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Indie Focus: Renewal and rediscovery with 'First Reformed,' 'Book Club' and 'Cold Water'

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

The newsletter team is back from vacation as our Cannes team has been hard at work covering this year's festival.

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Justin Chang has been writing daily diaries, capturing first-look impressions of movies like "Cold War," "Ash Is the Purest White," "Burning" and many more. (Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Shoplifters" won the top prize.)

Kenneth Turan spoke to Spike Lee about his "BlacKkKlansman," which the filmmaker declared is "a wake-up call" for America, as well as to Ron Howard about "Solo: A Star Wars Story."

A scene from "2001: A Space Odyssey."
A scene from "2001: A Space Odyssey." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Turan also spoke to Christopher Nolan about the newly struck 70-mm prints of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," now playing in Los Angeles, which have been made in an attempt to bring contemporary audiences as close as possible to the experience of seeing the film in its original run in 1968.

In her first time at the festival, Amy Kaufman captured a different side of the event, from walking down the famed red carpet to attending a ludicrously overblown party to honor, of all things, a very expensive ice cream cooler. She also took a close-up look at the very much not-in-competition "Gotti."

We have two screening events this week. On Tuesday we will show "American Animals" followed by a Q&A with director Bart Layton and actor Blake Jenner. On Wednesday we'll show "Hearts Beat Loud" with writer-director Brett Haley and actor Nick Offerman. For info and updates on future events, go to events.latimes.com.

Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried in "First Reformed."
Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried in "First Reformed." (A24)

'First Reformed'

Paul Schrader has long been the creator of fearsome work that mixes the cerebral with the visceral, whether in his screenplays for "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" or works he directed such as "American Gigolo" and "Light Sleeper." His new film "First Reformed" has been widely heralded as a culmination of many of his longtime preoccupations, as a small-town pastor (Ethan Hawke) attempts to help a troubled environmental activist and takes on a new burden as his own.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, "Layering his story with grim warnings about the horrors of climate change and the co-opting of Christianity by the conservative right, Schrader's movie begins in quiet introspection and ends with a crescendo of political rage. It is an exquisite piece of filmmaking and also a blunt, pulpy instrument, a despairing, fully sustained howl of a movie that is easily this director's finest work in years."

Schrader spoke to Jeffrey Fleishman for The Times, who said of the film's central character, "He has despair, angst. And he rightly recognizes in the young boy Michael that we're all woken up in the middle of the night with a sickness unto death. The ecology situation is new, but the blackness is not. He sees a kindred spirit in this boy who has a similar disease of the soul, and it reminds him of his own suffering. Is he really an ecological activist or has he just caught this virus? The virus that makes his suffering more important. What he's going through is essentially quite selfish."

In his review for the New York Times, A.O. Scott said of Schrader that "a certain studiousness afflicts even his most accomplished work as a screenwriter and director, a tendency to put his erudition ahead of his instincts. 'First Reformed,' with its evident debt to Dreyer and Bresson (most obviously 'Diary of a Country Priest'), might seem to follow in this vein, but it works through its influences to achieve an uncanny directness. It is the portrait of a soul in torment, all the more powerful for being so rigorously conceived and meticulously executed."

For the Associated Press, Lindsey Bahr added, "'First Reformed' is the kind of film that will stay with you long after the credits. Whether or not it's a swansong for the prolific screenwriter and director, it certainly feels like the ending of at least a certain chapter that will surely be remembered as one of Schrader's finest."

At Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins wrote, "Schrader's film is a wise, shocking, intellectually prodigious masterpiece. It's a classic Schrader slow burn that seems to reach, in its final moments, for the impossible. For rapture, if that's even what you'd call it. And then the film ends — snuffed out mid-breath. Good luck catching yours."

From left, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen in "Book Club."
From left, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen in "Book Club." (Melinda Sue Gordon / Paramount Pictures)

'Book Club'

In "Book Club," Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen star in a story of a group of friends who find their lives rekindled in unexpected ways when their book club reads "Fifty Shades of Grey." They also drink wine, spend time in tasteful interiors and, frankly, that's all audiences really need to know.

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Reviewing the film for The Times, Katie Walsh said, "This movie is either in your wheelhouse or it's not, but for those looking forward to 'Book Club,' it delivers. For what it is — a breezy bit of Nancy Meyers-like fantasy, featuring four beloved actresses talking about sex, baby — it's exceedingly enjoyable. But beyond its shiny surface and real estate pornography, the picture, directed by Bill Holderman and co-written by Holderman and Erin Simms, is a way to talk about the dehumanizing ways older people are desexualized in our culture and a rallying cry against that trend."

At the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday added, "As an example of fan-fic-fic, 'Book Club' bears next to no resemblance to the steamy literature to which it pays mostly tepid homage. But it has brio, rueful humor and celebratory verve that is nearly impossible to resist."

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For Vulture, Emily Yoshida wrote, "But as it turns out, 'Book Club' is only tangentially 'about' the 'Fifty Shades' trilogy, and that's what makes it so smart. It uses E.L. James's notoriously silly BDSM saga as shorthand for a kind of romantic adventurousness, but the four leads all quickly pick up the beat and explore that idea on their own, outside the limited realm of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. They never get around to picking up any chains or whips, but at least one of them creates a Bumble account."

Virginie Ledoyen in "Cold Water."
Virginie Ledoyen in "Cold Water." (Janus Films)

'Cold Water'

Though an international breakthrough for filmmaker Olivier Assayas at the time, his 1994 film "Cold Water" never received a theatrical release in the U.S. until now. The movie, set in 1972, is a semi-autobiographical tale of two young people (Cyprien Fouqet and Virginie Ledoyen) who become sweethearts and compatriots to weather the whiplash transitions of youth together. The film is at once energetic and melancholy, vibrantly alive and tinged with sentimental regret. The movie marks a key step in Assayas' development into one of the world's leading filmmakers.

Writing about the film for The Times, Justin Chang said, "What strikes you by the end of 'Cold Water' is just how fast it moves, how swiftly our time spent with these characters simply slips away. As in any Assayas picture, nothing about the story feels calculated or deterministic, or even especially story-like. But it has a momentum that feels all but inexorable, as though picking up its characters mid-stream and flinging them toward a wrenchingly uncertain future."

I recently spoke to Assayas about the film for an interview that will be publishing soon. Besides saying that he doesn't mind that many people think "Cold Water" was his first film (it is actually his fifth), he noted that the movie captures something about his own feelings of being young.

"The more time passes, the more the lines blur and the more it feels like I shot it in the '70s," Assayas said. "To me it's become some kind of screen between me and my own teenage memories. This is the movie I would have made if I could have made movies in the 1970s."

At the New York Times, J. Hoberman wrote about the film, noting, "Mr. Assayas succeeded in making a young person's film when he was on the cusp of turning 40. He has said that he wanted 'Cold Water' to feel like a movie from 1972. It doesn't really, but, perhaps more remarkably, it's so fresh it could have been made now."

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

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