Dina

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The U.S. documentary grand jury prize winner at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ “Dina” is an empathetic portrait of love and resilience. Following the ups and downs of the wedding preparations undertaken by title subject Dina Buno and her husband-to-be Scott Levin in greater Philadelphia, the film cultivates and carefully manages its precise point of view. Buno and Levin live with a number of recognizable neurodevelopmental disorders, and the latter identifies as a person with Asperger syndrome, but the filmmakers resolutely avoid the clichés of films focused on people with special needs.

Framing close to the au courant Academy ratio, Santini and Sickles employ long, static takes often composed at a physical remove from the primary action. The disarming technique contrasts sharply with the popularity of nonfiction stories shot handheld (fueled by the “necessaity” to capture/cover events that might otherwise be missed). The filmmakers’ careful and deliberate arrangements demonstrate an unhurried patience that pays dividends when surprising moments and revelations unfold before our eyes. The fly-on-the-wall sensation is additionally complemented by the bold absence of voiceover narration and talking head interviews.

The trust extended by Dina to the directors infuses every scene of the movie. As reported by Kate Erbland, Sickles is a lifelong friend of Buno, who was mentored by Sickles’ father in his capacity as a high school teacher and a co-founder of the community service organization that was originally going to be the broader subject of Sickles and Santini’s feature. Dina’s engagement to Levin sharpened the focus, and the result, while still including other members of the Abington Aktion Club, benefits from the microcosmic examination of the changes wrought by a new marriage.

The moviemakers recognize that, along with Dina’s personal history – her first husband died and she was assaulted by a boyfriend – the ongoing physical intimacy issues between Dina and Scott offer both the narrative’s key conflict and an opportunity to connect with viewers not on the autism spectrum. The film resists the simplistic and condescending tendency to “universalize” Dina and Scott in their pre-nuptial negotiations by entirely bypassing any kind of hand-wringing or second-guessing regarding the sexual rights of its principal pair.

Instead, Sickles and Santini are confident enough to showcase plenty of awkward humor that might read as insensitive or exploitative in less skillful and/or educated hands. Scott’s struggle to meet Dina’s outspoken carnal needs builds through a series of exchanges that routinely evoke the wincing self-recognition of nearly any romantic partnership. The earthy, ebulilient Dina cuts loose at her bachelorette party with a stripper while Scott prefers a more sedate trip to a bowling alley. Later, a dip in the giant, martini glass-shaped, honeymoon suite tub filled with bubbles is a sight to behold.

In what is probably the movie’s most discussed moment, Santini and Sickles share the audio recording of the 911 call from the night that Dina was violently attacked. The juxtaposition of this alarmingly raw information (Dina has been stabbed but remains incredibly composed in her converstation with the operator) with a portrait of hope and possibility promised by a new life is a representative example of the position staked out and asserted by Dina and by the directors.

The Lego Batman Movie

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A virtually critic-proof three ring circus of toy-based programming and winking self-reference guaranteed to give even the most devoted admirer whiplash, “The Lego Batman Movie” duplicates some of the charm of its 2014 Phil Lord and Christopher Miller-directed predecessor. Led by Chris McKay, the “new” adventure is pure postmodern pastiche: a feature-length fantasia of Easter eggs, throwbacks, inside jokes, and mock lessons fully trading on the Dark Knight’s most commonly mined thematic territory. At the center is the age-old question asking whether the Batman is better off as a solo act. The answer, supplied in the wide-eyed minifigure of Michael Cera’s eager Dick Grayson, is an emphatic no.

Last year, Glen Weldon summarized the value of Robin as “half the story,” a presence that “serves to define and delineate Batman.” Weldon argued that “Batman’s status as the ultimate mentor is a base principle, inasmuch as it speaks directly to who he is: he saves others because, on one terrible night long ago, there was no one to save him.” In “The Lego Batman Movie,” the orphan status of both Bruce and Dick is a punchline, as are multiple nods to the unorthodox partnership of a single, adult socialite and a teenage boy. But make no mistake: “The Lego Batman Movie” recognizes that Batman can be so much more engaging with Robin around.

The retirement of reliable police commissioner James Gordon is a nice touch made nicer by the promotion of daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) to the post. Ms. Gordon’s inaugural address, in which she points out the obvious by reminding the assembled citizens that the decades-long effort of Batman to reduce crime in Gotham City hasn’t moved the needle, is another reminder that the Caped Crusader is nothing without the recidivists who pass through the revolving doors of Arkham Asylum. In one funny exchange, Batman denies nemesis exclusivity to the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), insisting that he likes to “fight around.” Frequent Wayne Manor screenings of “Jerry Maguire” provide another opportunity to skewer the “You complete me” ethos forever coupling the World’s Greatest Detective to the Clown Prince of Crime.

