Indie Focus: Women take the spotlight at Sundance

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

We are still in Park City, Utah, believe it or not, as the Sundance Film Festival heads into its final weekend. (The awards are on Saturday night.)

Amy Kaufman continued to cover “On the Record,” the documentary that details sexual assault allegations against music mogul Russell Simmons. The three accusers at the center of the movie were all at the film’s premiere. And Amy got some exclusive information about why Oprah Winfrey stopped backing the project shortly before the festival.

Amy also wrote about the documentary “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” directed by brothers Bill and Turner Ross, which generated its own controversy at the festival.


Justin Chang took a look at how “On the Record” and the fiction feature “The Assistant,” spotlighted below, take on stories of abuse within the entertainment industry. He also wrote about the films “Zola” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” each portraying a road trip in a very different way.

Justin also surveyed how this has been an especially strong year for female filmmakers at Sundance, from “Promising Young Woman,” directed by Emerald Fennell, to “The Glorias,” directed by Julie Taymor.

Jen Yamato spoke to Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father, Luis A. Miranda Jr., about the documentary “Siempre, Luis,” directed by John James, a look at the senior Miranda’s life in politics and bringing his son’s “Hamilton” to Puerto Rico. Jen also spoke to the cast of “Charm City Kings.”

Kenneth Turan spoke to Ron Howard about his new documentary “Rebuilding Paradise,” about the devastating Camp fire in California in 2018.

I spoke with filmmaker Josephine Decker and actress Elisabeth Moss about their collaboration on “Shirley,” filmmaker Fennell about her debut feature, “Promising Young Woman,” and filmmaker Dee Rees about her Joan Didion‘s adaptation, “The Last Thing He Wanted.”

And I spoke to outgoing festival director John Cooper about 30 years of Sundance memories.

Photographer Jay Clendenin was at the festival as well, taking portraits of much of its top talent.

On our podcast the Reel, you can listen to my conversation from Park City with Justin Simien, writer-director of “Bad Hair”; Tessa Thompson, actress and executive producer with “Sylvie’s Love”; and Colman Domingo, actor in “Zola.” Plus Kenny, Jen, Justin and Amy sat down to recap the festival.

You can follow all of our Sundance coverage here.

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

‘The Assistant’

The fiction feature debut for Australian documentary director Kitty Green, “The Assistant” takes in one day at work for a young entry-level employee named Jane (Julia Garner) who works for a tyrannical, abusive movie executive. (Yes, that should sound familiar.) “Succession” star Matthew Macfadyen also appears as a human resources executive.

In a review for The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “What ‘The Assistant’ is especially good at is depicting how a company-wide culture of psychological abuse and mind games perpetuates itself, how powerful people whipsaw the emotions of those below them. Its restrained, deliberate style is ideally suited to making the point that people without restraints are capable of anything.”

At Vulture, Alison Wilmore wrote that “‘The Assistant’ shares an understanding that the man himself is less psychologically interesting than the people around him, and how they’ve learned to tolerate, accommodate, rationalize away, or internalize his behavior. What makes the film such a spare but searingly insightful treatment of the issues at the core of Me Too is the way it refuses to separate its unseen executive’s sexual predation from the larger structures that enable it. The environment revolves around certain unspoken but understood rules of abuse — namely, that abuse is something that you have to put up with until you’re powerful enough to be amused by or dismissive of it when it’s directed at others.”

At Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins said that at just over 80 minutes long, the film is “as tense and tight as a thriller, but with none of the satisfaction. I was almost undecided about the effect of that tightness, and the ways in which Jane seemed to be realizing an awful lot in the span of just one especially trying work day, merely five weeks into the job. I wondered what Jane knew before this day and what she didn’t, what she’d noticed all along versus what struck her anew. But then I realized that ‘The Assistant’ had supplied me with the answers: in the resigned, even wry silence of the boss’s other employees, including the women. And by the end of the film, it’s all there in Jane’s face.”

At Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “At the end of a workday, stressed-out people often crave a drink or a smoke. Jane instead turns to carbs and sugar, in the form of a giant deli muffin that she can’t even finish. It’s a tiny flourish that cracks your heart open. When you’re young, everyone tells you that you have to work hard to get ahead. But how hard is too hard, and what’s unreasonable? ‘The Assistant’ captures that shaky sliver of youth when you don’t yet know the answer to those questions.”

Julia Garner stars as the title character in "The Assistant."
(Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street)

‘The Rhythm Section’

The latest film from cinematographer-turned-director Reed Morano, the action-thriller “The Rhythm Section”, adapted from the novel by Mark Burnell, stars Blake Lively as a woman attempting to unravel what really caused the plane crash that killed her family. Jude Law plays a former MI6 agent, known as B, who helps train her.

In a review for The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “When B sends Stephanie into the field on a few wild goose chases, posing as a dead assassin named Petra, wow, is she ever inept, and it’s honestly refreshing. Enough with the ‘Black Widow’ super spies. For something really original, let’s see a green wannabe hit woman try to navigate a small car through Tangier, Morocco, while in a full panic. The willingness to let Stephanie be human and react as such brings a sense of reality and authenticity back to the action-spy genre, which has become too slick. … ‘The Rhythm Section’ launches Morano into a new world of action/thriller filmmaking, and her unique style is a welcome refresh for the genre.”

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For the New York Times, Glenn Kenny wrote, “The talented Morano, whose work on the TV series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ shows a knack for shuddery grim realism, sometimes seems to want to subvert the espionage-action genre by bludgeoning the pleasure out of it. One fight scene pitting Lively against the wiry, insistent Richard Brake is so severely brutal it feels like Soderbergh’s ‘Haywire’ remade by Lars von Trier. Audiences may be more shaken than stirred.”

Blake Lively stars in Paramount Pictures' "The Rhythm Section."
(Jose Haro / Paramount Pictures)

‘The Traitor’

Directed by Marco Bellocchio, “The Traitor” looks at the high-profile Italian trials in the ‘80s and ‘90s that worked to break up the Mafia. Actor Pierfrancesco Favino stars as a man who decides to testify against his former cohorts.

In a review for The Times, Gary Goldstein wrote, “It’s true that, when it comes to epic mob movies, we may be a bit predisposed by the emotional sweep of the ‘Godfather’ films or the exhilarating audiovisual stylings of Martin Scorsese in such works as ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘The Irishman.’ Still, it ultimately seems as if there was a more economical, propulsive and entertaining way for a master such as Bellocchio to recount this explosive and pivotal chapter of Mafia history.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott called the film “tremendous and meticulous,” while adding, “Bellocchio’s approach to the story is at once coolly objective — the movie is part biopic, part courtroom procedural — and almost feverishly intense. He has a historian’s analytical detachment, a novelist’s compassion for his characters and a citizen’s outrage at the cruelty and corruption that have festered in his country for so long.”

Pierfrancesco Favino in “The Traitor.”
(Festival de Cannes)

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