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Indie Focus: Tender oddballs in ‘Kajillionaire’

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

The Walt Disney Co. moved the release dates for a lot of movies this week, including “West Side Story,” “Black Widow,” “Death on the Nile” and “Eternals” — nearly all of them into next year.

“Disney’s decision was not surprising,” Ryan Faughnder noted. “Theaters remain closed in the two biggest U.S. markets, New York and Los Angeles. A rise in coronavirus cases in Europe has also given studios pause, and Latin America, another major region for Disney movies, remains hobbled by the pandemic. In the U.S., about half of the moviegoing public is not ready to return to movie theaters right away, according to data firm NRG.”

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Two weeks after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced new representation standards for eligibility for the best picture Oscar, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts announced wide-ranging changes to its membership and voting to bolster inclusivity.

“We can’t change the industry, but we can try,” Marc Samuelson, chair of BAFTA’s film committee, told Glenn Whipp. “We can sort out our side of the street and get BAFTA to become the kind of organization that everyone hopes it would be, which is truly representative and, in terms of the awards BAFTA gives, let the work be seen and be judged with fairness.”

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‘Kajillionaire’

Written and directed by Miranda July, “Kajillionaire” is a family drama, a heist comedy and a romance all in one. Robert and Theresa Dyne (Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger) have trained their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) in a life of “skimming,” pulling minor scams and con jobs to just get by. Old Dolio starts to imagine a life of something more once they encounter the vibrant Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) in the course of a job. Released by Focus Features, the film is in theaters where they are open and will be on VOD Oct. 16.

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I spoke to July and Wood about the origins of the distinctive character of Old Dolio for a story that will be published soon. Of what attracted her to the part, Wood said, “I’d never seen this character. We never get to see heroines or leading ladies that look or sound or act like her. And it was a completely original script. I had never read this script before, and I’ve been reading scripts since I was 5 years old. So that to me was such a great sign and such a rare thing these days. I was excited that people were still making films like this.”

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “There’s a disquieting idea at play here: What if family itself is a kind of scam, a long and elaborate con foisted by parents upon their unsuspecting children? Robert and Theresa are a pretty pathetic couple of grifters; their coupon-clipping hustles are amateurish, their payouts measly. But when it comes to pulling the wool over their daughter’s eyes, they’re masters.”

For rogerebert.com, Tomris Laffly wrote, “July’s best and most mature work to date, the often hilarious and gradually heartbreaking ‘Kajillionaire’ almost recapitulates the writer/director’s above-mentioned experiential artistic interests, digging deep into the world of a twenty-something who has been consistently denied any form of sincere human touch and connection her entire life.”

For the New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote, “‘Kajillionaire’ is a death-haunted movie, in which the awesome presence of ultimate things is matched by the tiny thread of life — the mighty emotional power of the seemingly minor moment, the vast weight of connection in a glance, a word, a touch. … Unable to recapture lost, albeit modest, glories, the Dynes lay waste to the tenuous security and the trusting warmth of those who currently have it — and make sure to deprive Old Dolio of it, too, leaving her muted, submissive, dependent. The drama of her awakening, marked by frivolities as well as by revelations, reaches far beyond her family circle, into the world at large.”

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For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “Funny, poignant and ultimately triumphant, ‘Kajillionaire’ is a precarious balancing act, one that July pulls off with astute writing, careful staging and trust in her actors to strike precisely the right emotional tones, whether they be tender or breathtakingly tough. July’s dexterity is exemplified in one memorable scene, set in the home of one of their marks, when Robert, Theresa, Old Dolio and Melanie slip into their own pantomime of a happy family: The sequence flows from perverse humor to unexpected poignancy to Darwinian ruthlessness with startlingly organic ease. Quirky? Sure, but it’s so much more than that. It’s Miranda July, at her closely observed and compassionate best.”

Director Miranda July works with actor Evan Rachel Wood on the set of "Kajillionaire."
Director Miranda July, left, works with actor Evan Rachel Wood on the set of “Kajillionaire.”
(Matt Kennedy / Focus Features)

‘The Trial of the Chicago 7'

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is the story of the men put on trial by the federal government accused of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The film’s sprawling cast includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kelvin Harrison Jr., John Carroll Lynch, Frank Langella and Michael Keaton. Released by Netflix, the film is in theaters where they are open and will begin streaming on the platform on Oct. 16.

Josh Rottenberg wrote about the film’s theatrical release plan, which feels unusual given the fact that Netflix has been so perfectly positioned to dominate the pandemic moment. “Amid so much anxiety, Netflix’s theatrical rollout of ‘Chicago 7’ at least provides a hopeful green shoot in the otherwise fallow landscape of theatrical distribution. But it’s also a reminder that even for a company thus far shielded from the worst impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, there are trials ahead. And no matter where you look in the film ecosystem, the outlook remains far from certain.”

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For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Although Sorkin made a fine directing debut with 2017’s crackling ‘Molly’s Game,’ it’s hard not to wonder if a different filmmaker might have productively shifted the balance here, perhaps by treating his dazzling words as the movie’s skeleton, not its star. But as was already clear from ‘A Few Good Men’ and ‘The Social Network,’ the legal drama has always been Sorkin’s sweet spot, the most natural fit for his pugilistic, process-oriented writing style. … The result is an unsurprising feast of Sorkinese, full of insults and rebuttals, argumentation and oneupsmanship.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “‘The Trial of the Chicago 7,’ Aaron Sorkin’s snappy, sloppy re-enactment of a famous real-life slice of American political courtroom drama, understands that the somber and the ridiculous have a habit of becoming entwined. … There’s a lot of deadly serious stuff in here — about war and peace, justice and racism, democracy and order — and a fair bit of silliness as well, some of it intentional.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek called the film “a movie as simultaneously entertaining and galvanizing as anything you’ll see this year.” She added, “‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ reminds us of the chant that arose from the Chicago protestors as the police descended upon them with batons and, some sources have indicated, gloved fists fortified with metal: ‘The whole world is watching.’ At what point do you look away? ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ details events that happened more than 50 years ago. The time to look away is never.”

Sacha Baron Cohen, Danny Flaherty, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong and Mark Rylance in "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
Sacha Baron Cohen, left, as Abbie Hoffman, Danny Flaherty as John Froines, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin and Mark Rylance as William Kuntsler in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
(Niko Tavernise / Netflix)
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‘Misbehaviour’

Based on the true story of the 1970 Miss World competition in London, “Misbehaviour” is a tale of one time when feminism overcame racism and the patriarchy on live TV. The film is directed by Philippa Lowthorpe from a screenplay by Gaby Chiappe and Rebecca Frayn. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley, the cast also includes Lesley Manville and Greg Kinnear as Dolores and Bob Hope. Released by Shout! Factory, the movie is in select theaters where they are open and on VOD.

For The Times, Gary Goldstein wrote, “‘Misbehaviour,’ which enjoyably recounts the true-life story of how 1970’s Miss World pageant helped put women’s liberation on the map, may be set 50 years ago, but its themes of sexism, racism, classism, misogyny and upending the patriarchy still feel undeniably, frustratingly relevant.”

in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “The cheerfully one-dimensional ‘Misbehaviour’ puts a smiley face on female rage. A comedy flecked with seriousness. … Like most commercial movies about feminist history, though, it also has a toothless vision of protest and empowerment that’s doomed to fail its subject because its makers don’t (can’t) risk making the audience uncomfortable.”

For The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “‘Misbehaviour’ is not a #MeToo film as such, or only indirectly — it does not allude to the kind of abuse that has been rife in beauty pageants, and the film shows the contestants in 1970 were primly assigned ‘chaperones,’ which, however ridiculous, might at least have militated against abuse. What it does show is the pioneering protest that was a cornerstone of the women’s liberation project and which was to help make #MeToo possible. The protesters maintain that they are not against the Miss World contestants themselves, and that is also the position of the film, which wants to show them sympathetically. … Director Philippa Lowthorpe and screenwriters Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe keep it light and likable: the story of people who aren’t exactly keeping calm, but carrying on all the same.”

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Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in "Misbehaviour"
Keira Knightley, left, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in “Misbehaviour,” chronicling the events of the 1970 Miss World competition.
(Parisa Taghizadeh / Bentonville Film Festival)


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