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Indie Focus: The best things about movie awards

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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The Oscars are here this weekend, and even in this shortened season they seem to be coming none too soon.

Glenn Whipp published his predictions for all 24 categories. He’s sticking with “1917” for best picture. If you’re anything like me, it’s in some of the more technical categories like sound editing and sound mixing or any of the short-film categories that having an expert cheat-sheet comes in handy while filling out my own office pool ballot.

Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang also came through with their own Oscar picks of both who will win and who they think should win. (They both have “1917” winning too.)

I previewed Saturday’s Spirit Awards as well. This year’s winners will be distinct from Sunday’s Oscar winners, and as awards writer Mark Harris said, “I think the goal of prognosticators and other awards givers should be to broaden the field, not to narrow it. The least interesting sort of preliminary awards are the ones that boast about their ability to define or anticipate the Oscar race. And the most interesting are things like the Spirits, where there are always a handful of movies in there that I’ve never even heard of. … That’s sort of the best function of movie awards to me, is to point people toward great movies.”

Jen Yamato and I covered the awards ceremony at the Sundance Film Festival, where “Minari” took the grand jury prize and audience award and women swept the directing prizes. During the ceremony, it was announced that Tabitha Jackson will take over as director for the festival.

Justin and Kenny surveyed the festival as well.

For our podcast The Reel this week, I sat down with Glenn, Justin and Mary McNamara for a final, quite lively conversation about this year’s Oscars.

On Feb. 19, we’ll have a screening of the new film “Emma.” followed by a Q&A with director Autumn de Wilde. For information on upcoming L.A. Times screenings and Q&A events, visit events.latimes.com/screenings.

‘Birds of Prey’

Directed by Cathy Yan from a script by Christina Hodson, “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”) is a stand-alone glitter-bomb adventure for the character first played by Margot Robbie in “Suicide Squad.” In the new film she is liberated from her bad boyfriend, the Joker, and must navigate Gotham City’s underworld unprotected and on her own. The cast also includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina and Ewan McGregor.

In a review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “It’s all as tasty, chewy and disposable as bubble gum. It’s also a marked improvement on ‘Suicide Squad,’ which may not be saying much, insofar as two hours spent in the company of a pitch-black screen would be a marked improvement on ‘Suicide Squad.’ Still, Yan and Robbie have largely salvaged Harley Quinn from the dour, sexist ugliness of that 2016 movie, where she was little more than a tongue in a tight T-shirt, something for the camera to ogle in between interminably muddled action scenes.”

Jen Yamato visited the film’s set during production. Robbie, also a producer on the film, explained the decision not to include the character of Joker in the new movie by saying, “Harley is so completely consumed by the Joker, it’s either all or nothing. Either we’re doing a movie about Harley and the Joker or the Joker cannot be there, because if he’s there for even a glimpse that would be her sole focus. So it was really important to kick off the movie with the statement that he’s not in the picture — for better or worse.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “The one thing ‘Birds of Prey’ fears is being taken seriously, which makes it, again, something of an antidote to ‘Joker’ and to the doomy solemnity of other DC products, going all the way back to ‘Batman Begins.’ The mood of antic, playful obnoxiousness feels forced rather than liberated, the result of careful note-taking during repeated viewings of ‘Deadpool.’ The rapid-fire repartee is less than sparkling, as if the goal were to sound smart while still appealing to the dumbest or most distracted person in the audience.”

At Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “The movie perhaps has to be a little sloppy, a little erratic. … Yan can sometimes get ahead of herself, rushing into something new — a tonal shift, a plot twist, a character turn — before we’ve had a chance to really process and adjust. But I get why she and Hodson and their cast are so eager. It’s a cool thing they get to do, breathing life into perhaps the most moribund corner of DC’s current cinematic universe. Wonder Woman has all her mythic flair, and Aquaman has his grand fantasy. Harley and the Birds get something different. Theirs is a contemporary verve that offers a glimpse of something heartening: a future in which all kinds of people get to tell these stories, and we’re all the better off for it.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “Your enjoyment of ‘Birds of Prey’ — and the degree of pleasure you get out of its blunt and bitter gags — will still depend on your tolerance for movies like ‘Birds of Prey’s’ predecessor, David Ayer’s 2016 ‘Suicide Squad.’ This movie, like that one, is a hyper-cartoony joy ride shot in hard-candy colors and edited into choppy, Gummy Bear-sized bits, loaded with acrid humor that’s delivered with a lot of knowing winks at the audience. In other words, ‘Birds of Prey’ isn’t necessarily better than ‘Suicide Squad’ just because it’s mostly about women and was written and directed by women. Its faux-riot-grrl moxie still leaves a metallic aftertaste.”

Ella Jay Basco and Margot Robbie in “Birds of Prey”
Ella Jay Basco, left, and Margot Robbie in “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).”
(Claudette Barius / Warner Bros. )


‘Horse Girl’

Having just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, “Horse Girl” is now available on Netflix and in a limited theatrical release. Directed by Jeff Baena, who cowrote the script along with Alison Brie, the movie stars Brie as Sarah, a young woman in something of a psychological freefall. Sarah finds her quiet, contended life upended as she grapples with family history and past trauma in this delightfully unnerving and playfully weird movie.

In a review for The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “Brie has demonstrated her remarkable acting range with her performances on ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Community’ and ‘GLOW,’ but her screenwriting debut, in collaboration with director Jeff Baena, feels like a peek inside her brain. What we find is far more uncanny and out-there than anyone may have expected. … Ostensibly, this is a tragedy about mental illness, and the way that someone can slip through the cracks in society without family, friends and a network of support. But ‘Horse Girl’ is far more subversive and playful than just that, allowing for Sarah’s peculiar reality to envelope our own.”

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In a review for Variety, Jessica Kiang wrote that the film is “a challenging but moving and valuable watch — and an uncompromising corrective to the kind of storytelling that uses a person’s (often a woman’s) psychological fragility as a wacky narrative device, or a problem to be solved (often by a man), or an interesting way to accessorize an otherwise dowdy personality. The transgressiveness of Baena and Brie’s strange and sorrowful ‘Horse Girl’ is in how it turns the simplistic, inauthentic tweeness of the generic, quirky indie comedy in on itself to produce a rare and piercingly compassionate exploration of the sorts of madness that come from intense loneliness, and the intense loneliness that comes from being regarded as mad.”

Alison Brie in a scene from “Horse Girl.”
Alison Brie in a scene from “Horse Girl.”
(Katrina Marcinowski / Netflix)


‘The Lodge’

Directed by “Goodnight Mommy” filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, “The Lodge” premiered at last year’s Sundance and is only now reaching theaters, starring Riley Keough, Jaesen Martell and Lia McHugh. The horror-thriller is the story of a young woman (Keough) and her soon-to-be stepchildren as they are snowed in together in a remote cabin. The close quarters soon lead to dredging up shocking truths.

In a review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The movie’s strongest asset is Keough, an actress who can seize and hold the screen with electrifying force (check out her terrific turns in ‘American Honey’ and the forthcoming ‘Zola’) but who is no less powerful in her quieter, more recessive moments. In ‘The Lodge’ she plays a woman trying desperately to do the right thing in a bewildering situation, lost in a fog that is partly though not entirely of her own making. The key to her insidious and frightening performance is that by the end you’re not sure whether to fear her or fear for her.”

For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “More unsettling than terrifying, the story (by the directors and Sergio Casci) builds to a leisurely, irresolute and unsatisfying climax. … Despite its visual flair and unrelentingly taut atmosphere, ‘The Lodge’ is more successful in sustaining unease — like the eerie, unexplained shots of a spooky dollhouse — than in building a convincing narrative. Ultimately, its message seems to be: Just because you’re bonkers doesn’t mean the specters of your past aren’t out to get you.”

The Lodge
Riley Keough, left, Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh in the movie “The Lodge.”
(Bertrand Calmeau / Neon)

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