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Indie Focus: Life, work and art collide on ‘Bergman Island’

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

The biggest news in Hollywood this week is that the union representing production crews announced it would go on strike Monday if it can’t reach an agreement on a new contract. Work across the industry would come to a standstill, so many are holding their breath to see what happens over the next few days. Anousha Sakoui and Meg James wrote a handy primer on the situation.

This week also brought enough exciting new movies to theaters that I could have put together a whole alternate lineup of movies in addition to those below. New York City’s Metrograph — which just recently reopened its theaters — continues to expand into distribution with a new 4K restoration of Andrzej Žulawski’s 1981 film, “Possession,” starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, who won best actress at Cannes for her performance in a tale that is part intense marital drama, part psychotronic horror freakout. It has been exciting over the past few years to see Žulawski’s work reappraised, and this new release of “Possession” should further stake its place in the contemporary canon. The film is playing a handful of theaters in L.A. and via Metrograph’s streaming platform.

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The Last Duel” is playfully weird and unpredictable, directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener. (Yes, Nicole Holofcener!) Based on the story of France’s last official trial by combat, the film is set in the 14th century and stars Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and a delightfully unhinged Affleck. It is a dramatic tale of power, patriarchy and corruption, told from multiple perspectives. “The Last Duel” is in wide release.

Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is having quite a year, with the release of his “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” coming out this week and “Drive My Car opening next month. “Fortune and Fantasy” is a triptych of romantic tales about which The Times’ Justin Chang wrote, “Hamaguchi has plotted this story with great precision and ingenuity. … The unforgettable closing image contains emotional multitudes, and it throws the meaning of all three stories into subtly clarifying relief: The past may be irretrievable, but the present is still a gift.”

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‘Bergman Island’

Mia Hansen-Løve has long been one of my favorite filmmakers, and her English-language debut, “Bergman Island” may be her best work yet, an insightful examination of the elusive modern work-life balance. Chris and Tony (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) — a couple, both filmmakers — go on a writing retreat to Fårö, the Swedish island where Ingmar Bergman lived and worked. While there, Chris tells Tony about the new script she is working on, in which a filmmaker, Amy (Mia Wasikowska), reignites an affair with Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) when they meet at a friend’s wedding on Fårö. The film is playing now in limited release and will be on VOD on Oct 22.

For The Times, Justin Chang called the film “charmingly mischievous and quietly entrancing” before adding, ”it’s surely [Hansen-Løve’s] most emotionally and intellectually playful [film], her least susceptible to easy classification.”

Justin also wrote, “Amy and Joseph’s story is so gently enveloping that it may take you a while to start parsing the intricate parallels that bind Amy and Chris to Hansen-Løve, or to tease out where this story is headed and what it might mean for a relationship on the verge of either disintegration or salvation. Hansen-Løve seems to be discovering the answers herself as she goes along, which explains why she leaves so much unsaid, often relying on fleeting images — a solo bike ride, a white dress, a child’s smile — to express feelings too bittersweet and evanescent for words. What she leaves us with is a powerfully concrete impression of Fårö itself, as well as a desire to discover, or rediscover, the images that immortalized it. Hansen-Løve may not see in it exactly what Bergman saw, but she is no less in thrall to its strange, melancholy magic.”

I spoke to Hansen-Løve, Krieps and Wasikowska for a story that will be publishing soon. As Hansen-Løve said of the importance of the setting to the story, “I don’t pretend to be an inheritor of him, my films don’t look like the films of Bergman. And I think it’s maybe the worst place directors should go because this place belongs to him. It’s Bergman’s place. So it surprises me that I could appropriate the place to me. What I mean is that what I find really surprising still is that this place — that, obviously, in terms of image, aura, story, in the past and history — really belongs to his films, to him. But although it’s his place, I went there and I found my place and that’s the craziest thing.

“But from the very first time, the very first hour, I spent there, it was always a place of freedom. It made me feel more free in terms of my writing, in terms of what I was allowed to say, how I was allowed to write a story, express myself. Being in Fårö made me feel more free, and I will never be grateful enough towards Bergman that this place allowed that to me. And I really think it’s thanks to him.”

