies, and you’d be on your way.”

By the time the film was released in 2001, that independent market had largely collapsed, and distribution sources dried up. Even “Kwik Stop” looked different than the other films it would play with at festivals, shot on Super 16 film rather than low-quality digital video.

“It was already a dinosaur,” he said. “Most of the films being shown were all on video. But this was before HD even, so the quality of the movies wasn’t that great, but everyone was shooting on the cheap. And our movie was still on film. It was a weird time. The movie premiered at a time when things were radically changing.”

It also didn’t help Gilio’s cause that “Kwik Stop” was so hard to identify, mixing comic and dramatic elements, following one character and then the next. It’s a hard film to sum up in a movie poster slogan.

“The things that I feel make the film special and unique were the very things that made the film difficult and challenging to get seen and marketed,” he said.

Luckily for Gilio, the film was accepted into the Chicago International Film Festival, and when Ebert got a private screening ahead of time, he loved the film. He began talking it up to other critics and film people, and Gilio began getting invited to more and more film festivals in the United States and Europe.

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“He just became a huge champion for us,” he said. “He had such a large national and international voice that it brought a lot of attention to this little film that could.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for “Kwik Stop” to get a broad distribution deal. It had a small theatrical release, enough that Ebert could then write a formal review praising the film and Gilio. He invited it to play at his Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign-Urbana, which Gilio says was one of the best professional experiences of his life. When Chicago’s Siskel Center asked Ebert to select one of his Overlooked films to play there, he chose “Kwik Stop.”

The film finally came out on DVD in 2005, and Charles Taylor wrote in Slate that the shabby treatment such a good film received in the industry underscored how much had gone wrong with the independent film scene.

Still, Gilio remains grateful to Ebert for his unwavering support of the film, and has fond memories of spending time with Ebert onstage and off, talking about movies.

“When he embraced the movie, it was a really big deal for me and my family,” Gilio said. “Just a very kind, generous guy who went well beyond. He was very passionate about film and about the little guy.”

“Love is All You Need”: Although a villa in Italy doesn’t hurt, either

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“Love is All You Need” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas in Madison. R, 1:50, three stars out of four.

Honestly, I didn’t trust the poster for “Love is All You Need.” It looks like a typically flluffy romantic drama, with Pierce Brosnan and Trine Dyrholm embracing in front of an Italian landscape — “Something’s Gotta Give” with subtitles. But the director is Danish filmmaker Susannah Bier, known for some pretty dark dramas (“Brothers,” “In a Better World.” It would be just like her to pull the rug out from underneath our middle-aged lovers, and the audience.

But, no, “Love is All You Need” comes mostly as advertised, a fluffy and warm romance about characters finding love in the Italian countryside. But Bier and longtime screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen do introduce sadder notes into their brightly-colored landscapes, which deepen the characters enough that we root for them.

Ida (Dyrholm) has just undergone cancer treatment, her bald head hidden by a long blonde wig. Her daughter is getting married in Sorrento, so as she waits for the final word on whether the treatment worked, she tries to throw herself into the celebration. But when she catches her doughy husband on top of a female employee, she heads to Italy with a pained look, wondering if she’s beating cancer only to win a lifetime of loneliness.

Then she meets Philip (Brosnan), an executive who has thrown himself into his work following the death of his wife. Philip is also the father of the man Ida’s daughter is marrying, and owns the sumptuous villa where the wedding is taking place. He’s brusque and arrogant, flat-out rude to Ida at first, but slowly starts warming up to her charms. Leaving behind the Danish blues and grays of her past films, Bier seems to revel in the warm, bright colors at her disposal here, the bright yellow lemons in the villa’s grove playing off against the deep blues of Philip’s shirts.

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On one level, this is only one or two notches deeper than a Nancy Meyers flick, but Bier does play with darker themes. Ida is terrified to hear what her doctor has to tell her, and masks her fear with a dazzling smile. Similarly, the return to the villa is dredging up Philip’s bitterness and grief over his wife’s death, which he’s tamping down under a no-nonsense exterior. Ida and Philip are opposites on the surface but very alike underneath, and the film is very appealing as the couple slowly open up and share themselves to each other.

There are other aspects of “Love” that feel overplotted, like a guilty secret that the groom holds, or the grating presence of an aunt who has designs on Philip herself. But when the film gets back to that central relationship, it’s a treat. I think Bier might be a little too acute an observer of human behavior to agree with the simple premise of her film’s title, but she makes us believe it for a while, anyway.

Sundance Classics gets serious with “Pulp Fiction,” “Fight Club,” “French Connection”

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Summer’s winding down, folks. And with it goes the fluffy summer classic movies that Sundance Cinemas in Madison had been programming, like “Ghostbusters” and “Dirty Dancing” (which plays Wednesday (today) at 1:20 p.m. and 6:45 p.m.

When the series returns for another run on Wednesday, Aug. 28, things are going to get more serious. They’re going to get medieval, even, starting with Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic “Pulp Fiction.” I still viscerally remember seeing it opening night in Springfield, Illinois with some grad-student friends, crammed down into the front row, left side, because the theater was so packed, and feeling almost electrified by what I was seeing.

All of which is to say that, even if you’ve seen “Pulp Fiction” a dozen times since, it’s a movie that demands a big-screen experience with a crowd, which is why the Sundance Classics series is so valuable. And Madison audiences have definitely responded, selling out several screenings (such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in May) while, in other cities, the classics series has been discontinued for lack of interest.

Here’s the full schedule for the next Sundance Classics series:

Aug. 28 — “Pulp Fiction” — I loved “Django Unchained,” but this is still Tarantino at the height of his powers, a time-jumping, blood-pumping crime epic in which he seems also desperate to make every moment entertaining.

Sept. 4 — “The French Connection” — Everybody remembers the car chase, of course, but William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller is full of great scenes, from the cat-and-mouse game on the subway to Gene Hackman’s take-no-guff Popeye Doyle, a cop who skates uneasily close to the line between right and wrong.

Sept. 11 — “Some Like it Hot” — Okay, Billy Wilder’s comedy, about musicians Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon hiding out from the mob in an all-girl band, doesn’t fit with the “serious” theme of this post. Nobody’s perfect.

Sept. 18 — “To Kill a Mockingbird” — Harper Lee’s autobiographical novel became both a riveting courtroom drama and a resonant portrait about good versus evil in a Southern town, as seen through the eyes of the indefatigable Scout.

Sept. 25 — “Fight Club” — First rule of “Fight Club” is that you tell everyone to go see David Fincher’s bloody satire of masculinity in the age of corporate America.

Oct. 2 — “Vertigo” — You can’t do a classic series without a little Hitchcock, and his twisty, twisted tale of obsession and guilt in San Francisco turns the private eye drama into something much darker.

Instant Gratification: “Arbitrage” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix right now

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Pick of the week: “Arbitrage”My full review is here. Richard Gere gives one of the best performances of his career as a crooked hedge fund manager trying to stay one step ahead of his creditors, the police and his own family after scandal threatens his empire.

Totally ’80s film of the week: “The Breakfast Club” — The John Hughes classic puts five high school types in daylong detention to find out they have more in common than they think.

Family movie of the week: “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — Scripted by Ian Fleming, this is basically the James Bond version of a kids’ movie, as an Englishman travels the globe with the help of his amazing gadgets, beautiful girl on his arm, one step ahead of some grotesque villains. Just more singing in this one.

Drama of the week: “Do the Right Thing” — On public radio last week I listed this Spike Lee film as an unlikely candidate for best “summer movie,” as the sweltering heat of a New York summer causes racial tensions on a city block to come to a boil.

007 movie of the week: “DIamonds are Forever” — Since “The Wolverine” cribbed the “I didn’t know there was a pool down there” line from this 1971 film, it’s fitting to go back to Sean Connery’s last outing as Bond (not counting the near-parody “Never Say Never Again.”) He’s bulkier and less graceful than in the early Bonds, but has the grace of an seasoned pro.

Blu-ray review: “The Damned”

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It sounds like the plot of an Alistair MacLean thriller: a German U-boat, loaded with Nazis escaping Europe in the waning days of World War II, stops so that a handsome French doctor can be forced on board to tend to an ailing passenger. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with treachery on every side, can the doctor prevail?

