Tigerland (Taken by the Tiger)


Pavel Fomenko anxiously searches for two tiger cubs whose mother has been relocated.

(2019) Nature Documentary (DiscoveryPavel Fomenko, Amit Sankhala, Karan Singh, Jairam Ramesh, Kailash Sankhala, Yulia Fomenko, Vasily Solkin, Jai Bhati, Bittu Sahgal, Valmik Thapat, Elizabeth Kayzakova, Irina Pavlova, Belinda Wright, Indira Gandhi, Tarva Bhati, Dimple Bhati, Anne Wright, Debbie Banks. Directed by Ross Kauffman

Jack Lemmon once won an Oscar for a film entitled Save the Tiger, a title that was a metaphor for his character’s own existence. However, the title has become more literal in this day and age with right around 4,000 tigers left in the wild, down from hundreds of thousands only a century ago.

There are a lot of reasons for their decline. Human intrusion on their habitat, poaching (tiger skins remain an in-demand luxury item and tiger parts also form the basis for a good deal of folk medicine which is also a lucrative trade) and hunting – among Indian maharajahs it was considered an act of masculinity to shoot and kill a tiger with some (as well as the British colonials who followed them) shooting hundreds of the animals alone.

There are those who would halt the decline of the tigers and this film from Oscar winning director Kauffman focuses on two of them – Pavel Fomenko, head of endangered species protection for the Russian arm of the World Wildlife Fund, and Amit Sankhala whose grandfather Kailash was instrumental in directing attention to the plight of the tiger and along with then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was responsible for the enacting of legislation that protects them relatively speaking. Both men approach the problem in very different ways; Sankhala follows in his grandfather’s footsteps in creating and protecting tiger preserves in India, whereas Fomenko is more of a hands-on kind of guy rescuing individual tigers in dire need.

Fomenko gets involved with a Siberian village on a nature preserve where a mother tiger has begun to attack village dogs. With kids walking to and from school, Fomenko knew it was a matter of time before villagers would kill the tiger to protect their kids (understandably). He stepped in and captured the mama tiger to relocate her but was less successful in finding her cubs, organizing a tiger hunt in an attempt to find them before they died.

The first third of the movie dwells a bit overly much on the spiritual aspect of the tiger – how it is a symbol of power particular from a male standpoint. There’s a lot of fairly dry material on the elder Sankhala and his efforts to document the plight of the species and to convince his government to step in and save them. The movie also opens with an odd and somewhat disconnected voice over about the history of tigers and how humans have considered them, done in a child’s singsong voice as if in a nursery rhyme.

During the last third the movie picks up steam and ends up packing a wallop; we are shown the gruesome results of a poacher’s work and the danger of advocating for the tigers, especially in the case of Fomenko who is changed by the experience. There is a mournful roll call of the various types of tigers, most reduced to less than a thousand remaining in the wild and several already extinct – all within the lifetime of most of us.

It isn’t until about a third of the way through that we actually see a tiger in the wild – until then all we see are representations and drawings – and we are reminded of what a magnificent animal tigers are. Seeing them padding around their natural environment like the lords they are is an almost spiritual experience; I can only imagine how much more intense and affecting it would be to see one in person (one not in a zoo).

Kauffman peppers the film with watercolor-like animations from Daniel Sousa (himself an Oscar nominee for Feral) that enhance rather than distract. The younger Sankhala is certainly passionate about tigers but he doesn’t have the personality of Fomenko who is a force of nature. The movie really hums along when Fomenko is onscreen.

The movie has already received a brief theatrical release and is currently available on Discovery Go. It is debuting on the Discovery Channel tonight for those who prefer the broadcasting route. Documentary and nature lovers should seek this one out.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers capture the power and spirituality of the animals. The watercolor animations are lovely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the footage is graphic and disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some slight profanity as well as disturbing footage of the results of tiger mauling as well as of dead and skinned tigers.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kauffman shared an Oscar for co-directing the 2006 Best Documentary Feature Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Journey To a Mother’s Room

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Racing Extinction


Bringing the Blue Whale to you.

Bringing the Blue Whale to you.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) Louie Psihoyos, Shawn Heinrichs, Elon Musk, Jane Goodall, Christopher W. Clark, Leilani Munter, Ady Gil, Charles Hambleton, Austin Richards, Paul Hilton, Heather Dawn Rally, Michael Novacek, Travis Threikel, Stuart Pimm, Joel Sartore, Kirk Johnson, David Doubilet, Charlie Veron, Lester Brown, Synte Peacock, Elizabeth Kolbert. Directed by Louie Psihoyos

Louie Psihoyos, a former contributor to National Geographic (now Fox’s National Geographic), made a literal splash on the national cultural scene with his documentary/thriller The Cove, which exposed the mass slaughter of dolphins on a particular Japanese island. Now a committed marine activist, he turns his focus to a much broader issue.

