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January 12, 2012 Edition
This is a mesmerizing documentary of Buck Brannaman, the horse trainer who was the inspiration for the movie The Horse Whisperer. Trained from an early age by a harsh and abusive father to be a trick roper, Buck eventually made a conscious decision to change the way he lived and related to others. He applied the sensitivity he developed as an abused child to horses in the hope of learning to train them without subjecting them to violence or causing fear, and has gained a reputation as one of the best in the business. As in the best documentaries, we get enough of the story to intrigue without the all the answers that might feel like prying – there are loose ends: for instance, the whereabouts of Buck’s brother. And there are unplanned moments of violence, like when one of the other trainers gets bitten by one of the unpredictable horses and the horse is put down. Overall, though, this is a warm and broadening film that you don’t have to be a horse-lover to love.
Ken Burns does it again with this fascinating look at life in the United States in the time leading up to and through Prohibition. We’re coming up on the 100th anniversary of a 13-year period in which the Drys battled the Wets in a form of civil war. What could have possessed a country that derived nearly 70% of its revenue from liquor sales at one time to change its Constitution and outlaw those same products? Was alcohol really such a huge problem? More so than today? And, why, after working to enforce the law for 13 years, did the US government change its mind and repeal the 18th amendment? Disk 1 shows viewers how American sentiment evolved from the early 1800s to 1920, when the amendment was passed. Disk 2 covers the rise in corruption, bribery, and manufacture and distribution of the now-illegal alcohol, which, incidentally, made Al Capone into the mafia boss he was. And disk 3 shows the utter breakdown of the amendment, as the scofflaws and gangsters, politicians and common men, created an America predicated on hypocrisy, and looks at the continuing echoes of Prohibition in American culture today.
Over the course of several years, filmmaker Miao Wang returns to her hometown of Beijing to chronicle the way the city is changing in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. Things move quickly in China, and when the country is preparing for something as momentous as the Olympics, change happens at lightning speed. This documentary follows three taxi drivers of various ages and backgrounds as they navigate the ever-changing geography of the city and viewers are treated to a panoramic inside view. As the government relocates neighborhoods and bulldozes Old Beijing, New Beijing rises from the rubble. We see a different China than the one portrayed by government propaganda, and learn from the drivers that the view may change, but worries about health, education, and living standards remain the same.
Director Ngawang Choephel weaves his own story as a political prisoner together with the story of Tibet’s struggle to maintain traditions through the arts against decades of oppression by China in this striking film. Raised in India when his family fled Tibet, Choephel studied ethnomusicology at Middlebury College before traveling to Tibet to film native dances and music, which help solidify cultural identity, and to examine first-hand the ongoing culture clash between Tibetan and Chinese popular music. Shortly after his arrival, however, he was arrested by Chinese authorities, charged with espionage, and thrown in prison. Full of interviews with Tibetan musicians and clips of songs and dances, this is a powerful and ultimately uplifting movie. Pair it with the Estonian film The Singing Revolution for more proof of the power of song.