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

The Ivory Game


It's a sobering thought that these magnificent animals could go extinct in our lifetime.

It’s a sobering thought that these magnificent animals could go extinct in our lifetime.

(2016) Advocacy Documentary (Netflix) Craig Millar, Richard Leakey, Andrea Crosta, Prince William, Richard Bonham, Hongxiang Huang, Elisifa Ngowi, Ian Williamson, Ian Craig, Uhuru Kenyatta, Robert F. Godec, Iain Douglas Hamilton, Winnie Kiru, Otir Drori, Georgina Kamanga. Directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson

 

The magnificent elephant is an iconic sight on the African plains, majestically walking through the savannas. One cannot think of Africa without thinking about these beasts, but these creatures are in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth.

That is because of their tusks. The ivory from them can fetch exorbitant prices in China (where most of the ivory goes to) and so poachers are attacking elephants with a will, killing one every fifteen minutes on the average. If that goes unchanged, there will be no African elephants in the wild within 15 years and those remaining in zoos will die off not long thereafter. For most of you reading this, that means the African elephant will be extinct in your lifetime.

There are those who are fighting for the elephants. Craig Millar, head of security for the Big Life Foundation (dedicated to the protection of elephants from poachers), patrols areas of Kenya trying to protect the herds from poachers. He talks to farmers who are dismayed that the elephants wander into their farms and eat their crops – a problem when you consider that food is scarce in that part of Africa. They see elephants as pests and aren’t inclined to report poachers, which Millar can sympathize with. His solution is to build large electrified fences to keep the pachyderms out but those are expensive and most of the farmers can’t afford them.

Investigative journalist Hongxiang Huang is ashamed that his country is responsible for gobbling up the ivory. The market is heavily regulated but dealers have no problem bringing in illegal ivory and corruption is rampant in the enforcement of regulations. Huang’s hidden camera interviews show the brazenness of the dealers and his reports helped stir the Chinese government out of lethargy.

Government investigator Elisifa Ngowi has been chasing one of the biggest poachers in Namibia, a man who goes by the name of Shetai which translates to “devil.” His gang has been responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 elephants by themselves and not a few humans as well. A lot of good citizens who deplore the slaughter of the elephants are far too frightened of Shetai to say anything, but Ngowi is doggedly and determinedly pursuing the criminal.

Georgina Kamanga is the head of intelligence of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Zambia. She is tough as nails, but the sight of elephants, freshly decapitated, is enough to move her to tears. “I’m taking the whole thing now very personal,” she says in a voice that betrays her emotion. Finally there’s Andrea Crosta, the founder and lead investigator for the website WildLeaks, which looks into animal rights issues. He sends undercover investigators to document corruption in the ivory trade in China – and is horrified when one of them is discovered.

The filmmakers depict all these stories in the vein of a thriller, and in some ways I suppose it is. There are bad guys, victims and crimes being committed. Certainly the extinction of a species like the African elephant is fodder for that kind of genre, particularly when the poachers are hell-bent on exterminating the entire species since it will drive the price up of ivory the fewer of them there actually are. When they are all gone, the price for African ivory will be sky high.

That works well along with the thriller-like musical score, but the filmmakers bounce around from story to story without any sense of flow. If this were a scripted thriller, I’d likely have marked it down a great deal but it gets a bit of a pass due to the documentary nature of the film, and the African vistas are beautifully shot as are the more urban jungles in China, London and African cities.

Elephants are incredible creatures who are fiercely protective of their families (the shots of baby elephants cavorting are among the most priceless in the film) and who mourn their dead with silent grief. Like humans, they bury their dead and can instinctively tell when they are in the presence of a graveyard, even if none of their herd are buried in it.

Produced by actor/environmental activist Leonardo di Caprio and former Microsoft executive Paul Allen (among others), the documentary is an important one and like most advocacy documentaries give viewers opportunities to become involved, either through financial contributions or by getting involved directly. If you don’t have Netflix or don’t wish to view the film but would like to help, you can go to the film’s website by clicking on the picture above.

