Buck Brannaman guides horses and people to a new companionship.
  • Buck Brannaman guides horses and people to a new companionship.
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I see no point in holding back good news, so let’s get right to:


There are precious few real heroes in movies. John Wayne was not a hero, he was more a stellar commodity with a graceful attitude. Usually it is documentaries that bring us heroes, such as the intrepid photographer in Bill Cunningham New York or hard-case survivor Mark Hogancamp in Marwencol — and now the genuine Western hero Buck Brannaman, in Buck.

My big equine experience was riding a nice mule down a side of the Grand Canyon. I feel like an honorary rider from seeing countless Westerns, but that isn’t the real deal. The real, sane, fascinating deal is Brannaman, who never does the cruel equine stunts seen in old Westerns. As a trainer, Buck uses the rope sparely and the whip never, though he can flick a soft, fly-whisk wand like Merlin summoning spirits. He doesn’t so much tame as befriend horses, quickly winning them over with firm kindness and sensitive intuition of their needs, habits, and thoughts.

Buck was the savant who made Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer effective. Redford appears in this film, still awed, and Buck won the audience prize at Redford’s Sundance Festival. Debut-director Cindy Meehl follows Brannaman around the West for the four-day “clinics” he stages for horse owners. Rarely raising his voice, he tells deft stories and little jokes, and guides horses and people to a new companionship. He only “fails” with one angry beast, brain damaged at birth and then horribly mismanaged. Buck gets quietly mad just thinking about it.

The backstory is that Buck Brannaman was once a kid called Buckshot who did trick-roping and lariat shows with his brother (barely seen here). If they messed up, or even if they didn’t, their father would beat them (the mother died early). The father was a sadist, often drunk. The heartbeat of mystery in Buck is how that abused, silent, suspicious child, who lucked into fine foster parents, became this gentle Socrates of the horse corral. It seems a miracle of grit and character.

We see that Buck is a great dad with his teen daughter. He is also a great teacher. In short, he’s great. Cindy Meehl made this film with devoted skill and a lucid eye for the settings, animals, and people. Her cogent passion would have delighted Budd Boetticher, the saddle-savvy master of Westerns and docu-poems on horses and bullfighting. We are led gently into the magic of Buck’s game and gab, his past grief and present glory. So saddle up, starting June 24.

Valerie Scher interviews Buck Brannaman.



Writer-director Tony Gatlif is the bardic auteur of the Roma (Gypsies). Himself Roma of French-Algerian birth, Gatlif extends his ethnic filmography (Vengo, Gadjo Dilo, Latcho Drom) with Korkoro. This exceptionally well-grounded film about a migratory people is set in Vichy, France, as the Nazis tighten the noose and war shadows shiver through the tiny town and beautiful valley of the story.

Korkoro means “liberty.” The main character, Claude, is played by engaging Mathias Laliberté. The runaway boy, perhaps Jewish, joins a Gypsy band of hard-living nomads who seem spiritually closer to their horses than their religion. Speaking French, but rootless, they come to a town where ancient fear of the Roma as outsiders provides fertile soil for local fascists (their leader is made hatefully vivid by Carlo Brandt).

Facing detention or worse, the little group is aided by a humane mayor (Marc Lavoine) and a schoolteacher (Marie-Josée Croze). They recognize that the Roma incarnate the freedom that France has lost. Protecting them, and Claude, becomes a form of resistance. Gypsy music is a dramatic enhancer, and the Roma actors are compellingly raffish. Also a touch crazy in wild, thieving Taloche (James Thiérrée, a grandson of Charlie Chaplin, who moves as if he has mime in the blood).

Canny in many ways, the Gypsies are nearly as naïve about politics as the French boy who becomes a foolish collaborator in Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien. This movie drawn from actual lives goes fatefully where it must, without a single dull moment. Julien Hirsch’s photography is a richly textured asset all the way. One shot, involving a watch, resonates the Holocaust as well as any single image has on film.


The Art of Getting By

At 19, Freddie Highmore is no longer a child actor. But The Art of Getting By sells him as the cutest boy-muffin since MGM’s Freddie Bartholomew, or at least since the ’70s high time of moon-faced Bud Cort. Closeups arrive like panting groupies as pale, brainy George (Highmore) flops through his last term at a New York private school. George is shy, sensitive, and tormented by angst, despite obvious talent as an artist. Adorable Sally (Emma Roberts) seems the obvious cure for his blues, but they diddle through “just friends” gambits until near the finish, all the while trading soft zingers.

Writer and debut feature-director Gavin Wiesen probably nailed some career chits by using Steven Spielberg’s daughter Sasha as party-minded Zoe, and he has solid veterans like Tom Hanks’s wife Rita Wilson, Sam Robards, Blair Underwood, and Alicia Silverstone. He should have spent more time scripting this blandly debonair coming-of-age carousel, which seems built to spin Highmore into maturity before Justin Bieber can grow into Titanic II: Boy Loves Mermaid. Despite a visit to the Whitney Museum, the film doesn’t have nearly enough art to get by.

Bride Flight

Before the “chick flick,” there was the “woman’s picture.” Each term can trigger facile male dismissal. I won’t dismiss Bride Flight, though it blends those labels into a mix flavored with tears, erotic sweat, and Dutch cocoa. We’re in a retro dimension where Imitation of Life meets The Group, one in which the heroines fly from austere, postwar Holland to fabulously spruce New Zealand: the sad-eyed but lovely Ada (Karina Smulders), plain-spun but indomitable Marjorie (Elise Schaap), and stylish early feminist Esther (Anna Drijver).

They come on a celebrated air-race flight, bond instantly, and then braid their man-sharing, baby-switching destinies into a soapy saga. Their favorite bed bazooka is Frank (Waldemar Torenstra), a Dutch émigré winemaker. If only he were not such a nice guy, he could be the Aryan super-hunk that insane Nazi Gregory Peck strives to create in The Boys from Brazil. Director Ben Sombogaart and writer Marieke van der Pol briefly toss in Rutger Hauer as Frank in old age, as well as a volcanic steam pit, a WWII blockhouse, a fire-breathing Calvinist preacher, Esther’s flight from Judaism into fashion design, and torrid lust that would have melted Hollywood’s old Production Code. Stale at the core, this chick-driven time capsule has some fresh and vivid touches around the edges.

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blueprl June 25, 2011 @ 11:29 a.m.

By linking two first-rate Reader articles (authors David Elliott and Valerie Scher) about “horse-whisperer” Buck Brannaman, a potentially valuable rescue is offered to readers in the arena of intimidating life challenges. Buck had big problems to solve as a youngster and established techniques with horses that carried into human relationships. Being a horse enthusiast, I agree with the film’s assertion that working with horses/animals can become a spiritual endeavor. Buck explains, “It’s amazing what a healing effect horses can have on kids, particularly troubled kids, that might bridge the gap [better than] a well-intended human.” Ultimately, the audience benefits from a beautiful documentary and solid advice.


monaghan July 7, 2011 @ 10:58 a.m.

Even "documentaries" about saints have their little fictions.

A horsewoman to whom I'd recommended this film surprised me with her story of an unpleasant run-in she'd had years ago with Buck Brannaman and his horse clinic associates at a ranch where they happened to cross paths. Buck was holding one of his workshops and she was tending to her boarded animals, and she was shocked when Brannaman's people tried to run her off as if she were a freeloading interloper. She declined to see the movie, saying she knew all she needed to know about Buck Brannaman,that he was great with horses but terrible with people.

This truth is mostly hidden in the film which focuses on Brannaman's skills as a "horse whisperer" to wealthy ranchers and as a consultant on a Robert Redford movie. Buck Brannaman's brutal childhood is depicted and, indeed, he himself uses it in his horse-clinic patter. But he apparently works away from his wife and daughter for most of the year and he is shown, under cover of practical advice, ripping a hapless woman to tears who keeps a vicious horse.


Twister July 7, 2011 @ 4:29 p.m.

None of us are without "sin." When one needs to distinguish gossip from fact, lynch mob from jury, and the sheep from the goats, however, one should have verifiable evidence.

For some reason, this bit reminds me of the infamous statement by Racehorse Haynes, the Texas defense lawyer: "Sometimes it's the defense attorney's job to convince the jury that the victim needed killin'."

The courts may not be perfect, but they beat the hell out of Kangaroo Courts "juried" by hot-blooded yahoos. Let us all disenthrall ourselves . . .


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