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.