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The Conservation Game: The real Tiger King

Should have the same detrimental impact on celebrity animal handlers that The Cove and Blackfish did on SeaWorld

The Conservation Game: Animal rights activist Tim Harrison listens as the House passes the Big Cat Public Safety Bill.
The Conservation Game: Animal rights activist Tim Harrison listens as the House passes the Big Cat Public Safety Bill.

The last time I viewed a projected image was inside the Grossmont 10 on March 13, 2020. Since then, I’ve gone to bed each night asking God to spare me from covid-19, if only because I didn’t want to leave this world with Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot as my swan flick. For the first time in lo these many months, I take the utmost delight in recommending a movie that you will have to leave your house to see. The Conservation Game is a doozy of a documentary that, if given half the chance, should have the same detrimental impact on celebrity animal handlers that The Cove and Blackfish did on SeaWorld.

A good chunk of last year was spent avoiding Tiger King. There was enough to watch without my getting wrapped up in the episodic account of an animal racketeer plotting to kill his wife. (The Nic Cage reading awaits.) “You haven’t missed anything,” a friend noted. “It would probably have gone nowhere without the pandemic – although it did raise awareness of the horrible exotic animal industry.” “Horrible” is a civilized term for what goes on. Undercover footage of a stacked-to-the-rafters exotic animal auction occasioned erstwhile Ohio police officer (and firefighter and paramedic) Tim Harrison to grouse, “If there was a hell for animals, this would be it.”

Let’s return to a time when the sponsor’s name was still built into the show’s title and kids across the land tuned in to watch Marlin Perkins’ weekly animal adventures on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Young Harrison was one of the flock inspired by Perkins — and later, his undersea counterpart Jacques Cousteau. Among his unsparing accomplishments: without assistance, Harrison, an expert in the field of exotic animals, has captured and salvaged a veritable menagerie of extraordinary “pets” from America’s basements and backyards.

It came as no surprise that Animal Planet is populated with so-called celebrity conservationists (Jarod Miller, Dave Salmoni) who in one way or another participate in the sale of wild animals to the general public. Nor was it a shock to learn of the existence of one Grant Kemmerer, a trainer who got his start as Jack Hanna’s handler. His website features a variety of rare animals, all available to rent for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Surely Hanna, the genial lug beneath the wagga wagga hat and bush jacket, the guy who for decades played personal zookeeper to Carson, Letterman, and just about anyone with a morning show, was on the side of good? Such a trusting soul was he that what happened to the animals once Hanna was done with them was never called into question. They were returned to the Columbus Zoo or an accredited animal sanctuary, right? I couldn’t have been more floored had news arrived that Santa bled Nazi pride.

How does one go about preventing the abuse and backyard breeding of these majestic cats? Record keeping is shoddy at best, leaving no way to keep track of the animals. But like the Capitol insurrectionists, many a collector has been done in by their eagerness to flaunt their bad behavior on social media. A tiger’s stripes are as unique as a fingerprint, which made it easier for animal researcher Jeff Kremer to trace certain cubs to adulthood. It helps that Harrison’s approach to getting answers would make the late Mike Wallace proud. If phone calls aren’t returned, the ever-courteous Harrison will come knocking on your front door, wearing a wire and with filmmaker Mike Webber covertly videoing the conversation from inside a safely distanced car. All that’s left is the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Bill, which revises requirements governing the trade of big cats. The commonsense bill has yet to win the Senate’s approval, but the sight of the look on Harrison’s face when it passed the House late last year should be enough to bring audiences cheering to their feet.

Days after the film’s premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, news sources around the globe reported that the 74-year-old Hanna had slipped quietly into retirement, his family citing Alzheimer’s as the cause. I’m undoubtedly wrong, but the cynic in me questions both the timing and validity of the diagnosis. I find myself wondering if the family is using dementia to keep the media from the door. Mom always told me not to speak ill of the ill. In this case, one doesn’t have to. The facts speak for themselves.

