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Indie Focus: Studying character with ‘Mudbound,’ ‘A Fantastic Woman’ and ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’

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

It’s easy to get cynical about awards season. Last weekend’s Governors Awards ceremony set in motion what soon will be a conveyor belt of accolades, as the machinery of the season grinds on toward the Oscars.

But for as much as there is to take for granted and see the entire process as predetermined, sometimes it’s nice to remember that this all can indeed matter, that it can help films get to wider audiences and help talent in establishing themselves for future projects.

It is that spirit that motivated Glenn Whipp to tag along with Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, the real-life couple whose courtship formed the basis for “The Big Sick,” a movie they wrote together and in which Nanjiani stars along with Zoe Kazan.

None of this is lost on them just yet, as Nanjiani summed up their mutual feeling by saying, “We are freaked out.”

He added, “The most inspiring thing about all this is you get to meet and talk to people who are these sort of demigods to you, and you realize they’re just normal people,” Nanjiani said. “And that’s really inspiring.”

“I’ve had famous women talk to me about how they navigate going to the bathroom in a new relationship,” Gordon added, referring to a key courtship scene in “The Big Sick.”

“Once you’ve talked about that, you can talk about anything.”

And on Monday, we’ve got another exciting event with a screening of “Call My By Your Name” followed by a Q&A with director Luca Guadagnino and cast members Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg.


“Mudbound” was one of my favorite films at Sundance in January, and it has remained one of my favorite films of the year, all the way to its release now. Director Dee Rees brings together an expansive cast and ambitious multi-character storytelling into something direct and deeply emotional. Examining the intertwined lives of black and white families in rural Mississippi leading up to and after World War II, the movie is quite simply a powerhouse of filmmaking and performance, with a cast that includes Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund and Mary J. Blige.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote that “Rees has made her most sprawling and ambitious picture to date.” He went on to add, “The radicalism of ‘Mudbound’ thus lies in its inherently democratic sensibility, its humble, unapologetic insistence on granting its black and white characters the same moral and dramatic weight. … In a film industry that has only begun to correct its default position of presenting black suffering almost exclusively through a white gaze, this is no small achievement.”

For The Times, Tre’vell Anderson spoke to Mitchell, who said he hopes the film’s swing into violence will cause people to take a closer look at themselves. “I want people to just hold up that mirror to himself: Are you OK? Are you making the right decisions? Are you a good person? If you died today, would God have a reason to not let you in [heaven]? We’ve got to start making people uncomfortable in themselves and not being comfortable being racist or homophobic or any of that. We’ve got to cut that out from the inside.”

Anderson also spoke to producer Charles D. King, who besides “Mudbound” also worked on “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

I spoke to Rees during the Toronto International Film Festival, who said, “I think the thing that it shows is that all our histories are connected. It’s not like your history and my history. This story and the way the story is structured shows these intertwining narratives that make up a singular, collective history.”

At Time, Stephanie Zacharek said, “ ‘Mudbound’ works as a thumbnail picture of midcentury American racism and injustice, and as a reminder of how slowly things really change in this country, as much as we like to think of ourselves as progressive thinkers and lovers of freedom. But you can’t just write ideas on the screen: Your performers have to embody them, and there’s not a minute in ‘Mudbound’ that doesn’t feel deeply felt and believable.”

Calling the film “a significant leap in scope and scale” for Rees, Ashley Clark at Film Comment goes on to write, “I can’t say I’ve seen a film quite like the swirling, leaping, endlessly empathetic ‘Mudbound.’ ”

‘A Fantastic Woman’

Chile’s submission for the foreign language Academy Award, “A Fantastic Woman,” is the story of a trans woman named Marina who has to deal with the family of her lover after his death. Marina is played by trans actress Daniela Vega, who has received nothing but accolades for her performance.

The film’s writer and director, Sebastian Lelio, has had quite a year. “A Fantastic Woman” premiered at Berlin early in the year, and by the time the film came to Toronto in the fall, Lelio had another film “Disbedience,” starring Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz. This week, it was announced he was remaking his own film “Gloria” with Julianne Moore in the lead.

Reviewing “A Fantastic Woman” for The Times, Justin Chang called the film “compassionate and captivating” before adding that within the context of Lelio’s other work, “the words ‘A Fantastic Woman’ suggest not just a dead-on title but also an ardent declaration of artistic principles — a commitment to exploring and celebrating the inner lives of women with the intelligence and sensitivity they deserve but don’t always receive.”

Tre’vell Anderson spoke to Vega, who when asked what her hope for the film might be, said, “I hope that everybody watches the movie and sees that it’s been produced from a place of love and it’s been produced to raise a lot of questions. One of them? What is left for the next generation? A better world, or not?”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “The title of Sebastián Lelio’s new film might seem a bit on the nose. It’s a fantastic movie. Daniela Vega, the star, is fantastic in it. Quote me in the ads, with exclamation points if you must. My work here is done.”

‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is an odd, moody character study about an odd, moody character, an activist lawyer played by Denzel Washington with supporting performances by Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo. After spending years working in the backroom of a law firm with his ideals in the abstract, Roman is suddenly pushed into the world and confronted with enacting those same ideals in the here and now of contemporary reality. Needless to say, it’s a challenge.

In his review for The times, Kenneth Turan wrote: “In his four-decade-long career, Denzel Washington has played heroes and villains, ministers and miscreants and everything in between. ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ is not like any of them, not even close. … To call the title character idiosyncratic and eccentric is not the half of it.”

I talked to Gilroy after the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. “He was light years ahead of me with the character by the time we started shooting,” Gilroy said of Washington. “It was his character. He was authoring the character; he was bringing the character to life.”

More recently I sat down with Gilroy and Washington together in Los Angeles for a story that will be publishing soon.

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