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Indie Focus: Ready to return to the movies?

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

Even as movie theaters remain closed in California and New York, the typical launching pads for many new releases, distributors and exhibitors are trying to restart moviegoing around the country.

Josh Rottenberg and Jen Yamato wrote about how “Unhinged,” “Cut Throat City” and “Words on Bathroom Walls” are the first new films to open exclusively in theaters across the country in many months. As Howard Cohen, co-president of “Walls” distributor Roadside Attractions said, “I think the best we can do is figure out the most careful we can be and then try and find some kind of normalcy in our lives, and I consider movie theaters something that is an integral part of our life.”

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Justin Chang and Glenn Whipp discussed how they feel both personally and professionally about theaters reopening, and whether they will be going. As Chang wrote, “To be swept away by a movie in a theater demands a lot from us, and not until the COVID-19 era, perhaps, have we been able to fully appreciate the cost. It demands a complete emotional and intellectual surrender, a temporary abandonment of our waking reality and our reason. Most of all, perhaps, it demands something that most of us cannot afford to give: a sense of trust and solidarity with the precious, vulnerable strangers in our midst.”

For now, reviews in The Times of films being released to theaters will include a disclaimer that reads in part, “Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. “

And indeed, from London, Jonathan Romney reviewed “Tenet,” Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated epic action thriller that is in no small part igniting the drive to reopen theaters. The film opens in international territories Aug. 26 and in the U.S. on Sept. 2.

As Romney wrote, “‘Tenet’ has ambition, ingenuity, imagination aplenty. Yet it lacks a certain living spark: Despite the occasional sharp line, Nolan never quite feels comfortable with humor, and his directing style is hardly what you’d call insouciant. ‘Tenet’ is entertaining, but it isn’t exactly fun; Nolan may be a cinematic wizard but here, he’s working in the grandiose watch-this-building-disappear David Copperfield mode, rather than showing the sly legerdemain that tends to make for grace in screen magic.”

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‘Tesla’

Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, “Tesla” is an unconventional biopic about the life of inventor Nikola Tesla. Starring Ethan Hawke in the title role, the film also features Kyle MacLachlan as Thomas Edison, Jim Gaffigan as George Westinghouse and Eve Hewson as Anne Morgan, daughter of banker J.P. Morgan and the film’s unlikely narrator. Released by IFC Films, the movie is playing at the Mission Tiki Drive-In, at some theaters where they are open and on VOD.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang called the film “quietly entrancing” and also wrote, “Hawke, without exaggerating or diluting Tesla’s eccentricity, distills the character’s strange, sometimes contradictory essence. He is a man apparently without greed who acquired enormous sums and lost them, a thinker who boldly reimagined the parameters of the possible but was ultimately stymied by those very boundaries. What comes through most in Hawke’s brilliantly internalized performance is Tesla’s intense commitment to his work, as well as his weariness about having to continually explain and defend it to men of deeper pockets and lesser minds. The progress of human civilization can be infuriatingly banal, which doesn’t mean our biopics have to be.”

Reviewing for the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that “Almereyda, a notably cerebral filmmaker who thinks in arresting, elusive images, doesn’t set out to solve the riddle [of Tesla] so much as to find new ways of articulating it. Ethan Hawke, with somber countenance and a heavy mustache, plays Tesla as a restless soul burdened by genius and haunted by melancholy. A less imaginative film might have tried to trace that sorrow to a source in childhood, or to establish a link between Tesla’s saturnine temperament and his unsettled career. But the character, in Hawke’s quietly magnetic performance, is neither a heroic visionary nor a tragic hero. He’s a mood.”

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Reviewing for Variety, Amy Nicholson wrote, “Anne narrates the film, mostly interrupting to say which scenes are Almereyda’s own invention, including an ice cream fight with Edison, and a later scene where the two men share pie. Almereyda embraces fakery. Instead of dragging Hawke to Niagara Falls, where Tesla proved the potential of water power, he plops the actor in front of a backdrop wearing a wet trenchcoat. After all, the film seems to say, when a creative brain has big ideas, cut them some slack … If there’s a big idea in ‘Tesla,’ it’s hard to see — and not just because the film is claustrophobically set indoors, and lit by candles, matches and glowing bulbs.”