Some of this movie is hard to look at. I’m not an elephant junkie by any means, but these are amazing creatures who don’t deserve to be wiped off the planet and it is man’s greed and man’s indifference that is doing it. Spin it however you want to, this is a crime pure and simple and if a film can spur people to action as Blackfish and The Cove did, then perhaps this film can do something similar. God knows the elephants need someone in their corner.

REASONS TO GO: The elephants in the wild make compelling visual subjects and the baby elephants are as cute as the dickens. The subject is a vitally important one.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary jumps from subject to subject in a seemingly haphazard fashion at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of dead elephants as well as adult themes and occasional bouts of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Following China’s ban on importing ivory, this film became an official selection of the Beijing International Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Lion

Into the Grizzly Maze (Red Machine)


There's nothing worse than bear breath.

There’s nothing worse than bear breath.

(2014) Action (Vertical) James Marsden, Thomas Jane, Piper Perabo, Billy Bob Thornton, Scott Glenn, Michaela McManus, Adam Beach, Sarah Desjardins, Luisa D’Oliveira, Bart the Bear, Patrick Sabongui, Kelly Curran, Seth Isaac Johnson, Sean O. Roberts, Reese Alexander, Carson Reaume, Michael Jonsson, Mariel Belanger. Directed by David Hackl

Recently, I did a review of a 1981 movie called Roar in which live actors and crew mingled with untamed wild lions and tigers which led to somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 injuries to cast and crew. This movie would be the anti-Roar.

After seven years in prison, Rowan (Marsden) returns home to a small Alaskan town (actually British Columbia) on a mysterious mission which involves a map. Treasure, maybe? When he gets into an altercation with a pimp (Jonsson) who was in the process of beating up a hooker (Curran), he is arrested – by none other than his own brother Beckett (Jane) who turned his back on him after Rowan was convicted of shooting a guy. The two brothers obviously have little love for each other and so when Rowan heads off into the wilderness, Beckett isn’t particularly sorry to see him go.

But what Rowan is really up to is a rescue mission; a friend with the unlikely name of Johnny Cadillac (Beach) is missing after having guided a pair of poachers into the woods (no singing though) and his wife (Belanger) is concerned enough to ask Rowan to go find him. The three of them, however, have met up with a rogue rampaging grizzly (Bart) who with his food supplies dwindling is turning to a human protein supplement to his diet.

Once Beckett and his boss, Sheriff Sullivan (Glenn) realize what’s happening Beckett decides to head into the woods to find the bear and tranquilize it. Sullivan would rather hire bear whisperer Douglass (Thornton) to track down the mutha and kill it, but Beckett puts up a stink so Sullivan caves. Or at least appears to; once Beckett is gone, he sends Douglass out anyway.

Beckett has another reason to head out into the woods – his deaf conservationist wife Michelle (Perabo) is out there and with a crazed killer bear stalking anything on two legs, the town medical examiner Kaley (McManus) tags along just in case someone needs medical attention or an autopsy. And of course all of them meet up and the Grizzly comes after them. Getting back to civilization is going to be no easy task, even with a pair of experienced woodsmen and crack shots in the group.

This is a throwback to deranged animal movies from the ’70s like Jaws and Day of the Animals which generally took an all-star cast of the level that you’d find on a typical episode of The Love Boat and put them squarely in the path of an animal (or animals) that had gone loco and were hungry for the taste of human flesh. This one relies on CGI a great deal as we rarely see humans in the same frame as the evil bear here and quite frankly, the CGI work is sloppy and weak. There is a sequence where the grizzly is surrounded by CGI flames that are so fake as to be almost laughable and then breaks through the ring of fire with a mighty roar and scarcely a single hair singed. There is another scene where the grizzly looks up from his lunch of a hapless human with blood on his mouth and snout that is so patently CGI (the color is bright cherry lipstick red rather than the typical crimson of actual blood) as to look more like the bear had gotten into a strumpet’s lipstick. Godawful.

