Film

This Week in Art House Cinema: The Eagle Huntress, The Monster and more

3CR-Steve at the Movies-new

 

Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The Eagle Huntress

From first time feature filmmaker Otto Bell comes the epic and stunningly shot documentary The Eagle Huntress chronicling not only 13-year-old Kazakh girl Aisholpan Nurgaiv’s training to follow in her family’s male tradition of being an expert eagle handler, but also to overcome the overt sexism that exists in her culture on her path to becoming the first female Eagle Huntress. The access that Bell and his team are given to Aisholpan’s life makes her story all the more compelling. For reasons that are never truly explained (for which we are nonetheless grateful), her father encourages and trains her without a single concern for the feedback that is coming from the other eagle handlers in the region, and the impact of a barely teenaged girl becoming the first woman to receive such training in 12 generations of fathers passing down the tradition to sons is lost on no one.

The film is divided into three sections, with the first being the capturing of a eaglet and rigorous training Aisholpan must put herself and the animals through on the vast Mongolian steppe that her family calls home. The capture sequence is among the most tense and treacherous you’ll see all year in any film, and you may even begin to question her father’s parenting regimen as you watch Aisholpan scale dangerous rock formations to snag her baby eagle. The second portion of the film involves a more formal competition, held annually, which pits our young heroine against the top eagle hunters in the area. People come from all over the world to watch this contest of accuracy, speed, and the vital connection between bird and trainer.

The final and most harrowing is the long and arduous process of Aisholpan and her father heading out during the painfully cold winter months to see if her bird can hunt in the wild, tracking and capturing wild foxes that are fairly scarce in the deep snow and brutal winds. Narrated by Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), The Eagle Huntress is pure, relentless human vs. animals vs. nature drama, but Aisholpan is a model for grace under pressure for all young girls (and probably a few adults as well). The camera work here is sensational, as it captures both the beauty and danger (seen and hidden) of the surroundings of the terrain. I doubt many audiences going to see this movie are would-be eagle trainers, but that certainly doesn’t take away from the film’s inspirational tone. This is a breathtaking and inspiring work from start to finish.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 

Photograph courtesy of A24

Photograph courtesy of A24

The Monster

I’ve been becoming more and more of an admirer of not just Zoe Kazan as an actor, but as someone who is constantly challenging herself by selecting roles in a variety of film genres. But until her latest work, The Monster, she’s never jumped this headfirst into a full-bore horror movie that is a little bit more than just a scare film. Like other recent horror efforts, including It Follows, The Babadook, and The Witch, The Monster is an intimate family drama couched in a monster movie where it becomes abundantly clear that if the family unit does not strengthen its fractured bonds, there is no hope of survival from whatever is attacking it. And although it’s not exactly subtle, the monster in this work is something of a metaphor for problems rumbling under the surface of the relationship.

Kazan plays young, single mother Kathy, who parties too hard, has a largely absentee boyfriend, and routinely neglects daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). When we meet the pair, Kathy has overslept on the day she is supposed to take Lizzy to her father’s house hours away (as part of what we assume is a shared custody situation). But they get a late start and by the time they get anywhere close to their destination, it’s dark, rainy and practically impossible to drive. They have a blowout on a road in the middle of nowhere, hit a wolf, and end up stranded on the side of the road. And right around the time the tow truck guy shows up, they begin to realize that there is something in the woods surrounding the road. And then the tow truck guy vanishes while attempting to fix something under their car.

During the course of The Monster, Lizzy has flashbacks to recent events in the shared history of her and Kathy, all bad moments that underscore a complete breakdown in their small family unit. Watching those scenes is almost worse and more terrifying than anything that happens on that road in the dead of night, and Kazan is called upon to say and do some truly unspeakable and selfish things. Writer-director Bryan Bertino (who made the breakthrough home-invasion hit The Strangers in 2008) does a commendable job not letting the more dramatic moments of his film fall into cliche. Perhaps the most painful part of these scenes is that it’s clear that both mother and daughter care about each other and want to make it work, but neither is willing to give an inch to the other.

