Newsletter: Indie Focus: Holiday Movie Sneaks and AFI Fest deliver their gifts

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

The Envelope Screening Series and Envelope Independent Screening Series are in high gear. Coming up this week is a screening of “Truth” featuring a Q&A with writer/director James Vanderbilt, producers Brad Fischer and William Sherak, and actor Dennis Quaid. And the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone” with director Liz Garbus. You can find out more at

We also have two Indie Focus Screening Series events booked for November, with the French submission for the foreign-language film Oscar, “Mustang,” and Sundance award-winner “James White.” Keep an eye out here for RSVP info:

And you also can listen to our recent podcast series here. 

Holiday Movie Sneaks

Our Holiday Movie Sneaks section came out this weekend. I’ve said it here before that I think this is when our movies team really gets a chance to shine, creating a fun, readable, informative guide to movies coming out over the next few months. I always found it a must-read long before I was a part of it.

Josh Rottenberg talked to Sylvester Stallone about returning to his defining character of Rocky Balboa. In the new film “Creed,” directed by Ryan Coogler, Rocky is a supporting character as the story focuses on Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky’s rival Apollo Creed, played by Michael B. Jordan.

Sylvester Stallone returns to the role of Rocky Balboa in "Creed." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

"I'm now the same age Burgess Meredith was in 'Rocky' — isn't that weird?" Stallone said. "I'm the guy who's knocking on the door going, 'Hey, kid.' It's an unbelievable feeling. I'm very proud of it.

"Rocky is the one thing I've done right,” Stallone added. "I'd say my life is about 96% failures, but if you just get that 4% right, that's all you need."

I spoke to actress Virginia Madsen about her role in David O. Russell’s highly anticipated “Joy.” In the film, Madsen plays mother to the title character played by Jennifer Lawrence. (And the ex of a character played by Robert De Niro.) It’s a particularly sharp piece of casting, as the two actresses have the same mix of the spirited and spiky about them, part kooky, part soulful, part dangerous.

"I was waiting for someone to figure that out," Madsen said. "From when I first saw her, I had thought, 'I should be her mother.' It was just a really perfect fit."

Glenn Whipp talked to the team behind the investigative journalism drama "Spotlight," with a stunning ensemble of actors that includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery.

"We had the right kind of group, the kind of actors who would want to do this kind of ensemble material," said director and co-writer Tom McCarthy. "It's not for everybody. Some actors want to be out front. Keaton, McAdams, Ruffalo have worked long enough to be out front in every movie they do now. They deserve it. But this gave them something else, the chance to be part of a group dynamic, and feed off each other."

Glenn also talked to author Michael Lewis, whose books include "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side," about the new adaption of his nonfiction book "The Big Short." A behind-the-scenes look at the financial crisis of the 2000s, the film was directed and co-written by Adam McKay and stars Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt.

Steve Carell, left center, and Ryan Gosling in "The Big Short." (Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures)

"I think it's the first movie that's really about Wall Street and that really gets it right," Lewis said. "And when people understand how outrageous it is, it might trigger a conversation."

Amy Kaufman talked to actor Jack Lacy about his roles in "Love the Coopers" and "Carol" as well as his ongoing part on TV's "Girls."

"I guess I just have the look of someone you went to high school with," Lacy said of his Everyman boyfriend appeal. "I'm not, like, a seductively dangerous type who's that smoldering pile of sex in the corner. I'm the guy who just made a fart joke."

And Quentin Tarantino provided a brief character guide for his upcoming "The Hateful Eight."

AFI Fest

The AFI Fest film festival has become a genuine gift for movie lovers of Los Angeles. First, the tickets are free. And though at times the system for acquiring them can be a bit tricky and/or frustrating, it is kind of surprising how well it can work. (And, yes, I have used it like a civilian and gotten into the movies I wanted. And I'm really particular about my seats, but that's another matter.)

Just as importantly, the festival brings films from the year's international festival circuit and showcases them in a concise, curated program that means you can walk into just about anything and catch a movie that is surprising and eye-opening.

Look, I travel to film festivals throughout the year for my work, and there are a bunch of movies here I am dying to catch up with. There’s so much good stuff it’s ridiculous. Take advantage of this astonishing resource, people.

The festival will open with the world premiere of Angelina Jolie Pitt’s romantic drama "By the Sea," starring Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt. The centerpiece will be the world premiere of Peter Landesman’s "Concussion," starring Will Smith as a doctor squaring off against the NFL. And the fest will close with the world premiere of McKay’s financial crisis tale "The Big Short."

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt star in "By the Sea." (Universal Pictures)

Playing as part of the festival’s Special Screenings section will be Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s animated "Anomalisa," Todd Haynes’ staggering drama "Carol," Yorgos Lanthimos’ abstracted romance "The Lobster," Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of "Macbeth" and Paolo Sorrentino’s transcendent "Youth."

And then there is the crazy-exciting selection of movies from the international festival circuit playing across a number of other sections, including Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Evolution,” Deniz Gamze Erguven’s “Mustang,” Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Chevalier,” Pablo Trapero’s “The Clan,” Pablo Larrain’s “The Club,” Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan,” Philippe Garrel’s “In the Shadow of Women,” Jia Zhang-ke’s “Mountains May Depart,” Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days,” Kent Jones’ “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie,” Grimur Hakonarson’s “Rams,” Hong Sang-soo’s “Right Now, Wrong Then,” Laszlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” Tobias Lindholm’s “A War,” Khalik Allah’s “Field Niggas,” Trey Edward Shults’ “Krisha,” Alison Bagnall’s “Funny Bunny” and Josh Mond’s “James White.”

(This is just a get-you-started cheat sheet. There’s plenty else to discover. Take a chance. Hey, it’s free.)

Laurie Anderson and 'Heart of a Dog'

Directed by Laurie Anderson, the new documentary “Heart of a Dog” is, in its most literal terms, about grief and death, covering the passing of her mother, a friend, her dog and her husband, musician Lou Reed.

Filmmaker Laurie Anderson speaks onstage at the "Heart of a Dog" Q&A during the 53rd New York Film Festival on Oct. 8, 2015. (Andrew Toth / Getty Images)

However, as New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote, “ ‘Heart of a Dog’ is about telling and remembering and forgetting, and how we put together the fragments that make up our lives — their flotsam and jetsam, highs and lows, meaningful and slight details, shrieking and weeping headline news. This purposefully fissured quality extends to the movie itself, which is by turns narratively straightforward and playfully experimental, light and heavy (it’s a fast 75 minutes), accessible and opaque, concrete and abstract.”

The good folks of the Cinefamily have come across a 35mm print of Anderson’s 1986 film “Home of the Brave.” The scattered screenings on the schedule include a show on Nov. 5 that is to include an appearance by Anderson herself. The film, which also features author William S. Burroughs and guitarist Adrian Belew, might be best considered as a multimedia piece rather than a conventional concert film, but it is a rare chance to see it on the big screen either way.

In a 1986 interview with The Times when the film was initially released, Anderson described the film as “me and a story, telling it on a concert stage. This film is very much about storytelling.”

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