Friday, October 28, 2011

Austin Film Festival wrap-up: Alexander Payne's The Descendants starring George Clooney and Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus

So let me just give incredible props to everyone involved with AFF this year. We've had an amazing slate of films-- a slate that would make Sundance, Toronto, Telluride, and SXSW proud-- and staff and volunteers have been amazing. Thanks for bringing this festival to our city.

And now, onto the films! First up is Alexander Payne's (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) "The Descendants" starring George Clooney. There is already Oscar buzz around this movie and it is incredibly well-deserved. Payne's writing and directing are so crisp and so flawless. This is everything we would have expected from him. And Clooney delivers, in my opinion, the best performance of his career. Clooney plays the head of a family descended from Hawaiian royalty who own one of the largest undeveloped expanses in the islands. While deciding how to develop and sell the land, he is hit by tragedy as his wife is involved in a boating accident and slips into a coma. As a self-described "back-up parent", he now must raise his two daughters and deal with some family secrets that come to light because of his wife's condition, meanwhile making a very public decision about his family's trust lands that appease his numerous cousins and the rest of islands' residents.

The film is bittersweetly funny and also heartbreaking. Payne coaxes the performance of his career not only out of Clooney but of most of his other castmembers, including young, relatively unknown talent playing Clooney's two daughters and the elder daughter's boyfriend Syd. Payne smartly cast a lot of comedic actors to play some of these roles so that they could correctly hit the funny points as well as the dramatic. Judy Greer (Arrested Development, 13 Going on 30), Rob Huebel (Childrens Hospital, Party Down), and Matthew Lillard (the Scooby Doo movies) all do an amazing job. Beau Bridges also shows up as one of Clooney's cousins and almost seems to channel his brother Jeff's performance as The Dude from "The Big Lebowski". Maybe he was The Dude's more successful Hawaiin brother. And then there's Robert Forster, who plays Clooney's father-in-law, who also gives a pitch perfect performance, balancing both curmudgeonly angst with a tinge of appropriate humor.

This film is amazing. It was absolutely the best film I saw at this year's festival, and may even be the best film I've seen all year.

Next up was "Coriolanus," Shakespeare's tragedy of a Roman general who would be Consul of Rome except for his inability to deal with the common people. Ralph Fiennes both directs and stars in this modern update of the lesser known Shakespearean work. And let me say, there is a reason it is lesser known. It's terrible to say about Shakespeare, but this film was full of amazing perfomances by actors at the top of their craft, but the source material is just too dull and non-relatable, or perhaps it was just the adaptation that made it that way. Unfortunately, they try to spice it up by including several action scenes, further muddling what the filmmakers were trying to do Ostensibly, when we update Shakespeare to modern times it is often that were are trying to make a point about our times as much as the original meaning of the play. But the message is muddled: are we to be wary of mob rule and democracy? Should we welcome rule by the elite? Or is it just tragedy? It seemed unclear. . .or it could have just been the end of a very long week of seeing a lot of great films and I'm not thinking straight.

However, the lackluster approach to theme and deeper meaning is far overshadowed by great performances, specifically from the supporting cast. Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave both do amazing work-- the type of work we expect from actors as amazing as the two of them. Fiennes is also amazing as the title character, and he owns nearly every scene he is in. And when he faces off with his mortal enemy Aufidius, played by Gerard Butler. . . .well, let's just say that it's apparent why most of their scenes were filmed outdoors. Because it was fairly obvious the two of them had chewed down all of the scenery around them. Incredibly enjoyable, though I wish they could've gotten Butler to tone down the Scottish accent a bit.

As great as the performances were, I still found myself bored with much of this. In fact, part way through the film I began imagining that this was actually another Harry Potter film where Voldemort had triumphed and was trying to be elected Consul of Rome, meanwhile Gerard Butler played a scraggly Harry Potter, hiding in the hills of Antium for a chance at revenge. . . . while that kept me entertained during the more boring parts, seeing modern-day Shakespeare did make me even more excited for the just-announced Much Ado About Nothing that has been announced by Joss "King of the Geeks" Whedon.

And finally, a quick shout out to a great sports documentary (I'm a sucker for an inspirational sports documentary) called "Push: Madison vs. Madison". It tells the story of an inner-city Boston public school basketball team and all of the challenges they face and the coach who gets them to overcome those obstacles. Kids wouldn't pass the ball to others because they wanted to hog the spotlight, or because they ran with a rival gang. Great work here, and continued with the theme of a few other great documentaries at AFF about just all of the challenges that our schools face today-- even in sports.

Once again, thanks to the Austin Film Festival and we look forward to seeing you outdo yourself again next year.

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