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Indie Focus: Government at work in ‘City Hall’

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

This week Anousha Sakoui reported on the estimated 284,000 jobs in fashion, entertainment, digital media and arts institutions lost in California due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Anousha also wrote about how, as the entertainment industry tries to make a comeback, one new job on Hollywood sets is that of COVID-19 compliance supervisor.

“The challenge is that we’re living in a new world; the way that people have gone about doing their jobs on the set has changed dramatically,” said Thom Davis, business manager of IATSE Local 80. “You’ve learned to do things in a certain way. And now, all of a sudden, you can’t do that. It takes a mental retraining.”

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There are plenty of new movies this weekend, but let’s be honest — many, many people will be watching the second season of “The Mandalorian,” which debuts on Disney+. To help catch up on what happened in Season 1 and what may be set up in Season 2, here is a useful primer on deep “Star Wars” lore by Tracy Brown.

The Times will be launching a new newsletter, “The Latinx Files,” on Nov. 12. Written by Fidel Martinez, the newsletter will explore what it means to be Latino in America and cover the issues that matter to Latinx communities — as the introductory note states, “from the pandemic and recession to immigration, from critiques of our exclusion from mainstream culture emerging from Hollywood (because we all know that will continue) to the latest Bad Bunny release, and everything in between.” Go to latimes.com/latinx-files or latimes.com/newsletters to sign up. I already have, and you should too.

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‘City Hall’

Having recently turned 90, master documentarian Frederick Wiseman is still at it, creating patiently insightful movies about social institutions. His latest, “City Hall,” takes in the people and services that flow in and out of Boston’s famed Brutalist structure under Mayor Marty Walsh, with a watchful, at times breathtaking, level of detail. Heading into next week’s elections, the film is a necessary reminder of government’s purpose, its ideals and failings alike. Released by Zipporah Films, the movie is available via Film Forum’s virtual cinema, with additional virtual cinemas Nov 6.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Remarkably, given Wiseman’s career-long devotion to the democratic ideals of governance and the inner workings of human institutions, ‘City Hall’ is his first picture to bear its particular title and only his second, after ‘Near Death’ (1989), to be set in Boston, his hometown. … Whatever may be happening (this very week!) on the national stage, the film reminds us, the ground-level impact of local politics is no less worthy of advocacy and attention.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “‘City Hall’ is also an exploration of civil society and the common good. It’s instructive that it opens on a sunny cityscape of autumnal trees, glass-and-steel towers and clouds drifting across a blue sky. There are few people around, but more soon arrive, trickling and streaming into City Hall and its many tributaries. Wiseman returns to the building repeatedly, but he isn’t interested in it the way an architecture critic might be, in its design and engineering. He’s interested in its social structure and function, how things work inside and out (how they don’t), and how this often-derided chunk of concrete comes to vivid life in a multitude of human interactions.”

For IndieWire, Eric Kohn wrote, “By the time ‘City Hall’ arrives at its breathtaking final shots, Wiseman has crafted such an advanced case for understanding every aspect of local governance that it leads to the impression that America would be a better place if everyone experienced it. Through its hefty length alone, the movie acknowledges that government services are vast enterprises so hard to conceive that they often turn people off from the outset. Yet such aversion only serves to solidify its point. ‘City Hall’ doesn’t just deserve an audience; it deserves a conversation. Even as Wiseman celebrates the sophistication of American ideals in practice, his movie illustrates just how hard they are to grasp.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in a scene from the movie "City Hall."
(Zipporah Films)

‘The Craft: Legacy’

Written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones, “The Craft: Legacy” is a remake of the 1996 film directed by Andrew Fleming that has become a teenage touchstone. In the new film, four young women, (Cailee Spaeny, Gideon Adlon, Lovie Simone and Zoey Luna), all social outcasts at their high school, form a witches coven and discover their inner powers. Released by Columbia Pictures, the movie is available on premium VOD.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “Like the four corners the girls invoke, represented by earth, air, fire and water, the elements are there to make ‘The Craft: Legacy’ something special for its audience of younger women. There’s the compelling cast, including up-and-coming stars Spaeny, Simone, Adlon and Luna. There’s the smart update on the material that wants to dig into heteropatriarchy as so threatened by a little light witchcraft. There’s also a requisite connection to the original film. Everything hums along until it abruptly crashes and burns. … One of the early tricks the girls master is an ability to freeze time, and after that ending, you wish we could freeze it right when they learn to embrace their magical abilities, laughing and twirling in the street, dizzy with their own power. Unfortunately, movie magic doesn’t go that far.”

For the New York Times, Kristen Yoonsoo Kim wrote, “But Zoe Lister-Jones’s ‘The Craft: Legacy,’ produced by Blumhouse (‘Get Out’), is a disappointing distillation of the original that’s mostly devoid of personality. Avoiding the bad apple story line that Fairuza Balk’s Nancy so brilliantly embodied in the ’90s version, this new ‘Craft’ makes toxic masculinity the girls’ greatest enemy (the misogynistic bully falls under a spell that makes him say things like ‘womxn’). But even that modernization feels predictable.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “The quartet in ‘The Craft: Legacy’ are a much milder, if nominally more intersectional, bunch — Lourdes is a trans Latina character who gently counters Frankie when the latter gushes about pregnancy as a woman’s superpower. But the characters are also so much less developed as individuals overall, their unique desires and personal histories shunted aside in favor of group solidarity. If the original ‘The Craft’ was about the strength and the limits of marginalization as common ground, ‘The Craft: Legacy’ ultimately just settles on being a hurried protest against the patriarchy.”

Lovie Simone, Zoey Luna, Cailee Spaeny and Gideon Adlon in "The Craft: Legacy."
(Sony Pictures)

‘Donut King’

Directed by Alice Gu, the documentary “The Donut King” tells the story of Bun Tek “Ted” Ngoy, a Cambodian immigrant who, after buying a single Southern California doughnut shop, would go on to own dozens more. At one point up to 80 percent of the independent doughnut shops in California were owned by Cambodians, yet even having sparked this wave of entrepreneurship, Ngoy became of a victim of his own success and personal foibles. Distributed by Greenwich Entertainment, the movie is available in limited release where theaters are open and via virtual cinemas.

For The Times, Kevin Crust wrote, “Proud of his achievements, humbled by his failings, at 77, he is a man with regrets but seemingly content to live out his days in peace. In a way, Ngoy was gambling all along, the difference being that in the doughnut game his hard work and ingenuity allowed him to beat the odds; in the casinos, he was playing against a stacked deck. And despite the film’s cautionary nature, you will crave doughnuts. Lots and lots of doughnuts. Although the king has fallen, the kingdom still stands.”

For the New York Times, Devika Girish wrote, “Gu contextualizes Ngoy’s ascent with a dense, sometimes tonally inconsistent stream of archival footage chronicling the Cambodian genocide that drove refugees to the United States; American economic policy in the 1970s and ’80s; and the legacy of immigrant-run mom-and-pop shops in California. But Ngoy’s eventual crises, as dramatic as his successes, aren’t accorded the same analytical attention. Too sentimental in its final act, ‘The Donut King’ doesn’t quite manage to connect the dots between Ngoy’s financial troubles and the voracious capitalism that enabled his rise. The result is a cheery portrait of immigrant entrepreneurship that lacks political punch.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Inkoo Kang wrote, “Weaving together two histories hidden in plain sight, the film is a heartwarming yet three-dimensional portrait of a man who lifted hundreds of his shell-shocked countrymen out of poverty and despair, but was later consumed by his own maniacal ambition and zeal. At a time when the plights of refugees and immigrants have been necessarily shunted from the front page by the coronavirus (despite the greater vulnerability of these populations to contagion), Gu celebrates their potential and their perseverance, while never losing sight of their complicated humanity. ‘The Donut King’ is a tale of the American Dream, but decidedly not one of a model minority.”

Ted Ngoy in the documentary “The Donut King.”
(Greenwich Entertainment)


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