Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Truth Is Cool!

It's no secret that I likes me a good documentary from time to time. There are amazing true stories being told through film and there's certainly an art to pacing and cutting a film to build tension when the basic bones of the story are known to viewers. Documentaries do this and also, of course, bring unknown stories to a much wider audience.

I recently saw the 2016 documentary The Eagle Huntress and I urge you to seek out this film, which is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as being available for streaming on Amazon. Huntress is the story of a young Kazakh girl named Aisholpan who is determined to follow in her father's footsteps and become a champion eagle hunter, a sport traditionally reserved for males. Keep in mind that in her culture, "eagle hunting" doesn't refer to stalking and killing eagles, but rather using female golden eagles to hunt other animals. Think falconry, but instead of a lithe peregrine (maybe 3 pounds and a wingspan of 42 inches), adult golden eagles weigh about 15 pounds and have a wingspan approaching seven feet. This is a tremendous bird, with supremely sharp talons the size of a man's hand. As is common among raptors, the females are larger than the males, and females are exclusively used among eagle hunters. Furthermore, the birds are captured from the wild, a hazardous endeavor, considering the terrain, the fact that eaglets must be captured in the incredibly short window when they are old enough to survive away from the nest, but not yet able to fly, and the mother eagle's understandable reluctance to let humans ransack her nest.

Oh, and did I mention that eagle hunting is done while riding a sturdy steppe pony, often in weather conditions that put the "dead" in "dead of winter"?

Yes - this is not a sport for the weekend warrior.

Eagle hunting is a prestige sport among the people inhabiting the Altai Mountains in the harsh and rocky land where China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Russia meet. Involving massive amounts of patience, strength (you try holding your arm steady while a grown golden eagle uses it as a perch), and discipline, to be a champion eagle hunter is to be a man among men in this society that once unleashed Genghis Khan on the world. There were some elders who actively disapproved of a girl encroaching on this near-sacred territory and Huntress shows not just Aisholpan's determination, but that of her parents as well.

There was some grumbling that the movie involved staged scenes (like that's never been used in a documentary before! See this link), but director Otto Bell has resolutely denied those accusations. A few scenes seem to involve a Go Pro being worn by Aisholpan (and once by an eagle!), but Bell is adamant that the scenes unfolded as they unfolded.

As a protagonist, Aisholpan is completely delightful. Her parents clearly exemplify the universal ideal of wanting your children to achieve their potential, while also worrying that they might be moving too fast for the world in which they live. The film contains any number of thrillingly-beautiful shots and there is a definite story of triumph being told here. And yes, that's Daisy Ridley of the new Star Wars serving as both a producer and the narrator.

Go see it - you'll cheer.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Why Movies Matter

Somehow, a month has gone by without me posting. In that time, I've seen some movies I enjoyed quite a bit, some that got me looking at other films, and a couple that were eminently forgettable. But I don't want to talk about any of those right now. Instead, I want to talk about my "go-to" movies. You've got - at least I imagine you have - your own set of "go-tos." These are the movies that you go back to time and time again. They might be wonderful, classic films (I'm partial to Casablanca), but they're just as likely to be films that just make you belly-laugh (Blazing Saddles is one of those for me), or make you feel like you're a kid again when things were simpler and good was just destined to triumph (the original Star Wars trilogy for me). They might even include a movie that's objectively terrible, but somehow works for you (Teenagers from Outer Space with the MST3K commentary, for instance. "It's a multi-channel mixer. It SAYS so!").

These movies matter. Oh, sure, some of them are significant for historical, political, or artistic reasons, but movies matter for reasons other than that. Modern life is quite often absurd and I know I have days (weeks) in which it seems that not only am I not in control of things, I'm pretty sure there's no one at the switch. On those days, seeing Jake and Elwood hatch a hare-brained scheme to save the orphanage can help me remember that people can think of others before themselves. (And that Illinois Nazis are the worst.)

On other days, it just seems that everyone - including myself - is a walking phony and that hypocrites occupy the seats of power. On those days, I enjoy seeing Inigo Montoya take on the six-fingered man and being reminded that true love is the greatest thing in the world, next to a nice mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.

Sometimes we need reluctant heroes whose clam is being damaged, sometimes we need unearthly blue Divas, and sometimes we need brave men who speak treason fluently - it's all there in the movies.

