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Indie Focus: The A-list of B-titled movies with ‘The Big Sick,’ ‘The Beguiled’ and ‘The Bad Batch’

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

Some of the most exciting movies so far this year have opened this weekend, and oddly enough they have titles all starting with the letter “B” – “The Big Sick,” “The Beguiled” and “The Bad Batch.” In their own way, each grapples with what audiences can want and expect from modern movies.

There are also two movies opening Wednesday that are likewise among my favorites of the year, Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja” and Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver.” There will be reviews and more for both in next week’s newsletter, but for now a pair of teaser/previews.

Justin Chang talked to Bong, the South Korean filmmaker with his own idiosyncratic take on genre. Bong talked about the multi-lingual, cross-cultural storytelling of “Okja” by saying: “I wanted a feeling of bewilderment: How can a person from one universe come into contact with a person from another?”

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And I talked to Wright about “Baby Driver” – another “B”-titled movie! – and the British-born filmmaker’s idiosyncratic take on genre. In the movie, a young getaway driver meets a girl and hopes to strike out on his own. “I did like the idea of starting the film with the fantasy of being a getaway driver and ending it with the nightmare of being a criminal,” Wright said.

We have two very exciting screening events coming up in July, with some guests we have been wanting to talk to for quite some time. For updates on future events, go to events.latimes.com.

Emily (Zoe Kazan) and Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) in “The Big Sick.”
Emily (Zoe Kazan) and Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) in "The Big Sick."
(Amazon Studios)

‘The Big Sick’

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One of the biggest hits of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “The Big Sick” is written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon based on their real-life relationship. Nanjiani stars in the film alongside Zoe Kazan in a contemporary rom-com about family, tradition and medical emergencies.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote: “Conventionality is a funny thing, though (and so, for that matter, is “The Big Sick’). The beats and patterns of the average American comedy can often feel as moribund as those of, say, the noisy, CGI-encumbered superhero epic. But as ‘Wonder Woman’ recently demonstrated, all it takes is the savvy adjustment of a single element — not necessarily limited to the protagonist’s gender or ethnicity, though there are worse places to start — for something straightforward to look positively radical.”

The Times’ Jen Yamato spoke to Nanjiani and Gordon and asked them a few pieces of relationship advice. The two spoke about the realization that they didn’t see everything the same. As Gordon said, “We literally had different emotional experiences of the same events in our lives. Sometimes he would remember more details and sometimes I would remember more because they were more salient to me. But it was always the emotional radius of events that we’d agree or disagree about.”

“And how we experienced them,” added Nanjiani. “Some things, I’d be like, ‘That was such a great memory!’ and she’d say, ‘No — I was miserable!’ There was a lot of that.”

Reviewing the film for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis said: “Comedy is said to be hard; mostly, I think, by comics. Romantic comedy is apparently even tougher, at least from recent onscreen evidence. Few filmmakers know how to fit contemporary men and women, straight or gay, into narrative forms that were developed once upon a time. In ‘The Big Sick,’ Mr. Nanjiani and Ms. Gordon vault over that hurdle with openness and delight, revitalizing an often moribund subgenre with a true story of love, death and the everyday comedy of being a 21st-century American.”

At Vulture, Emily Yoshida said: “The best thing you can say about ‘The Big Sick’ is that having Kumail Nanjiani as a romantic lead is maybe the 11th most remarkable thing about it. Say what you will about producer Judd Apatow, but his rambling house style is a universal normalizer; five minutes in, you’ll swear ‘The Big Sick’ is the 28th Pakistani American girlfriend-in-a-coma romantic-comedy-drama you’ve seen.”

Sofia Coppola in Beverly Hills.
Sofia Coppola in Beverly Hills.
(Christina House / For The Times)

‘The Beguiled’

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Sofia Coppola won the best director prize at Cannes for “The Beguiled,” her counterpoint adaptation of the same novel that was the source for a 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film. In Coppola’s film, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning are among the inhabitants of a Southern all-women’s school fending for themselves during the Civil War when a wounded Union soldier arrives among them. Just as if Colin Farrell showed up at your door one day, much emotional intrigue and sexual tension ensue.

Reviewing for The Times, Justin Chang wrote: “There is more to Coppola’s moody sorcery than an eye for fine embroidery and Antebellum real estate. Films as unique and vivid as ‘Lost in Translation,’ ‘Marie Antoinette’ and ‘Somewhere’ have established the director as a quietly meticulous observer of individuals in enclosed environments, and here she once more displays uncanny patience and intuition, letting the story rise and fall on the subtlest shifts in emotional temperature.”

The Times’ Amy Kaufman spoke to Coppola and Dunst about their ongoing collaboration. Coppola talked about how she sees the project as different from her previous films.

“This was kind of an experiment, and I liked trying a different style of filmmaking,” Coppola says. “I’ve never used a lot of dialogue before, because in real life, people don’t express themselves that way. They show things through gesture. Nobody can show their feelings. I try to make things based on my impression of how they are in life, which is not as tidy and organized. More impressionistic, to give you the feeling of something.”

At the New York Times, A.O. Scott called the film “a study in moods and implications, picking up difficult, volatile themes and then carefully putting them down again,” adding “a fairy tale but you could also describe it as a horror movie, a quasi-Western and a revenge melodrama, perhaps too many things at once. Most effectively, though — and largely thanks to Ms. Kidman’s regal, witty performance — it’s a comedy, a country-house farce about the problems caused by an inconvenient guest.”

At Buzzfeed, Alison Willmore gave voice to the growing counter-response to the film’s depiction, or lack thereof, of race in the Civil War-era South. “It’s more than frustrating that ‘The Beguiled’ is so adroit about the pageantry of privilege when it comes to gender and so negligent in treating race as something separable… In a film that is so explicitly about white femininity, this omission doesn’t feel like the skipping of a topic too significant to be done justice to — it feels instead like willful blindness.”

In an essay at The Daily Beast, Ira Madison III also addressed the issue, writing that “Coppola has been our foremost raconteuse of Caucasian stories, from ‘Marie Antoinette’ to ‘Lost in Translation’ to the aforementioned ‘Virgin Suicides.’ There are plenty of people who could tackle a black female slave’s inclusion in a story like ‘The Beguiled,’ but Coppola is the last person you should ever want it from. In an era where we can now task black filmmakers with telling our own stories, like Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen, and Barry Jenkins, why should we have white filmmakers depict black bodies in situations as harsh as the Antebellum South?

Actress Suki Waterhouse, left, and director Ana Lily Amirpour, from the film ‘The Bad Batch,’ photog
Actress Suki Waterhouse, left, and director Ana Lily Amirpour, from the film 'The Bad Batch,' photographed in the L.A. Times photo studio at the 41st Toronto International Film Festival
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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‘The Bad Batch’

Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after only one feature film, the vampire Western “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Her new film, “The Bad Batch,” is a psychedelic, apocalyptic tale of a young woman (Suki Waterhouse) facing down a harsh and unforgiving world. The movie also features Jason Mamoa, Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey.

The movie is designed in no small part to shock and provoke, and among those who did not entirely respond to it is our own Justin Chang. In his review for The Times he wrote, “As a politically barbed fantasy, “The Bad Batch” is intriguing but facile; as a bid for cult-classic status, it’s strained and self-conscious (though it is fun to see Reeves pimping and Jim Carrey slumming as a mute vagrant). Amirpour has vision to burn, and inside this not-so-bad batch of splendid atmospherics and half-baked ideas is a leaner, sharper movie trying to chew its way out.

Jen Yamato spoke to Amirpour for a story publishing soon. The filmmaker said by way of forewarning audiences, “It’s ‘The Bad Batch.’ It’s not ‘The Medium Batch.’ It’s gnarly.”

In her review of the film, Amy Nicholson at MTV News compared the film to Amirpour’s debut feature when she wrote, “Amirpour has ambitions bigger than the art house. She wants to make big, colorful blockbusters too, and ‘The Bad Batch’ feels like an audition reel to take over ‘Mad Max’ if George Miller ever hands over the keys. ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ could only have been made by her, a director who’d dream up a bloodsucker gliding on a skateboard in a batwing chador. ‘Bad Batch’ is more generic, but only by comparison. Amirpour’s brutal, sunbaked Western still feels like a gateway drug to her brain.”

And here is Amirpour in conversation with Rian Johnson, director of the upcoming “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” for the Talkhouse podcast.

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

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