Lady Bird (Gerwig; 2017)

Lady Bird has a lot in common with last year’s The Edge of Seventeen.  Both are teen movies focused on a central female character going through one of their last years of high school (Junior year in The Edge of Seventeen, Senior year in Lady Bird).  Both movies are smaller independent films.  Both movies feature the mother-daughter relationship of their primary character prominently, and most importantly neither movie views their protagonist as an angel, a tortured soul, nor a lovable scamp as is the standard for teen movies as long as the genre has existed.

There is one very significant and important difference (well, more than one, but one I’m going to mention) between the two, and that is while The Edge of Seventeen is so far as we know purely fictional, Lady Bird is the semi-autobiographical story of its writer and director Greta Gerwig.  Greta Gerwig is not the biggest of names in Hollywood, but she has acted in 40 films, written 10 screenplays, and Lady Bird marks her second appearance in the director’s chair, so while the name may not immediately be recognizable it’s probable you’ve at least seen her before.  As the last film I reviewed Roman J. Israel, Esq. showed, it’s very difficult for a writer/director to keep the distance from his own work needed to bring it an objective, critical eye, and I can’t imagine how much more difficult it must be when not only are you writing and directing the movie but also that that movie is about yourself in a transformational year of your life.  Greta Gerwig not only manages it, though, she truly impresses and makes it look effortless.

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The one thing character studies have in common is, of course, their focus on a character and his or her personal journey.  They can have a standard plot in which the arc of the character mirrors a standard story arc complete with all the classic elements of story writing.  Or, they can be a more slice of life style piece in which putting the audience in the characters place is what is most important.  Lady Bird manages to be both.  Gerwig takes a year of her life and manages to be self-aware and objective enough to make that year an honest, sometimes brutally sometimes heartwarmingly so, look at a teenage girl yearning for independence from her family, but scared and unsure of exactly how to go about doing so and what the consequences will be once she succeeds.  She also knows enough about storytelling and dramatic license to give the story structure we rarely see in a film that relies so much on being so true to life.  She obviously distanced herself from the story at least a little as our protagonist is named Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan)  and not Greta Gerwig, but however much she distanced herself it was enough to allow her to make a story that paces itself like big studio manufactured biopic but with the genuine intimacy of a small indie piece.  Its insight into the emotions and thoughts of a young woman right on the cusp of adulthood is as deep as I’ve ever seen in a teen film, but that insight never once causes the movie to lose its light-hearted, comic tone and thus it remains thoroughly entertaining at the same time it causes us to raise our eyebrows and stroke our chins in thought and discovery.

It probably goes without saying that when a film has great insight into its characters that it implies those characters avoid generalities and stereotype in any form, but Lady Bird does give us some very real characters that will most definitely be recognizable by all, but refuse to fit neatly into any sort of box we may want to put them in.  It’s a film which seems to instinctive understand the thoughts and emotions which motivate us and therefore gives us characters that act and react organically to the world and the people around them rather than to what would make the story interesting, but whether due to an incredible storytelling instinct or due to luck that the events of Gerwin’s life just happened to make for a Hollywood story, those very organic actions still lead to an engaging story with very recognizable moments of self-discovery and excitement.

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What I and many others loved about The Edge of Seventeen was how its central character was something of a self-absorbed jerk who made her own problems for the most part, and had plenty of people around her willing and wanting to help her but she refused them all purely so she could feel unique and make herself into a martyr.  When she discovers, in the end, the kind of person she was and manages to change it wasn’t entirely organic, but the message was such an insightful one, very unique Hollywood but all too familiar in real life, that it was refreshing to see it dealt with on the big screen.  Lady Bird gives us largely the same character and gives us largely the same message, but even more organically and taking the character study to the next level.  Lady Bird doesn’t just realize that this is a type of person we all deal with if we aren’t that person ourself, but it also gives more insight into why the self-imposed martyr feels they need to act that way and what it is that drives them to become so overly self-aware and self-absorbed.

One thing which Lady Bird does better than any film I’ve ever seen for sure is portray and understand the mother-daughter relationship.  I suppose never having been a teenage girl myself, I can’t speak to Lady Bird‘s authenticity in this regard with a great amount of authority, but I walked out of the theater feeling like I finally understood the feeling between mother and daughter that simultaneously makes them each others closest friends and also strongest rivals.  Never before had I so honestly seen the sort of tug of war involved in the mother-daughter relationship in which they at once become both a surrogate and a matter of pride for the other.  They each want the other to truly be their own person, but that comes into conflict with the fact that they would be happiest if that own person was exactly like themselves.

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It goes without saying at this point that I think the cast of Lady Bird was remarkable, but while I may not need to say it, I should and I find it odd that I’ve written this much without saying so.  Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” herself is at once hysterical and captivating.  She portrays a girl who obviously is unsure of herself in nearly every way but feels she needs to hide that fact from the world excellently.  But, as nuanced as her performance is, Laurie Metcalfe as”Lady Bird’s” mother Marion McPherson is astounding.  If I did not know better I would assume that these two really were a mother-daughter pair and these were not roles they are playing, but that they are legitimately being captured on film.  Metcalfe plays her role with such a genuine hysterical love I have only recognized before in a parent, that it’s obvious she’s not only drawing on personal experience but that she’s well aware of how she really acts and reacts in her personal experience.  Lucas Hedges as “Lady Bird’s” first real boyfriend, Tracy Letts as her father, Odeya Rush and Kathryn Newton as her on again off again best friends, and honestly too many more to name without making this review look like a list of names from the Old Testament are all absolutely fantastic in their roles.  Gerwin must not just be an excellent writer but is also amazing as a casting director or at getting the most out of actor’s performances, or both.

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Final verdict:  I could probably go on about Lady Bird, but I think you get the idea and this is already becoming the longest review I’ve ever written, so I’ll stop there.  As much as I gush about Lady Bird, it is not the best movie of the year, though it is definitely one of the best teen movies I have ever seen and a film which should appeal to nearly everyone but the most cynical.   It’s a film that relies entirely on its script and its performances, but when those are both so perfectly nuanced, insightful, funny, and entertaining that’s all you really need.  This is not Greta Gerwig’s first outing as a writer nor as a director, but this is the film for which she will be remembered for a very long time.  I wholeheartedly recommend Lady Bird to nearly everyone, and excitedly look forward to whatever Gerwig brings us next.

 

 

 

It (Muschietti; 2017)

There is little point to reviewing the story elements of It.  The classic Stephen King novel has been read by nearly every fan of horror and by a great many who aren’t, and there was also a television mini-series made of the novel in 1990 for those who haven’t.  If you haven’t been exposed to the story behind It already, it is either because you are a newborn (who apparently was born able to read – congratulations!) or you have never had the least bit of interest in It in the first place.  In the interest of full disclosure, though, I have to admit before getting into the review proper that my feelings on Stephen King in general and on It in particular is that he is horrible at writing plot, okay at writing character, and one of the best in the business when it comes to description and atmosphere, so take that as you will.

The story of It focuses on an evil clown named Pennywise who appears every 27 years to terrorize and kill the children of the Derry, Maine.  It’s never explained what the clown is, why it appears as a clown, why it has to do this, where the clown gets its powers, what its powers are, where its weaknesses come from, and any number of other questions.   The book’s story is about a group of children who have to confront Pennywise in their just barely pre-teen years then again 27 years later as adults.  This film deals only with the first confrontation as children, though it is more than just hinted at that we will get the film which shows them as adults later, and the children are fairly 2 dimensional characters painted with broad strokes, but at least they are very likable characters we can recognize as at least friends if not as ourselves in some way.

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What It wants to do more than world building, more than giving you strong characters, more than giving you ideas to ponder is scare you, and this it does.  It is an incredibly atmospheric film with days that never seem to be sunny, old buildings that have no business still standing, sewer tunnels, and many other dark claustrophobic locations which you can tell the art directors had a great time working on. The darkness is a tool here, and never a crutch meant to hide the action, just to lend a sense of dread of the unknown to the proceedings.  The special effects and makeup are also incredible making the lack of clarification surrounding Pennywise seem like less an annoying lack of effort on the author’s part and more a genuine use of fear of the unknown.

