Review: The Last Lions


We’re barely into the new year with the 2010 Academy Awards only a week away, yet one of the best films of 2011 has already been solidified. Last year brought your typical share of documentaries that shoved new tragedies in your face and proclaimed that you have the power to prevent them from continuing. The Last Lions instead reveals raw life realities and shows us pain that we’ll never be able to prevent. There’s no charity that can help. There’s nothing to protest. The only thing you can do is accept African wilderness for what it is: a pile of conflicting coexisting species that must kill to survive.

2011 won’t be the year that a bunch of political and artsy documentaries compete against each other to be the best fear inducing film; it will be the year documentaries competes against the real story of a mother lioness. Just like every animated studio is terrified to go up against Pixar in award categories, every filmmaker should be petrified of being compared to a real story about Africa. Pretty actresses will fake emotions in elaborate scenes that will make us cry, but they will never come close to the real scenes that play out in Africa every single day. Africa doesn’t have actors. Natalie Portman’s best performance will never match a lioness fighting for her children’s lives, and that’s why this is a movie everyone needs to see if they’re old enough to handle life’s harsh and ancient realities.

I can’t stress enough that this movie’s plot doesn’t give a damn what you think about it. It wasn’t written; it’s real. The true terror is that it doesn’t matter if it wins awards, it will still happen every day regardless of whether you see it or not. Unless someone hustles and releases a documentary on Julian Assange or recent Egypt events before the end of the year, I’d be surprised if The Last Lions doesn’t go down as the landslide best documentary of the year. Keep reading to find out why.

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First things first.  Is The Last Lions a glorified National Geographic episode? Yes. Are National Geographic episodes vastly more interesting and impacting than almost anything else you see on television in a year’s span? Yes. As an example of what I’m talking about, hopefully you’ve seen the famous Battle at Kruger video online before. It’s nothing more than someone’s home video from an African vacation, yet it’s one of the most profound clips YouTube has ever archived. The Last Lions is similar in that it’s nothing but a recording of unstaged events over the course of a single year, but some scenes are so universal that you’ll never forget them.

Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s film, The Last Lions, follows a mother lioness, “Ma di Tau”, in Botswana’s Okavango Delta as she tries to keep her three children alive while living among hyenas, wildfires, crocodiles, hippos, water buffalo, and other lions. When their environment forces them to migrate they don’t leave without a fight, and with a villainous opposing pride member left with only one eye the savanna stage is set for the rest of the film. Ma di Tau must both prevent her cubs from being killed by the stalking pride, while also trying to kill the baby of another species to keep her own children fed. There are no true winners as each day passes, only those that remain, and one creature’s victory ensures the other’s defeat. These conflicting emotions ensure that watching to the credits is a painful path of finding out who lives to the end.

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Bites aren’t fake film punches with fake sound effects; they translate to gaping, fleshy sinews and geysers of blood.  From start to finish you’ll go back and forth from being filled with hope and despair more times than most movies you’ve seen in the past. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that the scene before the ending is one of the only moments that can compete with the crushing conclusion of A Bastard Out of Carolina for how deeply affected I was by the outcome. The use of foreground and background imagery was so moving and hard to accept that I just lost it and completely started crying. Even now, days later, it’s hard to shake the scenes from my head.

The visuals are everything you’d expect from a film with its setting, and the “endless dance of Africa” truly feels like an exotic vacation without leaving your house. I could mention a bunch of HD terms but I suppose the best ounce of evidence I can offer is that my cat stared intently at the screen for five minutes straight, dragged its ass on the carpet to mark its territory when things got intense, and then ran out of the room as fast as he could. We’re used to hearing explosions in our living rooms, but I’ll never get used to the sound of a lion’s roar through surround sound.

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Like most movies from that area of the planet, the music is incredibly fitting and won’t disappoint with its array of authentic African melodies that cut straight to your primal heart. As an actual event that happened, it’s hard to even assign a rating to this film. No film from Hollywood compares since it’s essentially just convincingly faked emotions that maintain our suspension of disbelief. Even the fake death of a human doesn’t come close to the real death of an animal. Despite how moving it is, given how often such events likely happen in Africa, you’re filled with a constant scoffing atmosphere as if Africa would be ambivalent if it could speak, and wouldn’t find this movie any more special than some similar event in one of its other horizons that’s unseen. There’s something fascinating and fearful about declaring that a scene is profound, yet the scene insists that it’s nothing at all. The flat and cruel habitats are hard to understand and accept since there are no laws or justice, only reality.

However, judging it as a film and not just an event in history, the telling of its story was slightly hindered by a narrative script with a few flaws, as well as a couple camera clips that chould have been trimmed. Other than that, I dare any other actor or actress to say they have any role in 2011 that can compare to the emotions felt in The Last Lions. No amount of gold trophies can sufficiently honor the gold fur of the 20,000 remaining lions of Africa. It’s a shame that their population has plummeted that far from 450,000 in just 50 years. I urge you all to watch this movie to experience memories you’ll never forget.

Sam Membrino: The Last Lions opening and closing shots bring us far from the Earth’s surface, reminding viewers that the story of animal survival against all odds is universal. The film’s strength, however, lies in the extremely personal story of one family’s struggle against adversity, and it is this particular lion family that becomes the center of the film. In the era of Planet Earth-style shows where viewers are used to seeing jaw-dropping footage of nature, Lions doesn’t disappoint. The film is even more impressive knowing everything was shot by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, whose intimate knowledge of the area and dedication to their craft really shine through. It is, surprisingly, the writing that falls short, and even the esteemed Jeremy Irons can’t save the overly editorialized commentary that brings little to this stunning footage. Sometimes, less is more, and the film’s greatness (unprecedented footage of a compelling story) is sometimes trumped by its banality (ascribing human values and impressions to a foreign animal kingdom). 76 – Good

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