The cast here is pretty decent and to their credit none of them phone it in although Perabo, who really has nothing much to do, might as well have. Jane is actually a pretty decent action hero who did some good work in Deep Blue Sea and The Punisher but is generally relegated to supporting roles these days and leads in Direct-to-VOD films like this one. Marsden is versatile, doing comedy and action equally well but he’s all business here. Thornton, who always seems to enjoy himself no matter what level of film he’s doing, from excellent (the Fargo series) to sheer paycheck (this).

The British Columbia forests, substituting for Alaska, are unutterably beautiful and while I wouldn’t say they’re a piece of cake to photograph, it’s hard to go wrong with that kind of backdrop  One of the big problems with the film is that it’s completely non-credible. Bears don’t act like this, not even rogues and for the most part people don’t either. While Hackl does a good job building suspense, there are too many instances of a gigantic bear sneaking up on hapless humans which is damn near impossible; bears are not stealth creatures. They’re far too massive. At the end of the day this is a subpar potboiler with a good cast and bad CGI that might be worth a rainy day or evening’s rental on VOD if your standards aren’t particularly high.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful setting. Good cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Unrealistic. Terrible CGI. Throwback to films that weren’t very good in the first place.
FAMILY VALUES: There are animal attack images as well as disturbing gore images, violence, some brief sexuality and a little bit of foul language
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the film was Red Machine which is the name given the bear in the credits. This is in reference to the late Timothy Treadwell of the film Grizzly Man who said that one bear, which he had named The Big Red Machine, was the only one that actually terrified him. It is reputed that this was the bear that actually killed him and his girlfriend, although that is unconfirmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Magic Mike XXL

Roar (1981)


Lions and tigers and a bear, oh my...

Lions and tigers and a bear, oh my…

(1981) WTF (Drafthouse) Tippi Hedren, Noel Marshall, Melanie Griffith, John Marshall, Jerry Marshall, Kyalo Mativo, Frank Tom, Steve Miller, Rick Glassey, Zakes Moakae, Lenord Bokwa, Shamasi Sarumi, Will Hutchins, Eve Rattner, Peter Thiongo, Michael Franz, Alexandra Newman, Pat Barbeau, Michael J. Jones. Directed by Noel Marshall

Some movies are extraordinary due to technical achievements, acting performances, excellent writing, beautiful cinematography and/or sure direction. This isn’t one of those. It is extraordinary due to the fact that it got made.

Husband and wife Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren were a successful Hollywood couple in the late 1960s and early 1970s; Hedren had been an actress who’d starred in the Hitchcock classic The Birds and was one of the most beautiful women of her time. Her husband was a producer, who had among other credits The Exorcist and The Harrad Experiment to his credit.

Both were animal activists, particularly when it came to big cats, and kept nearly a hundred animals on their ranch in Soledad Canyon, near Los Angeles. They hit upon an idea to make a movie that would inspire audiences to conservation and preservation as many big cats were hitting the endangered species list. Oddly, they decided to use their own wild animals rather than trained ones that were more used to human company.

The production was plagued with problems from the start. What was supposed to have been a six-month shoot would stretch out for seven years – this after it took four years to get the financing together to make the movie in the first place. However, two years into shooting, the financing was withdrawn and Marshall and Hedren were forced to use their own funds to complete the movie, putting up their own property and possessions as collateral. Animal attacks during the shoot would lead to 70 confirmed injuries, some of which were serious (an assistant director had his throat partially torn out and cinematographer Jan de Bont, who would go on to make Speed had most of his scalp torn off in a wound that required more than 200 stitches). A flood and brush fire in 1979 wiped out the set and took out most of the completed footage, and feline disease took the lives of many of the cats, including Robbie, who plays the King of the Cats in the film.

