As the year of artistic pivots continues, Austin Film Festival took their 2020 event mostly virtual — with just a smattering of in-person action at the Paramount Theatre — from Oct. 22 to 29. We settled onto our couches and caught a few flicks. Keep your eyes peeled for these movies in the future (whether in theaters or at home).
If AFF couldn’t have a big blowout this time, it’s nice that they kicked off their virtual festival with "Nine Days," once a selection for the jettisoned South by Southwest 2020. Now, it’s a perfect "film fest-y" flick to remind us of the imaginative fare we love seeing in big rooms of cinema nerds.
Sweater-vested Will (Winston Duke of "Black Panther" and "Us," in star thespian mode here) lives alone in a handsomely worn desert house, where he interviews souls for the chance to be born. He was once alive, actually, so he knows what it’s like on the other side of the wall of televisions in his living room, from where he monitors the people successful enough to win him over and enter the world. When one of those born souls tragically dies, we see Will’s process unfold, as he interviews a handful of potential humans over the course of nine days with the help of an assistant (Benedict Wong, MVP).
The souls run the gamut of personality shading: rigidly ethical (Bill Skarsgård), genial but cowardly (Tony Hale) and in one case that turns Will’s carefully regimented system on its head, curious and uncannily compassionate — Emma (the marvelous Zazie Beetz, of "Atlanta" and other projects far beneath her talent).
"Nine Days," written and directed by Edson Oda in his feature debut, is one of those greatest of arthouse flicks, taking an avant-garde concept — that could risk sounding like bong-driven Philosophy 101 straight from a dorm room — and suffusing the runtime with craft and a humanity that hurts so good.
Duke and Beetz are stunning together. He’s solid, serious and suffering; she’s inquisitive, assured and new, a hot knife of grace through the ice of life’s (and lives’) disappointments. They’re oil and vinegar, chemically opposed but better matched for no one but themselves, swirling together in complement. And, so refreshing to boot, you’d have to be looking too hard to find romance there.
Oda’s given us a reminder that life is a great chance. Be bold, "Nine Days" says, and be gentle. — E.W.
Will Bakke, director and co-screenwriter for this Austin-based party flick, is a huge Richard Linklater fan. This should come as no surprise to anyone who chooses to spend a rollicking 74 minutes at this backyard bash with a charming assortment of oddballs, underachievers and wayward 20-somethings straight out of central casting for "Slacker 2.0."
The overarching theme of "The Get-Together" concerns navigating life in your 20s, depicted in this case as an inevitably awkward and often painful time of transition from collegiate quasi-adulthood into grown-up reality. In a fresh spin on Linklater’s non-linear narrative style, we enter the party three times, following the intertwined stories of a slacker rocker (Alejandro Rose-Garcia, aka Austin musician Shakey Graves); his ex-girlfriend and her new flame (Johanna Braddy and Jacob Artist); and an overly eager ride-hailing driver who can’t seem to get the hang of post-dormitory life (Courtney Parchman).
With strings of Christmas lights in the bedrooms, a keg in the kitchen and beer pong in the backyard, the party itself will feel familiar to anyone who’s muddled through a wasted youth in Austin. Along the way, show-stealing bit players like a stoner waiter wrapped up in his identity as a high school football benchwarmer (Chad Werner) and the party host’s neurotic older roommate who will cut you (Bill Wise) buoy the strong ensemble cast with humorous turns that border on slapstick. But the heart of the film is in the nuanced relationships between the characters, most notably an unlikely kinship between Rose-Garcia and Parchman’s characters that will warm your heart. — D.S.S.
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Imagine if someone adapted "Casablanca" as a Broadway musical, but Kenny G wrote the music.
Just trying to come up with an analogy for how far below its source material the David Bowie biopic "Stardust" manages to wallow. It’s not wholly dreadful, really; it’s just that the drama, which screened on the final night of AFF, is watery and conventional, whereas its subject fell to earth and shattered the sky on his way down.
Johnny Flynn plays the late rock star, here as a pre-superstar iteration suffering poor critical reception of his post-"Space Oddity" work and embarking on a desperate expedition to the U.S. in 1971. The tour is woefully mismanaged, and instead of playing the clubs of his dreams, Bowie is forced to travel across the country in a station wagon with shaggy dog publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) on the world’s saddest junket. Interspersed through this road trip are flashes to Bowie’s life in England, coping with his half-brother’s mental illness and unconvincingly making house with wife Angie (the wonderfully jagged Jena Malone, given nothing fun to do here). The era of Ziggy Stardust is nigh, if only Bowie can fight off his own demons.
