Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (PG, 2011, Docurama)
There is no twist or secret to the journey Kevin Clash took from the day he turned his father’s coat into a puppet to the ah-ha moment that elevated a nearly-discarded puppet into the biggest sensation on Sesame Street. Clash’s ascent was — as ascents almost always are — a confluence of talent, passion, curiosity, sacrifice, selfless heroes and a relentless work effort that creates rather than awaits luck. But reinforcements of every generic lesson your parents and teachers peached about working hard and believing in yourself is rarely so joyously presented as it is here. Though most certainly a Cinderella story, “Being Elmo” cultivates its magic from the most unglamorous dregs of dream realization and the creative process, and though Clash never expresses it himself, the dues he paid shine though in the reflections of those who raised, discovered, tutored, collaborated and formed a new generation of dreamers who idolize and learn from him. If you’ve been where Clash has been or are there right now — within any profession and while hanging onto dreams of creating something wonderful in any medium — this isn’t to be missed.
Extras: Sundance Premiere Q&A with Clash and filmmakers, thoughts from the filmmakers, Tau Bennett (that name will mean something to you after you see the film) performing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, interview with John Tartaglia (who, among other things, is Clash’s Elmo understudy).
The Iron Lady (PG-13, 2011, Anchor Bay)
The Oscar checks out, because Meryl Streep most definitely brings her A-game as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Unfortunately, her vehicle doesn’t quite bring one of its own to match. “Lady” weaves together two separate chronologies to present two biopics in one — one moving traditionally forward to recount the highlights of Thatcher’s rise and fall as Britain’s longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, the other standing still in the present as an elderly and slightly senile Thatcher ruminates about her past and argues with the ghost of her dead husband (Jim Broadbent). The decision not only to go there but visit often and stay awhile — “Lady” divides its time evenly between then and now — is a bold step outside the typical biopic-by-numbers methods. In fact, the scenes where Thatcher rages against her newfound dependency on others and unloads her angst on a ghost who growls back represent the best work the movie does at breaking walls down between its subject and audience. But once the point is made early, subsequent visits border on brazen tearjerker excess. And while Streep’s talent pulls those scenes back from the brink of overkill, they linger along that edge long enough to occasionally call their purpose into question. The more traditional look at Thatcher’s career subsequently suffers when it’s given half the time to do a whole movie’s job. “Lady’s” ultimate message resonates enough to convey its vision of Thatcher’s drive and humanity, but it’s stretched too thin to give that vision its full due. Alexandra Roach also stars as a young Thatcher.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features.
Into the Abyss (PG-13, 2011, Sundance Selects)
Time stands completely still during the fifth chapter of “Into the Abyss.” There, Fred Allen — the former captain of the Walls Unit Death House in Huntsville, Tex., and an overseer of more than 125 executions during his tenure — tells an eight-minute story about the execution that finally wrecked his ability to even endorse capital punishment, much less engage in it. Watching Allen unload his burden almost redeems “Abyss'” price of admission all by itself. Arguably, it has to do exactly that. The notion of an unvarnished look at capital punishment through Werner Herzog’s unique filter of compassionate but uncomfortable bluntness is enormously intriguing, and in flashes, this documentary demonstrates why. But “Abyss” parlays its premise into a heavy focus on a trio of murders that sentenced two people to death row, and the fallout from the case’s aftermath — with regard to the victims’ families, one alleged killer’s (also incarcerated) father, a woman who fell in love with the other alleged killer while fighting for his innocence — takes hold of the movie. Herzog is the master of calmly and warmly asking brutally uncomfortable questions that regularly get answers, and the conversations he has on film are enthralling in their explorations of everything from regret over choices not made to a paralyzing fear of answering the telephone in case more bad news awaits on the other end of the line. But a lot of “Abyss” also comes down to people pleading cases the movie can’t crack, and the actual process of capital punishment receives surprisingly little direct attention beyond Allen’s scene. If that’s what brought you here, what awaits may disappoint in spite of how well it’s presented. No extras.
The Terror Experiment (NR, 2010, Anchor Bay)
Were “The Terror Experiment” a defendant on trial, its lawyers might plead that their client is a victim of circumstance — a movie about zombies and terrorism that unwittingly got lumped into a crime wave of shoddy movies about zombies and shoddy movies about terrorism. Fleetingly, you might be sympathetic to the cause, because “Experiment’s” main protagonist — Cale (Jason London), a divorced dad whose wife works in the same building and whose daughter attends daycare there as well — is considerably more likable than your typical terror/zombie movie lead. He also isn’t alone, thanks to a respectably likable agent (Alicia Leigh Willis as Mandy) who happens to be interviewing for a job just as a government experiment gone wrong unleashes a miniature zombie apocalypse and sends the building into lockdown. But beyond the semi-novel concept of tolerable people in a zombie film, “Experiment” is hopelessly bankrupt in the idea department. Its concepts about zombies are plain as they come, and at this point, the notion of the attack being the work of patriots — per usual, to “save” America’s soul by rooting out its secrets — is more tired than movies about attacks from abroad. “Experiment’s” subplots fare no better: If any of the twists surprise you, then congratulations, because you’re probably watching your first movie and it only gets better from here. Though never unpleasant enough to be offensive, “Experiment” arguably shows nerve simply with its full-scale contentedness to do nothing countless other movies in two separately saturated genres haven’t done ad nauseam over the last 10 years alone. Earnest script or not, there’s no defending that.
Extra: Director commentary.
Hidden (NR, 2011, Entertainment One)
Brian (Sean Clement) never cared much for his mother when she was alive, which is why he didn’t pay her respects after she passed. But even his disdain didn’t stop her from leaving him an entire monastery, which she’d converted into an addiction treatment center while conducting shady genetic experiments under the table. Those experiments led to a device — buried deep in the bowels of the monastery, of course — that’s capable of eradicating any addiction by manifesting it as its own living being. Naturally, as “Hidden” details in its first scene while Brian’s mom is still alive, the side effects of such a machine are dangerous and most likely deadly. Also a matter of course: pretty much everything else about “Hidden,” which takes a wild idea and fully squanders it on yet another movie about pretty people exploring a creepy abandoned building that was abandoned for good reason by a woman who also died for good reason. No one in “Hidden’s” cast of would-be victims is overly likable, and the shoddy cast struggles to deliver on archetypes and back stories — the awkward reunion with the ex, the friend who sees dollar signs in the monastery, the damsels in distress whose only abilities are crying, berating and relentlessly hurtling toward peril — that are painfully textbook. But “Hidden’s” most unfortunate victim is its own hook, which is silly but rife with fun sci-fi possibilities. It mostly goes to waste, and when it finally takes center stage, it’s merely a convoluted vessel for the twist you saw coming an hour ago. No extras.