Still, the filmmakers persevered and the movie was completed but after all that it tanked at the box office; especially galling was that it didn’t get a release here in the United States. However, Tim League of the Alamo Drafthouse chain found the movie at a local video store and fell in love with it. He arranged to buy the rights and is giving it a brief theatrical re-release before bringing it back out on DVD and Blu-Ray later this year.

The movie’s plot is simple; Hank (N. Marshall), a scientist living in the African veldt trying to protect big cats from poachers while examining their co-existence with humans in a wild state, invites his family to come visit him. Due to a set of unforeseen circumstances, he ends up being late to go fetch them from the local airport so while he is off going to get them – no easy feat – they find alternate transportation to his ranch. They are horrified to find dozens of ferocious predators inhabiting his home and spend much of the movie running from room to room trying to escape.

The movie definitely has a 70s vibe to it, with songs that would appeal to the James Taylor/Carole King crowd and clothes and hairstyles that date the movie. So too does the broad sense of humor complete with sitcom musical cues. Noel Marshall as an actor makes a great producer; most of his lines are half-shouted and his character seems completely out of touch with reality. His Chicago accent sounds a bit bizarre on a scientist studying cats in Africa – and Africa by the way except for a few establishing shots, is Southern California. At least here. Marshall, incidentally, passed away in 2010 having never acted again.

Someone had to think this was a good idea and it’s a good bet that some sort of drug use was involved with the decision making process. Put a cast and crew in among a hundred wild animals whose actions would be unpredictable to say the least? Sure! Because of that unpredictability give the cats co-writing and co-directing credit? Why not! Encourage people to support conservation and animal rights causes by depicting multiple harrowing animal attacks on humans by those same animals? That’s gotta work, right?

I’ve heard this film referred to as less a movie so much as a carnival sideshow and there is something to that description. This is a movie that has to be experienced; describing it doesn’t do justice. Ratings therefore go out the window, which is why it has essentially a 50% rating here. You are either going to love it or hate it, you’ll get it or you won’t. Me, I vacillate wildly between loving the movie and the heart that is obviously put into it, with the footage of the big cats doing their things and wondering what on earth these people were thinking. Words can’t possibly do this film justice.

REASONS TO GO: Curiosity factor. Some beautiful cinematography and the animals can be delightful.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a product of its time. The acting is not so good. The comedy is awfully broad and occasionally inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: Animal attack footage that ranges from comical to gruesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While no animals were harmed during the film, 70 human injuries were reported and at least one was life-threatening, although thankfully not fatal.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: When Animals Attack
FINAL RATING: 5/10 (but a N/A would be more applicable)
NEXT: Amy

Rio


Rio

Linda (foreground, in the blue) gets her inner samba on.

(2011) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, George Lopez, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, Jermaine Clement, Carlos Ponce, Jane Lynch, Wanda Sykes, Thomas F. Wilson. Directed by Carlos Saldanha

The benchmarks for animated features have been Disney for traditional animations and Pixar for computer animations. While some recent entries into the field have shown some promise, for the most part the best animated features to come from places other than the Mouse have largely been those with their own style and subject matter.

Fox has had success with their Ice Age trilogy (a fourth entry makes its way into theaters next year) and the makers of those films have turned their eyes to more sultry climes, the Brazilian paradise of Rio de Janeiro. However, things start off initially in the Arctic-like environment of Moose Lake, Minnesota where lives Linda (Mann), who found a blue macaw that had been stolen from the rain forests of Brazil and sent to the United States for purchase (except it had fallen off the truck). Blu (Eisenberg) lives a very pampered life, warm and secure in Linda’s bookstore, wanting for nothing and being provided with every little need by the doting Linda. They have a wonderful life together.

