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Indie Focus: A joyful, modernist ‘David Copperfield’

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

Hollywood is slowly coming back, both behind the scenes on productions and in the front of house with theaters reopening.

Anousha Sakoui took a look at how commercial shoots are dealing with postpandemic protocols, from the vans getting crews to and from set to how many people are allowed in a room.

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But many worry that good intentions and guidelines won’t be enough to ensure safety moving forward. As wardrobe stylist Lindsey Clough said, “They are such well-meaning documents. But when things start costing money and things start going very quickly, they will be thrown out the window.”

Jen Yamato checked in with the team behind “Simone,” an independent feature directed by Betty Kaplan that was finished in a different world than when it began, with the added stresses of new safety protocols. “Every take means something. We can’t ask for another take for everything,” actress Kunjue Li said. “You’re losing two hours a day, so essentially you’re losing 12 hours a week. You’re losing one shooting day per week, and for indie films, that’s huge.”

Ryan Faughnder wrote about how distributors are responding to the new landscape of exhibition, finding new ways of distributing independent features such as “Fatima” and studio pictures such as the oft-discussed “Tenet.” As Bob Berney, the veteran film executive relaunching the production and distribution company Picturehouse, told him: “I do think that the pandemic has unleashed all options. It’s become a testing zone of every possible way of getting a film out there, and it’s going to take a while before it gets set into some sort of pattern.”

We recently held our first postpandemic Indie Focus Q&A. The new camping comedy of generational revolt, “Get Duked,” is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video, and I spoke to writer-director Ninian Doff. You can watch our full conversation here.

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‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a lively adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel. Dev Patel stars as the grown version of the title character, as he makes his way through the world. The strong cast also includes Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Rosalind Eleazar, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong and Hugh Laurie. Released by Searchlight Pictures, the film is playing locally at the Mission Tiki Drive-in and in general release where theaters are open.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote about the film’s inventive, intentional colorblind casting, noting, “Iannucci is a master at locating absurdity everywhere he looks, and he recognizes that few things are more absurd than ingrained prejudice and received wisdom. The sheer variety of faces we encounter in ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ can be read as a sly corrective to the currents of xenophobia that critics have long pointed out in Dickens’ work. At the same time, it suggests an intuitive extension of Dickens’ own richness of characterization, the dizzying range of his human cosmos. It also dovetails with some of the themes that have recurred throughout his fiction: the gift of families, makeshift and otherwise; the emergence of unexpected friends and guardians; and the right of every individual to rise above the most precarious of stations and forge their own destiny.”

In a review for The Guardian, Mark Kermode wrote, “Astutely amplifying the absurdist — and remarkably modernist — elements of his source, Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell conjure a surreal cinematic odyssey that is as accessible as it is intelligent and unexpected. … It really is a wonderfully entertaining film, managing to both respect and reinvent the novel from which it takes its lead, creating something new and exciting in the process.”

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For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “There’s a resilient buoyancy running through ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ that proves irresistibly moving by the end of its journey. Its protagonist weathers hardships and cruelties in addition to benefiting from acts of kindness, and yet he never loses his capacity to be fascinated by people, a quality that’s comforting without feeling cloying. … ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ doesn’t make fun of its source material so much as it has fun with it.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “Thanks to the company of fine actors Iannucci has assembled, and to the director’s own command of the material, the cosmopolitan gaggle of urchins, eccentrics, sharpies and rounders who populate ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ look right at home in Victorian London, but also can’t help but evoke the present-day, when the obstacles of class, caste and predatory capitalism stubbornly persist. Bold, playful and irrepressibly optimistic, ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ perfectly manifests the spirit of the hero of its own story: Amid struggle and suffering it digs for joy, and always manages to find it.”

Dev Patel, Rosalind Eleazar and Hugh Laurie in the movie "The Personal History of David Copperfield."
(Dean Rogers)

‘Bill & Ted Face the Music’

Nearly 30 years after the second installment come the continued adventures of two affable rock ‘n’ roll dreamers in “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” The new film, directed by Dean Parisot and written by original screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, finds returning stars Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter dealing with adulthood and more time-travel adventures. Distributed by Orion Pictures, the film is available at local drive-ins, on VOD and in general release where theaters are open.