And those who bring these dreams and visions to life - truly, they are wizards and magicians. How fortunate we are to travel with them, if only for a little while.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Late Winter Jackpot!

Often, February signals the "bottom of the barrel" in the movie world - too late for worthy-of-Oscar-contention (and no, I'm not writing about the live-television mess that might have been the end of PriceWaterhouseCoopers love affair with those Oscar envelopes), but too early for the biff-bam-pop! (sorry, not you guys!) of blockbuster season.

However, this year has been different. Perhaps the universe is trying to atone for the massive, horrible pop culture losses that 2016 brought - although this year has already seen the sudden and unexpected passing of Bill Paxton, who should always be remembered for this charming oddity. A number of well-received, strongly-crafted films have already come out this year, along with, it must be said, a number of "huh?" ones, but them's the breaks, kid.

This is a pleasant change from A Dog's Purpose, a late January release that I didn't blog about, since it was very much "meh." That film, honestly, is cute and heartstring-tugging, but in a way that feels very carefully orchestrated and - truth be told - a bit manipulative.

I'd seen John Wick: Chapter 2 which, while suffering from "mid-trilogy-itis" was still great fun, with strong action sequences, some amazing shots (the Italy catacombs scene! Yikes - women may be at the periphery of this film, but I can respect the movie for not reducing them to mere body parts), and some dry humor. Oh, Keanu, it's good to see you again.

But nothing prepared me for the sheer brilliance and freshness that is Jordan Peele's Get Out. Prior to this, Peele was best-known as one-half of the sometimes-scathing-comedy duo Key & Peele. For a lesser man, that would have been enough, as K&P was one of the sharpest comedy teams ever. Full stop. (Don't take my word on that. Read this. Or this. Or maybe this!) But no - Peele has much more to say and Get Out is his first stop.

Oh, and what a stop it is. I was reminded (just a little) of Blazing Saddles, the Mel Brooks classic that uses comedy to skewer racism. Peele doesn't go that way - racism is certainly front and center here, but Peele, influenced by classics of the horror-thriller genre such as Stepford Wives, Night of the Living Dead, and Rosemary's Baby (by way of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), leaves behind comedy to come at this topic straight on and the results are electric.

No, this isn't a run-of-the-mill horror movie - and thank goodness! No possessed dolls, no creepy children, no monsters slashing just to show the filmmaker's creativity in disassembling the human body. Instead, we get -- but no. I can't tell you that part. This is a film you really need to go see. On the big screen, with as many friends as you can round up. For THIS is the type of film we need to be supporting - in the best tradition of horror movies, it's both original and thought-provoking. It's not a drab rehash of cliches; instead, Get Out acknowledges those tropes and then proceeds to turns them inside out. Think about this when you go see the film -

And then be very, very glad that Peele has at least four more "social thriller" movies up his sleeve.

For more about Get Out, be sure to tune into C19TV's Meet Me at the Movies - available as a streaming show!

Saturday, February 11, 2017


Thanks to the generosity and persistence of two friends, who shall be known here as Circuit and Llama, FryDaddy and I spent ten days out in the winter wilds of Utah at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, which is held at a dozen-plus locations over a 40-mile stretch of the Beehive State.

Now, this was heady stuff for us. While we know the general outlines of the rules of civilized behavior, we were uncertain how to act when encountering real live movie stars, especially when nearly running one down in the parking lot of a Whole Foods while he scrambled into the back of his chauffeur-driven, dark-window-tinted Suburban whilst holding a cup of (no doubt fair trade) coffee. (Aside - sorry about that, Woody Harrelson!)

In addition to seeing half a dozen films that will probably never come around here (The Yellow Birds might just be an exception), we rested, played, and ate like high-altitude aristocracy, thanks to the aforementioned Circuit and Llama. (Specifically, we were here.) It was our birthday (no, I'm not using the "royal we," FryDaddy and I actually share the same birthday. Chew on that, if you will.) and we had a feast fit for Christmas (literally!), as well as made-from-scratch chocolate cake. There was snow tubing at a former Olympic site (apparently, it is still considered gauche to equate my tubing experience with being an Olympic athlete, although it was a winter activity in the same site. Snobs.), fire eaters at the Ice Castles, and herds of mule deer twenty feet from the kitchen door. There were also moose and elk, although not that close.

But - the films. Well, even at a premier festival like Sundance, some are good and some are baffling. We saw two films - Marjorie Prime and Last Men in Aleppo - that were award-winners. We saw one that was just a misfire, despite an excellent cast (The Discovery). We saw documentaries that introduce the audience to people whose stories need to be told (Dolores) and we missed several that we would have enjoyed seeing, particularly Walking Out

Many of these films will be popping up here and there - The Discovery, for instance, will show up on Netflix in March. Being there in the midst of all of the excitement and wheeling-dealing (remember, many of these films are looking for their fairy godmother distributor) was an experience not to be missed.

Over the years, Sundance has been both a showcase for fresh new talent, as well as a spotlight for established talents going in new directions. Careers have been launched here, including Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone, 2010) and directors like the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple, 1985), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, 1992) and Christopher Nolan (Memento, 2001). It's also where Heathers (1989) and The Usual Suspects (1995) first found traction. It's exciting to think of being there at the beginning of Something Big and Sundance delivers on that promise.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Conventional Wisdom Gets It Wrong

In many ways, Hollywood is a small town made up of oddly cautious people - at least the few who run studios. Movies are freakishly expensive to make and the public's taste is unpredictable, which explains why 2017 looks like the Year of Sequels and Reboots. Conventional wisdom says to stick with what you know - yeah, maybe the movie itself will stink like three-day-old fish, but it'll make money and really - isn't that better than art?

But a few tricky flicks manage to sneak under the velvet rope reserved for the art house pictures and make it into the mainstream. These are films that need to be supported to further encourage those who hold the purse strings to make more of these gems, so please - seek them out. Tell the theater manager how much you enjoyed them. Ask for more to be booked at your local theater.

Actresses with the real "hidden figures"
The first of these isn't really a "small film," but it's worth talking about in this post for another reason. Hidden Figures is doing gangbusters at the box office, taking in more last weekend than Rogue One, which is simply lovely when you think about it - a thoughtful movie about math made more than the latest from the Star Wars franchise.

The film is solidly-crafted with a number of very, very strong performances - all three female leads (Taraji P. Henson, Janelle MonĂ¡e, and Octavia Spencer), are each fully capable of carrying the entire film. The story itself is amazing and there is no reason why these women have been overlooked for so long. The sad fact that the film took so long to be made has to do with a subtle form of racism - movies are expensive. Will whites go see a "black movie"? For years, it was impossible to get financing for films that featured non-white actors in lead roles. Too risky, they said.

Then came Tyler Perry.

There's much more I can say about Hidden Figures, but I'll close with this. Seeing the everyday, casual racism make me grind my teeth. There aren't any true villains in this film; no one is using racial slurs or threatening violence. But the grime of a dozen little things every day, including not having access to all the books in the public library, would be enough to make many strong women give up.  To then see how these educated, dignified women dealt with a society that so devalued them -- well, this is a film that'll make you want to cheer and will also make you ask why on Earth haven't we gone back to the moon, especially since we have the trained brains to take us there.

The other film I want to encourage you to seek out is La La Land. Director Damien Chazelle loves jazz; in fact, he trained as a jazz drummer (he also co-wrote 10 Cloverfield Lane, but that's another story). His first big film dealt with jazz (a little film you might remember called Whiplash that went from the Sundance Film Festival to 5 Academy Award nominations) and that music plays a large part in La La Land as well. Basically, it's a musical love story and also a valentine to "old Hollywood." What happens when those two crazy kids (played with vulnerability and heartbreak by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) finally find each other and their career dreams begin to come true? When it happens, it's good to have tap shoes.

Look - it's astonishing. Drenched in color, filmed in CinemaScope, and unashamedly retro, this film has heart to spare. The film is worth the ticket price for the opening sequence, which looks like a six-minute oner. It's actually three two-minute shots, and that's incredible enough. Something this unusual, this original NEEDS to be supported. Please seek it out.

Last thing - I'm shortly off to Utah to attend several screenings at the Sundance Film Festival. I hope to report on the amazing things I saw when I get back at the end of February. Plus, we'll hopefully have some Babylon 5 news by then as well!