Into their life walks Tulio (Santoro), a Brazilian ornithologist who informs Linda that Blu is one of only two blue macaws left in the world and that it is imperative that he be mated with the last female, who is in Rio. Because they have a controlled environment available in his bird research center, it is decided that it would be easier to bring Blu to the mountain rather than the mountain to Blu. Reluctantly, Linda agrees to it although she’s not too enthusiastic about leaving home – she has no desire to see the world, somewhat refreshing amongst spunky animated movie heroines.

Blu is flown down and shoved into a lovely environment with Jewel (Hathaway) who wants nothing more than to escape captivity. She is not really interested in mating, particularly with a pampered pet that can’t even fly. The two don’t get along at all which means of course they are going to get along GREAT by the end of the movie.

An amoral poacher named Marcel (Ponce) sends a couple of thugs and a nasty cockatoo named Nigel (Clements) to kidnap the two blues, knowing that as the last of their species they’ll fetch a hefty price. Together Blu and Jewel manage to escape and flee to the rain forest where they are aided by a crafty toucan named Rafael (Lopez), a couple of disreputable looking birds named Nico (Foxx) and Pedro (will.i.am) and a drooling doggie named Luis (Morgan). With Nigel and a barrelful of monkeys looking for them, Blu unable to fly and Linda and Tulio desperately searching for them, it will be a long walk back home. Oh, and did I mention it’s Carnival time in Rio?

In many ways this is the most Disney-like of all the Blue Sky/Fox films. From the score to the musical numbers, this looks and sounds very much like a traditional animated Disney film, from the bright colors to the cute, cuddly anthropomorphized parrots. This is going to appeal to the very young and the merchandising that’s sure to go on is going to drive the kiddies absolutely bonkers and their parents to the poorhouse.

The problem here is that all the color is on the screen – none of it went into the characters, who are all as bland as can be and could have been culled from dozens of animated movies and television shows. And for a movie set in Brazil there’s little to no spice and this movie could have used some. Brazil has some beautiful, exotic locations but one gets the feeling that the farthest the animators went to research their drawings was the Jungle River Cruise and Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland.

Sure, it’s a great looking movie but I for one am getting tired of animated features that extol kids to believe in themselves. Judging from surveys, self-belief and self-confidence isn’t something our children are lacking. Rio looks good but in the end it’s like cotton candy – colorful but lacking any substance.

REASONS TO GO: Lush and colorful, with some beautifully drawn images.

REASONS TO STAY: Stock characters and story; trying too hard to be Disney-esque and wind up without much of an identity.

FAMILY VALUES: This is absolutely fine for any family – nothing for parents to be concerned about for any ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The makers of the wildly popular Angry Birds game created a version of the game set in Rio as a tie-in with the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: It’s beautiful and the kids are gonna insist.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Hanna

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili


Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

Even Olympic sprinters would have difficulty running at this altitude.

(Goldwyn) Duo Bujie, Zhang Lei, Qi Liang, Zhao Xueying, Ma Zhanlin. Directed by Lu Chuan

In the Tibetan highlands of the Kekexili pass, life is brutal and merciless. The altitude makes physical activity demanding, and the cold, thin air makes vegetation sparse and unappealing. There is little of value there – but some things more precious than gold.

The Kekexili pass is the last remaining habitat of the Tibetan antelope. Once numbering in the millions, the animal had been hunted by poachers to near-extinction, with less than 10,000 remaining of the breed by the mid-90s. Appalled at the unabated slaughter of the animal, a group of Tibetan men took it upon themselves to protect them against the poachers.

They have no government support and almost no supplies. They have little authority which mainly consists of confiscating illegally poached antelope pelts. They are poorly armed and in harms way, demonstrated as the movie opens with the brutal execution of one of the Patrol’s members.

