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Review of STUFFED (DVD)

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Grade: B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)
Documentary

Stuffed sounds like it could be a Thanksgiving-themed film for foodies, but it’s actually a documentary about taxidermy. You know: stuffing dead animals, birds, and fish for display. And if you’re wondering who would be interested in a movie like that, you’re not alone. As we watched, we wondered the same thing.

I was interested because my age lines up with one of the senior taxidermists interviewed in this 84-minute documentary. She noted that their generation of taxidermists got their start as children by taking a taxidermy correspondence course where the lessons came in installments, by mail. I took that very same course and remember looking for fresh road kill squirrels or pigeons, then trying to peel away the skin, remove the body, replace it with a mess of wires and sisal, and sew it up again. That was the era when kids were as fascinated by museum dioramas as they were ventriloquism and magic. So as someone who was a complete failure as an adolescent taxidermist, I watched Stuffed with nostalgic interest and admiration for those who can actually do this, and do it well.

Stuffed pretty much explains why I was unable to create lifelike taxidermy mounts. Taxidermy, as this film aptly illustrates, requires the talents of a naturalist, a craftsman, and an artist. As it turned out, I didn’t have an ounce of Picasso in me. So for an audience of up-and-coming generation of potential taxidermists, the film drives home the point that taxidermy is mostly an art that also requires the mindset and calculations of a scientist, the exacting talent of a sculptor and painter, and the passion of a naturalist.

Yet, young people today are eco-savvy, so I’m not sure that they’d respond well to parts of this film that show hipster taxidermists creating “rogue” mounts that are not true to nature and are done for fun or pure artistic license. They also might cringe when taxidermists who cater to the hunter-fisherman crowd talk about how hunters and fishermen are the biggest conservationists. If that were true, wouldn’t they have a different voting record than they do? Overall, though, director Erin Derham gives us a nice cross-section of different types of taxidermists and features as many women as men.

I rather imagine today’s young people with any fascination with taxidermy would be more drawn to the taxidermists shown here who work at museums and are dedicated to preserving creatures that have died of natural causes—ones who work in this profession because they appreciate the beauty of nature and want to preserve these creatures for future generations. I missed seeing one of Chicago’s most beloved Great Apes, for example, but when Bushman died a year after I was born I was able to appreciate his grandness at the Field Museum, thanks to a talented taxidermist. There’s a segment here that really captures that important function of taxidermy, when we see a famed and beloved tortoise who died of natural causes in captivity mounted so that he is forever preserved for people to remember and admire.

It might be a matter of personal taste, but my son and I most enjoyed this documentary when the filmmakers focused on how dedicated the taxidermists were to not just “stuffing” the animal but trying to capture its personality. That meant making detailed drawings of the animal from film, talking with trainers, and studying photos and the physiology of others of the same species. And it meant spending many more hours than I was willing to dedicate to the art as a youngster.

Some of the most interesting segments of Stuffed focus on the interactions that taxidermists have with live animals, as well as a segment on Carl Akeley, who’s acknowledged as the father of contemporary taxidermy and renowned for his contributions to the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He was the one who brought habitat design to exhibits featuring taxidermy mounts, and the one whose efforts sparked great interest in nature and conservation. His earliest diorama can still be seen at the Milwaukee Public Museum, and those who know of P.T. Barnum and Barnum’s famed “Jumbo” the elephant might find it of interest that Akeley and William J. Critchley were the taxidermists who mounted Jumbo, which was displayed at Tufts University for many years before it was destroyed in a fire.

To be sure, Stuffed will have a limited audience, and it would seem to be mostly for the hardcore naturalists and people who have always admired taxidermy mounts and wondered what all goes into each one. Spoiler alert: a lot.

Entire family: No (limited appeal)
Run time: 84 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Music Box Films
Aspect ratio: 1.85 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
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Review of THE KIDS TABLE (DVD)

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Grade:  C-
Entire family:  No
2018, 72 min., Color
Documentary
Giant Interactive
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Trailer
Amazon link

After I watched this documentary about bridge (the card game, not London or any other feat of engineering), I was surprised to see that the runtime was only 72 minutes. It seemed much longer . . . and not just because I know nothing about bridge. It seemed longer because this documentary didn’t inspire me to care any more about bridge than I do now.

And there was certainly potential. When you get a group of four 20- and 30-somethings who are being coached by bridge trainers (who knew there was such a thing?), and those four people compete in tournaments where the opponent’s average age is 73, there’s potential here for interest.

But The Kids Table feels superficial because it doesn’t really answer any of the questions that arise along the way. Like, how do the old people really feel about them intruding in their private world of bridge? We get a few responses, but not nearly enough, and the responses we get aren’t personal enough.

What made each of these people want to learn bridge? Were they recruited? What do their friends or families or significant others think about them spending so much time on an old people’s card game? While we get some solo interviews with each of the young people, there’s not much in the way of answers or depth. Out of curiosity I Googled one of them and learned that Stefanie Woodburn (who admits she’s not super hot on bridge but, once involved, can be super competitive) is a member of Mensa and a summa cum laude graduate from NYU. She’s an actress who’s been featured in TV movies and starred as Mulan in Once Upon a Time: The Rock Opera. She also was one of the first graduates of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s IMAGINE IMPACT class, and she created the first short film funded through video streaming games. Fascinating, right?

But we don’t get much information about her or the others in this documentary, which limits the on-camera interviews to reality-show style questions about their feelings on what we just saw onscreen. Frankly, a documentary like this would have worked so much better if each of the principle young players had their own “Olympic moment” profiles that make us care about them as they play. Does it put a strain on their social lives or family life? Does it compete with their other ambitions? Has learning bridge been a struggle that they continue because of x, y, or z? Without strong back stories there aren’t strong characters, and that especially holds true for this film by Stephen Helstad and Edo Benda. We simply don’t get enough personal information about the four novice players and their two trainers for us to care about them. We’re just flies on the wall as we watch Woodburn, Paul Stanko, Monique Thomas, Edd Benda, Brian Reynolds, and Samantha MacDouglas go from match to match. More

Review of HESBURGH (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 106 min., B&W and Color
Documentary
Not rated (would be PG for Kent State footage)
Music Box Films
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Trailer
Amazon link

Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower asked him to serve on the National Science Board and later the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and he was the one who brought Democrats and Republicans together on the latter, then brokered the approval of 11 civil rights recommendations. Later “Ike” asked him to help bridge the gap between Russia and the U.S., and he became good friends with the Soviet Union’s delegate to the U.N. in order to relax tensions.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked him to be by his side for a crucial civil rights rally at Chicago’s Soldier Field on June 21, 1964, and there he linked arms with Dr. King and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Eleven days later the Civil Rights Act was signed, and years later King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, would call him “One of the giants of the civil rights movement.”

Pres. Richard M. Nixon called on him to stop anti-war protesters at Notre Dame, and he cracked down on them . . . but after Kent State, had a change of heart and publicly attacked Nixon and the Vietnam War. He’s prominently mentioned on the Nixon tapes as a “problem.”

Who knew that the life of a college president could be so influential . . . and fascinating?

Rev. Theodore Hesburgh was president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952-87, and this 2018 biography begins with a voiceover recording of him saying “Since the age of six, I wanted to be a priest,” and ends with his funeral procession and thousands of Notre Dame students lining the route to the cemetery. But it’s as much a documentary about history as it is a man who devoted his life to the service of others, and there are some incredible stories here.

Who knew that the president of Notre Dame had such power?

One of the stories Hesburgh tells is about a Cardinalship that he turned down. “I came to know all of the popes throughout my life,” Hesburgh says, “but the only one I considered a true friend was Giovanni Montini, who would take on the name Pope Paul VI.” The Pope gave him the enormous emerald ring he wore as a cardinal, saying, “Now it’s yours,” but hoping he would accept his offer. “I said, ‘Thank you for the ring, Your Holiness,’ and I put it in my pocket. . . . [but] I can do a lot more as a university president.”

Who knew that a fishing trip was behind the success of civil rights reform in the U.S.? More

Review of BREAKING BIG (DVD)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2018, 320 min. (12 episodes), Color
Biography-Documentary
PBS
Not rated (would be PG for some language)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s a nice idea—profiling highly successful people to try to nail down what it was that made the difference—but Breaking Big ultimately is more fascinating than it is a template for how to break big yourself.

For this PBS biographical series, host Carlos Watson sought out and interviewed phenomenally successful people who had a breakthrough moment that made all the difference in the world. Featured here are all 12 celebrities from Season 1:

—South African comedian Trevor Noah, whose quick rise landed him the plum job of Jon Stewart’s replacement on The Daily Show.

—Restaurateur, TV host, and author Eddie Huang (Fresh off the Boat), who turned a passion for cooking and his Asian-American upbringing into a best selling book and other successes.

Danai Gurira, a Zimbabwe native whose play about her African heritage brought her acclaim and led to roles on The Walking Dead and Black Panther.

Jason Aldean, who trusted his nonstandard rock-infused approach to country music and made it big. More

Review of MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
2017, 89 min., Color
Documentary
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be G)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

As a documentary, Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards is a product of the times. Reality TV programming has pushed the public’s fascination with celebrity and celebrities to an extent that we haven’t really seen since the Golden Age of Hollywood and the initial proliferation of gossip magazines. Atypical of road-to-success biographies, this film offers an adorational profile of high fashion “cobbler” Manolo Blahnik— one that celebrates the designer’s personality and celebrity more than it explains his methods or his rise to prominence.

The title is literal. As a young boy Blahnik, who grew up in the Canary Islands, really did make tiny little shoes for the lizards that he would catch and play with. But as I said, this isn’t the standard biography that proceeds chronologically in order to explain how that young boy grew up to be one of the most influential fashion figures of the 20th and now 21st century. It’s not emphasized how he lived with his aunt and uncle and how the latter helped his fashion tastes to evolve, and we really don’t learn much about the early transformative years.

The first two-thirds of the film is devoted to creating an impressionistic portrait of the flamboyant Spanish designer, reinforcing how big he actually is in world pop culture and fashion. We see celebrity after celebrity fawning all over Blahnik or his shoes and quickly deduce that he was the main designer on the radar of the rich and famous—both entertainers and political royalty. Blahnik repopularized the stiletto heel and when high-fashion footwear was called for in the movies, he was often the one costume designers turned to—with one film, Marie Antoinette, offered as an extended example. But mostly we hear people talking about Blahnik and we hear Blahnik talking about his life.

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Review of WITH GREAT POWER: THE STAN LEE STORY (DVD)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2010, 80 min., Color
Documentary
Not rated (would be G)
MPI Home Video
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: A-/B+ (includes second disc of extras)
Trailer
Amazon link

If your family is like ours, the kids don’t exactly clamor for documentaries. But when the subject of a documentary is Marvel comics legend Stan Lee, and when the documentary employs graphics that remind you of comic books, suddenly there’s interest. Enough for them to watch the whole thing, in fact.

Even years after the hey-day of comic books, when kids could indulge themselves for just 12 or 15 cents, the low-culture genre still holds plenty of fascination. Back then, Lee says, they created a comic per day, and most of the kids I knew purchased at least one per week. It was our pulp fiction. “I learned to read because of Spider-Man comics,” one of the many celebs on this documentary confesses. But a new generation has come to know the Marvel characters mostly through TV and movies—and in this, too, we discover, Lee played a pivotal role.

Since the age of 19, Lee has been the driving force behind and larger-than-life face of Marvel, a genius who co-created more than 500 distinctive characters over his long career as a story man. Teaming with legendary comic-book artist Jack Kirby and others, he absolutely owned the Sixties, coming up with nine characters who would become major Marvel success stories: Fantastic Four (Nov. 1961), Ant-Man (Jan. 1962), Hulk (May 1962), Thor (Aug. 1962), Spider-Man (Aug. 1962), Iron Man (Mar. 1963), The Avengers (Sept. 1965), Daredevil (April 1964), and Silver Surfer (Oct. 1966). “I just put the words in the people’s mouths and I may have come up with the original idea, but after that it was a partnership,” Lee says.

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Review of ROARING ABYSS (DVD)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes (though small children may tire)
2015, 87 min., Color
Music documentary
Not rated: Would be G
IndiePix Films
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Roaring Abyss is an unfortunate title, and the cover art just as unfortunate. Both give a false impression of turbulence, pain, struggle, or a profound feeling of being trapped. That couldn’t be more misleading. Roaring Abyss is a feel-good film, a start-to-finish musical journey across Ethiopia, where, we’re told, “Ninety million people in the second most populated African country” are “singing in eighty different languages on both sides of the Rift Valley.”

This 2015 documentary from Quino Piñero could very well do for traditional music from Ethiopia what Buena Vista Social Club did for Cuban music and musicians. The musicians celebrate their lives through music, and Piñero celebrates that too, along with celebrating their talent, passion, and dedication to preserving traditional music.

You don’t have to be a music lover to enjoy this film, but it certainly helps, since music is a constant. From the terrific opening song you know what sort of journey awaits. A pattern unfolds: you see film of everyday life in a section of Ethiopia while you hear music, then a cut to the musicians so you can see the source of the sound and watch the rest of the performance—and in a sense, every one of these songs, no matter where it was recorded, is a performance because they have been recorded in front of microphones for posterity. After the performance we get more of the same, with that pattern occasionally interrupted by interviews with some of the performers.

“A song is not only for dancing,” one of them remarks. “It reminds you of your dear ones, it brings back memories of far relatives, it reminds you of those who passed away, it reminds you of the love you experienced in your life. Indeed, songs are rarely made for dancing only.”

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