The best part of It, though, is the performances given by this group of child actors.  Again, what should normally be a weakness of story is used to best advantage in It as the fact that the characters are very two dimensional allow the young actors to grasp onto one or two strong character traits and run with it in their performance.  We have the stutterer who is loyal (Bill played by Jaeden Liberher), the girl outcast tomboy (Beverly played by Sophia Lillis), the foul mouthed smart ass (Richie played by Finn Wolfhard), and so on.  Normally, these broad swathes of characterization would make for dull, predictable protagonists, but here it actually works allowing the kids to really latch onto their roles and give an ensemble performance that really works.

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The R-rating of this version of It means that it is much closer to the book than the 1990 television version.  The kids in this version cuss, there is blood and gore including small children being dismembered, it even addresses some uncomfortable subject matter regarding kids beginning to come into their sexuality, though the incredibly disturbing ending of the children’s story in the book is smartly dropped and changed to something which still gets the same idea across without dealing with child porn.

Compared to the other horror films coming out over the last year or so, It lacks a lot of the intelligence we’ve been treated to.  In films like Lights Out we’ve been treated to three dimensional characters making intelligent decisions or in It Comes At Night we have our lack of knowledge coming from a point of view rather than from a writer lazily not filling in details.  It is a true 80’s throwback in that it relies entirely on atmosphere for its scares making those scares purely emotional, never thought provoking in the least.  While I definitely prefer the more intelligent horror we’ve been getting, and hope Hollywood continues on that trend, It is so well made that this throwback is more entertaining than annoying.

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Final verdict:  It is such a faithful, but fortunately not too faithful, adaptation that fans of Stephen King are almost sure to love it and his haters are quite unlikely to change their minds.  Just like the novel itself the story is silly and makes absolutely no sense under even minor scrutiny, but the kids – characters and actors alike – are so great and the atmosphere so intense that the story’s flaws can be easy to overlook.  Everything about the making of the film is of top notch quality, so whether I recommend it to you or not hinges entirely on how much you like Stephen King, and if you’re neutral I can only say that It is one of the best looking and acted horror movies to come out in a while, but It shows its age where intelligence in the story is concerned esecially when compared to Hollywood’s horror output over the last year, or so.

Brigsby Bear (McCary; 2017)

Kyle Mooney is both the star and writer (along with Kevin Costello) of Brigsby Bear, the film which was featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is getting a good deal of buzz due to its creatively charming use of obviously very low budget visuals.  Mooney plays James, a man who for reasons I won’t go into has had a very stunted development, and who is obsessed with a children’s show called “Brigsby Bear”, a show which teaches lessons from the alphabet and counting to advanced factorials, why you shouldn’t masturbate more than once a day, and how to respect the personal space of others.  When James can suddenly no longer watch his beloved “Brigsby Bear” once a week, he takes it upon himself to write and film the show’s finale.

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The first thing to say about Brigsby Bear is that it is utterly charming.  This movie does not have a metaphorical mean bone in its entire metaphorical body.  Even the subjects which could take on a very dark tone, of which there are quite a few, are handled with a light touch.  The story could take on many dark and twisted turns to add drama and heft, but it wisely never goes down any of those roads giving us instead a wink letting us know the writers are fully aware they could have handed us a very dark film and purposefully decided not to.

The genre of Brigsby Bear defies description as it is a little comedy, a little drama, sort of a coming of age movie in which the person coming of age is already an adult, sort of a family drama, but the element the many different facets of Brigsby Bear have in common is that is always optimistic.  No one is ever mean to anyone else in Brigsby Bear, even though you would think the subject matter is screaming out for someone to play the curmudgeon, and the only real conflict is in the people surrounding James disagreeing with each other how best to help James overcome his unusual past and join the rest of society.   It’s a friendly world full of friendly people, and that on its own may be the most unusual and creative thing about Brigsby Bear.

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That is also Brigsby Bear‘s greatest weakness.  While it is highly unusual to see a film made up almost entirely of nice people doing nice things, that doesn’t make for gripping drama.  The biggest conflicts to be seen here are the younger sister getting a little snitty that her brother is a weirdo and the psychiatrist insisting that James stop thinking about “Brigsby Bear”, even though we know that’s not going to happen.  While it’s an interesting exercise to see a film that relies almost entirely on charm over tension, an hour and forty minutes is a long time for what is essentially a well written sit-com episode.

The cast of Brigsby Bear is an excellent mix of actors we haven’t seen around much in too long a time.  Other than Kyle Mooney who is in nearly every scene of the film, we also have Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear as a police detective who left behind his dreams of being a theater actor a long time ago, Claire Danes as James’ psychiatrist, Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as James’ parents, and even Andy Samberg poking his head in for what amounts to barely more than a cameo.  All do an excellent job at making us like them and communicating the “Always follow your dreams” message of the movie, but none really have a lot of meat to work with in the script, truth be told.  Again, everyone is great at being charming, but that’s all that is really asked of the cast.

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Final verdict:  Brigsby Bear with its seemingly endless supply of optimism and charm is a welcome diversion away from the standard Hollywood film, especially of late.  However, its lack of any sort of real conflict makes for an experience which does nothing more than make us smile at just how damn cute it is.  If you’re feeling especially down on people, Brigsby Bear may actually go a long way toward helping you out of that funk, and I expect that is largely the point of the film.  But, know that the only real adventure to be found here, is the adventure of seeing normal daily life from an unusual perspective.  Brigsby Bear does get a recommendation from me primarily because so many of us need some restoration of faith in humanity right now, but don’t expect this movie to be remembered long after it leaves theaters, it has the spark of creativity, but not the spark of greatness, unfortunately.

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts; 2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is called such because it is the first Spider-Man film since Marvel originally sold the rights to the character and those surrounding him to Sony way way back at the turn of the millenium.  Since then Sam Raimi has made three movies featuring the character being played by Toby Maguire, one of them actually really good, and Andrew Garfield took on the role twice, and was meant to play him a third time, but Sony realized they didn’t really know what they were doing.  So, while Sony did not give the rights to Spider-Man back to Marvel, they did turn to Marvel for help, and the result is an agreement in which Sony retains the rights to produce and distribute the Spider-Man solo films, but Marvel gets to include him in their cinematic universe, Sony gets to include the Marvel Universe in their films,  and Marvel oversees the writing on the solo films so that the character and the world he is in are done justice.  Spider-Man has left his bubble created by Sony and has come home to the world he began in.

We got to see a bit more than a glimpse of Marvel’s take on Spider-Man last year in Captain America: Civil War. and regardless of what you thought of the film as a whole, though it was well received, you were looked at really funny if you didn’t agree that Tom Holland was a fantastic choice as the actor to portray the wall-crawler, and that the writing of the character was spot on.  Now we get to see how Tom Holland does when he has to take the spotlight for more than twenty minutes, and when given the chance to anchor an entire story surrounding him, Tom Holland shines even more brightly.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming is more than just a superhero movie, it is also a coming-of-age character piece which uses the superheroic conflict as the means through which our teenage protagonist grows into, if not manhood, then at least his next stage in life.  Tom Holland gives us a spot on Peter Parker and Spider-Man, showing his vulnerability, his awkwardness, horrible luck, and his friendly but nerdy nature as Peter Parker, then changing into the wise-cracking, blustering superhero when the time comes as a means to hide what is really a lack of confidence.  This is a facet of the character that has been missed in all the earlier cinematic incarnations, the fact that his jokes are really just a way of covering up his inferiority complex, and it is fantastic to finally see it realized on the big screen.  Another part of the character that we apparently needed Marvel on board to see is his remarkable intelligence, and that we get here, too.  Only his youth and inexperience keep Peter Parker from being one of the preeminent brains in the universe of Marvel comics, and we see that in Spider-Man: Homecoming, as well, both his genius and the inexperience that holds him back.

A character piece is best when there is more than one strong character, however, and definitely get quite a few here.  I could write quite a bit about the crew of high school friends that surround Peter in his everyday life or about Marisa Tomei’s unique but great take on the now not-so-decrepit Aunt May because they are all very well written and acted, but instead I’ll tell you that Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes a.k.a. Vulture is not only a very well written and well rounded foil, I believe that he is the best villain yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though, not quite the Netflix shows).  While he may not have near the charm of Tom Holland’s Loki, he makes up for that in being a real person. This is the first Marvel villain with real motivations, real ambitions, and isn’t just a stereotyped cartoon that is around solely for the good guys to overcome.  Vulture in the comics is not only a bad villain, he is one of the worst villains ever put to page in 4 colors, however he is a good foil for the very early Spider-Man still learning his powers.  Spider-Man: Homecoming realizes this, modernizes the character, makes him far more threatening than just an old man in a suit that can fly, but not so threatening that The Avengers would take much notice of him. While this would probably be enough to make a good foe for Spider-Man’s first solo outing, they go the extra mile and make him a character with motives we understand and can even see ourselves going along with under the right circumstances as well as a character who challenges the teenage Spider-Man’s intelligence and ethics, allowing Peter Parker to grow as a person as well as as a superhero.

