Opening in the Valley this weekend:
The Eagle Huntress—Though it’s full of engaging people using their real names, it’s a stretch to call this feature from director Otto Bell a documentary. Sure, it has a bit of National Geographic-style narration, spoken by Daisy Ridley, but it’s full of scenes that have clearly been staged, and the narrative may have been shaped dramatically in the macro sense, too. It’s more in the tradition of movies like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North or Merian Cooper’s Chang and Grass—cultural documentary techniques in the service of epic-romantic storytelling.
The setting is northwestern Mongolia, among the ethnic Kazakhs that live on the steppes. The heroine is Aisholpan, a teenage girl who takes up the culture’s ancient practice of hunting with eagles. In jolting, visually magnificent sequences, we see her capture a young raptor from its nest, train it, compete with it in a regional festival, and eventually go hunting with the bird for real.
She does all this with the enthusiastic help of her adoring father, but we’re also shown talking heads of some sour guys—one of them reminded me of Bill Murray—who don’t like the idea of a girl encroaching into a traditionally male activity. It’s hard to know to what extent the old-boy opposition to Aisholpan may have been exaggerated for dramatic purposes—the guys at the festival don’t seem all that upset by her—but it is effective.
In any case, it would be difficult not to delight in and admire the pink-cheeked, smiling Aisholpan, with her guileless confidence. If you, or maybe a daughter or niece or kid sister, could use a story of a woman breaking into a man’s field these days, this might be a movie to consider. But be forewarned, there are scenes of an eagle attacking a fox. The footage is electrifying, but for younger kids, or anyone sensitive to animal suffering, it may be tough to watch.
The Monster—Single mom Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is driving her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) down a disused stretch of road through a forest. They have an accident, and while they’re waiting for help, writer-director Bryan Bertino builds the tension and dread in excruciating increments. Very gradually, the two become aware they’re under siege in their car from the title character, an unexplained fangy abomination.
Gruesome and pretty grueling horrors ensue in this focused, fairy tale-like shocker. But they’re interspersed with flashbacks to Lizzy’s home life with the alcoholic, screwed-up Kathy that are so appalling (and convincing) that the gory monster stuff seems almost like a nice break by comparison.
Kazan (Elia’s granddaughter) and Ballentine are both impressive. Ballentine, who’s in her mid-teens, manages to suggest, without pushing it, that her awful environment has left her with a touch of arrested infantilism, so when she struggles to be brave in the face of irrational menace it’s particularly moving.
A note about that menace—he/she/it is played, blessedly, by a guy in a suit (Canadian stuntman Chris Webb), not by a sterile CGI ghost. It helps that it’s quite a good suit, and that Bertino deftly keeps it in the shadows most of the time. But even if it was a corny, fake-looking suit, I think the solidity, the presence, of the monster would give this creature feature a punch we rarely get to see anymore.RIP to the great Leonard Cohen.
Is “Hallelujah” maybe the most beautiful song lyric of the 20th Century in English?