We are undergoing one of the most massive carbon spikes in our atmosphere in the history of the planet; the amount of carbon in our atmosphere currently is thought to be higher than it was when the dinosaurs went extinct, a very sobering thought. One of the consequences of the increased carbon has that it has been getting absorbed by the ocean, our planet’s great filter. The result has that the ocean has been gradually become more acidic, which in turn has killed a significant amount of phytoplankton, which provides about 50% of the world’s oxygen.

There has also been a die-off of entire species, one of the worst in recorded history. Psihoyos and his band of eco-activists can show the direct link between the activities of man and the disappearance of species. He takes hidden cameras into Chinese merchants who sell endangered species for consumption – piles of shark fins piled as high as the eye can see and manta gills, taken because a group of natives in Malaysia believe that they cure cancer. Often the folk medicines of one small group can through the miracle of the internet and word of mouth become fashionable elsewhere. He also uses operatives to bust a trendy L.A. eatery for selling sushi made with endangered whale meat.

Psihoyos pairs up with tech CEO turned activist Shawn Heinrichs to expose those who are flouting the laws governing endangered species; he also utilizes some gorgeous images of whales, sharks and other marine life from cinematographers Sean Kirby, John Behrens and Petr Stepanek. Psihoyos states bluntly that part of his mission is to introduce these animals to a mass audience; hopefully getting people familiar with these species will inspire people to help save them.

While the facts that are given are sobering, the movie isn’t without a bit of fun. Psihoyos enlists race car driver Leilani Munter and projectionist Ady Gil to create mobile holographic displays on skyscrapers in New York (a demo of which can be seen above). And some of the animal footage is bound to bring a smile to your face.

There’s also the less fun stuff but is no less fascinating. Special filters allow us to see carbon and methane emissions going into the atmosphere from car exhausts, factories and cows. Like An Inconvenient Truth, Psihoyos uses graphs and charts to make his point. And while I tend to be a supporter of environmental causes, conservative readers will note that Psihoyos attributes almost all of the extinctions to man and certainly man is culpable for a lot of it, but some of the factors for some of these extinctions may be more Darwinist than capitalist.

All things considered, this is an important, serious subject which is treated with the gravity that it deserves. It does end on a hopeful note; there are things that we can do as individuals to help nurture the planet and assist in staving off a lot of the dire things that the movie refers to. I suspect that supporters of Donald Trump will probably find this an uncomfortable viewing and might write it off as liberal Pinko Hollywood alarmist propaganda. Certainly the movie has a point of view that appeals more to left-leaners. Still, this is vital viewing for all of us – the facts are indisputable and heart-breaking, particularly when you hear the warbling of a Hawaiian songbird, the last of his species, singing a mating call for a partner who will never come.

Incidentally, if Racing Extinction doesn’t play theatrically in a city near you, the movie will be broadcast on the Discovery channel later on this fall. Check your local listings for date and time. If you can’t see this in a theater – and I would urge you to so as to take advantage of some of the truly gorgeous imagery, then this would be the next best thing. Either way I would urge you to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing cinematography. Sobering but hopeful.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to those leaning to the right.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is nothing trivial about this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blackfish
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cop Car

Encounters at the End of the World


Encounters at the End of the World

In the sea, in the sea, in the beautiful sea...

(2007) Documentary (THINKfilm) Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser, Kevin Emery, Ashrita Furman, Douglas MacAyeal, David Ainley, William McIntosh, Peter Gorham, Regina Eisert, Clive Oppenheimer, Samuel S. Bowser, Ernest Shackleton, Jan Pawlowski. Directed by Werner Herzog

 

At the bottom of the world there is nowhere more desolate, more cold. It is a land without sunrise for six months, without sunset the other six. It is an alien world, inhabited by creatures found nowhere else who can survive in this harsh environment. It is also inhabited by people, people with great courage and also big dreams to sustain them in an unforgiving wilderness.

These are the sorts of things that draws in filmmaker Werner Herzog. With such documentaries as Grizzly Man to his credit, Herzog has a history of being drawn to people with big dreams that the rest of the world might term as odd or unusual. You won’t find anyone quite as unusual as those willing to live in Antarctica.

Herzog was originally drawn there by video taken of the area by his friend avant garde composer, musician and filmmaker Henry Kaiser. Kaiser had himself been brought there by a grant from the National Science Foundation for a writers and artists program in the Antarctic. Herzog got a similar grant but warned the Foundation that he wouldn’t be making a typical wildlife documentary. “No fluffy penguins,” he huffs on the narration. To their credit, the NSF agreed.

What we have here is not only a look at the penguins but also the creatures that exist below the ice, the microscopic life forms who lead a surprisingly violent existence but of more interest to Herzog is the men and women who live at McMurdo Station (the main settlement in Antarctica).

These are an eclectic bunch, some of whom are there mainly for the scientific discoveries in zoology and microbiology (which give insight as to how life evolved here on Earth and, potentially, on other planets), but also gives a front row seat at the apocalypse. The climate and ecological changes man has wrought upon the Earth manifest themselves first at the bottom of the world and the news here is pretty grim.

The images are incredible, particularly of the dives into the Ross Sea. Divers must drill a hole in the ice and then into the dark waters of the ocean they go. They wear no lines in order not to restrict their mobility and range and must trust that they can find the hole again to resurface before their oxygen runs out. However, while the life in these frigid waters is sparse and a little alien, it is beautiful in its own right.

So too is the desolate Arctic wilderness. There is a particularly compelling scene in which a penguin leaves the safety of the nesting ground, walking off the wrong way into the barren interior of the continent. Certain death awaits it, but it trudges on. Earlier, Herzog had asked marine ecologist David Ainley if there’s insanity among penguins; there is certainly some with suicidal tendencies.

There is also a passageway beneath McMurdo where “souvenirs” of those who have lived there before are stored; perfectly preserved by the cold, dry air. There’s a sturgeon from waters far from Antarctica, tins and other human debris, put into alcoves in the ice and left for future generations…assuming there are any.

Me being a history buff, one of the segments that appealed to me was the examination of Ernest Shackleford’s cabin, one built for an expedition almost 100 years ago – perfectly preserved. That expedition ended in disaster and one of the most heroic incidents of the 20th century – but that’s for another day.

Herzog has an obsession with the dreams of men (not in the nighttime sense) and labels those who toil at McMurdo “professional dreamers” and he has a point. However, Herzog often has a tendency to put himself front and center in the documentaries, making himself a part of the stories – he also has been known to stage incidents in his documentaries which I’m fairly certain he didn’t do here but one never knows.

That puts him at direct odds with documentarians like Errol Morris, who rarely get on-camera and take great pains to let his subjects tell their own stories. Herzog is instead more like Michael Moore, who like Herzog has a definite point of view and uses his camera to bolster it. Calling these films documentaries is a little misleading; there’s elements of propaganda to them as well (and I have to point that out, even though I agree with much of the points of view that Herzog and Moore take).

Still, this is a film that pleases the eyes quite a bit, even if some of it is unsettling when you think of the ramifications. There is a lot to think about but one wonders that since the politicians of most of the developed countries can’t see beyond their own narrow self-interest if they really have the ability to see the survival of the species long-term. Kinda makes you think.

I wish Herzog had been a little less in the camera eye and ear here; he’s a great interviewer, yes, but there are times that I wondered if the documentary was about him and not so much about who he was interviewing and what he was filming. Never a good sign.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the great documentarians on the planet, which he is. He makes some very valid points here, takes some incredible pictures and finds some interesting, clever people to chat with. Normally, all that would add up to a much higher mark in my books, but I couldn’t help thinking that a little less Herzog and a little more silence would have done this film more justice.

WHY RENT THIS: Some gorgeous and desolate footage. Lots of quirky interview subjects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Herzog and his obsession with dreams is front and center, perhaps a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s nothing remotely offensive here or unsuitable for small children; however they may wind up being a bit fidgety and the animals and landscapes may not appeal to them much.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is dedicated to critic Roger Ebert, an early supporter of Herzog’s work.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an abundant amount of extra footage shot by Herzog and Kaiser, as well as an interview of Herzog by filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood made its budget back but probably not much more.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Good

The Haunting in Connecticut


Even Virginia Madsen doesn't like spring cleaning.

Even Virginia Madsen doesn't like spring cleaning.

(Lionsgate) Virginia Madsen, Kyle Gallner, Elias Koteas, Martin Donovan, Amanda Crew, Sophi Knight, Ty Wood, Erik Berg, John Bluethner. Directed by Peter Cornwell

The line between our world and the next is said to be gossamer-thin. There are those who walk that line between our worlds – the sick, the dying, the sensitive. These people can be hyper-aware of things the rest of us cannot know.

