Monday, September 19, 2011

"Buck" A Pret'near Perfect Picture

As a rule, I don't review documentaries. But I'm making an exception because, "Buck," is one of the most inspiring films I have ever seen.

"Buck" is pret'near perfect picture. You have your likeable hero, Buck Brannaman, a wounded soul who overcame an abusive childhood and personal weaknesses to forge a better path in training horses. When he started his horse clinics, he couldn't even look people in the eye but he grew to be a gifted teacher. And, boy, is it entertaining. At six, Buck was a professional trick roper. There are nostalgic clips of him on “What's My Line” and as the spokesman for Sugar Puffs cereal. He was the inspiration behind the movie, “The Horse Whisperer.” Robert Redford talks about working with Buck on the set. When the Hollywood trainer couldn't get the trick horse to perform the action needed for the scene, Buck got his own horse to do it in 15 minutes. The horse came right up to young Sharlett Johansson and put it's head against hers. It brought the whole crew to tears.

Buck is very intuitive in his understanding of horses. He demonstrates a way to train the horse that the animal can relate too. “It is all a dance,” he says. It's about trust and balance, not about force. He's looking for the horse to follow his “feel.” Before he even gets on the horse, he has the horse on the end of the lead rope (with a bit of slack) and directs it.

There is a history of abuse in training horses - the very idea that a man has to “break” this big animal to show that he is stronger. It takes a tortured soul to understand the abuse these animals have gone through. Having survived being abused himself, Buck is sensitive to their reaction to being “broken.” Buck explains “When something is scared for it's life, I understand that.”

Buck has risen above his traumatic upbringing. His experience taught him to be an empathetic reader of horses and people. And he deals with all kinds – colts that have never been ridden to troubled stallions. “A lot of the times instead of helping people with horse problems, I'm helping horses with people problems,” he shares. “All of your horses are a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see.” In a dramatic, heartbreaking sequence, he confronts the wounded owner of a vicious, out of control animal. “Maybe there's some things for you to learn about you. Maybe the horse is gonna be the only damn way you're gonna learn it.”

Director Cindy Meehl
Animal activist/Director Cindy Meehl wrangles the humanity out of Buck's job. Through working with their horses, the owners are transformed. They learn to let go of trying to force their will on others. “If you find a way to fit this thing right here, it'll make you better. It'll make you better in areas you didn't think related to horses.”

You don't have to be a cowboy to enjoy this film. I took my city-slicker boys to be inspired by Buck.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"The Tree"

Despite their shared theme of dealing with loss, "The Tree," is a very different movie than the hard to watch, impressionistic, "The Tree of Life." I found Director Julie Bertucelli's poetic sensitivity more heartfelt and accessible.

Eight-year-old Simone is enjoying a joy ride standing up in the back of her father's pick up when it goes off track and rolls into the sprawling, twisted tree shading their house. She finds her father dead inside the cab.

The family's world is turned up side down – not only by of the loss of their father, but also by the loss of their mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) when she retreats into a deep depression. The oldest son tries to keep things together, but it is more than he can handle with his own grief and anger.


Unable to accept that her father is gone, Simone begins to hear her father's voice in the tree. To be near him, she climbs high into the branches. This frightens her mother out of her isolation. The girl sets up a bedroom cradled in the tree branches to spend more time with her father. At first her mother is worried, but then she does something startling – she listens to the tree and hears his voice too. She finds comfort in the idea that her husband is there. The next morning, the children discover their mother curled up in the roots of the tree.

Director Julie Bertucelli
The family experiences a rare moment of joy when funny yellow frogs emerge from the toilet drain. The roots of the tree have blocked the pipes and it is almost like their fun loving father is trying to say it's time to lighten things up, there is still joy in life. The little girl seems to have learned that lesson. When her friend asks her why she isn't sad anymore, she replies, “You have a choice to be happy or sad. I choose to be happy and I am happy.”

The root incident motivates the mother to finally go out into the world to find a plumber. She manages to get a job with the plumber (and possible new beau) George (Marton Csokas.) That night a huge branch breaks through the window into her room. Unfazed, she crawls into her bed with the fallen branch and wraps its limbs protectively around her.

When her plumber boyfriend comes to survey the damage, he is shocked by the degree of damage that she has been living with. “You didn't tell me it was so bad.” But he is even more shocked by her reply, “I don't think it was trying to hurt me.” It becomes evident that she is overwhelmed with adult responsibilities when she says, “I know I need to do something, but I don't know where to start.” She leaves it to her new boyfriend to handle. But when George arranges for a tree service to remove the tree, she sends the workers and George away. Her attachment to that tree threatens to destroy the very foundation of their home. Mom must grow up and find the strength within herself to protect her family.

"The Tree," is captivating in its beauty, compelling in its action sequences and poetic in its symbolism. It has a valuable theme on the importance of pulling together as a family to survive loss.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Larry Crowne"

by Guest Reviewer Josh Valentine

Tom Hanks’ “Larry Crowne” is a film that your mom goes to see with her girlfriends. It’s what appears run-of-the-mill romantic comedy starring everyman Tom Hanks and America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts. In some ways, that is the film. But the miracle of “Larry Crowne” is its immediacy and its passion for the human experience. This is a film that came and went in the theaters and it will be forgotten. It shouldn’t.

