Critic’s Pick: TV Picks: ‘Happiness,’ Poehler, Banksy, ‘Missing,’ Khrushchev

A 9-year-old Buddhist monk sees the lights of the city for the first time in Thomas Balmés documentary film “Happiness,” airing this week on the PBS series “Independent Lens.”
(Courtesy of Thomas Balmés)

“Happiness” (PBS, Monday). I am, as a rule, a fan of the films that make up the PBS documentary series “Independent Lens,” which tend to spend intimate quality time with the kinds of people TV usually ignores for being too far off, too foreign, too poor or too little schooled. But there is something especially moving to me about this film, an achingly beautiful pocket epic by French director Thomas Balmés (“Babies”). It focuses, closely, on Peyangki, a 9-year-old Buddhist monk in a dying lamasery in a remote mountain village in Bhutan. Nothing much happens. Peyangki is sent by his widowed mother to live with the monks, even though the monks have been quitting the village; later he will accompany his uncle on a trip to the city to buy a television set and to see his older sister, who has left a job as a clerk and is dancing in a nightclub. But nearly every shot is the beginning of its own book -- books about family, and nature, and work, and yaks. Though the film is about the new world penetrating the old, the 21st century meeting what might easily be taken for the 12th, “Happiness” taps into something deeper, larger, more ancient and essential, wondering and wonderful. It is exquisitely photographed, not in a way to prettify things but to recognize their beauty. There is life even in the rocks. The final images, in which the camera looks into the faces of villagers as they watch television, perhaps for the first time -- it’s “Wrestlemania” by the sound of it -- feel almost cautionary, but also full of love and tenderness. There’s art in it, of course -- there is nothing random in Balmés’ structure -- and we are being led to certain ends: not to judge, but to understand.

Amy Poehler, “Yes Please” (Dey Street Books). Currently ranked a "#1 Best Seller” in the category Movie Biographies by, Poehler’s “Yes Please” forms a virtual trilogy, with Tina Fey’s “Bossypants,” Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns),” of Funny Books By Smart Women of Comedy That Qualify as a Memoir But Also May Be Read as A Guide to Life, Even If You’re a Guy. (That is not an Amazon category.) I haven’t read Lena Dunham’s “Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned,’” or I might make it a tetralogy, though I’m not sure she exactly fits here, anyway: Poehler, Fey and Kaling have backgrounds in sketch comedy and stage work and worked their way through writers’ rooms on network TV shows; Dunham is more like an indie filmmaker whose work is taking the form of a premium cable television series. (A very good television series, I should say.) Also, she is only 28 -- I take the ironic quotes around “Learned” in her book’s title as meant at least half sincerely -- where Poehler and Fey have been around for a while and done some things, including having and raising kids, and even Kaling is 35 with a varied CV. (Anyway, my main point is that I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know. I will read it. I will also read any book Louis C.K. cares to write, I say by way of encouragement.)

The Poehler and Fey books are especially of a piece (though Amy’s is the fancier production, with slick paper, color photographs and an embossed cover), and could be profitably paired as a holiday gift. The two women trained together at Chicago’s Second City and toured in its touring company, co-hosted Weekend Update on “Saturday Night Live,” co-starred in “Baby Mama” and co-hosted the 2013 Golden Globes.. (They’re like a less codependent Mick and Keith.) Each comes from what seem like solid, centered, hard-working families; both prize hard work and generosity; and both were trained in the church of Del Close, the improv guru whose widely shared mantra was (note resemblance to Poehler’s title) “Say yes”: a comedy imperative -- along with listening, being present and not stepping on the other guy’s line -- that translates well into the offstage improvisatory world. (Though, as Poehler points out at several points in her book, a solid “no” can be good too.)

Poehler has struggled in ordinary ways (divorce, postpartum depression) that she doesn’t romanticize and has had rare opportunities and successes that she also doesn’t romanticize, sizing herself up (or down, as necessary) with a joke. Comedy is wisdom with a crack in it, copyright this column 2014, and “Yes Please” is wise throughout and funny on most every page. It is also filled with fine throwaway lines like “Going outside at night in your pajamas is like breaking out of jail.” Nearly the last sentence in the book is “The only way we will survive is by being kind,” which sums it up pretty well. Lovely and impertinent.


“Banksy Does New York” (HBO, Monday). I have never thought much about Banksy, the invisible street artist, except to think that I would probably find him irritating if I ever thought about him much. Some of that is just distrust of popularity, I admit. But this short documentary about his monthlong “residency” in New York in October 2013 -- during which he revealed a new work every day, putting its image online, but not its location, leaving that to the city to puzzle out -- is utterly charming. Directed by Chris Moukarbel (“Meet Me at the Zoo,” about that “Leave Britney alone” guy), it mixes crowd-sourced video with interviews conducted during and after the event with fans and art people as well as pages and sound files from the artist’s website, self-mocking museum-tour narratives that “explained” the site-specific works. (These included, along with wall paintings, a meat truck with keening stuffed animals peeking out from the slats; it was in the news, and everywhere.) The city, of course, and the reactions of the citizens (delight, disdain, looking to make a buck out of it) also became part of the piece, which acknowledged -- as does the film -- New York’s central place in the history of modern street art, and the discouraging effects of gentrification. I wouldn’t care to argue whether or not what he does is art, mostly because that’s not an argument it ever feels worth having; and as to whether it’s vandalism, I’m not sure even Banksy would argue that technical point -- I assume he does his work in full expectation that it will be either painted over or removed (whether that’s “stealing” is itself another point the film debates) or altered in turn by some other artist or punk. (All that happens here.) In any case, Mourkabel has made a likable film about people and pictures and art and life and how to bend a city, for a time, to your will.

“The Missing” (Starz, Saturdays). An excellent and involving eight-part human-mystery story about a missing child, and all that follows, told in interlocking streams set in 2006 and 2014. James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor are the stricken parents; Tchéky Karyo the detective that joins forces with them. I have a review in Saturday’s paper.

“Cold War Roadshow” (PBS, Tuesday). A good-humored documentary on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 trip to America. We can laugh about it now, now that we’re more likely to choke the Earth than to blow it up, but in those far away, fearful days, children were learning that the way to survive nuclear war was to hide beneath a desk, while the more nervous grownups above them built lead-lined rec rooms to wait out the fallout. Khrushchev, a beaming bowling ball with legs, was the stuff of American nightmares. Yet in an early spirit of detente, he came to call, and his coast-to-coast tour was a bigger deal than Banksy’s month in New York, even; the bear, it seemed, was a pussycat, and kind of a hit. It turned out to be a false spring -- next year’s U-2 crash would bring back the chill -- but we’re friends now. Aren’t we? Local historians will enjoy footage of L.A. in the late ‘50s. Sergei Khrushchev, the premier’s son, who was along for the trip, and Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter, share their memories. Robert Stone (“Oswald’s Ghost”) and Tim B. Toidze (Moscow born and raised) co-direct in an appropriate spirit of international cooperation. “American Experience” is the presenting series.

Robert Lloyd is tweeting from the shelter of @LATimesTVLloyd


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