Indie Focus: What this year’s Sundance stars are telling us


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

This is a special midweek edition of the newsletter, brought to you from beautiful Park City, Utah. Our Sundance Film Festival team has been hard at work to continue bringing you all the latest news. As usual, photographer Jay L. Clendenin has been running a photo studio bringing through casts and filmmakers for many of the fest’s top titles.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, we will have our first Indie Focus Screening Series event of the year, with the Colombian film “Birds of Passage,’ and a Q&A to follow with producer and co-director Cristina Gallego. After premiering last year at Cannes, the film screened here at Sundance too. For info and updates, go to

Actors Jillian Bell, left, and Lil Rel Howrey, director Paul Downs Colaizzo and actor Utkarsh Ambudkar from the film "Brittany Runs a Marathon" are photographed at the L.A. Times Photo and Video Studio at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)


Though there are still a number of days left in the festival, you can already feel things shifting to a lower gear, as much of the industry presence leaves town and the throngs of onlookers leave the streets. But there are still plenty of movies to catch up on and new ones to discover.

Continuing the paper’s already stellar coverage on the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” in which two grown men allege sexual abuse at the hands of superstar Michael Jackson when they were young, Amy Kaufman and Gerrick Kennedy looked at Jackson’s fan base and how they are dealing with this latest blow to the legacy of their idol. Gerrick also wrote a deeply personal essay about grappling with the revelations of “Leaving Neverland” as a lifelong Michael Jackson fan.

Times film critic Justin Chang has been filing regular dispatches from his outings to the various screening venues at the festival. He took in the rousing premiere of “Late Night,” starring Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson, and also saw the drama “After The Wedding,” starring Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, and the adaptation of “Native Son” starring Ashton Sanders.

Justin also wrote about Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man In San Francisco,” playing in the U.S. dramatic competition. The story actually follows two men, played by Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors, as they grapple with gentrification in their city. Justin’s same dispatch also includes Scott Z. Burns’ political drama “The Report,” starring Adam Driver and Annette Bening, and the documentary “Apollo 11.”

I spoke to some of the team behind “The Report,” including Burns, Bening, Driver and actor Jon Hamm. The film deals with a Senate report on the CIA’s torture program following 9/11. Of creating a political film in the current divisive climate, Burns said, “I really hope that people look at the movie and go, ‘This isn't ancient history.’ This was like four or five years ago, and we were able to put aside partisan politics and make a clear statement about who we're supposed to be in the world.”

Wu-Tang Clan members Masta Killa, U-God and Cappadonna, director Sacha Jenkins, and Wu-Tang Clan members Ghostface Killah and RZA, from the television series, "Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men," photographed at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
(Jay L. Clenenin / Los Angeles Times)

We also hosted a series of panel discussions for films from the festival. Here’s video from our talk for “Brittany Runs A Marathon,” with writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo, producers Matthew Plouffe and Margot Hand and cast members Jillian Bell, Lil Rel Howery and Utkarsh Ambudkar.

From the film “Hala,” we had writer-director Minhal Baig, executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith and cast members Geraldine Viswanathan, Anna Chlumsky, Gabriel Luna and Azad Khan.

Jen Yamato interviewed director Sacha Jenkins and members of the music group the Wu-Tang Clan, for their upcoming docu-series “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men.” Member RZA addressed how the group’s reach has developed over time, saying, “You look in our audience, and at first it was an all-black audience … and as time goes on, it’s every race, creed, gender, everybody is there. Change happens.”

Jen spoke to filmmaker Lulu Wang and star Awkwafina, in her first dramatic leading role, about the film “The Farewell.”

Jen also spoke to the team behind director Julius Onah’s “Luce,” starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Octavia Spencer.

On the film’s bracing take on race in America, Onah said, “There are a number of movies out right now or that have been out recently that explore political and social dynamics in a way that seeks to reassure the audience, or hold their hand a little bit more and uplift you. I’m not saying there’s not room for those kinds of stories … but I do strongly believe that if you’re trying to create culture and create work that helps us change culture, you have to have stories that aren’t just pacifying us.”

Ruth Westheimer, from the documentary "Ask Dr. Ruth," photographed at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Ruth Westheimer, from the documentary “Ask Dr. Ruth,” photographed at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Kenneth Turan wrote about the documentary “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness In Three Movements,” in which filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky deals with how her extended family has dealt with deafness and dementia.

Amy also spoke to Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who is the subject of Rafael Marmor’s documentary, “Ask Dr. Ruth.” Hoping that the documentary continues in the path of the box office and awards season success of so many docs form Sundance last year, Westheimer added, “Put down in the Los Angeles Times, I do want to have an academy nomination at least. I want the recognition for the filmmaker and the producer for the rest of their lives. Because they're going to do many more films, so for them to get an academy nomination is very important. For me, it's going to be fun.”

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