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Josh Rottenberg spoke to Solomon and Matheson about the new movie’s unlikely provenance, coming all these years later. “We didn’t expect that Bill and Ted would last culturally,” said Solomon. “I mean, the first movie got trashed. Your paper beat the crap out of us! We did not expect this thing would weirdly grow over three decades. It’s like an investment that someone made for you 30 years ago that you forgot about and suddenly it’s grown into something beautiful. It’s kind of a miracle that it’s here.”

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “‘Face the Music’ has all the gravitas one might expect from a ‘Bill & Ted’ movie, which is to say, almost none. … As Bill and Ted bounce through time, the narratives of these films are merely loose assortments of kooky bits and cameos, and ‘Face the Music’ doesn’t stray from that. While it doesn’t quite gel cohesively, in this casual kickback with a pair of old pals, it’s the dudes who remain excellent.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “‘Bill & Ted Face the Music’ sounds like more of a reckoning than it is. … The high point of the movie is a harpsichord and Stratocaster duet played by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Jimi Hendrix, a nicely conceived and executed demonstration of how genius recognizes genius. That’s too strong a word to apply to ‘Bill & Ted Face the Music,’ which like its predecessors is winningly modest and harmlessly silly. I don’t know if it made me feel young or old, but it was all in all a most non-bogus experience.”

For Mashable, Angie Han wrote, “‘Face the Music’ is a feather-light wisp of a film, roughly 90 minutes of good times that won’t make you think too hard or feel too much — but you might find the cheer it leaves behind lasts quite a bit longer than that. At the core of the series is the same message these two have been preaching from the beginning: ‘Be excellent to each other.’ It’s not new advice and it’s not profound. But it’s also not wrong, and ‘Face the Music’ is a joyful reminder that a world is a better place when we try to heed it.”

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For Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “In its way, this closing chapter of the ‘Bill & Ted’ trilogy is an allegory for the status of Gen-Xers in the dystopic landscape of 2020. They — for some of us, we — are now middle-aged slackers still waiting for our one grand moment of apotheosis, convinced the song we were put on Earth to write is yet to come even as the culture around us moves on.”

Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves in "Bill & Ted Face the Music."
Still crazy after all these years: Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are back for another ripping yarn in “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” but will it be an excellent adventure or a bogus journey?
(United Artists Releasing)

‘Lingua Franca’

Isabel Sandoval is writer, director, editor and star of “Lingua Franca,” a film of delicate specificity and vivid romantic yearning. The story revolves around Olivia, an undocumented Filipina trans woman working as a live-in caregiver in New York’s Brighton Beach neighborhood. She finds herself romantically drawn to the adult grandson of the woman she works for, while she also struggles to remain in America. Distributed by Array Releasing, the movie is available in limited theaters and is streaming on Netflix.

Jen Yamato spoke to Sandoval for a story that will be publishing soon. As the multihyphenate trans woman filmmaker said, she wanted the film to tell a different kind of story. “I felt like movies about trans characters tend to focus on the gender transition process. It’s a subject that people seem to obsess over and fixate on, and I wanted ‘Lingua Franca’ to start where these trans narratives usually end. Her transition is well behind her. You don’t hear the word ‘transition’ being mentioned every five minutes. That’s where I was really chronicling, in a fictional narrative, my own experiences as a trans woman living in Brooklyn.”

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For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “Olivia is a relative newcomer to this world, easing warily into its landscape. Yet as Sandoval plays her, she’s an old soul who already belongs — she radiates luminous warmth. If Olivia has fought hard just to become herself, there’s nothing callused about her spirit. She seeks tenderness and security in an environment that dangles those things just out of her grasp. She’s asking for so little; it’s enough to make you want to give her the world.”

For IndieWire, Jude Dry wrote, “‘Lingua Franca’ illustrates the woefully untapped potential of marginalized storytellers. Though the film is not autobiographical, Sandoval is herself a trans Filipina immigrant. She can take creative risks that would feel unnerving coming from a creator even one circle outside of Olivia’s intersecting identities, and she does. And while Olivia’s choices ensure the film’s conclusion isn’t a joyous one, she remains fully autonomous.”

Isabel Sandoval as Olivia in "Lingua Franca."
(Array Releasing)


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