Friday, December 16, 2016

Soaring, Stunning, Exhilarating!

Review: The Eagle Huntress, documentary film by Otto Bell

From the opening scenes, breath-takingly beautiful scenery and uplifting emotions carry to the skies this lovely film about a young woman in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia who seeks to follow her father's and grandfather's footsteps, and become an eagle hunter, despite long tradition that limits this role to men only.

Director Otto Bell and his film crew have done an outstanding job of letting the harsh landscape, the demands of life on the mountains and steppes, and the stunning courage of 13-year-old Aisholpan and her family, inform every part of this incredibly moving story.

I actually teared up at the beginning, watching an eagle hunter (Aisholpan's grandfather) release an eagle back to the wild after seven years of hunting with it. Then the tears struck again at the memorial credit at the end of the film.

In between, the thrilling saga of the girl's dream—and her work—to capture an eaglet, train it and herself, and compete in the national Eagle Hunters Festival in Ulgii is told simply and with little pontificating. Like all successful dreamers, Aisholpan doesn't let the negative feedback from more traditional-minded Eagle Hunters keep her from pursuing her goal.

The choice of a Sia song for the closing credits, Angel by the Wings, is totally appropriate:
You can, you can do anything, anything
You can do anything
You can, you can do anything, anything
You can do anything
Look up, call to the sky
Oh, look up and don't ask why, oh
Just take an angel by the wings...

This film is only in "art cinemas" rather than a wider release, so we drove in pouring rain to a neighboring town and climbed three flights of stairs to watch it in a local cinema. Ken Cummings, who suggested the film, and I, with our respective spouses joined three other people to watch the matinee showing in the tiny theater.

Despite these drawbacks (limited release into smaller venues, English subtitling, lack of Hollywood "names" being involved—although Daisy Ridley, "Rey" of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, provides the narration), I predict the film will do well. It deserves to. And with a G rating, this is a much better choice for family viewing at Christmas than some films in theaters over the holiday (Rogue One, and Assassin's Creed, to name two), and if the word gets out about it, it may even hold its own against heavyweights like Disney's Moana and J.K. Rowlings' Fantastic Beasts and Where to FInd Them.

I believe adults who take their children will also thoroughly enjoy The Eagle Huntress, which is more than I would commit to for either of the other two kid-friendly films.  

Post-Brexit Romp

Review: 54th State by Ian Thompson

Start with a now-American rocker named Tristan Beaver, politically and scientifically clueless, with his celebrity space shot. While Mars and the Moon are old-hat destinations on a well-travelled route, Beaver will make a splash with a crew of non-astronaut groupies and a startling destination: Jupiter's Red Spot.

Add a paradigm-busting US president whose idea of a great deal is to purchase new states (most recently, Cuba), plus a hopelessly incompetant British government surviving only by the efforts of mid-level clerk-assistants, with a post-Brexit space program hoping to be revitalized by Beaver's probe—all the elements needed for a romp. 

Okay, Beaver is not a former Canadian (despite the evocative title of the first paragraph: "Rock Stars, Eh?"), but is instead from rural-industrial England. He became an American, we learn, to avoid British taxes. 

And the free-market-dealing US President is a Libertarian—and a one-time member of Beaver's entourage. (Thompson would appear to have been equally taken by surprise by the recent US election results; his clueless Brit politicos refer on more than one occasion to "that lady President" who preceeded the current fictional holder of the office.)

The resulting farce is rollicking, hilarious, and satisfyingly irreverent in the way all good political comedies are. The Brexit result is called upon to explain the dire finances of Britain, and the ham-handed financial finagle of their treasury chief takes care of the rest. The interplay between the Prime Minister, Sir Barnaby Chamberlain, and the actual chief mover of the government, his aide Forbes, parallels that government's supposed philosophical dissonance with the British electorate.

Wrapped inside this satirical goofiness is a serious thread: a terrorist threat, the struggle of the Beaver Probe's crew to survive their ridiculous mission in a sabotaged spcecraft, plus a truly unexpected twist that takes the reader by surprise. It keeps the story from disintegrating into sniggers and stereotypes.

In fact, my next act after finishing this book was to buy Thompson's previous novel, EZICASH (subtitled How to usurp a totalitarian behemoth with a monkey wrench.) At less than a dollar, the purchase was another steal, and I look forward to reading his "satirical look at Health and Safety mixed with greed." 

I'll have to wait for my sides to stop aching from laughter before I undertake the next journey into his hilarious take on British politics!

Liner Notes:

I nominated 54th State in the Kindle Scout program, but since it was not selected, I purchased it for the princely sum of 99 cents. That's US pennies, by the way. Once again the program has introduced me to an author who has joined my "read everything by" list. If anyone wonders how I manage to read 200 to 300 books a year, the Kindle Scout program is a serious factor in feeding my To-Be-Read stack!

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Quality of Light

Review: Penric's Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

This novella abounds with observations on light and the lack of it. Clarity of vision is contrasted with the blinding of a central character; the thrilling quality of an illuminated sky is juxtaposed with absolute darkness in a dungeon in the same city. For travelling cleric Penric with his demon companion Desdemona, this contrast is thrust upon them when the two (who share a single body, Penric's, are siezed in the course of a diplomatic mission, and shoved unceremoniusly into a dungeon oubliette. Penric's captors mean to prevent him from using powers lent by his demon indweller. 

Instead, they force the two to expand those powers to create "action at a distance." Penric and Desdemona must visualize the flow of water through cracks in the rock surrounding them, and call on the Fifth God's love of chaos and dissolution to escape.

Further chaos and destruction ensue when Penric meets a young widow focused on helping her brother, the popular general who was the focus of Penric's mission. General Arisaydia has been deliberately blinded to set a hideous example for his men. As a martyr, he might become a rallying point; as a maimed man dependent on his sister, he is an object of pity.

Penric spends weeks hiding out with the two, determined to reverse the general's maiming. He hopes the cure will convince the general (and his sister) to come with him to the Duke of Adria, which will complete his mission. With the Bastard God and Desdemona involved, however, nothing could ever proceed as planned...

I loved the astute way Bujold played with physical and mental vision, using philosophical and emotional light and darkness as characters in her novel. Like a previous Bujold star, Miles VorKosigan, Penric is an intelligent young man with a crippling disability, whose story is always woven with dark threads of the reaction of others to his impairment, and the bright threads of his overcoming it. 

Penric has far to go; I look forward to accompanying him on the next leg of his journey.