In fact, Rene Clement’s claustrophobic 1947 thriller “Les Maudits” (“The Damned”) does have its share of tense moments. But Clement is going for something a little bigger than melodramatic thrills — something more ambiguous, more metaphorical, and more French. “The Damned” came out this week in a sparkling new Blu-ray edition for the first time from Cohen Media Group.

Most striking is that, unlike other submarine dramas that were shot on sets, “Damned” really makes you feel like you are in cramped quarters underwater. Clement used a reconstructed U-boat for the interiors, shot on top of one in the ocean for the exteriors, and much of the film is shot almost documentary-style.

Second, the handsome doctor (Henri Vidal) is more observer than hero, watching as this motley crew (including a Nazi officer, a German Naval officer, an Italian fascist and a French propagandist) snipe at each other in close quarters. They’re rats on the sinking ship of fascism, turning on each other to stay alive in the pressure-cooker environment of a fleeing U-boat. Made just two years after the end of the war, “The Damned” is a final, moral indictment of pure evil — they can’t even lose honorably.

The extras on the Blu-ray including a feature-length commentary from two Ohio State University scholars, plus an hour-long documentary about the making of the film. Clement, who would go on to make “Purple Noon” and other better-known classics, was seem by French New Wave filmmakers like Francois Truffaut as the sort of conventional French filmmaker they were rebelling against.

 

On “destruction porn” in summer blockbusters, and in praise of the third-act downshift

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I was reasonably depressed by this article from New York magazine’s Vulture site last week, an interview with Damien Lindelof about the “new rules of blockbuster screenwriting.” The paramount rule seems to be to wage a war of escalation against every other blockbuster out there, going for splashier effects, bigger stakes, and even grander scale of destruction. That’s why the Earth has been destroyed or nearly destroyed a dozen times over at the movie theater this summer.

“We live in a commercial world, where you’ve gotta come up with ‘trailer moments’ and make the thing feel big and impressive and satisfying, especially in that summer-movie-theater construct,” Lindelof says. “Did ‘Star Trek Into Darkness‘ need to have a giant starship crashing into San Francisco? I’ll never know. But it sure felt like it did.”

Lindelof, who co-wrote “Into Darkness,” seems to have at least mild misgivings about this approach, especially the proliferation of what he called “destruction porn” in movie trailers. But he should have even bigger misgivings, because this seems like an unsustainable model to me.

First of all, and most importantly to Hollywood, it seems unsustainable from a pure business perspective. At some point, you can only go so big. At some point, one smashed building pretty much looks like another. And we seem to be seeing audiences getting exhausted at the prospect of box-office apocalypse week after week — they turned out big for “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek” earlier in the summer, but bailed on “R.I.P.D.” and even “Pacific Rim” to some extent as the months wore on.

Secondly, and more importantly, it seems unsustainable from a creative perspective. If your focus is only on getting bigger and louder moments in your film, you run the risk of exhausting or turning off your audience. You start pushing out things like character or story or humor, and in the end, it’s still those things that hook audiences. “Man of Steel,” which I liked more than a lot of critics, is a quintessential example of this. It had a great battle in Smallville, then moved to the large-scale destruction of Metropolis, with skyscrapers falling down all around Perry White and Co. It was a big, epic, barnburner of a climax.

And it wasn’t enough. We still had another protracted, landscape-wrecking fight between Superman and General Zod to go. Maybe there are moviegoers who love that kind of excess, nonstop action and CGI destruction, but that’s not the vibe I felt from that “Man of Steel” audience. The vibe I felt was “Geez, enough already.” There’s nothing wrong with a little meaningless spectacle, but meaningful spectacle is preferable.

Which is why I’m happy to see something of a backlash brewing in some blockbusters — not a big one, but enough to make me think that there are some filmmakers that are tired of being stuck in an arms race of constant, endless escalation at the movies. Instead, I’m starting to notice more “third-act downshifts,” where big summer movies build to a climax that’s unexpectedly low-key.

This summer, that movie was “World War Z.” Here’s a movie that had some big setpieces — the zombies scaling the walls in Israel, the attack in Philadelphia — and was supposed to end on the biggest one of all, a battle between humans and zombies in Moscow. Instead, that ending was scrapped and “Z” went another way. The climax was instead a protracted, rather elegantly executed piece of suspense, where Brad Pitt slips into a World Health Organization lab where all the scientists have gone zombie to steal a potential cure.

After all the large-scale, top-down carnage throughout the film, it was an absolutely unexpected and refreshing way to end a big summer movie. And “World War Z” ended up being one of the big hits of the summer.

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Another franchise that has perfected the third-act downshift in recent years is the James Bond franchise, which is weird, because Bond films always used to end with 007 saving the world, usually by infiltrating the villain’s secret base. But look at how the Daniel Craig 007 films have ended, with a gun battle over a briefcase of money in a collapsing Venice apartment building (“Casino Royale”), a gun battle in a highly-flammable hotel (“Quantum of Solace”) and a showdown at Bond’s ancestral home, where the only thing at stake is the lives of Bond and M (“Skyfall“).

All exciting sequences, all action-packed, but none of them have the expected fate-of-the-world-at-stake hijinks. The Bond films have realized, especially with “Skyfall,” that the smart movie is to escalate the personal stakes, not the global stakes. You can still have your excitement and good-versus-evil struggle, but it will mean something to the audience.

Because, honestly, Damon and company? Part of being entertained is being surprised, and audiences have come to expect that “destruction porn,” like the last big hill on a roller coaster. And while both might provide a momentary thrill, it dissipates awfully quickly.

What’s playing in Madison theaters, Aug. 9-15, 2013

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All week

Elysium” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance) — Director Neill Blomkamp proved sci-fi action could be more than just mindless fun with “District 9,” a sly metaphor for racism and prejudice. He does it again with “Elysium,” in which the one-percenters live in a palatial space station high above a ruined Earth.

Planes” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Cinema Cafe) — The weakest of the Pixar franchises gets co-opted by Disney Central in this high-flying “Cars” spinoff. I suppose “Boats” is inevitable at this point?

Blackfish” (Sundance) — My full review is here. This sobering documentary looks at the way killer whales are treated at SeaWorld, in particular how one male whale has killed three trainers and still performs daily. Not for anyone who sees this film, though, I’ll wager.

Dirty Wars” (Sundance) — My full review is here, and my interview with Jeremy Scahill is here. This powerful and engrossing documentary follows journalist Jeremy Scahill’s investigation into drone strikes and other covert ops performed in the War on Terror, in the shadows and unaccountable. Scahill will be at the 6:50 p.m. Friday and Saturday screenings.

Friday

“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (7 p.m., Marquee Theater at Union South) — There’s one movie in the UW-Cinematheque’s summer-long tribute to Roger Ebert that Ebert didn’t review, and that’s because he wrote it. “Beyond” is a gonzo Russ Meyer film that’s full of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and the occasional beheading, and has to be seen to be believed. Free!

The Sandlot” (7 p.m., Duck Pond at Warner Park) — It’s the perfect marriage of movie and location, as Madison Parks and the Mallards screens this delightful ode to neighborhood baseball. Free, and concessions will be sold.

Monday

Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (9 p.m., Memorial Union Terrace) — The Terrace’s “Out of this World” outdoor movie series wouldn’t be complete without this aliens-among-us classic, and kudos for showing the original ’50s black and white version in all its chilling, Red Scare-metaphorical glory. Free!

Oblivion” (10 p.m. Star Cinema) — Tom Cruise is WALL-E, the last man on Earth. Or so he thinks in this stylish sci-fi action film. Admission is $3, with proceeds going to autism research.

Tuesday

Epic” (10 a.m,, Point and Eastgate) — For a movie that features rapper Pitbull as a wisecracking frog, this animated tale of a teenage girl who gets shrunk and conscripted into a micro-battle for the forest ain’t half bad. Just $2.

Oblivion” (10 p.m., Star Cinema) — See Monday listing.

Wednesday

Epic” (10 a.m. Point and Eastgate) — See Tuesday listing.

Dirty Dancing” (1:20 and 6:45 p.m.) — Sundance’s Summer Classics series winds up not putting Baby in a corner, in this beloved 1987 film starring Patrick Swayze at the peak of his open-shirted powers.

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Oblivion” (10 p.m., Star Cinema) — See Monday listing.

Thursday

Epic” (10 a.m. Point and Eastgate) — See Tuesday listing.

The Fury” (7 p.m., 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.) — UW Cinematheque director Jim Healy vividly remembers Roger Ebert raving about this Brian DePalma film about battling psychics on the old Sneak Previews and dying to see it. Now he can screen it, Free!

Rifftrax: Starship Troopers” (7 p.m., Point Cinemas) — The guys at Rifftrax usually target bad old movies, but for the first time they’re doing a live takedown of a relatively new film, the immensely cheesy and bloody 1997 alien invasion movie starring Neil Patrick Harris and a lot of big bugs.

“Dirty Wars”: Jeremy Scahill looks into the shadows, and they look back

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“Dirty Wars” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas in Madison. Not rated, 1;27, three and a half stars out of four.

Jeremy Scahill will introduce the film and host post-show discussions at the 6:50 p.m. screenings on Friday, Aug. 9 and Saturday, Aug. 10. Read my interview with Scahill here.

A Reuters report in this morning’s New York Times tells of three al Qaeda suspects killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen.  Who were they? What was the evidence against them? We’ll never know, most likely. All we’ll know is that they were killed, by us, for us.

For an investigative journalist like Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation, that’s not good enough. In his powerful film and accompanying book, “Dirty Wars,” Scahill digs into the human stories behind these anonymous covert actions being done in the War on Terror, trying to ferret out both the apparatus that allows it to happen and the real stories behind the victims.

Beginning with the killing of a police commander in Afghanistan who was seemingly sympathetic to the American cause, and then investigating drone strikes in Yemen and U.S.-sponsored warlords in Somalia, Scahill uncovers evidence of the Joint Special Operations Command, a secret unit that operates largely without congressional oversight and with vague, ever-expanding goals. “Dirty Wars” has the texture of a geopolitical thriller, as Scahill works his sources in intelligence, talks to the grieving and starts piecing together the intel he’s receiving.

And then the story gets ahead of him, as Osama bin Laden is killed — and JSOC is given the credit. (The head of the unit can be seen in that iconic “war room” photo, tellingly at the head of the table as Obama and Clinton crowd around.) The shadows Scahill has been chasing have come out into the light, and are applauded.

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It’s here that “Dirty Wars” becomes more than the sum of its facts, illuminating not just the secret wars but the emotional toll that trying to uncover them takes on Scahill. He realizes that the story he’s chasing has no end; it’s an endless cycle of attacks and reprisals, growing larger and more unaccountable by the day. Almost Kafka-esque is the tale of one moderate cleric, who called for peace after 9/11 but, after years of being harassed and detained by American forces, became radicalized. The U.S. made him the threat that they always feared he would be, so they killed him with a drone strike.

A few weeks later, they took out his teenage son with another drone. Were they afraid that his father’s death would someday radicalize the son? Because if so, we are moving into “Minority Report”-style pre-crime territory.

Some will question director Richard Rowley’s decision to put Scahill front and center as the film’s protagonist  rather than the facts themselves (Scahill would be among those questioning). But I think it works. Scahill’s presence and narration gives the film a narrative through-line as his investigation hops from one global hotspot to another, one clue to the next; at times it seems like Scahill is starring in the docudrama version of his own story.

And I think it works on emotional level to show the impact of that investigation on Scahill, the accumulating weight of tearful stories from victims’ families, the frustration that there’s always another layer to unpack. And the fear that, if he does finally get to the heart of the story, nobody will care.

“Blackfish”: Plumbing the depths of animal cruelty

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“Blackfish” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1 hour 23 minutes, three stars out of four.

There are moments in “Blackfish” as suspenseful and scary as in any horror movie you’ll see this summer. Take, for example, the chilling sequence in which a killer whale takes a veteran SeaWorld trainer’s leg in his mouth and drags him down to the bottom of the tank. He looks like a beagle with a chew toy in his mouth — you can’t tell whether the whale is being malicious or being playful — and the whale surfaces just long enough for the trainer to catch his breath, his consciousness fading, before dragging him down below again.

That trainer survived, but others weren’t so lucky. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s disturbing documentary isn’t meant to titillate us with such sequences, but to show audiences the moral and physical cost of keeping killer whales in captivity — a cost paid by both the whales and their trainers.

