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Indie Focus: Making the most of a virtual Sundance

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

The Sundance Film Festival is now underway, and even with a smaller program and mostly virtual events, it has still sent bolts of excitement through the air. New movies! Fresh filmmakers!

As it should be.

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Festival organizers have quite shrewdly leaned into all the ways this year can be not just unusual but special, crafting a unique online experience from waiting rooms to screenings, Q&As and even virtual hangout sessions. While screenings are ticketed, events and panels — including a series of L.A. Times talks — are free.

Jen Yamato spoke to Tabitha Jackson, in her first year as director of the festival, about crafting the new experience for artists and viewers alike.

“We talk of Sundance as a space of imaginative possibility. It really is this year,” Jackson said. “We’ve had to really stretch to get to that place of, instead of saying, ‘It’s a shame that we can’t,’ instead say, ‘What if we tried?’ And it went from being a slightly depressing experience, thinking about what we couldn’t do in terms of last year’s festival, to a kind of exhilarating experience of, ‘Oh, my God, we’re really going to try this.’ So it’s a big experiment, this festival.”

The rest of L.A. Times movies staff and I watched as much of the program as we could in advance and came back with this list of 24 must-see titles from the lineup, including “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),“ “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” “Rebel Hearts,” “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” “Luzzu,” “The Sparks Brothers,” “In the Same Breath” and many more.

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Sonaiya Kelley spoke to Rebecca Hall, who makes her debut as writer-director, as well as actresses Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson about their film “Passing” — easily among the most anticipated of the festival. In grappling with its story of two light-skinned Black women during the Harlem Renaissance, Hall had to examine her own biracial roots.

“I began to think about how racial passing is representative of the American dream, in the sense that you can be self-made and turn yourself into something else but also representative of the lie at the center of the American dream, which is that you only get to [participate] if your complexion is a certain color,” said Hall. “And as I started thinking more about that, I started wanting to know more and see how I sit in relation to that.”

Glenn Whipp spoke to Marlee Matlin, who stars in one of the festival’s opening night selections, “CODA,” about a young woman, Ruby (Emilia Jones), who can hear growing up among her deaf family. Matlin plays the girl’s mother, and the actors playing Ruby’s father and brother (Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant) are also deaf.

“I haven’t been this excited about a movie for so long,” Matlin says. “I hope that it will create a tidal wave.”

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Todd Martens also took a look at the festival’s virtual reality offerings.

Also out this week: The Envelope Directors Roundtable, for which I spoke with David Fincher (“Mank”), Paul Greengrass (“News of the World”), Regina King (“One Night in Miami”), Spike Lee (“Da 5 Bloods”), Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”).

There was a real candor among the group of shared professional experiences. As Fincher said, “The notion that any one person has control over 90 people who are playing dress-up is the greatest fallacy of our profession …. So it really is an amazing thing when something goes off the way you had it in mind.”

And on “The Envelope” podcast, Rachel Brosnahan talked about making the ’70s-set crime drama “I’m Your Woman,” also her first feature film as a producer.

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‘The Little Things’

Directed by John Lee Hancock, who originally wrote the screenplay in the ’90s, “The Little Things” is a throwback serial killer thriller. In the film, Denzel Washington is a disgraced former LAPD detective now working as a small-town deputy who finds himself drawn back into an old case by a hot-shot young detective (Rami Malek) in hopes of bringing in a suspected murderer (Jared Leto). Released by Warner Bros., the film is playing at drive-ins and streaming on HBO Max.

Josh Rottenberg spoke to Washington, Malek and Hancock about the making of the film. “It’s fascinating being the old guy now,” Washington said. “A portion of this film takes place in a police interrogation room. I was sitting behind this glass, watching Rami and Jared go at it every day. It was like I needed some popcorn and Coca-Cola because it was like watching two young fighters. I was like, ‘Man, I can’t wait until I get in there.’ Actors like Rami and Jared and even my son [John David Washington] — this generation of brilliant young actors that is coming up, it’s just fascinating watching them work, and for me, it’s inspiring.”

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “‘The Little Things’ has a couple of hair-raising scenes and a few nifty, low-key twists in store, though little about the overall experience of watching it can really be called surprising. I don’t mean that as a knock. The pleasures and comforts of crime fiction, even with the built-in expectations of suspense and revelation, are not always dependent on novelty. And while Hancock’s movie may look at first like a hollow retread, I’d describe it as more of an unhollow retread, a movie in which even the hoariest-looking conventions have an undertow of real feeling. It induces the strange sensation of encountering cliches before they were cliches, of opening an unusually well-preserved time capsule or taking a trip down a corpse-strewn memory lane.”

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For Consequence of Sound, Valerie Complex wrote, “Complicating matters further is how Hancock’s directing style is nearly indistinguishable from anything David Fincher has committed to celluloid — even beyond ‘Seven.’ The difference is that Fincher at least juxtaposes the bleaker aspects of his films with strong performances, none of which are to be found here. To his credit, Hancock is certainly a competent director, but his story kills any opportunity for ‘The Little Things’ to be even marginally enjoyable.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson called the film “a wash in any timeline. In ours, though, in which a starry genre movie that isn’t connected to any sort of franchise is so desperately hungered for, ‘The Little Things’ plays as more than mere disappointment. It feels almost like a death knell, this Warner Bros. movie once met for wide-release that’s now part of the studio’s new scheme to put everything online — for the rest of the year, at least. It’s the kind of movie ‘they don’t make anymore,’ only it delivers no pleasure in its rare making. This film very well may be among the last of the little things — or the mid-budget ones, anyway.”

Denzel Washington, left, and Jared Leto in "The Little Things."
Denzel Washington, left, and Jared Leto in “The Little Things.”
(Nicola Goode / Warner Brothers)

‘The Dig’

Directed by Simon Stone from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, “The Dig” is based on the true story of the discovery of a vital archaeological find of medieval artifacts in rural England. Carey Mulligan stars as a young widow who owns the land, with Ralph Fiennes as a local archaeologist. Lily James, Johnny Flynn and Ben Chaplin are also in the cast. The movie is now streaming on Netflix.

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For The Times, Kevin Crust wrote, “Sometimes you just don’t want a movie to end. The characters are so vivid and multidimensional, the milieu so inviting, the circumstances so compelling, you don’t want to let go. ‘The Dig,’ starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, is such a movie …. It’s an old-fashioned story told in an unexpected way.”

For the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “This movie has Englishness right through it like a stick of rock, a vigorous sense of place and period, though it’s in the vein of hardback/tasteful cinema that’s a bit of a Brit movie cliche. Carey Mulligan gets the traditional hat-and-coat walk through the busy wartime London streets that was awarded to Gemma Arterton in ‘Their Finest’ and Keira Knightley in ‘The Imitation Game’ …. The first act about Edith and Basil is arresting and the discovery scene is great — but where will their relationship go? The second act gives us a young love story with much less depth. But maybe that is the point. Edith and Basil have their moment and it is destined to be buried by the newcomers and the vast obliterative forces of history.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote that Stone “and his talented filmmaking team have made a truly beautiful piece, contemplative and melancholy, with a lovely score by Stefan Gregory and enveloping scenery shot by Mike Eley. In some ways ‘The Dig’ feels like its own artifact too, like a lost Anthony Minghella film made 30 years ago and buried until now.”

Carey Mulligan in "The Dig."
(Larry Horricks / Netflix)
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‘Saint Maud’

The feature debut for British writer-director Rose Glass, the psychological horror film “Saint Maud” first premiered in 2019 and has seen its release delayed numerous times because of the pandemic. In the film, a hospice nurse named Maud (Morfydd Clark) comes to believe she can save the soul of a woman named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) in her care. Released by A24, the movie is playing at the Vineland Drive-in and in theaters where they are open and will be available Feb. 12 on Epix.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “What’s perhaps most striking about ‘Saint Maud’ is how much Glass wants us to understand her maligned heroine, who is at once villain and victim. The treatment of this complex character is akin to [Brian] De Palma’s ‘Carrie.’ Glass allows us to see Maud, and the horrors around her, without judgment and to understand that her fervor, which is her mental illness, is a reaction to trauma; that the choices she makes are both monstrous and her way of creating her own salvation. That approach is what elevates ‘Saint Maud’ and makes it feel like a true revelation.”

For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “Formally controlled and visually elegant, ‘Saint Maud’ has a dark, spoiled beauty and a shifting point of view that questions Maud’s distorted vision. Favoring suggestion over specifics, the script (also by Glass) doesn’t always avoid the familiar potholes of the genre: the nosebleeds and Gothic interiors, the baleful lighting and self-harming behavior. Gestures toward Maud’s troubled past remain vague, but the movie’s artistry and sensuality suck you in. Maud knows she can’t save Amanda’s body; what she wants is her soul.”

For Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “Glass has set herself a high bar to clear in one’s first feature: tackling hard-to-film ideas about faith, psychic trauma, and mental illness. Yet rather than seeming abstract or preachy, Saint Maud is visceral, sensuous, and tactile …. When the climactic encounter between the two women comes, it feels brutal and almost too swift — we’re used to horror movies that milk the ending for at least one extra jump scare — but also mysteriously right.”

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Morfydd Clark in "Saint Maud."
Morfydd Clark in “Saint Maud.”
(Angus Young / Studio Canal)


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