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But, if you go to a comic book movie to see action and characters are just a nice bonus, you still will not be disappointed.  The film spreads out its action set pieces at excellent intervals and all of them show off the agility, strength, intelligence, and big mouth of our favorite costumed arachnid.  Special effects have advanced a bit since Andrew Garfield’s turn in the red and blue suit, and an awful lot since Tobey Maguire’s day, and we can get a real sense of the speed Spider-Man has, as well as the limitations in scenes such as a hilarious bit in which Spider-Man finds himself in the countryside rather than the city and realizes he can’t swing on his webs to the rescue, like never before.  The action bits take on true creativity as Spider-Man and Vulture learn from one another over time and learn to counteract the regular strategies the other uses, making for action that relies on the intelligence of the pro and antagonist as much or more than on their superpowers.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is not content to be just a good action movie and character piece, though, it also is finally a well realized coming of age story.  It’s not a movie about beating the bad guy as much as it’s a movie about Peter Parker growing into the man he needs to be.  This is going to be a journey made over multiple films, so I don’t think this movie is meant to show us the end of his personal growth, but the true catharsis at film’s end is not that Spider-Man beats the bad guy, but how, and what he learns from this in his life as Peter Parker.

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The film does have some flaws.  The fact that it is in the Marvel Universe and the writing was overseen by Kevin Feige added a ton to the film, but the way Iron Man and Happy Hogan were included in the action was awkward.  Happy is given a role of Peter’s watchdog, which seems odd enough on its own, but then he performs these duties by acting as if he doesn’t want them.  Tony Stark himself, also, only seems to be in the movie as less a mentor and more a harsh critic until the end when he suddenly turns 180 degrees without our being shown the change of heart.  This all adds up to a really awkward and unnecessary tie in to the rest of the MCU which probably would have been best left out and merely hinted at.  They also do something odd with an incredibly iconic Spider-Man character, nearly as iconic as Spider-Man himself, that makes for a character who may as well be someone else entirely, just with the same name, and while we will have to wait and see how that plays out in future films, it just seems like a really unusual decision in a film that otherwise manages to nail nearly every major part of the Spider-Man mythos.

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Final verdict:  Spider-Man: Homecoming finally brings us the Spider-Man from the comics to the big screen, and does so in a way that isn’t merely action packed, but also thoughtful and with characters as well rounded and authentic as you could hope for in a comic book movie.   I left the theater knowing that I had just seen the best portrayal of Spider-Man himself ever put on screen, but not sure if the movie itself was better than Spider-Man 2, my favorite of the previous Spider-Man films.  I decided that not only was it better, but that it was a great movie for all the same reasons, just that they took everything Spider-Man 2 did to another level.  Yes, I did say Spider-Man: Homecoming is a great movie, and therefore I wholeheartedly recommend it to all but the most ardent detractors of the modern superhero movie.

Raw (Ducournau; 2016)

The major Hollywood films this week are Smurfs: Lost Village and Going in Style, the movie about three octogenarians robbing a bank which really just looks to be an excuse for Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin to get a paycheck.  I’m guessing these films already have a built in audience, while I admit to having no desire to see either of them, I would have if I thought either could aspire to be anything more than they appear and they should be written about.  Given their April releases and lack of critic preview screenings, however, I’m guessing that my instincts were absolutely on target.  Therefore, I decided I’d challenge myself a bit by seeing a French horror movie which has been getting some critical buzz, and challenge myself I did.  That challenge is the focus of this review.

