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last update 1.May.12
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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
4/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Constance Marks
scr Philip Shane, Justin Weinstein
prd Corinne LaPook, Constance Marks, James Miller
narr Whoopi Goldberg
with Kevin Clash, Frank Oz, Fran Brill, Martin P Robinson, Joan Ganz Cooney, Gladys Clash, George Clash, Cheryl Henson, Caroll Spinney, Bill Barretta, John Ziemann, Rosie O'Donnell
elmo and clash release US 21.Oct.11,
UK 27.Apr.12
11/US 1h20

Being Elmo Kevin Clash is one of America's most popular performers, and yet he's rarely recognised in public. This wonderfully engaging documentary catches us off guard with a warm and honest portrayal of an extraordinarily generous man who has never lost his childlike wonder.

Growing up in Baltimore, Clash was transfixed when Sesame Street launched in 1969 and introduced the original Muppets. Watching Jim Henson explain how they worked made Clash want to join them. After chopping up his dad's coat to make a puppet, he began putting on shows for the neighbourhood. And audiences responded. While still a teen, he became a local TV celebrity. Then at 17 he met legendary puppet builder, Kermit Love, who taught him the secrets of the business and introduced him to Henson.

The film is assembled nostalgically, as Clash remembers the joy he discovered in making children smile at his puppetry, even though he was picked on at school for playing with "dolls". As he meets his heroes, we vividly get the sense of a talented teen living out his wildest dreams. It's a thoroughly involving story packed with fascinating detail not only about Clash but about the Muppets and showbiz in general. And it's illustrated with fantastic archival footage of Clash, plus telling interviews with friends, family and colleagues.

Most involving is Clash's realisation of how puppets like Elmo both teach children and give them hope. Scenes in which Elmo interacts with needy children are hugely emotional. So when he talks about becoming a father, the film's warmth becomes almost overwhelming. And when Elmo's popularity rockets into the stratosphere, Clash never loses his love of making children laugh, even as he finds it tricky to balance work with family life.

As Clash observes, when a puppet character is meaningful and true, you're seeing the soul of the puppeteer. Indeed, watching Clash put Elmo on his arm is astonishing, as life and personality suddenly burst out of this mass of bright red fur. Now he's not only supervising the Sesame Street Muppets, but he's mentoring aspiring puppeteers just like Henson and Love did with him. Films don't get much more inspirational than this.

PG themes, some language
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The House I Live In
5/5     MUST must see SEE
dir-scr Eugene Jarecki
prd Sam Cullman, Christopher St John
with Eugene Jarecki, Nannie Jeter, David Simon, Richard Lawrence Miller, William Julius Wilson, David Kennedy, Mark Bennett, Carl Hart, Charles J Ogletree, Julie Stewart, Jonathan Kaufman, Michelle Alexander
The House I Live In release US Jan.12 sff,
UK Apr.12 slf
12/US 1h50

32nd Shadows Awards

sundance london film festival
The House I Live In Important documentaries like this one can spark a range of responses: righteous anger, informed action or exhausted hopelessness. And we experience all three in Jarecki's lucid, engaging, staggeringly urgent film.

Since the war on drugs was launched by Richard Nixon in the late-60s, drug use has escalated in America, which now houses more prisoners than any other nation, including China and Russia. The experts are unanimous fact that, aside from offering no deterrent, tough sentencing has specifically targeted marginalised people, creating even bigger problems in society at large. And there are some horrifying historical precedents.

Rather than overload us with information, Jarecki takes an intensely personal approach, focusing on stories of people whose lives have been derailed by policies that tear families apart by jailing non-violent criminals for unreasonable lengths of time. So the prison system has grown into a mammoth industry that makes money by taking people out of both the workforce and the spending public. Which obviously causes all kinds of other economic problems.

Jarecki's rage is only barely contained. But he diffuses it with offhanded realism as he talks to policemen, prisoners, politicians, academics and people on the street. Most important are the comments of Simon (creator of The Wire), who distills facts into resonant commentary, while scholar Miller is the one who connects the dots of history, noting how no one had any trouble with opium use until they wanted to control the Chinese immigrant population, cocaine for the growing community of black artists and intellectuals, hemp for increased numbers of Mexican workers, meths to get the unemployed out of sight.

According to Miller, this is the course followed by the Third Reich: identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration and annihilation. America is in the concentration phase (the USA has 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prisoners) of class-based conflict. No one is suggesting than wholesale murder is next, but the indirect result is the same.

The film is packed with telling details, exploring the workings of police forces, political pressure to look tough on crime, immigration issues and high unemployment. The fact is that this heavy-handed approach is using destructive military methods for what's actually a health issue. And it's addressing symptoms rather than asking why people are in so much pain that turn to drugs.

