Eagle Huntress is Nest-Bound

Directed by Otto Bell
Sony Pictures Classics, 87 minutes, English subtitles, G (animals harmed)

The Eagle Huntress played at my local cinema for so long I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. Here’s your answer: Not much. The Oscars wisely withheld a Best Documentary nomination for this contrivance, and I don’t generally use the words “Oscars” and “wisely” in the same non-ironic sentence. The Eagle Huntress depressed me—not the subject matter, but the thought that audiences are so starved for something honeyed that they will settle for watered-down NutraSweet.

The film follows Aisholpan Nurgaiv’s quest to become a champion eagle handler. Aisholpan comes from twelve-generations of respected eagle hunters, but faces a challenge: this young Kazakh is a girl seeking to make her mark in a sport hitherto reserved for males. Alas, this is only a perseverance tale for young girls for the terminally Politically Correct crowd. Aisholpan’s major obstacle isn’t gender—it’s getting up to snuff. Her father, Rys, has allowed her to handle eagles since she was tiny, is 100% supportive of her goal, and aids her at every step. And, because his family is associated with a line of exalted eagle executors, those who would cleave to patriarchal tradition can only sneer and tut-tut Aisholpan’s boldness. I must admit that they look quite regal doing so in their colorful Kazakh robes, structurally impressive hats, and imposing moustaches, but we already know they can’t stop her, so pull the plug on that piece of potential drama. Ditto Aisholpan’s ascent into an eagle aerie to kidnap a three-month-old eagle. We see her belay down a rock face with Rys playing out the rope, but we also know she won’t fall or be mauled by a PO’d Golden Eagle Mama because this is a G-rated film for heaven’s sake.

Director Otto Bell swears that he didn’t stage any of the dialogue or scenes, but it sure plays that way. But I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because I don’t want to add “lousy script writer” to his job description. Imagine Werner Herzog in one of his worst bouts of New Age excess. Sprinkle with dad/daughter bonding. Knead into bland Disney-like dough. Add more filler than the last five pages of a paper from a panicked sophomore sixty minutes from deadline. Sound appetizing? Shots of the Mongolian steppes and craggy snow-covered mountains are breath-taking in their beauty, but they are often National Geographic discursion merely masquerading as back story to Aisholpan’s appearance before bemused co-contestants and skeptical judges.

The Eagle Huntress is essentially the Westminster Dog Show for eagles and handlers in exotic costumes. Aisholpan competes at a festival in a town several days’ horse ride from where her semi-nomadic herding family is camped. Over the course of three days she has to demonstrate her prowess in making her eagle come to her (in several situations), grab onto bait, gracefully soar onto her arm, and simulate various hunting maneuvers. Although it’s unclear if this is part of the competition or a tribal confirmation of her status, Aisholpan and her father also set off for snowy high elevation to meet the ultimate challenge of having her eagle kill a fox. For the squeamish, rabbits and sheep don’t fare very well in the film either.   

Aisholpan is fearless and charming and the scenery is awe-inspiring, but overall The Eagle Huntress is turgid, dull, and fake-feeling. Its 87-minute length could have been pared to twenty and lost nothing in the telling. Call this one as over-sold as its Sia pop song theme: “You Can Do Anything.” All that’s lacking for the total force-fed feel-good package is a troupe of dancing puppets.

Rob Weir   


May 2017 Album of the Month: I Draw Slow


Turn Your Face to the Sun
Compass Records

Here's a recording in the tradition of Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss, and Ryan Adams. Who knew that some of the very best purveyors of North Carolinian bluegrass are Irish? I Draw Slow is built around the brother/sister collaboration of Dubliners Dave (guitar/vocals) and Louise Holden (vocals), and is rounded out by Adrian Hart (fiddle), Colin Derham (clawhammer banjo), and Konrad Liddy (double bass). The Holdens excel at close harmony singing, but Louise is a treasure in her own right—she of the strong, clear voice tinged with just the right amount of husk.

I do not exaggerate when I say that this is music that makes you wonder if the Wicklow Mountains were magically transported to the suburbs of Asheville. Like the best bluegrass/trad folk bands, I Draw Slow mixes darkness and light, though they list a bit more to the former. What's really cool is that they take you to dark places with a smile on your lips. The album's title comes from a line in the opening track, "Maria," in which Dave sings: Turn back Marie, don't follow me/Maria, turn your face to the sun/Oh my Maria/Oh, if you knew what I had done. This is your classic bluegrass bad man tale, complete with its Will I always be alone lamentation. Generally, though, this band makes you think by sneaking up on you. There is, for example, "Don't Wake the Children," a quiet song with a melody more gorgeous than a week full of power ballads. It's so pretty you'd be excused for thinking it a lullaby, though it's really about the gnawing worry that life is slipping away without measure or reckoning: Is this the midway or the end?/Hands over your heart, do you sleep or just pretend?/I'd like to reach across the stone/Each wonderful day that we are flesh as well as bone/So don't wake the children, don't wake the children just yet. And there's "Apocalypso," a love song, but of the Devil take the hind parts variety. Louise Holden is absolutely stunning on this one (and every other track as well)—ethereal of voice, yet full of verve and energy at the same time. Another stellar track is "My Portion," which is about the journey of addicts of all varieties, so I guess that covers all of us. It includes the wonderful line: Oh, love you give what I need/You take like a one-armed bandit.

If you'd prefer lyrics a bit less cryptic, try "Twin Sisters," (at 4:40) another bluegrass staple: the love-me-or-I'll-die high-energy song (What'' I do if I can't have you), framed by deliberately raw scratch fiddle. Or perhaps the mountain wedding song "Same Old Dress Will Do," or the more country-laced, flat-picked "Garage Flowers," a duet-commit-or-leave song: Hey honey, I was wondering where you've been/Because if you don't ring the bell then you won't get in/I'm not getting any younger waiting home alone for you/If you're just gonna leave these garage flowers and push on through.

If you listen carefully you'll hear some Irish references, but mainly you'll marvel over how well I Draw Slow has mastered American folk and bluegrass. I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised; after all, scores of Yanks play Irish music. A lot of them can but dream of mastering the songs of Erin with the mastery in which these five sons and daughters of the Auld Sod have carved out their own little piece of Appalachia.

Rob Weir

Postscript: Some might have heard of I Draw Slow from their song "Valentine," which appeared in a Game of Thrones episode. 


Anything is Possible Too Saccharine

Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 254 pages

When Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in2009 for Olive Kitteridge I thought I'd be reading her forever. Now I think I may have been hasty. Nothing she since done matches the acerbic tone of Olive Kitteridge, nor have her subsequent female characters possessed a fraction of Olive's resolve and grit. Strout seems to be becoming a "women's" writer. I have trouble with exclusivity of all sorts: women's music, black entertainment, gay film, men's magazines, identity-segregated college dorms …. I had hoped we had moved beyond 1970s conscious-raising tactics. But that's another matter. Contemporary women's literature—and its tacky younger cousin, chick lit—crosses the border between sentiment and sentimentality and often descends into mawkishness and nostrums. Worse, characters too often wallow in victimhood. I could hardly stomach the whininess and passivity of the titular character in Strout's previous work, My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy's ultimate "triumph" of settling in New York and becoming a writer seems more accidental than anything she accomplished on her own. (Heaven save us from another damn novel where the protagonist becomes a successful novelist. That's fiction within fiction as only handful of authors in the entire country sustain themselves by writing alone.)

As much it grieves me to say it, the only people I know who liked Lucy Barton were women, as were nearly all of the reviewers.  Thus far the same breakdown is true for Anything is Possible. It is a quirky sequel to Lucy Barton melded to an Illinois version of Spoon River Anthology—nine tales involving people and communities mentioned in Lucy Barton. Barton appears in just one of the chapters, a story of her first post-success visit home. In it, Barton is shocked to find that a relative has fallen upon hard times and outwardly resents her success. Lucy dispenses fairy-like kindness and Florence Nightingale charity, though one wonders how someone who has been living in New York could be so surprised to find people living on the margins. Lucy haunts all nine tales—as the one who escaped, a role model, an idle thought, someone to begrudge, or an unsolved mystery. Strout's small town life (mostly the fictional Amgash) has virtues and challenges, but her characters usually experience joy or sorrow privately. I liked that exterior/interior touch. I also admired Strout's willingness to confront ugly things: illness, sexual predators, unhappiness… though I have issues with how she resolves such things. Each chapter is semi-discrete, which makes the book a hybrid between a novel and a short story collection. As in (too) many such efforts, the individual tales range from deeply poignant to "Who cares?" For me, there were too many of the latter.

I also find Strout's work increasingly sentimental and sneakily preachy. I've no objection to interjecting Christian themes into literature, but I am leery of using them as magical thinking—something often experienced by the characters in this book. I get the notion that faith perhaps plays a bigger role in the Midwest than in other regions of the country, but I also suspect we are hearing Strout's views imposed upon her characters in ways that are inconsistent and too convenient. Her opening story, "The Sign," deals with an elderly man whose farm goes up in smoke. Sorry, but I simply find it hard to believe that his first thought was of God's grace as he watches his house disappear beneath the flames. I have no doubt that individuals come to see loss as a blessing, but it's hard for me to get past my impression that this scene is an implausible contrivance and an exercise in overwriting. Overall, I enjoyed about a third of the book, but found the rest either saccharine or sententious.

I am open to the possibility that mine is a too-male interpretation. I invite comment from other readers and am willing to take my lumps. My critics might be right, but either way, I think I'm done with Elizabeth Strout—unless she has another Olive in her writing bowl.

Rob Weir