Happy Valley: Powerful and incriminating doc about the Penn State scandal

Happy Valley is filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev’s dissection of the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State scandal. Arriving on the scene after Sandusky, an assistant football coach to the legendary Joe Paterno, was sentenced to prison on more than forty counts of child sexual abuse, Bar-Lev turns his camera on the university, the surrounding neighborhood, the media and the culture of college football. What I assumed to be a title dreamed up by the director turns out to be the colloquial name of the area where the university resides. It’s an irony Bar-Lev confronts head-on, resulting in a multi-faceted and deeply troubling portrait of a quasi-tribal world of hero worship, secrets, cover-ups, and a peculiarly American form of idolatry.

Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): Flying into the sun

It’s difficult to resist the bird metaphors when reviewing Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) so I won’t even try. The film soars. It glides and swoops. It rises and dips. It flaps its wings and squawks. It preens and struts. It also lays an egg, but only in the epilogue; and even then it’s still an egg worth cracking open to see what’s inside. Birdman is easily the most inventive film of the year, and once it snatches you in its beak, it will be hard to shake loose.

Norte, the End of History: Magnificent and grim

Fabian, the protagonist in the grave and beautiful Filipino film, Norte, the End of History, is a privileged snob. He enjoys pontificating about the death of truth and meaning to his friends and former law professors. His nihilistic rhetoric espouses anarchy and revolution, a rejection of society and history that a professor warns is dangerous. “Absolutism is immoral,” the teacher proclaims, as he and a colleague attempt to lure Fabian back to finish his law degree. Fabian may have been a brilliant student, but he’s a lazy and frustrated subversive. He earns a meager wage working in a cafĂ© and is in debt to the local moneylender, an obese woman who is the loan shark of the whole neighborhood. In a tragically misguided effort to wage insurrection against the oppressors, Fabian commits a horrible double murder. The crime consigns another man to prison, his family to poverty and Fabian to a wretched new life of insurmountable guilt.

Laggies: Let's get on with it

Laggies, the sixth feature from Seattle-based director Lynn Shelton, is another entry in her canon of films about arrested development. Even her movies that revolve around an uncomfortable sexual experience, Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, are about people needing to just get over themselves. Laggies is billed as a comedy-romance, but in reality there is very little romance and even less comedy. So what is it? The film is so lightweight it’s almost impossible to recall a single image, sequence, or line of dialogue from the movie ten minutes after you’ve walked out of it. Talk amongst yourselves while I try to come up with something to say.

Fury: War as hell

Fury crushes you with a furious torrent of brutality. It pins you to the ground, smashes your face into the mud, squeezes the resistance out of you until you’re left panting, drowning in blood and muck. It rolls over you with pitiless force, offering no escape from the violence, no retreat. What else would you expect from a movie starring a tank.

Gone Girl: I'm Outta Here

David Fincher continues his puzzling foray into high-minded trash with Gone Girl, an adaptation of the popular novel that is never ironic, funny or serious enough to count as anything more than instantly disposable. Crafted with his characteristic polish and tuned like the purring engine of a luxury sedan, the movie is a consistently entertaining ride, but you’re very much aware you are going nowhere.

Oil & Water: A captivating journey

I know what you’re thinking, do we need another documentary about big American oil companies exploiting third world countries for their priceless petroleum? In the case of the new film, Oil & Water, the answer is a resounding yes, because the story it tells is often very different from what we’ve come to expect from the more predictable, David vs. Goliath narratives: big oil wins, the poor indigenous population loses. Movies such as Crude, Big Men and Sweet Crude have drilled into this subject matter with varying degrees of success. The locally produced Sweet Crude tended to lose its way with too many competing story lines; Big Men needed reams of on-screen text to keep its audience oriented. So it is a refreshing surprise to encounter Oil & Water, also made by a Northwest production team, but one that skips over the pitfalls of advocacy polemics for a more personal, engaging and consistently engrossing approach.