Unfortunately, the capable Batgirl (who wonders aloud whether her own moniker should allow her to rechristen Batman as Batboy) is punished with second-class status. So are the other females. Zoe Kravitz’s nearly mute Catwoman is deprived of her claws and her purr. Harley Quinn, voiced by Jenny Slate, is a non-starter. And notwithstanding the inspired casting of Kate Micucci as Clayface and Riki Lindhome as Poison Ivy, this version of Gotham, like so many others, is a place where the majority of the talking is done by men to other men, and women speak very little with women.

Like “The Lego Movie,” the brick Batman iteration subscribes to more-is-more in the category of franchise crossovers. By the end, the promise of a deep-bench rogues gallery melee featuring classic DC villains has been expanded to a wild tossed salad calling on Gremlins, King Kong, Voldemort, Sauron, and the Wicked Witch of the West and her winged monkeys. The whole shebang works well enough if you don’t think too hard on it, especially since the inherent construction/deconstruction motif in the Lego landscape so perfectly suits the more outre and psychedelic chapters in Batman’s storied chronology. As Grant Morrison put it, “Batman knew what it was like to trip balls without seriously losing his shit,” and McKay slices off a thick slab of nostalgia, including plenty of love for the landmark 1966 series.

Oklahoma City

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Veteran filmmaker Barak Goodman’s “Oklahoma City” is a timely and sobering historical document with unsettling connections to the ugly “alt right” rhetoric touching the increasingly tense national political climate. Following a Sundance Film Festival world premiere, the feature debuts on PBS’ “American Experience” February 7, 2017. In the film, Goodman uses the shocking events of April 19, 1995 as the foundation for a larger discussion about the toxicity of anti-government movements and the realities of homegrown acts of mayhem.

Goodman’s thesis presents two high-profile confrontations between federal authorities and private citizens as critical prelude to Timothy McVeigh’s act of devastating domestic terrorism: first, the 1992 siege of Ruby Ridge near Naples, Idaho between the Randy Weaver family, Kevin Harris, and the United States Marshals Service, and second, the David Koresh-led standoff between Branch Davidians and several groups of law enforcement and military personnel outside Waco, Texas in 1993.

Goodman’s most sobering implication leaves open to question and interpretation the idea that the aggressive, militarized tactics employed at Ruby Ridge and Waco galvanized and recruited a growing legion of believers convinced that continued government overreach would result in the loss of individual freedoms and the confiscation of weapons. Among that number was McVeigh, who visited Waco during the surreal circus preceding the fiery outcome. Eerie footage of the future bomber selling bumper stickers at a safe distance from the Branch Davidian compound plays directly into Goodman’s connect-the-dots suggestion of inciting incidents.

Given the massive amounts of televised media coverage captured and broadcast in the Oklahoma City explosion’s immediate aftermath, as well as the filmmaker’s decision to provide such detailed context prior to addressing the multitude of possible stories connected to the people who worked at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, “Oklahoma City” could have been expanded to a successful multipart series like Ezra Edelman’s five episode “O.J.: Made in America.” Instead, Goodman must make difficult editorial choices that put human faces to the victims and first responders as the film covers the chaotic consequences of McVeigh’s violent act.

The deaths of 168 people included 19 children and babies, many of whom attended the day-care center inside McVeigh’s target. Goodman’s talking head interview subjects include several bereaved parents, but interestingly, “Oklahoma City” omits inclusion and discussion of the iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of firefighter Chris Fields carrying the dying Baylee Almon. There is no shortage, however, of harrowing narratives. The vivid story of a desperate amputation in the rubble is representative of the rescue efforts and starkly contrasts deep humanity with McVeigh’s unconscionable disregard for the innocent.

As authors and experts share opinions and observations, Goodman also makes room to remind the viewer that early, erroneous reporting on the Oklahoma City bombing pointed to Middle East terrorism. That rush to judgment, which overlooked McVeigh’s brand of twisted white patriotism, may have briefly rewritten the playbook used to share breaking news with the public. The expansion of the internet and the blinding speed that prioritizes being first rather than being right has only complicated the role of news gatherers in the labeling of complicated incidents of senseless murder occurring in the years since Oklahoma City.

