Indie Focus: Ethan Hawke, Nia Vardalos and Jia Zhangke with jazz, family and the future

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

One of the movies we highlighted last week, Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days,” is still playing in L.A. and adding theaters around the country. This week I published an article on the ongoing collaboration between Desplechin and actor Mathieu Amalric. “It’s like an old couple,” Amalric said of their relationship, which now goes back more than 20 years.

And we were going to officially keep this a “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” safe space, but the movie has generated some of the most exciting film writing of the season, both pro and con. Our own Kenneth Turan is one of the more positive notices out there, while A.O. Scott, Drew McWeeny and Walter Chaw all argue for the other side.

We’ve got some pretty exciting screenings and Q&As coming together on the big board back at Indie Focus HQ. Check back at for more info.

Nonstop movies. Movies nonstop.

'Born to Be Blue'

Ethan Hawke stars as the famed, famously troubled jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue,” written and directed by Robert Budreau. Hawke has matured into such an exciting performer and personality over the past few years and this one looks to rank among his best work.

Reviewing the movie for The Times, Noel Murray said “By reducing Baker's story to just a couple of pivotal years, Budreau makes every moment matter ... Like Baker himself, "Born to Be Blue" finds drama in minimalism.

Writing about the movie last fall after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Variety’s Andrew Barker noted, “Upending the conventions of the musical rise-and-fall formula while still offering a relatively straightforward three-act narrative, the film is anchored by an Ethan Hawke performance that ranks among the best of his career … Budreau isn’t out to make a live-action dramatization of Baker’s Wikipedia page here; he’s trying to make a real film.”

“Part of why I did this movie is that it's the anti-biopic,” Hawke said to Glenn Whipp at TIFF in the fall. “It's fictional. It's imagining a moment in Chet's life.”

'My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2'

The movie world of 2002 can seem a distant, far-off place, and so the idea of a sequel for a movie from then is a bit surprising. But then the original "My Big fat Greek Wedding" was a surprise, an unlikely slow-building word-of-mouth hit that also earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay.

Reviewing the new film for The Times, Rebecca Keegan said, “‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2’ is a relative rarity: a big-hearted, relationship-driven movie suitable for a multi-generational audience. No computer-generated cities were harmed in the making of this film — although a few clichés are pounded relentlessly.

“It's unlikely ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2’ will ever match the jaw-dropping box office success of the first film, but it matches it in one important regard — heart. And as sequels go, you could do a lot worse.”

In the Chicago Tribune, Katie Walsh countered, “there's nothing fresh brought to the table, and it lacks the element of surprise and discovery of the first film. It's just another 90 minutes with this group of characters, and unfortunately, that's not enough.”

“People just related to it,” Nia Vardalos said to Susan King of the first movie’s appeal. “So many families across America were saying, 'That's my family.' The one thing that matters at the end of the day is family.”

'Mountains May Depart'

Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke has been working at such a consistently high level for so long, with one astonishing film after another, that it is easy to take him for granted. One of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, NBD. His latest film, "Mountains May Depart," is a multi-stranded story that moves from the recent past to the near-future and is now playing in Los Angeles.

“Few filmmakers working today look as deeply at the changing world as Mr. Jia does, or make the human stakes as vivid,” wrote Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Sheri Linden wrote, “Like most of the indispensable Jia's work, this triptych film, which jumps from 1999 to 2014 and then to 2025, is intimately engaged in the push-pull between tradition and progress.”

In an interview with Mekado Murphy in the New York Times, Jia explained his motivation for the story when he said, “I wanted to investigate human emotions on many different levels within many different relationships … I wanted to always go back to how you react in certain situations dealing with love, loss and death.”

When the film played at the New York Film Festival last fall, Jia was there for a Q&A and press conference that can be watched here.

Joachim Trier retrospective

One of my favorite contemporary filmmakers is the Norwegian skateboard champ turned writer-director Joachim Trier. I will have an article soon on his new film (and English-language debut) “Louder Than Bombs,” but in the meantime the good people of the Cinefamily will be screening his two previous features, “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31.”

Trier’s three films are distinct from one another, but they are all perceptive, insightful and finely tuned. This week’s program on the 29th will include “Oslo, August 31” alongside a selection of Trier’s early short films with the filmmaker in attendance. “Oslo” is a movie that a number of other filmmakers have specifically mentioned to me in interviews as an influence, its quiet, building emotional power capturing their attention and imaginations. The program on the 5th will include a sneak preview of “Bombs” along with “Reprise.”

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

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