The average moviegoer definitely has a niche they love and will seek out, whether that be action movies, comic book flicks, romantic comedies, animated films, and so on.  In their chosen genre, they will love nearly anything thrown their way, but if a film falls outside of their favored genre then our hypothetical average Joe will complain and complain about all the reboots, sequels, overused plots and actors, and the general lack of creativity in Hollywood overall.   Here are the top 10 U.S. box office grossing films of 2016:

  1. Finding Dory ($486.2 million)
  2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ($425 million)
  3. Captain America: Civil War ($408 million)
  4. The Secret Life of Pets ($368.4 million)
  5. The Jungle Book ( $364 million)
  6. Deadpool ($363 million)
  7. Zootopia ($341.2 million)
  8. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ($330.3 million)
  9. Suicide Squad ($325.1 million)
  10. Doctor Strange ($230.1 million)

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Here we have five superhero movies, four family friendly “animated” movies (animated in quotes because I’m counting The Jungle Book as one of the four), six sequels (and only two of those sequels being only the second in a series), and all but one is based on a property that existed before the movie was made.  This is not a commentary on the creativity, intelligence, nor quality of these films as a whole, I loved quite a few of these and while I felt quite a few weren’t all that great, none made a worst of the year list of any kind for me.  I also understand that families are the biggest market for films purely because it’s something they can do together and there is by definition more than two of them.  But, one thing these films have in common is that they present no challenge to the viewer whatsoever (I’ll grant you the exception of Zootopia on that, but I think that was more of a pleasant surprise than something which was expected of it and sought out by audiences).  In fact, if you look down the list of top grossing films you have to go all the down to number 31, and Arrival, before you find a film that truly presents any kind of challenge to its viewer.  This is exactly why Hollywood keeps giving you the same familiar movies over and over again.  Because those are the movies you watch.

With that information as a guide, Raw should be a film that no one sees.  I’m going to use the word challenging yet again to describe this movie, and I’m sure I will again, because at it’s core that is what this movie is and does.  It’s themes are complex, realistic, and difficult to completely unravel, it gives us relationships that are not typical, that don’t fit normal movie tropes, but seem all the more real for it, and it is hard to simply watch at times very literally with images that are bloody, uncomfortable, and grotesque.  The original title of this film was Grave, and I am glad it was changed because that single word Raw is a perfect description of what this movie is both on a literal and a metaphorical level.

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Raw is about Justine (Garrance Marillier) the younger of two siblings who has been raised in a family of vegetarian veterinarians. The film starts with her being dropped of by her parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) at the medical school her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) already attends.  After quickly meeting her new roommate (“I asked for a girl.” “You got a gay.  To these people that’s the same thing.”) Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) the hazing begins immediately as the older students begin terrorizing the “rookies” in a sort of friendly, sort of legitimately scary way, and after one of the hazing rituals in which lifelong vegetarian Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney, Justine finds herself changing and developing appetites she never knew she had.

Raw is billed as a horror movie, and while I won’t argue with that descriptor as this is a tense, gory, at times sadistic move, I would describe it as a coming of age movie which just happens to use horror as a vehicle to describe the transition into adulthood metaphorically rather than the more literal story telling typically used in a coming of age film.  On its surface, Raw is about a cannibal at a veterinarian college and the themes seem to be statements about meat being murder and how we can become addicted to the slaughter involved in the meat industry to the point where it becomes more impulse than conscious thought, and those are absolutely relevant themes in the film.  But, looking even deeper this is really a story about family, particularly siblings, and how we bring out both the best and the worst in each other and how much our family determines who we are even in ways we could never suspect.

While nothing in Raw is the pinnacle of artistry, everything here is well done.  The incredibly intelligent script is the best thing on display here, even if the dialogue is a bit clunky at times, the visuals are rarely art, but damn are they effective and change up styles effortlessly where needed adding to the tension and creepiness of the movie, and the acting is all well done, though in this case well done is better than most horror films and none of the performances reach any inspired level.

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My final take:   If you want a movie that challenges you in nearly every way a movie can, then Raw is absolutely a film that needs to be seen.  Every scene in this film has layer upon layer of subtext with relevant, uncomfortable themes bursting forth in every image and every added plot point.  But, be wary that this film is utterly grotesque and unflinching.  I guarantee you that at least some things in this movie will make you uncomfortable, and for the more squeamish out there you may have trouble looking at the screen at all for large chunks of the movie.  A further warning is that since this takes place at a veterinary school there are injured and dead animals in the movie, and I know that will bother many.  I don’t expect many to go see this film, I expect them to skip over this one while griping that movies never do anything original anymore.  Well, here you go.  Raw is well made, really smart, and completely original.  Now’s your chance.  It’s time for the American general audiences to put up or shut up, even though I know they won’t do either, and I actually understand the reasons why they won’t.

