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Indie Focus: 'Irrational Man,' 'Ant-Man' and late-night faves

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen, and welcome to your weekly field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Our Indie Focus Screening Series has shifted into overdrive, as there have been just too many terrific opportunities for us to pass up. Last week, we had director James Ponsoldt — our first three-time guest! — for a talk after a screening of  “The End of the Tour.” (There will be more coverage of that film in the weeks ahead.)

This week, we’ll show Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected,” about a high school teacher facing an unplanned pregnancy, followed by a Q&A with actors Cobie Smulders, Anders Holm and Gail Bean.

The week after that, we’ll have “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” with writer-director Marielle Heller and actors Alexander Skarsgard and Bel Powley. And there’s going to be even more events in August, including one I still can’t believe we’re about to pull off.

Keep an ear out for future episodes of our podcast drawn from the post-screening Q&As. And keep an eye out for more screenings here: events.latimes.com/indiefocus/

Nonstop movies. Movies nonstop.

‘Irrational Man’

Joaquin Phoenix appears in a scene from Woody Allen's "Irrational Man." (Sabrina Lantos / Sony Pictures Classics via AP)

Last week, I reviewed the new Woody Allen movie, “Irrational Man.” The film manages to both cover many of the longstanding themes and tropes of Allen’s while also feeling somehow different and even fresh. The movie also lets on that Allen may be aware of what some people think of him after all, as there is a reading of the film in which he is responding to those who think they know something about him.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a college philosophy professor struggling to escape his own mordant self-pity even as he becomes an object of affection for both a young student (Emma Stone) and another teacher (Parker Posey). What does rouse him from his stupor is committing an act he must then learn to live with.

As I wrote: “The new movie remains tonally elusive, changing at times scene by scene or even moment by moment between playful comedy and something more downcast and ruminative. Allen's new 'Man' isn't so much irrational as stubbornly, willfully weird.”

I interviewed Allen in person twice in the long run of his 2013 film “Blue Jasmine,” once in New York ahead of the film’s summer release and then again in Los Angeles a few months later.

‘Ant-Man’

Paul Rudd in a scene from Marvel's "Ant-Man." (Zade Rosenthal / Disney/Marvel)

With a seemingly endless cycle of “Batman,” “Superman” and “Spider-Man” movies in one stage of development or another, it can be easy for filmgoers to think all comic-book superhero movies are basically alike. Last summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” put a playful spin on the concept, and now along comes “Ant-Man” starring the ever-affable Paul Rudd.

In his review, Kenneth Turan said of the film, “Playful in unexpected ways and graced with a genuinely off-center sense of humor, ‘Ant-Man’ (engagingly directed by Peyton Reed) is light on its feet the way the standard-issue Marvel behemoths never are. It's got a vintage science-fiction feel and a climactic scene in which Thomas the Tank Engine rather than a crowd of interstellar invaders plays a major part. Business as usual this is not.”

Josh Rottenberg spoke to Reed about the film and its production backstory. “I like the idea that he's one of the lesser-known characters out in the world,” Reed said. “I find something sort of liberating about that. People don't really know what to make of him: ‘He shrinks and he controls ants — how is that cool?' We're going to show you absolutely how that's cool.”

I interviewed Reed a few years ago when he directed Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston in the prickly rom-com “The Break-Up,” a film I have real affection for and which has been recently popping up on cable.

‘Felt’

Kentucker Audley plays Kenny in the film "Felt." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Anyone overloaded from the week’s “Man”-titled releases or movies about men in costumes may want to give a look to “Felt,” now playing in Los Angeles and coming to video on demand platforms on Tuesday, July 21.

Times reviewer Robert Abele referred to the movie as “a millennial feminist spin on Roman Polanski's ‘Repulsion.’ ”

In the film, a young woman creates an outfit for herself to appear as a naked man, part defense mechanism, part art project. As Abele noted, “ ‘Felt’ is a moodily disturbing character study of a besieged woman for whom art is an engagement and coping mechanism, but also conversely a source of alienation and even a weapon.”

The movie's star and writer, Amy Everson, wrote an essay for The Daily Beast about her intentions for the film. “In a culture that overvalues the idea of masculinity, trivializes women’s rights, encourages male entitlement, blames victims, denies the existence of widespread rape, and has a staggeringly unsophisticated understanding of the spectrum of sexual violence that occurs, it was next to impossible to recognize healthy alternatives. So the man-suit, imbued with a symbol of power, became her superhero costume.”

Late-night movies: 'Leviathan,' 'Ex Machina' and 'Inherent Vice'

A confession: When I either can’t sleep or am working late (those things often overlap) I like to put on a movie as background accompaniment. It tends to be a certain kind of movie that can withstand varying levels of attention, often long, with evocative visuals and good music. A few standbys are “The Departed,”  “Anchorman,” “Heat,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Marie Antoinette,” “The Counselor,” “Drive,” “Domino” and “It’s Complicated.” 

A few recent home-video releases have hit the late-night rotation hard. “Ex Machina” is a film I have enthused about, and the fact its sleek, cerebral A.I. sci-fi plays well to the dreamy space of nighttime shouldn’t be a surprise.

What I have been surprised by is how often I’ve found myself reaching for the recent Russian film “Leviathan.” The stunning use of landscapes in the film are really transporting, and its vodka-soaked atmosphere goes well with the blurry mood of the middle of the night. The disc also features a surprisingly candid half-hour making-of documentary, which really captures the mix of chaos, planning and hard work that goes into making a film.         

Another recent late-night fave has been “Inherent Vice.” Though not included on the official home-video release, a fantastic behind-the-scenes film recently popped up online titled “Chryskylodon Blues.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter @IndieFocus.

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