Whatever happened to that adorable tiger cub?

Tim Harrison, a former Ohio police officer, has made it his mission to end the exploitation of exotic big cats.

By Richard Ades

One of my hometown’s most beloved celebrities—former Columbus Zoo director “Jungle Jack” Hanna—fares poorly in the documentary The Conservation Game. His reputation takes such a hit that one is tempted to feel sorry for him—except for the fact that many animals that supported his rise to fame allegedly fared much worse.

Produced and directed by Michael Webber, the muckraking film follows animal activist Tim Harrison around the country as he tries to track down the tigers and other big cats that often appeared on television in their younger years. Hanna and similar wildlife experts became familiar sights on talk shows by bringing out a variety of these adorable cubs, many of which represented endangered species.

Where were these animals from? When asked, the experts might hint that they were from an accredited zoo or refuge. But the truth, Harrison finds, is far murkier. By asking questions and following leads, he learns that many of them hailed from privately owned facilities, such as the squalid farm he discovers in rural Pennsylvania.

And what happened to the animals after their five minutes of TV fame? That’s the real tragedy. All too many have disappeared from view and are presumed dead, while Harrison finds others are forced to work for their living by appearing at functions such birthday parties or, in one case, being dragged onto a football field as a prominent high school team’s mascot.

None are treated in a way that’s appropriate for wild animals, especially animals whose species are in danger of dying out.

Attorney Carney Anne Nasser is an advocate for protecting exotic wildlife.

Several allies help Harrison in his crusade to end such abuse. They include Carney Anne Nasser, an attorney who played a role in a wildlife-trafficking case against now-imprisoned TV reality star Joe Exotic. Nasser and others are involved in an attempt to pass a federal law, known as the Big Cat Public Safety Act, that’s designed to curtail the exploitation of exotic animals.

But it’s Harrison who generally takes center stage in the film. A towering ex-cop who’s trained in the martial arts, he makes a formidable figure as he fearlessly walks up to strangers’ homes or businesses and asks what happened to this or that big cat. In an inevitable climactic scene, he does just that to Jack Hanna, a boyhood hero who has not lived up to his reputation as a champion of endangered wildlife.

In a postscript added following the documentary’s premiere last April, it’s noted that Hanna has retired from public life following what his family describes as a diagnosis of dementia. It’s also noted that his former employer, the Columbus Zoo, subsequently announced it will support passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act.

Rating: 4½ stars

The Conservation Game (PG-13) can be seen at select theaters, including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center (through Sept. 22) and Marcus Cinema Crossroads (Sept. 20 and 22).

Virtual lessons lead to long-distance caring

Poster for Language Lessons

By Richard Ades

When a Costa Rican woman unexpectedly appears on Adam’s computer screen one morning, she’s there to give the Oakland resident a Spanish lesson. Before long, however, she’s called on to throw him a lifeline.

That’s the setup for Language Lessons, a warm-hearted film directed by Natalie Morales from a story she co-wrote and stars in with Mark Duplass.

As it turns out, Adam’s wealthy husband has hired Carino (Morales) to help Adam (Duplass) brush up on the Spanish he learned as a child. The two agree to meet each Monday morning via Zoom, but tragedy disrupts their plans. Logging in for the second lesson, Carino finds Adam lying in bed and barely able to communicate. It’s only after a minute or two of dazed confusion that he reveals his husband was killed in an overnight traffic accident.

Since Adam is obviously suffering from shock and a lack of sleep, Carino does what she can to calm him down. Then, because he seems to be alone with his grief, she leaves several messages over the next few days in an attempt to be supportive. Thus begins a long-distance relationship—perhaps even a friendship—that is put to the test when Carino becomes the one in need of support.

Mark Duplass as the grieving Adam in Language Lessons

Up until that point, Language Lessons sometimes verges on treacly, especially when Gaby Moreno’s soundtrack needlessly underscores the characters’ emotions. But when Carino undergoes a concerning change and Adam attempts to find out what’s wrong and offer assistance, things get more interesting. Sexual, economic and ethnic differences all play a role in complicating the situation.

Photographed entirely as a series of computer screen images, the film easily tells its story without violating any COVID protocols. Perhaps writers Morales and Duplass could have done a better job of fleshing out the characters, but as actors they make up for it with soulful performances. Morales is especially interesting as the enigmatic Carino, while Duplass plays Adam as someone who wears his heart permanently attached to his sleeve.

Like Together Together, which came out in the spring, Language Lessons shows that platonic love between a man and a woman can be just as challenging as the romantic kind. And, as a cinematic subject, just as interesting.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Language Lessons opens Sept. 10 at select theaters nationwide, including Central Ohio’s Gateway Film Center.

