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Indie Focus: Family and identity in ‘Blue Bayou’

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

The Emmy Awards are this weekend. And, yes, they celebrate achievements in television, but with so much crossover between film and TV these days — is it even considered “crossing over” anymore? Who is crossing in which direction? As long as they’re recognizing great filmmakers and performers, we must give notice to these awards as well.

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Lorraine Ali had a conversation with filmmaker Steve McQueen about his new three-part documentary series, “Uprising,” directed with James Rogan, streaming now on Amazon Prime Video. McQueen’s monumental five-part “Small Axe” anthology was essentially overlooked by the Emmys.

McQueen spoke about the overlap in some of the stories in his recent “Small Axe” anthology and the “Uprising” films, along with why it is important to tell these stories. As he said, “These stories have to be given their rightful place in the public’s consciousness, and it’s worked. People are talking about ‘Small Axe.’ People are talking about ‘Uprising.’ Young people are researching it. Then you see it in the mainstream. You see things happening in the everyday. It becomes normal for the first time.

There were actually more good movies this week than fit into our usual format. The Argentine-set financial thriller ”Azor,” written and directed by debut Swiss filmmaker Andreas Fontana, is, as Robert Abele put it in his Times review, “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a junta.” Reviews for the film have been strong across the board, and I am looking forward to watching it this weekend. The movie is in theaters now.

Do you want to watch a movie starring Aubrey Plaza and Michael Caine? With the new “Best Sellers,” directed by Lina Roessler, in theaters and on VOD, the answer is of course you do.

And I have a real affection for “The Nowhere Inn,” the part-fiction, part-documentary film chronicling the works and life of musician St. Vincent (who plays the Hollywood Bowl next weekend) directed by Bill Benz. I interviewed Benz, Annie Clark (who performs as St. Vincent) and their collaborator and friend Carrie Brownstein (who co-wrote and co-stars) back at Sundance 2020.

As Clark said of the very meta, inside-out approach to the project, “I think we’ve revealed so much in this, but not in a way that people expected. And that had it been a straight-ahead doc, I think it would have been somehow more fictitious.”

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‘Blue Bayou’

Written and directed by Justin Chon, who also stars in “Blue Bayou” as Antonio, the film is about an adopted Korean immigrant raised in Louisiana who finds himself caught in a bureaucratic nightmare of being deported back to a country he has never known. He has been living with his pregnant wife, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and raising her young daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), when an arrest puts him in the hands of ICE. The supporting cast includes Linh Dan Pham, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Mark O’Brien and Emory Cohen. The film is playing now in theaters.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Artfulness and restraint can be admirable qualities in a filmmaker, but rage and despair, when channeled with this much force and purpose, can be undeniably effective substitutes. … Chon situates ‘Blue Bayou’ in an emotional register as lush and overheated as its subtropical milieu. He proceeds on the logic that Antonio’s story — one of hard-won happiness derailed by bureaucratic indifference, deep-seated racism and garden-variety malice — does not exactly cry out for subtlety.”

Carlos Aguilar spoke to Chon and Vikander about the making of the film. Though Chon’s two previous films as director were set in Los Angeles — he’s a native of Orange County — he explained why he wanted to set “Blue Bayou” in Louisiana when he said, “I had never seen an Asian American with a Southern accent played in a particularly significant way in film, and I also wanted to put it in New Orleans because it’s a very resilient city. Even recently they dealt with a hurricane, and they still find a way to keep their spirit alive. That really represented Antonio. He’s a real three-dimensional human, not just some saint.”

For rogerebert.com, Sheila O’Malley wrote, “‘Blue Bayou’ is not subtle, but the issue at hand isn’t subtle either. … The center of this story is the family unit of Kathy, Jessie and Antonio, anguished at the breakup of their happy home, overwhelmed and intimidated by the looming bureaucracy of the United States government, who doesn’t care that Antonio has a baby on the way, that Antonio has lived here for almost 40 years. Vikander has never been better, and Chon is open and present, particularly so in the scenes with Kowalske.”

For the AV Club, Vikram Murthi wrote, “An emotional crescendo only works if the audience is invested in the drama of the characters, which Chon tries to force by heightening everything. ‘Blue Bayou’ is designed to jerk tears out of a plainly tragic scenario, but all it does is expose the strings behind the puppets and the set. In the film’s failures, we can see the limits of good intentions: It doesn’t matter if a heart is in the right place if the mind isn’t too.”

Director and actor Justin Chon, seated, is photographed for his new film, "Blue Bayou,"
Director and actor Justin Chon said he set “Blue Bayou” in Louisiana because “I had never seen an Asian American with a Southern accent played in a particularly significant way in film.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’

Directed by Michael Showalter from a screenplay by Abe Sylvia, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is based on Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary of the same name, telling the story of Tammy Faye Bakker, who rose to fame and then infamy along with her husband, television evangelist Jim Bakker. The movie is playing now in theaters.

For The Times, Justin Chang mentions the documentary, noting, “The identical titles have the unfortunate effect of compounding the new movie’s redundancy, even though it runs nearly an hour longer. Like Barbato and Bailey, the director Michael Showalter (‘The Big Sick’) tries to treat Tammy Faye Bakker as a figure worthy of both sympathy and satire, and indeed to make one mode indistinguishable from the other. He wants to reproduce Tammy Faye’s widely mocked aesthetics — from her signature false eyelashes to the gaudy excesses of the Bakkers’ home and broadcasts (nicely approximated by production designer Laura Fox and costume designer Mitchell Travers) — and find in them a source of appreciation as well as ridicule.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “The performances, while hardly subtle, feel smaller than life. Garfield mugs and emotes with sketch-comedy abandon, and while Chastain tries for more depth and nuance, she is trapped by a literal-minded script and overwhelmed by hair, makeup and garish period costumes. The Bakkers were many things to many people: appalling, inspiring, laughable, sad. This movie succeeds in making them dull.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “Like 2017’s ‘I, Tonya’ and the new ‘American Crime Story’ series about Monica Lewinsky, ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ offers a new and much-needed lens through which to view unjustly pilloried women of the past. But there’s a danger in swinging so far in our revisionist reappraisals that we strip women of their own complicated agency. Still, thanks to Showalter’s pacey storytelling, lively attention to period detail and generosity toward his subjects, and thanks to the game central performances of Chastain and Garfield, ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ captures a woman and her zeitgeist with an appealing mixture of campy joie de vivre and genuine thoughtfulness, producing an affecting portrait, not just of the limits of faith, but its depths and sincerity. ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ gives viewers an absorbing, amusing and provocative chance to rethink yet another train wreck who turned out to be, of all things, human.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson brought up other recent transformative biographical performances such as Natalie Portman in “Jackie” and Renée Zellweger in “Judy,” noting, “Now Chastain is doing her own Big Performance, complete with an Upper Midwest chirp and lots of prosthetics. It would be easy to get lost in all that technical detail, to figure the impression — both physical and vocal — is enough. But Chastain digs deeper than the aesthetics, and locates something crucial in Tammy Faye. It’s a genuine, deep-seated, perhaps ruinously naive compassion, which Chastain illustrates with great care. She shows compassion for Tammy Faye too, avoiding nearly all the easy cliché of playing an ambitious rube who is, just maybe, also a huckster. Tammy Faye was a complicated person — she was closely connected to a wild practice of grift and fraud, but was also a true believer in God and humanity — and Chastain gives her the complex portrait she deserves.”

For Vox, Alissa Wilkinson wrote specifically about the film’s engagement with the Bakkers’ story and contemporary Christianity, noting, “What ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ may do best is illuminate a crucial moment in American history, a fork in the road. … The [story] links spectacle, faith, and patriotism overtly, serving as a reminder of Tammy Faye’s real, complicated legacy. Yes, she ran against the grain of men like Falwell by embracing LGBTQ people wholeheartedly. She sang with a lightness that belied the tumult that followed her throughout her life. She was beloved by many. If Tammy Faye’s version of Christianity had won out, America might look very different today. But all those truths coexist with a syncretism that conflates love of God with love of country and leads straight to where we find ourselves in 2021. Nobody’s legacy, in the end, is simple.

Jessica Chastain as "Tammy Faye Bakker"
Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
(Searchlight Pictures)

‘My Name Is Pauli Murray’

Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the documentary “My Name Is Pauli Murray” tells the story of the groundbreaking attorney and activist and shows how racism, sexism and homophobia have long erased their legacy and kept it from being more broadly known. The film is playing now in limited release and will begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Oct. 1.

For The Times, Tre’vell Anderson wrote about the doc and Murray’s life, noting, “It was in the course of interviews with [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg before her death that they learned of Murray’s influence on the legal icon. Upon further research, Cohen and West, along with producer [Talleah Bridges] McMahon, questioned how such an important figure could have such little name recognition: Why didn’t they know who Pauli Murray really was?

‘I’d heard Pauli Murray’s name in the context of feminism but was floored that I hadn’t really known that Pauli was actually instrumental in so much more,’ says McMahon.”

Reviewing for The Times, Sarah-Tai Black wrote, “While not delving into historical semantics, ‘My Name Is Pauli Murray’ makes a case for a refreshing of our collective memory regarding whom we remember most vividly when we think of such social and cultural milestones. It asks us to look at history as a symbiotic and collective action rather than as a chronological checklist of individual achievements. Where it stumbles, however, is in its artistic execution. … The research is there, certainly, but it is presented as if it were just that, without thought for the ways it could be presented in a more expressive form. There is a sense here that film is at most a communicative tool to simply transmit this information, rather than a way to enliven and reactivate new ways of thinking about this galvanizing figure’s past and the resonance of their work in our present. This is a shame. Murray deserves nothing less than a history in full color.”

For the New York Times, Beatrice Loayza wrote, “Indeed, Murray’s story is a remarkable — and extensive — one that the filmmakers stuff into an hour and a half that feels like a dull and disorganized PowerPoint lecture. … In ‘My Name Is Pauli,’ the filmmakers touch on more compelling themes than in their Ginsburg hagiography, ‘RBG,’ by singling out a figure whose life and work reminds us that more complex and fluid understandings of race and gender are not strictly modern phenomena. But the result feels an awful lot like an illustrated textbook.”

For the Guardian, Phuong Lee wrote, “Charting the numerous milestones in their fight for justice, the documentary cements Murray’s status as a pivotal catalyst for change. … It is something of a shame, then, that this extraordinary story of an extraordinary person is told via bland film-making reminiscent of a public service announcement. Archival materials featuring Murray’s own voice prove to be the most engrossing moments, giving viewers engaging access to the character behind the achievements. Alas, these are few and far between. Still, as a tool for education about a still-marginalised figure, this is an important watch.”

An image of Pauli Murray from the 2021 documentary “My Name Is Pauli Murray.”
Civil rights lawyer and activist Pauli Murray in the documentary “My Name Is Pauli Murray.”
(Amazon Studios)


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