In April 2014 director Otto Bell saw Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky's BBC photos stunningly depicting 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv. In the remote northwest Mongolian steppes Aisholpan lives a nomadic life with her family with one exception. She is "The Eagle Huntress" of Bell's documentary, the first woman ever to compete in the annual Kazakh Eagle Festival against 70 men.
What happens before and after that event in the Nurgaiv family is an anthropologically rich and absolutely engrossing presentation. Bell profiles the five main aspects of this culturally and historically rich tradition: capturing an eaglet, taming and bonding with it, training and then teaching the eagle to hunt, and making needed equipment. With a wingspan over six feet, golden eagles weigh up to 15 pounds, average three feet tall, and reach speeds of 190 miles per hour. A fearless Aisholpan with a million-dollar smile embraces the challenges, fascinated by eagles from an early age and supported by her father and mother despite elders' disapproval.
The Eagle Huntress is as exhilarating as it is inspirational, in part because of resourceful cinematographer Simon Niblett who uses extraordinary drone camerawork and a GoPro fitted onto an eagle. Shooting with never more than a four-person crew, Bell and Niblett put us in the ger (the family dwelling), on the precarious ledge where Aisholpan captures her eaglet, in the midst of the eagle competition, and soaring over thigh-high snow during a fox hunt in minus-40 degree temperatures. Bell says he budgeted five days for the hunt; it took 22 days.
Among the many touching moments, a veteran male eagle hunter releases his seven-year-old eagle to the wild, which is the custom so the eagle will mate and continue the cycle. Equally affecting are wordless interactions between a charming Aisholpan, her mother Almagul, and her father Agalai as well as between Aisholpan and her fellow school classmates. Its understated presentational style extends from the music and sound to the limited, unobtrusive narration by Daisy Ridley. Among the best films of the year, The Eagle Huntress is one to reflect on and savor. It transported me to Mongolia and a refreshingly polite and supportive community. In Kazakh with English subtitles, at a Landmark Theatre.
Critically, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is one of those "on the one hand/on the other hand" movies: neither hand succeeds spectacularly, but each has some merit. On the one hand, Billy is so cliched as to be a photocopy, but, on the other, if a filmgoer has never seen such a movie, Billy merits consideration.
Billy Lynn, played convincingly by Joe Alwyn, is home from the Iraq war in 2004 to a hero's welcome, accompanied by his comrades in arms. These young men are invited by the owner of the Dallas football team, played seriously by Steve Martin, to be showcased in a half-time show. These young men, barely out of knee-pants, are inarticulate, dropping the F-bomb as often as they drop grenades. They scrum like puppies and swagger as they think men do. Billy himself went into the service to avoid jail. His sister, played convincingly by Kristen Stewart, encourages him to take a hero's way out and declare himself PTSD'd to avoid redeployment, but his sergeant, played by Garrett Hedlund, encourages him -- as a natural leader of men -- to stay a soldier. Through the football festivities, Billy holds himself aloft. After all, he is a hero for protecting the body of his beloved leader. Vin Diesel gives him a Zen calm as he says "I love you" to each of these boys going into battle.
There's not much tension in the plot of Billy's decision to stay or go, from a script by Jean-Christophe Cristelli and based on the novel by Ben Fountain. The script offers little, but on the other hand, Billy admits he tells people what they want to hear about Iraq. Nor is there much new in the film's use of flashbacks, often triggered by the fireworks at the stadium. Director Ang Lee spent more time on technology than on the feeble story, and it shows, but he does present a worthy cinematic summary.
When ten-year-old Chiron first appears in Moonlight, he's fleeing bullying boys, taking refuge in a derelict apartment. In fact, literally or metaphorically, Chiron runs full tilt physically and emotionally for most of this story told as three chapters in his life: as a boy called Little, as 16-year-old Chiron, and as a young man called Black.
Figuring out and accepting he's gay, Chiron relishes the mentoring of drug dealer Juan and his girlfriend Teresa, endures his mother's mood swings, and wrestles with his crush on schoolmate Kevin, with whom he later, briefly reunites in a heart-breaking scene. Throughout its deeply moving character study, with an all-black cast, Moonlight maintains a dynamic energy because of the acting, director Barry Jenkins' focus on eyes revealing depths of vulnerability and strength, and his characters' periodic direct address to the camera.
Jenkins adapted Tarell McCraney's autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which profiles life in and around Miami's Liberty City housing project, where both Jenkins and McCraney grew up. The setting adds a powerful presence to each scene: homes, schools, abandoned buildings, beaches or, in one of the loveliest scenes, the ocean. In addition, both Jenkins' and McCraney's mothers struggled with drug addiction, real-life experiences again informing the texture of the scenes.
Tops on my list of actors deserving an Oscar nod is Mahershala Ali who plays Juan. Remarkably, Ali makes the Cuban Juan a three-dimensional character rather than the stereotypical drug dealer. As the three Chirons, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes use their faces to nakedly reveal emotions while they physically struggle to hide them. It makes for a visceral impact, as does Naomie Harris' terrifying and compassionate performance as Chiron's crack addict mother and André Holland as the adult Kevin.
Nicholas Britell's music and sound, as well as concentrated silences, add distinctive commentary. Jenkins describes the hip-hop used as "chopped and screwed," a slowed down Southern style of poetry and painful yearning. His inclusion of "Hello, Stranger," late in the film, stops the show, a perfect summary of Chiron's search for his own identity and his ability to embrace it, a struggle we all know. Moonlight is among the best films of the year. At a Landmark Theatre.
Director Tyler Hubby's documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present pays tribute to this contemporary, multi-faceted artist, charting, roughly chronologically, Conrad's experimental music and films reaching back to the late 50s. Challenging social and media conventions, Conrad tested audiences' expectations and prompted reassessment of the norm. Minimalist, structurally atypical, Conrad's art defies easy categorization, exactly what he intends.
This does not make his music and movies easily accessible, meaning often his works require an intellectual as well as an emotional openness, thrilling for some, difficult for others. For example, for his 1966 Flicker, viewers had to heed warnings that the flashing black and white frames devoid of any other content could trigger epileptic seizures. Audiences walked out of his Straight & Narrow, a film consisting of black and white stripes alternating vertically and horizontally, nothing more, for over two hours.
In his music, in the 70s, he banged on the piano. With electric sounds, he would, as he says, engage and hold the sound. He included weed wacker solos with his violin notes, sometimes discordant, held for effect. Perhaps ironically, Conrad plays the violin quite well. In his teaching jobs, he worked to involve and include under-represented individuals, extending to community cable and Skype access.
In the small doses included in this documentary, the ideas and their execution are bracing, exciting. Cooking a film became for Conrad pickling film, currying film, creoling film. As Philippe Vergne, Director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art says, "You can't talk about experimental art without talking about Conrad." He notes later that Conrad doesn't compromise his vision. Conrad's unique offerings do forge a solid awareness of temporal and physical dimensions, of what Tony Oursler calls fractured narratives.
Anchored in comments from Conrad himself about his entire career, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, November 18 through Sunday, November 20 at 7:30 each evening.
The 25th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival concludes on Sunday, November 13 with a spectacular lineup of offerings for the last weekend, making choices for film fans quite difficult. I'll highlight just a few. From Hungary, an absolute lark, Liza the Fox-Fairy plays fast and loose with fantasy as the lonely central character pursues her romantic obsession.
When the men in her orbit can't seem to stay alive, Liza must consider whether she just might be the legendary Japanese fox-fairy in this unhinged, wonderful tale. Several excellent documentaries are also packed into these last festival days, among them director Katy Grannan's The Nine. With a nonjudgmental approach, she profiles down-and-out residents living on Modesto, California's South Ninth Street.
From Bosnia Herzegovina comes director Shawn Convey's Among Wolves. The Wolves, an unorthodox motorcycle club, commits itself to humanitarian work. And Sonita offers a delightful experience with 18-year-old Afghan Sonita Alizadeh living in exile in Iran and determined to make a statement and find success through her rap music.
One of the final films is one of the best, director Julie Dash's 1991 Daughters of the Dust in a newly restored edition. A ravishingly beautiful work, it presents the historically grounded story of a multi-generational Gullah family reuniting on an island off South Carolina's coast. The elder Nana clings to Yoruba tradition while the younger generation has returned from living in New York with different attitudes that clash with African folklore.
There's so much more, including a master class on screenwriting for independent film that last Saturday and the New Filmmakers Forum. The 2016 festival ends, appropriately, with a closing-night party and awards presentations for the best narrative and the best documentary film, the interfaith award, the best in the short subjects, and more. Throughout the festival, all foreign films are in the language of origin with English subtitles. For more complete information, including descriptions, trailers, show times, and ticket links for all the films, you may visit the website at: cinemastlouis.org.