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Indie Focus: A rights revolution at ‘Crip Camp’

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

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I am not going to call this unexpected moment we find ourselves in “post-theatrical,” out of a belief that movie theaters will eventually reopen. Yet with movie theaters suddenly off the table, some titles are finding themselves hitting VOD sooner that expected. The recent studio releases “Birds of Prey,” starring Margot Robbie, and “The Way Back,” starring Ben Affleck, are now available on digital platforms.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the spellbinding romance by Céline Sciamma, is now available on Hulu. The film “Clemency,” which was woefully under-seen when it was in theaters, has also now come to VOD.

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Distributors such as Kino Lorber and Film Movement have begun streaming revenue-sharing programs with art-house theaters around the country, allowing at-home audiences to watch recent movies such as “Bacurau” or “Zombi Child,” with some of the money going to their local theater.

And this week longtime Times film critic Kenneth Turan announced he is stepping away from the cycle of regular movie reviews. (He will continue to write about films, as he said, “at a different pace.”).

There will certainly be more tributes to Kenny to come. But for now, a fine way to celebrate him is simply by enjoying his work. This week he encouraged viewers to watch Bertrand Tavernier’s eight-hour “Journey Through French Cinema,” available on the Amazon Prime Cohen Media Channel.

As Kenny wrote, the series details “the glories of French film culture, a cinematic history that is fully as rich as our own. But, more than that, by giving us glimpses of this cornucopian wealth of movie narrative, ‘Journeys’ reminds us what we are missing, why theatrical films continue to matter no matter how dire things become in the wider world.”

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And this week on our podcast “The Reel,” I spoke to Times film critic Justin Chang for suggestions on comedies to watch at home — from “The Lady Eve” to “The World’s End” — and also to Times TV critic Robert Lloyd about recent shows “The Plot Against America” and “Devs.”

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‘Crip Camp’

Directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, “Crip Camp” tells the story of Camp Jened, a summer camp in the late 1960s and early 1970s in upstate New York for disabled teens. But the movie also follows the timeline of the disability rights movement from there to the groundbreaking Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 and onward. Having won an audience award when it premiered earlier this year at Sundance, the movie is streaming now on Netflix.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “This is not a movie overly concerned with making anyone, disabled or abled, feel comfortable. … Comfort, the movie persuasively argues, is too often the enemy of justice — and the elusiveness of justice turns out to be one of its stealth subjects. More than most real-life stories about marginalized individuals overcoming daunting odds and deep-seated prejudices, ‘Crip Camp’ manages to be at once sweetly affirming and breezily irreverent.”

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For the Associated Press, Lindsey Bahr wrote, “What makes ‘Crip Camp,’ which was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, so wonderful are the people who attended that camp so many years ago and the joy you see in their faces recounting those youthful days. It’s a worthy story even without the coda of the fight for their civil rights. You never know where empowerment might stem from: Sometimes, it’s a hippie camp in the Catskills.”

At Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson added, “The film is sturdy, galvanizing, the sort of movie that might help rouse people out of despair and into the good fight. The spirit of revolution — righteously angry yet full of bonhomie, demanding but generous in its reach — is alive and well in the film. As, one hopes, it is everywhere else.”

An image from the documentary “Crip Camp.”
An image from the documentary “Crip Camp.”
(Netflix)

‘Vitalina Varela’

Directed by Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, “Vitalina Varela” follows a woman of the same name around her shantytown neighborhood in Lisbon grieving for her husband. Having won the top prize at last year’s Locarno film festival, the movie is available for streaming via Grasshopper Film.

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For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Little known in the U.S. but highly esteemed on the international festival circuit, the 61-year-old Costa is an austere cinematic realist, a poet of entropy and loss. … Set at the juncture of fiction and documentary, art cinema and still portraiture, these films delve deep into lives we seldom see in movies and emerge with something bleak, mysterious and quietly monumental.”

For the New York Times, Glenn Kenny wrote, “It is not inaccurate to call Costa an acquired taste. In the case of this reviewer, it was a road to Damascus experience with the 2007 film ‘Colossal Youth,’ which required a second viewing to yield its epiphany, Like that picture, ‘Vitalina Varela’ is socially conscious, but dreamlike, elegiac. And an inquiry, too, into the abilities and deficiencies of film as a medium to illuminate human consciousness and experience. It’s essential cinema.”

Jordan Cronk interviewed Costa for Film Comment. In his introduction, Cronk wrote, “Costa has become a touchstone for an entire movement of contemporary art cinema ranging from documentary to the avant-garde. … But while his hands-on commiseration with Portugal’s downtrodden and dispossessed, as well as his impossibly rich compositional sense, have and will continue to be emulated, his humanism and unwavering dedication to his craft — both pushed to bracing extremes in his latest — have yet to be matched.”

For rogerebert.com, Monica Castillo wrote, “At first glance, Pedro Costa’s ‘Vitalina Varela’ feels like it’s challenging its viewer with its distancing avant garde style. It bears little of the trappings of popular movies, has only a little plot for us to follow and it looks more like a stylish photoshoot come to life … Should you surrender yourself to the film’s beautiful cinematography and whispered musings, you’ll find a breathtakingly gorgeous movie about love, death and immigration.”

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Ventura and Vitalina Varela in a still from Pedro Costa’s “Vitalina Varela.”
Ventura and Vitalina Varela in a still from Pedro Costa’s “Vitalina Varela.”
(Grasshopper Film)

‘Vivarium’

Directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley, the sci-fi horror movie “Vivarium” stars Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg as a young couple looking to buy their first home. When they are shown a house in a new development, they are dubious but give it a chance. After deciding it is not for them, they cannot find their way back out, endlessly returning to the house. When they discover a baby on the doorstep, it seems they have their new home after all. The movie is available on multiple VOD platforms.

Reviewing for The Times, Noel Murray wrote, “‘Vivarium’ is low on gut-level scares because this isn’t that kind of movie. Instead, Finnegan offers a vision of domesticity as a soul-sucking grind, done for the benefit of malevolent overlords. His film chills the mind more than the spine.”

For NPR, Scott Tobias wrote, “‘Vivarium’ is about the common struggle of young couples who trade the city for the suburbs and perhaps lose track of themselves in the process. They just can’t summon a moving van when they’ve had enough.”

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For Collider, Haleigh Foutch added, “It’s fair to say that ‘Vivarium’ is a pretty on-the-nose metaphor about suburban soullessness and the corrosive effects of domestic anxiety — the film is not subtle, but Finnegan and Shanley skirt eye-roll territory, and often, that lack of subtlety is part of what makes ‘Vivarium’ effective. Come for the striking set design and killer performances, stay for the immersive mystery, and leave with a crippling fear of children and nagging concerns about the universe’s cruel indifference.”

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots in “Vivarium.”
Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots in “Vivarium.”
(Saban Films)
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