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Indie Focus: The joy of friendship in ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’

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

Actor Rutger Hauer had become such a dependable presence in movies for so long that his death on July 19 was a genuine shock, as many could never imagine a time when he would be gone. The American Cinematheque and Beyond Fest have quickly pulled together a wonderful four-night tribute to the elegantly rough-and-tumble actor at the Egyptian Theatre, beginning with “Blade Runner” and moving on to titles such as “Ladyhawke,” “Flesh + Blood,” “The Hitcher,” Nighthawks” and “Hobo With a Shotgun.”

At the Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre, a two-night series will spotlight the work of director John Dahl. This is an all-too-rare chance to soak up the neo-noir vibes of “The Last Seduction,” “Red Rock West,” “Kill Me Again” and “Rounders” on the big screen. Dahl is scheduled to be in attendance both nights.

The new Alamo Drafthouse L.A. is running a series celebrating stuntmen. On Monday, Aug. 12, it will show Hal Needham’s spirited, free-wheeling “Hooper,” starring Burt Reynolds. There will be a live taping of the popular podcast “Unspooled,” hosted by Amy Nicholson and Paul Scheer, saluting stuntman Yakima Canutt, on Thursday, Aug. 15. Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master” will screen on Monday, Aug. 19.

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On Thursday, we’re taking our show on the road to the Laemmle Royal for a screening of the documentary “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary,” with both filmmaker Ben Berman and subject the Amazing Johnathan in attendance. For info and updates on future events, go to events.latimes.com.

Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf in a scene from ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon.’
Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf in "The Peanut Butter Falcon."
(Nigel Bluck/Road Side Attractions/ Armory Films)

‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’

The feature debut for writers-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, the charming and heart-warming “The Peanut Butter Falcon” was created expressly as a vehicle for actor Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome. Gottsagen stars as Zak, a young man who escapes the assisted-living facility where he lives in hopes of pursuing his dream of being a professional wrestler. Along the way he encounters Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who is likewise on the run, and the two become traveling companions. Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes and Jon Bernthal also appear.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “LaBeouf brings the soul to ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon,’ while Gottsagen brings the spirit. He has an undeniably charming screen presence, and the actor takes to this starring role with gusto, proving that Nilson and Schwartz’s instincts about him were right. He more than stands up to the task of movie star, and the filmmakers have crafted the perfect vehicle to showcase both his talents and the surprising connection with his co-star LaBeouf.”

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When the film premiered earlier this year at SXSW, where it won an audience award, I interviewed Gottsagen and LaBeouf, and Nilson and Schwartz spoke about the special onscreen chemistry between them. “I don’t think Zack gives room for anyone to be cynical,” said Schwartz. “And Shia’s not afraid to be emotional. And I do think that Shia had a bit of a tough experience in this industry trying to do stuff truthfully, working with actors that have their own motives or directors that might want to pull him in a way that doesn’t feel good. But with us it was just like, ‘Come on in, man.’”

For the New York Times, Glenn Kenny wrote, “Zak takes frequent pratfalls and is often seen in various un-self-conscious states of undress, but the movie never makes him a figure of fun. Neither, by the same token, does it try to wrench sentimental tears out of his condition. They make his character a little guy with a big heart, and big dreams — you’ve heard of such figures, I suppose — and let him have his hero’s journey.”

For the A.V. Club, Mike D’Angelo wrote, “Gottsagen does rich, multifaceted work as Zak, putting a sarcastic spin on many of his lines and conveying volumes at times without speaking at all. Nilson and Schwartz built the entire movie around Gottsagen, having discovered him at a camp for aspiring actors with disabilities; he’s been studying his craft since age 3, and it shows. … If you seek a good example of why diversity in casting and conception makes for a richer cinema landscape, look no further.”

Michelle Williams as Isabel and Julianne Moore as Theresa Young in a scene from ‘After the Wedding.’
Michelle Williams as Isabel and Julianne Moore as Theresa Young in "After the Wedding."
(Julio Macat / Sony Pictures Classics)

‘After The Wedding’

Written and directed by Bart Freundlich, “After the Wedding” is an adaptation of Susanne Bier’s Oscar-nominated 2006 Danish film. In the new version, Julianne Moore plays Theresa, a wealthy New York media executive who finds her life entangled with Isabel (Michelle Williams), who is seeking funding for an orphanage in India. With a cast that also includes Billy Crudup and Abby Quinn, the story takes many unexpected twists as it becomes a complicated morality tale.

Reviewing for The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “Handsome, earnest and reserved, despite a succession of soul-rattling character revelations, ‘After the Wedding’ is the kind of well-appointed, morality-minded adult soap that once had pride of place throughout an earlier Hollywood era’s movie year. Now it’s sneaking in amid the whizbang tentpoles with its measured tones and big-theme professionalism, like someone in evening wear wandering an arcade hoping to lure someone away for an important talk.”

For The Times, Susan King recently sat down with Freundlich and Moore, who are married in real life. Their film’s big change from Bier’s is that it swaps the two lead roles from men to women. On what became exciting about that idea, Moore noted, “Both of these women have made these really specific choices involving parenthood. They both believe they’re making a correct choice for them, and they are so judgmental of each other. That’s the thing I loved too. They desperately needed one another to solve this problem, but there’s a lot of judgment and a lot of anger.”

For the Guardian, Benjamin Lee wrote, “Given the setup of these characters and their positions in society, there is ample room for some incisive class commentary, and while there are some minor attempts, Freundlich is far too seduced by the packaging. He displays a Nancy Meyers-like obsession with the luxurious lives onscreen and the sumptuous spaces within which they are taking place. … [D]espite the glossily confident aesthetic, it feels confused. Too many scenes finish abruptly while some major confrontations are either avoided or not shown in full. It’s a film that demands our emotional involvement, tinkering with our heartstrings until we cave in, but, by the end, it’s a weepie that won’t make you weep, even if Moore and Williams try their hardest.”

Nanfu Wang, pictured with her son, is one of the co-directors of “One Child Nation.”
Nanfu Wang, pictured with her son, is one of the co-directors of "One Child Nation."
(Amazon Studios)
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‘One Child Nation’

Directed by Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang, “One Child Nation” won the grand jury prize in the U.S. documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Featuring painful, personal recollections from Wang about her own family, the film is an examination of China’s long-standing law limiting the number of children a family can have.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang said, “At one point Wang, who also narrated and edited the film, draws a blunt connection between women who were forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations under the one-child policy and women fighting for abortion rights in the U.S. Both struggles, she suggests, exemplify what happens when the state denies women their reproductive freedom. It’s a pointed argument that sums up this documentary’s deeply personal, implicitly feminist worldview, whether or not those in the audience are inclined to agree.”

Jeffrey Fleishman interviewed Wang, who spoke about her feelings when her parents had another child (exceptions were made for rural families) and how she reconciled that with what she had been long been taught.

“I remembered the shame and embarrassment I had throughout my childhood and teenage life. I didn’t want people to know I had a younger brother,” Wang told him. “Why would I feel this shame? I realized that it was all the messages and culture promoting that one-child was the best way and that everyone whose family had more than one child was selfish and backward and taking up resources.”

Reviewing for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “The history the filmmakers excavate is complex and the personal stories are often brutal. … It’s ghastly, and while you may want to look away, Wang and Zhang keep you watching. The documentary’s personal quality, it turns out, isn’t simply appealing; it also establishes a tight, empathetic bond between you and the filmmakers — particularly Wang — that grows stronger as the story progresses.”

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


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