The movie centers around the 2010 death of another veteran trainer, Dawn Blancheau, who was dragged under water by a male whale, Tilikum, during a performance, mutilated and killed. (One trainer vividly remembers being told that day of her death, and then the chilling words, “He’s still got her.” SeaWorld insisted that the death was the result of an error on Blancheau’s part, first circulating the erroneous story that she fell in the water, then that Tilikum grabbed her by the ponytail.

Both stories are belied by the videotape (which “Blackfish” mercifully spares us), and the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration successfully sued SeaWorld. Now, trainers have to be separated by a barrier when they work with orcas — SeaWorld is appealing.

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But “Blackfish” digs back into Tilikum’s history, and finds that Blancheau was the third trainer Tilikum had killed over a 20-year period. Contrasted with cheery promotional videos of SeaWorld from the ’80s and ’90s, we’re presented disturbing testimony of how Tilikum and other killer whales have been treated in captivity — held in concrete pools, separated from their parents, sometimes brutalized by the more dominant female whales.

Much of this testimony comes from OSHA, but much of it also comes from former trainers, once cheery spokespeople for SeaWorld, now feeling disillusioned and betrayed by the company. The upshot of the film is that killer whales don’t attack trainers because of some predatory nature, but because they’ve been psychically warped by such treatment.

SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for “Blackfish,” a decision they may be regretting, now that the company has tried to launch an aggressive counteroffensive against the film. It is undeniably true that millions of people have walked out of a SeaWorld park over the last forty years with a greater appreciation for marine life. It is also undeniably true that those people have also spent a lot of money at SeaWorld. The question that “Blackfish” provokes, viscerally, is whether the education and entertainment for visitors, and profits for the company, are worth it if the animals are mistreated and unhappy. After watching “Blackfish,” the answer is crystal clear.

“We’re the Millers”: The family that smuggles together snuggles together

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“We’re The Millers” opens Wednesday at Point, Eastgate and Star Cinema. R, 1:40, two and a half stars out of four.

There’s something almost refreshingly mean-spirited about the first few minutes of the raunchy comedy “We’re the Millers.” Our hero, David (Jason Sudeikis) is a Denver pot dealer who is utterly selfish and snarky. Our heroine, Rose (Jennifer Aniston) is a weary, flinty stripper who has seen too much. Add in Emma Roberts as a foul-mouthed homeless teen and you’ve got one of the least likable collections of characters since your average Todd Solondz movie.

“We’re the Millers,” which was co-written by DeForest native Sean Anders, successfully rides on that ill will for a while. David is hired by his drug supplier Brad (Ed Helms, playing a satisfyingly menacing version of his usual grinning goofball) to transport a “smidge-and-a-half” of marijuana from Mexico to Denver. The scruffy David is sure he’ll be caught at the border, but comes up with an idea. He’ll clean himself up and hire Rose, Casey and a sweet but dim teen named Kenny (Will Poulter) to play his family, a clean-cut All-American family taking the RV out for their summer vacation.

Of course, it doesn’t all go as planned — that “smidge-and-a-half” turns out to be two metric tons, crammed into every available space in the RV. And there are the usual comic setpieces involving a corrupt cop (Luis Guzman), a nasty tarantula, and most entertainingly, a fellow straight-arrow couple (Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn) who think they’ve found fellow suburban travelers in the Millers. Some of it works better than others — Hahn and Offerman are very funny as the naive Midwestern couple looking to spice up their marriage — but what carries it through is the sheer meanness of the Millers. Beneath their polo shirts and pastel skirts, they snipe viciously at each other along the way, and the best parts come when their fighting aligns with that of a real family, with Sudeikis as the harried dad and Roberts as the rebellious teen. “I will turn this RV around RIGHT NOW!” David thunders. “No drugs for anyone!”

But, inevitably, things have to turn sweet, and this fake family has to start appreciating each other as a real family. And that’s where “We’re the Millers” falters; trying to turn such acerbic raunch into a sweet redemptive comedy is like trying to negotiate an RV around a hairpin turn, and “We’re the Millers” just can’t make it. Sudeikis in particular does sour a lot better than he does sweet, and his attempts at the end of the film to keep his “family” together just do not ring true.

Up until then, though, “Millers” is good dirty fun. And if it in any way reminds you of your own family road trips, a little group therapy might be in order.