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Indie Focus: Wasting away with ‘The Beach Bum’

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

The movie world, and really just the world in general, suffered a great loss this week with the death of filmmaker Agnès Varda at age 90. She was a vital part of the French New Wave of the 1960s who, over a prolific career, maintained a personal, idiosyncratic style as she moved easily between fiction features and documentaries.

She recently received an honorary lifetime achievement Academy Award in the same season that she was nominated for a competitive Oscar for best documentary for “Faces Places.” Her life and her work serve as a beacon.

Times film critic Justin Chang wrote a heartfelt appreciation of Varda. As he put it, “A pioneering woman of cinema, a pillar of the French New Wave, an experimenter, a master, a spiritual mentor, a bestower of joy: The miracle of Agnès Varda lay not merely in all that she accomplished, which was enormous, but also all that she succeeded in meaning to those who knew her.”

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In book and film news: The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is coming up April 13-14. On the first day of the festival, there will be a screening of Victor Fleming’s 1933 film “Bombshell” starring Jean Harlow, followed by a conversation between myself and Karina Longworth, author of the vital new book “Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood.” Tickets are available online.

We’ll have more screening events coming up soon. For info and updates, go to events.latimes.com.

Matthew McConaughey in a scene from “The Beach Bum.” Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/ NEON/ Vice
Matthew McConaughey in a scene from "The Beach Bum."
(Atsushi Nishijima / NEON/ Vice)

‘The Beach Bum’

For his first film since 2013’s “Spring Breakers,” writer-director Harmony Korine returns with “The Beach Bum.” A freewheeling tale of sun-stroked South Florida hedonism with an unexpected dash of lyricism, the movie follows the misadventures of a hard-living poet named Moondog, brought to indelible life by Matthew McConaughey. The supporting cast includes Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Martin Lawrence, Stefania LaVie Owen, Zac Efron and Jimmy Buffett.

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Reviewing “The Beach Bum” for The Times, Justin Chang said the movie, “has an infectiously shambling, loosey-goosey vibe,” before adding: “There’s something haunting, and quietly lacerating, about McConaughey’s portrait of a man who has effectively anesthetized himself to pain, who has made the pleasure principle an all-consuming philosophy.”

I spoke to Korine for our entertainment podcast “The Reel.” Korine is a spinner of fabulous tall tales, and though he was reluctant to acknowledge any elements of autobiography in the saga of Moondog, he said of the time he spends in Florida, where he now lives, “I have this little boat in Key Largo and I’ll get a bunch of Taco Bell crunch wrap supremes and a couple liters of Mountain Dew. And I bought these electronic poker machines. And so I can just sit out there and get all soupy and, just, I feel good. That’s kind of where I need to be.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr said of the film’s star, “In some ways it’s the part he was born to play. Whether or not that’s a good thing for him, or unsuspecting audiences, is unclear, but McConaughey gives and bares (nearly) all for this film. And it mostly works.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “ ‘The Beach Bum’ is barely a movie; it’s more of a joyous squiggle adorned with a paper cocktail umbrella, a ‘What did I just see?’ dollar-store trinket. But in these dark times, it’s just the ticket.”

Mary Kay Place as ?Diane? in Kent Jones? “Diane.” Credit: IFC Films
Mary Kay Place as Diane in Kent Jones' film.
(IFC Films)

‘Diane’

Written and directed by esteemed film critic and programmer Kent Jones in his narrative feature debut, “Diane” is first and foremost a showcase for actress Mary Kay Place in the title role. Place plays a woman who fills her days helping others, including her drug-addicted son, as a way to avoid really working on herself. The film won three prizes when it premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Justin Chang reviewed “Diane” for The Times, writing the triumph of the film “is that the movie, no less than its heroine, refuses to be diminished. What looks at first like a solid, well-carpentered exercise in downbeat indie realism ends up, by dint of its unexpected tonal and temporal leaps and sudden formal ruptures, in less easily definable territory.”

Susan King spoke to Place, not only about “Diane,” but also about her entire career. Place and Jones met at a film festival some six years ago where he said he would like to write a screenplay for her. And then he did.

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“I was really kind of blown away because I knew I wasn’t a bankable name, so I thought ‘They’ll never get the money to make this movie,’ ” Place said. “But it’s really nice to have somebody that you respect say that they would write a movie with you in mind. … I was very nervous to read it because I thought, ‘What if I don’t like it or I don’t relate to it or don’t feel I can do it?’ ”

Reviewing for the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “In the context of the modern multiplex, ‘Diane’ amounts to an act of cinematic bravery, not just in its choice of tough-sell material, but in the patience with which Jones tends it. … The movie offers a rich and tender study of a woman hollowed out by remorse. For Diane, the past, far from being a foreign country, is where she has lived for a very long time.”

Cynthia Dankwa (Esi) in a scene from “The Burial of Kojo.” Credit: Ofoe Amegavoe/Direct Current Mgmt
Cynthia Dankwa plays Esi in "The Burial of Kojo."
(Ofoe Amegavoe / Direct Current Mgmt/Array)

‘The Burial of Kojo’

Distributed by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing, “The Burial of Kojo” is the feature debut for Ghanaian musician turned filmmaker Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule. The film tells the story of a young girl named Esi (Cynthia Dankwa) reflecting on the life of her father, Kojo (Joseph Otsiman), told in a bold style that blends the supernatural with more realist impulses.

Reviewing for The Times, Carlos Aguilar wrote, “Wonderfully atmospheric and culturally enriching, ‘The Burial of Kojo’ truly qualifies as a spellbinding experience.”

For the New Yorker, Richard Brody said, “In its bold and limpid lyricism, the film is both an anguished delight in itself and an exemplar of dramatic freedom that should stand as a model for some filmmakers and a reproach to others.”

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

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