15 themes, language, violence

17.Apr.12 slf

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dir Kevin Macdonald
prd Steve Bing, Charles Steel
with Bob Marley, Rita Marley, Cindy Breakspeare, David 'Ziggy' Marley, Cedella Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Chris Blackwell, Neville 'Bunny' Livingston, Alvin 'Seeko' Patterson, Neville Garrick, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Edward Seaga
release UK/US 20.Apr.12
12/UK 2h04

Marley This comprehensive documentary about iconic reggae artist Bob Marley traces his life with a first-hand attention to detail. Through interviews with family, friends and colleagues, it provides an entertaining, telling look at both the man and his beliefs.

As a teen Bob moved from the countryside to the slums of Trenchtown, outside Kingston, where he was confronted by his mixed-race roots (his father was a British Marine). In the 1960s, his ska band The Wailers found success in Jamaica. Then in 1972, Island Records founder Blackwell started promoting The Wailers as a rebellious rock act, leading to global celebrity. Over the next decade, Marley's life included world tours, a re-formed band line-up and a series of huge hits. In 1981, he died after a brief battle with long-existing cancer.

Director Macdonald tells this story at a relaxed, almost Caribbean pace, letting the events unfold chronologically through reminiscences from interviewees and extensive photos, home movies, concert films, early recordings and newsreel footage. Marley himself contributes to the narrative through interviews he gave throughout his career. And along the way we begin to understand his deeply held Rastafarian beliefs and vividly relive a violent, politically motivated attack on his Kingston home. We also learn the truth behind stories of his womanising

He had 11 children by seven women, but he was actually quite shy: women pursued him, not vice versa. And Rita remained his loyal wife through all of it. Along with giving us an intimate look at his personality and relationships, the film helps us understand why he was seen as a messianic figure in the Caribbean and Africa due to the way he constantly challenged oppression and corruption. Macdonald even takes time to show us exactly what makes reggae music so infectious.

This is a fascinating, gripping film, even if the thoroughness begins to wear us out. There's so much amazing footage that we can hardly take it all in. Anecdotes are recounted with wit and personality, and Marley's prophetic zeal is captivating. If there's anything missing, it's the music: the famous songs are here, but only in snippets until a couple of extended tracks over the closing credits. Perhaps we also need a new concert film.

12 themes, drugs, violent images
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Town of Runners
dir Jerry Rothwell
prd Dan Demissie, Al Morrow
with Biruk Fikadu, Hawii Megersa, Alemi Tsegaye, Sentayehu Eshetu, Bethlehem Andale, Frehiwot Sisay, Lomi Adunya, Malketoo Edaasaa, Ifa Bekele, Werkiyye Guddeta, Bekelech Debele, Tsegaye Degefa
megersa, andale and sisay release UK 20.Apr.12
12/UK 1h29
Town of Runners Warm and involving, this documentary explores the experiences of young runners in a small Ethiopian town that has produced an unusually large number of world and Olympic champions (including Derartu Tulu, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba). It's a bit low-key and simplistic, but the photography is beautiful and the human stories are riveting.

The film follows three teens in Bekoji (population 16,000) over four years. Narrated by Biruk, a boy who sees running as the only alternative if his grades aren't up to scratch, the main focus is on his friends Hawii and Alemi, who are slightly older. These two girls are inseparable, and yet they attend different training clubs, where they face a series of distinct challenges. For all three of them, training with Coach Sentayehu in Bekoji gives them hope that maybe they can become national heroes like so many from their town.

Director Rothwell's gorgeous cinematography captures the vivid textures, cultural colour and most importantly the expressive faces of these witty, life-loving people. Along the way, the film chronicles these kids' journeys over the years, as they grow up to become young adults. Meanwhile, we get a remarkable insight into how Ethiopian athletes are developed, even as training facilities that are up to an international standard remain a distant dream.

These are engaging teens who have recognisably normal lives maintaining friendships, doing homework, facing issues at home, learning to work and, most of all, hoping that one day they can make their families and nation proud. They're religious in an earthy, honest way, and cope with heartbreak as just another part of life. Most wrenching is the hugely promising Hawii's appalling experience at two impoverished training clubs. But intriguingly, watching all three struggle against limitations isn't as different from Western society as it seems.

The filmmaking is observant and personal, exploring the many challenges these young people face. Oddly, Rothwell never tries to figure out why this town produces so many champions, beyond the fact that running can be a route out of poverty. So as a documentary, it's relaxed and meandering, without much narrative drive. But the people are hugely engaging and it's moving to see the fortunes of these young runners change while their dreams remain the same.

PG themes, some grisliness
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© 2012 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall