Things to Do

Movie Tickets: “Being Elmo,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” and a conversation with Susan Orlean

Our picks for the best on the big screen this weekend.

Elmo and Kevin Clash, the voice behind everyone’s favorite red monster, meet a new friend.

Being Elmo

Ever wondered about the man behind the bright red monster? Sesame Street’s characters have so much character of their own that one rarely thinks to ask who pulls their strings, as Constance Marks does in her profile of Kevin Clash, the voice and the puppeteer behind Elmo. Marks goes back to Clash’s beginnings as a puppeteer (he’s a Baltimore native), the history that brought him in contact with muppet designer Kermit Love, who introduced him to Jim Henson, and the sequence of events that eventually showed him how to get to Sesame Street. A hit at festivals throughout the rest of the year, Marks’s film is a inspiring success story and a feel-good piece of filmmaking that never feels like fluff.

View the trailer. Opens tomorrow at E Street Cinema.

Susan Orlean: Rin Tin Tin, the Life and the Legend, A Conversation with Clash of the Wolves

W.C. Fields may have advised never to work with animals or children, but maybe he never had the chance to star alongside his contemporary, the canine silent film sensation known as Rin Tin Tin. A German shepherd rescued from a French kennel near the end of World War I, the dog was a master at learning tricks and eventually starred in nearly two dozen films, landed countless endorsement deals, and sired more little Rin Tin Tins, who continued his legacy after he died. New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean is an aficionado of the hound’s history, and will be at the AFI this weekend to read from her new book, Rin Tin Tin, the Life and the Legend, following a screening of the dog’s 1925 silent film Clash of the Wolves, in which Rinty plays a half-breed wolf trying to lead a pack.

Saturday at 3 PM at the AFI. $15.


This Is Spinal Tap

Keep your eyes on the countdown, because tomorrow is the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year of the century, forever to be known as Nigel Tufnel day after the lead guitarist of the fictional rock band Spinal Tap. Tufnel, of course, was the proponent of the legendary amplifier that goes up to 11 rather than a paltry ten. Why? “Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?” In honor of the occasion, the AFI is having a special Nigel Tufnel Day screening of Rob Reiner’s classic mockumentary about the rise and fall of the humble heavy metal trio behind such albums as Intravenus de Milo and Smell the Glove. Don’t miss it, because Nigel Tufnel Day only happens once a century.

View the trailer. Tomorrow at 11 PM (of course!) at the AFI.


Ali Khamraev Retrospectives at the National Gallery and the Freer

While not as well-known as other giants from Russian cinema, Ali Khamraev was a well-regarded contemporary of legendary filmmakers Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, and Sokurov, and attended the same Soviet film school. Uzbekistan-born Khamraev was known for the diversity of his projects and his facility with landscapes. The National Gallery and the Freer are joining forces for a dual retrospective of the director’s works, the first of its kind ever to be shown in North America. The NGA has offerings the next two weekends, and the Freer the next three.

Check the NGA and Freer Web sites for complete schedules and descriptions of the films being shown.


Into the Abyss

The newest documentary from the tireless Werner Herzog was shot last year and explores the death penalty. Starting with a project that looked at a number of death row inmates in Texas, Herzog narrowed the focus to two men given different sentences after both were convicted of murder in the same crime, a triple killing they committed in the process of trying to steal a car. One of the two was sentenced to die; the other was sentenced to life in prison with the opportunity for parole. Those familiar with Herzog’s idiosyncratic style may be surprised by his approach here, which on the surface feels more straightforward: interviews and archive footage with none of the stream-of-consciousness narration he usually engages in. But this is still a typically Herzogian film, with odd tangents and an eye for unusual detail. It’s a deeply moving look at crime and punishment, which asserts from the start that the death penalty is wrong and then challenges that viewpoint in fascinating ways.

View the trailer. Opens tomorrow at E Street Cinema.


Blu-ray Pick of the Week: Blue Velvet

This year marks the 25th anniversary of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, perhaps the director’s best-known work and almost certainly the most accessible distillation of his fascinations with the frightening secrets that can hide beneath the façade of wholesome, sunny, small-town America. In fact, the first two minutes tell you nearly all you need to know about the Lynchian aesthetic, as a brightly colored montage of flower gardens, picket fences, and schoolchildren gives way to a middle-aged woman watching a gun on a television screen, a man collapsing in his yard from a stroke, and beetles scrabbling over something hidden in the grass.

What follows is a deeply unsettling story about a young man (Kyle MacLachlan) who has returned to his small-town home to tend to his stroke-victim father, only to quickly get pulled into a world of frightening characters with violent psychosexual hangups. None of them is more famous than Dennis Hopper’s memorably sadomasochistic Frank, who seems to derive great sexual pleasure from taking long huffs off a tank of unidentified gas. Shot through with a blackly comic streak that’s entirely necessary to temper the disturbing oddness of it all, it’s a strangely beautiful masterpiece from one of America’s most distinctive directors.

Special Features: A 70-minute making-of documentary, nearly an hour of never-before-seen footage cut from the film, some outtakes, and a televised review from Siskel and Ebert.

View the trailer: