Kangaroo: A Love/Hate Story


“I’m a kangaroo; how do you do?”

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Terri Irwin, Diane Smith, Greg Keightly, Philip Wollen, Peter Singer, Tim Flannery, Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, Rex Devantier, Terrence Dawson, Dror Ben-Ami, Chris “Brolga” Barnes, Barry O’Sullivan, John Kelly, Stephen Tully, Peter Chen, Daniel Ramp, Paul Borrud, Jennifer Fearing, Lee Rhiannon, Mark Pearson, Lyn Gynther, Lauren Ornelas. Directed by Kate McIntyre Clere and Michael McIntyre

 

The kangaroo is somewhat emblematic of Australia. It appears on the tail fin of their national airline; many Aussie companies also use the animal as a logo.. Sports teams are named after the beast and one would think that the national symbol of Australia would be as beloved there as the bald eagle is here.

That is not the case by any stretch of the imagination. While there are those who love the kangaroo, the farmers, sheepherders and ranchers of Australia look at ‘roos as little more than vermin, pests who decimate the pasture land that they need for their cattle and sheep to graze on. That segment of Australia claims – and government agencies back them up – that the kangaroo population has exploded and they now outnumber humans on the continent. The problem is so bad that an entire industry has sprung up around the controlled extermination of kangaroos, despite the strange fact that the animals enjoy a protected status in Australia. That protection is very much in name only.

The dark underbelly of the issue is that kangaroos are being slaughtered in a perfectly legal fashion at a terrifying rate which animal activists have labeled the biggest slaughter of a single animal species going on in the world today. Thousands of kangaroos are being hunted by gun-toting kangaroo hunters and killed every night. Property owner Diane Smith and her partner Greg Keightly have taken to documenting the incursion of these hunters onto their property to engage in the extermination of kangaroos which live in the wild there. On occasion the two have nearly been shot themselves.

Their videos have shown unimaginable brutality. Although the government exceptions require that the kangaroos be dispatched humanely, the hunters often miss the clean head shots leaving the kangaroos to die in agony, sometimes lingering for weeks. Joeys (the baby kangaroos) are ripped from the pouches of their dad mothers and rather than having a bullet wasted on them are swung into the fender of the jeeps, sometimes several times in order to bash their brains in. It’s a disgusting spectacle.

The husband and wife documentarian team interview several politicians and ranchers who rationally explain that the controlled extermination of the kangaroos is a necessity to keep the cattle and sheep industry thriving and that without this herd culling the country would be facing an ecological disaster. However, it is clear that their sympathies lie with the activists like Smith and Keightly who are actively fighting for the kangaroos.

The cinematography is beautiful – Australia is a beautiful country and the kangaroos are very cute creatures. The slaughter footage, much of it taken at night, is graphic and disturbing – small children are likely to be upset by it. On a technical note, the graphics that the filmmakers use to augment their film often flash on the screen too quickly to read completely. Another two or three seconds per graphic would have been greatly appreciated.

There are also lots and lots and lots of talking head interviews and while the movie presents a great deal of information, those who are annoyed by those sorts of interviews are likely to be annoyed by this film. The movie is a bit on the long side as it attacks every aspect of the kangaroo industry, from the use of leather on soccer cleats (David Beckham has famously gone over to shoes that don’t use kangaroo skin) to even the safety of the meat taken from the kangaroo carcasses; animal activist and politician Mark Pearson asserts that the meat is butchered in unsanitary conditions out in the bush and is transported long distances without proper refrigeration. He claims that kangaroo meat is potentially loaded with e.coli, salmonella and other harmful bacteria although no statistics are given on whether this has been detected or not.

In many ways the slaughter of kangaroos is a modern range war taking place as we speak. It is disturbing that the overpopulation of the animals can’t really be properly documented and government estimates are based on a highly suspect mathematical formula that seems arbitrary and greatly favors those advocating for the extermination of kangaroos. The movie does make some effort to present both sides of the conflict although it is clear that they are firmly on Team Kangaroo. The documentary is certainly flawed but it sheds light on a subject that I and I’m sure many non-Australians didn’t even realize was a thing that in and of itself makes this worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: This is a searing indictment of the kangaroo industry. The animals are beautiful and a joy to watch and the beauty of Australia is without peer.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many talking heads. The graphics go by a little too quickly.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of animal cruelty, violence done to defenseless creatures, adult themes and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is an Australian-made film, it is actually opening in Oz nearly two months after it opens here which is unusual in that generally most films open in their own country of origin first.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cove
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Druid Peak


This is the West.

This is the West.

(2014) Drama (One Small Thing) Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Wilson, Rachel Korine, Damian Young, Nathaniel Brown, Armand Schultz, Lanna Joffrey, George Joe Smith, Bernadette Cuvalo, Ian Jan Campbell, Rebecca L. Baldwin.. Directed by Mami Zelnick

Florida Film Festival 2014

Nature versus nurture is an ongoing debate to explain why some kids turn out to be okay and others turn out to be monsters. Is it an environmental thing that turns kids into bullies, or is it some DNA misfire inside them that makes them predisposed to that sort of behavior?

Whatever the answer is, Owen (Clark) is a bully. He seems angry at everyone and everything. He’s intimidating to his fellow students and is known to get physical. He lives in the coal country of West Virginia in a town which doesn’t have a whole lot going on. When his actions lead to a tragic incident, his fed-up mother and stepfather put him on a plane to Wyoming where he will stay with his taciturn father Everett (Wilson), who monitors the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park.

At first this seems like a match made in Hell. Owen is angry and surly – one of his first actions when he arrives in Wyoming is to steal some of his dad’s money – and his dad doesn’t seem too interested in being the nurturing sort. With there being even less to do around his dad’s isolated cabin than in West Virginia, Owen decides to go for a walk.

There he encounters a wolf – and by encounters I mean up close and by a wolf I mean not a Doberman. The encounter piques Owen’s curiosity and he begins to seek out the wolves in the wild. Before long he has become adept at tracking them – “thinking like a wolf,” as his father puts it. The curiosity grows into a genuine affinity.

Before long, Owen begins to exhibit some real changes. He has found something to care about and a purpose to his life. However, the world of wolves isn’t all running in the woods and howling at the moon. Local ranchers, embodied by McGill (Young), have some real concerns about wolves from the park raiding their livestock for a free meal. Owen also develops a bit of a crush on Zoe (Korine), McGill’s daughter. When the wolves are removed from the endangered species list, freeing local hunters the opportunity to go after them, things may never be the same for Owen or his father.

Zelnick, who has been producing and writing films for several years, makes her debut as a director here although you’d never know it. Her work on Druid Peak is as assured and efficient as if directed by someone with decades of experience. Every shot here matters and while there are the occasional beauty shots of the landscape, even those help set the tone for the film.

She wrangles a terrific performance from Treat, who has been a child actor for some time (and in a number of excellent films) and most recently appeared in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. He makes a good impression here starting Owen off as surly, bad-tempered and outright mean. The bully though morphs into an advocate for the defenseless and while the change might seem extreme taking place as it does over a single summer, both Zelnick and Clark make it organic and believable.

Wilson is a presence as Everett and while he has a kind of hippie eco-fanatic vibe to him, there is a practical core underneath. While I do wonder not so much why Everett and Owen’s mom split up but how they got together in the first place (which is explained neatly in the film by the way), I can see how Everett ended up in Wyoming. My own Wyoming experience is in the Eastern portion of the state where it is miles and miles of miles and miles, but my Colorado-bred wife assures me that the area in the Tetons, where this was filmed (near Jackson Hole but not in Yellowstone itself) is just as breathtaking as any in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

While the story takes a little while to get going – mostly as it is established what a rotten egg Owen is, the scenes of which might be a bit traumatic for those who have been bullied before – once the plane touches down in Wyoming the magic really begins. This is a very solid first feature and one which bodes well for some really great filmmaking down the line.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Nice performance by Clark.

REASONS TO STAY: Takes awhile to get going. Bullying scenes may be disturbing to watch for those with similar life experiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and some acts of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Andrew Wilson is the older brother of Luke and Owen Wilson.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flicka

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Forev

Appaloosa


Appaloosa

Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris discuss the finer points of Western living.

(New Line) Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henricksen, Timothy Spall, James Gammon, Adam Nelson. Directed by Ed Harris

Without law and order, all would be chaos. But who writes the laws and who maintains the order? When the two are one and the same, is it justice or vengeance?

The town of Appaloosa in New Mexico Territory circa 1882 is living without either. The local sheriff and his deputies all disappeared on a routine trip to a local ranch, run by the ruthless Bragg (Irons). In desperation, the town fathers (Spall and Gammon) hire a notorious gunslinger, Virgil Cole (Harris) and his right-hand man Everett Hitch (Mortensen) to become town marshal and protect the town from the increasingly egregious offenses of Bragg’s thugs.

Cole and Hitch make a mark right away when they have a run-in with several of Bragg’s men in the local saloon. When asked to desist from urinating on the bar, they refuse. When told they were under arrest, they guffaw. When told that if they resist arrest or be shot, they resist. When they’re shot, they die.

Bragg is, to say the least, displeased and a wary standoff exists between the vile rancher and the deadeye lawmen. Into this mix comes a young ranch hand who witnessed Bragg murdering the previous marshal in cold blood and is willing to testify. A more devastating development comes in on the stagecoach, Miss Allison French (Zellweger), a widow of limited means and resources who is neither a schoolmarm or a lady of the evening. Instead, she plays piano – and not very well. However, she knows how to use her considerable charms to her own advantage and has the unerring instincts of a survivor. A showdown is inevitable, and the world of Appaloosa will never be the same afterwards.

Harris, one of the finest actors of his generation, hasn’t sat in the director’s chair on a feature length film since 2000’s Pollack and this film couldn’t be more different than the other. There are elements of the old school western to this, but it is firmly New School western as well. It isn’t as violent and brutal as say, Sam Peckinpah might have done it and it isn’t as iconic as Clint Eastwood might have done it.

Instead, this is a movie that is extremely character driven. Virgil is less educated, prone to using words he has difficulty in pronouncing or even remembering; Everett is smarter, quieter, and content to be second banana to Virgil but is as dangerous as a rattlesnake in his own right. Bragg is a steely-eyed villain of the traditional Western, evil because he can be. All three actors in these roles do fine jobs.

At the core of the movie is the relationship between Virgil and Everett, and it is a friendship that is totally believable. Certainly Virgil is not without his flaws, but Everett never questions his boss openly and when he does, only because he sees danger coming. Otherwise, he is fine with letting Virgil do his thing, which sometimes can be unhealthy for those who cross him.

Unfortunately, Zellweger’s Allison is less easy to get a handle on. In these more enlightened times she might come off as manipulative and disloyal, but she is really a pragmatist. She gives her loyalty to whomever can best protect her and provide for her and if something better comes along, she gladly takes it. It’s not a flattering role, but Zellweger bravely assumes it, warts and all.

The big problem with Appaloosa lies in its pacing. Harris is content to let the characters drive the plot rather than the other way around. The advantage to that is that it allows the characters to become real people in our eyes; the disadvantage is that the plot moves along at a fairly majestic place, making the movie feel longer than it actually is. The fact that there are a couple of false codas in place before the final denouement doesn’t help matters.

I will admit to having a soft spot for Westerns. Not because I’m a particular fan of them mind you but because I have a soft spot in my heart for underdogs and no genre fits the description of underdog in Hollywood better than Westerns. They are archaic in many ways and a throwback to a different time and maybe that’s what I like about them most. When well-executed, they are wonderful entertainment. I wanted to like Appaloosa much more than I did, and in some ways, despite its flaws, I still admire it. Unfortunately, I can’t in good conscience recommend it completely because of the egregiousness of its flaws. However, I can say that lovers of good Westerns will find a lot to like about the movie. Those who aren’t so fond of Westerns should mosey on to another choice in the video store.

WHY RENT THIS: Westerns are few and far between these days and ones that give you pause to think even more so. Strong performances by the cast and wonderful cinematography make this a solid effort.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing drags in places, making the movie seem longer than it actually is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a modicum of harsh language, just enough to make this for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Mortensen both worked on David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are four featurettes here but two worth noting; one on the historical accuracy of the film, mostly to do with costume and set design, and an interview with legendary cinematographer Dean Semler.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

Leaves of Grass

Note: While I saw this at the Florida Film Festival, it isn’t scheduled to be released until a to-be-determined date this summer. A full review will be posted on its theatrical release date or DVD release date. In the meantime, here’s a mini-review.

Edward Norton stars in the dual roles of Bill, an uptight but brilliant academic and Brady, an Oklahoma pot grower who is equally brilliant but pot-addled into a life of lesser accomplishment. When Brady gets into trouble with a drug distributor, he lures his identical twin brother Bill home by faking his death. Once there, Bill gets subjected to a life he left behind on purpose and in the process discovers the family he’d turned away from. With a barrel full of excellent performances led by Norton but including director Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfus and Josh Pais, the movie takes a startling left turn about two thirds of the way through that is unexpected but delightful. It’s a very well made movie that will grow on you, pot references aside. See it at a film festival near you or at your local art house, or if not, on DVD when it comes out in that format.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Waking Sleeping Beauty