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Indie Focus: On the move with 'American Honey,' 'Denial' and Beyond Fest

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

The last few weeks have seen the deaths of two very different filmmakers, both of whom will be quite missed. Curtis Hanson was a journeyman and craftsman of the very best kind, as a writer on movies like “The Silent Partner” and “White Dog,” a maker of solid entertainment in movies like “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and “The River Wild,” and reaching for and achieving something more with “L.A. Confidential” and “Wonder Boys.” There were fine appreciations for him from both Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang here at the L.A. Times and Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

Herschell Gordon Lewis was a maker of a very different kind of movie, a master of low-budget, freewheeling gore pictures that were just pure fun with titles like “Blood Feast,” “The Gore Gore Girls,” “She-Devils on Wheels” and “Color Me Blood Red.” I had the honor of speaking to Lewis a few years back, and as he said to me then, “As you may or may not be aware, I am given credit or blame for starting this whole genre of motion pictures which we now call ‘splatter films.’”

Our events this past week, screenings and Q&As for the movies “Christine” and “Audrie & Daisy” were both really terrific, a mixture of insight and emotion. We’ll have more events coming up soon, with filmmaker Kelly Reichardt and her latest, “Certain Women,” and the legendary Pedro Almodóvar and his “Julieta.” I am personally very excited about both.

Check events.latimes.com for more info about upcoming events.

‘American Honey’

Andrea Arnold is one of those filmmakers who seems to be touched by magic. Her movies come about with a maddening infrequency, each at once uniquely its own and somehow obviously completely hers. Arnold’s latest film, “American Honey,” is her first time making a film in the States and is structured around the “are we there yet” feeling of a long round-trip through the Midwest, where everything always seems a few hours away.

The film follows a girl named star (Sasha Lane in a dynamic debut) who joins up with a group of ragtag vagabonds traveling the country selling magazine subscriptions overseen by Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and Krystal (Riley Keough). The film is a vivid series of encounters with a country at once old and new, bound by tradition and spasming into something else, a portrait of spiritual growth and rebirth.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “‘American Honey’ is less a character study than a full-on sensory immersion in a young woman’s rapidly shifting consciousness. It’s also an impromptu musical, a go-for-broke generational snapshot and a shimmering deconstruction of the romance of the open road, not to mention an actual romance.”

A.O. Scott in the New York Times called it “a roaming, rambling road picture propelled by sex, hip-hop and close-ups of insects. It probes the murk and terror beneath the surface of contemporary life, and illuminates the vital role of ignorance, poor judgment and wishful thinking in our national character … ‘American Honey,’ long and messy as it is, is by turns observant and exuberant, and sweet in a way that is both unexpected and organic.”

Writing for Sight & Sound, Alissa Simon added, “Although the grungy sub-culture setting of this coming-of-age tale/road movie calls to mind the work of filmmakers such as Larry Clark and Harmony Korine, and the photography of Robert Frank, Danny Lyon and William Eggleston, the film’s concerns and style are very much of a piece with Arnold’s previous films.”

I’ll be publishing my own story on Arnold and the movie soon. Arnold has directed a few episodes of “Transparent,” so I reached out to series creator Jill Soloway to ask what she found so special about Arnold and her work.

“She's my hero!” Soloway said in an email. “What she does with her art making is a way of holding feeling in her seeing, using the frame to invoke desire in a way I’d never seen before.

“To me, she’s like my Scorsese, a feminist Cassavetes or Altman. She brings her own wild open style that has her absolute signature voice in it.”

‘Denial’

Written for the screen by David Hare and directed by Mick Jackson, known for “The Bodyguard” and the TV movie “Temple Grandin,” the movie “Denial” is a solid prestige drama driven above all by a compelling story well told and three powerful performances. In a story drawn from true events, Rachel Weisz plays American historian Deborah E. Lipstadt, who is sued for libel in the British courts by David Irving (an unnerving Timothy Spall) for having referred to him as a Holocaust denier. Soon, in part due to the specifics of British law and a strategic barrister (Tom Wilkinson), Lipstadt’s defense is to tear down Irving’s own historical work by, in essence, proving the existence of the Holocaust in court.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “If and how Lipstadt makes her peace with all this, along with the gripping way things go in the courtroom, is what ‘Denial’ is all about. Great issues can make up for not great filmmaking, and that is what happens here.”

In Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “The picture is methodically constructed, to the point that it’s sometimes dull. But here and there it sets off a mini-charge, building up to a subtly satisfying conclusion. Most significant of all, it’s an adult drama that doesn’t talk down to its audience. And it’s one that forces us to reckon with the reality that some individuals have no shame about distorting the facts with bluster and bullying. How far we let these manipulative aggressors go is up to us.”

The obvious implications of what Zacharek wrote were inadvertently confirmed by my recent interview with Weisz, as she mentioned what was at least some part of David Hare’s inspiration for taking on the story.

“I think David was inspired to write it really in response to Donald Trump,” she said. “So people who are protected by the freedom of speech just lie and lie and lie and lie and lie and lie. There are situations where you can be held accountable for your lies, and this was one of them. There’s a difference between a fact and an opinion. And the movie proves that. I hope that it inspires anyone, particularly young people, to stand up to bigotry and this casual racism.”

Beyond Fest

For anyone who has been reading about Toronto’s Midnight Madness or Austin’s Fantastic Fest over the last month or so, it can be easy to feel left out. For those in Los Angeles, Beyond Fest is here to fix that. In its fourth year, the festival is bringing many of the most exciting new films from the genre festival circuit, including Ana Lily Amirpour’s “The Bad Batch” and Julia Ducournau’s “Raw.”

The festival is also screening a number of older titles, including a 70mm screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey” with stars Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood in attendance, a 35mm showing of “Big Trouble in Little China” followed by star Kurt Russell in conversation with “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn and the martial-arts classic “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,” with a live score performed by hip-hop legend RZA.

“Beyond Fest is very much fan-focused,” festival co-founder Christian Parkes said to me recently. “It’s really just, ‘We are fans, and we just want to share films with as many people as possible.’”

The festival kicked off with a screening of Paul Schrader’s new film “Dog Eat Dog” followed by a 40th anniversary screening of “Taxi Driver,” for which Schrader wrote the screenplay. The American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre will be running a series highlighting his tough, uncompromising work as director and screenwriter all through October.

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

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