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Review of HEE HAW: PFFT! YOU WAS GONE (DVD)

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Grade: B-/B
Entire family: Yes
1969-74, 191 min. (4 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G despite occasional innuendo)
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C-/D
“Rindercella” clip
Amazon link

Hee Haw debuted in 1969 as the rural answer to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and while Laugh-In lasted two years longer on primetime network television, anyone who’s recently watched episodes from both shows knows that Hee Haw got the last laugh. Laugh-In’s gags were way too topical and tied to the news, or else they were silly catch-phrases that have long since lost their funniness. Either way, the show isn’t nearly as funny today, and you can bet your sweet bippy on it.

Hee Haw is another story. This show, hosted by country music stars Buck Owens and Roy Clark, was unapologetically devoted to cornball humor. Writers plumbed the depths of rural stereotypes for jokes that somehow managed to celebrate rural life while also poking fun of it. Like the Grand Ole Opry, the show had a group of talented regulars but also featured some of country music’s top stars and rising newcomers as weekly guests. It was a popular-enough series to last another 20 years in syndication, and it still plays pretty much the same now as it did then. Meaning, of course, that cornball humor never changes. The sketch comedy and rapid-fire jokes were corny then, and they’re corny now. How corny? You be the judge:

Doctor: I hate to tell you this, but your wife’s mind is gone.
Male patient: Well, that don’t surprise me. She’s been givin’ me a piece of it for the past 20 years.

Roy: Hey, you know I was in the army for three years?
Buck: Did you get a commission?
Roy: No, just a straight salary.

Cousin Clem: Junior, are you goin’ to the drawing at the movie theater in town tonight?
Junior: No, I think I’ll stay home and draw.
Lulu: Junior, you’re no artist. The only thing you could draw’d be flies.
Junior: I can’t draw no flies. They won’t hold still long enough.
Cousin Clem: I think I’ll take up finger painting.
Grandpa: What’s this family a-comin’ to? When I think of one of my kin talkin’ about paintin’ his fingers, I get real upset, I get real mad.
Lulu: I tell you what you could draw for me, Junior. Why don’t you draw the curtain?
Announcer: Be sure to tune in next time [ to”The Culhanes”], when we’ll hear Junior say:
Junior: I just drew a conclusion.

Of course, the delivery and the characters account for much of the humor, and with humor taking center stage it’s easy to forget that for a time Hee Haw was the biggest television venue for country performers.

Hee Haw: Pfft You Was Gone! is a two-disc set featuring four complete shows and two under three-minute interviews with Aaron Tippin and Moe Bandy, who performed as guests on the show, which was all about having fun. “If you made a mistake it was almost good,” said Bandy, who recalled that despite cue cards people would often muff their lines or ad lib.

Episode 2 (Season 1, 6-22-69)
Musically, Buck Owens, the Hagers, Don Rich, and Susan Raye sing “But You Know I Love You,” Merle Haggard sings “Mama Tried” and “Branded Man,” Roy Clark sings “Yesterday When I Was Young, Grandpa Jones sings “Mountain Dew,” Buck Owens and the Buckaroos perform “Happy Times,” and the Hagers chip in “With Lonely.” Among the sketches are several with The Culhanes of Kornfield Kounty, several KORN News Briefs and “Pfft! You Was Gone” mini-songs, a rhyming menu rundown of “Hey Grandpa, What’s for Supper?” and Archie at the barbershop telling the syllable-inversion story of “Rindercella.”

Episode 34 (Season 2, 10-13-70)
Special guest Marty Robbins sings “I’m So Afraid of Losing You” and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” Buck and the gang sing “Sing a Happy Song,” Roy Clark performs “Black Sapphire,” Connie Eaton sings “Ring of Fire,” Grandpa Jones performs “You’ll Make Our Shack a Mansion,” Buck and Susan Raye sing “Tennessee Bird Walk,” and The Hagers perform a song that in the Trump era of rural voters seems almost hard to believe: “Everything Is Beautiful,” sung to a room full of children of all nationalities (“Everyone is beautiful in their own way; under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find a way”). The usual assortment of recurring comedy sketches include “Pfft! You Was Gone,” KORN News Briefs, The Culhanes, What’s for Supper? and Stringbean reading a letter from home.

