The Elephant Whisperers made history at the 95th Academy Awards by becoming the first Indian production to win the award for Best Documentary Short Film. It is the first time since 1979 that the nation, the second most populous on earth, even got a seat at the table in this category. The recognition may be a long time coming but this enlightening and heartwarming exploration of man’s relationship with nature is a real winner.
Directed by Kartiki Gonsalves, who spent years getting to know her subjects, The Elephant Whisperers takes us inside the Theppakadu Elephant Camp, an expansive stretch of forest in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu originally purposed in the early 1900s for timber logging but has since become government-protected land dedicated to rehabilitating and nurturing orphaned and injured elephants. Situated inside the larger territory of the Mudumulai National Park, the camp also serves as a popular tourist destination where visitors can feed and ride the majestic animals.
Lucky for us, The Elephant Whisperersprovides much more than a casual meet-and-greet and doesn’t require advanced bookings to get in. We are introduced to caretakers Bomman and Bellie, distinguished for their efforts in successfully raising not one but two elephant calves — the coconut-loving Raghu and his younger sister Ammu. The film charts the course of how the two (human) stars met and how their own relationship has been strengthened over the months and years, while also touching on the heartache and loss that permeate their pasts.
What makes The Elephant Whisperers special is the profound sense of connectedness Gonsalves manages to capture, on scales both large and small. The film is full of tender moments that prove the stunning cache of trust the kindhearted mahouts have built up through time and dedication. Some scenes are quite powerful, whether it’s the presence of animals as Bomman and Bellie tie the knot, or the way Ammu expresses emotion with her trunk — a particularly moving gesture in the context of a heartbreaking development.
That connectedness extends to cultural and ecological aspects. As members of the Kattunayakan community, a foraging tribe native to the southern regions of the country, Bomman and Bellie are committed to the same tradition and labor as their ancestors and contemporaries. Through generations the Kattunayakans have maintained a symbiotic relationship with their environment, subsisting on the bounties of the forest while also protecting it and its inhabitants. Invariably there’s a dark side to this uplifting story, as we see how the ravages of climate change threaten not just Bomman and Bellie’s way of life, but the delicate, harmonious balance that exists amongst the flora and fauna of the reserve and well beyond.
In only 40 minutes The Elephant Whisperers provides a wealth of eye-opening information. Bomman and Bellie’s parental responsibilities are sometimes dangerous, always demanding and seem never-ending. What becomes clear quickly is this untraditional child-rearing is far from a thankless task, and seems therapeutic for a couple who, now in middle-age, have suffered their share of loss and heartache.
Raghu enjoys a bath
Moral of the Story: Deeply moving and featuring some gorgeous imagery, The Elephant Whisperers takes a positive and uplifting approach to a subject that could easily be told another way. Kartiki Gonsalves touches upon some of the issues facing people like Bomman and Bellie, but prefers to keep the emphasis on celebrating their unique dedication to these wonderful, incredibly intelligent animals. A highly recommended watch.
Running Time: 41 mins.
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Oscar-winning documentarian Fisher Stevens won’t change the world with his ambitious but overly familiar and ultimately underwhelming examination of man’s impact on the global environment, but his efforts aren’t completely in vain. Before the Flood uses the immense popularity of bonafide Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio to raise its profile as the actor embarks on a three-year mission around the globe to educate himself on the most pressing environmental concerns of our time.
The central thesis is familiar but nonetheless significant, one that’s fundamentally concerned with man’s over-reliance on unsustainable sources of energy such as fossil fuels, a pattern that has for years now been linked to rising global temperatures, rising sea levels and the destruction of the natural world. In pursuit of causality Before the Flood, executive produced by DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese among others, stresses the interconnectivity of our global ecosystem, the politicking that goes into climate change denial (not everyone wants to believe 8 billion people can have such a profound impact on one planet) and how various parts of the world are often left to clean up the messes created by others.
In the process of touring through many devastating sites DiCaprio narrates his experiences via a somber, if not overly pessimistic voiceover. He explains how Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights‘ served as a creative inspiration for the film’s thematic explorations. This stunningly ornate triptych traces the evolution of humanity as it depicts man’s origin in the idyllic Garden of Eden in the first frame, merging into a colorful display of excess, celebration and blissful ignorance in the second before eventually transitioning into a frightening scene filled with death, destruction and suffering in the shocking third panel. DiCaprio elaborates, explaining how man’s current state places us firmly in the center panel and ruminating on how long it might be before we find ourselves entering the third.
What’s most impressive about the film is watching one of the world’s most established thespians mute himself enough so that he is firmly a part of the picture. In other words, while his celebrity status undoubtedly will draw in viewers who might not necessarily watch this sort of thing, his ego is nowhere to be found. DiCaprio is extremely humbled by what he finds, and more than humbled he is legitimately bothered. His perturbation comes across genuine, if not in his pursed-lip/silent nod reactions to what he witnesses in Canada, Indonesia, Greenland and India (among other locales) then in the amount of questions that pour out of him along the way. Some may find his lack of knowledge a barrier but if anything his acknowledgment of that very ignorance opens the film up considerably.
And yeah, you can probably accuse DiCaprio of hypocrisy if you really wanted to. If you’re looking for some way to make his involvement more about Hollywood than the environment, you might note the irony in DiCaprio likely making another film in the coming year(s), in him traveling around in luxury cars and luxury private jets and being involved in an industry that creates a massive ecological footprint, be it the electricity consumed to light sets or the amount of material required to make scenes believable. It’s also not entirely unreasonable to suggest that if the actor truly wants to make a difference, he might have to consider a hiatus from acting, permanently, in order to fully pursue efforts to fix things. And given everything he says in Before the Flood, it seems like Leo really wants to get his hands dirty (in a good way).
DiCaprio’s position in the entertainment industry enables him to speak with some of the most prominent environmental activists and climate-conscious politicians — Senator John Kerry is interviewed and there’s a brief Al Gore sighting. Aside from these figures, he speaks briefly with President Obama and one of the film’s highlights surfaces in a candid chat with Indian environmentalist Dr. Sunita Narain — where he’s met with compelling resistance as Narain argues that meeting the most basic demands of India’s bulging population is a concern that supersedes the need to find alternate sources of energy. He also interviews scientists and specialists who each share their unique perspectives, almost all of which confirm the notion that humanity is indeed reaching a critical point where it needs to learn how to adapt or the damage done will likely be irreversible. With a rapidly swelling global population these concerns are only going to become more challenging in the years and decades to come, and so the urgency of addressing and finding solutions to them in the here and now naturally becomes a big stressor . . . lest we face the reality of regaling our grandchildren about how Alaska used to be covered in cerulean yet crystal-clear icebergs.
Circling back to the contradiction of seeing a major film star touting environmental awareness: Before the Flood is most compelling when we are taken behind the scenes of Leo’s most recent (and Oscar-winning) film, The Revenant, which, aside from presenting one of the most visceral and singular cinematic experiences in recent memory, focused on the impact early settlers had on their surroundings: poachers destroying everything in their path on their journey to make ends meet; settlers slashing-and-burning forest. That shoot was infamously challenging but for reasons other than the obvious. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and crew were forced to relocate hemispheres — from the Canadian Rockies to the Andes in Argentina — in search of snow when they experienced unseasonably high temperatures in the north. Listening in on these conversations gives an entirely fresh and direct perspective.
If that’s not convincing enough, perhaps the fact that Indian farmers watched their crops washed away, leaving dozens of families — children — starving after they received their entire annual rainfall over the course of a day will sober you up. Or that entire, neighborhood-sized chunks of ice in the Arctic Circle are melting faster than you can measure them. Rising global temperatures and the rapid shrinking of the polar caps continue to strain Inuit fishermen’s livelihood as they hunt bears, a population that has been dwindling in response to changing conditions. There are other examples as well, but these are among the most undeniable, the most disturbing.
DiCaprio is a great mascot but ultimately the production he’s passionately become involved in doesn’t give us much in the way of revelation. Fisher likes to dwell on the gloom-and-doom talk seemingly more than he wants to find solutions and the solemnity eventually becomes off-putting. The numbers and statistics and graphics that accompany the vast sea of information we’re provided don’t really add impact. They add to the science, sure, but Before the Flood lacks the actual urgency that its message all but demands. There is, however, a glimmer of hope and human ingenuity when we step inside the Tesla Gigafactory 1, an enormously cavernous space that will house the production lines of millions of electric vehicles and energy-efficient lithium batteries. The latest venture of Tesla founder Elon Musk opened in July of 2016 and, once operating at full capacity in 2020, it will manifest as the world’s largest building. He judges that 100 such facilities spread throughout the world would make a significant impact on energy reduction and would lead to massive curtailing of raw material usage.
Like a great many of the “it’s so obvious” revelations that we’re bombarded with in the face of all this maddening destruction, DiCaprio’s deduction that “[100 gigafactories] seems manageable” is a tad too naive. The intent behind the film is good, it’s sincere, but Before the Flood settles for inciting immediate reaction. It wants to see us flap our arms in panic and despair rather than inspire us into action and perhaps even legitimate activism.
“Dude, that’s not a prop.”
Recommendation: Activists, behold a famous actor who truly seems to give a damn about the only place we will ever call Home. Only time will tell just how for real he is, but I want to believe in him. I think Before the Flood is a force for good but it should have been more potent than it actually is. Still a decent recommendation from me, and one you should definitely spend time with no matter your political leaning, something that’s well worth tracking down as it is available for free on so many different platforms (at least for now).
Running Time: 96 mins.
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I struggled between titling this post its current title and ‘Marmot, Interrupted.’ Both are odd, but both make sense once you watch this adorable little clip of a mountain critter unwittingly becoming the star of this time-lapse photography of some gorgeous mountain vistas in Glacier National Park, Montana.
It’s these moments where time literally stands still, that makes me sit back and reflect upon the impacts of cameras and human beings in these kinds of delicate environments. What in the world are we doing here? Particularly when we start talking things like Peter Jackson movies and the like. The more considerate of us are very careful in minding the territory and not leaving behind too big of a foot-print. We can’t forget that we are secondary to those native to these areas, and this clip is an amusing but important reminder of that fact. Not that Peter Jackson et al are neglectful of these things, but many are.