But this is also a monster movie, and the creature in the woods is a pretty damn creepy collection of teeth and claws and growling and aggression that is clearly out to eat any living thing in its vicinity. I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a man-in-suit monster (played by Chris Webb, probably with a little help from advanced puppetry), whose full form we rarely see in its entirety—as if the filmmaker wants us to piece it together in our minds, making it all the more awful by doing so. The climax of the film may be a foregone conclusion, but I give Bertino credit for seeing it through and allowing Kazan to join the cinematic ranks of protective mothers who quickly evolve into action heroes. I’ll also give the filmmaker credit for never giving us the slightest clue where this creature came from or what the hell it is. Fear of the unknown always works most convincingly.

The Monster delivers tension and scares with an alarming regularity, while giving us enough backstory into the lives of these two characters to allow us to care if they live or die. It seems like a small thing, but it makes all the difference in horror.

The film opens today exclusively in Chicagoland at the AMC South Barrington 30. If you don’t want to drive all the way out to South Barrington, you can rent a digital copy of The Monster from Amazon that you can stream on your device of choice for $7.

To read my exclusive interview with The Monster star Zoe Kazan, go to Ain’t It Cool News.

 

Photograph courtesy of Shochiku International

Photograph courtesy of Shochiku International

Creepy

Anyone who knows the recent history of Japanese horror films will likely get a chill up their spine when they hear the name Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Cure, Tokyo Sonata). Unlike some of his contemporaries, Kurosawa’s works have always had a bit more merit as artistic achievements, and he always seemed more focused on characters, atmosphere and aesthetics than simply scaring the pants off of his audiences. He doesn’t exclusively do scare films, but it’s great when he does, and his latest work, Creepy, is one of his most satisfying in any genre. One of the filmmaker’s greatest gifts is knowing what it is about our daily lives that has the potential for scaring us if things are just right, and in the case of Creepy, he deals with the age-old dilemma of the weird neighbor.

After a phenomenal opening sequence in which we meet Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a detective who is severely injured on the job, Kurosawa jumps ahead about a year with Koichi having decided to move into academia, more specifically criminology and the study of serial killers, which he describes as a “modern phenomenon.” He and his wife Yasuko (Yûko Takeuchi) have just moved to a seemingly quiet suburb, but they soon discover that their neighbors aren’t especially keen on being social (or even polite, in some cases), and suddenly they feel all the more isolated, especially Yasuko who spends most of her days in their house. She soon meets their next-door neighbor Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), a bug-eyed, temperamental man with a teenage daughter Mio (Ryoko Fujino) and an unseen wife. Although the two don’t hit it off at first, Nishino does attempt to be more neighborly, and soon the two families form something of a friendship.

While this is developing, Koichi is recruited by an old colleague, Nogami (Masahiro Higashide), to reopen a six-year-old missing person’s case in which three members of a four-person household disappeared leaving a teen daughter, Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi) very much alone. Koichi deduces that the family’s next-door neighbor might have had a hand in the disappearance, and before long he finds a number of bodies buried in the floor of that man’s house, including the neighbor himself, which means the killer is still out there.

All of this happens in the first half of the film, and to reveal much of what goes on in the second half of this two-hour-plus, perfectly crafted suspense work would be criminal. Although Kurosawa has always excelled at supernatural horror works, Creepy is very much rooted in the real world. That being said, the evil force in this film, although human, seems to have a strange hold on those around him that is never truly explained, leaving his “powers” open to interpretation. The director and co-writer (along with Chihiro Ikeda, adapting the novel from Yutaka Maekawa) also instills in us the idea that both Koichi’s marriage specifically, and the Japanese suburbs in general, were falling apart long before something awful entered this family’s life.

Creepy may seems like a title that is a little too on the nose, but Kurosawa is also judging us in a way, by reminding us that what’s on the surface does not always reflect what is inside a person. Of course, sometimes is does. And when the full scope of the film’s depravity reveals itself, it’s as satisfying as it is sickening. There’s an underlying admission in the movie that we, as human beings, are driven to explore the unknown—whether that’s the mysteries of the universe or whatever is up with that weirdo next door. Kurosawa’s advice: Maybe don’t be so curious. The film is delightfully free of any cheap scares, opting instead for slowly building tension that overtakes you before you even realize it’s there.

The film opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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