Indie Focus: Pushing back with 'Lady Macbeth,' 'To the Bone' and 'City of Ghosts'

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

Among the biggest surprises of this movie season has been a handful of smart, well-crafted movies that in many ways fulfill the very ideals of the summer blockbuster. Now, along comes “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the third in the recent reboot of the series that has provided a showcase for the emergent motion-capture technology that blends actor’s live performances with technological wizardry and a storytelling sensibility that probes the underside of what holds society together.

In his review of “War,” Times critic Justin Chang called out the “breathtaking formal beauty and tonal control” of director Matt Reeves’ film, adding, “It would be hard to overstate just how singular this picture feels in its seriousness of purpose and in its cumulative power to enthrall and astonish.”

The Times’ Josh Rottenberg spoke to Reeves, who said of his unlikely career path that has landed him making high-minded big-budget action thrillers, including an upcoming “Batman” picture, “I never thought I would be making these kinds of movies.”

Our two screening this past week — “To the Bone,” with guests Marti Noxon and Lily Collins, and “Landline,” with Gillian Robespierre, Elisabeth Holm, Abby Quinn and Jenny Slate — were both terrific events, full of insights, info and a few laughs. We hope you can make the next one. For updates on future events, go to events.latimes.com.

‘Lady Macbeth’

Based not on Shakespeare, but a 1965 Russian novella, “Lady Macbeth” is a gripping drama full of murder, sex, betrayal and self-discovery as a young woman bristles against the confines of her role as lady of the house. Directed by William Oldroyd, the film features an astonishing performance by Florence Pugh.

In his review for The Times, Kenneth Turan said of the film: “A cold and unnerving tale of the twin deranging powers of passion and oppression, it’s a 19th century costume drama impeccably made on a minuscule budget with some very modern thematic concerns in mind.”

I interviewed Pugh (as well as Oldroyd and Stephen Merchant, who directed the actress in the upcoming wrestling drama “Fighting With my Family”) to talk about her dynamic abilities onscreen.

Of her role in “Lady Macbeth,” Pugh said, “I’m probably the worst person to ask about Katherine now because I am such a Team Katherine.”

Moving forward, Pugh added, “I hope to create characters that people want to watch — and they either want to be or are or it’s something that they recognize. Why shouldn’t there be more epic, brilliant female characters onscreen?”

At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis said that “even when Katherine is standing over a second corpse, it’s not obvious whether she’s a newly sprung prisoner of gender with a reasonable sociopolitical alibi (the patriarchy made her do it!) or just a psychopath in a fetching peacock-blue gown. Mr. Oldroyd doesn’t tip his hand, forcing you to choose.”

For Vox, Alissa Wilkinson added that the movie “intimately explores how privilege from wealth, class standing, gender, and race can by turns insulate or expose people to the consequences of their actions, and of others’ actions. It’s like watching a balletic game of chess, with Katherine maneuvering herself, as the queen, into the perfect position of power by eliminating everyone around her.”

‘To the Bone’

Marti Noxon already has a fine career as a writer and producer in television, having worked on shows such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Mad Men,” and “The Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce.” She now makes her feature film debut as writer and director with “To the Bone.” The film tackles the tricky issues of eating disorders, with Lily Collins as a young woman who, after having bounced from one treatment center to another, finds herself under the care of an unconventional doctor played by Keanu Reeves.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote that the film “wants to seem sufficiently authoritative on a tough and relatively underdramatized subject. It means to convey some essential, hard-won truths about the experience of those who struggle with eating disorders, even as it filters that experience through one not-so-ordinary young woman’s story.”

The release of the film’s first trailer stirred notable controversy online, as some accused the film of glamorizing the very disease it tried to honestly depict. The Times’ Amy Kaufman spoke to Noxon and Collins, both of whom have overcome eating disorders in their own lives, about the movie they intended to make and their surprise at how it’s being taken.

“There’s this idea that Hollywood sells over and over again: ‘If I just looked more like this, I’d be accepted,’ ” Noxon said. “I digested this value system that told me there was no one for me unless I reached a certain type of perfection. And as you get older, you realize that ideal is constantly changing. ... I look around and see how women and men of all types find the love and the life they want.”

The film has inspired some impassioned writing, both pro and con, with many noting the difficulty of depicting eating disorders without triggering those who suffer from them. Hazel Cills at Jezebel said of the film, “Whether fairly or not, a movie like ‘To the Bone’ the rare picture about ED written and directed by a woman about her personal experience — is expected to move the genre forward.”

For BuzzFeed, Alison Willmore noted the film is “at its best when it feels specific — the story of one person’s experiences rather than a broadside about eating disorders as an impossible whole. Ultimately the most resonant message ‘To the Bone’ has to offer is that there is no one certain way to heal from anorexia, and no one right way to tell stories about it either.”

At Vulture, Emily Yoshida wrote, “When Noxon says she wants to ‘cast light’ on this experience, especially one so personal, I can’t help but feel as though she’s failed. … The filmmaking is as polite and clinical as a junior-high health class, getting no closer to its subjects than a teacher armed with a laser pointer.”

‘City of Ghosts’

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Cartel Land” took an up-close look at the drug wars in Mexico. For his new film, Heineman finds an even trickier situation, as “City of Ghosts” examines the impact of the ongoing war in Syria and how a group of citizens are attempting to combat Islamic State and terror with journalism and the truth.

For The Times, Kenneth Turan said the film is “powerful and unnerving” while going on to note that the title takes on a double meaning as “it almost seems as if the heroic individuals the film portrays have become close to ghosts themselves because of the terrible price they continue to pay for exposing Islamic State’s horrors to the world.”

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

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