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Indie Focus: Elisabeth Moss invokes ‘Shirley’ to fiery life

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

Quite a lot has happened since last week’s newsletter, including some of the most tumultuous and upsetting days of an already tumultuous and upsetting era. Much of what is going on nationwide has been mediated through screens and platforms, raising grave concerns about what is and is not being shown and bringing out the media critic in just about everyone.

The Times’ actual TV critic Robert Lloyd grappled with how conventional television news broadcasts have dealt with so much happening in so many places all at once. As he wrote: “It all becomes a blur of speculation, opinion, posturing, repetition and even passion, after a while — not even a long while — presented in a frame cluttered with chyrons and windows and split screens. Events can be obscured by their very reporting. Even on different networks, hosts grab from the same bag of often obvious questions, which elicit often obvious answers. I don’t want to say it’s unhelpful — there is information there, and sometimes the obvious question is the one that most needs to be asked — but it feels inadequate, unequal to the moment, confused, floundering. Perhaps it’s appropriate.

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Times TV critic Lorraine Ali looked more specifically at local TV news in Los Angeles and how its coverage seemed to change over the course of the week, first declaring large crowds “violent protests” and later “peace marches” in on-screen chyrons. “Is it the massive change citizens are agitating for? No. But given how hard it is to pin down where we are right now in terms of progress and pushback, it’s at least one small win worth noting,” she wrote.

“As for L.A., we’re a city that’s hard to define in the most uneventful of times. We’re congested and sprawling, full of natural beauty and absurd vapidity, individualist culture and deep economic disparity. This week the city may have looked like it did in a darker era. But change on the ground is fast transforming that view, even through the eye of local news camera.”

It so happens that next week will see the release of a new film by Spike Lee, called “Da 5 Bloods,” and so this week The Times published an interview with Lee by Josh Rottenberg. Of course Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” in which a black man is killed at the hands of some cops, came up.

As Lee said: “One of the biggest criticisms of ‘Do the Right Thing’ was that I did not provide the answer to racism at the end of the movie. And here we are in modern-day America, pandemic America, and cities are up in flames. ... I’ve just been taken away with Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor — I mean, it’s like open season.”

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Many notable films by black filmmakers or depicting the black community are available to watch for free, including Ava Duvernay’s “13th” and “Selma,” Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy,” Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” Göran Olsson’s “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975" and Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep.” The Criterion Channel has made a deep collection of films available for free as well, including works by Julie Dash, Kathleen Collins, Cheryl Dunne, Khalik Allah, Shirley Clarke and William Greaves.

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‘Shirley’

On of my favorite films of the year so far, “Shirley” is the latest from filmmaker Josephine Decker, whose previous movie was “Madeline’s Madeline.” Decker again crafts a dizzying exploration of identity, this time with a movie that is part biopic of author Shirley Jackson, part creation in the spirit of Jackson’s work. Elisabeth Moss plays Jackson as a dervish of ideas and emotions, in a performance that surely must be remembered at the end of the year. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Jackson’s volatile husband, while Odessa Young and Logan Lerman play a pair of young boarders who have no idea what they are in for. Released by Neon, the film is available on virtual cinemas and also on Hulu and VOD.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Decker’s feverish technique evokes the grammar of the old-fashioned ghost story: a camera that swerves and swoops, a score that thrums with menace, an old manse full of dark shadows, creaky floorboards and disorienting mirrors. … But the overall tone veers away from horror and into a rich vein of dark humor, spinning the everyday torments of Jackson’s life — a flagrantly unfaithful husband, harrowing bouts of depression and anxiety — into a furious comedy of marital discord.”

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I spoke to Decker and Moss back when the film first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, an interview that was interrupted when the band the Go-Go’s wanted a picture with Moss. Decker spoke about the ways in which the screenplay by Sarah Gubbins set up an exploration of a complicated personality.

“I think that what’s so exciting about what ‘Shirley’ was doing and I think what Sarah is doing is that it’s taking this kind of female ideal and makes it a bit more rich and more complicated,” said Decker. “So, it’s really a relationship between two halves of a consciousness. You know, I think it was really clear to her biographers that Shirley was always kind of writing about the two sides of her own mind.”

Reviewing the movie for the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that the film “will never be mistaken for a biopic. That is all to the good. Jackson, the subject of an excellent recent biography by Ruth Franklin, is much too interesting to succumb to the dull, sentimental moralizing of mainstream moviemaking. Instead, Decker and Moss approach Jackson as if she were a character in her own fiction, which is to say as an object of pity, terror, fascination and awe rather than straightforward sympathy. Shirley is a mystery and a monster, and ‘Shirley’ is at once a sincere tribute and a sly hatchet job.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “‘Shirley’ leans a little too hard on its calculated ‘1950s housewife empowers herself’ finale. Even so, Moss’ channeling of Jackson keeps the movie crackling. During her lifetime, Jackson never got the acclaim she deserved for extraordinary, unsettling novels like ‘The Haunting of Hill House.’ Moss invites us, now, to take stock of this strange and brilliant woman. Rarely is a withering gaze this seductive.”

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At the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote that Decker “approaches her subjects obliquely, often filming them as though peering through a keyhole or barely parted curtains. Her visual style, reminiscent of a waking dream, both heightens and mirrors the paranoid style of Jackson, who is prone to visions and moments of unsettling psychic insight.”

Logan Lerman, Elisabeth Moss, director Josephine Decker, writer Sarah Gubbins and Michael Stuhlbarg of “Shirley.”
Logan Lerman, left, Elisabeth Moss, director Josephine Decker, writer Sarah Gubbins and Michael Stuhlbarg of “Shirley,” photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25, 2020.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

‘Yourself and Yours’

From South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, “Yourself and Yours” is a sly look at relationships and identity that first played festivals in 2016 but is only now getting a release in the U.S. (The ever-prolific Hong has premiered six more features since then.) In the film, available via virtual cinemas, a young artist, Young-soo (Kim Joo-hyuk), is jealous when he hears that his girlfriend Min-jung (Lee Yoo-young) has been out drinking with other men. The two eventually argue and break up. Meanwhile, a young woman who looks like Min-jung but claims not to be her meets a series of other men for drinking and carousing. Eventually, this other woman — is it really Min-jung or someone else? — meets Young-soo.

In my review of the movie for The Times, I called it “fresh and enchanting, by turns delicate, romantic, mysterious, witty and crushing. … The movie manages to feel both ponderous and enigmatic, remaining light without feeling insignificant, comfortable with being a ruminative rom-com. Lee’s performance in particular conveys a beguiling, inviting charm, even as it deepens the central conundrum.”

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For the A.V. Club, Mike D’Angelo wrote, “The premise has plenty of comedic potential, yet this is one of [Hong’s] least funny films; strangely, it also involves fewer alcohol-fueled outbursts than usual, even though Min-jung’s drinking problem, and Young-soo’s concern about her rumored propensity for getting [drunk] and flirting with other guys, serves as the dramatic catalyst. The film works best as a tale of romantic reinvention, in which a relationship that’s gone sour gets jump-started via starting over from scratch.”

Reviewing for IndieWire, David Ehrlich wrote, “‘Yourself and Yours’ isn’t a mystery so much as it is a bottomless rabbit hole … As always, [Hong] uses a lo-fi narrative device to complicate romantic entanglements so that they unfold on screen in the same jumble as they do in our own twisted minds, the filmmaker taking a kaleidoscopic approach in order to refract Min-jung through a singularly male prism of neurosis and desire.”

Kim Joo-hyuk, left, and Lee Yoo-young in Hong Sang-soo's "Yourself and Yours."
(Cinema Guild)

‘Tommaso’

The first new fiction feature from Abel Ferrara since 2014, “Tommaso” is a semiautobiographical tale of an American filmmaker living in Rome with his wife and young daughter. Willem Dafoe plays the title role, going about his days of shopping, cooking, spending time with his family and preparing a new project, with a gentleness that belies a deeper torment within. The film is available via virtual cinemas.

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I reviewed the film for The Times, writing, “For all the outward tough-guy posturing of his best-known works like ‘The King of New York’ or ‘Bad Lieutenant,’ Ferrara’s films have always had a striving quality to them, a curiosity, sensitivity and compassion along with — like the filmmaker to whom he is most easily compared, Martin Scorsese — an obsessive, passionate need for grace amidst chaos. For all the gentleness and tranquility of his new life, Tommaso still burns for something else.”

Reviewing for the New York Times, Glenn Kenny wrote, “The movie enters fantasy realms often, but ‘Tommaso’ has a different feel than your average variant on Fellini’s ‘8 ½.’ Maybe it’s a sense of shame, something the older film’s Guido hadn’t much of. Whatever it is, it makes ‘Tommaso’ crackle with ideas and empathy, as Ferrara’s best work always does.”

For her website The Blue Lenses, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas wrote, “‘Tommaso’ is a searingly honest exercise in self-assessment as it is a confessional on Ferrara’s part, and like Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Pain and Glory’ — both films ... had their world premieres at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival — presents a fascinating instance of two one-time cinema enfant terribles maturing and reflecting as they get older. … Yet while we might still default to the ‘bad boy’ image Ferrara loving curated with early exploitation films like ‘The Driller Killer’ and ‘Ms. 45,’ ‘Tommaso’ follows the delicate, perceptive trajectory of his often overlooked later work. Poetic, moving and unflinching in its honesty, ‘Tommaso’ is Ferrara’s finest film since his criminally underrated magnum opus ‘4:44 Last Day on Earth.’”

Willem Dafoe and Anna Ferrara in "Tommaso"
(Kino Lorber)
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