The film, co-written with Hanks by Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), and directed by the man himself, is about finding purpose. For most people, it is through purpose that life’s meaning is found. For some, raising a family is their purpose and that gets them through their existential woes. For others, they find this solace in their work. This is the focus of Larry Crowne’s life at U-Mart until he is laid off due to his lack of a college education. Crowne (played with dependable pluck by Hanks) faces a new chapter in his life – a chapter he never expected. He enrolls at the local community college where he meets Mrs. Mercy Tainot (Roberts), a speech and communications professor who’s at her wit’s end of a terrible marriage. He also meets Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a free-spirit who introduces him to the comfort of being cool. Larry begins to re-experience the life he’s felt he missed after his 20 years in the Navy. “Larry Crowne” is very much a film that encourages the idea that the experience of living is in itself what must be appreciated. For the three major characters, the achievement of purpose is what enlightens their existence.

Hanks, Roberts and Mbatha-Raw all portray their own character arcs to exhibit the theme of purpose. Hanks’ Crowne is generally optimistic, but never felt his past had any merit worth mentioning. He hides from his passion of cooking, because he felt he had done it too long in the Navy. His re-invention is a catalyst for his return to his passion and he is able to grow, even in middle age. Roberts’ character is borderline depressed, and wants to find purpose in her teaching. Thanks to Larry Crowne, she not only re-discovers her enthusiasm – but also finds the grown up man she’s been looking for. The character of Talia is pure optimism but is seemingly lost. When she drops out of college to pursue her dream of owning her own business, she finds her purpose. All of these character arcs seem relatively inconsequential, but really show how something so meaningless can actually change a person’s life forever. The film is surely fantasy, but it’s ideas and main themes of finding purpose are essentially human. This is a human film.

“Larry Crowne” ended its theatrical run recently, but will be on DVD and Blu-ray in November. It’s not essential viewing, but highly recommended. It might even help you find you your purpose.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Inspiring Films Create Understanding

I remember when 9/11 happened, I sobbed for what I thought would be a loss of what makes us American - our freedom. Fear is such a powerful weapon! But I believe that films of substance have power too. That's why I promote meaningful films that show that we are more alike than different.

"Why can't we just get along." See it can be done. Like this dog and cat.

Inspired by that principle, I organized the Reel Inspiration film contests. There were two shorts that especially made it worth the effort. 2004 finalist Morning Submission by Justin Mashouf creates understanding with his powerful three minute film on why Muslims pray. This little wonder shows that their prayers are much like ours. And 2006 "Best of Tucson" winner, Have Coffin, Will Travel by Sarah Sher shares how Dale Clark, an 83 year old artist and activist from Bisbee, Arizona, hitchhikes with a coffin to bring attention to the approximately eight thousand children of Afghanistan and Iraq who lost their lives as a result of war. This whimsical short is a gentle reminder that we aren't the only ones affected by the war and that these are our children too.

On this anniversary of 9/11, we can honor those who died by choosing not to be defeated by fear, but choose instead understanding over hate and connection over separation.

Movie Blessings!
Jana Segal

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

"Another Earth."

It is as if another earth illuminates the night sky in celebration of Rhoda's acceptance into MIT's astrophysics program. But her dream is shattered when she drives into a family's car instantly killing mother and son and leaving the father in a coma.

Released after five years in prison, Rhoda (co-writer Brit Marling) wanders the streets an outsider in her home town. She is a stranger in her own room, even in her own skin. She seems to be serving a self-induced penitence when she accepts a job as a school janitor so she won't have to talk to anyone. Should she be allowed to live when she took another person's life? Filmmaker/co-writer Mike Cahill creates a feeling of being outside herself by photographing her through windows and odd angles. This is one of those movies where the experience is enhanced by what the viewer brings to it. And there are plenty of silences to allow the audience to ponder what would have been had they made another choice in their own life.

Co-writer/Producer/Actor Brit Marling
Cahill uses the device of distant radio and TV broadcasts about the newly discovered Earth II as a way to share Rhoda's self reflections. The radio announcer confirms that the earth has been duplicated. “There's another you out there. Now you begin to wonder - has that “me” made the same mistakes as I made?” Maybe the other me made a better choice. Rhoda has an opportunity for a second chance. She enters an essay contest to win a shuttle ride to Earth II. She writes how the first explorers of Earth II should be the disenfranchised and criminals (like herself) because that's who first settled the New World – people who had nothing to lose.

Everything changes when she sees a man leaving a toy robot by the side of the road where the accident happened. She does a google search and finds that the boy's father (John Burroughs), previously a music professor, concert musician, and gifted composer, has come out of his coma. She becomes obsessed with the life he's lost. She goes to his house and finds him sleepwalking through his life and self-medicating. Consumed with guilt, she knocks on his door to confess, apologize, anything. She ends up offering him a free trial of her housekeeping services.

It is genuinely touching watching as the connection between these two wounded souls begins to bring them back to life. But what if Rhoda is chosen to go on the shuttle to Earth II? Will she find a smarter version of herself who made a better choice? Is it an opportunity for a second chance or suicide?

"Another Earth" looks like sci fi, but it is actually a very human drama. The discovery of Earth II acts as the framework to explore the life we create with our bad choices, the inherit regrets, self-forgiveness and redemption. Despite the tragic circumstances, Another Earth is really a story of hope.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal