Recently I reviewed the SXSW opening and closing headliners Song to Song and Life. They were far from the only high-profile dramas playing to sold-out houses. Unfortunately I didn’t get in to see what appeared to have been the fest’s biggest hits: Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which earned applause for its soundtrack as well as action sequences, and James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, presented as a work in progress. I did see David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (and got the “Austin Goes Atomic” T-shirt), which also showed just once on the crowded opening weekend.
The blonde in question is the impressive Charlize Theron, who owns this spy thriller that harks back to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, drawing on the graphic novel series The Coldest City. She plays an MI6 agent sent to Berlin to expose a traitorous double agent and secure dangerous Russian intelligence that could extend the Cold War for decades. Besides the Russians, she has to deal with the wacky Berlin bureau chief played by James McAvoy (who was so creepy in Split), a French intelligence femme fatale, and questioning by skeptical bosses. The tangle of murderous espionage and intrigue features some wild fight scenes, escapes, and jaw-dropping twists, set to a propulsive musical score. Theron is terrific as the kickass lethal weapon who outsmarts the rest. The movie, scheduled for a July release, quotes Machiavelli: “It’s a double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.” Mission accomplished.
Here are my picks for other SXSW dramatic selections that merit attention.
Although I skipped it at Sundance, this audience favourite, also due for a July release, is among the year’s best movies. Don’t be put off by the title, which refers to the real-life medical crisis suffered by Emily Gordon, who co-wrote the sharp comedic script with her husband, Kumail Nanjiani (best known as the Pakistani guy on the hit HBO series Silicon Valley). The movie, directed by Michael Showalter, tells the story of how they became a couple despite the hostility of Kumail’s family determined that he marry a Pakistani woman. Kumail plays himself as a sometime Uber driver in Chicago and aspiring stand-up comedian hoping for a break. Emily, played by Zoe Kazan, is a recently divorced grad student with parental issues of her own. They create winning screen chemistry even as their relationship is severely tested. Dramatic comedy doesn’t get any better than this.
The title of this U.S./Spain co-production, awarded the grand jury prize in the narrative competition, is ironic to say the least. Contemporary Manhattan is the setting for a disturbing story that Spanish writer-director-actress Ana Asensio has sourced from her own experience. She plays Luciana, a struggling young undocumented immigrant taking odd jobs to get by. Tempted by a large promised payoff, Luciana is unknowingly drawn into a deadly situation by another immigrant named Olga, whom she considers a friend. The tension builds as the desperate circumstances of these women are exploited, subjecting them to terrifying risks for the gratification of others. Hint: not recommended for anyone with arachnophobia.
This film by first-time director and screenwriter Anthony Onah also draws deeply on personal immigrant experience. The protagonist, Seyi Ogunde (Aml Ameen), is an upwardly mobile young Nigerian immigrant, a Harvard grad with a rich white girlfriend, an outsider trying to fit in and make it as a Wall Street financial analyst while living in New Jersey with his traditional mom, sister and resented father who is disabled by a stroke. Things fall apart as Seyi gets drawn into a lifestyle of party drugs and unethical financial scheming for which he takes the fall. He’s the suspicious black man in another arresting scene. But as the title, which means “better,” suggests, there is a road back that involves both forgiveness and a coming to terms with his roots.
Writer-director Jessica Thompson’s feature debut, which earned an audience award, stars Stephanie Beatriz as Bonnie, a successful young architect living in Brooklyn with boyfriend Matt (Michael Stahl-David). One night after having drinks with co-workers in a bar, she is brutally sexually assaulted. She staggers home before going to a hospital where she cannot conceal the traumatic truth from Matt and evidence is collected in a rape kit. But the shaken Bonnie has great difficulty confiding in others — dissembling to family, friends, and fellow workers. She doesn’t cope well with the consequences, personal or legal, so even her most supportive relationships suffer. The all-too-real complications of that agonized aftermath are what make this film so unsettling.
I confess to being fascinated by this incredible true story directed by Tommy O’Haver, available on Netflix since March 24. Veteran actress Melissa Leo commands the screen in the role of militant atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. The scourge of conservative Christian hypocrites, she wore the “most hated” epithet as a badge of honour. As a single mom in Pittsburgh, she and son Bill gained notoriety in a case that resulted in the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision ending prayer in public schools. The blunt-spoken iconoclast would go on to found a national American Atheist movement with headquarters in Austin, accumulating significant undeclared offshore wealth. Her fatal mistake was to employ ex-con David Waters (Josh Lucas) leading to a 1995 kidnapping and grisly murder not properly investigated for years. The movie jumps around too much to be fully satisfying, but Leo — who gives a terrifying portrayal as a strict Catholic nun in the Sundance drama Novitiate — makes it one to watch.
