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Indie Focus: On the line with Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘The Guilty’

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

As the opening of the new Academy Museum moves closer, we have continued our coverage of what may prove a turning point in how the film industry acknowledges and grapples with its own history. Justin Chang reviewed the galleries and presentations, and the seeming cross-purposes of the museum as representative of the Oscars and Hollywood alongside a broader history of cinema. The new venue “must shoulder the weight of those contradictory aims and straddle the divide between art and commerce — and between education and entertainment — in ways that no other museum dedicated to no other art form would be expected to do. It must reaffirm the power of the movies as a great popular medium, while also shining a light on significant works of art that have long been overlooked in the name of an industry popularity contest. To put it another way, it must celebrate the Oscars with one hand and acknowledge the rich cinematic history that the Oscars have long neglected with the other.”

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Carolina A. Miranda wrote about the building itself, preserving the original May Co. building in a project led by Italian architect Renzo Piano while also adding on a distinctive additional theater space, which has already made itself something of a local landmark. As she wrote, “This is no run-of-the-mill renovation and expansion. … It’s a formidable design feat considering the building’s location at the architecturally cluttered corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, which currently harbors the Googie coffee shop-turned-filming location Johnie’s and the flaming spaghetti forms of Kohn Pedersen Fox’s Petersen Automotive Museum. Coming soon to the neighborhood: Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s monolith museum building at LACMA, which will bridge Wilshire. At this intersection of look-at-me design, Piano’s building seems to emerge as if it’s a giant eyeball to look out at you.

“The completed project — which comes as LACMA is still trying to excavate foundations for its new building — feels like the dramatic denouement in a starchitectural poker movie: I’ll see your biomorphic blob and raise you a Death Star!”

I spent time this week with filmmaker Haile Gerima, a member of the L.A. Rebellion movement that came out of UCLA and also includes Charles Burnett and Julie Dash; he’s receiving the inaugural Vantage award at the museum’s opening gala this weekend as well as an upcoming retrospective. Gerima’s 1993 film “Sankofa” has been restored by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing and is now streaming on Netflix.

I sat down with Gerima and DuVernay for a conversation I found energizing and inspiring. Gerima spoke about freeing himself from conventional cinematic storytelling: “When I first came to the film school, I’m surrounded by the upheavals of Black people, the Black Power movement, the Black Panther Party, the African liberation movement, Latin America. But in that I noticed the battleground was story. Everybody’s war and conflict begins from story. Who owns your story? Who tells your story? And then to tell your story — you can tell it the uniform way, in the dominant way of what a movie is, but you could also liberate yourself from that paradigm and say, ‘What would my cinematic accent be?’”

And this week, Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmaker and performer behind 1971’s landmark “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” died at age 89. He had a truly singular life and career, and as he said to a Times reporter in a 1986 article on how he had reinvented himself as a successful stock trader, “Somebody once asked me, ‘Melvin, how’d you get to the top?’

“It was simple. Nobody would let me in at the bottom.”

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‘The Guilty’

Directed by Antoine Fuqua from a screenplay by Nic Pizzolatto, “The Guilty” is an adaptation of Gustav Möller’s 2018 Danish film of the same name. Jake Gyllenhaal plays an LAPD officer awaiting a trial that will decide his future on the job. Meanwhile, he’s placed in the 911 call center, where he becomes overly invested in a caller’s plight. The cast of voices on the other end of the line — special shoutout to Edi Patterson as a persistent L.A. Times reporter — includes Riley Keough, Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard, Bill Burr, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Ethan Hawke. The film is playing now at the Landmark in L.A. and will begin streaming Oct. 1 on Netflix.

For The Times, Jessica Kiang wrote, “Treating its predecessor as simply the slender framework on which to hang a new, marginally different interpretation of the central character, the film moves like a whippet, and gives us ample opportunity to admire the vast range of facial expressions of which Gyllenhaal is capable, while still remaining just this side of overacting. … As a portrait of a tortured man making the exact mistakes in his search for redemption that wind up being the source of a deeper, truer salvation, and as a surprisingly compassionate deconstruction of the snap judgments we often make about gender roles and mental instability (Keough’s voice work in the last act is particularly moving in this regard), the film delivers some insight.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote, “One can hardly imagine a better modern trio of gritty Los Angeles chroniclers than Fuqua, Pizzolatto and Gyllenhaal all working together. And Gyllenhaal is absolutely commanding throughout the lean 91-minute runtime, a compelling ball of stress, anxiety and frustration working only with computer screens, phones and disembodied voices. It is no understatement that the success of ‘The Guilty’ rests entirely on his shoulders.”

For IndieWire, Kate Erbland wrote, “While Pizzolatto’s script throws a whole bunch of compelling stuff into the mix (like deeper queries about the role of the police in the modern world), many other elements rankle. (You’re telling me that, during this jam-packed late night in L.A., Joe is beset by only one other call?) The film lacks some of the gritty tension of Möller’s original — or, perhaps, just feels too familiar to those who saw it — but Gyllenhaal’s explosive performance keeps it fresh and moving along in different ways.”

