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Craig Ferguson: Tickle Fight

A lot of great punch lines, with a lot of punch
If you enjoyed Craig Ferguson's stand-up routines that began his CBS Late Late Show for 10 years, you will probably like this Netflix special. The tone of this show is similar to the TV show routines-- sly, original, mocking yet somehow gentlemanly. (Maybe it's the accent?)

Many of the topics covered are standard--politics, culture, and self- deprecation. But the wit and disarming delivery are Ferguson's alone, and if some of the topics are familiar, others are new, and the humor itself is fresh--in two senses of the word.

Personally, I was a fan of the opening monologues of Ferguson's Late Late Show, and I found this special even funnier.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond - Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton

A Window into the Actor's Craft
For his role in "Man on the Moon," Jim Carrey took on the character of Andy Kaufman so fully that, as he relates here, he found himself reacting off the set as Andy would have reacted rather than as Jim would react.

Along with his known talents, Carrey shows himself in this doc to be a very articulate speaker, even when describing--as he does here a lot--his internal states. If actors need empathy, Carrey here puts that empathy into words--words we can understand and feel.

If you're not familiar with Kaufman, there's a great variety of footage from Kaufman's performances.

It's hard to compare this to any other doc I've seen. Its approach to the subject is as unique as the subject itself. If you want to understand and appreciate a side of Jim Carrey you may never have seen before, or what actors go through when throwing themselves into roles, this film is for you.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

Chasing inspiration
As you'd expect, this documentary offers a close-up view of the different phases of the life of John Coltrane through lots of family photos and footage of his performing and through the remembrances of family and friends who loved and understood him.

But what's really special is that the mix of interviews, from Sonny Rawlins to Wynton Marsalis, from Cornel West to Bill Clinton, captures how deeply Coltrane's life and art inspired people who happen to be both famous and highly articulate about how Coltrane affected them.

If you're not familiar with Coltrane's music, this may be the best introduction you'll find. If you are familiar, you're still likely to learn something new, because the documtary carefully traces Coltrane's musical development. But its greatest strength is how movingly people describe their experiences of Coltrane.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Great documentary on urban preservation vs. renewal
Jane Jacobs and the successful battle to oppose Robert Moses' planned lower Manhattan expressway in the 1960s is the focus of this doc, but the film also raises general questions about the overreach of city planners who are too quick to tear buildings down and not very wise about the new buildings and highways that go in their place.

It's a huge topic, so it was wise to focus here on Manhattan, where enough forms of political greed and poor planning took place to document the folly that went into projects that were completed, like the Cross-Bronx Expressway, along with some that weren't, like the prospect of bringing urban renewal to the West Village.

Lots of footage Moses, Jacobs, and the wrecking ball and we'll put together from beginning to end.

You Can't Take It with You

The bloom is off the rose
You may enjoy this--lots of people still do, judging from reviews that led me to catch it on late night TV. Definitely it's a treat to see such a cast of famous film stars assembled in one place.

It's probably unfair to judge the story line by current standards, but it's weak, and too many lame exchanges mark the dialog. The endless stereotypes--from the snooty upper crust to the always-aimin'-to-please help to the imperious Russian dance teacher--get tiresome after a while, even though they must have charmed a contemporary audience.

Look at it as a period piece, but overall it's a disappointment.

Bei xi mo shou

Staggering visuals leave a sobering message
This film takes us to a number of gasp-worthy and infrequently filmed places--deep into a mine and into a steel mill where workers sling around white-hot molten metal. The technical quality of the images is extraordinary, heightening the impact.

After seeing the effects of these industries on the environment, we then see footage of the effects on people who work there. The only narration is adapted from Dante's "The Divine Comedy." That was a brilliant idea, letting the visuals essentially speak for themselves.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

The fruits of art addiction
Peggy Guggenheim accomplished two things noteworthy and lasting enough for books to be written and documentaries to be filmed about her, even to this day. She nurtured a set of talented young artists that turned out to be among the most influential of her century, and she put together one of the world's great collections of work by this same group of artists.

And there's more. She was quite a character. The guts that she showed in following her tastes in art also led her to affairs, brief and occasionally longer, with men, often young men, and especially artists she admired for more than their artistic talents. This led her to be widely gossiped about, not that this mattered enough to her to change her ways.

The film is sympathetic but not at all hagiographic. It's very well put together, framed around a candid oral interview with her late in life, and interspersed with comments from dozens of art world luminaries-- artists, dealers, critics--who knew her (sometimes in several senses of that term).

The film points out the duplicity of the culture that tolerates sexual promiscuity in males more than in females. Looking back on her life at the end of the film, Guggenheim comments on what made her happiest and on what she still desired most. Happily for the viewer, she speaks as honestly and as bluntly then as always.

Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse, the person and the art
Eva Hesse has been dead for over 45 years. In the short time she had, she became an A- list artist whose work is sometimes classified as post-minimalist. The work is so different from anything else, you may not immediately be drawn to it. But the organic forms, the inventiveness of the materials, and the playfulness make it worth spending time with, and it still has a significant following and is displayed in major exhibits in the U.S, and Europe.

The film does a fine job with the spare resources available--old photos and film, augmented by interviews with people who knew Hesse well. It traces how Hesse's art developed across her brief career with many shots of the work itself along with Hesse's diary entries and comments by contemporaries, including famous ones like Sol Lewitt and Carl Andre.

The film also sketches her personal history, and you get a feeling for what she went through and how she responded to various life events, but as one of the men who loved her said, she really was mainly focused on her work.

Echo Park

The tender ways that love complicates a relationship
This very special movie is built around the tensions that develop among lovers and close friends, as a result of different needs and, specifically, different takes on what love is.

All the main characters are sympathetic, and the choices they make--even when you figure they might be making a mistake--are understandable and defensible. No one does anything really stupid, but what they do is enough to create the tensions that drive the plot.

The actors bring keen sensitivity to this very human, tender film. The director must be in love with Los Angeles, because the shots around town are among the most gorgeous you're likely to have seen.

Play of the Week: Two by Saroyan: 'Once Around the Block' and 'My Heart's in the Highlands'
Episode 7, Season 2

Two Memorable Gems from Saroyan
If you don't mind the format--plays staged as if for the theater but filmed for TV--these two pieces are highly satisfying. The stories depict scenes from the lives of humble men who happen to be unsuccessful writers and actors.

The plays are quiet but not somber, touching but not depressing. Saroyan's simple art is a good fit for a low-budget production that gets its force from the artful way it reveals the internal states of its characters.

And how special to see Walther Matthau as a young actor. He may look a little different from the actor we're used to but already has the commanding presence we recognize from his later roles.

Play of the Week: Two by Saroyan: 'Once Around the Block' and 'My Heart's in the Highlands'
Episode 7, Season 2

Two Memorable Gems from Saroyan
If you don't mind the format--plays staged as if for the theater but filmed for TV--these two pieces are highly satisfying. The stories depict scenes from the lives of humble men who happen to be unsuccessful writers and actors.

The plays are quiet but not somber, touching but not depressing. Saroyan's simple art is a good fit for a low-budget production that gets its force from the artful way it reveals the internal states of its characters.

And how special to see Walther Matthau as a young actor. He may look a little different from the actor we're used to but already has the commanding presence we recognize from his later roles.


A light-hearted take on loneliness
Lorna, who has recently turned 60, is a fine human being, as we can tell from her loving friends and from the way she responds to situations happy and sad. But she's lonely for a soulmate.

This movie traces about a dozen episodes in her search for a cure to matelessness. Some episodes are bittersweet, some are undignified, but all are fresh and most are downright funny.

I've rarely enjoyed a film as much as this one. The director finds humor in the most awkward of situations, and seeing how Lorna rebounds from one event to the next keeps us on her side and builds our admiration. The actors are really well matched to this material, remaining credible while also being comical.

Compared to standard rom-coms, this movie shines, thanks to highly novel situations and to the finely tuned, very human responses of its characters.


A moving but not sentimental tale
The film takes place during two periods in Imelda's life, when she was a young girl and when she's grown up. Imelda's father is a shoemaker, and the imagery of the film keeps landing on shoes as symbols of her father's particular brand of love.

And then there's the cute name connection with Imelda Marcos, the shoe-crazy wife of the dictator, who is shown on TV just after he has been overthrown, when our Imelda is a little girl.

Imelda's childhood becomes difficult when her mother abandons her and her father, and her father takes up with another woman. As the years pass, her relationship with her father grows more distant. At the time we are introduced to the grown-up Imelda, her father has just committed suicide. How Imelda deals with this is the main business of this film.

Thanks to fine directing and acting, we experience the characters' feelings largely through subtle facial expressions and body language. The film is done so sensitively that it just might might inspire you to think back to some major sadness may have changed the course of your life and to revisit the ways that you coped, then and now.

Stations of the Elevated

Elevating Graffiti
Set in NYC with background music from Charles Mingus in place of dialog, this film gives us a look several dozen graffiti-laden subway cars.

The graffiti are eye-catching enough, but across the span of the film we come back to the same cars again and again. The repetition seems purposeful, since plenty of other cars were available for shooting if the filmmaker had wanted. But if the repetition was meant to carry a message or effect, it was lost on me.

The images of subway cars are juxtaposed with other images from the same environment--billboards, notably--and here the effect is to show how the train graffiti compare to their everyday context.

Some of the most memorable images are shadows of standers-by, which are shot from unusual angles. These add yet another intriguing visual component. Watching the barely-moving gray shadows of humans, shot from uncommon vantage points, as we look straight on at the colorful trains passing by underlines the fact that the graffiti-laden trains are the focus of the film.

The Foxy Merkins

Quirky fun
This offbeat movie follows the adventures of a chunky, past-her-prime lesbian hooker in Manhattan. The situations she encounters are even more implausible than the character herself.

Thanks to clever writing, the premise sets us up for disarmingly funny scenes and one-liners both. And while there's no danger that the main characters and events will be confused with real ones, we are led to some truths about human resilience and about how New Yorkers deal with the challenges of daily life.

The gritty indie feel is just right for this amusing, touching lesson in how to enjoy life by not taking oneself too seriously.


Answers questions you may have been afraid to ask
This film gives a surprisingly lucid view of what goes on at Kink.com studios. Even more interesting are the interviews with the staff and the actors, who describe their motivations and what it's like to work in the BDSM porn business. Actors for the most part don't stay for longer than a year or two, and many profess to be exploring an inner need in what they do.

There are a enough explicit sex scenes to give a feel for what goes into the staging. A given scene may change drastically if an actor has misgivings about the sexual demands of the script.

The overall impression is of a business run in a professional manner by decent, reasonably sympathetic people who happen to find themselves or at least their jobs to be on the kinky side of the sexual spectrum.

It's no surprise that this documentary will upset some people. As one of the participants in the film notes, sexual fantasies and taboos are all over the map. The tacit message is that you're free to judge, even if it's pointless to do so.

Nollywood Babylon

Inside Nigeria's film industry
This colorful, information-packed documentary takes us inside the movie-making enterprise in the world's third largest film-producing country. We watch films being shot in a variety of locations and hear first-hand from actors, directors, and other professionals about what it's like to be in the business.

Along the way, we get a taste of life in Nigeria, the ups and downs of daily life and of working in an industry that is not exactly all glamor. It's encouraging to see a bootstrap enterprise divorced from Nigeria's colonial past, operated and financed by Nigerians and not by the IMF or by European tastemakers.

However we may respond to the actual films, cranked out quickly one after another on budgets averaging less than $15,000 apiece, it's a treat to witness the level of professionalism that makes everything come together in the making of a film. And it's a special treat to see an industry respond to today's Nigeria--its tastes and aspirations and its role in modern Africa.

Hermitage Revealed

Fascinating glimpse of a sprawling museum with a sprawling history
The Hermitage Museum, founded about 250 years ago, occupies such a huge physical space and has a collection so vast that this documentary can only provide a small sampling of the art and of the spaces it inhabits.

Sweeping camera shots whisk us around inside and outside the museum, stopping here and there to pick up an interesting visual detail. There's no chance that our tour will take in all that's worth seeing, of course. But the film persuades us that we're seeing a well-chosen sample. We get to spend a fair amount of time with the museum's director, a charming and credible tour guide.

Special attention goes to the work of preserving the art in the collection and to the museum's history, including the extraordinary measures taken in times of upheaval to protect the art, in one case packing up everything (a few million pieces) and moving it to hiding places in the Urals.

While it's too bad we don't see more, no doubt a personal visit would also leave us with the feeling that there's only so much one can cover in one visit. Given that limitation, the film does a really good job.

Un chien andalou

The new 21-minute version has lots to like
The first time I saw this short, I found it silly and meaningless. But openculture.com has posted a "restoration" with a number of changes, with benefits to the sound track and the visuals. The most important change was that the action, which had been sped up in the classic version of this film, has been slowed down to normal. The new version lasts 21 minutes, almost a third longer than the 16- minute classic.

The slowing down gives us more time to take in the sequencing of events in the film. This help us contemplate the creative, twisted chain of associations as we go along. What we see is, if anything, more shocking than in the sped-up version, but at least we have a little extra time to savor the thought processes leading from one image to the next.

It's fun to watch in a devious sort of way, and, minute for minute, you are likely to see more images that stick in your memory than in most any other film.

Sol LeWitt

Sol LeWitt as seen from his work and by those who installed it
This documentary includes dozens upon dozens large-scale images of Sol LeWitt's wall drawings--a great way to get beyond the "minimalism" of any particular piece and see the creative range that LeWitt achieved.

To the film's credit, it contains absolutely no art-speak. Instead, we're told about the sort of person that LeWitt was by those who installed his work, some of whom became friends over the years.

That's especially welcome in LeWitt's case because he intentionally didn't do public appearances, wanting the focus to remain on the work. So this film offers an impression of LeWitt the person that will be new to most of us. And it does this without distracting from the work, which truly is the focus of the film.