Episode 70 (Season 3, 2-12-72)
Porter Wagoner sings “What Ain’t to Be Just Might Happen,” Dolly Parton sings “Coat of Many Colors,” and together they sing “Right Combination.” Buck and the gang sing “Old Dan Tucker,” Buck and the Buckaroos perform “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” and “”I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me),” Roy and The Sound Generation perform “Peace in the Valley,” The Hagars sing “The Cost of Love Is Getting Higher,” Guinilla Hutton sings “He’s All I Got,” and a bunch of the cast performs “John Henry.” Junior Samples turns up on his used car lot for one sketch segment, and the “Pfft You Was Gone” musical tale of woe is augmented this time by another musical sketch that would become just as popular: “Gloom, Despair and Agony on Me” (If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all . . . Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me”

Episode 111 (Season 5, 11-3-73)
Country music royalty Tammy Wynette and George Jones are the musical guests, along with Johnny Bush. Jones sings “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Losing You),” Wynette sings “Kids Say the Darnedest Things,” together they perform “We’re Gonna Hold On,” Johnny Bush sings “Here Comes the World Again,” Buck and his Buckaroos perform “Too Much Water,” Roy and family perform “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” The Hagars “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” Roy sings “I’ll Paint You a Song,” and Buck and Susan Raye perform “I Think I’m Going to Like Loving You.” Wynette even subs for Gordie on a “Pfft! You Was Gone” segment. Among the sketches, Junior turns up on Samples Sales selling not just cars but watch dogs, and Minnie Pearl joins Grandpa Jones in the kitchen.

Hee Haw was originally intended for rural audiences and fans of country music, and that’s still the main audience for this classic show. If you don’t like country or corny jokes you might not hee-haw much. But it’s hard even for hardcore urbanites not to grin when Archie Campbell and Gordie Tapp assume an American Gothic pose and sing a ditty about a woman who left, with the deadpan, punchline chorus, “Where, oh where, are you tonight? Why did you leave me here all alone? I searched the world over and I thought I’d found true love. You met another and PFFT! you was gone.”

Review of A MERMAID’S TALE (DVD)

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Grade: C/C+
Entire family: Yes (technically)
2016, 92 min., Color
Family drama
Rated G
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

You could argue that Daryl Hannah revived Hollywood’s fascination with mermaids in the live-action 1984 romantic comedy Splash, which contained so much adult female nudity that it’s now really only appropriate for adults. Then came the engaging Australian TV series H20: Just Add Water, featuring three young women in their late teens that find themselves transformed into mermaids. Now we get a 12 year old who has her own mermaid encounter in the live-action film A Mermaid’s Tale. And if you remember the rule of thumb for movies aimed at children, the heroes are always slightly older than the intended audience. That means the 6-10 age group finally gets a live-action mermaid film to feed their fantasy side.

From a critic’s perspective, A Mermaid’s Tale is a C- at best. But young Caitlin Carmichael is likable as the female lead and the playful relationship she has with her father (Jerry O’Connell, who was the fat kid in Stand by Me) is more like the one Miranda Cosgrove had with her TV brother (Jerry Trainor). Because of that, and because the production values are surprisingly good, I think young girls in the target age group will probably find this movie entertaining enough to grade a B or B-. Considering that the film was made with them in mind, I’m comfortable giving A Mermaid’s Tale a compromise grade of C/C+.