The Eagle Huntress (Bell; 2016)

In the mountainous wastelands of Mongolia live groups of nomadic tribesmen that have passed down the secret of bonding with and training the eagles that live in these harsh conditions to hunt the arctic animals indigenous to the area for food and fur so they can survive the brutal winters.  These secrets for generations have been passed down from father to son, but when the patriarch of the Kazakh family sees that his young daughter Aisolpan is a natural drawn to the art of eagle hunting he breaks with tradition and decides to train her.  He invites scorn and resistance from the elders of all the local tribes.  If this sounds like a fairly conventional story with the only truly unique take being the involvement of eagle hunting, you would mostly be correct, but this story has one more major difference – it’s not fictional, this is a documentary.

The first thing that needs to be said about The Eagle Huntress is that it is absolutely gorgeous.  The landscapes, while barren and harsh, are nonetheless beautiful to look at, the cinematography is artful and I can’t imagine how much footage had to have been taken and pored through to find a movie that looks as if every shot was planned and posed even when you know that can’t have been the case most of the time considering the subject matter, and the eagles themselves are truly awesome to see in action.  While I was given a real glimpse into their life, and saw the harsh conditions these people live in every day, the beauty of this movie and the connection these people still in this time manage to have with the nature around them made me wish I could be an eagle hunter.

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A connection with nature so intense, the people and the birds start to look alike.

The Eagle Huntress is also a story about the overcoming of long held prejudices.  Even the most far away tribespeople who have clung to long held traditions cannot escape the culture of the modern world, for better or for worse, and the changing of mindsets toward “the fairer and weaker sex” is spreading even to the remote area of Bayan-Olgii.  People can look at a young girl and recognize her as something more than a person who will be raised to cook, have babies, and care for the household while the men are off hunting (in fact, I believe the movie tricks us slightly as to how resistant men are to the idea of Aisholpan learning to hunt with eagles, but more on that in a little bit).  Aisholpan’s father doesn’t care that she’s a girl, he just cares that she’s been staring at the eagles her whole life and recognizes that she has a natural bond with them and decides that she is to carry on his legacy with no thought to anything else other than her happiness and her talent.  To see this bond between father and daughter, to see her confidence nurtured by her supportive family and her own natural talent, and to see her put to bed all doubts that a girl can do the same thing generations of only men before her can is the real heart of this piece.

I admit to having a few doubts as to the authenticity of the implied level of resistance to Aisholpan’s training that people feel throughout the film.  We are told over and over again that people would react harshly to her and that she would have to prove herself above and beyond what any man could do, but aside from a few harsh glances here and there and some raised eyebrows and quick laughs, most of the people in the film actually seem more intrigued and impressed with Aisholpan’s abilities than angry and resistant.  I wonder if the producers of the film just didn’t feel there was enough story without some form of antagonist, and so cut film and perhaps even staged a small handful of scenes in order to give the illusion that there was more anger at what Aisholpan and father were doing than actually existed.  I have no doubt that there were plenty of people with a “girls can’t and shouldn’t do this” attitude, but in the more obviously candid parts of the film I never saw much indication that people held much, if any, contempt toward Aisholpan or her father and actually seemed quite helpful and impressed.  While I don’t know for sure, I think the anger toward Aisholpan was mostly manufactured for dramatic purposes, and maybe to add to the girl power themes present in the film, and if that’s the case it really is too bad, as the story of a 13 year-old girl capturing, training, and hunting with an eagle in this incredibly harsh terrain is drama and girl power story enough on its own, in this critic’s opinion.

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Or maybe the outrage is real, and people just couldn’t tell Aisholpan was a girl right away underneath all those layers.

Often, the best documentaries aren’t those that teach a lesson or give a point of view, but manage to capture just the right slice of life at just the right time to give us a story as dramatic as the best fictions.  The Eagle Huntress is a coming of age story, a man vs nature story, a story about girl power and overcoming prejudices, a feel good movie, and a family drama all rolled into one, all with gorgeous images to look at and a fascinating culture to learn about.  And, the eagles, the majestic, gorgeous eagles that are so breath taking I don’t care that this is an incomplete sentence.

Rating:  8.0 out of 10