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The Other Summer Movies: Documentaries to Make You Gasp, Laugh, Cry, and Cheer

Posted on June 24, 2011 at 8:00 am

I love summer movies with their crashes, chases, explosions, superheroes, and sequels as much as anyone, but after a while they all run together.  But good documentaries are unforgettable.  There is something about real-life characters inviting us into their lives as they pursue their dreams and passions that is electrifying.  You sit down in the theater, wondering how you could ever become emotionally invested in a story abut spelling or Donkey Kong or pastry or jump rope or high school basketball and ten minutes later you are completely enthralled.  I’ve seen an extraordinary group of documentaries in the last couple of weeks on subjects from hip-hop to gospel to a teen poetry slam to Irish dancing, from a horse whisperer to a once-dominant, still monumentally influential business struggling to stay alive.  All take us to worlds that are in one way completely strange, even bizarre, and yet in a much more profound way they all take us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our own world.  And all are highly recommended.

Jig” Director Sue Bourne says she likes to find “the extraordinary in the ordinary” and she succeeds in taking us to the world championships of Irish dancing.  Family and friends range from bewildered to enthusiastic — often both, as competitors dedicate their lives to the intricate steps of an ancient discipline.  Watch the body language of the mothers as they watch their daughters, not even aware of the way their chins and shoulders move slightly along with the dancers, and the faces of the dancers as the maddeningly complicated scores are announced and everything tries to figure out how they add up.  The characters are unforgettable, especially the two top 10-year olds, who demonstrate not only more talent, dedication, and competitive spirit than the adults, but more dignity, grace, and class as well.  I predict one of them will grow up to be a star performer.  The other may grow up to rule the world, and we’d be all the better for it.

Buck” “A lot of times instead of helping people with horse problems,” says Buck Brannaman.  “I help horses with people problems.”  Brannaman, the inspiration for the book The Horse Whisperer and the Robert Redford movie teaches people how to teach horses through kindness and compassion, recognizing that sometimes that means that the people have to find a better understanding of themselves first.  After his mother’s death, his alcoholic, abusive father made Buck and his brother into the youngest rodeo stars, performing their rope tricks in a Sugar Pops commercial.  When Buck took his shirt off in PE, the coach called the sheriff, and Buck was placed with foster parents who took in 27 boys.  He took what he learned from that experience about the transforming effect of kindness and knowing you have a job you can do well, and brought that to his work, to his life, and to the lives of many other people and horses.

Life in a Day” On July 24, 2010, all over the globe, people made movies about themselves and their families and communities and sent them to award-winning directors Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) and Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”) to assemble into a mosaic portrait of our world.  There are the daily routines we all share, waking, breakfast, brushing our teeth, going to work and school.  There are once in a lifetime moments — a marriage proposal, a bawdy 40th anniversary celebration.  A frail hospital patient is glad to be alive.  A man has to say goodbye to the friend who saved his life.  Costumed Comic-Con attendees, a solitary world-traveling bicyclist, a shoeshine boy, share their lives for a moment.  Wrenching loss and the quotidian commonplace collide in a morning ritual for a Japanese father and son that includes a ceremony in the quiet corner of their home that holds the shrine for the wife and mother who died.  This is a stunning self-portrait of human life.

Rejoice and Shout”  It’s about time that there was a loving tribute to gospel music.  Of course even a 10-part minseries would just scratch the surface so there is no way to cover it all in one film  but director Don McGlynn wisely opted for a little less history to make room for full-length performances by gospel greats, some not seen for decades.  This is a heart-lifting joy from beginning to end.

Louder than a Bomb” Chicago hosts the biggest teen-age poetry slam competition in the world and co-directors  Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs take us inside to see high school students turn their lives, many filled with loss and hardship, into poetry that brings an audience to its feet.  The students bring their passion and their stories.  The poetry guides their voices to make them transcendent.

Beats, Rhymes, and Life” Actor Michael Rapaport directs the story of the rise and fall of 90’s hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest.  What made it great was the differences its four members brought to the sound.  What tore it apart was the differences they brought to everything else.  Hot-tempered, impulsive Phife Dawg, businesslike, perfectionist Q-Tip,  Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who loves to add arcane jazz and blues tracks to the songs and the ebullient Jarobi came together for a brief moment to make music of great power and influence.  But what held them together as teenagers did not work as they became successful and wanted different things.  They broke up, and then tried to reunite to help Phife Dawg with his medical bills.  This movie will resonate with ATCQ fans and with people who have never heard of them because it is not just about the music; it is about the people.

Page One” A documentary crew followed the reporters and editors of the New York Times for a year and the result is a fascinating, if sometimes incoherent and frustrating look at a business, a mission, and an industry in turmoil.  It’s like three movies in one.  The first major Wikileaks documents are made public, inspiring one of the most telling and poignant lines in the film: “The difference between this and the Pentagon Papers is that Daniel Ellsberg needed the New York Times.  Julian Assange does not.”  While that turns out not to be true — it is incontrovertible that the New York Times plays an essential role in assessing and reporting on the Wikileaks data dump — it is true that there have been fundamental changes since the days when the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal demonstrated the vital role and powerful impact of newspapers.  In this film we see media reporter David Carr write about a new partnership between respected if stogy CNN and “we now how to appeal to young viewers” sensationalist Vice, briefly interrupting an interview for a highly unprofessional but undeniably satisfying rebuttal when one of the arrogant Vice “journalists” dares to attack the Times.  He writes about mismanagement of the Tribune Company under real estate mogul Sam Zell, the expose arguably leading to the departure of Zell’s deputy.  And we follow one of the Times’ newest hires.  As cuts lead to the departure of experienced, distinguished journalists, they bring on a 21-year-old whose tweets and blog posts on television news has been scooping them.

