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Indie Focus: High school treachery in ‘Selah and the Spades’

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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This week, I had an exclusive interview with Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam on the announcement of a $1 million emergency fund for artists and arts organizations impacted by the pandemic. As she put it, “Let’s be honest, a million dollars is not going to meet all the needs of this community. … So this is the first thing we’re doing. We know this won’t be the last thing.”

The TCM Classic Film Festival has become one of Los Angeles’ most special film events, with an extremely dedicated fan base. Although this year’s live event was of course canceled, its organizers, with a television network at their disposal, shifted to transform it into the TCM Classic Film Festival: Special Home Edition.

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With the event already underway and running through Sunday, the channel will be broadcasting movies that have previously played at the festival. Still to come are such titles as “Grey Gardens,” “They Live by Night,” “Network,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Hustler.” Honestly, just set your device to TCM and leave it there. It’s all good stuff.

Béla Tarr’s landmark 1994 film “Satantango” is being rereleased in a 4K restoration from Arbelos. While the film is opening this week via New York’s Film at Lincoln Center, next week it will be available via the UCLA Film & Television Archive as part of its Safer at Home Virtual Cinema programming. The movie is seven hours long, which can be overwhelming in a movie theater, but as a home viewing experience should be something else entirely.

This week on our entertainment podcast “The Reel,” I spoke to Eliza Hittman, writer and director of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” Though the film deals with the specifics of a young woman trying to get an abortion, it is also about her learning to make her way through the world. As Hittman said of its broader story, “Part of coming of age as a young woman is learning to navigate this tension that exists in your everyday life.” One of the year’s best-reviewed films, it is now available on VOD.

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‘Selah and the Spades’

The debut feature from filmmaker Tayarisha Poe, “Selah and the Spades” is a stylish high school story set at an upscale prep school. A young woman named Selah (Lovie Simone) rules over the various cliques of her school, until the arrival of Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) threatens the balance of power. “Moonlight” and “When They See Us” star Jharell Jerome also appears. The movie is available now on Amazon Prime Video.

In a review for The Times, Jen Yamato wrote, “To be a teenage girl at the top of her game is to be in an exhausting and perpetual war for control, at least for the poised title character of filmmaker Tayarisha Poe’s intoxicating debut, ‘Selah and the Spades.’ Heathers, move over: Meet Selah Summers, a 17-year-old Lady Macbeth who’s worked hard to claw her way to the highest rung on the social ladder and looks warily toward life after high school.”

For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “What makes this familiar story special is the filmmaker’s style. … Poe designs her frames with care and sets a languid pace, a relief from the desperate freneticism of many teenage tales. The soft light never lets you forget that these little corporals are just kids, even at the height of their adolescent cruelty. Poe demonstrates a sensitivity to how images can show her perspective, and her precision is reflected even in the casting.”

For Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh called the film “a vibe. It’s a mood, an atmosphere. It’s an allegory, a fable, a play. It’s a deconstruction of a symbol. It’s a smash-and-grab for the title held by ‘Heathers’: a postmodern, arch as hell, highly stylized high school clique drama. Like any cool new kid on the block, disrupting the power structure and reaching for the crown is a time-honored tradition, and ‘Selah and the Spades’ does it extremely well.”

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Reviewing the film for Sundance for the Hollywood Reporter, Beandrea July wrote, “Boarding schools are typically viewed as majority-white spaces, and for good reason, but Poe’s Haldwell School is revealed primarily through the lens of its black and brown students, another way the movie quietly but clearly asserts itself. Real-life secret societies at elite preparatory high schools and colleges have been taken up by films like ‘Dead Poets Society’ and the Harry Potter franchise, and Poe smartly reimagines this genre from her perspective as a black woman who graduated from elite New Jersey boarding institution the Peddie School.”

Lovie Simone stars in “Selah and the Spades.”
Lovie Simone stars in “Selah and the Spades.”
(Ashley Bean / Amazon Studios)

‘Endings, Beginnings’

The latest from filmmaker Drake Doremus, “Endings, Beginnings,” follows Daphne (Shailene Woodley), a young woman in Los Angeles who is trying to get her life on track. Then she finds herself torn between two men — Jack and Frank, played by Jaime Dornan and Sebastian Stan — who satisfy different parts of herself. Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films, the movie is available now on VOD.

I reviewed the movie for The Times, writing, “With a screenplay credited to Doremus and novelist Jardine Libaire, the film is reported to be semi-improvised, much to its detriment. The film’s languid tone of post-sex haze and late-afternoon sunshine comes across as limp and underdeveloped, leaving the actors, not the characters, frequently seeming lost and unsure of themselves within the scenes. With stronger material to start with, the actors might have conveyed the film’s scenario more convincingly.”

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For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “Similar to Doremus’s 2011 romance ‘Like Crazy,’ ‘Endings, Beginnings’ noodles around with characters whose personalities and motivations remain frustratingly indistinct. By the end, Daphne’s journey of self-discovery may have pulled you in but, if you’re anything like me, you’ll still hate her.”

For IndieWire, Kate Erbland wrote, “Daphne shouldn’t be this captivating, but with Woodley’s vulnerability and full-scale charm backing her up, ‘Endings, Beginnings’ is able to capitalize on a seemingly thin premise. Woodley is even strong enough to heave the film through some final-act revelations that teeter between the satisfying and the woefully unnecessary, stuff that hinges on bigger questions and issues than just, ‘Hey, growing up, it’s hard, right?’”

Shailene Woodley and Sebastian Stan in “Endings, Beginnings.”
Shailene Woodley and Sebastian Stan in “Endings, Beginnings.”
(Samuel Goldwyn Films.)

‘The Booksellers’

Directed by D.W. Young and executive produced by Parker Posey, “The Booksellers” is a look at the world of bookstores, the people who run them and the people who shop them with a fervent dedication. Largely set in New York City, the film also serves as something of a portrait of a fast-vanishing world, as rents, technology and the march of time make this a unique snapshot. The movie is available on VOD via Laemmle’s Virtual Cinema.

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Reviewing for The Times, Glenn Whipp called the film “an engaging look at New York’s antiquarian book world, for starters, but it also goes off on a number of interesting tangents (perhaps too many for its own good), always, eventually, circling back to the idea that reading is in an essential part of our humanity. … And I have to tell you: It feels really good to be roaming those aisles of bookshelves again, even if it’s just through a screen.”

For The Wrap, Elizabeth Weitzman said the movie “pays warm-hearted tribute to the reading but also the shopping, the rifling, the obsessing, the complaining, the dreaming, the list-making, the shelf-organizing and everything else book lovers love to do.”

For NPR, Ella Taylor wrote, “Though Young dots the testimonial terrain with a few famous book lovers — Fran Lebowitz, Susan Orlean, Gay Talese — most of the story is told by eccentrics you’ve never heard of but will enjoy meeting. … Rich or poor, most of the book lovers in this delightful homage belong to a tribe that grooves to the arcane because they see what others don’t in any given book.”

Adam Weinberger examining a bookshelf in “The Booksellers.”
Adam Weinberger examining a bookshelf in “The Booksellers.”
(Greenwich Entertainment)
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