Carmichael plays Ryan, a 12-year-old girl who moves with her father to a tiny California fishing town in order to help her aging grandfather, whom she hasn’t seen since she was very tiny. Even this early in the film, adults who watch with their daughters will be thinking, Really? I mean, if you don’t see someone for 10 years it usually implies that you’re estranged, and yet the only thing that seems strained in their relationship is their insistence on “caring” for the older man and forcing him to take it easy, since apparently his doctor put him on an aspirin regimen for his heart. If you care enough about a relative to relocate, why didn’t you care enough to visit over the past decade?

Then too, we’re told the fish left a LONG time ago, but everything in this quaint little town looks freshly painted and picturesque as a thriving tourist destination, not a depressed fishing village. The only remotely ramshackle thing is Grandpa’s boat, which has one panel on the hull that’s been primed but not painted. In the early going the plot will remind you a bit of the Flipper remake, in which an isolated boy forced to live someplace different finds a best friend in a dolphin. Only here, Ryan encounters a mermaid named Coral (Sydney Scotia) who had become briefly entangled in a net hanging inexplicably close to the dock. Though she keeps the mermaid business to herself, even more inexplicable is that Grandpa (Barry Bostwick) admonishes her for going to the docks alone. Someone her age shouldn’t be doing that, he and his son chide. Really? I mean, it’s not as if she’s so small she could fall in and drown, and the docks in this quaint little town aren’t exactly full of rough-and-tumble sailors, fishermen, or longshoremen. It’s a pier, basically, with a few boat slips, and an easy walk to cute little bakeries and cafes. Yet, just one day later when Grandpa insists that his son come with him on a two-day fishing trip, he suggests leaving Ryan on her own because “she’s old enough.” That’s not inconsistent at all, right?

The point is, if you’re an adult and you think too much, you’ll find plenty to criticize. If you’re a girl in the target age range, you’ll get caught up in the BFF giggling that a young girl and a young mermaid enjoy together. Grandpa blames the mermaids for chasing away the fish and now he’s determined to catch them to bring the fish back, and the queen of the mermaids (yes, there is such a thing) has warned her people to NEVER have contact with humans. So you basically have a situation where both girls are taking a walk on the wild side because they found a best friend—something that will certainly appeal to rule-following and friend-needy adolescents.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but most young viewers’ hearts will beat with excitement when Ryan is surprised to learn she’s able to hold her breath under water for a whopping 10
minutes! I can’t predict how a young audience will react when Coral takes Ryan to mermaid island, but people who saw the old Power Rangers TV series or grew up watching the campy Lost in Space episodes will recognize in the set and costumes an Irwin Allen hokeyness and smile. Try to ignore the continuity error where Coral is still wearing her own necklace in a scene after she and Ryan traded jewelry, or that near the end Ryan’s dad and his old-now-new girlfriend show up on the island, though we have no idea how they got there. Or that we see a Coast Guard cutter bearing down on the island and Dad mentions the Coast Guard, but they never arrive and the scene ends. If you can put aside those inconsistencies and the campy Power Rangers turn that the film suddenly takes, it’s a cute-enough family film. But really, A Mermaid’s Tale—a film that’s as wholesome as can be—is for young girls no older than age 10.

Review of THE SWAN PRINCESS: ROYALLY UNDERCOVER (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes . . . theoretically
2017, 79 min., Color
Children
Rated G
Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

Given the widespread popularity of the Barbie animated features, odds are that parents may be thinking The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is a knock-off of Barbie of Swan Lake (2003). If anything, it’s the other way around.

Former Disney animator Richard Rich (The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron) made his first adaptation of the Tchaikovsky ballet way back in 1994 with The Swan Princess, starring Michelle Nicastro as the Princess Odette, Howard McGillin as Prince Derek, and Jack Palance as the evil Lord Rothbart.

That debut turned into a mostly direct-to-DVD franchise for Nest Family Entertainment, which quickly followed with The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain (1997) and The Swan Princess: The Mystery of the Enchanted Kingdom (1998). Then, after a 14-year hiatus, they came back with The Swan Princess Christmas (2012), The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale (2014), and The Swan Princess: Princess Tomorrow, Pirate Today (2016). All of the Swan Princess sequels tend to fall in the same made-for-young girls ages 2 through 8 range. The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is no exception. But it is exceptional by comparison.

