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Indie Focus: Watching 'Grandma,' listening to a Paul Weitz podcast

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

Last week we wrapped up our powerhouse August of Indie Focus Screening Series events with “Z for Zachariah,” followed by a Q&A with star Chiwetel Ejiofor, and “Learning to Drive” with a Q&A with stars Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley. Both will soon be available to listen to as podcasts online.

Our recent screening of “Grandma” was followed by a revealing one-on-one conversation with writer-director Paul Weitz.

You can listen to our Indie Focus podcast with Paul Weitz here

Check here for more info on future events: events.latimes.com/indiefocus/

'Grandma'

Besides our new podcast episode, we talked about the movie “Grandma,” a starring vehicle for Lily Tomlin, when it opened the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this summer. And I wrote about it around its premiere at Sundance too.

Now that it’s in theaters, more reviews have come through. In the Los Angeles Times, Michael Sragow declares that Tomlin “has a genius for embodying tough individuals incisively, without fuss or sentimentality.”

Julia Garner as Sage, seeking an abortion, sparks a road trip into the past and present with Lily Tomlin as her grandmother, Elle. (Sony Pictures Classics)

Sragow also pays special attention to a knockout scene with Sam Elliott, noting, “In this duet of equals, they explore the confusion that surrounds an unbalanced marriage, an ill-planned abortion and the emergence of sexual identity. That scene provokes arguments that can't be resolved with a wisecrack.”

In the New York Times, critic A.O. Scott declares of Tomlin, “Someone should start a petition to put her face on the $20 bill. It wouldn’t solve all our problems, but it would be a pretty good start.”

The LA Weekly's Amy Nicholson went for a drive around town with Tomlin in the very car used in the film, Tomlin’s own 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer named Dora Bannister.

'Digging for Fire'

Few filmmakers are as prolific as the Chicago-based Joe Swanberg, and few seem as divisive either. His work has proved to be a lightning rod of opinions. His latest, "Digging for Fire," features a strong cast that includes Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell.

Jake Johnson in "Digging for Fire." (Ben Richardson / AP)

I recently sat down for a Sunday Conversation Q&A with DeWitt about the movie and her career.

Richard Brody at the New Yorker has been a strong champion of Swanberg’s work, and in writing about the new film, he said, "Swanberg’s earlier collage-like improvisations conceal an unerring sense of form; now, his open-ended clarity masks the looming chaos of ordinary life and suggests the daily heroism of confronting it."

In the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “The modesty of ‘Digging for Fire’ is among its virtues and Mr. Swanberg has become an increasingly trustworthy filmmaker. He doesn’t necessarily have a lot to say, but he always makes sure that he knows what he’s talking about.”

On the other side of opinion, the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, whose review also appeared in the L.A. Times, said, "One of these days I hope I respond to a Joe Swanberg movie the way some do. His work has gradually acquired a technical proficiency over the years, and his methods of structured improv clearly ring a bell with plenty of very good actors."

Writing for Grantland, Amos Barshad noted, “The look, the sounds, the cast — everything is bigger and better. The optics are there. The narrative is ready to be fulfilled. And so why does Fire feel like it all fizzles out at the end?”

In part because he's been such a prolific presence on the film festival circuit and independent film scene, I have written quite a bit about Swanberg as well. Here’s an article on his 2013 film “Drinking Buddies,” which in essence launched a new phase for him, as well as something on when he began that career transition with three films in the 2011 AFI Fest.

'She's Funny That Way'

Peter Bogdanovich is a tricky one. He has made a handful of genuinely great films — “The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon,” “Targets,” “They All Laughed” — intriguingly odd, hard-to-classify movies such as “What’s Up Doc?” “At Long Last Love,” “Saint Jack,” “The Thing Called Love” and all manner in between.

“She’s Funny That Way” is his first film since 2001’s “The Cat’s Meow,” and it is a treat to have him back. The new film, executive-produced by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, stars Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Will Forte, Jennifer Aniston and Kathryn Hahn, and is a throwback farce.

Imogen Poots and Owen Wilson in "She's Funny That Way." (KC Bailey / Clarius Entertainment)

The reviews have nevertheless generally not been kind. In the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis noted, “A few good women and a handful of amusing lines are far less than we expect from such an intelligent, resourceful filmmaker.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Robert Abele said the film is “so hopelessly nostalgic about the madcap fizz and fury of screwball pictures, it never works up a head of steam as a funny, in-this-moment comedy on its own."

On the bright side, NPR's Ella Taylor said the film “comes across as put together with the oh-why-not abandon of a man with not much to lose and an abiding love of Golden Age comedy, whether there remains a market for it or not. What I like about the movie is its seasoned wisdom and kindness about the tragicomic asymmetry of love, or lust, or some combination of the two that, if we're lucky, gets all of us into trouble at some point in our lives. 

As Bogdanovich himself recently said to the L.A. Times’ Josh Rottenberg, "It's been a very up-and-down kind of existence."

Garret Bradley at UCLA

The UCLA Film and Television Archive will be featuring two films by Garrett Bradley, a New Orleans-based independent filmmaker and an alumna of UCLA, on  Aug. 28. The event will feature the North American premiere of “Cover Me,” which opened earlier this year at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, as well as Bradley’s 2014 film “Below Dreams,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Bradley is scheduled to be at UCLA for a post-screening conversation.

In a program guide, UCLA programmer Paul Malcolm said, "'Cover Me' takes us into the subjective experience of a young, Millennial artist working through various ways of being and performing in the world, both in public and private. It's thematic terrain that has been the gist for countless American indie films over the last decade, but Bradley approaches it in a unique way that strips the subject down to its essences. ... Together, 'Below Dreams' and 'Cover Me' clearly announce Bradley as an important, rising talent."

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

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