For Vulture, Rachel Handler wrote, “Of course, Hansen-Løve’s movie isn’t about Ingmar Bergman, at least not entirely. It’s much more personal, much more inwardly exploratory for the filmmaker. (It’s full of delicious low-key shade toward her former partner Olivier Assayas). As both a Bergman head and a writer who’s often trying to draw blood from a stone without alienating myself from the people I love, I could understand the magnetic pull she felt toward his void. I was hypnotized by the way she wonders about female artistry — about all of the directions we’re tugged in and the standards to which we hold ourselves — and about who gets to claim ownership over certain works of art or, more broadly, film itself. In the movie-within-the-movie, the groom, on a rant, tells Amy that his grandparents used to see Bergman at the grocery store on Faro, and that he was ‘terribly unpleasant.’ Amy smiles, bemused. ‘Maybe,’ she says, ‘he just didn’t like grocery shopping.’”

For the A.V. Club, Roxana Hadadi wrote, “Set on the island of Fårö, where the Swedish director lived, shot a number of his films, and was buried, ‘Bergman Island’ evokes the rhythms, rituals, and realism of his work without lapsing into beat-for-beat homage. The narrative collapses into memory, explores hypotheticals, and deviates toward imagination. Hansen-Løve’s screenplay explicitly addresses Bergman’s filmography in a way that is thought-provoking for fans but not exclusionary to neophytes. And in its strongest, most evocative scenes, ‘Bergman Island’ feels like peering in someone else’s window, sensing an echo of your own experiences, and marveling at all the ways a stranger could remind you of yourself.”

A man and a woman standing on a boat gaze at each another.
Mia Wasikowska as Amy and Anders Danielsen Lie as Joseph in Mia Hansen-Love’s “Bergman Island.”
(IFC Films)

‘The Velvet Underground’

What more is there to say about the Velvet Underground, one of the most influential groups of the rock ’n’ roll era? Leave it to filmmaker Todd Haynes to find a fresh perspective in his first documentary, “The Velvet Underground,” a vivid chronicle of the band, but also a portrait of the countercultural world of art, music and cinema they emerged from. Told in a fragmented style that is evocative of the era, the movie features interviews with surviving founding members John Cale and Maureen Tucker (with audio recordings of the late Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison), alongside others, including filmmaker Jonas Mekas, artist and actress Mary Woronov, critic Amy Taubin and, more or less stealing the movie, musician Jonathan Richman. The film is in limited theatrical release and streaming on Apple TV+.

The Times’ Randall Roberts called the film a “visually stunning, musically mind-blowing documentary on the band’s origins, influences and work.” He spoke to Haynes, who said, “I didn’t want to make a movie that told you why the band was great. I want to make a movie that showed you why they were great and let you hear it. The biggest challenge for music that has finally gained its rightful place in the canon is to make it be heard with the violence of its freshness.”

Also for The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “The movie is its own collage, too, and breathtakingly so. It’s not some wasn’t-that-a-time collection of anecdotes, but a percolating dream of invention made tantalizingly present through Haynes’ and editors Affonso Goncalves and Adam Kurnitz’s evocative blend of archival footage, artistic references, interviews … and all that music. Foregrounding the movie visually is Haynes’ masterful use of a restless, size-shifting split screen as a language of juxtaposition, connection and time travel, from which the musical cues can either whisk us into a scene-setting mood or, as when we hear early versions of notable compositions, underscore the evolution of a song. The cascade of imagery — from era-specific ads and the Warhol oeuvre to the work of counterculture gods Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, Barbara Rubin and others — is hypnotically deployed, putting us in the mind-set of creatives who saw possibilities everywhere.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Haynes doesn’t just want you to listen to the reminiscences of band members and their friends, lovers and collaborators, or to groove on vintage video of the band in action. He wants you to hear just how strange and new the Velvets sounded, to grasp, intuitively as well as analytically, where that sound came from. And also to see — to feel, to experience — the aesthetic ferment and sensory overload of mid-60s Manhattan. … Drop a needle on any Velvet Underground record — or queue up a playlist, if that’s how you roll — and what you hear will sound new, frightening and full of possibility, even on the thousandth listen. ‘The Velvet Underground’ will show you where that perpetual novelty came from, and connect the sonic dots with other, contemporaneous artistic eruptions. As a documentary, it’s wonderfully informative. It’s also a jagged and powerful work of art in its own right, one that turns archaeology into prophecy.”

For Film Intuition, Jen Johans wrote, “Ego, attitudes, communication breakdown, and infighting — all accelerated by drugs, insecurity, posturing, jealousy, uncertainty, and the era — in the film, we’re given an engrossing ‘he said,’ ‘she heard,’ ‘I think,’ ‘you recall,’ overview of the band. And along the way, Haynes worries less about fact-checking, follow-ups, or sourcing certain claims than he does in making his ‘Velvet Underground’ vibrate on a darkly intoxicating, dissonant frequency that we might’ve expected to come from Cale’s viola or Morrison’s guitar. … While admittedly, there are times I longed for more details about certain songs (‘Heroin’ gets the lion’s share of the screen-time) as well as the post-Nico and Cale albums or more analysis of the personnel changes, it’s all told with so much affection, color, and vigor that it immediately draws you in with its too much too-muchness.”

Musicians John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed on stage in the movie "The Velvet Underground."
John Cale, from left, Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed in an archival photograph used in “The Velvet Underground.”
(Nat Finkelstein / Apple TV+)

‘Introducing, Selma Blair’

Directed by Rachel Fleit, the documentary “Introducing, Selma Blair” does just that, reconnecting audiences with the actress know for roles in “Cruel Intentions,” “Legally Blonde” and “Hellboy” — and also Todd Solondz’s “Storytelling” and “Dark Horse” — with a startlingly intimate portrait of her recent health struggles, as she was diagnosed with multiplesclerosis in 2018. The film is in limited release now and will be streaming on Discovery+ on Oct. 21.

For The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “It’s safe to say no well-established artist with the healthy type of ego wants their next starring project to be about them at their most vulnerable, instead of what they can produce at their fullest capability. But with the documentary ‘Introducing, Selma Blair,’ Rachel Fleit’s up-close chronicle of the ‘Cruel Intentions’ star’s life with MS, Blair uses the intimate follow spot to offer up a confessional self-portrait with no less blood, sweat, laughter and tears than a scripted role might demand. She may have a terrible co-star inside trying to upstage her, but with humor, strength and messy honesty, Blair makes a memorable case for why her show must go on.”

For IndieWire, Kate Erbland wrote, “Blair, best known for her work in films like ‘Cruel Intentions’ and ‘Legally Blonde’ — a proud supporting actress, as she tells it — isn’t exactly resigned to her fate, and Rachel Fleit’s ‘Introducing, Selma Blair’ lets that spirit, and all the emotions that come with it, frame this raw and often very funny documentary. The film orients Blair as the leading lady of her own life, a brash and hilarious presence who is so disarmingly honest that it’s difficult not to feel invested in her within minutes of the film’s opening. … There’s just one problem: Now that we’ve really met Selma Blair, it’s tough to not want to see more of her and her unusual life. With any luck, this introduction is only the beginning.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Inkoo Kang wrote, the film is a reintroduction of sorts to the Cruel Intentions and Legally Blonde co-star (Blair was always keenly aware of her place in Hollywood as a supporting actress, she says). … Fleit boasts two tremendous assets for her debut feature: Blair’s witty charm and purposeful lack of self-consciousness. (She does retain a relatable vanity about her appearance, though it’s unclear to what extent it’s genuine versus a put-on for the camera.) During her lighter moments, the actor is a puckish delight to be around, like the kind of friend who doesn’t have to try very hard to make you laugh. In her darker, more philosophical moments, Blair is no less fascinating, as when she discusses her dying, never-seen mother. ‘My mom tethered a darkness to me,’ the actor says, her desire for a different kind of mother-daughter relationship hauntingly present.”

A close-up of Selma Blair in a turban and dark lipstick.
Selma Blair in an image from the 2021 documentary “Introducing Selma Blair.”
(Discovery+)


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