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last update 26.Oct.16
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The Eagle Huntress
4/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Otto Bell
prd Otto Bell, Sharon Chang, Stacey Reiss
with Nurgaiv Aisholpan, Rys Nurgaiv, Kuksygyen Almagul, Boshai Dalaikhan, Bosaga Rys
narr Daisy Ridley
peters and friend release US 2.Nov.16,
UK 16.Dec.16
16/UK 1h27

london film fest
The Eagle Huntress An inspiring story set on the Mongolian steppe, this documentary has a riveting narrative and is shot like an unusually skilful reality-TV show. It also features people who are cheeky and honest, offering a fascinating look at a culture as well as bigger issues that resonate worldwide. As assembled by director Otto Bell, this film is a feast for the eyes that's grounded with real emotion.

Aisholpan is a confident 13-year-old who gets straight A's in school and hopes to become a doctor. She is also determined to follow her ancestors' footsteps and become an eagle hunter. Training with her father Nurgaiv, she climbs a cliff and secures her own eaglet, which she raises herself, teaching it to respond to her call. This eagle is so impressive that she decides to enter the competition at the annual Eagle Hunter Festival. The problem is that no woman has ever become an eagle hunter, and the elders aren't too happy about this.

Filmmaker Bell decided to make this movie when he read an article about Aisholpan, then headed to the isolated location to meet her. What he and his crew capture on film is spectacular, from the crisp imagery of the vast landscapes (including glorious aerial shots) to a series of astonishing events in Aisholpan's life. These include Aisholpan's perilous plundering of a nest while mamma eagle circles overhead. Equally thrilling are the heart-stopping competition and Aisholpan's first trip into the wintry mountains to hunt foxes with her eagle.

Aisholpan has superb screen presence, a mischievous teen with a big personality. She's essentially a hunting prodigy, an eagle whisperer, as it were. Her bond with her smart, compassionate dad is wonderfully complex. And yet she's also all girl, painting her nails and heading straight for the shops the moment she visits the nearest city. But she refuses to accept the normal housekeeping role for women, insisting that she can hunt with the big boys, despite the fact that she's the youngest person competing, and the first ever female hunter.

This is one of those movies that takes us to a place we are unlikely to ever visit firsthand, revealing both the natural beauty and the quirks of the culture while telling a story that grips us tightly. It sometimes feels a little too carefully crafted, making us doubt whether these events are real or staged, but the filmmakers have described their own outrageous adventure to capture these amazing scenes on camera. And that would make a great reality-style doc on its own.

U themes, grisliness
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The Last Laugh
dir Ferne Pearlstein
scr Robert Edwards, Ferne Pearlstein
prd Robert Edwards, Ferne Pearlstein, Amy Hobby, Anne Hubbell, Jan Warner
with Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Renee Firestone, Klara Firestone, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Carl Reiner, Robert Clary, David Steinberg, Larry Charles, Harry Shearer, Alan Zweibel
release US Apr.16 tff,
UK Oct.16 lff
16/US 1h28

london film fest
The Last Laugh Like The Aristocrats, this documentary explores the boundaries of what's appropriate in comedy. The specific topic here is when it's OK to crack a joke about a tragic event, specifically something as big and horrific as the Holocaust. What makes the film worth a look is how director Ferne Pearlstein strikes such a remarkable balance between the views of comics and survivors.

It didn't take long after the war ended for Nazi-based comedy to start appearing, from the TV series Hogan's Heroes to Mel Brooks' iconic The Producers. But laughing at German racists is one thing, and now comics like Sarah Silverman are pushing the boundaries even further, picking up the mantel from the likes of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Joan Rivers. The questions are where to draw the line, when it's too soon, and why we need to laugh at history's most hideous events.

Answers are fairly obvious, but the range of comedians, actors, filmmakers and experts adds breadth and depth to the discussion. And there's also the vital perspective of survivors. Renee Firestone is a wonderfully articulate survivor whose perceptive opinions help keep the film right on track, while her daughter Klara adds the important first-generation angle. The film takes the time to recount Renee's experiences, adding pointed context to the humour.

Of course, Pearlstein also includes a lot of great jokes, including some that many people may feel cross a line. Clips of close-to-the-knuckle humour prove Larry Charles' point that comedy that doesn't get you in serious trouble isn't as daring as it seems. It's also fascinating to see split opinions on Life Is Beautiful, for example. And of course the main point is that if he joke is funny enough, nothing is taboo.

The conversation also includes jokes about Hitler that were being made during the war itself (such as Chaplin's 1940 classic The Great Dictator) and also how we use humour to deal with more recent tragedies like 9/11. All of this reveals a lot about human nature, free speech and the importance of being shaken from your comfort zone. Humans have always needed comics to make sense of the world. And laughter is a key mechanism for survival and healing. Which means that it's vital to be deeply offended now and then.

