Friday June 19, 2009

There always seem to be stories in the news about the lengths people take to try and find a cure for an illness when conventional medicine fails. "The Horse Boy" (***-94 minutes), based on Rupert's book, is one of those stories-and the illness is autism. The parents of autistic child Rowin are Rupert and Kristin Isaacson who are an engaging couple, he from Liverpool, she from Texas where the couple met and married. Their 2 1/2 year old son was first diagnosed with the mysterious ailment which the medical community has no consensus as to cause and treatment. They sought out all of the available resources but saw no sustaining progress. Currently he was a social worker who had professionally trained horses while Kristin was a psychology professor. Rupert had also written about the African Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and he had witnessed several shamanic ceremonies. When he saw how Rowan had calmly taken to Rupert's horses and how much joy he exhibited when riding horseback, he got the idea that maybe a trip to Mongolia to seek out a shaman or 2 might be the key to unlocking the autistic mystery and help cure his now 5- year-old son-something conventional doctor's in the States couldn't accomplish. To his classically schooled wife this idea seemed preposterous. It took a ton of convincing on Rupert's part but off they went with fellow Texan and novice film maker Michel Orion Scott to record the 4-week journey. And what a journey it was! The film shows progress and setbacks everyone encountered along the way and, in the end, there, indeed, seemed to be major changes in Rowin. Questions are raised such as whether these positive changes were due to the spiritual healings of Shaman, the affects of undertaking such incredible journey never experienced by the child, his interactions with children along the way. Combinations of these or other reasons, or were they just imaginary short-term results? Whatever the reason or reasons, the visual and spiritual journey is amazing and well worth the trip. The stunning cinematography is utterly captivating as most viewers will enter a world far removed from their usual habitat & experience. At the Q & A the film maker stated that Rowin is making progress but still suffers from the malady. However, but both parents believe that the trip was life-changing for all involved. The film has been picked up by Zeitgeist Films with a September 11th limited U.S. release date.

Most prison documentaries tend to be on the downer side whether it involves prison conditions, wrongfully accused convicts, rightly accused convicts, whatever. The title of this doc had me intrigued. Who knew that there was a prison rodeo contest held each year in Oklahoma? Not only that, but it included woman competitors?! Welcome to the east coast premiere of "Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo" (*** -90 minutes) where you are introduced to the annual competition (it's been around since the 40's) held at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester where prisoners from 12 facilities compete in the world's only "behind the walls rodeo". Veteran filmmaker Bradley Beesly ("Okie Noodling") focuses on The Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center which is a minimum security women's institution where several women are preparing for the 2007 competition. This is the 2nd year women have been allowed to compete. And, folks, these aren't professionally trained riders, to say the least. The film focuses on several of the female contestants and one male, Danny Liles, who happens to be coming up for parole for the first time in 25 years. There are the requisite profiles of a couple of the women competitors and there is added drama when the best member of the team is not allowed to compete right before the competition after she breaks a prison rule for wearing makeup. For the most part, though, the film is breezy and fun in a "convicts are people too" kind of way, with an appropriate twangy score underlying the action. The film has been picked up by HBO and will be shown by their CINEMAX channel in September.

We go from inside Oklahoma prison walls to the inside walls of the fashion industry with award winning producer/director R.J. Cutler's "The September Issue" (***-90 minutes). This is mainly a portrait of Anna Wintour, the editor of "Vogue", who is one of the most powerful, influential, and elusive figures in the fashion world, as she prepares for the year's most important edition that is literally 9 months in the making. Cutler was given unprecedented access to Wintour and her staff for the doc that allows one to witness what it really takes to produce an issue of high fashion that is hundreds of pages in length and nearly 5 pounds in weight. Wintour is credited for pumping new life in her mag when she opted for putting celebrities on the cover-something unheard of previously. Most people got a glimpse of her earlier this year via a CBS "60 Minutes" feature, but it is this film that allows us to see her in action-a rare event afforded to a film crew. Included are scenes of Wintour at home with her daughter (who wants nothing to do with pursuing a career in the fashion industry). However, the real joy for me was the presence and influence of 14 year "Vogue" creative director and visionary Grace Coddington, who is constantly at odds with Wintour. Each respects the other, yet, there is an underlying tension as to what should ultimately appear in the issue-of which Wintour always has the final say. Grace, a former 60's model and the junior fashion editor of London "Vogue", who survived a horrible automobile crash in her 20's, has as much influence and artistic vision (if not more) as her editor. In the end I was craving to know more and more of the personable and talented Grace instead of the dour Wintour. However, Cutler chose to concentrate mainly on what it took to create the issue that featured Sienna Miller on its cover. A kind of fluff piece that skims the surface of its subject, "The September Issue" does deliver entertainment-I just wanted to know more about the personalities involved-especially Grace. A fabulous discussion and Q & A with Cutler was moderated by Pulitzer Prize-wining fashion writer Robin Givhan. Roadside Attractions is releasing the film in theaters on August 28th.

Dir. Michel Orion Scott
("The Horse Boy")

Prod. Amy Dobson
of the Prison Rodeo")

Dir. R. J. Cutler ("The September Issue") & moderator
Pulitzer Prize- winning fashion writer Robin Givhan

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