As recent titles suggest, the Swan Princess has migrated pretty far from the original film plot, in which Princess Odette and Prince Derek’s betrothal to unite kingdoms is jeopardized by the sorcerer Rothbart, who, though defeated, vows revenge. Years later he ambushes the royal couple by transforming himself into an animal and kidnaps Odette. He turns her into a swan during the day in order to keep her hidden from the world, and she can only become human again under moonlight on the lake. Eventually, after a Romeo-and-Juliet moment or two, Prince Derek is able to defeat Rothbart and break the spell.

Now the main characters are children, and those children are secret agents and pirates and Ninjas—whatever’s popular any given year. Most of the recent installments feel overly familiar to adults, not just because of that chasing-pop-culture aspect, but because so many elements seem to have been recycled from earlier Swan Princess entries, or else “borrowed” from other films. With this one, the borrowing seems to come from Disney’s Frozen, with a little Spy Kids thrown in for good measure—including a mini-submarine. Instead of a prince cozying up to a princess in order to gain control of a kingdom, as we saw in Frozen, it’s a scoundrel trying to woo an old dowager. Outfitted with gadgets from their own personal Q, it’s up to spy kids Lucas (Grant Durazzo) and Princess Alise (Jayden Isabel) to expose the plot. Along the way they’ll have to figure out who they can trust, and like Disney heroes they’ll have to rely on animal friends to help them, especially Puffin (Gardner Jaas).

It’s all pretty formulaic and the characters are stock types that we’ve seen many times before. But the animation is colorful, there’s enough action, music, and humor to keep little ones from getting bored, and (most importantly) the main characters are likable enough to make it an entertaining diversion for the target audience. Because the action is ramped up, the gadgets add interest, the story seems more logical and the animation seems more sophisticated, Royally Undercover is a cut above recent Swan Princess sequels.

Bottom line: If your children liked the other Swan Princess sequels, they’ll like this one as well. But older children may still roll their eyes. Royally.

 

Review of HEIDI (2015) (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2015, 111 min., Color
Family
Not rated (would be G)
StudioCanal
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German), Dolby Digital 2.0 (English)
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Walmart exclusive

Victorian-age literature is full of orphans. Dickens’ gave us David Copperfield, Pip, and Oliver Twist; Twain created Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; L. Frank Baum introduced readers to Dorothy in his Oz books; and Rudyard Kipling wrote about Kim and Mowgli. But the literary orphan who lived the most satisfying life was probably Swiss writer Johanna Spyri’s character, Heidi.

Since 1937, when Shirley Temple played the little Swiss orphan who bounces from place to place in picturesque Switzerland and Germany, there have been more than 20 different film and TV adaptations. But no one captures the spirit of the original 1881 children’s novel better than director Alain Gsponer and his team of German and Swiss filmmakers.

Shot on location in Germany and the Swiss Alps, this most recent and faithful adaptation—available exclusively at Walmart—does the most spectacular job of exploiting the scenery and Heidi’s natural capacity for unbridled joy. With a feel-good default that tends to rub off on most of the people around her, Heidi is a bit like a later American orphan made famous because of the Disney film by the same name: Pollyanna. But instead of playing a “glad game,” it’s Heidi’s positive attitude, helpful nature, and ever-present smile that win her friends. Then again, when your journey goes from living a rather idyllic existence in the Alps with your goatherd grandfather, then boarding with a rich German family in Frankfurt in order to keep their invalid daughter company, and finally back again to be reunited with Grandpa, it’s easier to stay positive than if you’re Dickens’ heroes slogging it out in the dirty and dangerous disease-filled streets of London.

The Alpine scenes in this StudioCanal film are a feast for the eyes, and Heidi is family-friendly with just one disclaimer: the film was made in German with English subtitles, so you have to do a bit of reading or else watch in dubbed English. That might not prove to be too big of a negative, since younger children accustomed to partially animated cartoons probably won’t be bothered by words and lips slightly out-of-synch, and children old enough to read well may find this version of Heidi the perfect first subtitled movie to tackle. It’s an easy-paced film with mostly short exchanges rather than long monologues, and none of the characters talks very rapidly.

It’s well cast, too, with Anuk Steffen radiant as the mop-haired Heidi, Bruno Ganz appropriately grouchy and initially standoffish as the grandfather, and Katharina Schüttler as the curt Frankfort governess. In the sixties, WGN-TV aired a series of movies called Family Classics with Frazier Thomas, and this 2015 film has a throwback feel to it. It’s as wholesome as can be, and that means the cutoff for kids is probably junior high age. This film feels older because it’s a costumed affair set in Victorian times, and that means junior high school students will think it too corny (or whatever the current vernacular is). But young children ought to enjoy Heidi.

Part of the appeal is that the story speaks to every child’s fantasy . . . not to be orphaned, of course, but to have an adventure that includes living in the mountains with animals and few rules, relatively free to enjoy your days as the goats graze. Forks? Napkins? What are those? You pick up your wooden bowl with two hands and you drink whatever’s in it. What child hasn’t dreamt of living in such a mountain paradise? Or being rich? If you’re going to be sent away as an orphan, there are worse fates than becoming a part of a rich household where you’re well cared for and treated like a guest rather than a servant.

Especially if you’re a girl, what’s not to like about having a friend your own gender and approximate age living in a big house where the mother is dead and the father travels most of the time, leaving servants to tend to your needs? And when your wheelchair-bound new friend expresses a desire to leave the house and break the overprotective bonds of her governess and father, what young girl wouldn’t secretly love to help her escape . . . even if it’s only for a few hours? It’s not exactly the prison Little Orphan Annie lived in, either. When the servants are occupied, Heidi simply pushes her friend out the front door to the nearby marketplace.

In the original novel, Heidi got her grandfather to pray again, but the religious element is downplayed in this lavishly produced adaptation. The emphasis isn’t on the grandfather’s redemption, but on Heidi finally finding a home. Feel-good classic? Yes, please.

MAMA’S FAMILY: THE MAMA’S FAMILY FAVORITES COLLECTION (DVD)

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mamasfamilycoverGrade: C/C+
Entire family: Yes, but…
1983-1990, 910 min. (37 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G-PG)
TV comedy
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

Mama’s Family was a spin-off of “The Family,” a series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show starring Burnett and Harvey Korman as a married couple saddled with Burnett’s character’s outspoken and overbearing mother, played by Vicki Lawrence. Lawrence donned a wig and spectacles and, as was typical of the sketch comedy to come out of Burnett’s weekly variety show, the character she played was more of a caricature. The sketches themselves were less realistic than they were the stuff of community theater, but those sketches were popular enough to prompt Burnett’s ex-husband, Joe Hamilton, to back a TV movie titled Eunice, which led to Mama’s Family.

With Burnett and Korman only making guest appearances, Lawrence drives the comedy with her over-the-top rendition of a feisty old woman who drinks beer from the can and juggles homespun quips and insults with equal ease. She’s not the only caricature, though, and the situations in this sitcom are so “sketchy” that I’m tempted to call it a sketchcom instead.

Mama’s Family placed as high as #28 its first season, but viewership dropped off so abruptly in Season 2 that the show was cancelled and revived in syndication, with four more seasons of episodes created. During the show’s six-year run (1983-1990), it earned two Emmy nominations—both for costume design—and won once. During that same period, sitcoms like Cheers, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, The Wonder Years, and Murphy Brown took home most of the awards.

This six-DVD set is a highlights collection, and NOT all episodes from the show’s six seasons. It features Lawrence’s favorite episodes, though her favorites don’t always match up with fan favorites as listed on a number of fansites.

mamasfamilyscreen1Season 1, for example, includes the episodes “The Wedding, Pts. 1 & 2,” “Family Feud,” “Cellmates,” “Positive Thinking,” and “Vin and the Kids Move In,” which fans also seem to like. But Fan favorite “Mama Gets a Job” is missing, while a lesser episode, “Mama’s Boyfriend,” is included.

For Season 2, “Rashomama,” “Mama Buys a Car,” “Mama Learns to Drive,” and “Gert Rides Again” are included, along with less popular episodes “Country Club” and “Dear Aunt Fran.” Missing are fan favorites “No Room at the Inn” and “Obscene Phone Call.”

The Season 3 episodes are fan favorites “Cat’s Meow,” “Where There’s Smoke,” “Steal One, Pearl Two,” and “Birthright,” along with the less popular “It Takes Two to Watusi.” Missing are “The Best Policy” and “An Ill Wind.”

From Season 4 there’s “Mama on Jeopardy,” “The Sins of the Mother,” “Zirconias Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and lesser episodes “Educating Mama” and “Mama Goes Hawaiian.” Missing are fan favorites “The Key to the Crime” and “Gift Horse.”

Season 5 offerings are fan favorite “Dependence Day,” “The Really Loud Family” and “Mama in One,” with lesser episodes “Naomi’s New Position,” “Found Money” and “Mama’s Layaway Plan” also included instead of fan favorites “April Fool’s,” “Ladies Choice,” and “Very Dirty Dancing.”

Season 6 features fan favorites “Mama Fights Back,” “Bye Bye Baby,” and “Bubba’s House,” along with “The Big Nap,” “Pin-Up Mama,” and “Look Who’s Breathing.” Missing are fan favorites “Mama’s Medicine” and “Now Hear This.”

These 37 episodes may be billed as “Mama’s Favorites,” but you have to wonder if there was a deliberate attempt to include episodes featuring two of TV’s “Golden Girls.” Betty White, whose popularity these days is beyond peaking, turns up in seven of the episodes, while Rue McClanahan also appears in seven. Meanwhile, five of Burnett’s six guest appearances are included here, along with all three episodes in which Korman appeared.

mamasfamilyscreen2The cast kept changing, with the first two seasons starring McClanahan as Mama’s sister Fran, who wrote for the local paper, and Ken Berry as Mama’s ne’er-do-well son Vinton, who has to move back in with her and brings with him his older daughter Sonja (Karin Argoud) and son Buzz (Eric Brown). Meanwhile, flirtatious next-door neighbor Naomi (Dorothy Lyman) takes a shine to Vinton and they start “cavorting.” Also appearing the first two seasons are Mama’s two daughters, Ellen (White) and Eunice (Burnett), along with Eunice’s husband Ed (Korman). Korman also doubled as Alistair Quince, who, in mock parody of Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke, introduced each episode with cheeky flair. When the series was rebooted for syndication, only Lawrence, Berry, and Lyman returned. Added were Allan Kayser, who played Mama’s delinquent grandson Bubba, and Beverly Archer, who played new neighbor Iola.

Though there was less bickering in syndicated episodes and attempts to let plot have a more influential seat at the table, the series still feels like sketch comedy stretched to 22 minutes, and because it’s so caricaturist and over-the-top you seldom forget you’re watching actors playing parts and speaking lines that were written by writers—even with situations that are more realistic than viewers saw the first few seasons. But just as The Carol Burnett Show has a dedicated following, Mama’s Family has its fans who could care less about realism and are inclined to not just overlook the show’s corny veneer but appreciate it for the hokey homespun family comedy it is.

Will it play for today’s families? My guess is no. It’s not sophisticated enough, the lines aren’t funny enough, plots don’t seem unique enough, and the characters aren’t the kind of smart ensemble that kids have grown used to seeing. The two episodes featuring TV game shows will still be fun for them to watch, and possibly “Rashomama,” which plays with the notion of multiple narrations. But generally, the laughs don’t come quickly enough for today’s family audiences. There’s a reason the show was cancelled after two seasons. Then again, Mama’s Family has a big following, and people who enjoy Tyler Perry as Madea may also love Vicki Lawrence as Mama.

THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (Blu-ray)

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eaglehuntresscoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes, if reading age
2016, 87 min., Color
Sony Pictures Classics
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Kazakh DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Like most 13-year-old girls, Aisholpan likes to paint her nails and hang out with friends. Though she enjoys school and wants to be one of the best students, like a typical teenager she also has a dream that’s more far-reaching.

But Aisholpan Nurgaiv is far from typical. She was born into a family of Kazakh nomads, who break down their tents and relocate based on the time of year, as 30 percent of the population does. She and her family live in the most isolated part of one of the most remote countries in the world—Mongolia—where the terrain is rugged and school is so far away that the children must stay in dormitories during the week, only returning home on the weekends. That leaves plenty of time for hanging out with friends . . . and dreaming.

eaglehuntressscreen1If your children aren’t averse to watching documentaries with subtitles, I can’t think of a better one for family movie night than The Eagle Huntress, a G-rated inspirational film that has a lot going for it: exotic setting, gorgeous cinematography, a likable teenage protagonist, a special father-daughter bond, and a natural dramatic arc that’s the result of Aisholpan’s very specific dream. She wants to become a golden eagle hunter like her father and grandfather, and his father and grandfather, and their fathers and grandfathers. It’s an all-male party she’s trying to crash, but what makes this film heartwarming is that she has the support and encouragement of her family. Elders in the golden eagle hunting community appear on camera to express their displeasure, but that’s not enough to stop Aisholpan or her father, Rys, who takes pride in training her, or her grandfather, who gives her a blessing.

So what is an eagle hunter? There’s both a practical and a traditional/ceremonial side to it. Eagle hunters train a 15-pound golden eagle to hunt foxes during the winter months so the family can use the furs for clothing. To hunt foxes in this manner requires long horseback rides and climbs into the remote mountain areas. It requires great stamina and the ability to withstand icy conditions and temperatures of -40 degrees F. Even getting an eaglet to train is dangerous business, as we see when Aisholpan is captured on camera obtaining hers. But Eagle hunting is also a proud tradition and a celebration of a way of life, and every year eagle hunters gather to compete for the championship. So really, this film has a familiar training-for-the-big-event structure that we see in sports films, only the competition involves eagles. Call it a Mongolian rodeo.

Director Otto Bell and his skeleton crew (and equally skeletal budget) do a wonderful job of capturing life as it’s lived in the remote Altai Mountains and also telling Aisholpan’s story. It may be a documentary, but it’s a dramatic documentary, and it doesn’t end when the competition ends. It ends when Aisholpan meets all the challenges of an eagle hunter head-on—and that includes riding off with her father to try to get her first fox. And since the filmmakers use a Red Epic HD camera, drone, and small POV camera to capture her journey, the production values are as rich as the landscape and subject matter.

eaglehuntressscreen2I said this was an inspirational film, and it is. The temptation would be to call it a film about women’s empowerment, but I agree with Aisholpan and her father. It’s not about men and women. It’s about a person doing what he or she was meant to do, about rising to the challenge, about finding the strength to accomplish what some say is impossible. Yes, it’s about Aisholpan’s dream, but it’s also about good parenting—of being supportive and patient and instructive in ways that uplift and encourage.

The Eagle Huntress is a feel-good movie, whether you’re observing children in a remote school in Mongolia or watching some amazing footage of young Aisholpan as she uses her hand like a cobra to hypnotize a young eaglet before she wraps it in a blanket to take from its nest. If your family likes Animal Planet shows, this film will probably be of interest just because of the main focus on the bond that handlers form with their eagles, who spend a good percent of their lives in the same house as the family. That in itself is pretty amazing to see.

Now, convincing jaded teens to watch a documentary like this might be as much of a challenge as Aisholpan faced, because American children gravitate toward fiction. But it’s really an unobtrusive documentary. Though Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) narrates, the voiceover isn’t constant. Director Bell trusts his subjects to tell the story, with narration used to fill in gaps. My sense is that the best age group for this documentary will be those whose dreams are still being shaped—children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—in part because children always like to watch stories of those who are older than they are.

ANTARCTICA: ICE AND SKY (DVD)

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antarcticaiceandskycoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but….
2015, 89 min., Color/B&W
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: French/English Dolby Digital 5.1 w/subtitles
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Claude Lorius is a glaciologist. Over a 60-year career he has participated in more than 20 polar expeditions—not only to study glaciers and glacial movement, but also to drill deep down into their near-timeless cores to analyze the ice from different time periods. What they reveal is fascinating, and one of the film’s memorable moments comes when we’re taken into an archive of core-drill ice samples all stacked in rows on shelves according to samples dated by their air bubbles—some of them going back 800,000 years. Lorius began his study of glaciers in 1956 as a 23-year-old man, but as early as 1965 his research was telling him something disturbing. Long before the polar caps began to melt, Lorius was predicting that they would because of the appearance of so-called greenhouse gasses in the ice samples he was taking, and the way those gasses altered the composition of the ice.

There’s no denying that the work Lorius does is fascinating science, unless you’re a U.S. politician who denounces anything that gets in the way antarcticaiceandskyscreen2of the economy. But it’s not very compelling as drama. Antarctica: Ice and Sky, a film by Luc Jacquet that closed the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, is a treatise on global warming that’s frankly dull in spots. The dialogue is overwritten and often stilted, and there aren’t enough shots of Antarctica in HD—with far too much of the film relying on grainier archival footage from earlier expeditions. What Lorius and others do may be fascinating as scientific research, but so much of that research is repetitive and the progress so glacial itself that there isn’t anything close to a dramatic structure to be found here.

I found myself liking the “making of” feature almost as much as the film itself. That one man would dedicate his life to the study of glaciers under such extreme conditions all but boggles the mind—almost as much as the idea director Jacquet had to tell the story of Lorius’s research and dedication by taking him back to the place he loves. That’s right: taking a frail, 83-year-old man to the Antarctic again, where the temperatures are the coldest on earth. The lowest temperature recorded at Vostok Station, the base camp where a good deal of the film was shot, was -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The altitude alone—12,800 feet—is enough to tax younger men, let alone an octogenarian.

Seeing Lorius in the present-day talking about his work is inspirational. There is much to admire in the man, and what the vintage footage does and antarcticaiceandskyscreen1does well is to show details of life as scientists live it in extreme isolation while working under extreme conditions. It’s a rare glimpse into everyday life that this film provides, and that’s a big plus. Another plus is that the film has a social conscience. It pays proper tribute to a man who has dedicated himself to studying glaciers and sharing his results with a world that too often denies science when it gets in the way of business. This film is recommended for families with children who are interested in becoming scientists, and for those lawmakers who seem to think that they know more than someone who’s spent 60 years doing meticulous and documented scientific research.

But Antarctica: Ice and Sky is not recommended for those who enjoy travel and place documentaries—though there are some amazing shots of night sky. Nor is it for those who enjoy nature films and hope to see plenty of the pole’s famed penguins. Though Jacquet also directed March of the Penguins, and though penguins do make a few appearances, Antarctica: Ice and Sky is mostly about the pursuit of science under the most horrible conditions imaginable. It’s a film about a man and his work and others who share his passion and his commitment to research. As such, it’s worth watching, but the man himself is more compelling than this film. If you are concerned about climate change (one reason why, one supposes, current female researchers protested Trump the day after his inauguration), Antarctica: Ice and Sky does a good job of explaining and illustrating how scientists are able to draw their conclusions. And if you aren’t? Then you might as well rent Frozen. In the future, animation might be the only way you’ll see a landscape like this.

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