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:

New in Theaters: ‘National Gallery’

nationalgallery1

A Q-tip can fix the grandest painting in ‘National Gallery’ (Zipporah Films)

Every year or so, Frederick Wiseman produces another documentary, normally of unusual length, that sneaks behind the scenes of institutions ranging from the University of California-Berkeley to a boxing gym. His newest spends three hours wandering like a fascinated ghost around London’s National Gallery. It’s not his best, but still a fascinating piece of work.

National Gallery is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

National Gallery follows the Wiseman style, its sprawling and octopus-like nature weaving the everyday with the sublime. The film starts and ends with a flutter of stills showing highlights from the Gallery’s 2400-odd paintings; heavy on the Masters, with a spray of Impressionism, lots of Turner. It’s a feast in and of itself. Wiseman then moves into the business of day-to-day work at the Gallery, which occupies a grand position on the north side of Trafalgar Square. That includes everything from the workers waxing the floors and dusting to the administrators quietly arguing in conference rooms to the tour guides explaining the holdings to some of the five-plus million visitors who come through the doors every year…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘The Great Invisible’

'The Great Invisible' (Radius-TWC)

‘The Great Invisible’ (Radius-TWC)

thegreatinvisible-posterThe Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion was just about the worst environmental catastrophe the country has ever seen. Margaret Brown’s new documentary explores how it happened and what has been done (or more properly, not been done) to ensure it never happens again.

The Great Invisible is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

The hot lowlands sprawling around where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico seem both disaster-prone and fated to be ignored when it comes time for clean-up. When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, 11 workers were killed and millions of gallons of oil dumped into the gulf. It was the biggest oil spill in American history. That was horrific enough. But then came the investigations, the lawyers, and the intransigent power of a massive industry apparently powerful enough to devastate an entire coastal economy and yet still convince people that punishing it would only hurt themselves…

You can see the trailer here:

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: ‘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 on DVD: ‘The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden’

Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter in their Galapagos garden, c. 1932 (Zeitgeist Films)

Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter in their Galapagos garden, c. 1932 (Zeitgeist Films)

galapagos affair-dvd coverA Nietszche-loving disgruntled German doctor and his worshipful, sickly wife; a “Baroness” who believes no man can resist her; an isolated island; weaponry and jealousy. How could anything go wrong? The story of how it really, really did is the subject of The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, one of the year’s curiouser documentaries.

The Galapagos Affair is on DVD and Blu-ray now. My review is at PopMatters:

In 1929, a certain kind of European man apparently thought nothing of packing up and moving himself and his family to a remote cluster of islands far off the coast of Ecuador … The first couple to arrive on the tiny and uninhabited island of Floreana was Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch. From his and Dore’s writings, it’s clear that Friedrich was a walking stereotype of the clueless Germanic intellectual, so slavishly devoted to his beloved Nietzsche that reality didn’t stand a chance. A successful doctor who believed society to be “a huge impersonal monster,” Friedrich moved them to Floreana in order to “make an Eden.” That they were both married at the time to other people and didn’t know much of anything about surviving in the wild wasn’t deemed an obstacle…

Here’s the trailer: