SXSW 2018: Austin director’s ‘1985’ tells story of family and secrets during the AIDS crisis

In “1985,” adapted from his own award-winning short film, Austin-based director Yen Tan has fleshed out a poignant storyline about a closeted young Texan who returns home to visit his conservative family for Christmas.

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Adrian (Cory Michael Smith, Fox’s “Gotham”) left everything behind and got as far away from his past as humanly possible after graduation. We never see his life in New York, but it clearly has allowed him to live openly far from the judgment at home. He speaks vaguely of roommates, quietly changing the subject when asked about them or if he’s dating anybody at the moment.

“1985.”

His father, Dale (Michael Chiklis), is a gruff Vietnam veteran who works in an auto shop and, when home, is often acutely tuned in to talk radio. His mother, Eileen (Virginia Madsen), is softer and kinder in every way, admitting in a hushed conversation that she “didn’t vote for Reagan last year.” The core household beliefs under Dale are guided by religion, strict discipline and a general avoidance of secular culture. This doesn’t make things easy for Andrew (Aidan Langford), Adrian’s younger brother, who secretly listens to a Madonna cassette with headphones on and has shifted his focus at school from sports to the theater.

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Returning to Texas is not strictly about celebrating Christmas. Adrian lands back at home with a mission to finally be honest with his family, not only letting them know he is gay but to also inform them that he has AIDS. Faced with the uncertainty of their response, he instead tries to reconnect and start out with his friend Carly (Jamie Chung), someone he has had a falling out with since moving away.

Shot on Kodak Super 16 film stock, the stark black-and-white cinematography provides many shadowy shots that fall in line with Adrian’s inability to be truthful to the people he loves most. A huge part of his life is hidden in plain sight, or it would be if he lived closer. If his health wasn’t closing on him, sexuality is something that he may not have ever felt that he could be open about with them.

Smith superbly expresses the struggle of a character who is desperately trying to hold everything inside, but my favorite performance here comes from Chung. She initially has to deliver a woman who is angry with her best friend, a person whom she has known since they were 10 and has possibly loved as long. It isn’t until Adrian finally breaks down and tells her the truth about what he is facing and what he has already lost that she is able to realize that the situation is much bigger than her feelings of rejection. Even though they don’t have as much screen time, Madsen and Chiklis each have powerful moments in the script that could’ve faltered with less experienced actors.

Knowing the history of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s, it’s unlikely that Adrian was able to walk away with a storybook ending. Despite the subject matter, “1985” rarely dips into maudlin territory. It wisely chooses instead to celebrate unconditional love and the notion that what we have in common is greater than what divides us.

“1985” screened Friday at South by Southwest and plays again at 6:30 p.m. March 10 at AFS; 7:15 p.m. March 13 at Rollins; and 9 p.m. March 15 at Stateside. Grade: B-

At SXSW, intricate, hyperviolent ‘Free Fire’ makes bloodshed fun again

You know what they say about men and guns. The longer the rifle, the … well, you finish that however you please. Ben Wheatley’s stylish and adrenaline-soaked shootout flick “Free Fire,” which hit South by Southwest on Monday night at the Paramount Theatre, also lets you draw your own conclusions about toxic masculinity. It also draws blood. So very much blood — 7,000 bullets’ worth, in fact.

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in “Free Fire.” Contributed by Kerry Brown

Without spoiling the central conceit of the film too much — because it’s worth it to mutter “WHAT IN THE NAME OF MARTIN SCORSESE IS HAPPENING HERE” to yourself organically — the British director’s wry, sometimes slapstick action comedy concerns an arms deal gone bad very quickly and very hyperbolically.

In 1970s Boston, “in it for myself” Justine (Brie Larson, quietly suffering fools but also visibly rolling her eyes) brokers an arms deal between two gangs in a wrecked warehouse. On the gun-buying side, IRA operative Chris (a noble and surprisingly uncreepy Cillian Murphy) and his associates, including a raw-nerved and recently jumped junkie (Sam Riley). On the gun-running side, flamboyant boss Vernon (“District 9’s” Sharlto Copley, having a hoot as a flamingo who thinks he’s a hawk but who’s really a turkey), smooth-talking Ord (Armie Hammer, visibly in the throes of an endorphin rush) and their partners. When an unfortunate and unrelated coincidence leads to gunfire for non-commercial reasons, a madcap ensemble shootout ensues.

If that makes you think of “Reservoir Dogs” or “Pulp Fiction,” it’s no stretch of the imagination that Quentin Tarantino and Wheatley watched a few of the same movies growing up. Technically speaking, “Free Fire” is a Swiss timepiece spinning until its hands fly off. The cast spends most of its time crawling and rolling and scooting behind crates and rubble, hobbled by bullets and any number of gory indignities. It’s a cartoonishly bloody ballet with constantly rising stakes and continually bruising egos, though sometimes at the expense of clear motivation. One can only imagine what the set looked like from above during filming. Wheatley, for his part, confirmed during an audience Q&A alongside Hammer and Copley that the blocking was a well-considered affair, despite any illusions of control cast members like Hammer might have had.

Armie Hammer and Ben Wheatley at the “Free Fire” screening at SXSW on March 13 at the Paramount. Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW

RELATED: See photos from the “Free Fire” red carpet and premiere at SXSW 2017

Speaking of Hammer, he’s made a career out of playing hunks of varying preppiness. He’s never been better served than here as an affably arm-draping bear of a bohemian, simultaneously above the rat-infested world he moves in but equally capable of holding his own within it. Larson, who looks so very at home in Cheryl Ladd finery, is criminally underserved, though. One could read that as a metatextual statement on fiercely intelligent women forced to look out for No. 1 in a system run by insecure cavemen with itchy trigger fingers. That might be too charitable to the script. She shines amid grime, but would it have killed Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump to throw her a little scenery to gnaw on, too?

It’s Copley, odious and charismatic, who steals the show, which is obviously the point of casting Sharlto Copley in your hyper-stylized shoot-em-up. Guy Ritchie wishes he had him in his stable. Copley, in the tackiest suit of ever tailored, swans about in (mostly) impotent rage, hiding a nigh unstoppable drive that leads to one scene straight out of a horror movie.

Wheatley at one point compared his characters to Sgt. Rock’s Easy Company, a motley crew of 1960s DC Comics soldiers, and said he would be game to direct a movie about the good sergeant. After a dangerously fun game of checkers like “Free Fire,” a ragtag comic book war game seems like a natural progression.

If the film has a glaring flaw, it is in the chaos that it so gleefully embraces. The endpoint of the melee is constantly obscured. Is it the money? Escape? Victory? Revenge? Making a well-timed phone call? Keeping senses of masculinity fully intact? It’s easy to hand-wave but makes for a plot with a few hollow bones. Similarly lost in the frenzy are the characters’ relationships, including a burgeoning flirtation between Larson and Murphy that only seems important when the script tells us it should be. Also lost: a couple entire characters, truth be told.

The head-spinning is ultimately worth it. As an entry in the genre canon, “Free Fire” rides its inventive premise into the sunset with snarky sadism and plenty of disco-era hair and flair. When boys love their toys a little too much, someone always loses an eye.

James Franco’s ‘Disaster Artist’ relives a movie people love to hate

Dave Franco and James Franco in “The Disaster Artist.” Contributed

So, if you make a biopic surrounding the making of a god-awful film turned cult hit, could that potentially make the biopic even worse than the original film? I can’t accurately say, because I might have been the only individual at the work-in-progress premiere of James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” who hadn’t seen its inspiration, “The Room.”

“The Room” is a 2003 independent romantic drama directed, produced, written and starred in by Tommy Wiseau. It’s arguably the best worst film ever made, and people love this movie — not quite “Rocky Horror Picture Show” love, but it might get there one day.

“The Disaster Artist” is based on Greg Sestero’s book “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room’”; Sestero starred in “The Room” and is played by Dave Franco in “Disaster.” James Franco gives a hilarious performance as Wiseau, the mysterious renaissance man behind “The Room,” and the most intriguing thing about the biopic is Wiseau himself.

The strange thing that is difficult to get past in “The Disaster Artist” is that everything feels like a caricature of a caricature, which gives the film a plastic sheen that is only salvaged by the Franco brothers’ natural chemistry.

SXSW: “T2 Trainspotting” is an emotional wipeout for fans of the original

 

Confession: I was one of those guys.

I saw “Trainspotting” five times in the theater. I took myself. I took my girlfriend. I took two different roommates. A friend and I saw it for the second or third time each. His reaction: “I am not sure I could take much more movie.” Yes, this.

It was the music that did it — I couldn’t get over the music supervision. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” as Renton runs down the street. Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” as Renton sinks into the floor, overdose overtaking him. Pulp’s “Mile End” in the hall of the crappy flat. New Order’s ’87 remix of “Temptation” vaguely centering the film as set in the late 1980s. Underworld’s “Born Slippy” making your heart race as Renton steals the money. Like many, many people of my generation, I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit addicted.

With every frame of “T2 Trainspotting,” which was the secret screening at this year’s South by Southwest, you know that director Danny Boyle knows this. This couldn’t be a cash grab; the original meant too much to too many people. If they were going to do this, it had to mean something.

Which it does.

We catch up with our antiheroes quickly. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is in prison, pinched for the deal that went down 20 years ago. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), now going by his given name Simon, is running a pub and side-lining as a pimp and blackmailer. Spud (Ewen Bremner, wonderful as always) is still a mess, a junkie on and off for decades. And Renton (Ewan McGregor) is in Amsterdam, jogging on a treadmill when he hits the floor, hard. It is the sprawl of a man who has just had a coronary event, the sort that makes one take stock a bit.

So it’s time for Renton to visit a gentrified Edinburgh for the first time since he absconded with 16,000 quid that he and his cohorts were supposed to split four ways.

He stops off to visit his da (he missed his mother’s funeral, which is never a great look). We see him in his old room, still covered in trains. He drops the needle on a record for a half-second (“WHOMP-B-“) then lifts it again. We know it’s “Lust for Life,” we know it would be both cliche and too heavy to break it out now. It’s all we needed to hear.

A plot comes together — after all, the moment Begbie gets out of prison, he is going to be pretty angry. And absolutely nobody is all that thrilled with Renton. He did, after all, steal from his best friends. But now that we’re together, isn’t opening a brothel — um, a sauna — a good idea? What could go wrong?

But none of these men have matured, not one. It’s not even a question of reverting to your former self when you are around old pals — Renton’s been gone for years and he is the same guy who thinks he knows more than he actually does. No wonder Simon and Renton throw down.

No wonder Spud, poor Spud, the sort of who looks at old photos of the old crew, screams at him about the money Renton left him, which promptly went into his arm: “You ruined my life!”

No wonder they end up screaming over Tommy, dead of AIDS-related complications 20 years ago.

No wonder Renton  and Simon end up mansplaining George Best to one of Simon’s hookers before Renton beds her, because of course he does. No matter how much we love them, these men are pathetic.

Boyle knows that he cannot replicate the original’s zeitgeist-capture. It simply couldn’t happen. So he doesn’t flinch from it, opting to use some of the same techniques to tell a deeper story of — as the director put it after the screening — how badly men age (emotionally, not physically, though it should be noted that while the male leads have definitely put on a few years, Kelly McDonald, the only one of the old crew who became an actual adult, does not seem to have aged a day).

Fragments are used as memories — we see two seconds of the first movie here, a second there. The music cues, so crucial to the original, are dealt with here cannily — a moment from a song from the original here, a remix there. This one has an actual score, which the original did not — it was all needle-drop pop song cues. This fits: We are older, they are older, our relationship to that music is different.

As one character literally says, “Nostalgia, that’s why you’re here.” Yes, sure. But this isn’t a retread. Everyone is older, nobody is wiser.  Men aging badly, indeed.

RELATED: DANNY BOYLE, EWAN MCGREGOR HOST SXSW SECRET SCREENING

’68 Kill’ is punk-rock, blood-soaked romp, so long as you aren’t easily offended

“68 Kill.” Contributed by Alfonso Bresciani

Standing in line for “68 Kill,” a gentleman in a suit hands me a custom-made pin of an arm blown off at the elbow holding a handgun. Tattooed on the bloody foreman is an expletive. OK, it’s going to be that kind of party.

“68 Kill” is nonchalant violence and homicidal horniness, a white-trash, punk-rock, blood-soaked romp.

The directorial debut from Trent Haaga (writer of 2013’s “Cheap Thrills”) is a translation of the 2013 pulp fiction work of the same title. Those triggered by lewd sex, suggestions of incest and rape, and graphic violence need to steer clear, however. “68 Kill” is a comedy-horror in the vein of Lloyd Kaufman’s “Toxic Avenger” series (Haaga co-wrote the screenplay for “Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV” with Kaufman). As in, no subject matter is untouchable or too sacred.

Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) is a down-on-his-luck septic worker with a homicidal prostitute for a girlfriend, Liza (AnnaLynne McCord). When Liza gets wind of $68,000 in cash sitting in the safe of one of her johns, she hatches a plan for her and Chip to elevate their quality of life. Everything rides off the rails when Liza’s bloodthirsty instincts kick in during what was supposed to be a simple burglary. Some pretty and not-so-pretty people getting pretty messed up.

You can catch “68 Kill” again at 10:45 p.m. March 12 at Alamo South, 11:30 p.m. March 13 at Alamo South and 11 a.m. March 16 at Alamo Ritz (I do recommend seeing this film at night).

When fetuses attack: ‘Prevenge’ is fresh entry in horror canon

“Prevenge.” Contributed

Homicidal prenatal slasher flick “Prevenge” carves out a new place in the slasher canon.

Ruth (Alice Lowe, who also wrote and directed the film) is widowed and seven months pregnant. Her unborn child speaks to her in a raspy whisper, urging her to kill misogynists, workaholics and individuals involved in the death of her husband.

Lurking just below this film’s bizarre visage is a comically frightening meditation on depression and the toll it can take on a single working mother (Lowe was actually seven to eight months pregnant during the shooting). However, make no mistake — this a slasher film, equipped with a big shiny knife, black bag and gore scenes that would make Tom Savini proud.

While “Prevenge” screams camp on its exterior, it works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously while avoiding any hokiness. The film is beautifully shot, with a great original ambient soundtrack reminiscent of some of John Carpenter’s sonic stylings. While an incredibly dark film, it is blackly humorous with a dry British wit.

Rage, rage, rage, “monsters, all of them,” the unborn child eerily whispers. For a truly unique horror experience, you can catch “Prevenge” at 7:45 p.m. March 14 at Alamo South and 3 p.m. March 17th at Alamo South.