Soaring over the Mongolian steppe, The Eagle Huntress opens with an IMAX-style montage that immediately establishes an organic connection with the natural world. This same sense of wonder fills the eyes of 13-year-old Aisholpan, the determined Kazakh girl who decides to learn the age-old Mongolian tradition of eagle hunting dominated for centuries by men. With the help of her father, Nurgaiv, she catches and trains her own eagle before competing in the countrywide contest against an all-male pool of contenders.
Like a feature-length segment on Nat Geo, director Otto Bell's debut documentary is a well-meaning hodgepodge of sweeping aerial shots and thinly veiled staging about themes that deserve more substantial treatment. At times, Aisholpan does seem cognizant of her status as a feminist symbol breaking down gender barriers in the face of overwhelming odds. She takes special pride in denouncing the legion of elders who represent conservative values and provide the film's inadvertent comic relief.
But during some of the most pivotal scenes—like the extended fox-hunt climax—she appears to be a passive subject being pulled along for the ride. The directorial manipulation in The Eagle Huntress is incredibly high, noticeable in the extreme overcutting of action scenes and actor Daisy Ridley's strategically placed voiceover narration. Aisholpan and Nurgaiv's individual voices are consumed by the overall trajectory of what ends up being a pedestrian sports film arc.
While cultural and familial conflicts are mentioned briefly, they always play second fiddle to epic scope of mountain ranges or the impressive wingspan of swooping birds of prey. Such visual majesty may make The Eagle Huntress, which opens Friday Nov. 11, an easy sell to mass audiences. But it also confirms Aisholpan, her family and community, as exotic "others" to be observed from afar. For historical context, check out Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North.
Almost Christmas: Gabrielle Union stars in this drama about a dysfunctional family that gathers for the first Thanksgiving since their mother died.
Arrival: Amy Adams is a linguist recruited by the military to communicate with alien life forms that have just landed on Earth.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: After a harrowing battle in Iraq a 19-year-old soldier is brought home to conduct a victory tour that conjures up traumatic memories of loss. Directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Do Not Resist: Filmed over two years in 11 states, this film examines the increasingly disturbing realities of the rapid militarization of police forces in the United States. Opens Friday, Nov. 11, and runs through Thursday, Nov. 17, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Loving: Set in 1958, Jeff Nichols’ drama follows the trials and tribulations of an interracial couple (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) who are sentenced to prison for getting married in Virginia.
Miss Hokusai: Keichi Hara’s animated film is about the life of artist and ukiyo-e painter Katsushika Hokusai as seen through the eyes of his daughter. Opens Friday, Nov. 11, at Ken Cinema.
Shut In: A widowed psychologist (Naomi Watts) must find a way to rescue a young boy before he disappears forever during a winter storm.
The Eagle Huntress: Kazakh teenager Aisholpan becomes the first female to compete in the age-old male-dominated sport of eagle hunting in this visually stunning documentary.
The Monster: Two women stranded in the woods must fight off a terrifying monster in Bryan Bertino’s horror film. Opens Friday, Nov. 11, and screens through Thursday, Nov. 17, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
We Are X: This documentary by Stephen Kijak concerns X Japan, one of the most successful unsung bands in the world. Opens Friday, Nov. 11, and screens through Thursday, Nov. 17, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
One Time Only
Café Society: Woody Allen’s latest comedy features Jesse Eisenberg as a nebbish New Yorker who dreams of making it big in 1930s Hollywood. Screens at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 11 and 12, at Cinema Under the Stars in Mission Hills.
Fantastic Planet: In this 1973 classic sci-fi blue giants rule a majority of humanoids that eventually rebel against their masters. Screens at 11:55 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12, and at 11 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at Ken Cinema.
Casablanca: Humphrey Bogart’s ornery bar owner falls in love with Ingrid Bergman’s damsel in distress during the opening stages of WWII. Screens at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, at Oceana Coastal Kitchen in San Diego.
Jerry Maguire: Tom Cruise plays an arrogant super agent who leaves his life of privilege behind when he meets a charming young woman (Renée Zellweger) with a precious little boy. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.