New in Theaters: ‘Happy Valley’

Painting over Jerry Sandusky at the Penn State mural in 'Happy Valley' (Music Box Films)

Painting over Jerry Sandusky at the Penn State mural in ‘Happy Valley’ (Music Box Films)

The newest documentary from Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) is another troubling story about an insular culture reacting with fury to a scandal that threatens their self-created mythology.

I reviewed Happy Valley as part of the DOC NYC festival. It’s opening this week in limited release; my review of Happy Valley (as well as the D.C. punk documentary Salad Days, which also screened at DOC NYC) is at PopMatters:

If Amir Bar-Lev’s superb Happy Valley is any indication, the arguments in the Penn State community over the Jerry Sandusky scandal will not be ending anytime soon. As with most scandals that flare into the national consciousness amid intersecting nodal points of volatility (regional identity, sexual crimes, sports), what actually happened ultimately has little to do with how it plays out with public opinion. Just so, the film sidelines some of the who-what-when to examine the lingering dust clouds of disappointment, rage, and conspiratorial invective…

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘The Overnighters’ Shows the Dark Underbelly of the Oil Boom

A church becomes a sanctuary in 'The Overnighters' (Drafthouse Films)

A church becomes a sanctuary in ‘The Overnighters’ (Drafthouse Films)

The oil boom in the Bakken shale of North Dakota has had a broader effect than just the local economy. Because of the Wild West boomtown pressures, rents have skyrocketed in the small prairie towns nearest the fields, leading to homelessness among the many workers flooding here from around the country. A fascinating new documentary about one town describes the struggles between a Lutheran minister who opens his church to those jobhunters without a place to sleep, and a town and congregation who are nervous about the new arrivals.

The Overnighters is now playing in limited release and should likely be broadcast on public television next year. My review is at Film Journal International:

The prospect of plentiful jobs paying $100,000 has brought a Wild West mentality to this spare and abstemious high-plains town, with all the economic pressures and outer-world decadence that entails. Rents have tripled and quadrupled, forcing out longtime residents and leaving the new jobseekers nowhere to stay. Concordia, the local Lutheran church, has become something of a temporary shelter for some of those migrants. They bed down on the pews, on the floor, in their cars in the parking lot. This strikes some of the parishioners as excessive. Some say they feel uncomfortable or unsafe in their own church. Referring most likely to the uptick in crime that the oil rush of new money brings, one refers to the men as outsiders “who rape and pillage and burn.” Their tenor varies from quiet to loud, but overall the response is: Stay away….

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: In ‘Evolution of a Criminal’ the Director Tells How He Became a Bank Robber

Bad decisions in 'Evolution of a Criminal' (Independent Lens)

Bad decisions in ‘Evolution of a Criminal’ (Independent Lens)

Darius Clarke Monroe was a straight-A student from a tight-knit family in Houston; the last kid anybody would have picked to become a criminal. But nevertheless, he and two friends left high school one day to rob a bank. Evolution of a Criminal is Monroe’s confident, morally astute documentary about what led up to and followed that life-changing decision.

Evolution of a Criminal is opening this week in very limited release and will be broadcast on PBS in the near future.

My review is at Film Journal International:

As in Night of the Gun, where journalist David Carr reported his past history as a violent drug addict as though he were covering any other story, Monroe approaches the bank robbery that changed his life with a similar degree of distance. The background he paints through closed-framed, emotional interviews shows a vibrantly family-filled childhood in a quiet Houston neighborhood. His mother and father and other relatives describe a bifurcated existence, where his lively confidence was shadowed by worry about the family’s severe financial problems. After a robbery leaves the family devastated—the thieves actually broke through his bedroom ceiling—Monroe’s jokes to his mother Sigrid about robbing a bank to help her out take on a more insistent edge. Like just about everybody else Monroe talks to, she can’t believe that her friendly, outgoing, well-behaved boy would ever do anything of the sort….

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Last Hijack’ Gets Inside the Mind of a Somali Pirate

'Last Hijack': Let's steal a ship. (The Match Factory)

‘Last Hijack’: Let’s steal a ship. (The Match Factory)

In the latest take on the Somali pirate phenomenon, Last Hijack comes from a more innovative direction. It mixes on-the-ground documentary footage of Mohamed, the pirate captain who’s pushing for another escapade even as his parents and new wife beg him not, with imaginative animated segments that portray his roiling internal strife and traumatic memories of war.

