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Indie Focus: Candy-colored revenge in ‘Promising Young Woman’

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

Welcome to a special pre-holiday edition to jump-start your viewing lists. This newsletter will be taking next week off, so we’ll meet again in the new year.

This is a very unusual awards season, given its oddly elongated calendar, but accolades are being handed out nonetheless. This past weekend the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (of which I’m a member) voted on its 2020 awards, sticking to the actual calendar year rather than the extended eligibility calendar of the Oscars.

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Glenn Whipp and Justin Chang wrote about the results, which recognized Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology as best picture and Chloé Zhao as best director for “Nomadland.” Chadwick Boseman was named best actor for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Carey Mulligan best actress for “Promising Young Woman.”

As Glenn said of the results, “With something as magnificent as ‘Small Axe,’ labeling these movies ‘film’ or ‘television’ is irrelevant, particularly in a year when we’ve been forced to watch practically everything from inside our homes. Awarding the ‘Small Axe’ series as our ‘best picture’ was probably the most 2020 thing we could do.”

And this week on “The Envelope” podcast, I spoke to Rashida Jones about starring in Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” which draws from their experiences growing up with very famous fathers. (Get our Envelope newsletter for highlights when each episode drops, plus awards season news.)

“There was a kind of a natural synergy there in terms of I relate to a lot of father-daughter stuff and mom-of-young-child stuff,” said Jones, “and getting to a certain point in your life where you’ve had all these really big dreams and all this determination to get you to this moment.

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“And then you look around, you’re sort of like, what is my relationship to all these things that I built in my life, whether it’s my career, my marriage or my family or my relationship with my parents or whatever it is. Like, how do I fit into all this? Am I just relational? Basically, that stuff was very personal to me.”

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‘Promising Young Woman’

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, who’s making her feature filmmaking debut, “Promising Young Woman” has been one of the most highly anticipated films of the year since its debut at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Carey Mulligan gives a searing performance as a woman in an emotional freefall looking to have her revenge on men who wronged her, her friend and, preemptively, others. Released by Focus Features, the film is in limited theatrical release on Friday and will be on VOD in a few weeks.

I spoke to Fennell, Mulligan and Burnham about the movie, its candy-gloss aesthetics and its mess of contradictions.

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“I like films that leave you wondering and don’t tie things up in bows and don’t answer things for you,” Mulligan told me. “I don’t like the easy answers and I think Emerald has given the audience so much credit. … And the fact that it doesn’t all get wrapped up in a nice ribbon so you can all walk away and forget about it, I think is so much a part of it. It’s impossible to dismiss. You can’t not think about it afterwards.”

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, ”‘Promising Young Woman’ plays hard with your empathy and your schadenfreude, as if to suggest that the two reactions, far from being opposed, are in fact closely bound. Certainly they are for Cassie, a bundle of contradictions just about held together by Mulligan’s fastidiously controlled performance, without which this movie’s dark, unruly pleasures might have verged on incoherence. She pushes this determinedly unstable movie about as far as it could possibly go, even if that ultimately isn’t far enough. The grimly multitasking finale of ‘Promising Young Woman’ feels both audacious and uncertain of itself, as Fennell tries to meld a cackle of delight and a blast of fury, with a lingering residue of anguish. It doesn’t all come together, though there’s an undeniable thrill in seeing it come apart.”

For the Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh wrote, “Fennell’s ultra-modern fable is wildly unpredictable but all too recognizable. Like her heroine, ‘Promising Young Woman’ is seductive, bruising and utterly intoxicating. … Fennell’s film isn’t all that gory, but it has the attitude and tone of a horror movie, rendered in cupcake colors. Cassie utilizes her ultra-feminine presentation of long blonde locks, florals and garish makeup as armor, a disguise, and as a weapon in her war. It’s a reflection of the film’s internal logic that nothing is what it seems; the script is built on constant reveals that walk the viewer down one path before ripping the rug out.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “Aloft on pastel clouds of pinks, blues and lavenders, Cassie floats through a world where names like Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh and Brock Turner aren’t explicitly invoked, but in which a familiar mixture of impunity and self-righteous claims of offended innocence clog the air like so much Axe body spray. Keeping her own counsel, Cassie goes about her agenda with the single-mindedness of the A-student she once was, her catlike face the picture of serene self-possession while a toxic caramel macchiato of grief, rage and vengeance roil underneath. … Say this much for Fennell: She is incapable of pulling punches. Even when they’re swaddled in the puffiest, fuzziest of gloves, her blows land with gut-wrenching force.”

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Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie in "Promising Young Woman."
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie in director Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman.”
(Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features)

‘Sylvie’s Love’

Written and directed by Eugene Ashe, “Sylvie’s Love” is a romantic drama in the lush style of a classic Hollywood movie. Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) meets Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), and the two are immediately drawn to each other. He is pursuing a career as a jazz saxophonist, and she has ambitions of her own, as the complications of life continually keep them apart. The movie is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

I spoke to Ashe, Thompson and Asomugha, as well as costume designer Phoenix Mello and production designer Mayne Berke, for a story about crafting the look of the film; it will be published soon.

For The Times, Carlos Aguilar wrote, “For all its aesthetic qualities, what’s most remarkable about ‘Sylvie’s Love’ is that the conflicts in the lives of the Black people it depicts revolve almost exclusively around their personal desires, their pursuit of happiness and their grappling with heartbreak. And though that might be a well-trodden road, the films most referenced as great examples of the form come from a white point of view. … Sweeping and flawlessly produced, Ashe’s epic works as an inherently refreshing entry in the canon of a genre designed to make us sigh with knowing elation or tear up in misery thinking about our own bygone rendezvous.”

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For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “‘Sylvie’s Love’ does a largely convincing job re-creating a 1950s Hollywood melodrama, if not in all its particulars than certainly in its emphasis on passionate emotions and feelings. … Ashe’s most radical move is how he marshals classic melodrama to tell a story of Black love that would never have been told in old Hollywood. (Today’s commercial mainstream has pretty much given up on pure romance, alas.) Particularly instructive is his insistent focus on the inner lives of his characters, on what Sylvie and Robert long for, and dream of, as human beings, rather than as emblems of race or avatars of ideals.”

For Remezcla, Monica Castillo wrote, “In conversations about on-screen representation, historical period movies have been a blind spot. Many filmmakers and fans of these movies have shooed away concerns that these stories are too white because it was another time. But since Black and Brown people didn’t just appear out of thin air in the ’60s, the continued erasure of our stories and presence in these movies reaffirms our absence in history to modern audiences. If anything, it would have been nice to see more Latinos in the jazz clubs and on stage since it wasn’t uncommon for musicians of both backgrounds to play together. But ‘Sylvie’s Love’ is already leaps and bounds ahead of many other movies that have almost no people of color in New York City. While Ashe’s film may have all the sweets and schmaltz of an old school romantic drama, it feels fresh and almost radical to have a period movie so focused on a Black couple with the thrill to see if they’ll live happily ever after.”

Nnamdi Asomugha and Tessa Thompson stand on a street in "Sylvie's Love."
Nnamdi Asomugha, left, and Tessa Thompson in “Sylvie’s Love.”
(Amazon Studios)

‘Soul’

Directed and co-written by Pete Docter, and co-written and codirected by Kemp Powers, “Soul” is an animated story about a schoolteacher and struggling jazz musician, Joe, who realizes what he loves about life when he is taken to the afterlife and meets 22, a soul not yet assigned to a body. Featuring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey and more, “Soul” begins streaming on Disney+ on Friday.

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For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “It’s New York, in other words, a place that ultimately, and with subtle determination, eclipses the Great Beyond as ‘Soul’s’ most richly imagined landscape. The city, teeming with life, color and photorealistic details, looks more idyllic and inviting now than ever, even and maybe especially for those of us who don’t call it home. As much as all the incessant body swapping and dimension hopping, this vision of New York may be what ultimately marks this story as a fantasy — an escapist evocation of a happier, more carefree moment. But the lingering lesson of ‘Soul,’ a lovely, imperfect movie about life’s lovely imperfections, is that every moment is worth living to the fullest, this one very much included.”

For Vanity Fair, Sonia Saraiya wrote, “Fortunately, the film manages to be heartwarming and thoughtful about aging and mortality regardless, moving Joe’s character away from his single-minded pursuit and toward a more holistic idea of what he’s accomplished in his life — while revealing to 22 what makes life on Earth worth living. The film takes delight in the everyday pleasures of Joe’s world, pleasures he’s long forgotten to savor himself in the pursuit of his goals. … Despite some distraction and not quite enough music, ‘Soul’ manages to tap into deep emotion as its characters explore the limits of mortality and what it means to be passionate about life.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “if Pixar has, in recent years, fallen into a rhythm of alternating unpredictable originals with safer sequels to the proven hits, ‘Soul’ plays not just like one of the former, but like the accumulation of a decade’s worth of odd ideas. It’s whimsical and bold and also easier to admire in the abstract than to get deeply emotionally invested in, though it features a late-breaking burst of beauty that will soften the hardest of hearts.”

For rogerebert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “Despite feeling like rather minor Pixar overall, ‘Soul’ will prove to be of historical interest because, when it isn’t getting wrapped up in goofy afterlife shenanigans, it’s the most unapologetically Black Pixar project yet released. Its portrayal of jazz is not only accurate in terms of its soundtrack of classic cuts and depiction of performance (the piano and trumpet playing is as correct as anything in Spike Lee’s ‘Mo’ Better Blues’) but also its wider cultural context. … This distinction gives weight to lines that might not have registered in a Pixar film with white protagonists, such as 22’s quip, ‘You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for.’”

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Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, sits on a bus in Pixar's "Soul."
In “Soul,” Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher whose true passion is playing jazz.
(Pixar)


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