The Campbells are a family in crisis. Teenaged Matt (Gallner) is battling a rare form of cancer and is losing that battle. His frequent treatments require long drives into Connecticut, a drive that is excruciating for Matt and his mother Sara (Madsen). The illness has drained the finances of the family considerably, but Sara’s husband Peter (Donovan) has worked hard to overcome his alcohol addiction and is bringing in substantial work as a contractor. Still, the family (including the younger children Mary (Knight) and Billy (Wood) as well as their cousin Wendy (Crew) who has been recruited to help watch the smaller kids) are completely focused on Matt and the decision is made to find a place to live closer to where Matt is receiving his treatments.

The problem is finding something affordable in a particularly affluent part of Connecticut and Sara despairs of ever doing so, until she finds a place that seems perfect at first blush. It’s large enough to accommodate them all, reasonably close to Matt’s doctors and best of all it’s in their price range. The house is older and in need of repairs in some places but otherwise it seems perfect.

The family moves in and Matt is drawn to the basement. It’s cooler down there and has its own bathroom (so that the other kids don’t have to hear Matt vomiting), and there’s a mysterious set of locked doors and frosted windows. Things settle in to a semblance of normalcy, or at least as normal as things can get for a family with a critically ill child.

Then Matt starts seeing things. People who aren’t there, horrible visions of corpses being desecrated, those kinds of things. He’s reluctant to tell his family about them; the radical treatment he’s on is known to cause serious hallucinations as a side-effect and could be the basis of him being denied this treatment.

Then others in the family begin experiencing bizarre things as well. It turns out that the house they moved into was once a funeral home, but not only a funeral home – one in which séances were performed by a gifted young medium named Jonah (Berg) at the direction of the funeral home’s undertaker Ramsey Aickman (Bluethner). It becomes clear that there is something very wrong going on in the house, something beyond our experience. Matt turns to Reverend Popescu (Koteas), who is also receiving the same treatment Matt is and is more sympathetic than Matt’s parents but what does the malevolent force that resides in his house want with Matt?

This is loosely based on an incident that allegedly took place in the late 1980s in Southington, Connecticut and was the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary which is what caught the filmmakers’ attention originally. There has been some controversy about the validity of the claims of the family that became the Campbells in this story, but that’s neither here nor there.

What we’re more interested in is whether this is a good movie or not and surprisingly, it is. The filmmakers use Matt’s illness as an underlying thread far more horrifying in many ways than the spectres and spookies that pop out throughout the movie. The main complain I’ve heard leveled at the film is that there are too many instances of startle scares, scenes where something leaps out at you suddenly with an orchestral screech designed to make you leap out of your seat. A little of that goes a long way, and there are things forever jumping out at the Campbells that by the end of the film it gets to be old hat.

The relationship between Matt and Sara is what works best. Madsen is a capable actress and turns in one of the finest performances of her career here as a mother fiercely determined to see her son better, terrified that he will never be and willing to do anything to ease his suffering. Once in awhile, you can see some of the stress peeking through, as you might in any mother trying her damndest to hold it together in front of the kids.

Gallner and Koteas also turn in fine performances making the suffering of their characters believable. Koteas is a bit grim and kooky but Gallner is a kid coping with something no kid should have to cope with, and he’s the centerpiece here, not a horror hero in the traditional sense but one nonetheless.

Horror fans will be pleased to know that there is plenty of gruesome spectacles as well as some pretty nicely orchestrated scares. The backstory is impeccably logical and consistent, a problem with some supernatural horror movies.

I expected a cheesy B-Movie and instead was rewarded with a surprisingly effective, pleasantly well-acted horror movie that while not a classic was certainly worth my time. I particularly liked the cancer background theme; that seemed very authentic and made the story much more compelling, particularly in the relationship between mother and son. Even the furies of Hell can’t match a pissed off mom protecting her sick kid.

WHY RENT THIS: The scares are very effective and the shocks very visceral. Horror fans will get their fill. The underlying story of Matt’s illness is genuinely affecting, and the effects of his condition on the family make for a compelling subplot.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the plot points are a bit cliché, particularly where they deviate from the original story. The father’s alcoholism was an unnecessary subplot that either should have been explored much further or ignored entirely.

FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of mutilation and mayhem not for the squeamish. Some extremely nasty scares and nightmare-inducing visuals will make this strictly off-limits for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Contraversial paranormal investigators Ed and Leslie Warren, who also investigated the Amityville Horror, were the investigators on the case that this is based on.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A feature on post-mortem photography, as well as a re-examination of the original haunting.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Day Three of the Six Days of Darkness