Wild is the lukewarm and fitfully engaging movie version of author Cheryl Strayed’s radiant and absorbing memoir. The movie would like to be loved like the book was loved. But the film is burdened by its star, the not exactly loveable Reese Witherspoon, and its prickly construction, which reduces Strayed’s emotionally gripping memories of her mother to brief, fragmentary snatches. Even with these drawbacks, however, Wild still manages to convey the moving intimacy that made the book a pleasure to read, thanks to the author’s vivid, honest compassion for her own journey of reinvention.
The Babadook is the most frightening movie ever made about a picture book. The eponymous creature lurking within its pages comes to life to terrorize a mother and her young son. It skitters across the ceiling of their bedrooms, hides out in their basement, and infects their dreams. It turns the boy into a wretched little brat and the mother into a knife-wielding maniac. It obliterates their sanity along with their parent-child bond. But here’s the thing: the black-hatted, black-cloaked, faceless Babadook may not even exist at all. Such is the spooky, psychological terrain of this immensely satisfying debut feature from Australian director Jennifer Kent.
The easy joke to make with National Gallery, Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary set inside the venerable London art museum, is that it’s about as exciting as watching paint dry. The film will live up to that description for many viewers or, to be more exact, for many of the very few viewers who will actually see the film. Wiseman is not only famous for the demanding length of his documentaries, most running three hours or more, but also for the difficulty in finding them. They usually play for a week or two in a single art house in a few major cities and then must be purchased or rented via his own company, Zipporah Films. They don’t show up on PBS, HBO or on-demand; they rarely play in retrospective screenings; and you won’t find them on iTunes, Amazon or Hulu (although five of his 42 completed pictures are now, surprisingly, available on Netflix). Wiseman’s reputation is irrefutable among many critics and universities but I’ve hardly met anyone, including many of my documentary filmmaking colleagues, who have actually seen much of his work. For whom, then, does this director make his movies?
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.
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.
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 café 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, 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.