The most rewarding aspect of the film is a handful time shots of works being installed from start to finish--a truly painstaking process, it turns out!

Finding Fela!

Searching for Fela and finding a mess
For something that seems thrown together, this is an enjoyable documentary. The musical segments alone are worth the price of admission, and the developing sense of Fela's place in the canon of world pop singers is a great bonus.

Along with snippets of actual performances, there's a lot of footage of interviews with a dozen people close to him, including family and band members, and a few brief interviews with Fela himself. The interviews are well chosen and often moving.

But the fun is lessened by a few flaws.

Many of the most colorful parts of the film were filmed in the 1980's and 1990's in low resolution, so the images are very fuzzy. Still, these scenes are among the most memorable, and they may well have been the best that were available.

Fela's performances excited his fans, but the documentary offers only a partial, poorly organized account of his growth into a superstar. Each individual segment is informative enough, but the sequencing of segments film seems haphazard with little coherence or concern for building on what came before.

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky

An interview with Chomsky like no other
As is usual, this new interview with Noam Chomsky brings out his analysis of current and recent goings-on in the world, focusing on how U.S. might and knowledge has been misused to advance U.S. interests, not always successfully. You'll either agree or disagree, but his extensive reading and his bent for radical inquiry produce some striking eye-openers.

The interview also covers Chomsky's views on linguistics and evolutionary biology in terms that will make sense to most lay people.

But what's really new in this particular film is that we learn from Chomsky about his upbringing, his family, and his life since the death of his wife in 2008. Coming from the horse's mouth, this is quite an important addition to our understanding of a remarkable life.

Accompanying the interview are lighthearted stick-figure cartoons illustrating the points at hand. Probably the filmmaker's idea was, laudably enough, to move away from the talking heads format, but the result is pretty goofy and distracting. The interviewer's thick French accent makes his questions hard to follow, but the DVD comes with English subtitles. Plus, over the course of the interview your ears may get habituated enough to the Frenchman's distortions to make out what he's trying to say.

It's a warm, incisive, broad-ranging interview, with lots of new material for even the most dedicated Chomsky devotee.

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

The tragic story of Aaron Swartz, told by those closest to him
This warm yet chilling documentary retraces the life of Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide at age 26 after a couple of years of severe and deepening pressure from the criminal justice system, which was trying him for a number of felonies resulting from his breaking into MIT's computers.

We first see him as a young kid in home movies, then as a prodigy who while very young was brimming with new ideas for the Internet and applied genius-level programming skills to co-developing RSS and Reddit. Bored with college and with working for the business establishment, he turned to activism, promoting an open Web culture for the benefit of all users.

Swartz's activism turned into hacktivism, landing him in deep trouble with the Justice Department, which charged him with crimes that could have sent him to prison for 35 years. Touching, pointed accounts from family members and close associates describe what Aaron was like and how he responded to unyielding Justice Department efforts to use him as an example.

The interviews with law professor Lawrence Lessig and World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee are unforgettably moving. The film does a good job of calling into question Swartz's harsh treatment by the same Justice Department that shied away from prosecuting the big money interests that brought down our financial system.

Whether you sympathize with Swartz or not, the film does a solid job of showing how blind justice in the U.S. can be when it wants to be.

Ang huling cha-cha ni Anita

Kids and Grown-Ups Mix It Up and a Great Time Is Had by All
In this endearing film, three pre-teens interact with one another and with the adults they're closes to in ways familiar enough, with one exception. The unfamiliar exception is that one of the kids, a 12-year- old girl, falls in love with an adult woman, who in turn has more age- appropriate involvements.

But it's hard to view the movie as being about that one unusual relationship, because there are many subplots, all to some degree intertwined. The basic impression is of a close-knit social group in which all kinds of things are happening among the various members.

There's not a scene in the movie that fails to be emotionally absorbing or fun to watch or both. The child actors are magnificent in their charming, innocent-on-the-verge-of-naughty roles. The same goes for the adults.

It's a witty, engaging film, very original and very well put together, with very high production values.

Sana Dati

Second thoughts on wedding day
It's Andrea's wedding day, and in the last-minute bustle before the service, something happens to make Andrea her and think about whether to go through with it.

Everything about this movie makes us care that she will wind up making the right decision, and the movie is so well done, we feel the same ambiguity and indecision that she feels. We're taken through her recent past, and we learn that she loved someone else very deeply who was taken from her. On wedding day, as it happens, someone turns up who reminds her, painfully, of the man she lost.

The characterizations and acting are wonderful. The sets and cinematography are top notch. The plot is filled with touches that are both romantic and taken from real life. It's all so beautifully done, one hopes many people will get the chance to see this film.

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