Indie Focus: Local tributes to John Sayles and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen, and welcome to your weekly field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

This week is the final episode of the television program hosted by my colleague Rebecca Keegan and me on Ovation TV. We’ve got an impressive group of directors who were really engaged with each other, out of a mixture of respect, curiosity and looking for how someone else would solve a problem. Once Ridley Scott, Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, Todd Haynes, Tom Hooper and Tom McCarthy got going, it was kind of a runaway train.

From left are Danny Boyle ("Steve Jobs"), Tom McCarthy ("Spotlight"), Quentin Tarantino ("The Hateful Eight"), Ridley Scott ("The Martian"), Tom Hooper ("The Danish Girl") and Todd Haynes ("Carol"). (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

This past week we had a terrific Q&A with Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky to talk about his “Winter on Fire” to wrap up the season of Envelope Independent screenings. We’ll be firing up the Indie Focus screening series again later this month. Check back at

Nonstop movies. Movies nonstop.

John Sayles tribute

We normally put retrospective and tribute events at the end of the batting order here, but the Cinefamily’s upcoming series on John Sayles is genuinely too exciting not to go first. The concept of American independent filmmaking, both as a financial model but also a mode of storytelling and style of filmmaking, would simply not be the same if not for his contributions.

John Sayles discusses "Go for Sisters" in October 2013. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

The series opens with Sayles’ debut feature “Return of the Secaucus Seven” and also features “The Brother From Another Planet,” “Piranha” (which Sayles wrote), “City of Hope,” “Lianna” and “Baby, It’s You.” Sayles will be making appearances throughout the program.

If Sayles has faded slightly from the public consciousness it is in part because he has been so consistent over the years, a model of work and unassuming integrity. As Chaz Ebert recently wrote, "Consistently political and outspokenly humanist, Sayles' body of work stands alone in the breadth of its commitment to working-class and minority communities and the often ignored historical constructs that helped shape the present.

As Kevin Thomas put it in his original November 1980 review, “Even if we’re of the decade older than the 'Secaucus Seven' — or, for that matter, the decade younger — surely just about any American of any age can identify with these people. We know them, for they are ourselves.”

'A War'

Nominated for an Academy Award for foreign-language film, Tobias Lindholm’s “A War” landed in local theaters this week, and its story of a Danish soldier fighting to hold his life together abroad and at home is powerful and provocative.

As Kenneth Turan said in his review, “More than physical authenticity, 'A War' captures the psychological veracity of men in combat, the agony that results from having to decide what's allowable to save a life in a combat zone, and how individuals and society react when understandable impulses lead to unacceptable results.”

Commander Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek) in "A War." (Magnolia Pictures)

In the Village Voice, Alan Scherstuhl added, "Always compelling, ‘A War’ demands that viewers engage with the questions your ‘13 Hours’ or ‘American Sniper’ fears to take on, weighting the moral costs of ‘our’ lives versus ‘theirs,’ asking what toll the choices that soldiers face exact upon them, and taking a hard look at the impossibility of justice in many cases of civilian casualties. Lindholm manages all this without denying the pleasures of suspenseful storytelling, and without denying any character his or her due empathy."

I spoke to Lindholm and his star, Pilou Asbaek, about their ongoing collaboration.

“There is no right or wrong in that, it’s really just a bad situation,” said Lindholm. “What do you do in a situation when you’re expected to only do what’s right, when you’re only in wrong situations?”

'The Club'

Though it wasn’t nominated, Pablo Larraín’s “The Club” was Chile’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar, and is another exciting work from the filmmaker known to many for his election drama “No.” His latest film is something of an interesting adjunct to “Spotlight,” as it presents the story of a group of priests who are sent off to live in a remote cabin following various transgressions, forming a strange dynamic of their own.

In his review in The Times, Robert Abele said “‘The Club’ captivates as a biting, offbeat trip inside a uniquely desolate spiritual prison.”

From left, Alejandro Sieveking, Alejandro Goic, Alfredo Castro and Jaime Vadell in "The Club." (Music Box Films)

In the Guardian, Ryan Gilbey noted, “It is hard not to feel pity and disgust, and to absorb the lesson that people are awful, perhaps never more so than when they believe themselves.”

In a program note, Larraín said, "To me, it seemed narratively interesting to tell the story of a group of priests whom we know have committed crimes or sins, yet we don’t know what they did, whether they’re dangerous or not, and what it is that they want. This is a film about redemption, purging and victims."

Jennifer Jason Leigh series

Currently nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “The Hateful Eight,” Jennifer Jason Leigh is also someone who is so consistently good that it has become easy to take her for granted. The American Cinematheque is presenting a series at the Aero Theatre of some key titles through the years, with a double feature of “Georgia” and “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” on Feb. 15 and then “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Single White Female” on Feb. 22. (And while not showing in the series, allow me to encourage anyone who hasn’t seen them to check out “Miami Blues” and “The Hudsucker Proxy,” which feature two personal favorite performances by Leigh.)

A portrait of Jennifer Jason Leigh from November 2015. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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