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Indie Focus: Heady pleasures at South by Southwest Film Fest and in 'Personal Shopper' and 'Raw'

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

As this hits your inbox, I am with Jen Yamato in Austin, Texas, covering the South by Southwest Film Festival. I always find this festival to be a highlight of the year, a place both for discovering fresh new voices and for seeing off-center mainstream films that benefit from the raucous audiences and upbeat atmosphere.

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Back in Los Angeles, we have two more exciting screenings coming up, with Marc Webb's "Gifted" on March 30 and James Gray's "The Lost City of Z" on April 3. Exact details for the Q&As are still being worked out, but these should both make for great events. Keep on the lookout for updates at events.latimes.com.

Michael Fassbender, from left, Bernice Marlohe, Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara at the "Song to Song" premiere on March 10, 2017, in Austin, Texas.
Michael Fassbender, from left, Bernice Marlohe, Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara at the "Song to Song" premiere on March 10, 2017, in Austin, Texas. (Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for SXSW)

South by Southwest Film Festival

South by Southwest is a real highlight of the annual calendar. This year, in particular, looks to be an exciting one, mixing films by fresh talent with new work from filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Terrence Malick. I filed a preview/overview of this year's fest, and we'll be covering the big premiere titles and the new discoveries too.

Jen was at Friday's opening-night screening of Terrence Malick's "Song to Song," starring Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling in a story of romantic complications set against the world of Austin's music festivals.

"Every day was different," Gosling said of Malick's unconventional style. "Suddenly, Patti Smith was there, and she's with you for a few days and you get to hang out with her and watch her work."

And I was at Friday's night screening of "Alien," with new footage from the upcoming "Alien: Covenant."

I talked to Noël Wells about "Mr. Roosevelt," which she wrote, directed and stars in. In the film she attacks the archetype of the "quirky girl," and as a performer she shifts gears from a manic comic energy to something with more emotional depth with startling speed.

"The trick that I have in my back pocket is that I am very OK with becoming very vulnerable really fast and just being incredibly honest," she said. "It's the most interesting part of people, and the most interesting things about characters is when you get to see them flip."

I'll be dropping interviews with Frank Oz for "Muppet Guys Talking — Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched," with Aaron Katz for "Gemini" and with Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman for "Lemon." Jen will have a story on musician Warren G and the doc "G-Funk." And besides all the other work she'll be doing, Jen is on a panel about film festival karaoke that should produce some of the finest videos of all time. Stay tuned.

Kristen Stewart in "Personal Shopper."
Kristen Stewart in "Personal Shopper." (Carole Bethuel / IFC Films)

'Personal Shopper'

The collaboration between filmmaker Olivier Assayas and actress Kristen Stewart seems to have paid off for a second time with "Personal Shopper," the tale of a young woman in Paris attempting to connect with her dead brother. The film is part ghost story and part treatise on modern malaise.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang called the film "a quietly profound portrait of grief and loss, and perhaps Assayas' most surprising attempt yet to grapple with the anxieties of modern life — a global condition in which strange new connections are forged and seemingly rigid boundaries are violated." He added of the film and its star, "It is also, first and foremost, a testament to the eerie powers of Kristen Stewart, a movie star who has now twice pulled off the trick of chipping away at her celebrity and redefining the boundaries of her talent in the same instance."

Jen spoke to Stewart, who talked of the techniques to her live-wire performances. "Rather than trying to show someone something, accidentally revealing something is so much more interesting," she explains. "I always want to set myself up, to put myself within parameters so I can just completely lose it, so it's always me. I can't bring anything other than myself."

Also in The Times, Akiva Gottlieb wrote an overview of Assayas' work, noting its deep connection to the disassociations of modern life, saying, "These films — which are being celebrated at Cinefamily this month, alongside the release of his latest film, 'Personal Shopper' — are fluent in an international lexicon of cool. The best of them are restlessly modern, coolly erotic, obsessed by the communicatory possibilities of new technology."

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In the New York Times, A.O. Scott compared Stewart's performance to that of Maggie Cheung in Assayas' films "Irma Vep" and "Clean" in the way that Stewart exudes 'a quality of self-enclosed detachment that becomes its own peculiar form of intensity. She possesses an uncanny ability to turn her natural charisma into diffidence. You can't take your eyes off her, even as she seems to be making every effort to deflect your attention, to obscure her radiance, to disappear onscreen.

In Film Comment, Jonathan Romney wrote about the film, finding an unlikely connection, "'Personal Shopper' is built around a disparity between the abstraction of the idea of contact with the dead and the quotidian familiarity of text messaging and Googling. That contrast is essential to a key idea in the film: that the realm of digital communication is to us what the supernatural was to past generations."

Julia Ducournau, director of "Raw."
Julia Ducournau, director of "Raw." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

'Raw'

Among the most talked-about recent movies has been Julia Ducournau's French-language cannibal movie "Raw." Besides a strong debut from Ducournau, it also features an impressive lead performance from Garance Marillier. Visceral, upsetting and with deeper issues on its mind, "Raw" arrives fully formed.

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In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Chang wrote "Ducournau is hardly the first filmmaker to mine the body-horror lexicon for ripe pubescent metaphors, but hers may be the most audacious and controlled spin on this particular tale to emerge in some time .… Ducournau embraces the tenderness and the ferocity in her material (Jim Williams' score amplifies the contradictions beautifully), and she cleverly uses the veterinary setting to collapse the assumed distinctions between woman and beast."

At Vulture, Emily Yoshida noted that following the recent boom in stories about zombies, "Now cannibalism, one of humanity's greatest taboos, is having its moment in the spotlight. The time seems right: We seem to be bulldozing past all other niceties these days, why hold back from eating each other?"

At the LA Weekly, April Wolfe said of the film "'Raw' isn't derivative — it's fresh, funny and grounded in reality. Underneath all the blood and guts, this is the story of a woman whose body demands love in extremity and the only person who'll ever understand her fully: her sister."

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

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