There’s a more compelling version of "Stardust" that might have been — the story of one of popular culture’s gods, back when he felt a little more mortal. But Flynn’s confusing take on the singer vacillates between crumpled-up goober and cruel prima donna. (He also, um, does not look like David Bowie. Maybe more Noel Fielding?) The script, from Christopher Bell and Gabriel Range, who also directs, is full of head-clobbering historical references and road movie cliches. And all the talk of insanity, hereditary or otherwise — which Bowie reportedly feared in real life — is treated about as subtly and sensitively as you’d expect from a flick that contains the straight-faced line, "Always room in rock & roll for a bit more crazy."
"What follows is (mostly) fiction," the opening seconds of "Stardust" tells us. Well then, why not just watch Todd Haynes’ Bowie riff "Velvet Goldmine" again? — E.W.
In stark contrast to a political narrative that vilifies refugees as criminals, this gorgeous film examines the profound sacrifices and challenges that stand between a family and the American Dream.
Following a civil war in Angola, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) emigrated to the United States, leaving behind his wife, Esther (Zainab Jah), and daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson). Seventeen years later, Esther and Sylvia win the visa lottery and are allowed to join Walter in his tiny apartment in New York City. But a jubilant reunion sours almost immediately. Esther finds Walter’s cooking bland. The couple’s intimacy is awkward. And Sylvia feels detached from the perfect life her African friends imagine she is experiencing.
Esther survived the separation by throwing herself into the church with fervent piety, while Walter built a life for himself in the new world that included a lover he abandoned out of familial duty. As the two maneuver through a devastating recoupling, Sylvia struggles to use her love of dance to find a place for herself in America.
The story, which unfolds gracefully in three acts told from the perspective of each of the leads, aches with raw humanity. It’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking that feels vitally connected to this moment in time. — D.S.S.
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"The Eagle’s Nest"
Cameroon-born filmmaker Olivier Assoua reportedly made "The Eagle’s Nest" (or "La Vallée des Aigles") for the equivalent of $6,400, but you wouldn’t know it watching this savvy, stylish slice of neo-noir. Set against beauty and hardship in Assoua’s hometown, the film follows two women, Paris (Claude Scholastique Nkou Mbida) and Samantha (Felicity Asseh), best friends with different relationships to the life in which they find themselves. Paris, disillusioned and acid-tongued, wants to emigrate to Europe, by any means necessary. Samantha, vibrant but haunted, has dreams of staying to run her own nightclub. With a found bag of cash comes murder and a pulse-pounding pursuit of both revenge and survival.
Mbida and Asseh, newcomers to acting, sell the grit of two characters with opposing ideas of hope. Both Paris and Samantha face hard knocks with flint and flair, and the actors playing them captivate the viewer.
When it comes to money, we’re all capable of evil, "The Eagle’s Nest" reminds us. Assoua’s debut feature is a twisty, timeline-tossed tale that would please any crime thriller fan. — E.W.
Small-town baker Melanie (Mary Holland) is a good girl with a life gone bad. She’s fumbling through her days with a broken marriage, a broken oven and broken dreams. Meanwhile her best friend, Danny (Betsy Sodaro), a hard-drinking trucker who’s quick to rattle off her top strategies for inciting a bar brawl, has a bum wrist that’s forcing her to forfeit the national arm wrestling championship to her arch-nemesis, Brenda the Bonecrusher (Olivia Stambouliah). Oh, the indignity!
In classic buddy movie fashion, Danny convinces Melanie to escape her everyday existence on a cross-country trucking run that’s really a ruse to enroll her bestie in a dive bar boot camp, designed to shape her into an arm wrestling ringer who can take the title (and win prize money to save the bakery). The odd couple is perfectly mismatched, and as Melanie embarks on an unlikely hero’s journey, wacky high jinks ensue.
This is broad slapstick at its best, with ample pratfalls and abundant loony characters, including one played by comedian Aparna Nancherla, who logs a brilliant cameo as a mermaid gynecologist. Silliness aside, it’s also a heartfelt tale of friendship, self-discovery and embracing a second act. — D.S.S.