It would be a crime if the film were denied a theatrical release, but distribution, even at the tail-end of the pandemic, is not a lock. Just in case, take advantage of this weekend’s two benefit screenings:

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

Better Days — What happens when the screen becomes a lectern. Without the benefit of so much as one acclimatizing image or inaugural character to provide footing, even before a title hits the screen, the filmmaker’s intent is clearly spelled out for us: “School bullying is a worldwide phenomenon… We hope this film will engage and unite us against bullying.” Note to director Derek Tsang: even if a bully should accidentally happen to stumble across your movie, it would no doubt be unintentional. And the chances are good that he or she would identify with and cheer on the ruffians. A scream punctuates the mundanity of the school day. Did its source fall to her death, or was she pushed? Her assailants notwithstanding, Chen Nian (Dongyu Zhou) was the last classmate to see the victim alive. Add to the bullying the pressure of studying for the National College Entrance exams — the two subplots never coalesce — and Chen, herself the target of unwarranted aggression, is about to crack from the pressure. It’s while Chen witnesses a beating that she attempts to call the cops. You’ve heard of a “meet cute”? This is a meet brute. The assailants spot her, and in an attempt to humiliate their victim Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee), they force Chen to kiss him. With no one to turn to and her study habits greatly diminished by all the misery, Chen hires Xiao to be her bodyguard. Raise your hand if you’re in favor of bullying. Those whose arms remain at their side are free to spend a better day at the multiplex. (Available on Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc.) 2019. — S.M.

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse — Remorse is all one gets from Tom Clancy fans piqued over Paramount’s decision to modernize the author’s 1993 adventure thriller. They complain that the updating bowdlerizes the source material. It didn’t seem to bother the Clancy estate much; the check cleared and his name is in the title. Three months after a top secret operation in Syria goes wrong, John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) makes the executive transition from Navy SEAL to private security. It’s death by night vision photography when the Russian army, looking to even the score with Kelly, raids his home, and in the process takes out his wife and their unborn child. While avenging their deaths, Kelly uncovers a plot that could lead to the end of civilization as we know it. Given the lack of innovation on display, they might just as well have called it Michael B. Jordan’s Without Remorse, because the lead performance is the only thing of interest in what otherwise amounts to one long series of setups. We open in mid-action, with screenwriters Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples reassuring us that the guy they’re asking us to spend two hours with has got what it takes. We then spend the next 80 minutes questioning his competency, only to have him emerge triumphant in the end. There’s a nice bit involving a fight scene lit by rolling Maglite and good support from Jodie Turner-Smith and Jamie Bell, the latter introduced in such an obviously repugnant manner that there’s no way that he’ll turn out to be the real villain in the piece. Available on Amazon Prime. 2021. — S.M.

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The Conservation Game: Animal rights activist Tim Harrison listens as the House passes the Big Cat Public Safety Bill.
The Conservation Game: Animal rights activist Tim Harrison listens as the House passes the Big Cat Public Safety Bill.

The last time I viewed a projected image was inside the Grossmont 10 on March 13, 2020. Since then, I’ve gone to bed each night asking God to spare me from covid-19, if only because I didn’t want to leave this world with Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot as my swan flick. For the first time in lo these many months, I take the utmost delight in recommending a movie that you will have to leave your house to see. The Conservation Game is a doozy of a documentary that, if given half the chance, should have the same detrimental impact on celebrity animal handlers that The Cove and Blackfish did on SeaWorld.

A good chunk of last year was spent avoiding Tiger King. There was enough to watch without my getting wrapped up in the episodic account of an animal racketeer plotting to kill his wife. (The Nic Cage reading awaits.) “You haven’t missed anything,” a friend noted. “It would probably have gone nowhere without the pandemic – although it did raise awareness of the horrible exotic animal industry.” “Horrible” is a civilized term for what goes on. Undercover footage of a stacked-to-the-rafters exotic animal auction occasioned erstwhile Ohio police officer (and firefighter and paramedic) Tim Harrison to grouse, “If there was a hell for animals, this would be it.”

Let’s return to a time when the sponsor’s name was still built into the show’s title and kids across the land tuned in to watch Marlin Perkins’ weekly animal adventures on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Young Harrison was one of the flock inspired by Perkins — and later, his undersea counterpart Jacques Cousteau. Among his unsparing accomplishments: without assistance, Harrison, an expert in the field of exotic animals, has captured and salvaged a veritable menagerie of extraordinary “pets” from America’s basements and backyards.