Eclectic shorts share quarantine protocols

A young Chinese man (Zhang Yu, right) and his son (Zhang Yanbo) struggle to cope with quarantine restrictions in “The Break Away,” part of the anthology The Year of the Everlasting Storm. (Photo courtesy of Neon)

By Richard Ades

The Year of the Everlasting Storm is a collection of seven shorts that are united not so much by theme as by process. Since the titular year is 2020, the seven directors (from five different countries) were instructed to create works without violating COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. The apparent purpose was to show it was still possible to make films during a pandemic.

The result: a group of flicks that are mostly made in cramped quarters, though a couple also branch out into the virtual world. Other than that, they have little in common, which means each one stands alone rather than contributing to a cohesive whole.

Well, with one caveat: A few of the films focus on what life was like during the early days of the pandemic, which allows us to compare them to each other and to our own real-life experiences.

Leading off the collection is a work by Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director who actually inspired the entire project by making previous films under similar restrictions—though they were imposed by his country’s censorship rather than a pandemic. “Life” features the filmmaker and members of his family, including his beloved pet iguana, Iggy. Little happens except that his mother violates a stay-at-home mandate in order to pay a visit, though only after armoring herself with a hazmat suit and a spray bottle of disinfectant. The gently comic vignette is a reminder of the fears and deprivations much of the world experienced while first coming to terms with a once-in-a-century plague.

Even more deprivations are suffered by the young Chinese couple featured in the second film, “The Break Away,” directed by Singapore-born Anthony Chen. Stuck in their apartment and worried about money because the pandemic has sapped much of their income, the frazzled wife (Zhou Dongyu) gradually loses patience with her laid-back husband (Zhang Yu). Meanwhile, their young son is irritable because he can’t understand why he isn’t allowed to go outside. Like “Life,” the mini-drama contains reminders of the early misconceptions we all had about COVID-19 and how it’s spread.

The COVID theme shows up only briefly in the next short, Malik Vitthal’s “Little Measures,” which is the first of the collection’s three U.S. offerings. It focuses on Bobby Yay Yay Jones, whose attempt to regain custody of his three children has been delayed by the pandemic. Meanwhile, he keeps in touch with them electronically, their conversations being shown via small Facetime-style images. The piece is punctuated by Jonathan Djob Nkondo’s animation, which comes off as a superfluous addition.

COVID disappears almost entirely in “Terror Contagion,” directed by American filmmaker/journalist Laura Poitras (Citizenfour). Consisting largely of computer images taken from virtual meetings, it follows Poitras as she joins the group Forensic Architecture’s investigation into the Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO. Accompanied by Brian Eno’s creepy music, it evokes a feeling of paranoia as it talks of global surveillance and its potential dangers to individual freedoms. Both an impressive addition and a distraction from the rest of the collection since it’s such a change in tone, “Terror Contagion” probably would benefit from being expanded into a stand-alone documentary.  

Next, the anthology returns to COVID concerns with Dominga Sotomayor’s “Sin Titulo,” which is about a Chilean woman (Francisca Castillo) who’s affected by the pandemic in two ways: Her vocal ensemble isn’t allowed to sing together in person, forcing her to record her part over the phone so that it can be joined with the others electronically. And, more painfully, she’s unable to see her newborn grandchild except at a distance. A difficult relationship with a rebellious daughter adds a bit more tension to this modest but beautifully filmed flick.

“Dig Up My Darling,” the show’s penultimate and spookiest piece, also deals with a pandemic—though it’s not clear just which one. David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) directs a silent Catherine Machovsky in the tale of a woman who hits the highway to take care of some long-unfinished business. It’s a mystery that’s more interested in creating an eerie atmosphere than in answering questions, several of which are deliberately left hanging at the end.

In fact, viewers may still be trying to answer those questions when new ones pop up during the final short, “Night Colonies.” Directed by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, it focuses on three things: a mattress, fluorescent lights and lots and lots of bugs that are buzzing around said lights. Viewers might wonder whether all this is an oblique reference to the pandemic or its aftermath, especially when faded photos of people make a brief appearance. Generally, though, the film just comes off as an exercise in carefully composed sights and sounds, which will leave some mesmerized while others may wish Iggy the iguana would reappear and treat himself to a few flying treats.  

It’s a polarizing finale to a collection of inventive films that would work better as a whole if they were connected by more than just as set of production rules.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Year of the Everlasting Storm opens Sept. 3 at select theaters.