Ranking the 2016 Austin Film Festival, Part 1
The weather has been excellent for the 2016 Austin Film Festival, which is fortunate because the lines have been long. The movies, though. . . well, let’s just say I’d take last year’s rain if it meant I could also have last year’s slate.
4. The Man Who Was Thursday
If you think the Dan Brown movies are dumb (and I’m not saying they are, necessarily; I’m a sucker for medievalism in any form), stay away from the religious pseudo-thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. Its pretty/gritty production value is decent enough, but the nonsense story about a faithless priest and a cell of anarchist terrorists wouldn’t even pass muster as the plot of an Assassin’s Creed game. Not until halfway through are stakes introduced, and they are quickly muddled by time-travel mechanics that make less sense the more exposition we endure. The helpless actors, including Ana Ularu who will soon appear in Ron Howard’s Inferno, can read the pointlessly puzzling lines, but they can’t create emotional or philosophical meaning from a story that’s as thin as Bible paper.
3. Electric Nostalgia
Electric Nostalgia has an appealing premise – the uploading of consciousness from one body to another, possibly-artificial body – but much like last year’s highly-acclaimed Ex Machina, I was disappointed by the film’s focus. Ex Machina, to my disappointment if seemingly nobody else’s, dealt not with questions of consciousness but of manipulation; Electric Nostalgia’s script sticks to the realm of conscious phenomena, but devotes so much time to a mystery that isn’t really a mystery (we know whodunnit almost right away) that it only intermittently achieves the thoughtful, tragic tone it aims for. This is writer/director Jacob Leighton Burns’s debut film, and he has chosen to present it in black and white, which may not be thematically necessary but does elevate the aesthetic beyond that which is usually expected of a first-time festival entrant: the movie’s many visual odes to the Universal Frankenstein movies, for example, are fun and well-staged.
Jackie doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself from other biopics structurally, stylistically, or philosophically, but it does one very powerful thing that only a handful of biopics get to do: depict the death of a president. The most powerful moments in Pablo Larrain’s movie, an adaptation of a Noah Oppenheim script (two women behind me noted with some displeasure that it was men who created this movie about a First Lady), are the scenes in Dallas. We always see it from Jacqueline Kennedy’s perspective: her husband at her side on the airplane, then on the tarmac in a throng of photographers, then in the motorcade, and finally her husband’s destroyed skull lying on her lap as the car speeds toward Parkland Memorial Hospital. That chilling, indelible day elevates by its intrinsic horror a movie that otherwise trudges obviously and unconvincingly through the aftermath of the assassination. Natalie Portman gives a laboriously tearful performance as a woman suddenly deprived of what little power she had trying to control what little they will let her control at a moment that tests her strength, faith, and family. Yet as hard as Portman works to convey the character, the script doesn’t have a compelling or substantial reading of Jackie to offer us. What it has is a nice-looking recreation of the White House and its environs circa 1963, another searching eulogy for Camelot to throw on the pile, and some hit-and-miss platitudes from an Irish priest played by John Hurt.
Early in Loving there’s a scene that takes place around a dinner table. Richard Loving, who is white (although almost nobody mentions that until the lawyers show up) is talking about cars with his wife and in-laws, who are black (although almost nobody mentions that until the lawyers show up.) Having been conditioned by Spielberg-style historical movies to cringe in anticipation of the Important Message, I thought to myself, “By the end of this scene a hush will have fallen on the table and soft music will start playing and someone will say something profound.” I was thrilled when the car conversation simply ended and the movie cut to the next scene. After a few more false alarms, and after even the lawyers were denied a scene in which to pontificate on the Important Message, I realized that this was not Spielberg-style Great Man/Great Woman, statuesque, handed-down-from-on-high history, where the key figures already seem to be living saints. This was something, if not entirely real (what movie is?), at least real-er. Richard and Mildred Loving are part of a specific, local culture and environment, deeply connected to their families and their piece of the Virginia countryside, and their purpose in this movie is not to be perfect individuals or to justify themselves in grand terms, but to live their lives, pursue their hobbies, have ups and downs, and experience dramatic events like high-profile court cases but also quiet moments like watching The Andy Griffith Show. I enjoyed spending the movie with these people, and I believed in them, even if Joel Edgerton’s mumbling was at times difficult to parse, even if the humor in the lawyers’ scenes fell flat, and even if one or two of those magnificent scenes consisting of low-key car talk could have been cut to shorten the runtime.
The Best Movie I Didn’t See
The Austin Film Festival has a few days left to run, so come back soon to find out if love will continue to conquer all.