Hello! I'm Mark Olsen, and welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.
What is happening? There have been a lot of movies for a while now (obviously), but it seems like recently, this summer, they've been good. Like on aggregate, mostly good!
This week, for example, there were more good movies being released than we could really spotlight in the newsletter. So we are making extra room for "The Incredible Jessica James," starring Jessica Williams. The movie premiered earlier this year at Sundance and Williams gives a playful, powerhouse performance.
The latest collaboration from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, "Detroit" is both a sweeping look at the Detroit riots of 1967 and a terrifyingly small-scale look at a single incident within that broader context. After being held by police at the Algiers Motel, three young black men died under still-contested circumstances.
In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang wrote, "Is this grueling, bruising, hard-to-watch movie something anyone needs to sit through? It's a question that reveals less about the film's ostensible agenda, I think, than it does about the inquirer's default complacency .… What makes 'Detroit' vital is not that its images are new or revelatory, but rather that Bigelow and Boal have succeeded, with enviable coherence and tremendous urgency, in clarifying those images into art."
As Boal said, "I'm not trying to be authoritarian and tell people how to feel, but anger is an appropriate response. This is something meant to be grappled with."
The film has already stirred incisive writing both praising and criticizing its depiction of the events surrounding what happened at the Algiers. For the Daily Beast, Ira Madison III wrote, "'Detroit' is actually a fictional account of the Algiers incident gathered from source materials and interviews. It's the fatal flaw in an otherwise excellent, terse, and enthralling film. I don't find Bigelow at fault for approaching this story as a white woman, at least in the scope of the Algiers episode, but when the film attempts to make a political statement about the incident and the riots, both she and the film falter."
At RogerEbert.com, Angelica Jade Bastien, in a powerful counter-argument to the film, wrote that "'Detroit' is presented as a valuable portrait of a bloody, violent, and important moment of American history .… But Bigelow, Boal, and their collaborators are unable to meaningfully parallel this event to the present-day happenings they mirror. Watching 'Detroit' I didn't see a period drama, but a horror film. The horror of white filmmakers taking on black history and the violence perpetuated upon black bodies with an unwavering eye yet nothing to say."
"Atomic Blonde" is an action-packed spy thriller, with Charlize Theron as an international agent tearing her way through Berlin right around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Directed by David Leitch, the movie contains some of the most explosive, engaging action sequences seen this year.
Reviewing the movie for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, "'Atomic Blonde' may be a delirious exercise in outré nonsense, but it can also be a brutally effective action picture when the inspiration strikes."
I spoke to Leitch as well as some of the creative team behind the film about its hyper-stylized look, what he called a "protracted '80s music video version of a spy movie."
"You have to make the world compelling," said Leitch. "This super-agent is in this seedy rock 'n' roll underworld in Berlin. There was a standing order that we want an aggregate '80s cool and we want to make it sort of a fantasy '80s, what you remember the '80s to be."
Personally, I always enjoy when New York Times critic Manohla Dargis writes about screen performers or action filmmaking, and with this movie she got to do both. As she says, "Plenty of pretty people slide right off the screen. Ms. Theron, by contrast, holds you partly because she doesn't seem eager to let you in, keeping you curious as she keeps you at bay with reserve and sphinxlike smiles. This distance adds to her mystery and it also makes the eruptions of violence more electric .… she's a natural warrior, but it's interesting here that each exertion and exhalation, each meaty, pulpy thump, also seems to be battering the fortifications that she has built around her."
Directed by Dave McCary and starring and co-written by Kyle Mooney, "Brigsby Bear" is a difficult movie to talk about without giving too much away. What can be said is that it's about a young man who tries to re-create a children's television show he has long been obsessed with. The cast also includes Mark Hamill, Jane Adams, Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear and Kate Lyn Sheil.
Reviewing the film for the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang called it a "disarmingly sweet comedy" before going on to note, "the filmmakers keep a lot of offhand ideas and metaphors in play: childhood's end, the therapeutic power of art, the endearing, exasperating nature of fan culture. To that end, it's fitting that one of the movie's best performances is given by Mark Hamill, whose two brief appearances here are so grounded, and so cleverly scaled to the story, that you almost don't recognize him."
I spoke to McCary and Mooney, friends since fifth grade, as well as Hamill, about crafting this ode to friendship, imagination and creativity.
"Tonally throughout the film, every time a scene feels like it's reaching for a joke it would take away from the realism we were trying to capture and the emotional journey of James," said McCary. "With any fish out of water story, it's so easy to pile on, 'what sort of high jinks can he get in?' And naturally we hopefully found some more subtle moments of humor, but with the understanding that our approach from Day 1 was always, 'how can we tell the most earnest version of this story?'"
'Person To Person'
Among my personal favorites at Sundance this year was Dustin Guy Defa's "Person to Person," a gently affecting look at a group of New Yorkers all struggling in their own way to connect with others. The movie's fantastic cast includes Bene Coopersmith, Abbi Jacobson, Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson and many more
Reviewing the movie for the Los Angeles Times, Kimber Myers wrote, "The low-key dramedy focuses on the city's less picturesque locales .… It's a slight film, but it's populated by enjoyable moments and wry observations
At the New York Times, Nicole Herrington called it, "a movie loosely about authenticity and the little absurdities that abound in New York City."
I spoke to Defa, as well as actors Coppersmith and Jacobson, for a story I'll be publishing soon. "I definitely wanted to explore the real invisible interconnectedness of New York City, where it's a place where somehow you feel like you're connected to everybody. You're not, obviously, but there is a feeling that the butterfly effect is condensed and you don't know how you're being affected."