Last Hijack opens today in limited release after playing a number of film festivals. My review is at Film Journal International:

In the rash of recent films centered on the Somali piracy outbreak, almost none have been shot from the pirate’s point of view (the 2012 short and 2014 feature Fishing Without Nets being a rare exception). It’s not surprising, as Western audiences prefer their pirate-centric films to be more lusty, fun-loving, highly fictional, and safely mired in the past. When the films, and the many books and magazines, about the subject have tiptoed into the causes behind the outbreak of piracy, some have fallen prey to the too-easy explanation of: The pirates were once fishermen, and after other nations’ fishing vessels stripped the ocean clean, they resorted to piracy to make a living. That’s a big part of the story. But what Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting’s smart, well-rounded documentary understands is another quite obvious explanation: Piracy in this scenario is not only a way to make easy money in a poverty- and war-ravaged land, it’s an addictive thrill…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Harmontown’ Goes Deep Nerd

Dan Harmon gets angry on 'Harmontown' (The Orchard)

Dan Harmon gets angry on ‘Harmontown’ (The Orchard)

In between crafting one of the modern era’s great meta-TV-sitcom gems (Community) and self-destructing on social media, Dan Harmon hosts a weekly podcast that usually starts in drunken tomfoolery and ends with an even more drunken round of Dungeons & Dragons.

The documentary about that highly nerd-centric podcast, Harmontown, has been playing various festival dates and opens next Friday in limited release.

My review is at Film Journal International:

Harmon, who first made his name as co-creator of the famously unproduced Ben Stiller and Jack Black comedy show “Heat Vision and Jack,” was a guerrilla hero to appreciators of his cult NBC sitcom “Community.” Since it began in 2009, the show smuggled meta-fictional memes and a thick webbing of deep-geek culture into a surprisingly emotional show about outsiders struggling to put their lives together at a community college. The low-rated but well-reviewed show was kept alive by its rabid fan base until finally getting the axe this year after its fifth season (a sixth season was picked up for online distribution by Yahoo!). After well-publicized tussles with one of the stars, Chevy Chase, Harmon was fired by the network after the third season. Harmontown picks up with the recently axed Harmon embarking on a 20-city tour with “my intrepid friends” from his podcast. It’s half escape from the two network pilots Harmon is supposed to be working on, and half public-forum therapy in front of his devoted “army of nerds”…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Jimi All Is By My Side’

Andre Benjamin in 'Jimi All Is By My Side' (Darko Entertainment)

Andre Benjamin in ‘Jimi All Is By My Side’ (Darko Entertainment)

Outkast’s Andre Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix in a film written and directed by John Ridley (Twelve Years a Slave)? Yes, please. No rights to any original Hendrix songs? Hmmm…

Jimi All Is By My Side is opening Friday in limited release and probably won’t hang around too long. My review is at Film Journal International:

Eventually somebody will make a sprawling, all-inclusive Jimi Hendrix movie with the estate’s full cooperation. The cinematography will be lush, the highs glorious and the lows despairing, past and present will bleed together, and the artist will emerge as a troubled but epochal figure who blazed brightly before burning out. Stars will litter the screen and the Dolby-assisted tidal wave of tunes will bring tears to every baby boomer in the house. That movie will almost definitely be better than the scattered and unsatisfying Jimi: All Is by My Side. But it won’t be as honest an attempt to get at the mystery of the man…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: Nick Cave is Still Alive in ’20,000 Days on Earth’

Nick Cave drives to parts unknown with Kylie Minogue in '20,000 Days on Earth' (Drafthouse Films)

Nick Cave drives to parts unknown with Kylie Minogue in ’20,000 Days on Earth’ (Drafthouse Films)

20,000 Days on Earth is a meta-fictional documentary about Nick Cave, art, life, death, and above all writing. It’s beautiful and transfixing and is opening in limited release this Wednesday.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The last thing that audiences need is another documentary about the greatness of another band or artist of the past. It’s all too easy once artists have their glory days behind them to lock all that rough chaos up into a neatly packaged movie, maybe a box set filled with B-sides and rarities. That doesn’t mean that the likes of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Finding Fela and A Band Called Death aren’t worthy films. But today’s documentary audiences could be forgiven for thinking that to be a music fan today is akin to being an archivist. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s new documentary about Australian Goth-poet Nick Cave is a long overdue reversal of that nostalgic trend…

You can see the trailer here: