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Indie Focus: Best friends and Beastie Boys

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

This week Josh Rottenberg wrote about the challenges of releasing a big action movie in the midst of a pandemic, talking to the filmmakers behind the new Netflix film “Extraction.” Directed by Sam Hargrave and written by Joe Russo, who produced with his brother Anthony Russo, the movie stars Chris Hemsworth as a mercenary hired to rescue the kidnapped son of an Indian druglord.

“It’s nice to provide people with a bit of escapism and distraction from what’s going on,” Hemsworth said. “There’s a good opportunity there.”

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I reviewed the film as well, and let’s just say my recommendation is to read Josh’s article.

Jen Yamato reviewed “Pahokee,” a documentary directed by Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan that depicts life in a small Florida community and is available via the Laemmle Virtual Cinema. As Jen wrote, “Nimble editing intercuts glimpses of Pahokee’s fields, farms and streets, of the natural beauty and rhythms that open and close each day. A bigger picture comes into view like a pointillist landscape, inviting the outside world in to hope, dream and strive along with them.”

Kevin Crust reviewed “To the Stars,” directed by Martha Stephens, a melodrama set in 1960s Oklahoma that he compares to Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and “Far From Heaven” — not bad company to be in. The movie stars Liana Liberato and “Moonrise Kingdom’s” Kara Hayward as two young women bristling at the constraints of small-town life. The movie is available on VOD.

And this week on our podcast “The Reel,” I spoke to Dahvi Waller, showrunner behind “Mrs. America.” With a powerhouse cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Sarah Paulson, Uzo Aduba, Tracey Ullman and Melanie Lynskey, the new FX series tells the story of the battle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.

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“This is very much an ensemble piece. It’s not a biopic. It’s not a biopic of Phyllis Schlafly. It’s not a biopic of Gloria Steinem,” Waller said. “What I really wanted to do with this series is show there’s so many different ways to be a woman and there’s so many different definitions of womanhood and there’s so much diversity that sisterhood and womanhood isn’t monolith.”

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‘Beastie Boys Story’

The first feature film directed by Spike Jonze since his Oscar-winning “Her,” the new documentary “Beastie Boys Story” chronicles the life of the rap group from teenagers in early-80s New York City to worldwide stars in the 90s. A presentation of the stage show that was itself drawn from their book, the doc features surviving members Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz reminiscing on and reconciling with their past and paying tribute to Adam Yauch, who died from cancer in 2012. The movie is available on Apple TV+.

I spoke to Jonze, Horovitz and Diamond about the process of adapting the book into the stage show and the stage show into the movie, and their friendship and connection came shining through in a warm and funny conversation over video conference. (How often do you get to watch Jonze and Ad-Rock give Mike D technical assistance when he can’t get his computer camera to work?)

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“Knowing them for over 25 years, almost 30 years, I got to I love the band musically, and I love them as people,” Jonze said. “And I loved getting to make this movie about the things I love about the band, about their friendship and how incredible that relationship is that the three of them had and getting to see it up close. They just really let themselves make whatever they wanted to make, whatever excited them or made them laugh.”

Times television critic Lorraine Ali covered the group extensively when she was a music writer, interviewing them numerous times and spending time in the studio during the recording of their album “Hello Nasty.” She will publish her impressions of the film’s mixture of music and memories soon.

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that the movie “has its own kind of beauty, even if the aesthetic is more dad rock than hip-hop. Horovitz and Diamond are good company — unassuming without false modesty; self-aware without irritating air quotes … It’s a jaunt down memory lane and also a moving and generous elegy.”

For the Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh wrote, “Much like the Beastie Boys themselves, the film is a blast of energy, humor and catharsis, a sheer joy that’s also imbued with poignancy and pathos. And in its nontraditional form, it reveals something essential about the Beastie Boys and the key to their unique, ever-evolving sound: collaboration … The power of the project lies in its willingness to hold the beloved musicians simultaneously as their past and present selves and to share that with fans who joined them for their musical, philosophical and political journey, having grown and changed too.”

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At the music website Pitchfork, Jayson Greene had a different opinion, writing, “The Beastie Boys used to be a sort of talisman for a trickster spirit; they played American pop culture like a kid beating Mario holding the controller upside down … But anyone looking for the group’s trademark virtues — spontaneity, smarts, offbeat charisma — should look elsewhere, because Beastie Boys Story has all the subversion of a bowl of soup.”

The Beastie Boys in New York City in 1986. From left, Michael Diamond (a.k.a. Mike D), Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock), and Adam Yauch (a.k.a. MCA, 1964-2012).
The Beastie Boys in New York City in 1986. From left, Michael Diamond (a.k.a. Mike D), Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock), and Adam Yauch (a.k.a. MCA, 1964-2012).
(Michel Delsol / Getty Images)

‘True History of the Kelly Gang’

Directed by Justin Kurzel, “True History of the Kelly Gang” is an adaptation of the 2000 novel by Peter Carey that explores the story of Ned Kelly, the 19th century Australian outlaw previously portrayed in films by Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger.

This time the role is played by “1917” star George MacKay, in a raucous, punkish version of the story brimming with a hothouse energy of danger and subversion. The cast also includes Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult, Essie Davis, Thomasin McKenzie and Charlie Hunnam. Released by IFC Films, the movie is available on digital platforms and cable VOD. It is also, for those within range, playing at the Mission Tiki 4 Drive-in in Montclair, Calif., and the Ocala Drive-in in Ocala, Fla.

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For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The movie pulls us in close to Ned Kelly — we smell his fear and share in his exhilaration — but it also allows him, and us, a crucial measure of distance. That distance often manifests itself in Kurzel’s formal and structural choices, from the title cards that separate the movie’s three acts to the occasional use of strobe effects and spare, theatrical backdrops, conjuring the sense of a hellish Brechtian rave. Even the frenzied strings of the music (composed by the director’s brother, Jed Kurzel) serve to underscore this movie’s sharpest insight: A measure of artifice can offer the most direct path to the truth.”

For Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins called the film “stylish and overtly competent and fun to watch and also conformist, conventional enough to make you think that if this were a genuine study of the man, it would be too bad. You’d hope the Ned Kelly of real life — an iconoclast — were a little more interesting.”

At Sight & Sound, Elena Lazic wrote, “The final image, with Kelly in voiceover presenting himself as both a hero and a victim one last time, again challenges our sympathy for a man who both suffered immensely and was a ruthless criminal. Ambiguous to the end, ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ leaves us to ponder on the story Kelly might have told his son (in reality, he never had one) and comrades, but also on the one he may have told himself, the power it had over his life, and its necessary falsehoods.”

George MacKay in Justin Kurzel’s "True History of the Kelly Gang."
(IFC Films)

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‘Bad Education’

Directed by Cory Finley and based on a true story, the dark comedy “Bad Education” stars Hugh Jackman as Frank Tassone, a beloved Long Island public school district superintendent who is discovered to have embezzled huge sums of money. Allison Janney plays an administrator who is his accomplice and Geraldine Viswanathan the student journalist who uncovers their wrongdoings. The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, where it was picked up by HBO, which is premiering it on Saturday.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “‘Bad Education’ reminds us how synonymous great acting and great lying can be. Jackman and Janney, both giving their richest performances in some time, manage to pull the wool over your eyes with one hand even as they teasingly pull back the curtain with the other. As two hard-working leaders and inveterate schemers who know the system inside out, they lure you into a delectable gray zone somewhere between the conned and the complicit.”

For the New York Times, Ben Kenigsberg said that “it’s Jackman, whose smile appears increasingly wolfish as the film goes on (and as Frank’s face grows taut with cosmetic surgery), who ultimately owns ‘Bad Education.’ It’s a plum part, sure, but also a deeply unsympathetic one — a chance for the actor to channel his charisma toward dark, mischievous ends.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek called the film “a story about hubris, vanity and the way regular people just can’t help desiring status and fancy things — and about the reality that people are often more complicated than we want to believe. These are roles that Jackman and Janney can dig into, and they turn up all sorts of dark, glittering surprises … ‘Bad Education’ is a story of small-town villains who just can’t help themselves, and it’s fun to see how their own carelessness trips them up. These are people we can’t trust, played by actors we trust implicitly. Why not be flimflammed by the best?”

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Hugh Jackman and Geraldine Viswanathan in the movie "Bad Education."
(HBO)


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