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Indie Focus: Taking in ‘Her Smell’

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

This is one of those weeks where a ridiculous number of new releases are opening in Los Angeles. Aside from the three main titles given the spotlight in the body of this week’s newsletter below, there is director Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” with a dazzling section in 3-D, and Nia DaCosta’s “Little Woods,” starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James.

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Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is being released at last. There is also a pair of strong documentaries, with Penny Lane’s “Hail Satan?” and Pamela B. Green’s “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.” And if you simply refuse to leave the house there is even Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s “Someone Great,” new on Netflix and which has been receiving positive reviews.

We’ll have more screening and Q&A events of our own coming up soon. For info and updates, go to events.latimes.com.

Elisabeth Moss in a scene from "Her Smell."
Elisabeth Moss in a scene from "Her Smell." (Donald Stahl / Gunpowder & Sky)

‘Her Smell’

Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry and told with an unusual five-act structure, each act being a single extended scene, “Her Smell” is the story of a ’90s-era rock star named Becky Something (played with molten fervor by Elisabeth Moss) through the ups and downs of her life and career.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang called it “a blistering, exhilarating eruption of raw talent and nerve,” before going on to say about the character of Becky that, “She’s a virtuoso construct, a brash and incorrigible persona masking a bundle of insecurities. She is also a reminder that someone we might not care to spend five minutes with in real life can turn out to be riveting, even rewarding cinematic company.”

For a story that will be publishing soon I spoke to Perry and Moss along with musicians Alicia Bognanno and Anika Pyle, who wrote original songs for the movie.

As Moss put it, the music had to serve the emotions of the story and the moments when they would be included: “We were making a movie about this band and this woman and this era, but you weren't trying to make a movie about music necessarily. So every song had to really be a part of the story. … There's no fun in it if I'm just sitting down and playing a song. What is the emotional moment? What am I saying with that particular song at that particular time, and how can I act my way through this?”

At Vulture, Emily Yoshida wrote about how Keegan DeWitt’s churning, thrumming score amplifies the movie’s out-of-control vibes, and that “tellingly, the more anxiety-inducing scenes come at the end of the film, when Becky has clawed her way to a hard-won sobriety, and there’s suddenly far more to lose than there ever was in those halcyon days bouncing around in label offices for the camera. In a climate in which more and more creators are compelled to discuss and depict disordered states onscreen, ‘Her Smell’ is a rare project that feels holistic enough to actually capture such a state, not just refract it through an audacious formal exercise. The thrum goes away, but we spend the rest of the film anxiously fearing its return.”

Reviewing the film for Time, Stephanie Zacharek explored the connections between Becky Something and real-life musician Courtney Love, writing, “or me, watching her as Becky brought back that circa-1994 Love, like a ghost from the planet of jagged memories. ‘Her Smell’ is an uneven movie, occasionally dipping into clichés. But Moss’s performance works as a distillation of one of Love’s signature lines, from the song ‘Doll Parts’: Becky knows what it costs to be the girl with the most cake.”

For Pitchfork, Kristen Yoonsoo Kim also traced the connections to Love by writing, “Even at her high points, Becky’s always on the verge of eruption — a quality that made Love so enthralling to watch during her early album cycles. Likewise, Moss is all snarls and mischievous mugs, and seeing which one she serves at any given moment is part of the film’s disturbing thrill.”

Andrew Garfield in a scene from "Under the Silver Lake."
Andrew Garfield in a scene from "Under the Silver Lake." (A24)

‘Under the Silver Lake’

One of the most delightfully devious films to come along in quite a while, “Under the Silver Lake” is finally being released after numerous delays, unleashing its playful confusion on audiences at last. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, the movie stars Andrew Garfield as an L.A. layabout who finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into a world of hidden codes and secret conspiracies when a girl from his apartment complex (Riley Keough) goes missing.

Reviewing for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The writer-director David Robert Mitchell can take some comfort in the fact that his latest will be embraced by an ardent few, and indeed has been already. That’s hardly the least fitting outcome for a movie that has been elaborately designed as an object of cult worship. … It’s the puzzle as pastiche, at once an absurdist riff and an endearing, elephantine folly.”

I spoke to Mitchell and Garfield for a story that will be publishing soon. For as much as the film garners comparisons to other L.A. detective stories, Garfield compared his character to the very New York persona of “Taxi Driver” when he said, “I liked it because it felt like this kind of West Coast slacker Travis Bickle, responding to a really unjust, [messed] up world and thinking that he was going to be the one to clean up the streets even though he was totally impotent and powerless. But inside there is that longing, there was that desire to be important, to be valued, to be seen and to do something important.”

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In his review for the New York Times, A.O. Scott compares the movie to Mitchell’s earlier work, noting, “The ambitions this time are grander, but also vaguer and duller.” Scott added, “Which isn’t to say that ‘Under the Silver Lake’ is without some diverting qualities … there are some moments of humor and surprise embedded in the overwrought intricacies and long slack stretches of the plot. But beyond the coy nostalgia and the timid satire is a feeling of bottomless exhaustion.”

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Writing for Vulture, Emily Yoshida said, “After all the rabbit holes and secret codes and hidden messages, ‘Under the Silver Lake’ is just sad it’s not getting laid. But if that doesn’t sound like a movie for our time, I don’t know what does.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a scene from "Fast Color."
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a scene from "Fast Color." (Jacob Yakob / Codeblack Films)

‘Fast Color’

Directed by Julia Hart, who co-wrote the script with Jordan Horowitz, “Fast Color” is a low-key science-fiction superhero story that is also very much a tale of family and heritage. Set in a near-future where water has become a scarce commodity, the movie stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint and Saniyya Sidney as three generations of women uncovering the powers they have within themselves and discovering all they are capable of.

In his review for The Times, Kenneth Turan called the film, “smart, adventurous and surprising” before adding, “Though most contemporary science fiction is dystopian by design, the thrust of ‘Fast Color’ is finally anything but. This is a film that leaves you uplifted instead of worn down, and that is another reason, in addition to all the others, to cherish and support it.”

Jen Yamato will be publishing a new story on the film soon, having already covered the movie off its world premiere at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. Then, Hart said, “‘Fast Color’ came out of this idea of moms as superheroes. I’d never seen a mom who was literally a superhero in a movie before.”

At the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “A small, intimate story that hints at much bigger things, ‘Fast Color’ sometimes feels like a prologue, an appetizer for a meal that may or may not appear … Rewarding despite its restraint, the movie has an elasticity that pushes the imagination in any number of directions, offering an expressive allegory for a lineage of powerful black women whose strength, unleashed, could literally shake the earth.”

For The Wrap, Monica Castillo added, “In a sense, “Fast Color” is like an indie superhero origin story, but it feels so much more profound than that, like a whispered blessing from one generation to the next: ‘Go tear apart the sky,’ do what our mothers could never have imagined for us.”

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

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