Raw

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A sinewy, blood-drenched feast of old fashioned gore and fresh storytelling, first-time feature writer-director Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” is the cannibal horror comedy you never knew you needed. Made with a level of confidence not seen in filmmakers with half a dozen completed movies, “Raw” builds a wholly engrossing and fully functioning universe in which to contain its walloping frights and freak-outs. Ducournau explores several juicy themes without shortchanging any one of them: sisterhood and sibling rivalry, sexual awakening and female pleasure, parental expectation and influence, peer pressure and conformity, and the moral conundrum of the carnivore.

Justine (Garance Marillier), a whip-smart, head-of-the-class overachiever, enrolls at the veterinary school attended by older sis Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Mom (Joana Preiss) and Dad (Laurent Lucas) are graduates of the same program, and the strict vegetarianism practiced by the family is one of the first obstacles faced by Justine when the incoming students are mercilessly hazed by upperclassmen. Coerced into ingesting uncooked rabbit kidney as part of one initiation, Justine rapidly develops a taste for flesh that won’t be satisfied by hasenpfeffer.

But instead of focusing narrative attention solely on Justine’s insatiable appetite and its inevitable consequences, Ducournau ups the ante by ambitiously dropping the viewer in the heart of the utterly disorienting space occupied by the world’s most hedonistic animal science academy. Drug-fueled, all-night raves are dizzy, sweaty, underwear optional laboratories for the sleep-deprived recruits who somehow stumble to morning classes. Faculty members appear onscreen, but no authority figures seem concerned about the marauding seniors who trash dormitories at will, tossing mattresses, suitcases, and anything else not nailed down out the nearest windows.

While we try to make sense of the incongruity of a presumably accredited institute of higher learning and the decadent behavior of its student body, Ducournau escalates a series of increasingly tense set pieces to an absolutely woozy fever pitch. If the thought of a Brazilian wax gone sideways gives you pause, Ducournau is just getting warmed up. The film’s practical effects are superb in their anatomical verisimilitude, and the director’s sense of tone is as on point as the work of Bob Balaban in “Parents” and Claire Denis in “Trouble Every Day.”

Scheduled for an American theatrical release in March of 2017, “Raw” deserves a rapid ascent to cult status, midnight screenings, and an eventual spot as a must-see that devotees will spring on unsuspecting friends just to gauge reactions. Echoing the hyperbolic stratosphere of William Castle-style showmanship, “Raw” reportedly caused at least two viewers to faint at a Toronto exhibition. I did not witness any passing out at the Sundance Film Festival showing I attended, but Ducournau’s fireworks were met with verbal exclamations, covered or averted eyes, and plenty of squirming.

Metaphorically speaking, “Raw” comfortably operates on several levels. As a feminist bildungsroman, its commentary on the challenges of finding one’s way through the liminal space between adolescence and adulthood is every bit as satisfying as a political reading (in her Sundance introduction, Ducournau had some choice words for the newly elected leader of the United States and his well-publicized attitude regarding sexually desirable young women). “Raw” lives up to the hype, sticking to you like the geysers of crimson plasma that color Justine’s bruised and lacerated world.

Gretchen Kaye Carlson Kost (1974-2017)

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Reflection by Greg Carlson

My little sister, Gretchen Kaye Carlson Kost, died Monday, January 30, 2017. A dearly cherished daughter and sibling, wife and mother, cousin and conspirator, she was a friend first, a friend often, and a friend always.

She was also a displayer of dimples, which as a kid she often labored to hide, scowling in photographs when not in the mood or of the inclination to be told what to do, which was pretty much always. But when the grownups were smart enough not to push, that smile was dazzling, and it was usually accompanied by peals of laughter. Engineered in part by repeated listens to “Free to Be… You and Me,” she established an early, unflagging sense of egalitarianism that extended to our beloved little brother Grady, guaranteeing that any Cracker Jack, Smurfs, or comic books were carefully and equally divided and distributed.

Friday night sleepovers with Grandpa and Grandma Jones were our sweetest reward. Fuzzy red footie pajamas were zipped up sometime between the beginning of “The Dukes of Hazzard” and the end of “Dallas,” and if we could keep our eyes open we were allowed to stay up late for Johnny Carson, joining Grandpa as he chuckled at the master’s perfect timing. The next morning, Grandma would set out the tools to fry up homemade donuts, and Gretchen – nicknamed “Dutch” and “Dutchie” by Grandma, which our mom detested but I secretly loved – would run point until the entire dining room table was covered with cooling rows of delectable golden sinkers.