Conan Can’t Stop”  Conan O’Brien lost his dream job as host of “The Tonight Show” after only seven months.  And he was not allowed to appear on television for six months under the terms of his buy-out.  So of course he decided to do his first-ever live comedy show, the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television tour.  It is as fascinating to see the show come together as it is to see O’Brien work through his anger, bitterness, and insecurity as he learns about comedy tours, interacts with his staff and his fans (gently correcting a teen who uses an anti-Semitic slur) and gets visits from celebrity friends.  Two highlights, Jack McBrayer’s impromptu clog dance when O’Brien starts playing “dueling banjos” and Eddie Vedder’s sensational rendition of “Baba O’Riley.”

 

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Interview: Buck Brannaman, the Real Horse Whisperer

Posted on June 23, 2011 at 8:00 am

I loved “Buck,” the new documentary about Buck Brannaman, the real-life horse whisperer who inspired the book and movie.  The film is extraordinarily moving.  Buck’s gift for animals is a wonder, but it is his understanding of people and his own inspiring recovery from abuse that make it so stirring.  It was a genuine privilege to speak with him.

You were training the people on how to deal with the horses, not the horses on how to deal with the people.

Sometimes they don’t realize that when they come to the clinic.  They think we’re going to fix the horse.  But pretty soon they realize the problem is not really about the horse.  It’s really about them.

I love the appearance by your foster mother.

She’s the best.  I can hardly watch the last few minutes of the movie with her in it without crying.  She’s 88 years old now.  And then when there’s a Q&A after the screenings I always go up there crying.  Her and her husband moved to the ranch after WWII.  It’s a small ranch, nothing grand, and they struggled for many many years from one month to the next.  I don’t think they ever had any money to speak of but they always had an open door for kids, long before there was a formal foster care program.  They were the place where people dumped their kids off when they couldn’t get along with them, when they couldn’t get anything accomplished with them, like you might dump off a kitten at a ranch because it could turn out to be a barn cat.  They had four kids of their own and then 17 other boys they raised over 40 years.  I was the last one.

You tell a very moving story about how much it meant to you the first day with your foster parents when your foster dad handed you a pair of work gloves.

I was scared when I met my foster dad because of the horrible experiences I had and the best thing he could do for me was not to put a lot of time into feeling sorry for me.  He knew I needed some direction and a job to do.  I needed something so I could move on.  He knew if we dwelled there too long it was going to be nothing but negative for me.  He did the same thing for me I tell people to do with the horses that are troubled.  We can’t do anything about what happened yesterday or last year but we can live in the moment and do something about it right now.  So we give him a job to do and pretty soon he has something else to think about.

My husband and I are both old enough to remember the TV commercial you made when we were kids.

It’s amazing how many people our age still remember that!  In those days you looked forward to watching cartoons Saturday morning all week long.

Has there ever been a horse you couldn’t handle?

I’ve never found one I couldn’t handle, or couldn’t help.  But occasionally someone will bring a horse to the clinic that is so far out of their league based on their experience.  If they had another couple of thousand horses under their belt than maybe you could do this horse some good.  Sometime the human doesn’t have what they need to help the horse.  It all comes from the horse.   Tom Dorrence, who really was the godfather of this kind of horsemanship, he spent his entire life studying horses and trying to find a way to work with the horse as if he made up the rules how you’d help him to understand, to teach a horse what you’d like him to do.  And being real, it’s not always going to be fuzzy and warm.  Sometimes there’s going to be trouble and struggles but that’s true in all relationships.  It’s true in raising kids.  It’s not always going to be Mayberry RFD.  But you do the best you can.  You try to be as engaged as possible so that when they’re ready for redirection you are there to put them on the right path.

I get everything from Olympic riders and dressage to ranch cowboys to people who ride for pleasure.  The demographic of horse owners spans from one end to the other.  There are places in the country where people still make their living on a horse.  Sometimes the cowboys are the least likely to listen or get advice.  Whatever you’re talking about, the male ego can kind of get in the way.  All of us men have to deal with that one time or other.

And all of us women have to deal with you men dealing with that!  I love the scenes with you and your daughter.  You’re clearly so close and have such a loving, trusting relationship.

I never get tired seeing that.  I always had an idea of the dad I hope I would turn out to be, nothing like my own dad, and I always figured these things applied to people as well as horses.  Even before I had kids I would draw that analogy to people because they could relate to it.  In the back of my mind I always thought, “I sure hope this applies the way you say it does!”  And sure enough it did.

What do you hope people will take away from the movie?

The big picture is that these things apply whether you’re talking about people or horses.  It’s about taking responsibility rather than shirking, that’s true whatever you might be talking about.  And, to be honest, I’m hoping that of all the people who might be seeing this, maybe there will be a handful that might get the idea, “I don’t care so much if I can be like Buck, but I sure would like to be like Betsy and step up and give a kid a home, someone that nobody cares about and nobody wants.”  If that came of it, wouldn’t that be cool?

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