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Indie Focus: A hero gets her moment in ‘Black Widow’

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

It has been a topsy-turvy past few months for movie fans in Los Angeles. The L.A. community of movie-goers got a shock this week when Quentin Tarantino announced during a podcast interview that he had purchased the venerable (and still closed) Vista Theatre in Los Feliz, with plans to reopen around Christmastime. Considering that he already owns the New Beverly Cinema, people were very curious as to what his plans might be.

“It won’t be a revival house,” Tarantino said in the interview. “We’ll show new movies that come out, where they give us a film print. We’ll show new stuff.

“It’s not gonna be like the New Beverly. The New Beverly has its own vibe,” he added. “The Vista is like a crown jewel kind of thing.”

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I spoke to Lance Alspaugh, who sold the theater to Tarantino, about the deal.

“I just felt that the time was right for this transaction,” said Alspaugh. “I would not have handed the keys to the Vista over to just anybody.

“Over the years, I’ve had other people that have been interested, they’ve wanted to buy it,” said Alspaugh. “There was a company that wanted to turn it into a brewery, believe it or not, they had offered a fairly large sum of money to buy it and I didn’t want to do that. So I think that with Quentin’s background, his own love of film, I just think it’s a good deal for both parties. I think everybody’s happy about it.”

We also lost two noteworthy filmmakers this week as Richard Donner and Robert Downey, Sr. both died. TEach man is singular, deeply influential and irreplaceable.

Donner was the director of 1978’s “Superman,” four “Lethal Weapon” pictures and “The Goonies,” along with many other movies. He had a real knack for making action films feel light, as his blend of breezy comedy and thrilling adventure became something of a template for many that followed.

Former collaborators such as Steven Spielberg and Mel Gibson and modern acolytes such as Edgar Wright and James Mangold all paid tribute to him.

While Robert Downey Sr. will now always be best known to many as the father of the actor who plays Iron Man, he was already an important filmmaker in his own right. He made caustic socially-conscious and self-aware comedies such as “Greaser’s Palace,” “Pound” and the must-see “Putney Swope.”

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‘Black Widow’

Directed by Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, “Black Widow” is the long-awaited (and pandemic-delayed) solo adventure for Scarlett Johansson’s character, Russian assassin turned Avenger Natasha Romanoff. The story takes place between the events of “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War” (if that means anything to you) and fills in the character’s backstory, including a makeshift family played by Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz. The movie is in theaters and available for an added charge on Disney+.

For The Times, Justin Chang called the film “part origin story, part swan song, part Marvel-ized riff on ‘The Americans,’” before adding, “As with so many smart filmmakers fed through the Marvel machinery, [Shortland’s] talents feel whittled down to size, bent in service to a corporate vision that looks grand and sweeping but ultimately homogenizes everything it touches. Something similar befalls Johansson, a terrific actress who’s often been treated as a franchise afterthought, and whose long-awaited solo adventure is both an overdue treat and a missed opportunity. Like the young Natasha herself, ‘Black Widow’ feels as though it’s been programmed into submission — and scarcely allowed to live and breathe before it’s suddenly over.”

Sonaiya Kelley spoke to Johansson, Pugh and Shortland about finally bringing Natasha Romanoff’s story to the screen. Shortland addressed why it took so long to create this solo adventure for Johansson’s character when she said, “Two things happened [that made this film possible]: ‘Black Panther’ created space for both filmmakers and for diverse voices, and I also think it gave the studio confidence that we would come and see those movies. I think the expectation was that we wanted to watch white men and if they weren’t white men, we wouldn’t come.

“And after the #MeToo movement, the other thing that happened was we could say what we wanted to say; we could make jokes about women’s trauma and the control of women’s bodies. I think the expectation was that we were going to make a dark film and so we wanted to say ‘No, we’re not going to make a dark film because we’re not victims. These girls are going to kick ass.’”

Sonaiya also wrote about what the film’s end-credits scene means for the possible future of the MCU. (Yes, there are spoilers.)

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “The sorry thing of the film, really, is that this needn’t have been a Marvel movie at all. Divorced of its duties to superhero lore, ‘Black Widow’ would still be a sufficiently deft spy caper, confidently crafted and worthy on its own terms. And yet it wouldn’t exist without the long and diligent work of Johansson and Kevin Feige’s project. Even a canny genre movie like this had to be tied to the biggest I.P. of them all to get made.”

