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Indie Focus: Midlife melancholy in ‘On the Rocks’

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

Movie theaters are still struggling as the pandemic drags on. This week Ryan Faughnder wrote about a letter — signed by filmmakers including Judd Apatow, James Cameron, Greta Gerwig, Christopher Nolan, Jordan Peele, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood and Ang Lee — asking the federal government for financial support for exhibitors nationwide. “Absent a solution designed for their circumstances, theaters may not survive the impact of the pandemic,” they said. “Cinemas are an essential industry that represent the best that American talent and creativity have to offer. But now we fear for their future.”

Nevertheless, there are still lots of movies opening — more this week worth highlighting, in fact, than the three I usually do. A few I’ll likely pick up next week, but one worth adding this week is “Save Yourselves!” Written and directed by Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson, the charming, low-key contemporary satire stars Sunita Mani and John Reynolds as a Brooklyn couple who go to a remote cabin in hopes of unplugging from the internet, only to miss out on the news that an alien invasion has taken over the Earth. So for anyone feeling overwhelmed who has thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to take a break from the news?” — maybe think again. In theaters now, the movie hits VOD on Tuesday.

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‘On the Rocks’

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, “On the Rocks” stars Rashida Jones as Laura, a working mother in New York City who has come to suspect her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), of cheating with a co-worker. Enter Laura’s father, Felix (Bill Murray), a bon vivant who pulls Laura into his orbit under the pretense of keeping an eye on Dean. Released by A24 and Apple TV+, the movie is at drive-ins in Los Angeles and theaters where they are open and begins streaming on Oct. 23.

I spoke to Coppola and Jones, both daughters of larger-than-life fathers, about the movie and its connection to their own lives. On the film’s mix of fizzy fun and her trademark melancholy, Coppola said, “The themes we’re talking about are important to me and deep, and then I was trying to do it in a kind of light, fun way. I wanted to do like a father-daughter buddy movie with martinis discussing life and relationships. And I was missing that kind of smart, sophisticated comedy that I grew up with and trying to embrace something a little sillier than my usual realm of what I know how to do. It’s sort of out of my comfort zone.”

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “In addition to being an intimate, generally lighthearted comedy of family ties and wayward eyes, then, ‘On the Rocks’ is an accidental time capsule of pre-pandemic life, set in a New York that might have looked idyllic even if the movie had been released last year. Seen in the harsh glare of the present, the characters’ problems — generational differences, marital anxieties, creative inertia — might seem both derivative and almost desirably quaint, though in a way that produces more sympathy than scorn. We’ve been here before, after all. And this is hardly the first Sofia Coppola movie to situate itself at a cautious remove from reality, to treat comedy, romance, fantasy and even history as a kind of bulwark against the tensions and traumas of the outside world.”

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For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Again and again, Coppola visually isolates Laura, often in dark rooms, inviting us to look at her, yes, but also to wonder: What does she see? What does she think? For much of the movie, she seems like a spectator in her own life. She rides along, she goes along. In the past, Coppola’s embrace of ambiguity could feel like a dodge, a way of evading meaning. But in ‘On the Rocks,’ a wistful and lovely story about finally coming of age, there’s nothing ambiguous about how she makes us see a woman too long lost in life’s shadow.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “It’s an existence rooted in wealth but presented as mundanely middle class — which reflects how it feels to Laura, who sees herself as reduced to being another mom in the school drop-off line, drained of vitality compared to her father, whose existence is touched by magic. ‘On the Rocks’ isn’t a great movie, but it’s one overflowing with feelings that it tries to squash into something tidier. Among them are fear of forever being scarred by a father who up and left, anger at how easily he still indulges his impulses while she’s trapped behaving sensibly, and a broader resentment at how aging can differ for men and women. If it’s difficult to reconcile those raw-edged emotions with the pat conclusion ‘On the Rocks’ arrives at, it’s because the film never really manages to do that either.”

For IndieWire, David Ehrlich wrote, “‘On the Rocks’ isn’t destined to achieve the same kind of iconic status as some of Coppola’s previous work. It isn’t disposable, but it also doesn’t offer anything to obsess about, which is a real change of pace for a filmmaker who launched a zillion Tumblrs and Pinterest boards and gave humanity the gif of Emma Watson saying ‘I wanna rob.’ It isn’t an uncool movie, but it isn’t a cool one either, and by the time it winds down with a needle drop that might have you second-guessing that assessment, you might just be as cool with that as Coppola seems to be.”

Rashida Jones and Bill Murray drive in a red sports car in the movie "On the Rocks."
Rashida Jones and Bill Murray in the movie “On the Rocks.”
(A24 / Apple+)
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‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’

One of the most exciting debuts of the year, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is written and directed by its star, Radha Blank. She plays a woman named Radha facing her 40th birthday and struggling to break through as a playwright, never having fully followed up on the promise of her early career. As she tries to balance career ambitions with her sense of artistic integrity, she decides to launch herself as a rapper. Blank won the directing prize when the film premiered earlier this year at Sundance, and it is being released by Netflix, playing drive-ins in L.A. and theaters where they are open and streaming on the platform starting Oct. 9.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The sly achievement of ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’ is to turn a critical eye on the very idea of success (by whose standards?) and to ponder exactly what level of compromise is acceptable to secure it. … Blank skirts inspirational-underdog clichés as deftly as she skewers the trappings of racial and cultural privilege. And she makes clear that wherever Radha ends up — whether she successfully leaps through the culture’s designated hoops or gives up being an artist altogether — is ultimately less meaningful than the complex, irreducible reality of who she is.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Beandrea July wrote, “One gets the sense that Blank is hyper-aware of the ‘one-and-done’ phenomenon that has often plagued women directors, especially black women and other women of color, and she’s not going to waste her chance. The black-and-white cinematography serves as a kind of liberating restraint, as if preserving the pic within cinematic amber so that viewers can see the characters with new eyes. … ‘The 40-Year-Old Version’ is a beautiful achievement, one that ultimately calls attention to the huge gaps in representation of different kinds of black characters on film. It’s a gap that Blank clearly intends to fill; I can’t wait to see what she does next.”

For Xtra, Tre’vell Anderson wrote, “Blank’s film debut, after writing for television series including ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and ‘Empire,’ ‘The 40-Year-Old Version’ is an instantly canonical comedy with a level of social commentary that will make it forever relevant.”

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Radha Blank, director, writer and star of "The Forty-Year-Old-Version."
(Jeong Park / Netflix)

‘The Glorias’

Directed by Julia Taymor, who along with playwright Sarah Ruhl co-adapted Gloria Steinem’s memoir, “My Life on the Road,” “The Glorias” is an unconventional overview of Steinem’s life. At different times in her life, Steinem is played by different actresses, including Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore, while also including scenes where the different Glorias are all on a bus ride together, as one carries all the stages of a life forward into the future. The movie is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

Reviewing for The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “Using every tool at her disposal, Taymor crafts an epic tapestry of a remarkable life, paying tribute to the glorious Gloria Steinem. ‘The Glorias’ ends on a hopeful, almost triumphant note, but in this specific moment, it’s a note that strikes an inadvertently mournful tone. Even the Women’s March of 2017 feels like ancient history right now. Despite the current challenges facing all that Steinem fought for and achieved in the 1970s, her final words in the film, spoken during the Women’s March, resonate. ‘Remember, the Constitution does not begin with, “I the President,” it begins with “We the People.”’ They are words to heed now more than ever.”

For the Associated Press, Lindsey Bahr wrote, “Gloria Steinem is always in conversation with herself in ‘The Glorias,’ a sprawling and thoughtful biopic of the writer and activist. Director Julie Taymor knows better than to try to capture her entire life in a film, even one as long as this, and her reflective odyssey of a woman and icon who never stops growing is a beautifully messy attempt at something bigger. It doesn’t always work but has a natural engine and spirit to it that keeps you focused.”

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For Vulture, Jen Chaney wrote, “A movie about such a pivotal figure who fought, and still fights, so hard for gender equality should spark some intense emotion, especially if you’re a woman. Weirdly, ‘The Glorias’ never does that. With a runtime of two and a half hours, it lasts too long and doesn’t go deeply enough to register the way it should. At one point on that bus ride, Little Girl Gloria asks the other Glorias, ‘Are we there yet?’ Girl, that I felt.”

Julianne Moore as Gloria Steinem and Bette Midler as Bella Abzug in the movie "The Glorias."
Julianne Moore, left, as Gloria Steinem, and Bette Midler as Bella Abzug in the movie “The Glorias.”
(LD Entertainment / Roadside Attractions
)


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