Sometimes a little movie is a big movie. Sometimes a little movie offers riches, and I am happy to spill the news one week early for:
The Ken Cinema, a one-screen theater, will rightly house Circo, surely the best movie ever made about a one-ring circus. Aaron Schock directed, also expertly manning the camera. He follows the route of Gran Circo México, a family operation in the rural depths of the country.
Tino Ponce runs it, while his aged father counts the take. Profits are shrinking, but villagers still bring eager kids for a good time that isn’t TV (though one act takes off on TV wrestling heroes). There is a foreboding sense that this could be The Last Circus Show, as Tino sweats the truck travels, the tent work, the promotion, the repairs, the training, the animal upkeep. His small team includes his parents, wife, and kids.
There is an aerialist son and a gamine daughter who does acrobatics and an adorable niece who painfully learns body contortion. The kids relish a fascinating life despite hard times and endless work, though the nearby presence of an old lion and two growing tigers is worrisome. What most worries Tino’s wife Ivonne, who fell hard for Tino and married into the Ponce tradition, is that the children receive no formal education.
Literacy lies low among circus values, and Tino loves the life despite marital and business stresses. His clan runs four struggling circuses. If only Gran Circo México could stay in one place like a Diego Rivera mural, pero no es posible. An itinerant destiny carries them along, to strums of soundtrack support from the band Calexico.
Schock has made one of the most enjoyably Mexican of movies, a vividly populated poem of the open road akin to Fellini’s Variety Lights and La Strada. Sadness, humor, skill, and joy mix together authentically, like the elements in Diana Kennedy’s books on Mexican cooking. When the family granny says, “The load makes the donkeys walk,” we feel the power of truths that must go back at least to Don Quixote. In the art of documentary, Circo is a three-ring event, and it opens on May 13. ★★★★
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
“Full fathom five thy father lies. Of his bones are coral made….” Something of Shakespeare’s feeling for mortal time, in The Tempest, pervades Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Only scientists are permitted to go briefly each year into the Chauvet cave in southern France, found in 1994. The intrepid German auteur got permission to go along, with a tiny crew, to film the moisture-carved caverns, the calcified bones on the floors, and the vivid, vital paintings of animals in the Ice Age over 30,000 years ago, made by our Cro-Magnon ancestors.
We are taken into the prehistoric depths and hollows by 3-D. Along with useful interviews and a strong score, Herzog added his distinctive voice and touches. He calls the art “proto-cinema,” evokes Wagner and Baywatch, shows Fred Astaire dancing with his shadow in Swing Time, even includes…albino crocodiles! No modern word is exploited more than “awesome,” but this, truly, is a poem of awe. ★★★
Bring cool water, not a sugary drink, to Meek’s Cutoff. The stripped-down Western is about a small group of pioneers trekking across hot, desolate eastern Oregon in 1845. Kelly Reichardt made it, using her Wendy and Lucy star Michelle Williams as Emily, a bonnet-topped frontier gal with the old virtues: spunk, grit, gumption. Reichardt’s usual scripter, Jonathan Raymond, is a long way from his lavish TV film Mildred Pierce.
This movie’s first word is scrawled on wood: LOST. And the only compass seems to be the Indian-hating racism of their cocky guide, Meek (a heavily bearded Bruce Greenwood). He itches to kill the single, weary, middle-aged Indian they find (Rod Rondeaux is like the very last of the Mohicans). As the leader — women are sidelined from big decisions until Emily intrudes — Will Patton stares grimly, a decent fella without a clue. Paul Dano looks like fresh vulture bait. A teen (Tommy Nelson) seems to be having a boy’s adventure until the water starts to run dry.
The vistas were shot for stark beauty and implied death by Chris Blauvelt. Scraped landscapes and desperate mindscapes overlap, as the travelers slowly move from nowhere to nothing. Every rise or gulley is between a rock and a hard place. Even the mule, a born stoic, looks ready to switch over to the Donner Party.
There are echoes of Monte Hellman’s austere Westerns with Jack Nicholson and of the terribly tested Swedish migrants in Jan Troell’s The New Land (badly overdue to arrive on American video with its great predecessor, The Emigrants). I began wishing that John Wayne’s cavalry would come riding over the hill. Maybe I thought of other movies because this picture is such a sad mutt of minimalism, and the mutt is gnawing a bleached bone. ★★
The title of Poetry, or Shi in Korean, forms a lovely ink character on the screen. The star, Jeong-hie Yun, is lovely at a ripe age (66 in the film). Told in the movie that she is pretty, Yun smiles with demure knowingness — after about 300 acting credits, she must be used to the compliment. Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry is often lovely, and it has received lovely reviews.
Yun plays Mija, whose daughter has left for work in another town, leaving a grandson as the old lady’s ward. The sullen teen’s mind is being wiped by excessive TV, video games, and junk music. Mija’s mind is being wiped, too, by the onset of Alzheimer’s. But she still does housework and cares for a rich stroke victim. On a whim she joins a poetry class at the nearby culture center. She doesn’t “get” poetry, but she senses it might help her, especially after the boy unloads a shameful, hushed-up scandal at school on her dimming mind.
Thoughtful, even meditative in its undercurrents about love, loss, age, beauty, sickness, and death, Lee’s movie has delicately rendered moods and tidy, discrete shocks. Yun is a touching star. Even when the movie tosses in some karaoke and a sadly strange bit of sex, it remains attuned to Mija’s shy, dainty-brave spirit. Clearly her fate is to have her lonely decency tested by illness and the almost unreachable grandson, and to find some spiritual resolution in poetry.