Set in the region of Upstate New York and New England, Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands tells the story of a sheltered teen-aged boy making a transition to new adult role models after the death of his mother. When the movie opens, Atticus (Silas Yelich) and his mother, Nicole, (Lilly Taylor) are living off the grid. She is home schooling him, but he is entering a stage where socialization with his peers is important to him. They aren’t survivalists, but are getting by without electricity and supplementing the income she earns as an office cleaner by recycling and beekeeping. It is an existence without many conveniences, but hardly a simple life. Beyond financial pressures, Nicole has diabetes and feels hassled by public health nurse who believes she as complications from the disease that may need additional treatment. She is managing to hide the pressure she faces from Atticus, while devoting her life to his education and cultivating his values.
Alejandro Iñárritu’s stage-door film, Birdman (2014) tells the story of a faded Hollywood star (Michael Keaton) attempting to make a comeback and establish a legacy in an Broadway play. It is a comedy – a dark one – and filled will characters who are mostly unlikable, but suited for the life in the theater. Keaton’s Riggan Thomson used to play the eponymous action hero, but walked away from “Birdman IV” 20 years ago. He is still in the public mind, but obviously hasn’t done much since. He is the writer, director, and star of a play based on the short stories of Raymond Carver, an author, whose early death from alcoholism imitates that of our star, who was famous, but never realized his full potential.
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) tells the story of a driven young jazz drummer and a drill sergeant. O.K. That’s not quite true, but it could be. J.K. Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a stern, demanding college jazz band director as if he came from Fort Bragg. Fletcher teaches at Schafer College, the fictional best conservatory in the country set somewhere in New York City near Juliard but not quite. The studio jazz band wins competitions. To be on the core team of that band is to be best of the best for college jazz band musicians. Fletcher could be a football coach or drill sergeant, but this movie is a pedagogic drama and set in a college.
Love is Strange is an update of Make Way for Tomorrow, Leo McCarey’s Depression-era film about a elderly couple forced to live apart due to a late-in-life financial setback. After Ben (Alfred Molina) is fired from his job as a music instructor at a Catholic school, he and is new husband, Ben (John Lithgow) find that they are unable to continue to pay their mortgage and do not have enough equity in their home to find a new place. Moving out of New York City is out of the question, but staying in New York means splitting up. George moves in with a younger gay couple in Manhattan and Ben moves in with his nephew’s family in Brooklyn.