Still from 'Atomic Blonde'

SXSW Film 2017: Day Three

Mar 13, 2017 By Stephen Mayne
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The rain has fled, leaving a chill in the air. It doesn’t normally matter when the lines are bunched full of people, of course. After taking the morning off (the loss of an hour didn’t help), I headed in to catch Most Beautiful Island, arriving far too early. Number two in the line to be precise. I wouldn’t have wanted to take the number one queue card from the woman in front, anyway. She was delighted to have finally led a line after years of attending.

Ana Asensio’s debut (she writes, directs and produces for the first time, as well as taking the lead role) turned out to be pretty good, although it nearly didn’t happen. Technical difficulties delayed the start by half an hour pushing me perilously close to having to leave. I was two minutes from walking out when they finally let us take our seats. Starting off low-key, it follows Luciana as she makes her way around New York trying to scrape together a living. She has health problems and is witness to some weird stuff.

All of this pales in comparison to the unbearably tense hell that unfolds when a friend tricks her into what she believes to be a hostessing gig in a cocktail bar. It’s actually a creepy party in some abandoned industrial space. I won’t say any more as it will ruin the surprise, but the final 20 minutes had me gripping the seat struggling to breathe. Which is certainly one way to get the day started.

After a detour that included a bit of celebrity spotting (none other than Mr. Ron Swanson himself, Nick Offerman, nodding at me in a Church corridor), it was off to a Charlize Theron spy thriller. Of all the films I’ve seen so far, Atomic Blonde had the crowd the most animated. The line spread across several blocks, full of excited people. Inside the Paramount Theater we were met with a DJ spinning ‘80s classics.

Then the film began and all hell broke loose. Directed by David Leitch (who co-directed John Wick – and it shows), this adaptation of Antony Johnston’s graphic novel casts Charlize Theron as a super spy tearing up Berlin just before the wall tumbles. Working for British Intelligence, she’s sent to meet up with James McAvoy’s slightly mad agent, retrieve a list of undercover operatives, and unearth a traitor. Not that the plot matters much.

This is all about a killer soundtrack (we start with “Blue Monday” and continue in that vein), and draining fight scenes.  There’s a nightclub aesthetic going on with everything looking like it’s cast under neon lights. Theron ends up in the wars and bears it well, while McAvoy is entertainingly unhinged. The whole thing is a mighty lot of fun as long as you don’t pay too much attention to the plot.

With the sound of rapturous applause still echoing behind me (the audience were clapping throughout the film as well), I dashed to the back of the line for Gemini, the latest feature from SXSW favorite Aaron Katz. Neo-noir is the order of the day as the assistant to a Hollywood star (Lola Kirke) ends up on the hook for murder. It’s almost like a straight-laced Mulholland Drive, at least in the look and the way LA is used. There’s none of Lynch’s far-out magic in an otherwise standard mystery, though the various plot machinations offer a tense experience.

The ending lacks punch, failing to deliver on the gradual winding up of the narrative, but Katz’s sort of love letter to LA has a lot going for it. Basically, it’s just really cool in a quiet way – the counterpoint to the cool madness of Atomic Blonde. Soaked in style, and with a thoroughly engaging turn from Kirke, it ended a very solid day nicely. And the app to hail a cab even worked, allowing me to get on my way substantially earlier than the night before. I guess that makes Day Three a success.


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