For The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “Inevitably, it’s a stagey set-up, and the dramatic effect of the closeup on the officer’s sweaty face and the distant voice on the other end of the line begins to diminish over time, so Gyllenhaal has to lose it more extravagantly with shouting and temper-loss and confessional agony. But as time passes, it seems that the situation is more complicated than Joe thought — as is the question of who the title refers to. Perhaps to overcompensate for the lack of conventionally opened-out dramatic action, there is some big closeup acting from Gyllenhaal, but it’s a well-made and watchable picture of a man in the secular confessional box, a sinner forced to occupy the place of a priest.”

Jake Gyllenhaal looks at himself in a mirror in “The Guilty”
Jake Gyllenhaal as Joe Baylor in the 2021 drama “The Guilty.”
(Glen Wilson / Netflix)

‘I’m Your Man’

Directed and co-written by Maria Schrader, “I’m Your Man” has been selected as Germany’s submission for the 2022 international feature film Oscar. Something of a sci-fi rom-com, the film follows a scientist (Maren Eggert) assigned to test out a robot named Tom (Dan Stevens) designed as a companion for the lonely and lovelorn. The film is playing in limited release.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “The script by Schrader and [Jan] Schomburg is fantastic, with the dialogue cutting to the quick. Because Tom is inhuman, he questions the tropes and belief systems that shape our reality and shows that what we perceive to be ‘real’ is just made up of illusions and memories. The ending is ambiguous enough to be refreshingly un-clichéd. While ‘I’m Your Man’ is very romantic in its own way, the movie is elevated by pondering not just love but life and our impending relationship to advanced artificial intelligence, a question that is surely already upon us.”

For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “‘Your eyes are like two mountain lakes I could sink into’ is a compliment most women would be disinclined to take umbrage at. But Alma (Maren Eggert) is not most women: A prickly scientist and cuneiform expert, she’s interested neither in flattery nor the man who’s delivering it. … Edging now and then into the surreal, this unusual and tender little movie gingerly interrogates the gulf between digital and biological wiring. Stevens, speaking fluent German, is fabulous, giving the character unexpected depth and delicacy. Tom can quote Rilke and dance the rumba, whip up brunch and a rose-petal bath, but so what? He had me at those mountain lakes.”

For rogerebert.com, Brian Tallerico wrote, “Of course, using unimaginable technology to highlight what it really means to be human has been the foundation of science fiction for generations but Schrader and co-writer Jan Schomburg (working from a short story by Emma Braslavsky) imbue their genre hybrid with eloquence and intelligence. And it helps a great deal to have two delightful performers to deliver their themes. ‘I’m Your Man’ may not break the mold, but it operates within it with confidence and grace.”

A man and a woman dance close together.
Dan Stevens and Maren Eggert in the 2021 film “I’m Your Man.”
(Christine Fenzl / Bleecker Street)

‘Wife of a Spy’

Directed and co-written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, “Wife of a Spy” won the directing prize at the 2020 Venice Film Festival for its WWII-era tale of espionage both in the home and out in the world. A housewife, Sakoto (Yu Aoi), begins to suspect that her husband, Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), is involved in more nefarious schemes than he lets on, creating a deep sense of conflict for her. The movie is playing in limited release.

For The Times, Robert Daniels wrote, “With ‘Wife of a Spy,’ a melodramatic wartime period piece, prolific Japanese horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, known for balancing psychological thrills with introspective meditations, is discovering a different, more mysterious ground. … But Kurosawa’s assured direction is enough to make ‘Wife of a Spy’ an enrapturing, stylish wartime period piece.”

For the New York Times, Glenn Kenny wrote, “Soon into its machinations, ‘Wife of a Spy’ begins to thrum with unusual intensity. … ‘Wife of a Spy’ is something like linear narrative perfection, with every scene perfectly calibrated. As the couple’s best-laid plans hit increasingly hair-raising and heart-sinking setbacks, the movie’s denunciation of war, and its implicit condemnation of contemporary Japan’s blind-eye attitude toward its wartime crimes, becomes more bracing. And the movie’s finale is a masterful evocation of catastrophe that has a low-key echo of Kurosawa’s 2001 horror masterpiece ‘Pulse.’”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young wrote, “Such is the ambiguity of the acting that when Sakoto forces [Yusaku] to come clean and tell her what’s going on, even his impassioned speech in defense of America and liberty leaves one wondering if he’s told her the whole truth. … All bets are off until a shockingly clever twist ends the suspense, augmented in any case by Ryosuke Nagaoka’s score.”

A man stands behind and looks at a woman holding a briefcase.
Yu Aoi and Issey Takahashi in the 2020 thriller “Wife of a Spy.”
(Kino Lorber)


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