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Movies

Indie Focus: Comedy, charm and conspiracy in ‘Sword of Trust’

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

This weekend marks the opening of the first Alamo Drafthouse theater here in Los Angeles. Located in the Bloc shopping center downtown, the theater could become a new home for movie lovers in Los Angeles, with its mix of studio movies and indie films plus repertory screenings and special events.

I spoke to some of the people involved in the Alamo Drafthouse LA about how they hope to fit into the community of theaters and audiences that already exists in town, as well as the possible future of movie theaters themselves.

“Aside from making everything an experience and a reason to get out of your house and go see something, I do think everything really does fit this Alamo brand,” said Rachel Walker, head of programming and creative. “Obviously there’s so many things on streaming and you can just plop something on. But having something as highly curated as everything is at the Drafthouse creates a sense of urgency for whatever that title is. Maybe you’ve always meant to see something — the time to see it is now, playing on the big screen. And so it’s curated discovery.”

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“The moviegoing community in Los Angeles is far more diverse than a lot of Angelenos realize, because people tend to get caught up in their bubbles,” said L.A.-based film writer April Wolfe. “But there’s stuff happening everywhere, in South L.A., all over the Valley. The problem will always be that with such a sprawl, we tend to get insular, and that’s not good for a sustainable film community. I know we’re all talking about the death of the theatrical experience, but in L.A., it seems pretty alive to me.”

This week on our podcast “The Reel,” Justin Chang and Jen Yamato spoke with me about Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” which continues to open around the country.

On Monday the 29th we’ll have a screening of “After The Wedding,” based on the 2006 Danish film directed by Susanne Bier, followed by a Q&A with actresses Julianne Moore and Abby Quinn and director and screenwriter Bart Freundlich. For info and updates on future events, go to events.latimes.com.

‘Sword of Trust’

Michaela Watkins, from left, Jillian Bell,  Jon Bass and Marc Maron in Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust.
Michaela Watkins, from left, Jillian Bell, Jon Bass and Marc Maron in Lynn Shelton's "Sword of Trust."
(IFC Films )

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Directed and co-written by Lynn Shelton, “Sword of Trust” is an improvisational comedy that is also a showcase for comedian, actor and podcaster Marc Maron in his first lead role in a movie. Maron plays Mel, a small-town pawn shop owner who is drawn into an oddball conspiracy when two women (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) come in with a Civil War-era sword with a very unusual provenance.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang noted how within the movie’s improvisational storytelling are some deeper ideas, writing, “More than once you may scoff at the reckless foolishness of the central foursome as they descend into the truthers’ lair; it’s a bit like watching horror-movie protagonists in a picture that ultimately has no real interest in being a horror movie. ‘Sword of Trust’ evokes the specter of American divisions past and present — between North and South, right and left — and suggests that comedy has the ability to disarm them all. It’s a heartening idea, but it could be sharper.”

I spoke to Shelton and Maron for a story that will be publishing soon. About their ongoing collaboration, with Shelton having directed Maron for TV, a stand-up special and now a movie, Maron said, “I’m sort of stubborn and a little difficult and she kind of makes me less so. And she seems to have a good sense of who I am and what I can do and what my strong suits are. And she gets good work out of me by charming me and being patient. We seem to understand each other. I mean, she definitely understands who I am creatively and kind of gets the best out of me really. We’re sympatico in that I generally, if she has an idea, I’ll go along with it.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek said that Shelton, “has a knack for locating the approaching turns in characters’ lives; then she stands back, observing quietly but astutely as they figure out how to round them.” She added, “‘Sword of Trust’ is a modest, wobbly picture, and it falls apart as it rambles toward its ending. Yet it never feels like a waste of time. Sometimes being invited along for the ride is reward enough.”

At the New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote that the movie, “weaves multiple coils of rage into a tense and volatile mechanism that, for all its small-scale action and anecdotal idiosyncrasy, yields bold and surprising implications for politics at large and for modes of resistance … But Shelton also offers the characters a deft shading of backstory that puts the entire plot into high relief and situates it in a wide, complex, and varied civic landscape.

‘David Crosby: Remember My Name’

Musician David Crosby at his home in Santa Ynez, Calif.
Musician David Crosby at his home in Santa Ynez, Calif.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A surprisingly unguarded portrait, “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” is directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe and finds the famed musician in a reflective place, looking back on his life and career at a time when he is convinced he may not have long to live.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Glenn Whipp wrote that Eaton and Crowe cover “the career high points. But the filmmakers are more interested in how Crosby survived (he continues to record, releasing four solid albums this decade), and they’re aided in this respect by the subject, a frank and gifted storyteller unafraid to delve into the most sordid moments of his life. Crosby’s spirit remains vital, and he’s determined to fly that freak flag into that good night.”

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Amy Kaufman spoke to Crosby, Crowe and Eaton. As Crowe said regarding Crosby’s candor in the film, ““Crosby never threw a question out. He never dodged. It was like, here’s what a guy does when he’s really gonna go there and not waste your time talking about his life. No rock figure that has ever been present for so much has ever been so honest about what it was really like. That’s the kind of interview I want.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote about the way the movie stays with Crosby’s side of events, noting, “It’s hard to judge a story we haven’t heard, and also hard to take the measure of the man we’re hanging out with, in spite of his gruff, garrulous displays of honesty and self-reflection. Do we really know him? Do we really want to? Fans will enjoy the backstage access, the home movies, the snapshots and the reminiscences, but the movie keeps you at a distance, while implying that it may be just as well not to get too close.”

For the Chicago Tribune, Katie Walsh added, “It’s this crystal-edged, often cutting honesty that makes legendary music man Crosby as fascinating, prickly, bracingly entertaining as he is, for better or for worse. But he’s always willing to direct that honesty right at himself, too. Remember his name? We won’t soon forget.”

‘A Bigger Splash’

David Hockney in a scene from “A Bigger Splash.”
David Hockney in a scene from "A Bigger Splash."
(Metrograph Pictures )

Directed by Jack Hazan, “A Bigger Splash” is a hybrid documentary about artist David Hockney. Originally released in 1974 and now playing in new 4K restoration, the film captures something special about Hockney at a specific point in his career, but also his times and the world he occupied.

For The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “Watching Jack Hazan’s 1974 film “A Bigger Splash,” about British-born, California-identified artist David Hockney, the more you try to peg what it is — snapshot biography? documentary? art project? imagined reverie? — the more its beauties and mysteries push back, until you feel like someone helplessly enraptured in front of a great painting: the mind’s orderliness defeated by the buzz of heightened consciousness.”

He added, “Private and odd, archly dreamy and intimate, “A Bigger Splash” remains one of the more uniquely hypnotic movies about the connection between presented life and pulsating art.”

For the New York Times, J. Hoberman wrote an overview of the project and its revival. As he wrote, “First released in 1974, ‘A Bigger Splash,’ Jack Hazan’s semi-fictional portrait of the British artist David Hockney, has proved prescient. For one thing, the movie … is largely concerned with the creation of ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),’ which sold for $90.3 million at auction last November, shattering the record for the work of a living artist. For another, Hazan’s 106-minute documentary created a template for what, a quarter-century later, would be known as reality television.”

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At rogerebert.com, Glenn Kenny added, “This unusual and sometimes unsettling film is a kind of staged documentary that could not have been made without the cooperation of people who were going though [sic] genuine challenges in their life at the time. Its theme is encapsulated by something Hockney says early on: ‘When love goes wrong, there’s more than two people that suffer.’”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter: @IndieFocus.


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