With two brothers and no sisters, Gretchen forged special bonds with her closest confidante Heather and her cousin Andrea. Over the course of countless slumber parties, Heather and Gretchen developed that shorthand communication that evolves into a private language. At the lake cabin, Gretchen reassured Andrea, who we liked to acknowledge as our “genetic half-sister” because our moms are identical twins, that an inflatable raft ride would be safe by measuring Andrea’s height against the oar to show that she would never be in over her head.

Gretchen knew no equal at Ms. Pac-Man, often drawing a crowd at the Pirate’s Den or Pizza Hut while she effortlessly chomped her way through board after board on a single quarter. Was it her mathematically inclined mind or her thriftiness that drove her coin-op success? I suspect a bit of each.

My sister was a swift assembler of jigsaw puzzles, outpacing anyone at the table with a ratio of four or five pieces to one while filling in colorful montages of songbirds, great apes, or Muppets. One Christmas, our rambunctious dachshund Tandy managed to devour the entire contents of a sizable box of Turtles caramel pecan clusters recently unwrapped by Gretchen. My highly subjective memory of her reaction recalls equal parts fury at the consumption of her gift and genuine concern for the well-being of one rather sick wiener dog.

For the earliest and most formative years of my life, Gretchen was my steady and constant companion. When I was Darth Vader for Halloween, she was Darth Vader for Halloween, and that made me feel good. Of all my life’s decisions, one of which I am very proud is that I never sent her away to go play with someone else. Instead, she tagged along on every neighborhood adventure – matching or besting the older boys who climbed trees, built forts, raced banana-seaters with playing cards in the spokes, inflated thick wads of pink bubblegum, buried and eulogized departed squirrels, and scrambled into the bookmobile for fresh literature.

We compared reading notes often, and Gretchen was lit from within whenever she encountered a female protagonist who modeled grace, compassion, and character in the face of inequitable and unjust patriarchy. We thrilled at the dignity of Hester Prynne and delighted in the violent gesticulations and extravagant contortions of Hester’s little imp Pearl. We discussed the sensational Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, who would later inspire the name of Gretchen’s life-saving beagle, agreeing that the two finest words in American fiction might just be “Hey, Boo.”

Required by our mother to attend water safety lessons, we tuned our ears to the radio pop of the late 1970s and early 1980s that was played by the college-age staff at the Concordia pool, ever after identifying certain singles as “swimming songs.” We rocked down to Electric Avenue with Eddy Grant, we tumbled for Boy George and Culture Club, we burned down the house with Talking Heads, we looked out across the nighttime with Michael Jackson, we got delirious whenever Prince was near, we stood there with our backs against the record machine and jumped with Van Halen, we waited for Hall & Oates when the light was fading fast, and when we heard the angel voices of Mr. Mercury and Mr. Bowie, we turned away from it all like a blind man.

The preceding words came more quickly than I expected, but for Gretchen’s husband Rob and their children Hattie and Beck, I am afraid that none will suffice.

Gretchen, as soon as possible and in your honor, I will eat my fair share of a large pepperoni and mushroom from Duane’s House of Pizza.

See you around.

 

Into the Inferno

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Inspired by the work of volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer and his 2011 book “Eruptions That Shook the World,” Werner Herzog dazzles and mesmerizes viewers of “Into the Inferno,” a nonfiction examination that encapsulates the essence of the legendary filmmaker’s lasting appeal. Narrated by Herzog in the familiar style poetically juxtaposing bleakly comic admonishments about collective human foolishness against sobering facts that can take one’s breath away, “Into the Inferno” balances the scientific and the magical.

Even though Herzog is the director of “Into the Inferno,” a title card shares the authorial credit by identifying “a film by Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer.” Herzog’s generosity could additionally extend to longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. Zeitlinger’s gorgeous images don’t need much help to appear awe-inspiring – flowing, spouting, arcing, fuming molten rock in impossible shades of red – but his expert contributions are among the film’s chief joys.

In his review, Matt Zoller Seitz asserted that “If you go into a Herzog documentary hoping for a definitive, deep look at a certain subject, you’re bound to come away disappointed.” The comment, part of an argument that claims Herzog has regularly depended on brief episodes favoring obsessives, could apply just as easily to “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” the director’s other 2016 nonfiction feature (last year, the workaholic also polished off the volcanically related but less well-received fiction film “Salt and Fire).

“Into the Inferno” also partially functions – like so many of Herzog’s films – as a diary that traces the philosophical preoccupations of its famous writer over the span of a creative lifetime. The most obvious links in this regard include the acknowledgment of Herzog first crossing paths with Oppenheimer during “Encounters at the End of the World.” A second ligament is 1977’s “La Soufriere,” Herzog’s short documentary about the possibility of an eruption on the island of Guadeloupe. At this point in his storied career, Herzog is completely comfortable (and self-aware) as everyone’s favorite enunciator of doom, darkness, and death, but the way he so often banters and shares screen space with brilliant people like Oppenheimer is also a genuine draw that reveals an optimism missing from the apocalyptic pronouncements.

Herzog has always been an intrepid wanderer, and the geography traversed in “Into the Inferno” is as illuminating as the geology lessons provided by Oppenheimer. From Iceland to Ethiopia to Indonesia, no location seems out of reach to the globetrotting filmmaker. Among the many highlights is a visit to North Korea, and Herzog’s accompanying voiceover suggests incredulousness, curiosity, skepticism, and even something approaching respect at the patriotism on display. In accompanying narration, Herzog comments on the nation’s propaganda apparatus, citing the “monumental unity and fervent emotion” of the subjects.

As demonstrated by the complex North Koreans, belief, in a multiplicity of incarnations, permeates the human side of “Into the Inferno.” Manifested in the ultimate sacrifice of pioneering volcanic documenters Katia and Maurice Krafft, who were instantly incinerated in a pyroclastic flow in Japan in 1991, as well as in the Vanuatuan “cargo cultists” who await the return of the godlike American G.I. John Frum and his “copious consumer goods,” true believers are catnip to Herzog. At 74, the man shows no sign of letting up his furious pace as one of our most reliable chroniclers of humanness, and for that I am thankful.

The Handmaiden

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Master director Chan-wook Park’s diabolically pleasurable “The Handmaiden” delights the eye with its sumptuous costumes, production design, and photography, and also tickles the imagination with its structural gamesmanship. While it seems that the majority of films tagged “erotic psychological thrillers” fail to satisfy even one of that trio of descriptors, Park – at the top of his strong game – delivers the goods and then some. Inspired by Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith,” Park’s movie, through its careful application of con artistry and class consciousness, also recalls aspects of “Dangerous Liaisons” and brings a hint of “Raise the Red Lantern” into play as well.

Presented in three parts, “The Handmaiden” follows undercover hustler Sookee (Tae-ri Kim) as she infiltrates the bedroom of Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), the wealthy niece of a powerful master and collector of shunga and other rare pornographic scrolls, tomes, and folios. In league with fellow grifter “Count” Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), with whom she intends to split Hideko’s sizable inheritance, Sookee’s job is to convince her mistress to elope with Fujiwara. The intriguing roundelay, party to several twists and turns revealed in flashback, provides Park with a sensuous stage on which he can explore sex as power, sex as weapon, and sex as release.

The potential pitfalls and snares are many, but Park somehow manages to thread the needle between the kind of softcore, tongue-in-cheek jape that treats onscreen lovemaking as a kind of elaborately choreographed pas de deux and an earnest examination of unclothed connection. Most popular cinematic depictions of anything even close to BDSM struggle to resist simplifying kink and pathologizing attendant behavior as unhealthy, abnormal, or wrong. Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Cho) appears to fit that bill, commanding Hideko to theatrically narrate explicit literature for an audience of guests who come to luxuriate as well as buy, sell, and trade books and artwork.

Set in Korea during the Japanese occupation and featuring helpful color-coded subtitles that distinguish between the two principal spoken languages, “The Handmaiden” keeps a close eye on the dangers of being a woman under the control of an entitled male authority figure. As Manohla Dargis points out, Hideko is both puppet and bird in a gilded cage: she lives with the constant threat of violence, which Park partially imagines through the metaphor of Kouzuki’s dreaded basement. Park will indeed invite the viewer to visit that mysterious underfloor vault in a manner befitting the director’s penchant for stark, grim comeuppance.

While the plotting of the narrative depends on the quartet made up of two men and two women, Park confidently shifts among the permutations. A serpentine Sookee/Hideko/Fujiwara triangle coexists with a perilous relationship between the lady of the house and her handmaiden. In one scene, Sookee files the sharp edge of Hideko’s tooth during a bath, gently probing mouth with finger. The slippery, humid sequence is as pulse-quickening as a number of Park’s other period tableaux, many of which reach for the unknown pleasures, confounding ecstasies, and possibility of force displayed in Hokusai’s “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” – a famous image included by Park in “The Handmaiden.”