Noël Wells is a delight as writer-director and lead actress in this offbeat film about an expired cat and mixed-up relationships. It was a popular recipient of the SXSW Louis Black “Lone Star” award. Wells plays the impetuous Emily who has left Austin and boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune) for L.A. where she has a drudge editing job while struggling to make it as a comedian. Her sudden return is prompted by the passing of her beloved kitty cared for by Eric and new perfectly successful girlfriend Celeste (Britt Lower). The fur flies as sad-hilarious situations escalate and the possibility hovers of Emily and Eric getting their groove back.
Mark Webber is the writer, director and central character in this amazing hybrid of documentary and drama drawn from his actual life and family situation in Philadelphia. Mark faces a challenging readjustment after returning from a prison sentence to live with his real mom, Cheri Honkala, and geeky half-brother Guillermo Santos, a bullied 13-year-old diagnosed with Asperger’s. Having survived a tough environment of abusive failed relationships, addictions and homelessness, Cheri shows uncommon strength as a prominent social and political activist (she was the Green Party’s 2012 vice-presidential candidate). The raw realism is especially powerful in the estranged father-son encounters between Guillermo and actual dad, “Big G,” and Mark, and the violent alcoholic father he literally had not seen since the age of five.
Veteran actor Bill Pullman, terrific as the aging grizzled cowboy Lefty, also appears in the festival favourite from Sundance, Walking Out; both framed by Montana’s rugged expansive vistas. Helmed by Jared Moshé, this historical saga tells of rough frontier justice as the interests behind the coming of the railroad clash with defenders of the open range. When Lefty’s longtime patron, Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda), elected senator from the state, is murdered, he’s left in charge of Johnson’s ranch along with the widow Laura (Kathy Baker). Even as Lefty seeks the killer, he is framed for the crime. Treachery is afoot leading up to the office of Jimmy Bierce (Jim Caviezel), an erstwhile friend and fellow rider who is now the governor with bigger ideas. The evidence of this tall-in-the-saddle morality play shows a western genre that is alive and kicking.
In this noirish tale from writer-directors Ian and Eshom Nelms, John Hawkes sinks his teeth into the role of washed-up alcoholic ex-cop Mike Kendall who seeks a measure of redemption by investigating the murder of a young woman who had fallen into drug addiction and prostitution. Ignoring police warnings and pretending to be a private investigator, Mike gets himself hired by the girl’s wealthy grandfather (Robert Forster) and teams up with a pimp named “Mood” (Clifton Collins Jr.), while putting at risk his adopted African-American sister Kelly (Octavia Spencer) and her husband. Serial homicide, blackmail and shootouts ensue to a satisfying conclusion midway through the closing credits.
Evan Katz directs another noirish crime story co-written with Macon Blair from a novel by David Zeltserman. The central character is another outcast ex-cop, Joe Denton (the excellent Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones), who’s served a six-year sentence for attempted murder. Returning to his parents’ home he increasingly clashes with a disapproving religious mom (Jacki Weaver), though it’s his dad (Robert Forster, also in Small Town Crime) who will deliver the coup de grace. Joe is spurned by his estranged ex-wife and two daughters while getting entangled in more deadly scenarios involving a corrupt lawman (Gary Cole), a nurse turned co-conspirator love interest (Canadian Molly Parker), and an ex-army buddy (Blair) primed for a shooting rampage. Watch for it coming to Netflix.
Fits and Starts — Laura Terruso helms a witty and sharply observed story about what befalls the hapless writer husband of a successful author when their road trip to an arch artistic gathering goes bizarrely awry.
The Strange Ones — Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff direct this journey into darkness taken by two brothers, widely separated in age, leading to an old cabin in the woods and a terrible truth. James Freedson-Jackson earned special jury recognition in the role of the kid brother.
The Transfiguration — Michael O’Shea helms this strange tale that premiered at last year’s Cannes festival. Milo (Eric Ruffin) is an African-American teenager whose obsession with vampires draws blood and whose friendship with a deprived older girl leads to a fateful choice.
Infinity Baby — Continuing in the bizarre mode is this black-and-white comic piece directed by Bob Byington in which a serial womanizer (Kieran Culkin) — Noël Wells (Mr. Roosevelt) plays his first discarded girlfriend — works for an uncle whose futuristic firm sells babies that don’t age. Crazy? Yes, and funny too.
Inflame — One of a small number of international films, for which Turkish director Ceylan Özgün Özçelik received a jury “gamechanger” award, the subject is the increasing psychological dread closing in on an Istanbul documentary editor when her questioning of the story of her parents’ accidental death unravels a much more sinister reality.
Lucky — Never count out 90-year-old Harry Dean Stanton who plays a remarkably fit non-agenarian, a lifelong smoker and non-believer known to everyone as Lucky, in this wry tale from director John Carroll Lynch. Another director Lynch, David, has a role as a barroom acquaintance whose beloved tortoise, “President Roosevelt,” has gone missing (though be sure not to miss the last scene as Lucky strides through the desert). SXSW also showed the documentary David Lynch — The Art of Life, about the career of one of cinema’s true mavericks, best known for the Montana-based series Twin Peaks that’s returning to television later this year. Stanton has a role in it wouldn’t you know. Lucky indeed.