Fancy feeling warm, fuzzy, and feathery next time you go to the movies? Then make plans to see I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, a delightful piece of cinematic iconography opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, May 15.
Public television’s “Sesame Street” first aired in 1969, and (with apologies to Kermit the Frog and Elmo) Big Bird soon became the show’s most popular character. Ever since, he (or is Big Bird a she?) has been played by puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who also created the eight-foot, two-inch tall vertebrate.
Now 81 years of age, Spinney remains active and continues to appear on “Sesame Street” whenever Big Bird’s presence is required, though his apprentice takes over for some of the trickier and more physically demanding scenes. When not treading the boards in his super-sized costume, Spinney also provides Oscar the Grouch with his grumpy, trash-talking persona.
Dave LaMattina’s film is engaging from start to finish, presenting Spinney as a true gentlemen who only ever wanted to do one thing in life: work as a puppeteer. Indeed, since leaving the Air Force at age 23, that’s all he has done – first for a Boston children’s television show in the early 1960s; then, as both actor and puppeteer on “Bozo’s Big Top;” and finally (and for the last 45 years) on “Sesame Street.”
If you’ve ever wondered what makes Big Bird tick, you’ll be suitably impressed by the extreme measures Spinney takes to make the magic happen. Full of fascinating personal stories, remarkable archival footage (including the show’s original pitch reel), and lots and lots of yellow feathers, I Am Big Bird is the rare documentary the whole family will enjoy.
If you fancy something a little darker this week, prepare yourself for The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, a wry black comedy also opening at the Elmwood on May 15. Written and directed by Swede Felix Herngren, it provides a cheeky take on the mordant tone of typical Scandinavian cinema. Bergmanesque it is not.
Robert Gustafsson stars as Allan Karlsson, the titular centenarian and a man who likes to blow things up. Allan’s penchant for explosives has been getting him into trouble all his life, ultimately leading to his confinement in an old folks’ home from which he swiftly escapes.
Thus begins a picaresque journey across Sweden, a trek that leads to encounters with a motorcycle gang, a British gangster (played by Alan Ford from the severely underrated horror comedy Cockneys vs. Zombies), and an elephant. As the story unfolds, we also see flashbacks to Allan’s younger days, when he crossed paths with historical figures such as Francisco Franco, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and (rather less historically) Albert Einstein’s idiot brother Herbert.
Though reminiscent of such films as Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The 100 Year Old Man still maintains enough distance from Hollywood heavy-handedness to earn itself a recommendation. Winning audience awards at film fests in Sweden, Chicago, Mill Valley, and Durban, South Africa, it’s pleasing, if unambitious entertainment.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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