The Eagle Huntress

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A completely engaging adventure on each of its multiple levels, Otto Bell’s “The Eagle Huntress” combines old-fashioned nature documentary with both a rousing sports competition angle and a front-and-center challenge to gender role expectations that translate universally beyond the remote Mongolian setting. Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a 13-year-old Kazakh girl, is instantly likable: a no-nonsense kid who earns top marks at her boarding school and can pin any and all of the boys at wrestling. Aisholpan intends to become a doctor, but in the meantime, she devotes herself to the male-only province of hunting game with golden eagles.

Aisholpan’s father Nurgaiv Rys is the latest in a twelve-generation line of eagle hunters, and Bell opens the movie with a stunning sequence in which the viewer learns the rudiments of traditional Central Asian falconry. Birds are collected directly from the nest during a brief window of flightless days just prior to full fledging (a later set-piece grippingly demonstrates this endeavor). According to the information presented in the film, a “bird lord” becomes the custodian of an eagle for a period limited to seven years. Once the raptor’s service concludes, the hunter returns the animal to the wild.

Aided by Simon Niblett’s nimble photography, which includes drone footage, human and animal-mounted cameras, and gorgeous wide shots that share the massive scale of the Altai mountain range, “The Eagle Huntress” showcases a unique father-daughter relationship en route to Aisholpan’s participation in the annual Golden Eagle Festival. Editing to heighten the suspense surrounding Aisholpan’s chances as a first-time contestant and the inaugural female participant, Bell and Pierre Takal adroitly include portrait interviews with a series of skeptical elders dismayed by the change represented by Aisholpan.

In part because of the support Aisholpan receives from her parents and her grandfather, some critics have argued that “The Eagle Huntress” lacks a certain kind of interpersonal conflict or drama. In his original Sundance review for “The Hollywood Reporter,” Boyd van Hoeij goes farther, calling into question the film’s nonfiction bona fides, citing his “nagging suspicion throughout that there’s been more preparation for especially the set-pieces than would normally be the case on a documentary.” Considering the breadth of methodologies and styles in the evolution of the nonfiction film, Van Hoeij’s critique of the participatory aspects of Bell’s craft misses the target.

For cinephiles and documentary fans, the behind-the-scenes story of “The Eagle Huntress” is as thrilling as Aisholpan’s own journey. Director Bell saw breathtaking photographs of eagle hunters captured by Asher Svidensky in 2014, and the sight of Aisholpan – who was likely the only female apprentice of the skill on the entire planet – sparked him into action. Jason Guerrasio’s “Business Insider” story lays out the rest of the broad strokes: Bell exhausting his entire life savings along with another 12K loan; an appeal to Morgan Spurlock to come on board as an executive producer so Bell could complete shooting; recruiting Daisy Ridley as another executive producer and the movie’s narrator, and Sia for an original song.

Even without Ridley and Sia, who underscore the movie’s central theme of how 21st century gender expectations can be challenged anywhere, “The Eagle Huntress” makes for rousing entertainment in which no computer-generated effects of any kind are needed to communicate something awe-inspiring and, for young people growing up in the United States, otherworldly. During the screening I attended, my own seven-year-old daughter turned to me and asked, “Is this real?”

Rogue One

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “Rogue One.”

Despite claims and/or brand management that position “Rogue One” as a “standalone” story within the franchise, Gareth Edwards’ feature, which takes place just prior to the events depicted in the original “Star Wars,” carries so much Lucasfilm DNA that it is neither fair nor accurate to suggest that the film exists outside of the principal Skywalker narrative. The central story, first dreamed up by ILM veteran/computer genius/visual effects supervisor John Knoll years ago, launches from the text of the famous original opening crawl, in which Rebel spaceships struck “from a hidden base” and spies managed to “steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon.”

“Rogue One” immediately distinguishes itself from past “Star Wars” movies by dispensing with that familiar roll-up text and accompanying John Williams theme, asking viewers to rethink some of the previously essential requirements of a “Star Wars” film (the glowing blue Trade Gothic-style card “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” remains). Considering the active transformation of the property by owner Disney – and the likelihood of seeing a Marvel Cinematic Universe model applied to a steady stream of future “product” – it makes sense that variations to the old formula would be tested.

Arguably darker in both aesthetic and execution than any of its predecessors, “Rogue One” counts as its greatest success the absolutely brilliant retconning of one of Lucas’ most gently ridiculed requests for our suspension of disbelief: it turns out that the exploitable flaw in the design of the Death Star allowing small proton torpedoes to penetrate a two-meter thermal exhaust port leading directly to the reactor system was engineered deliberately as an act of anti-Imperial sabotage by Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the father of protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones).