12 themes, language
16.Oct.16 lff
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Life, Animated
4/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Roger Ross Williams
prd Roger Ross Williams, Julie Goldman
with Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Walt Suskind, Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Emily Jathas, Michelle Garcia Winner, Alan Rosenblatt, Jeffrey Ortiz
owen suskind release US 1.Jul.16,
UK 9.Dec.16
16/US A&E 1h29

sundance london film fest
Life, Animated This beautifully assembled documentary tells an involving story that sheds new light on what it means to be autistic. By recounting one family's experience, filmmaker Roger Ross Williams offers hope to anyone whose life has been touched by this condition. The details may not apply to everyone, but the story has such huge repercussions that this entertaining, engaging film deserves to have a long academic life.

At age 3, Owen Suskind suddenly withdrew into himself. Told that he was autistic, his parents Ron and Cornelia struggled to break through to him. Years later, they realised that he was relating to the world through Disney animated movies, which helped them pull Owen out into the real world. Now 23, he is running a Disney fan club with his friends and getting ready to move out on his own with the support of his parents and big brother Walt. But is he prepared for the unpredictable realities of life, such as breaking up with his girlfriend Emily?

Based on Ron's book, the film grips the audience as Owen's present-day achievements are cross-cut with beautifully hand-crafted animated sequences depicting his childhood as well as his vivid imagination. Owen is particularly drawn to movie sidekicks, and has created his own epic story about them in which he plays their protector. His passion for these films is a lot of fun to watch, especially as he meets Aladdin voice artists Freeman and Gottfried.

Williams allows the narrative to build gently, infusing every scene with Owen's cheeky personality. He's a joy to be around, clearly enriching the lives of everyone he knows. The obvious question is articulated by Cornelia as she remembers a key moment in her approach to raising Owen: "Who decides what a meaningful life is?" And there is further depth in Walt's realisation that he will not only have to care for his parents as they age, but also for Owen.

Because the story is so riveting, we're barely aware how much we're learning about autism. But by the time we follow Owen to France, where he delivers a remarkable speech at a conference, pretty much everything we thought we knew has been put into a whole new light. Calling himself a "proud autistic man", Owen knows that he has plenty to offer society as a professional, a friend and a family member. And it's up to us to make sure autistic people around us know they have our support.

PG themes, language
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Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
dir Werner Herzog
prd Werner Herzog, Rupert Maconick
with Elon Musk, Kevin Mitnick, Ted Nelson, Sebastian Thrun, Lawrence Krauss, Lucianne Walkowicz, Danny Hillis, Adrien Treuille, Hilarie Cash, Jack Lockman, Jonathan Zittrain, Jaydeep Biswas
lo and behold
release US 19.Aug.16,
UK 28.Oct.16
16/US 1h38

london film fest
Lo and Behold Werner Herzog makes singular documentaries that use childlike curiosity to zero in on the quirkiest people he can find. His ability to underscore wit and emotion with a simple pause is unequalled. And this time he's looking at an enormous topic: the internet, how it developed, how it has changed the world, and where it may take humanity.

Intriguingly, sci-fi writers in the 1950s and 60s predicted automatic doors, mobile phones and self-driving cars, but no one imagined the worldwide web. The internet was created in the 1970s as a way for scientists to share information, and it grew beyond all expectations. This is one reason why it's so unregulated, and so easily sabotaged. Herzog travels around the world talking to people on all sides - creators and hackers, nerds and rock stars - each of whom has a perspective on where this interconnectivity has brought us and where it's likely to go.

Refreshingly, Herzog refuses to pine for the good old days when children played outside, rather that staring at phone screens. And he looks ahead with realistic eyes: perhaps human interaction will be different, and not necessarily worse, for future generations who learn how to stay healthy without so much physical activity and how to maintain relationships without so much in-person time. Or maybe a solar flare will wipe out the electro-magnetic field and send mankind back to the industrial age.

Yes, Herzog refuses to take the obvious route through this material. From scientists writing impenetrable formulae on blackboards to a family staring at the camera in the wake of horrific trolling, the film continually catches us off guard. And it's full of witty observations, such as a nerd gushing like a fanboy about his favourite football-playing robot. Or world-changing entrepreneur Musk welling up while talking about life on Mars. As Herzog observes, machines are faster and more efficient, but they can't fall in love.

Every scene makes a vital point about how much we rely on technology and exactly what we have gained and lost. No aspect of human civilisation has spread so widely and so quickly, and the internet is still evolving. Does social media's simplification of everything into right/wrong make us unable to cope with complexities in real life by eliminating critical thinking? Does online anonymity need to be regulated? Will the next generation look back at us as living in the dark ages of the web?

12 themes, language
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© 2016 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall