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Indie Focus: A road-trip goes awry in ‘Zola’

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

It has become a fun annual game to marvel at the new membership announcement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This week, 395 new members were invited to join the group and, for example, somehow actors Nathan Lane and Robert Pattinson were not already members. They are now invitees along with Steven Yeun, Carrie Coon, Clea DuVall, Issa Rae, Eiza González, Jonathan Majors, Laverne Cox and others. Among the directors invited to join were Lizzie Borden, Sean Durkin, Lee Isaac Chung, Shaka King and Jonathan Glazer.

The academy has slowed the pace of its recent growth in membership, having achieved its goal last year of doubling the number of women and people of color in its ranks. Of the 2021 class of invitees, 46% are women and 39% are from underrepresented ethnic orracial communities. Slightly more than half are from outside the United States.

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The academy also recently announced the results of the elections for the board of governors, boosting the number of women and people of color on the 54-member board. With the election of Rita Wilson, the academy’s acting branch is now represented entirely by women, along with Whoopi Goldberg and Laura Dern.

L.A.’s venerable Nuart Theater is holding a fun program called “The City In Close-Up,” screening films set in Los Angeles from July 2-8, including “Zabriskie Point,” “Point Blank,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Heat,” “Wattstax” and more.

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‘Zola’

Directed by Janicza Bravo, who wrote the screenplay along with Jeremy O. Harris, “Zola” is one of the most exciting movies of the year so far, an energetic adaptation of the notorious 2015 Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King that chronicled the story of a road trip gone wrong, equally harrowing and hilarious. In the film, Zola (Taylour Paige) is convinced to drive to Florida with a woman she just met (Riley Keough) supposedly to work at strip clubs, and almost immediately, things go off course. The film is playing in general release.

For Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh wrote, “Zola’s authorship and Bravo’s respect for her storytelling make ‘Zola’ a wholly original experience. It’s a brutally honest account of sex work, often dangerous and infrequently sexy, punctuated with Zola’s one-liners, observations and recounting of laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a refreshing perspective that Bravo has put care into preserving on the screen because it’s what King and her wild story deserves.”

I recently spoke to Bravo for “The Envelope” podcast and published further excerpts from the conversation. On having the film released after being delayed by the pandemic, Bravo said, “There was something really exciting about finally being able to have this moment, and I would say with the film one of our top notes is agency and freedom of expression. And so I think one of the reasons it might feel so great for right now is that the world of the film is pretty radical. The women in the movie are radical. That a Twitter story was turned into a film is radical. There is so much expression and none of that expression is asking for permission. And I think that all of that just feels like it’s bubbling right now, it’s ready to explode. And I feel after a year-plus indoors, all I want is to breathe, and I imagine a lot of us out there want that.”

For NPR, Aisha Harris wrote about the film within the context of Bravo and Harris’ other works, noting, “These perspectives help bring ‘Zola’ into a realm beyond clever Twitter adaptation, and center her point of view as an illustration of the precarity of existing as a Black woman in the world. When Zola does choose to assert herself and make her feelings known — ‘This is messy! You are messy!’ — she’s routinely dismissed and ignored by the others. It’s an extreme representation of a common feeling many Black women have felt at one time or another: How you can be taken advantage of and told everything is fine when you know in your gut that it’s not; can be told you’re overreacting to something that’s happening to you when you know you’re supposed to feel this way. In fact, it’s good and smart to feel this way, because that’s how you preserve yourself. Zola’s whirlwind dalliance with Stefani and her associates plays like a fever dream doubling as an allegory for gaslighting. It’s a jolt when, at a pivotal point, she wonders aloud, ‘Who’s looking out for me?’”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “Witty touches are fewer and farther between than you might expect, given the raucous tone of the source material. ‘Zola’s’ a clever exercise, but it’s also an aloof and chilly one, its interest in the monstrousness of its supporting players overwhelming its subject’s own voice, to the point that she dissociates during an especially grim moment. … It’s Zola we want to listen to, and Zola’s perspective to which the audience is aligned, because Zola understands that social media is a leveling agent, and also a place where the best-told yarn will win, even if it means tamping down some trauma in the process.”

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For The Wrap, Yolando Machado wrote, “‘Zola’ feels utterly contemporary but will no doubt be examined for decades to come, as a marker of both this particularly crazy time in history and of the moment that social media became self-aware. Whip-smart, funny, complicated, and just plain wild, ‘Zola’ is 90 minutes of brilliance.”

For rogerebert.com, Sheila O’Malley wrote, “Riley Keough is way, way out on a limb with her performance of this grotesque woman, a liar, a user, not in any way ‘likable’ but with enough infectious charm it makes sense why Zola was initially seduced (because it was a seduction). Paige is the center of the film, though, and she holds it with a powerful grounded sense of her own worth and an insistence on remaining sane, despite the lunacy of everyone around her. Paige speaks worlds with her eyes, and it’s a joy to watch her change tack on a dime.”

A woman in a skirt and crop top poses in a door frame while a woman at right looks at her skeptically.
Riley Keough, left, stars as Stefani and Taylour Paige stars as Zola in director Janicza Bravo’s “Zola.”
(Courtesy of Anna Kooris / A24 Fi)

‘Summer of Soul’

The directing debut from musician and author Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” is a documentary of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of outdoor concerts featuring the likes of Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers. Boasting dazzling concert footage, the film also explores why the event has remained little-known and essentially unseen until now. In limited theatrical release, the film is now streaming on Hulu.

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For The Times, Glenn Whipp wrote about how the movie showcases an event few even knew existed, saying, “‘Summer of Soul (… or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)’ offers glorious proof, showcasing the music, offering a thought-provoking history lesson about the Black cultural and political transformation taking place outside the festival, and presenting a rejoinder to anyone still oblivious to the ways that history celebrates certain achievements while roundly ignoring other equally important stories.”

For The Times, Rob Tannenbaum spoke to Thompson and others about the making of the film. Thompson recalled the first time he saw any of the original footage that formed the core of the movie, saying, “When they showed me the footage, 100%, my jaw dropped. Like, ‘You’re telling me there’s more than 40 hours of this footage and no one’s ever seen this s—?’ I couldn’t figure out why this sat in someone’s basement for 50 years.”

For the New York Times, Wesley Morris wrote, “Sometimes these archival-footage documentaries don’t know what they’ve got. The footage has been found, but the movie’s been lost. Too much cutting away from the good stuff, too much talking over images that can speak just fine for themselves, never knowing — in concert films — how to use a crowd. The haphazard discovery blots out all the delight. Not here. Here, the discovery becomes the delight. Nothing feels haphazard. … On one hand, this is just cinema. On the other, there’s something about the way that the editing keeps time with the music, the way the talking is enhancing what’s onstage rather than upstaging it. In many of these passages, facts, gyration, jive and comedy are cut across one another yet in equilibrium. So, yeah: cinema, obviously. But also something that feels rarer: syncopation.”

A woman wearing large earrings sits at a piano
Nina Simone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”
(Searchlight Pictures)

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‘No Sudden Move’

Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay by Ed Solomon, “No Sudden Move” is somehow both a fun crime thriller and a bracing examination of power and corruption. Set in 1950s Detroit, two midlevel crooks (Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro) are given what seems a simple job as part of a larger caper. Things go very wrong. The cast also includes Jon Hamm, Kieran Culkin, Amy Seimetz, Ray Liotta, Bill Duke, David Harbour, Brendan Fraser and Noah Jupe. The film is playing at the Landmark in L.A. and is streaming on HBO Max.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The result is a ride that feels smooth and bumpy in all the right places. You are pulled along by the seductive glide of Soderbergh’s filmmaking, by the jazzy riffs of David Holmes’ score and the suavity of the camerawork, only to be jolted into high alertness by the nasty, bloody surprises in Solomon’s script. While Soderbergh’s mastery of the crime caper can hardly be doubted at this point, the noirish cynicism of ‘No Sudden Move’ suggests a grim tonal and moral reversal of his earlier ensemble thrillers, chiefly the ‘Ocean’s’ movies and the marvelous, underappreciated ‘Logan Lucky.’ Rather than leaving behind a warm glow of camaraderie, the movie’s trapdoor-springing final scenes leave us pondering the vagaries of ill fortune, the futility of greed and a few bluntly articulated lessons about how capitalism builds and destroys.”

Josh Rottenberg spoke to Soderbergh, Solomon, Cheadle and Del Toro about the making of the film. As Solomon said, “The original impulse from Steven was, ‘Let’s tell a story where the audience has to essentially follow along and trust us that it’s going to add up. We resisted the temptation to do those movie-writing tropes where everything is set up and over-explained. That means people have to pay closer attention to the story. For people who are used to texting while playing a video game while watching a movie, that ain’t gonna work for this one.”

For the New York Times, A. O. Scott noted how within the film’s well-oiled genre mechanics, “[i]t also has things to say — at times a little too speechily — about race, real estate, capitalism and power. Those things are interesting, but maybe not as interesting as the people who say them. The story is about the sometimes lethal pursuit of cash and information, but the film’s single greatest asset is its cast. Curt and Ronald, small-timers who are skilled and smart but also out of their depth, are the focus of the action, which means that you spend a lot of time with Cheadle and Del Toro as they act out a high-stress — and yet low-key — buddy comedy.”

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For Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “‘No Sudden Move’ isn’t a movie whose pleasures come from understanding every plot detail. As in a classic film noir, all you really need to know is that everyone is out for themselves and no one can be trusted. … The cinematography and editing — both by Soderbergh, under his longtime aliases of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard — are as elegant and nimble as they need to be without getting in the story’s way. And as should be the case with any good heist thriller, ‘No Sudden Move’ gets both darker and funnier as the betrayals and double-crosses pile up.”

In a dark frame, a man talks on the phone in a phone booth while another waits outside
Don Cheadle, left, and Benicio Del Toro in Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move.”
(Claudette Barius / courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival)


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