Not Quite Hobbesian

If you are looking for a boy-and-his-cheetah movie, Duma should suffice. In South Africa, 12-year-old Xan (Alexander Michaletos) and his father chance upon an orphaned cheetah cub, which Xan names Duma (Swahili for cheetah). In a few quick scenes, Duma grows up under the supervision of Xan and his parents (played by Campbell Scott and Hope Davis); but circumstances convince Xan he must take Duma to the distant mountains and release him to live in the wild. This trek comprises the main portion of the film.

Boy and cheetah quickly meet up with Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker), who is returning to his village after a less-than-successful stint in the city. He accompanies them, off and on, through country inhabited by lions, Cape buffalo, crocodiles, and other beasties; they wouldn’t have a chance of surviving if this weren’t a children’s movie.

But let’s face it: This is a bubble bath of adventures with animals by a master director of animal adventures, Carroll Ballard. The cheetah is totes cute, as is a bushbaby that joins the troupe mid-journey. Call the kids and gather round the TV.

Duma (reviews)
Directed by Carroll Ballard
Written by Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain, based on a story by Carol Flint and Janszen, loosely adapted from a children’s book by Xan Hopcraft and Carol Cawthra Hopcraft
Running time: 100 minutes
DVD release date: May 16, 2006

Freak Show

¡Ah, sí! If you are ready for a darkly funny gorefest, by all means check out The Last Circus, the touching tale of a demented Sad Clown in fascist Spain. Javier (played as an adult by Carlos Areces) was a boy when his father was drafted by the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War to fight Franco’s Nationalists. In 1973, he remembers the trauma of those times (and harbors lingering thoughts of revenge) as he joins a small, ragged traveling circus. He is teamed up with the vicious Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), who performs as a Happy Clown who routinely abuses the Sad Clown (Javier). Sergio is also in a sadomasochistic marriage with the beautiful aerialist Natalia (Carolina Bang), who is somewhat attracted to Javier because of his innocent refusal to laugh at Sergio’s nasty jokes.

Take this perverse love triangle and mix in some high-ranking fascists, and you have a gory farce whose high energy sustains much of the film. The Grand Guignol third act gets a little bit off track with some clunky plot mechanics, but things are righted by the end of this crazy film.

The Last Circus (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Álex de la Iglesia
Language: Spanish
Running time: 105 minutes
DVD release date: October 18, 2011


Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle is a musical celebration of the life of the late Canadian folk musician, led by her son and daughter, Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright. Other family members are also featured, along with friends such as Emmylou Harris and Norah Jones. Songs are sung, people reminisce, and a few archival clips are played, but this is no comprehensive biography. (The deeply traumatic breakup of her marriage to Loudon Wainwright III is only lightly mentioned.)

The music is splendid and touching, with personal lyrics and venturesome melodies and harmonies.

Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle (reviews)
Directed by Lian Lunson
Running time: 108 minutes

The Musician and the Tattoo Artist

The Broken Circle Breakdown uses a swirling chronology to tell a family melodrama. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh is a Flemish musician who meets Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist; the two quickly fall in love. He plays banjo in a bluegrass band, which she soon joins as a singer. Didier and Elise marry, and the vigorous melancholy of the music complements the early joy and later tragedy of their relationship.

Disparate pieces of this story are gathered up and presented in a whirl, and the themes touched on feature alternating aspects: America as a place of energy and freedom and retrograde politics; religion as a plague and a comfort. Even the film’s musical touchstone–“Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)”–contains a rhythmic hiccup caused by alternating time signatures.

In short: It’s a strongly affecting story of love and loss, all to the tune of homespun music.

The Broken Circle Breakdown (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Felix van Groeningen
Written by Carl Joos and Felix van Groeningen, based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels
Languages: Flemish, English
Award: 2014 César for Best Foreign Film
Running time: 112 minutes
DVD release date: March 11, 2014

One People, Three Nations

Salman Rushdie is one of the great fiction writers of our time, so it is an exciting event when one of his best novels is made into a film–more so since Rushdie wrote the adaptation himself and provides the movie’s narration. Midnight’s Children does not disappoint. It’s no substitute for the book, nor even a supplement to it; but besides being an entertaining film in its own right, it just may tempt some viewers into checking out the source material.

The central character is Saleem Sinai (played as an adult by Satya Bhabha), born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the instant of India’s independence from Britain. The story begins with Saleem’s grandfather and continues chronologically through Saleem’s adulthood, interweaving the family story with major events in the history of India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The pace of the film is brisk, but it never feels rushed. There is melodrama (babies switched at birth!) and magic–Saleem develops a psychic bond with other Indians born at the same time as he. Saturated colors help paint a fully exotic picture of India. Unlike most films, this one’s politics are up front: The pro-partition agitators have violence in their hearts; a Prime Minister denoted as The Lady (Sarita Choudhury) is an anti-democratic tyrant.

The glory, though, is in the storytelling. I’ve left out major characters and plot points. They should be encountered fresh by the audience. Enjoy.

Midnight’s Children (reviews)
Directed by Deepa Mehta
Written by Salman Rushdie, based on his novel
Languages: English, Hindi
Running time: 143 minutes
DVD release date: October 8, 2013

Guilty of Innocence

In the Fog takes place in German-occupied Belarus during the Second World War. Three men are marched into a village square and hanged for partisan activity. The camera pans away from the actual execution.

Two armed men, partisans, work their way through to the woods, headed to the farm of Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy). They suspect him of collaboration with the Germans. At the farm, they insist he come with them, not giving his wife time to pack his favorite snack (an onion and lard). He knows he is innocent, but he also knows circumstances make him look guilty. He asks if he should bring a shovel; they say yes.

So begins this very fine story of the moral fog of an occupied people. The three men are the primary focus of the remainder of the film. They are connected as fellow villagers and fellow victims of the Germans; they extend certain courtesies to one another. Flashbacks fill in backstories and connect the public hanging with the anticipated retaliation against the farmer. An event causes a modification of plans, but the story plays out grimly enough.

What more can one say? There is no music, which would detract from the intensity of the story. The men are portrayed sympathetically. Bad things do not arise from their villainy; they are just in a bad place.

In the Fog (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Sergey Loznitsa, based on a novel by Vasiliy Bykov
Language: Russian
Running time: 128 minutes
DVD release date: September 17, 2013


Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me tells the story of an ill-fated Memphis band from the ’70s that became a cult favorite after it broke up. When Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel formed Big Star in 1971, there was no particular sound dominating the local pop scene, so the group was able to develop its own personality, relatively free of other influences. The band was named after a local supermarket, and they held to that combination of irony and ambition in naming their first two LPs, #1 Record and Radio City. Unfortunately they had signed with Stax Records just as that label was sputtering toward bankruptcy. The records were well-received–an early highlight of the documentary is a series of interviews about Big Star’s eye-opening performance at a rock critics’ convention–but they failed commercially.

Chilton and Bell were the main creative forces of the group. After Bell’s death in a car crash, the band, supplemented by other local musicians (including pianist/photographer William Eggleston), recorded a series of tracks that eventually became Third/Sister Lovers. Most of the songs were Chilton’s and reflected his darkening mood. (The song “Big Black Car” includes the lyric “Nothing can hurt me” and to this listener gives the impression of a flower wilting in on itself.)

In the film, music from those three albums is cited as a major influence by members of better-known independent rock bands such as R.E.M. and The Flaming Lips. The belated recognition of the band prompted Chilton to reconstitute the band in 1993 with Stephens and a couple of new musicians. But the main focus of the documentary is the group’s first incarnation. It’s a nice bit of rock history.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori
Running time: 100 minutes
DVD release date: November 26, 2013