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Indie Focus: Getting things started at the Sundance Film Festival

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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I am writing this week’s newsletter from Park City, Utah, where Team L.A. Times has decamped to cover the Sundance Film Festival. (Yes, it’s been another year, and we are back again.)

Ryan Faughnder and I took a look at how this year’s festival is shaping up in relation to previous ones. Many of the year’s notable titles already have distribution in place, which can really take the pressure off for filmmakers. As Eliza Hittman, writer and director of the drama “Always Sometimes Rarely Never,” which will be released in March by Focus Features, said, “I make mostly very low-budget movies. So you always feel that you’re outshined by a movie with a bigger sale or a bigger cast. There are movies at Sundance that are shiny. [This year] I get to go and enjoy the festival and hope that the energy around the movie is good — that it helps us build towards our release.”

Kenneth Turan turned in his always essential overview of the festival, including many strong tips on movies to keep an eye out for as the year rolls along.

Jen Yamato spoke to filmmaker Justin Simien and actress Elle Lorraine about “Bad Hair,” a wild horror comedy about black women, ambition, beauty and haunted hair. As Simien said, “I was angry with what I saw happening with black women. Black women are the source for so much culture, from language to fashion to music, but are never allowed along for the ride. They are physically discarded by this society, by black men, by all men, by women of other races. I was mad about that and I wanted to say something about that.”

Amy Kaufman spoke to Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick about their documentary “On the Record,” a look at allegations of sexual abuse against music mogul Russell Simmons, and the fact that Oprah Winfrey pulled out as executive producer at the last minute. Ziering said of their decision still to screen at the festival without her on board: “Much as we wanted [Winfrey] to be happy and keep up the amazing relationship we had — and as much as we really do totally respect her vision — we felt and argued that we couldn’t blink. People would say that there’s a problem.”

Amy also wrote about “Miss Americana,” the documentary about musician Taylor Swift, directed by Lana Wilson, including the seven big reveals in the movie. One of them: She did not eat a burrito until she was 26!

And Kenny also spoke to producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Sundance stalwarts who are back this year with “The Last Shift,” starring Richard Jenkins as a man retiring from the graveyard shift after 38 years. “We want to have films that reflect some kind of progressive ideas, a view of what might be possible in life,” Yerxa told him. “It may be a drop in the bucket, but at least it’s a drop.”

You can follow all of our Sundance coverage here.

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

‘The Gentlemen’

Written and directed by Guy Ritchie, “The Gentlemen” is a freewheeling gangster picture set in the contemporary London underworld. The story concerns an American pot kingpin in London (Matthew McConaughey) looking to get out of the game, which sets off a series of schemes and double-crosses as others vie for his business. The stacked cast also includes Hugh Grant, Michelle Dockery, Henry Golding, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan, Charlie Hunnam and Colin Farrell.

In a review for The Times, Justin Chang called the film “a starry but curiously low-impact return to the twisty, garrulous British gangster pictures with which [Ritchie] made his reputation years ago.” He added, “what’s intriguing about these blips of teasingly naughty, semi-reactionary humor isn’t that they’re offensive; offending us would actually require more effort. Rather, it’s that they feel so coy and noncommittal, descriptions that can also be applied to Ritchie’s own wobbly sleight-of-hand storytelling.”

At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote: ”The point is cleverness and looking cool, though, mostly the movie is about Ritchie’s own conspicuous pleasure directing famous actors having a lark, trading insults, making mischief. There’s not much else, which depending on your mood and the laxity of your ethical qualms, might be enough.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore called the film “a movie that’s clearly meant to be seen as a return to laddish form but that instead feels sour and begrudging — the work of someone who’s got nothing left to contribute to the game but can’t bring himself to leave it behind.”

 Michelle Dockery and Matthew McConaughey in a scene from “The Gentlemen.”
Michelle Dockery and Matthew McConaughey in a scene from “The Gentlemen.”
(Christopher Raphael/STX Entertainment)

‘The Turning’

Directed by Floria Sigismondi, “The Turning” is an adaption of Henry James’ classic haunting tale “Turn of the Screw.” Mackenzie Davis plays a teacher who takes a job as nanny to a two young children — played by “The Florida Project’s” Brooklynn Prince and “Stranger Things’” Finn Wolfhard — who recently lost their parents. As things go awry at their palatial estate, the nanny must confront whether she is losing her mind or more sinister forces are at work.

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For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “‘The Turning’ builds to a deeply disturbing crescendo, then pulls the rug right out from under the audience in a way that seemingly undercuts what came before, an uncovering of dark, violent secrets that offer a new spin on ‘The Turn of the Screw.’ The enigmatic ending doubles down on the ambiguity with which the film has already toyed. It’s less about answers and more about evoking a richly rendered gothic horror vibe while intuition bitterly battles reason. It may not work for everyone, but those for whom it works will find much to savor and puzzle over in ‘The Turning.’”

In the New York Times, Ben Kenigsberg wrote, “It’s the movie’s open-endedness and literary vestiges that sit uneasily with its repetitive goosings, which manifest in exceedingly familiar ways. Ghosts appearing in mirrors. A mannequin that moves on its own. It’s-only-a-dream moments ... ‘The Turning’ has it all.”

Mackenzie Davis, left, and Brooklynn Prince in the movie “The Turning.”
Mackenzie Davis, left, and Brooklynn Prince in the movie “The Turning.”
(Patrick Redmond / Universal Pictures)

‘Color Out of Space’

Directed and co-written by Richard Stanley, “Color Out of Space” is based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. A man (Nicolas Cage) moves his family out of the city to try raising alpacas in the country and finds all of his plans upended when a meteorite lands nearby.

In a review for The Times, Noel Murray wrote that “Stanley rallies down the stretch, after the film takes a turn toward the purely phantasmagorical. Plenty of filmmakers have put Lovecraft’s many-tentacled extraterrestrial creatures onto the screen, but ‘Color Out of Space’ illustrates a hue — and a mood — that’s much more abstract. The movie is most successful when it ditches the particulars of the text and just grooves on how it feels to be displaced and disgruntled, stranded in a surreal mindscape that in some ways makes just as much sense as any other day on a dreary alpaca ranch.”

For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “Lovers of aberrant, gooey B-movies will be all in. … Using shape-shifting as a messy metaphor for sickness and childhood trauma, Stanley and Cage leap so far over the psychological top that they never come back to earth. By the end, my own eyeballs hadn’t changed color, but they must have looked like pinwheels.”

Joely Richardson and Nicolas Cage in “Color Out of Space.”
Joely Richardson and Nicolas Cage in “Color Out of Space.”
(RLJE Films)
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