In this short clip, an inquisitive little marmot discovers a seemingly randomly-placed Go-Pro camera mounted to what is presumably a cairn (a pile of rocks used for orientation on hikes), and he begins to investigate the set-up. “What, ho? A bit of plastic to supplement my veggie diet?”
From a purely cinematic standpoint, this clip is also entertaining in that you can literally watch the time lapse effect becoming interrupted by this little guy. This footage is part of GreenPeace’s efforts to raise awareness of global warming and glacial retreats found in the upper extremities of North America and other high-alpine environments across the globe.
You can feel it creeping in on you like a cold, dense fog. There’s a chill in the air, and although that’s just the air conditioner in the theater you’re noticing it more, for whatever reason. Your inability to sit without fidgeting in your seat for longer than a moment’s notice is a testament to the nerve-shattering apprehension and suspense that lurks around every shady twist and turn in Kelly Reichardt’s fifth directorial effort.
Compact and light on dialogue, Night Moves spells out a menacing cautionary tale about three environmental activists seeking to make a statement in their local community about a certain ecological issue. The film’s trio — comprised of Josh (Jesse Eisenberg in what might be considered a temperature tester for his villainous turn in 2016. . .), Dena, a literal independent who has severed all ties with friends and family (an excellent Dakota Fanning) and an ex-Marine, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) — converge on Harmon’s backwoods trailer to form a plan of attack.
What they are planning to attack is less-than-subtly referenced in the foreboding opening. Rumors circulating that Riechardt’s film is suspenseful from beginning to end any day now will cease to be rumors because it is absolutely true.
Unfortunately, Night Moves also proves to be an incredibly difficult film to review without giving away information that would break much of the tension. The narrative is built like a house of cards, precariously balanced with each successive event hugely dependent on the events that have come before. There may be few of these but they certainly are there and are pivotal, and this is due to the emphatic, almost obsessive focus on humanity.
Josh is presented by a perhaps never-scragglier Eisenberg who quickly establishes his deeply unpleasant personality. He’s quiet, awkward and constantly on edge. He has a past that’s not made readily available and therefore his character arc endures a great level of drama that serves as the movie’s main heartbeat. Barring a significant event, Night Moves focuses primarily on this character and how his actions shape his present and future, with the emphasis largely on the latter. With a deeply unsettling performance from the former Facebook magnate, the film remains compelling despite a clear lack of major dramatic occurrences, a fact which is easily forgotten just as much as it may become noticeable in other places.
Fanning’s character is similarly disturbed and frustrated by a world which she largely disagrees with. Her part in this mission signifies a chance to make her mark as well. While the film’s characters don’t really get along, they strangely bond over this weekend outing which includes a motorboat (with the film’s title painted on its bow), a flat water canoe, and 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Just your typical quiet night on the lake, really.
In addition to maintaining the perfect blend of restless/resting camera angles and anxiety-inducing imagery, Riechardt manages to divide her film beautifully into two distinct tonal halves: that of everything pre-mission and that of everything post. In the first we experience a steady build-up of tension mostly generated from trying to figure out what it is these angsty individuals are up to. Once that quickly becomes clear, there’s something of a teeth-clenching transition into a second half whose tension is comparatively unbearable. It wasn’t exactly comfortable during everything leading up until here, but expecting it to get any better as things progress is the same as being in hell and asking them to turn the heat down.
It’s hard calling these characters likable (this possibly explains why the film hasn’t taken as well with general audiences as it has with critics) but the nagging thought that these characters start to carry with them, effectively becomes your cross to bear as well. There is a desperate longing to rewind the clock and undo what has been done. The reality is too brutally obvious that this cannot be accomplished.
Night Moves may not sport the most affable cast of characters and some of its thematic presentation is rather overt, but your inability to stop watching things spiral out of control speaks even more to the quality of its construction of both story and atmosphere. Without the involvement of overly theatrical elements — sci-fi/supernatural etc — Night Moves may stay in the shadows a lot but it always remains steeped in reality.
Through unflinching bleakness Riechardt is able to assess the true cost of extreme points of view and what happens to misplaced idealism once its challenged. Her intriguing film is a documentation of human beings making horrendous decisions while having only the best intentions at heart.
Recommendation: The film may be a little prickly for some as it can be hard to empathize with these hardened individuals. Strangely, though, empathy isn’t the desired emotion Riechardt is going for here. If anything it’s the opposite. If you’re seeking out a compelling and consistently tense drama, Night Moves delivers and delivers big.
Running Time: 112 mins.
Quoted: “One person. . .that’s all it takes.”
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This hobby blog is dedicated to movie nerdom, nostalgia, and the occasional escape. In the late 90s, I worked at Blockbuster Video, where they let me take home two free movies a day. I caught up on the classics and reviewed theatrical releases for Denver 'burbs newspapers and magazines. Stay tuned to my ongoing Top 50 Reely Bernie Faves list. Comments and dialogue encouraged!