Chinese journalist Ga Yu (Lei) arrives in the village where the patrol is based just in time to make the funeral of the executed patrol member. These funerals are referred to as Sky Burials by the locals. Afterwards, Ga is taken to the leader of the patrol, Ritai (Bujie). Formerly a member of the military, he has taken leave from his unit to lead the patrol. Taciturn, brooding but with a deep abiding love for the land and its creatures, he proposes to lead a patrol to find the poacher who executed his man. This poacher has grown progressively bolder and with him murdering a member of the patrol, the time has come to take action against him.

The patrol goes out, with Ga in tow and Ritai’s right hand man Liu Dong (Liang). They capture a family of poachers who have ties to the one who murdered the patrol member and manage to extract the location of the bandit in question. However, the journey is a long and difficult one, and it becomes clear that they will be unable to continue the mission with the entire team and the captured poachers. They release their prisoners and Liu is sent back to the village with the injured and sick. Once Liu gets to the medical clinic, however, it becomes clear that they can’t afford the fees for treatment. Ritai instructs him to sell some of the pelts. Ga is aghast at this but Ritai tells him, matter-of-factly that the government had not sent any financial support in over a year.

One of their trucks breaks down, so Ritai and Ga head after the poachers alone, leaving the men to wait for Liu Dong, knowing that if he cannot find them they will die very quickly in the unforgiving environment of the Kekexili. And what of Ritai? Outnumbered and outgunned, how can he hope to take down the poacher who he has chased into the very roof of the world?

This movie takes place in a bleak and harsh landscape and in many ways the storyline reflects this. Director Chuan’s cast is mainly amateurs, with the exception of Lei and Bujie. They do exceptionally good jobs in conveying the kind of men who live such a difficult existence, but carry with them a great passion for the land and the things that live in it. The name “Kekexili” in their language means “beautiful mountains” and also “beautiful maidens.” For them, the highlands are both.

Bujie makes a fine heroic figure, a man fully aware of how tough his men need to be to survive, but at the same time fiercely protective of them. Handsome in a rugged way, this is the kind of role that Jack Palance or Robert De Niro would have taken on had they been younger or Tibetan (preferably both).

The real star here is the Kekexili itself. Cinematographer Cao Yu is one of the best in the world at what he does, and he makes wonderful use of the beautifully bleak vistas. So alien is the landscape that it almost seems another planet. Still, in the harshness there is great beauty and poetry, and it is captured nicely.

So too is the life of those who live in the Kekexili, a life filled with little promise but still lived with great joy. The Tibetan villagers are a rugged lot – they have to be to survive in an unforgiving place as the Kekexili, where one misstep, one mistake can mean death.

The movie is based on actual events – the mountain patrol really existed in the mid-90s, although this is a fictionalized account of their deeds. The movie has gone on to great acclaim in Asia, and has brought about changes in how the Chinese government deals with poachers. There is now a military patrol that actively prosecutes poaching in the Kekexili highlands and the size of the antelope herd has more than tripled since the movie was set.

This is a look at a culture as alien as the one displayed in Avatar, yet it is here in our world. The movie is unrelentingly grim in many ways, and it doesn’t end well for all those who are portrayed in it. Still, it is a fascinating movie, beautifully photographed and well worth a look, even if you’re not fond of subtitles (the movie’s dialogue is almost entirely in Mandarin and Tibetan). We seldom get to see what is going on in our own attic, but this movie gives us a glimpse at a place and a culture we rarely are able to see. That’s all the incentive I need to see a movie like this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning landscapes of harsh barrenness are breathtaking. A rare look into a part of the world rarely seen onscreen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The bleakness of the scenery carries over into the movie, which may be a bit too disturbing and grim for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexuality and several disturbing scenes, particularly the shooting of an antelope and the death by quicksand of one of the patrol.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which the antelope is shot utilizes a Mongolian Gazelle as actual Tibetan antelope are protected by international and Chinese law. The crew affixed the antlers of an antelope and filmed the shooting with two cameras. Some of the crew were very upset by this and the animal was given a funeral and buried.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Home