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Indie Focus: Life as enigma and farce in 'Knight of Cups' and 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'

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

I always like to think of this post-awards season period as the Oscars Hangover, when we reset our minds from the small group of films we’ve been focused on so intently for months and months. With more festivals just around the corner, the movie year rolls on.

We’ll have more screening and Q&A events coming soon, so check events.latimes.com for more info.

Nonstop movies. Movies nonstop.

‘Knight of Cups’

The enigmatic, masterful Terrence Malick returns with “Knight of Cups,” a film that in its story of a screenwriter in a moment of crisis is outwardly about the soul-destroying aspects of Hollywood but reveals itself to be a stirring inward journey about how each of us defines ourselves to ourselves.

I spoke to star Christian Bale about the movie, in particular Malick’s unusual and evolving process.

“The whole notion is, let's see what happens, let's discover it, and he always wants to have everyone's full participation,” Bale said of Malick. “He's certainly not a tyrannical dictator director in the slightest. The motto was always let's start before we're ready, which would unnerve a lot of people. But I thought it was wonderful.”

I admit that “Knight of Cups” was for me a movie I struggled with on first viewing but that came to stick with me over the days and weeks after I'd seen it, eventually driving me back to see it again.

Kenneth Turan felt differently when he wrote, “Beautiful yet unapproachable, opaque and occasionally incomprehensible, ‘Knight of Cups’ shares its personality with its self-absorbed Hollywood characters.”

Even with his reservations, Turan allowed that the film is beautiful to look at, thanks to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capturing Los Angeles in a rare way. In his first review as critic at the Village Voice, Bilge Eberi added that “it’s a hell of a thing, watching a filmmaker known for his dreamy shots of nature tackle the surreal, frenzied bustle of modern lust and glitz. He films Los Angeles and Las Vegas like some strange distant planet filled with magnificent, unnatural creatures. … You don't reason your way through a film like this; you let it wash over you, pull you this way and that.”

‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’

Though she did not direct it and is not the credited screenwriter, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is being received as very much a Tina Fey movie, reflective of the persona of its star. (She is also a producer.) Based on the book by Kim Barker, the movie is directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and tells the story of a female journalist sent to Afghanistan as a war correspondent.

Reviewing for The Times, Michael Phillips said, “With a rollicking black comedy set in a war zone, the tone necessarily goes plural as the story careens from the abruptly tragic to the blithely, weirdly funny and back again.

“‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ learns this lesson the hard way, and while it's no disaster, it's oddly indistinct and uncertain.”

In the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday noted, “Between the misfire that was ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’ and the unalloyed disaster of ‘Rock the Kasbah,’ it hasn’t been a particularly edifying period for fish-out-of-water stories featuring funny Americans bumbling their way to self-actualization in exotic, war-torn locales.

“‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,’ an amenable, easygoing version of the story starring Tina Fey, is the least objectionable of the bunch, though it falls prey to some similarly regrettable assumptions.”

Writing for BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen used the film to examine the evolving persona of Fey on-screen and off, adding, “the problem with ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot‘ is that in its attempt to combine farce with melodrama — with a little rom-com slotted in, for no comprehensible reason other than the protagonist is a woman — it fails at all three.”

A Band and a Movie: ‘Days of Heaven’ & Waxahatchee

The Cinefamily’s ongoing program A Band and a Movie is just that: A band picks a movie to show, then plays a set of music afterward. It’s an idea so simple it’s kind of brilliant and among my favorite recent ongoing programs here in Los Angeles. On Monday, March 7, program will feature Terrence Malick’s earlier, unassailable “Days of Heaven,” as chosen by Waxahatchee. Anyone feeling lost after seeing “Knight of Cups” might want to take this chance to reconnect with Malick’s earlier work. The film stars Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard and the young Linda Manz in a story centered mostly on a Texas farm in 1916. In his original 1978 review, The Times’ Charles Champlin declared the film “an extraordinary and original visual experience and a movie which is thrilling in its uncompromised purity.”

Waxahatchee is a project spearheaded by Katie Crutchfield, and like Malick’s movie, her music seems old and new at the same time, while also odd enough to make it singular. A profile in the New Yorker last year noted “the sneaky power of Crutchfield’s short songs, which aren’t nearly as sketchy as they first seem.”

‘Smokey and the Bandit’ and ‘Convoy’ double feature

In many ways, Burt Reynolds is an end-point fulfillment of a certain kind of cinematic masculinity, a man’s man and a ladies’ man of a very specific stripe. At his best, Reynolds always made being in the movies look like fun, nowhere better than in Hal Needham’s “Smokey and the Bandit.” As a film that is such a time capsule of its particular cultural moment, “Bandit” paradoxically makes itself eternal.

The New Beverly will be showing the film over four nights, from the 9 to midnight on a double bill with 1978's “Convoy,” a minor film from the major director Sam Peckinpah.

In his original 1977 review of “Smokey and the Bandit,” Charles Champlin called the movie “internally combusted slapstick” and also declared “it’s all the car tricks you ever did see, whumped and whanged and slewed into one, nothing but and nothing else.” (Sounds good.)

Of “Convoy,” which starred Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw in a story about truckers and highway patrolmen, in his original review, Champlin said that the movie “makes ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ the ‘Citizens Band Kane’ of that limited sub-form of the movies.”

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

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