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Indie Focus: An intimate portrait of sex work in ‘Jezebel’

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

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If you’re reading this, you’re likely already aware the Oscar nominations arrived this week. We got deep into both the micro and the macro, who will win what and what the nominations say about Hollywood right now.

Josh Rottenberg gave a rundown of all the nominations, and Glenn Whipp analyzed what they might say about potential winners while also noting that the upcoming SAG, DGA, PGA and WGA guild awards will solidify the true contenders.

Kenneth Turan wrote how this year’s noms seem to look both backward and forward, with movies distributed by an array of platforms while also emphasizing historical dramas. “Yes, we get it, academy voters seem to be saying, Netflix is the future and we are not pretending otherwise, but the past, oh the past was grand and we miss it, we really do.”

Mary McNamara also took note of how in their pursuit of Oscars, Netflix and other distributors tend to rely on male-dominated historical dramas, conforming to some notion of what an Oscar movie should look like. “Which is why all the parsing and analysis should not be misconstrued as cancel culture. No one who cares about film in any way wants the Oscars gone. But if Netflix is going to disrupt things, it would be nice if that disruption extended to the way we define ‘best.’

Justin Chang tried to look on the bright side, listing nine things to feel good about from this year’s nominations. He also took a look at “Parasite” and how despite being one of the year’s most celebrated movies, it pulled in no acting nominations.

Jen Yamato wrote about how the academy yet again managed not to nominate any women for best director, even though it was a remarkable year for movies directed by women. She also interviewed “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, who told her, “This is a very rare and precious event to happen to Asian and Korean film, and I think for me what’s really important is that before all these nominations the film did really well at the box office once it was released in North America. So to receive all these nominations amongst a great box office is what truly makes me happy.”

Amy Kaufman spoke to Leonardo DiCaprio, nominated for his performance in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” She also took a look at the snubs and surprises, including the lack of nominations for Jennifer Lopez, “The Farewell” and Robert De Niro.

I talked to Rian Johnson, nominated for his original screenplay for “Knives Out.” As he said, “This is nothing to be unhappy about it. It’s pretty cool.” And for our entertainment podcast “The Reel,” I sat down with Mary, Glenn and Justin to talk our way through the highs and lows of this year’s nominations.

For information on upcoming L.A. Times screenings and Q&A events, visit events.latimes.com/screenings.

‘Jezebel’

Set in Las Vegas in 1998, “Jezebel,” the feature debut for writer-director-actress Numa Perrier, comes out via Array Releasing and is now available on Netflix. In the film, 19-year-old Tiffany (Tiffany Tenelle) lives in a cramped apartment with her sister Sabrina (Perrier) and various other family members. Sabrina supports the family by working as a phone sex operator, and soon Tiffany becomes an internet cam girl. Her new line of work challenges her in more ways than she anticipates.

“Jezebel” premiered at the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival, which remains a vital hub for discovery of new talent. This week the festival released the first programming announcement for its 2020 edition.

Reviewing “Jezebel” for The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “A glimpse of the daily life of a sex worker is one way to look at ‘Jezebel,’ multihyphenate Numa Perrier’s autobiographical micro-indie that toggles between a family’s cramped one-bedroom apartment and the offices of an online porn site. But a richer way to view this sincere, unexpected gem is as a portrait of blossoming agency at the intersection of race, sexuality, gender and poverty.”

For the Mary Sue, Valerie Complex wrote that “Numa Perrier took a lot of risk with Jezebel. There are no cheap movie tricks or special effects, just impressive cinematography and lighting to evoke sexual tension, and a solid story to carry the film from one plot beat to the next. For a first-time director, there is great confidence in her presentation, and it shows. However, can you blame her? She has lived a life unique only to her and should be the only one to tell her story, and it’s hard to think of anyone who could have done this justice.”

For Slashfilm, Joi Childs wrote, “We don’t see many Black female coming-of-age films, especially ones that center sex work and sexuality in general. The secret sauce of this film is care done from behind the scenes. A Black woman-written and directed eye brings us in close with characters we never get to see on screen, all without being voyeuristic. It’s sexy, but it avoids the common tropes. It takes the Black woman ‘jezebel’ stereotype and flips a middle finger towards it by jumping head first in this sensual world. And that brazenness makes for a unique story that you have to see for yourself.”

For the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips wrote, “It’s not straight-up realism; nor is it the usual moralizing, candy-coated melodrama. It’s just very, very good, and the scenes between Tenille and Perrier are very, very easily among the plaintive screen highlights of this new year.”

Tiffany Tenille in “Jezebel.”
Tiffany Tenille in “Jezebel.”
(Array Releasing)

‘Troop Zero’

Available on Amazon Prime, “Troop Zero” is directed by the team of Bert & Bertie and written by “Beasts of the Southern Wild” co-writer Lucy Alibar, adapting her own play. The story revolves around a young misfit (Mckenna Grace) who desperately wants to win a talent contest as part of the Birdie Scouts jamboree. Allison Janney and Viola Davis play rival group leaders.

In a review for The Times, Kimber Myers wrote, “This comedy from directing duo Bert & Bertie feels as unique — and sometimes as flawed — as each of its characters, particularly in its slow-starting opening act where it’s tough to look past Grace’s truly awful wig. But ‘Troop Zero’ is bursting with personality and stylistic flourishes; it might be too twee for some, but it’s better to let yourself be won over by its sincerity and sweetness, tempered by just enough sadness and quirk.”

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In the New York Times, Lovia Gyarkye wrote, “While the film’s lessons are relatively uncomplicated, they unravel in sweet moments, often assisted by Rob Lord’s considerate and nostalgic score. The cast should also be credited for enlivening a sometimes flat script. The troop chemistry is tender and Davis shines in her compassionate, albeit familiar, role as a maternal figure and rational voice. ‘Troop Zero’ may not radically subvert expectations, or ruffle too many feathers, but it’s nonetheless a pleasant viewing experience.”

“Troop Zero” featuring Allison Janney and Viola Davis.
“Troop Zero” featuring Allison Janney, left, and Viola Davis.
(Curtis Bonds Baker / Amazon Studios)

‘The White Sheik’

Released in a new 4K restoration in celebration of the centennial of both its director, Federico Fellini, and its star, Alberto Sordi, 1952’s “The White Sheik” was the first solo directing effort by Fellini. The story is of a young couple (Brunella Bovo and Leopoldo Trieste) on their honeymoon in Rome and the Valentino-like star (Sordi) she is obsessed with finding.

Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote about the film, saying, “Inventively comic with melancholy notes around the edges, ‘The White Sheik’ has, in common with all Fellini’s films, more going on than you may at first anticipate. If the film has a theme, it’s expressed by the fumetti editor, who says ‘Real life is the life of dreams,’ something Fellini would return to frequently but never with more entertainment value than he does here.”

For the New York Times, J. Hoberman wrote, “‘The White Sheik’ is not only the first but also in some respects the most charming, least overweening film Fellini ever made — a comic fable of mass-produced fantasy and fanatical devotion.”

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la_ca_the_white_sheik_movie_119.JPG
Leopoldo Trieste and Brunella Bovo in Federico Fellini’s “The White Shiek” (1952).
(Rialto Pictures / StudioCanal )


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