Don Clinchy's blog

Review: Secretariat

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Secretariat

In his heyday, the racehorse Secretariat was a national celebrity. The 1973 Triple Crown winner -- the first in 25 years -- achieved fame far beyond the rarefied world of horse racing, appearing on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated and gaining millions of fans. Secretariat's blazing times in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes are records that still stand today, and he's generally considered the greatest racehorse of all time.

Unfortunately, the movie Secretariat is a tepid tribute to its titular horse. For a film about the inherently exciting and unpredictable sport of horse racing, Secretariat is surprisingly dull and predictable.

According to my research, the film (opening today in wide release) is a generally accurate account of the real Secretariat's backstory. Homemaker and mother of four Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) takes over her ailing father's Virginia horse farm, Meadow Stables, thus entering the entirely masculine world of horse breeding and racing. After a complicated series of breeding agreements culminating in a fateful coin toss (consult Wikipedia if you’re really interested), Chenery ends up owning an unborn foal with a prized bloodline. Soon the colt is born and -- this being a thoroughly Disney film -- shows great promise immediately by standing up and talking his first halting steps less than a minute later.

DVD Review: The Thin Red Line

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The Thin Red LineIs The Thin Red Line a war film? When Terrence Malick's monumental film was released in 1998, there was much debate about its true nature. Many critics hailed the film, set during the battle of Guadalcanal, as one of the best war films ever made. Others argued that labeling The Thin Red Line a war film misses its point entirely, for it is really a meditation on the nature of life and death.

The elegant new Criterion release of The Thin Red Line, available today on DVD and Blu-ray, will only reignite the controversy, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Films of this caliber deserve to be endlessly analyzed and debated.

Based on James Jones's 1962 novel, The Thin Red Line tells the story of C-for Charlie Company, a group of young soldiers sent to Guadalcanal to battle the Japanese for control of the island. Victory on Guadalcanal is crucial to an Allied victory in the Pacific, because the island's airfield will serve as a base for the Allies' Pacific campaign. C-for-Charlie's mission is to break the final Japanese resistance, and the film follows the men through a costly, hellish, protracted battle to take control of the few remaining Japanese strongholds.

The action is seen from the perspectives of many soldiers in the company, among them Lt. Col Tall (Nick Nolte), Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), 1st Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson), Cpl. Fife (Adrien Brody), Pfc. Doll (Dash Mihok), and Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel). As the soldiers slog their way through Guadalcanal's dense jungles and steep hills and finally earn some long-overdue R&R, they share their thoughts through dialogue and numerous voiceovers (and, for Witt, gauzy flashbacks to his childhood and newlywed days). These thoughts are about far more than the battle at hand, however; they're poetic and deeply philosophical musings about everything from the meaning of death to humanity's relationship with nature.

Review: Lebanon

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Lebanon

The opening image of Lebanon is bright and beautiful and tranquil, and yet strangely startling. The movie opens abruptly with a shot of a vast field of sunflowers under a brilliant sun, an image that lingers much longer than expected.

This image is a stark contrast to the rest of Lebanon, a violent and harrowing film about an Israeli tank crew in the First Lebanon War in 1982. All action in the film, which opens today at the Arbor, takes place inside the tank, a setting that could not be more distant from a sunny field of flowers.

Lebanon's story is compact, spanning only a day or so during the war's opening in June 1982. Amid the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, a lone tank and a platoon of paratroopers enter a bombed-out Lebanese town in search of remaining enemy forces. The tank crew expects the mission to be relatively easy -- defeating the assumedly weak resistance and occupying the town for a short time. It quickly turns into a nightmare, however, when they find themselves in a violent situation. The crew's somewhat naïve hopes for a quick victory disappear in a hail of gunfire and explosions, and their mission becomes one of mere survival. To reveal more about the story would spoil much of the astonishing dramatic tension.

Review: Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo

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Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo

The Great State of Oklahoma's female incarceration rate is the highest in the nation, and is more than twice the rate of any other state. This statistic says a lot about the state's conservative, law-and-order political climate. As Oklahoma State Senator Cal Hobson said, "Oklahoma leads America, and America leads the free world in incarceration."

This lock-'em-up mentality is the backdrop for Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, a powerful and bittersweet documentary about female inmates who compete in the 2007 Oklahoma State Penitentiary Rodeo. The film, opening today at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, is at once an intimate portrait of prison life, a thrilling rodeo action film, and an astute sociological study of criminal justice in America.

From its stark opening shots of prison walls and handcuffed inmates dressed in rodeo cowboy garb, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo is a familiar look at life behind bars and yet a thoroughly original story about inmates who, to experience an unlikely sort of freedom, risk serious injury and even death. We've all seen prison documentaries with the standard mix of dreary cellblock cinematography and drearier inmate interviews, and there is some of this familiar territory in Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo. Although the interviewees' life stories are very interesting, they're not new or surprising. What sets the film apart from other prison docs, however, is its sports drama-like, root-for-the-underdog storyline.

aGLIFF 2010 Daily Dispatch: Day Six, or Prince Poppycock and I are BFFs Now

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Fish Out of Water

At the end of my third and final day at aGLIFF, I'm glad I was able to see so many interesting films. I had a great time at the festival and learned a lot; even the pre-show videos were very educational. For example, I've now memorized the entire gay alphabet (C is for closet, L is for leather). And after seeing a certain pre-show clip from America's Got Talent a whopping seven times, the inimitable Prince Poppycock feels like an old friend. (Even better, he's given me a lot of thoroughly impractical Halloween costume ideas.)

The first screening of my final day was an eclectic one. First up was the world premiere of an Out Youth public service announcement created by the Queer Youth Media Project Class of 2010. QYMP, a collaboration between aGLIFF and Out Youth, is an intensive summer filmmaking workshop for queer and ally youth. Several students worked on the PSA for most of the summer under the direction of aGLIFF Programs Director Jake Gonzales, and the result is outstanding. With its great interview footage and professional-looking cinematography and editing, the PSA explains Out Youth's mission very effectively.

Following the PSA were the My Queer Movie Competition short films, all very watchable. My favorite was Heart of the Matter, a very funny parody of a 1980s marriage counseling video. In the film -- which perfectly nails its 1980s video look, from bad hair to blocky fonts -- a husband and wife marriage counseling team explains how to strengthen a marriage while obviously in denial about their true sexual orientations. My second favorite was Bereft Left: A Very Brief, Very American Tale, a clever satire about a left-handed young man who tries to convert to far more godly right-handedness.

aGLIFF 2010 Daily Dispatch: Day Five, or I Had No Idea "Owl" Is an Acronym

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The Owls

Here's something you don't see every day, even in eternally weird Austin: a half-dozen men in full-tilt -- and I do mean full-tilt -- drag queen mode parading around a theater lobby.

Even amid the organized mayhem of a crowded Saturday afternoon at aGLIFF, it was impossible to miss the drag queens – all members of the Mardi Gras Krewe of Armeinius – as they entered the Alamo Drafthouse lobby. In costumes that no mere words could ever describe (and no – I will not resort to calling them fabulous!), the sequined and bewigged gentlemen were at the theater for a screening of The Sons of Tennesee Williams, a documentary about the Krewe's history. They also appeared at the festival's Centerpiece Party on Saturday night.

I wish I could say the films I saw on Saturday afternoon were as fabulous! as the Krewe of Armeinius (oops – I just called the Krewe fabulous!, didn't I). Unfortunately, this isn't the case, although all three films were interesting.

aGLIFF 2010 Daily Dispatch: Day Two, or How I Gained a New Respect for Mindy Cohn

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Last Summer of the Boyita

Tropical storm Hermine had moved on by the second night of aGLIFF, leaving behind a muddy Lamar Boulevard and muggy air and making way for another enthusiastic crowd at the festival. The crowd was just the right size at the two screenings I attended; the theaters were nearly full but not sold out, so no one was turned away.

My first screening of the evening was the Argentinian import El Último Verando de la Boyita (The Last Summer of the Boyita), a lyrical, visually captivating coming-of-age story with a highly unusual twist. Jorgelina (Guadalupe Alonso) is a young girl suffering through the difficult time between young childhood and adolescence. She travels with her father to the family's ranch, where she spends her time with her longtime friend Mario (Nicolás Treise), an adolescent ranchhand who is going through an unexpected physical transformation and keeping a potentially devastating secret from his family and friends.

El Último Verando de la Boyita (pictured above) is an often touching love story with an important point about tolerance and acceptance. From its lovingly filmed, hardscrabble rural setting to its sensitive handling of a difficult theme, it's the sort of film that is tailor-made for festivals like aGLIFF but deserves a much wider audience.

Review: Winnebago Man

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Winnebago Man

Who is Jack Rebney?

After seeing Winnebago Man, I'm still not entirely sure. But in a way, not knowing Rebney may be a point of this documentary, which sheds barely a flicker of light on one of the Internet's most famous cult figures.

Rebney is better known as The World's Angriest Man, whose famously foul-mouthed rants during a 1989 taping of a Winnebago sales video have made him an Internet legend. In a collection of outtakes (compiled by the video crew without Rebney's knowledge), he leaves no F-bomb undropped and no Judeo-Christian deity unblasphemed, as he angrily curses at the heat, the flies, the crew and himself. Rebney's creative use of vulgar epithets borders on an art form, and his screw-this-job tirades have made him a hero to frustrated workers everywhere.

The outtakes began circulating via crudely copied VHS tapes in the early 1990s. When the Internet matured enough to allow trading videos and posting them on websites, Rebney's rantings quickly became a cyberspace sensation. And then came YouTube -- and the rest, as they say, is viral video history. But although Rebney had an Internet connection, apparently he had no clue about his unlikely fame.

DVD Review: Temple Grandin

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Temple Grandin on DVDThe life story of Temple Grandin is one of hardship and triumph. Grandin was diagnosed with autism as a young child in the early 1950s, an era when her condition was not well understood. With help from her exceptionally patient mother and a few insightful teachers, Grandin overcame most of her autistic limitations. She struggled to get an education, but earned a doctorate and is now an autism treatment advocate, Colorado State University professor, and renowned expert in animal husbandry.

Such an inspirational and thoroughly unique story is, of course, tailor-made for a cinematic treatment. Fortunately, this treatment is Temple Grandin, a much-lauded HBO Films biopic nominated for an astounding 15 Emmy Awards. Released this week on DVD, the movie is an effective take on Grandin's long struggle with autism and the cruel treatment and blatant sexism that often hindered her education and career.

The film opens in 1966 as a teenage Grandin (a barely recognizable Claire Danes) arrives at the Arizona ranch of her Aunt Ann (Catherine O'Hara) and Uncle Mike (Michael Crabtree), who are caring for Grandin to relieve her exhausted mother, Eustacia (Julia Ormond). Grandin exhibits many classic autism symptoms: She constantly repeats random phrases, fixates on objects, is extremely sensitive to stimuli, has trouble interacting with people and confronts new experiences with fear and confusion. But while at the ranch, she also demonstrates an unlikely talent for designing and building mechanical devices and an innate understanding of animal behavior.

Grandin blossoms at the ranch, and being far more comfortable around animals than people, she wants to stay. Despite her protests, however, Eustacia enrolls her at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire. Her introduction to college life is mostly disastrous, and in a prolonged flashback to her childhood and high-school years, we learn why.

Review: The Dry Land

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The Dry Land

A war's psychological toll can linger far beyond the war's end. As long as war veterans spend their days reliving the horrors of battle and trying to make sense of experiences that are inherently senseless, we're all reminded that war's true cost is far greater than flag-draped coffins and mangled limbs. The greatest cost of any war is the lingering insanity of those who fight it – and our collective insanity also.

The Dry Land is an effective and often riveting take on this loss of sanity, specifically the harrowing mental breakdowns caused by post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, which an astounding number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are suffering through. Opening today at the Arbor, the film is an unflinching look at one soldier's descent into madness as he returns to civilian life in a small West Texas town.

From the minute he sets foot in the dusty, impoverished environs of his hometown after a brutal tour of duty, it's obvious that James (Ryan O'Nan) hasn't left the war behind him. Although the carnage he witnessed still haunts him, he has no memory of a pivotal event: a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his Humvee that killed and severely wounded several members of his squad. Depressed, moody, self-medicating with alcohol and prone to violent rages, James quickly loses control of his life.

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