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Indie Focus: Much-needed joy in ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’

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

In this week’s ominous news about the future of theatrical exhibition, Ryan Faughnder wrote about how AMC Theatres might run out of cash by the end of the year or early 2021.

And a day earlier, Walt Disney Co. announced that, emboldened by the success of Disney+, it’s reorganizing to focus on creating content for its streaming services and separate distribution from content production. “We want to let the creatives be creatives, and let the business people be business people,” Chief Executive Bob Chapek said in an interview. “Given our success so far, we want to further accelerate our transition to a direct-to-consumer-first model.”

The AFI Fest began this week with the world premiere of Julia Hart’s “I’m Your Woman.” This year’s festival is a virtual event, with the exception of a drive-in screening of Regina King’s “One Night in Miami.” Other notable world premieres are Angel Kristi Williams’ “Really Love” and Kelly Oxford’s “Pink Skies Ahead,” along with screenings of “Wander Darkly,” “The Father,” “Sound of Metal” and Dennis Hopper’s 1980 film “Out of the Blue.”

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Carly Rose Moser, the festival’s director of production and operations, said of planning a festival during a pandemic, “We could have easily just decided to say, ‘Well, we can’t do that in person, guess we’re not happening.’ But instead we decided to tackle going virtual and still bring films to audiences. It’s why we do this.”

And as part of Hispanic Heritage Month, 270 showrunners, creators, television and film writers — including Lin-Manuel Miranda, John Leguizamo and Gloria Calderón Kellett — signed an open letter calling for systemic change in the industry toward better inclusion of Latinx artists.

“We are incensed by the continued lack of Latinx representation in our industry,” the letter read. “Our stories are important, and our erasure onscreen contributes to the persistent prejudice that prevents real change in this country.”

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‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’

Directed by Spike Lee, “David Byrne’s American Utopia” captures the recent Broadway stage production of David Byrne’s traveling show, featuring music from his solo career and his former band Talking Heads with a uniquely joyful staging. The movie is available Saturday on HBO and HBO Max.

In both “American Utopia” and the landmark Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense,” the audience sees the performance come together, beginning with a spare stage and more musicians joining in as it goes along. As Byrne told Mikael Wood, “I like the idea of showing how the trick is done — but then doing the trick and it still gets you. Knowing how an effect is achieved doesn’t take away the magic.”

For The Times, Glenn Whipp wrote, “Same as it ever was. Those five words, contained in the 40-year-old Talking Heads song ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ sum up the warped sense of time that has defined this quarantine year about as well as any five words could. And ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia,’ the Spike Lee-directed film version of Byrne’s jubilant 2019 Broadway show, offers an antidote to that quarantine-mandated monotony, an invitation to connect, change and, I don’t know, maybe go outside and ride a bicycle, as Byrne does during the movie’s closing credits.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Some filmed stage shows die on the screen from a sheer lack of visual energy and invention. Lee, a master of the art, uses cinema’s plasticity to complement this production, making it come alive in two dimensions. Using a variety of camera angles — the first image is an overhead shot of Byrne — Lee shows you parts of the show that normally only the theater crew would see. At other times, when a camera dives in alongside the musicians and dancers, you fluidly transform into one of the cast and begin grooving to the syncopated beat.”

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For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “As ‘American Utopia’ builds to its equal parts invigorating and sobering climax — a profound, prescient cover of Janelle Monáe’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’ — the subtext of Byrne’s project becomes palpable: With his assembled troupe of artists from around the globe, representing a range of looks and sensibilities, he’s created his own perfect world onstage, one that Lee and his longtime cinematographer Ellen Kuras make intimately accessible to filmgoers. ‘American Utopia’ is just the kind of healing, inspiring balm that the audience needs right now. It arrives like an unexpected answer to an unspoken prayer.”

For Vanity Fair, Jordan Hoffman wrote, “‘American Utopia’ is an outstanding collaboration between two essential artists; I can’t believe there’s anyone alive who won’t be moved by this document. Byrne’s career is a testament to never resting on one’s laurels, to always searching for creative expansion — but more than anything, ‘American Utopia’ proves how electrifying he still is as a performer. Same as it ever was.”

A still image of a performance in "David Byrne's American Utopia."
Daniel Freedman, left, Bobby Wooten III, Chris Giarmo, David Byrne, Tendayi Kuumba, Angie Swan, Stéphane San Juan, and Karl Mansfield in “David Byrne’s American Utopia.”
(Matthew Murphy)

‘Martin Eden’

Directed and cowritten by Pietro Marcello, “Martin Eden” is an adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel and transported from California to Italy. Starring Luca Marinelli, recently seen in “The Old Guard” and winner of the acting prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival for his performance here, the film is about a sailor, Martin, who dreams of being a writer while also trying to win over Elena (Jessica Cressy), a woman well above his social station. Distributed by Kino Lorber, the movie is available via virtual cinemas including Laemmle Theatres and Acropolis Cinema.

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For The Times, Justin Chang wrote that certain moments in the film “are also an homage to cinema itself, the most democratic of art forms, and its ability to reflect the commonality of all human experience … Culture, after all, so often feeds on the experiences of the downtrodden, only to be consumed by an aristocratic few. But hopefulness and rawness, much like society and the self, are ultimately inextricable in ‘Martin Eden,’ a work of art that abounds in its own beautiful contradictions. It might reject individualism, but it’s also a glorious singularity.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “By connecting the triumph of one man’s individual will to fascism, Marcello turns Martin into a time traveler. This Martin is an emissary from the past and a warning for the present. For a time, he is also a hugely attractive, magnetic figure whose power Marcello builds only to coolly dismantle. (Few filmmakers do as much with jump cuts as he does here.) It’s easy to fall under Martin’s spell, to gaze at him like Elena finally does. The genius of ‘Martin Eden’ is that Marcello makes you fall in love with Martin only to reveal — as the hero’s journey devolves into a devastating tragedy — how easily we are charmed by the charismatic man who has absolutely nothing to offer.”

For the Chicago Tribune, Katie Walsh wrote, “What’s certain is ‘Martin Eden’ is a love letter to a century of Italian cinema. Martin is the epitome of a rugged neorealistic hero, Elena a dead ringer for Dominique Sanda in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece ‘The Conformist.’ … The film’s final act is a reach, inviting the audience to stretch along with the storytelling, in order to fully encapsulate every aspect of Martin’s tale, which is in many ways a tragedy. In every way a reflection of its protagonist, ‘Martin Eden’ strives for greatness, and in that striving, achieves it.”

Luca Marinelli and Jessica Cressy in the movie "Martin Eden."
(Kino Lorber)
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‘S—house’

Despite its unprintable title, “S—house” won the top jury prize at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. Written, directed by and starring Cooper Raiff and executive produced by Jay Duplass, the film is about a college freshman having a hard time adjusting to life away from home. When he has a great night with a very together girl named Maggie (Dylan Gelula), he thinks things might be turning around. Distributed by IFC Films, the movie is in limited theatrical release and on VOD.

In his review for The Times, Kevin Crust wrote, “Though the film’s casual structure lulls you into thinking not much is going on, the gently shifting power dynamics between the characters and a reversal of the traditional gender roles set up an unexpectedly moving resolution. There’s certainly some unexamined privilege here, but what’s striking about Raiff’s film to someone long past young adulthood is how little has changed. Smartphones and social media may have fast-tracked certain elements and this generation is more socially fluid in just about everything, but the basic interactions remain the same. Even decades later, one can clearly remember the highs and lows, the small joys and the big heartaches, and ‘S—house’ brings them home — whether you like it or not.”

For Screen Daily, Fionnuala Halligan wrote, “A small story like this, the tale of a lonely 19-year-old boy from Dallas living far from home at college in California, is quite rare in cinema at the moment with its sad middle-class white male protagonist, and there’s a retro feel to its simple staging. Raiff is fond of jaunty string guitar interludes, for example, as the film’s principals spend time wandering around campus late at night divesting themselves of their life stories. He’s certainly seen ‘Before Sunrise.’ But that also gives ‘S—house’ a gentle innocence, despite its title. The best films about college are by people who are still there, or have just left, and you can see why Jay Duplass helped ‘S—house’ along after being shown a rough cut.”

For IndieWire, David Ehrlich wrote, “It’s basically the Platonic ideal of the movie you’d expect from a suburban white American softboy who’s been raised on Richard Linklater and ‘Sex Education.’ But here’s the catch: It’s good. Like, really good. And more than that, it somehow feels completely singular despite its lo-fi approach and even lower-concept premise. That starts with Raiff’s palpable disinterest in seeming cool. Don’t be fooled by (what could be misconstrued as) the look-at-me edginess of its title — ‘S—house’ is guileless and sincere in a way that would get it bullied at school.”

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Dylan Gelula, left, and Cooper Raiff in the movie "S—house."
Dylan Gelula, left, and Cooper Raiff in the movie “S—house.”
(IFC Films)


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