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Indie Focus: Problems big and small in 'Certain Women,' 'Blue Jay,' 'Aquarius' and 'Desierto'

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

This past week we had Q&A events with Kelly Reichardt and "Certain Women" and Pedro Almodóvar and "Julieta." This week we'll have screenings and Q&As for a pair of documentaries, with "The Eagle Huntress" with filmmaker Otto Bell and subjects Aisholpan Nurgaiv and Rhys Nurgaiv along with "We Are X" and director Stephen Kijak and subject Yoshiki.

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And we've got more events coming up over the next few weeks. For more information, check in with events.latimes.com

'Certain Women'

Making movies with an unassuming power, Kelly Reichardt is among the most reliable filmmakers on the American independent scene, creating work with deep emotional insight and a subtle social relevance. Her latest, “Certain Women,” is a graceful stunner, starring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone in three lightly connected stories adapted from the work of writer Maile Meloy.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang called the film "eerily close to quiet" also noting that Reichardt "piercingly captured the despair and isolation of characters dwelling at the margins of contemporary American society."

Director Kelly Reichardt, center, surrounded by actors Michelle Williams, from left, Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart at the "Certain Women" premiere at the New York Film Festival.
Director Kelly Reichardt, center, surrounded by actors Michelle Williams, from left, Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart at the "Certain Women" premiere at the New York Film Festival. (Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images)

In the New York Times, A.O. Scott called Reichardt "a poet of silences and open spaces" while going on to note that "the subtlety of the film is both an accomplishment and a limitation. It's hard not to want more for these women, and to wish you could see more of them."

At Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote that the film "burns slow, but it leaves behind a mysterious, shimmering aura. You feel you know these women — even if their feelings are at times elusive even to themselves."

Alice Gregory visited Reichardt as she was finishing the film for the New York Times Magazine.

"The characters are just sort of an extension of the landscape they're in," Reichardt said. "They're a product of the places they're from and their troubles — their everyday troubles."

'Blue Jay'

In "Blue Jay," directed by Alex Lehmann and shot in crisply nostalgic black and white, Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass play high school sweethearts who run into each other years later. Friendly catching-up soon turns into a deeper emotional reckoning for both of them, as their feelings for one another may not be as far in the past as they seemed.

The Times' Amy Kaufman sat down with Duplass and Paulson to talk about the film's unusual genesis in something of a late-night attack of emotions for Duplass.

"I lead the complex life of a 39-year-old husband, dad, runner of businesses," Duplass explained. "But once, I was just a 15-year-old who would stay up all night crafting a journal entry about my feelings. I was melodramatic and romantic, and I didn't edit myself. But I suddenly woke up feeling like that person had died, and I didn't know how to get that person back."

In his review for The Times, Gary Goldstein noted "Paulson and Duplass are strong, engaging performers, but for much of the film's brief running time they seem to be enjoying themselves far more than we are."

Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass star in "Blue Jay."
Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass star in "Blue Jay." (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

For NPR, Ella Taylor wrote "Paulson is way overdue for a lead role, and though 'Blue Jay' is minor fare — a modest chamber piece directed by Alex Lehmann from one of Duplass' lesser scripts — it's a great vehicle for her to run up and down the emotional scale without breaking a sweat."

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At the A.V. Club, Mike D'Angelo added, "At its best, though, this paean to youth's unfulfilled dreams, as seen from the cusp of middle age, achieves a rueful poignancy."

'Aquarius'

In Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho's "Aquarius," actress Sonia Braga plays the last remaining resident of an apartment building and holdout against encroaching developers.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang said "Mendonça Filho, a former film critic, is both a gifted sensualist and an instinctively analytical storyteller, and in the course of just two features he has established himself as an unusually incisive chronicler of his country's social malaise."

Sonia Braga as Clara in "Aquarius."
Sonia Braga as Clara in "Aquarius." (Victor Juc / CinemaScupio)

In Film Comment, Yonca Talu added, "With 'Aquarius,' the filmmaker reaffirms his desire to address the contemporary tensions of Brazil, but does not ascribe explicit political ambitions to his film. Rather, he seems to be one of those artists primarily drawn to story and character, whose uncompromising humanism makes their work inherently political today."

For Sight & Sound, Jordan Cronk called the film "a potent portrait of personal and political struggle, one all the more universal for how specifically and intimately it expresses its concerns."

In September, Simon Romero wrote from Brazil for the New York Times to report how the film was controversially not chosen as the country's submission for the foreign-language Academy Award.

'Desierto'

Written and directed by Jonás Cuarón, "Desierto" is an immigration thriller about a man (Gael García Bernal) who attempts to cross the border from Mexico to the United States to rejoin his family and finds himself in the crosshairs of a border vigilante (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

In her review for The Times, Katie Walsh said the film "is a generic thriller that happens to be wrapped in political packaging. That packaging is sometimes more interesting than the thrills themselves, but the film is bare enough to project what you want onto it. It seems that Cuarón was looking to flex his suspense muscles, and there are a few very good sequences of classic suspense thriller filmmaking."

Actors Gael García Bernal, from left, Jonás Cuarón and Jeffrey Dean Morgan from the film "Desierto."
Actors Gael García Bernal, from left, Jonás Cuarón and Jeffrey Dean Morgan from the film "Desierto." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The Times' Tre'vell Anderson spoke to García Bernal about how the movie "depicts our biggest nightmare that will come from division, hatred and from letting that type of rhetoric exist. The platform is already set for something [major] to happen, so there's a lot of work to do to counter that and to bring people together to talk with positive, goodwill rhetoric about how we can continue on with the future."

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

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