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Indie Focus: Fresh perspectives in 'Widows,' 'At Eternity's Gate,' and 'Jinn'

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

The 2015 film “Creed” was full of unexpected treasures as it revitalized the venerable “Rocky” franchise. Now the new “Creed II” hits theaters in time for the holidays, bringing back main cast members Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson and Sylvester Stallone. Directing this time is Steven Caple Jr. as the film smartly builds on “Rocky III,” “Rocky IV” and “Creed.”

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Times critic Justin Chang called the film “the rare sequel that doesn’t wind up feeling like the same old mistake.” Tre’vell Anderson also spoke to Jordan, Thompson and Caple about the project. “You don't want to mess up something that is already good,” Caple said of the challenges of the sequel.

A film garnering attention ever since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Green Book” is the fact-based story of a Italian American man (Viggo Mortensen) driving an African American musician (Mahershala Ali) on a tour of the Deep South in the 1960s.

As Kenneth Turan said in his review for The Times, “Consider this a warning. You may be tempted to push back against ‘Green Book,’ may be itching to proclaim it too pat, too obvious, too much of a setup job, but resistance, as they say, is futile. It’s deeply embedded in this film’s DNA to make us feel good, and, really, what could be wrong with that?”

And for a different road trip movie, there is Hannah Fidell’s smartly silly comedy “The Long Dumb Road,” starring Jason Mantzoukas and Tony Revolori. For The Times, critic Michael Rechtshaffen called the pair “a terrifically entertaining odd couple.”

There are still plenty of L.A. Times events focusing on awards season coming up, including a screening of “The Kindergarten Teacher” followed by a Q&A with actress Maggie Gyllenhaal on Monday, Nov. 19. For info on all these events, go to events.latimes.com/screenings

Viola Davis, left, Cynthia Erivo, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki in "Widows"
Viola Davis, left, Cynthia Erivo, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki in "Widows" (Merrick Morton / 20th Century Fox)

‘Widows’

Directed by Steve McQueen, who co-wrote the film along with Gillian Flynn, “Widows” is a sleek heist movie that is also a deeply felt look at how race, class and gender affect people’s lives. With a packed ensemble cast, in the film Viola Davis plays a woman forced to steal to pay off her husband’s debts after he dies while committing a robbery. The cast also includes Elizabeth Dibecki, Michelle Rodriquez, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Bryan Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya.

Reviewing for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “‘Widows’ doesn’t muster much hope for men in general, who are always arguing and barking orders when they’re not stabbing and shooting one another in the back. Male power — political, institutional, relational, physical — is shown to be an oppressive force and a banal fact of life.”

Tre’vell Anderson spoke to McQueen and Flynn about their adaptation. As Flynn said, she was excited by “the idea that you can keep the audience excited and use the engine of a heist thriller to kind of keep them on the edge of their seats while you're talking about really interesting issues of the day, in this case race and gender and poverty and big-city corruption.”

At Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “There’s little about this dark vision of urban corruption and do-it-yourself grand larceny that’s fun, per se. But working with ‘Gone Girl’ author Gillian Flynn, with whom he adapted the script from a 1980s British television series by ‘Prime Suspect’ creator Lynda La Plante, McQueen has created a tense and satisfying action drama with a decidedly feminist bent.”

For the Associated Press, Lindsey Bahr added, “The ensemble is a blast. Everyone gets their moment and you come away feeling like you really got to know most of them, but it is Davis and her unforgettably searing intensity (and killer wardrobe) who owns ‘Widows’ from start to finish.”

Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate."
Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate." (Lily Gavin / Elevation Pictures)

‘At Eternity’s Gate’

Directed and co-written by artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, “At Eternity’s Gate” is a portrait of Vincent Van Gogh that attempts to capture the way he saw the world, adapting a deeply interior and subjective point of view. In the lead role, Willem Dafoe won the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival.

In his review for The Times, Kenneth Turan said, “Dafoe’s work, the look in his searching, despairing eyes, feels beyond conventional acting, using intuition as well as technique to go deeply into the character, putting us in Van Gogh’s presence.”

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For The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Schnabel is interested in this difficult, mercurial man and attentive to his hardships. Strikingly, though, his interest has a rare quality of tenderness to it, perhaps because, unlike most filmmakers who make movies about great artists, he is fundamentally preoccupied with art itself.”

At Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson added, “Van Gogh’s struggle with the world was one of pushing it away, and trying to pull it close — all at once. ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ is good at capturing that dizzying contradiction — and the poor soul at its center.”

Actress Simone Missick, left, director Nijila Mu'min, actress Zoe Renee and producer Avril Z Speaks of "Jinn."
Actress Simone Missick, left, director Nijila Mu'min, actress Zoe Renee and producer Avril Z Speaks of "Jinn." (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

‘Jinn’

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The feature debut for writer-director Nijla Mu’min, “Jinn” is a semi-autobiographical story of a high school girl (Zoe Renee) navigating her own identity after her mother (Simone Missick) converts to Islam.

In her review for The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “‘Jinn’ is a familiar story, told in a cultural context rarely depicted on film, and Mu’min’s approach is so lyrical and empathetic that it feels completely fresh and new. “

I spoke to the team behind the film ahead of its world premiere earlier this year as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival. As Mu’mim said, “Growing up, the people I was around, I never saw them on screen. And I know they exist .… To be able to show them in this light, in a real, textured, flawed light is important to me.”

At Vulture, Emily Yoshida wrote, “Mu’min’s script is pleasantly inquisitive, and its refusal to arrive at easy answers is its engine. ‘Jinn’ is a special little film, one that never lets its complicated, contradictory characters become abstractions, but instead revels in all the disparate elements that make them who they are.”

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

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