It came as no surprise that Animal Planet is populated with so-called celebrity conservationists (Jarod Miller, Dave Salmoni) who in one way or another participate in the sale of wild animals to the general public. Nor was it a shock to learn of the existence of one Grant Kemmerer, a trainer who got his start as Jack Hanna’s handler. His website features a variety of rare animals, all available to rent for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Surely Hanna, the genial lug beneath the wagga wagga hat and bush jacket, the guy who for decades played personal zookeeper to Carson, Letterman, and just about anyone with a morning show, was on the side of good? Such a trusting soul was he that what happened to the animals once Hanna was done with them was never called into question. They were returned to the Columbus Zoo or an accredited animal sanctuary, right? I couldn’t have been more floored had news arrived that Santa bled Nazi pride.

How does one go about preventing the abuse and backyard breeding of these majestic cats? Record keeping is shoddy at best, leaving no way to keep track of the animals. But like the Capitol insurrectionists, many a collector has been done in by their eagerness to flaunt their bad behavior on social media. A tiger’s stripes are as unique as a fingerprint, which made it easier for animal researcher Jeff Kremer to trace certain cubs to adulthood. It helps that Harrison’s approach to getting answers would make the late Mike Wallace proud. If phone calls aren’t returned, the ever-courteous Harrison will come knocking on your front door, wearing a wire and with filmmaker Mike Webber covertly videoing the conversation from inside a safely distanced car. All that’s left is the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Bill, which revises requirements governing the trade of big cats. The commonsense bill has yet to win the Senate’s approval, but the sight of the look on Harrison’s face when it passed the House late last year should be enough to bring audiences cheering to their feet.

Days after the film’s premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, news sources around the globe reported that the 74-year-old Hanna had slipped quietly into retirement, his family citing Alzheimer’s as the cause. I’m undoubtedly wrong, but the cynic in me questions both the timing and validity of the diagnosis. I find myself wondering if the family is using dementia to keep the media from the door. Mom always told me not to speak ill of the ill. In this case, one doesn’t have to. The facts speak for themselves.

It would be a crime if the film were denied a theatrical release, but distribution, even at the tail-end of the pandemic, is not a lock. Just in case, take advantage of this weekend’s two benefit screenings:

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

Better Days — What happens when the screen becomes a lectern. Without the benefit of so much as one acclimatizing image or inaugural character to provide footing, even before a title hits the screen, the filmmaker’s intent is clearly spelled out for us: “School bullying is a worldwide phenomenon… We hope this film will engage and unite us against bullying.” Note to director Derek Tsang: even if a bully should accidentally happen to stumble across your movie, it would no doubt be unintentional. And the chances are good that he or she would identify with and cheer on the ruffians. A scream punctuates the mundanity of the school day. Did its source fall to her death, or was she pushed? Her assailants notwithstanding, Chen Nian (Dongyu Zhou) was the last classmate to see the victim alive. Add to the bullying the pressure of studying for the National College Entrance exams — the two subplots never coalesce — and Chen, herself the target of unwarranted aggression, is about to crack from the pressure. It’s while Chen witnesses a beating that she attempts to call the cops. You’ve heard of a “meet cute”? This is a meet brute. The assailants spot her, and in an attempt to humiliate their victim Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee), they force Chen to kiss him. With no one to turn to and her study habits greatly diminished by all the misery, Chen hires Xiao to be her bodyguard. Raise your hand if you’re in favor of bullying. Those whose arms remain at their side are free to spend a better day at the multiplex. (Available on Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc.) 2019. — S.M.

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse — Remorse is all one gets from Tom Clancy fans piqued over Paramount’s decision to modernize the author’s 1993 adventure thriller. They complain that the updating bowdlerizes the source material. It didn’t seem to bother the Clancy estate much; the check cleared and his name is in the title. Three months after a top secret operation in Syria goes wrong, John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) makes the executive transition from Navy SEAL to private security. It’s death by night vision photography when the Russian army, looking to even the score with Kelly, raids his home, and in the process takes out his wife and their unborn child. While avenging their deaths, Kelly uncovers a plot that could lead to the end of civilization as we know it. Given the lack of innovation on display, they might just as well have called it Michael B. Jordan’s Without Remorse, because the lead performance is the only thing of interest in what otherwise amounts to one long series of setups. We open in mid-action, with screenwriters Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples reassuring us that the guy they’re asking us to spend two hours with has got what it takes. We then spend the next 80 minutes questioning his competency, only to have him emerge triumphant in the end. There’s a nice bit involving a fight scene lit by rolling Maglite and good support from Jodie Turner-Smith and Jamie Bell, the latter introduced in such an obviously repugnant manner that there’s no way that he’ll turn out to be the real villain in the piece. Available on Amazon Prime. 2021. — S.M.

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