For Vulture, Bilge Ebiri wrote, “‘Tesla’s’ sharpest turns are not narrative or temporal, however. They are thematic and tonal … Invention, for Tesla, isn’t about creating new things but about unleashing the latent mysteries of the universe. He’s not building so much as uncovering, channeling, exploring. Over and over, the dialogue hits us with these ideas. Unseen gears and engines thrum and echo in the background of nearly every scene. Earth as spirit, Earth as animal, Earth as machine, or maybe Earth as spirit-machine-animal — this might be the most animist film ever made about scientists.”

Ethan Hawke and Eve Hewson in Michael Almereyda’s "Tesla."
(IFC Films)

‘The One and Only Ivan’

Directed by Thea Sharrock from a screenplay by Mike White adapted from the novel by Katherine Applegate, “The One and Only Ivan” is about a menagerie of animals who live as part of a small circus attraction at a shopping mall. The film’s cast includes Bryan Cranston as the circus owner and a voice cast for the animals featuring Sam Rockwell, Helen Mirren, Danny DeVito, Chaka Khan, Phillipa Soo, Brooklynn Prince and Angelina Jolie, also a producer on the film. The movie is available on Disney+.

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Sonaiya Kelley spoke to Sharrock and Jolie about the movie and much more. As Jolie said of what she has been watching with her family while quarantining, “We went through a period with the Oculus where they can be in the Arctic together climbing a mountain … [Meanwhile], I was the one who was constantly on the Nat Geo VR traveling. I was so happy to get my tent fixed in VR [and experience] a sunrise in the tent, I nearly cried. And that is when I realized I was starting to lose my mind.”

Reviewing the film for The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “What stands out about ‘The One and Only Ivan’ is just how amazingly rendered the computer-generated animal performances are. It’s not just the photorealistic visuals, but the animators have landed on a performance style that blends both animal and human expression. Every animal moves and ‘speaks’ with motions expected of their species, but there’s recognizable human emotion conveyed visually as well as vocally … Sharrock’s directing is unshowy, focused on the characters and performance moments that make this film a simple, yet effectively moving story about dreaming of a life beyond the walls, something we can all appreciate at this particular moment.”

For the AP, Jake Coyle wrote, “The real story of Ivan is more interesting even if it’s probably too dispiriting and shameful for a Disney movie … But there’s an uncommon mournfulness to ‘The One and Only Ivan’ that tugs at the question of where can these animals go? They plot an escape to the woods across the street only to find it’s a small green patch surrounded by development. Give ‘The One and Only Ivan’ credit for trying to bridge ‘Dumbo’ with ‘Blackfish.’”

Ivan, voiced by Sam Rockwell,  and Bryan Cranston in "The One and Only Ivan."
Ivan, voiced by Sam Rockwell, left, and Bryan Cranston in “The One and Only Ivan.”
(Disney)

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‘Cut Throat City’

A crime thriller set in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, “Cut Throat City” is directed by RZA, a renowned figure in the world of hip-hop moving further into the world of movies. Four friends find themselves in over their heads when they try to rob a local casino. The film has a very strong cast that includes Shameik Moore, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Eiza Gonzalez, Rob Morgan, Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard and Ethan Hawke. Released by Well Go USA, the movie is at the Vineland Drive-In and theaters where they are open.

In a review for The Times, Noel Murray wrote, “Given RZA’s bona fides as a genre movie aficionado (and filmmaker, with his martial arts mini-epic ‘The Man with the Iron Fists’), it would’ve been easy for him to turn [Paul] Cuschieri’s script into the kind of bullet-riddled B-picture the opening credits tease. Instead, the action sequences are almost an afterthought. ‘Cut Throat City’ is a more thoughtful and personal film, concerned with how systemic racism — and zoning ordinances — can kill more people than a gun.”

For the New York Times, Glenn Kenny noted that the film opens with a conversation about “The Godfather” movies and Quentin Tarantino. “While not pursuing the cinematic pyrotechnics of the films and filmmakers mentioned in the opening scene, RZA tells this story (from a screenplay by Paul Cuschieri) with deliberation and imaginative daring. With ‘Cut Throat City,’ his third feature, he comes into his own as a director.”

Demetrius Shipp Jr., left, Keean Johnson, Shameik Moore and Denzel Whitaker in a scene from "Cut Throat City."
Demetrius Shipp Jr., left, Keean Johnson, Shameik Moore and Denzel Whitaker in a scene from “Cut Throat City.”
(Well Go USA)

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