Now Playing: ‘Birdman’ Goes Mega-Meta

Edward Norton and Michael Keaton in 'Birdman' (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Edward Norton and Michael Keaton square off in ‘Birdman’ (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Michael Keaton plays a onetime action-hero star whose grip on reality becomes a touch, well, fragile after his career falls on hard times and he tries mounting a Broadway play with a hot-shot theater actor (Edward Norton) to prove his relevance.

film-birdman-poster-200Birdman opens this week in limited, stoke-the-Oscars release; it’ll go wider around the country later in the fall. My review is at PopMatters:

Part backstage melodrama and part screed in the name of art, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is nearly as frazzled as its protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Back in the pre-Marvel movie era of the ‘90s, Riggan was the winged superhero Birdman. He made three movies that grossed billions and then chucked it all away. And, like many other actors blessed with the role of a lifetime, he is both embarrassed by his legacy and eager to regain its mantle of fame….

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: October 17, 2014

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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:

Now Playing: ‘The Judge’

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall in 'The Judge' (Warner Bros.)

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’ (Warner Bros.)

In The Judge—aka the movie that most people will assume was based on a John Grisham novel but wasn’t—Robert Downey Jr. plays one of those smart-ass big-city lawyers who has to finally use his sleazy skills for good when he is forced to defend his father (Robert Duvall) on a murder charge.

The Judge is playing now in wide release. My review is at PopMatters:

The Judge offers little that feels like an original movie. It has actors and dialogue, conflict and locations, but it’s so vaguely familiar at every turn that watching it is like trying to decipher a blurred Xerox copy…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: October 10, 2014

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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:

Now Playing: ‘Bird People’ Perches Between Rapture and Oblivion

'Bird People' (Sundance Selects)

Anaïs Demoustier and friends in ‘Bird People’ (Sundance Selects)

birdpeople-posterTwo people, one hotel next to an airport, an atmosphere of rootlessness, a little bit of magic, and lots of sparrows. Those are the ingredients of Pascale Ferran’s gorgeously odd Bird People, which has almost everything going for it but a story. Plus Bowie.

Bird People is playing in very limited release now and deserves to be sought out. My review is at PopMatters:

Airports are all about promise. Springboards to the great elsewhere, they are also, for passengers en route, a comfortingly null zone wherein the normal rules of adult life are suspended. The promise of airports can be intoxicating. But the reality is more often deadening, not transportive.

In Bird People, Pascale Ferran’s ode to the in-between, Charles de Gaulle airport takes on both qualities. It’s at once an escape and a trap for the unwary…

You can see the trailer here: