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Indie Focus: Feeling good with 'Queen of Katwe' and 'The Dressmaker'

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

As new movies keep rolling out, titles from earlier in the year are also hitting streaming services and video on demand. I’ve said it here before that I still like the physical medium of discs, in no small part because I am an unrepentant commentary nerd. And two of my favorite movies from earlier in the year — “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “The Neon Demon” — are both coming out on disc this week with highly enjoyable and informative tracks from their directors and stars. So if you want to hear Taika Waititi, Sam Neill and Julian Dennison or Nicolas Winding Refn and Elle Fanning talk about their respective films, now’s the time.

We’ve got two screening/Q&A events again this week. On Tuesday, we’ll be showing “Christine,” followed by a conversation with actress Rebecca Hall and screenwriter Craig Shilowich. On Wednesday, we’ll have “Audrie & Daisy,” plus a Q&A with directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, documentary subject Daisy Coleman and singer-songwriter Tori Amos. (Yes, Tori Amos!)

Check events.latimes.com for more info about upcoming events.

‘Queen of Katwe’

A feel-good movie you can feel good about, “Queen of Katwe” is the new film from Mira Nair and explores a real-life story that took place just down the road from her own house in Uganda. Based on the true story of young Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), the movie traces her emergence from the township of Katwe as she discovers her extraordinary abilities at the game. The film features Lupita Nyong’o as her watchful mother, Harriet, and David Oyelowo as Robert Katende, the coach who discovers her.

In his review for The Times, Michael Phillips said, “There are so many traps successfully avoided in this movie. With less astute and light-fingered portrayals, Katende might’ve been a cardboard saint, and Harriet a cardboard obstacle to her daughter’s dreams. As it plays out, director Nair shifts focus among all three major players easily and well. And Phiona’s story really is inspiring.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “‘Irresistible’ is one of those adjectives that critics should handle with utmost care … but if there is anyone out there capable of remaining unmoved by this true-life triumph-of-the-underdog sports story, I don’t think I want to meet that person.”

At Slate, Dana Stevens noted, “But you know what? The existence of a female teenage chess champion who grew up in a Ugandan slum legitimately is something to feel good about. If you want to take your kids to an uplifting and quietly feminist sports movie that will also give them a glimpse of a part of the planet that too often gets presented as a vale of tears worthy only of the Western world’s condescending pity, you ought to show them ‘Queen of Katwe.’”

I spoke to Nair while we were both recently in Toronto. The director talked about the kinds of scripts she usually gets set in Africa: “I would read these stories about a white woman having her neuroses in this faceless country with a sculptural warrior on the horizon, and no one has a name and no one has a line. It’s just about other people’s lives set against the backdrop of Africa. And I got sick of all that, and thought, ‘If we don’t tell our own stories, really, no one will tell them.’”

‘The Dressmaker’

The first film from Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse in nearly 20 years, “The Dressmaker” is a wild, unruly movie, part comedy, part drama, part Western, all in service of the story of a woman who returns to the tiny town she was banished from years before with an incredible talent for dressmaking. She causes more of a stir than you might think. The film stars Kate Winslet, Judy Davis and Hugo Weaving, all of whom won major awards in Australia for their performances.

Robert Abele wrote in The Times, “Don’t let the Merchant-Ivory-ish title and the highbrow cred of its star Kate Winslet fool you: ‘The Dressmaker’ is no corset-tightening display of manners.”

Claudia Puig, writing for the Wrap, said, “Imagine, if you will, a Sergio Leone Western co-directed by Baz Luhrmann, with an assist from Federico Fellini. Then toss in a sudsy Harlequin romance. That might begin to prepare you for the strange experience that is ‘The Dressmaker’ … Did we mention it stars the estimable Kate Winslet and might deserve an Oscar for costume design?”

At MTV News, Amy Nicholson added that the film “sounds like a pedigreed slog, the kind of Oscar contender with sobs and screams underneath a hot sun. Oh, hell no. This is a revenge melodrama with satin and netting, a dagger wrapped up in silk.”

Lindsey Bahr at the AP spoke to Moorhouse about her time away from directing when she was collaborating on the films of her husband, director P.J. Hogan, and caring for two children with autism.

Moorhouse told Bahr: “I was born to do this and not able to do it for a while. As soon as I got back into it, every day was a joy on set. I just kept smiling. Even if it was a terrible day, I thought, ‘My God! Thank God I'm a director again!’”

‘Cameraperson’

The documentary “Cameraperson” was created by veteran cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, working from clips and outtakes from other projects she has shot. It makes for something unusual and fascinating.

As Justin Chang wrote in his review for The Times: “The result is at once a career summation, a personal memoir and an uncommonly illuminating blooper reel. It’s also a movie of jarring yet intuitive leaps through time and space … It’s her way of telling us to watch closely and think carefully about what we’re seeing, and specifically whose eyes through which we’re seeing it.”

Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for RogerEbert.com, called the film “one of the most original, challenging, sometimes infuriating documentaries of recent times. It’s well worth seeing and arguing about, but only if you can give it your full attention and glean the internal logic that went into its construction. And once you’ve done that, you will never forget what the movie showed you. … It’s an extraordinary feeling, meeting a film in this way.”

Johnson and her collaborators sat for a Q&A when the film played earlier this year as part of the New Directors/New Films series in New York.

‘Goat’

Directed by Andrew Neel, “Goat” explores the world of fraternity hazing through the bonds of two actual brothers (Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas).

In his review for The Times, Michael Rechtshaffen said, “While the promotional material would suggest yet another explosive depiction of the horrors of college hazing, Andrew Neel’s intense drama ‘Goat’ proves most potent in its depiction of the fragile fraternal bond between a pair of siblings.”

At the New York Times, Glenn Kenny wrote, “The movie is shot in hand-held, quasi-documentary style, although Mr. Neel weirdly forgoes a lot of what would have been useful exposition in the first quarter. The movie is similarly indirect in its approach to the admittedly inarticulate characters’ psychology. But in depicting the atrocities of the frat’s ‘Hell Week,’ it is painstakingly explicit, a junior varsity variant on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s study of fascist sadism, ‘Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.’”

For The Times, Amy Kaufman interviewed Jonas about his ongoing transition to acting and the difficulties of shedding his teen pop image.

Jonas recalled his experiences earlier this year with the film at Sundance: “I kept getting asked, ‘Oh, what do you have going on?’ Why are you here, basically.”

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

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