The Galen/Jyn dynamic, ripe with the parent/child baggage that has driven so much of the primary “Star Wars” story since Vader’s revelation to Luke in “The Empire Strikes Back,” is Applied Characterization 101, but the nature of the father/daughter bond diverges from the “bad dad” history of the Skywalkers in intriguing ways. Jyn’s status as a quasi-orphan places her in the company of Luke, Leia, and Rey, but the manner in which her feelings of abandonment, skepticism, and distrust indicate unwillingness to side with the Rebels – who plan to assassinate Galen – unlocks the film’s appealing critique of the Alliance’s most unsavory tactics.

Later, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna, who looks dashing in his Han Solo-on-Hoth-inspired parka), will verbalize with weary resignation that terrible things have been done on behalf of the Rebellion. He refers to spies, assassins, and saboteurs, including himself in that number. The acknowledgement is the most sustained, most nuanced move away from the simplified, morally unambiguous, good-versus-evil signature yet offered, and a welcome shading of the wars part of “Star Wars.” The full nature of Saw Gerrera’s (Forest Whitaker) extremism, even terrorism, as a Rebel cell leader is murkier, but the theme is established: “Rogue One” accepts a more mature vision of the toll of sustained armed conflict and life during wartime.

But beyond that, how is the film situated within the liminal space between the prequels and the original trilogy?

The expansive breadth of the “Star Wars” universe has invited arguments concerning canon since at least as early as November 17, 1978 – the CBS airdate of the “Star Wars Holiday Special.” Among other things, the lone television broadcast explicated the spiritual tradition known as Life Day, celebrated by red-robed Wookiees on their home planet Kashyyyk. Viewers learned about Chewbacca’s nuclear family, and also discovered that “Star Wars” could make room for variety show-inspired performances by Art Carney, Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, and others. The legacy of that endeavor, which some disavow and others relish, is the quintessential example of the many-things-to-many-people elasticity of “Star Wars.”

In Laurent Bouzereau’s “Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey” and elsewhere, J. J. Abrams subtly avoided direct denunciation of the prequels, emphasizing instead the various ways in which Episode VII would feel like an “authentic” “Star Wars” movie. The use of photochemical process instead of digital capture for principal photography and the valuing of practical effects over CGI are two examples reinforcing the position that certain “Star Wars” films are more equal than others. Some older fans in particular have been paying close attention to how Lucasfilm, under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, will or won’t honor the full continuity of “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones,” “Revenge of the Sith,” and the accompanying dubiousness of midi-chlorians and Jar Jar Binks.

In “Rogue One,” Easter eggs and callbacks to the original trilogy (from blue milk to a superfluous encounter with Ponda Baba/Walrus Man and his odious companion Doctor Evazan) outnumber the movie’s more tentative links to Episodes I-III, but the filmmakers offer at least a strong handshake to the prequels if not a warm embrace. For the anti-prequel purist, the appearance of Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa will be less acceptable than the digital mask of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, as it fortifies a bridge that might better be burned than crossed. And uncanny valley problematics aside, the Tarkin “performance” raises serious questions about the management and control of deceased actors’ likenesses (see the December 16, 2016 “Variety” report by Kristopher Tapley and Peter DeBruge for more).

“Rogue One” recalls another of the most frustrating and unwelcome saga additions cooked up by Lucas – the revelation that C-3PO’s memory had been wiped, conveniently erasing the droid’s conscious recollections of being the property of the future Darth Vader. That particular issue is mirrored in the handling of K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). As vibrant, funny, and alive as his more famous forebears C-3PO and R2-D2, the gray-plated wiseacre toiled in Imperial security prior to reprogramming by owner Andor. K-2SO, who provides the most consistent and reliable humor and tension relief in “Rogue One,” is an instant favorite thanks to Tudyk’s performance and the droid’s self-sacrificing heroics.

In a sharp essay, Mike Delaney addresses the conundrum of sentience, free will, and slavery related to the use of droids in “Star Wars,” tackling the knotty philosophical ethics swirling around choice versus the illusion of choice. While it is true that Owen Lars indicated a desire to have the memory functions of C-3PO and R2-D2 obliterated in the first “Star Wars,” legions of emotionally invested viewers rejected the notion that the beloved mechanical friends were anything less than conscious, self-aware, and capable of making decisions not tethered to coding.

