Review: Austin Film Festival Celebrates the Art of Storytelling
By Michelle Hershberger
The Austin Film Festival and Conference celebrated the art of writing and filmmaking with an eight day festival featuring 180 films. The films represented various genres and included world premieres, Texas premieres, and retrospective screenings, connecting the public to the filmmakers.
Here’s the countdown of my three most memorable films from the festival:
Boyz in the Hood
Twenty five years ago, John Singleton made his directorial debut with Boyz in the Hood, which follows three young men living in the Crenshaw ghetto of Los Angeles and explores themes of race, violence and friendship.
The film opens with an alarming statistic, stating one in every 21 young men in inner-city America will die of gunshot wounds inflicted by other young men. Perhaps even more alarming is, after 25 years, these issues remain a large problem and the intersections of race and violence in the United States has taken disturbing turns. Have the times changed? Will these issues ever be resolved?
Also written by Singleton, Boyz in the Hood highlights the coming of age journeys of the three boys at its center. Because of the structure of the film, parts of even the minor character’s coming of age are highlighted because Singleton keeps the focus in the same neighborhood where the same issue of gunshot violence lingers.
Singleton expertly crafts each character within the first half of the film so by the time the action happens, their motivations and hopes are clear to the audience. This structure creates feelings for and attachment to these three characters which runs deep.
The protagonist is Tre, played as an adult by Cuba Gooding, Jr., who moves to the neighborhood to live with his father, played by Laurence Fishburne, as a young boy. A pair of half brothers, Ricky, played by Morris Chestnut, and Doughboy, played by Ice Cube, are Tre’s companions as he grows up.
Though they live across the street from each other, there is a clear difference in how Tre is brought up in comparison to Ricky and Doughboy. Tre’s father is a strict disciplinarian who wants a bright future for his son.
As the boys become men, life in the neighborhood is the same as always, though they are now potential targets for the violence which exists in the area. The bonds between the three are evident and the film is ripe with emotional and thought provoking scenes. One particularly memorable moment is when a number of circumstances have caused Tre to make a choice between participating in avenging the death of a friend or deciding to stay out of it.
The cultural significance of this film has transcended a quarter century and provides a thoughtful and inspired exploration of the ongoing battle of race and violence.
Last Days in the Desert
Writer and director Rodrigo García puts a distinct twist on the classic plot device of angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other in Last Days in the Desert.
The film depicts the inner conflict of Jesus Christ, called Yeshua in the story, as he is visited by Satan during the 40 days and nights he spends praying and fasting in the desert. Christ and Satan are played by the same actor, Ewan McGregor, which makes the film particularly thought-provoking.
While in the desert, Yeshua happens upon a family consisting of a father, mother, and son and the majority of the film focuses on his three day stay with them. Yeshua and the son, played by Tye Sheridan, develop a camaraderie. The son confides in Yeshua his desire to go to Jerusalem and sail the seas but cannot leave the desert because his father is holding him back.
The talks between the son and Yeshua are particularly poignant for those who know the way the story ends for Christ.
“Do you have a wife or children,” the son asks, to which Yeshua shakes his head no. The son suggests he might someday and adds, “You never know, right?”
This story contains unmissable parallels between the son and his father and The Son and The Father. Yeshua, however, is not the divine Christ in this film. The film emphasizes the compassion, empathy and humanity of Christ as a man.
McGregor delivers a wonderful performance as Yeshua which is both complex and inspired. As the demon, he is playful and funny, aware of exactly what he is and what it means to Yeshua.
The film surprises the viewer with deeply thought provoking moments. Yeshua asks the demon if anything surprises him.
“The repetitiveness,” the demon replies.
Another compelling moment happens when the father tells Yeshua he chooses to live in the desert because it strips a person of his vanities to expose who his true self.
Last Days in the Desert is a subtle film in regard to dialogue but aesthetically magnificent. This is due to the excellent work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who uses natural light, blues and whites, and sweeping shots of the desert landscape for striking results.
In the end, the film stays true to the Scripture and Yeshua does not listen to the demon on his shoulder. Last Days in the Desert does not touch the divine side of Christ and instead explores his human side for a wholly satisfying result.
A love story at its core, Carol explores a relationship between a shopgirl and a glamorous married mother in the 1950s.
The differences of class and age between the two are apparent, creating a compelling relationship. Therese, played by Rooney Mara, is pretty and still coming into her own. Carol, played by Cate Blanchett, is the picture of high society wearing a mink coat and speaking with a strong air of sophistication.
Carol is buying a doll as a Christmas present for her daughter and meets Therese. From Therese’s end, this moment of longing glances plays out like love at first sight. Carol decides to buy a train set instead, leaves her address with Therese, and perhaps serendipitously or perhaps connivingly, leaves her gloves as well.
When Carol and Therese meet up, they converse with ease and hit it off from the start, though the differences between them are obvious. Therese copies Carol’s lunch order and bashfully says, “I barely even know what to order for lunch.”
Carol and Therese’s relationship is unspoken, in consideration of the political and social landscape in the era in which they love each other. On a deeper level, they do not define or even discuss the nature of their relationship—their bond is natural and deep.
Carol can be characterized by the subtle dialogue through which Carol and Therese speak but it is also exquisitely detailed. Every aspect of this film is beautiful from the costuming to the makeup to the tousled bed sheets.
Edward Lachman’s cinematography is moving and certain shots tell the story in a way the dialogue cannot. In a scene where Therese rides in Carol’s car, the camera shows close ups of Carol’s curls, lips and hands changing the radio station, portraying the degree to which Therese is taken by her.
The events and circumstances which transpire between the two, centered around society’s expectations for women, prove love is never simple. In the end, Carol and Therese prove though it is not simple, love is love.