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.
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star in Craig Johnson’s offbeat comedy about siblings relating to each other in ways that others cannot. If many of our troubles as adults stem from problems we carry with us from childhood, who else to better understand them than someone who has lived them with you? If this were not a comedy, it would be a very difficult drama to watch. It touches on depression, suicide, child sexual abuse, death, abandonment, compulsion, grief, alcoholism, loveless marriage and infidelity. For the most part, these issues aren’t played for laughs or shock value. The humor in the film comes from watching a caustic Hader and revitalized Wiig play off each other in ways that make us believe that they were once very close and happy together as siblings and want to enjoy those experiences again. At the same time, they hurt each other, often thinking that they are only doing what is best for the other (and they often are).
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.