Until the alterations of the prequels, fans could take comfort in the idea that C-3PO eluded erasure, a terrible fate not visited upon companion R2-D2, whose Wookiepeedia entry opens with the assertion that the droid’s avoidance of reprogramming and any major memory wipe has resulted “in an adventurous and independent attitude.” C-3PO and K-2SO may share permanent amnesia, but the latter, like the other members of Jyn’s do-or-die team, is a rogue on more than one level. Along with Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), the droid served the Empire, but we have no evidence that K-2SO would have, or could have, defected like a human. Isn’t that possibility more interesting?

Some of the same aficionados who decried the narrative parallels between “Star Wars” and “The Force Awakens” have praised “Rogue One” for its break from a climax focused on the destruction of a space station and the introduction of a set of largely “fresh” characters. While those two claims are not incorrect, “Rogue One” is nearly as dependent on elemental “Star Wars” tropes as Episode VII. Besides the previously noted associations, “Rogue One” contains the familiar sight of moisture vaporators, holographic messages, Rebels disguised as Imperials, sentinels outside the Massassi Temple, Mon Calamari admirals directing a major assault, old clearance codes that somehow check out, familiar Rebel pilots reciting call signs, the destruction of entire planets by the Death Star, and an obligatory variation on “I have a bad feeling about this.”

It also has one other thing: a glowing crimson energy blade ignited by the most famous Dark Lord of the Sith in the known universe.

Darth Vader’s role in “Rogue One” may be more limited than in his screen debut, but his presence is every bit as important. Vader haunts the world of “Star Wars” like the Flying Dutchman haunts the Seven Seas, and witnessing his power – freed from the albatross of Hayden Christensen’s flimsy interpretation of Anakin Skywalker – restores some of the faith that has been disturbingly lacking. James Earl Jones’ basso profundo might not be as commanding as it was the first time we heard it (forty years will do that), but “Rogue One” steps away from Vader as iconic corporate symbol, restoring him as a terrifying threat, tormented and broken, twisted and evil.

Nocturnal Animals

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Partially avoiding the sophomore slump, renaissance man Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” is less rewarding and accomplished than “A Single Man.” Adapted by the director from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel “Tony and Susan,” “Nocturnal Animals” is a stylishly designed noir that alternates between the terror of a West Texas road nightmare and the misfortunes of an icy Los Angeles gallerist in a precarious, toxic marriage. Ford can be commended for allowing the menagerie of miserable wretches on display to be so thoroughly and defiantly mean, but his film will leave many gasping for air.

Susan (Amy Adams) receives an advanced copy of a novel by her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has titled it “Nocturnal Animals” in Susan’s honor. The papercut received by Susan as she opens the package is but the first portent that the contents of Edward’s fiction will haunt his ex, who is riveted by the unsettling page-turner. As Susan reads, the film shifts into the fictionalized world created by Edward, in which a family of three is waylaid by a trio of grinning monsters led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s swaggering Ray Marcus. Each time the horror escalates, Ford leaves the events of the manuscript to dramatize Susan’s shaken reactions, calling upon Adams to do some heavy lifting in the absence of a rich and complex character.

Additionally, Ford introduces a third thread, in which Susan reminisces about her life with Edward some two decades in the past. These glimpses into the circumstances that led to the downfall of her marriage include a confrontation between Susan and her mother Anne, a Texas blue blood who strongly objects to her daughter’s intention to marry a person deemed unworthy. In a curious bit of casting, Anne is portrayed by the great Laura Linney, who is far too young to be the parent of someone played by Adams. The two actors are only separated by ten years, and the age makeup doesn’t convince.

Occasionally, Ford shows glimmers of twisted humor, but the film takes itself too seriously to allow the juiciest amusements to pay long-term dividends. The L.A. art scene vampires, nicely represented by the chunky black frames and pointy shoulder pads of Jena Malone’s caustic Sage Ross, are comically juxtaposed with the ghoulish, manic, Texas troublemakers (in one scene, Taylor-Johnson wipes his ass while seated on an outdoor porch commode custom-plumbed by his smug redneck). Ford’s tone is often inscrutable, and nobody – including Susan, who may be about to get her just desserts – deserves much sympathy.

The pulpy “Nocturnal Animals” is much closer to a forgettable genre exercise like Ridley Scott’s “The Counsellor” than to the supercharged fever dreams of David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.” Not even the arresting opening images of obese nudes, photographed in silky slow motion, can clear a path for any statement Ford hopes to make regarding the business of art and the trap of artifice. Revenge has fueled many great movies, from “The Big Heat” to “Three Colours: White” to “I Saw the Devil,” but the ambiguities of “Nocturnal Animals” will leave you desiring a kind of satisfaction that proves too elusive and slippery for Ford and his collaborators to deliver.