For Mashable, Angie Han wrote, “But if the action is what makes ‘Black Widow’ soar, its heart is what makes it land. Though the film never fully leans into the tragedy of Natasha and Yelena’s predicaments — you know, the whole thing where they’re conscripted as children into a horrifically abusive program that stripped them of all agency and autonomy — Natasha’s cool self-assurance takes on a more poignant shade when she’s surrounded by the family that was never really her family. Johansson and Pugh shine brightest together, when Yelena’s hilariously blunt kid-sister energy pokes up against Natasha’s big-sister authority.”

Two young women stand before a scene of destruction in the movie "Black Widow."
Scarlett Johansson, left, as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff and Florence Pugh as Yelena in Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow.”
(Marvel Studios)

‘Summertime’

Directed by Carlos López Estrada, who made his feature debut with “Blindspotting,” and executive produced by Kelly Marie Tran, the new “Summertime” takes place over a single day in Los Angeles. With a hand-off structure partly inspired by “Slacker” and partly inspired by Jonathan Gold’s attempt to eat in every restaurant on Pico Boulevard, the film is drawn from the work of 25 young spoken word poets who appear onscreen and are also credited as screenwriters, creating a tapestry of contemporary city life. The film is playing at the Landmark in L.A.

For The Times, Carlos Aguilar spoke to López Estrada, Tran and some of the young poets behind the movie. Tran, who got to know López Estrada while they worked together on “Raya and the Last Dragon,” spoke about why she came on board the project.

“Watching ‘Summertime’ was a transformative experience,” Tran said. “It was the first time that I felt poetry was accessible to me. To hear the powerful words coming out of the mouths of these incredible artists changed my perception of what poetry was and made it feel like I could also take part.”

For The Times, Robert Daniels wrote, “The sunny, diverse musical delivers sugary messages of self-affirmation with the shine of a lollipop and the stickiness of a half-eaten sucker. It’s a bold attempt, putting a neo-realist spotlight on a bevy of first-time and nascent actors, but presented under an obnoxious treacle banner. … ‘Summertime’ bursts with a heart that’s in the right place, giving on-screen life to Los Angeles’ overlooked milieux and its underseen people. It’s a shame the music skips the uncomfortable beats that are equally worth savoring.”

For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “The most successful sequences are the ones that find new ways of illustrating the meaning of a poem besides lingering on the face of the performer uttering purposefully syncopated and painstakingly intonated lines. A dance sequence in a parking lot demonstrates a fantasy of freedom with greater vitality than even the most animated speaker is able to muster. Some of the film’s most moving lines are spoken over a radio at a Korean restaurant. The new rhythm provided by a different language breaks up the film’s more predictable patterns of verses, and the broadcast from afar grants both the audience and characters room for imagination — a quality that unfortunately feels in short supply.”

Dancers in the parking lot of a supermarket in the movie "Summertime."
A scene from the movie “Summertime.”
(Good Deed Entertainment)

‘The Loneliest Whale’

Directed by Joshua Zeman, the documentary “The Loneliest Whale: the Search for 52” involves the assembling of a team to search the ocean for a whale known as 52, so named for his unique call broadcasting at 52 hertz. The movie is in limited theatrical release and will be on digital and VOD starting July 16.

For Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh called the film, “not your average nature documentary,” adding, “this film is a nature mystery, an unanswered question that needs to be solved. Zeman sets out to answer this question despite unbelievable odds, and like most incredible explorations into the deep, the journey is surprising, though not without reward.”

For The Wrap, Carlos Aguilar wrote, “The director and his human subjects make a case for how our knowledge of the undersea mammals’ behavior has altered some of our destructive practices for the better. They expound on tangible reasons why we collectively should be invested, instead of dealing in complete abstraction. … However, while Zeman’s enthusiasm is occasionally infectious, his conjectures, explained in voiceover, are riddled with platitudes and self-centered sound bites that say more about an egotistical need to be the first at something, to be the one who found 52, than about our connection with our large swimming counterparts.”

For Variety, Tomris Laffly wrote, “The result is a well-meaning but somewhat granola, partly engaging yet disorganized documentary, one that searches for an imprecise story and struggles to keep its chief ambitions afloat. … In fairness, ‘The Loneliest Whale’ does offer a surprise element in its conclusion. And through a consequent postscript that feels like an afterthought, Zeman and writing partner Lisa Schiller work overtime to sell a lesson about interconnectedness versus isolation in the age of technology. But it all feels too vague, even conveniently retrofitted, making one think hard on a question: What if deep-sea creatures, whether octopus teachers or solitary whales, just want to be left alone?”

A whale underwater in the documentary "The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52."
An image from the documentary “The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52.”
(Bleecker Street)


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