Austin Film Festival officially began for me on Saturday afternoon. After missing the first couple of days of the festival, I was eager to get started and pack as much as I could into every day.

After getting checked in and taking care of some paperwork, a friend and I decided to go eat in the restaurant at the hotel, since we were too late to catch the Duplass brothers panel. There in the restaurant, I had my first celebrity sighting of the weekend: David Boreanaz from the TV show “Bones.” Now, I’ve never seen even a second of “Bones” in my life, but one of the most fun things to do when just walking around the festival is to play “spot the celebrity.” So to find one within 15 minutes of attending the festival was a treat.

From the restaurant, we walked down to the Austin Convention Center where after some minor confusion, found our way to the correct room and got in line to kick off my film festival experience with “The Stand Up.” The attendance was a little spotty for this one, and getting there a little over an hour early was PLENTYof time to assure us our choice of seats. The room itself was a hall of a convention center, so it was just a few chairs in front of a makeshift screen and sound system, but I was actually quite impressed with the video and sound quality. But anyway, onto the film…

Jonathon Sollis (left) stars as Zoe Hardwick in "The Stand-Up."

Starring: Jonathon Sollis, Margarita Leviva, Aidan Quinn
Written by: David Wexler (“Evil Weed”)
Directed by: David Wexler (“Evil Weed”) 

“The Stand Up” tells the story of Zoe Hardwick (Jonathon Sollis), a NYC based stand-up comedian who begins to spiral into a depression after his girlfriend is tragically murdered. While struggling to get back on his feet, Zoe takes a temporary job as a kindergarten teacher at the elementary school his father (Aidan Quinn) runs. There, he forms a new bond with a straight-laced teacher named Veronica (Margarita Leviva).

For a movie about a stand up comedian, “The Stand Up” is decidedly sparse on actual stand-up comedy material. When they do show bits of Zoe’s act, it is mildly amusing, but you can clearly see that he’s a comedian who is still struggling to find his voice. The film is constructed in a way where we skip ahead a year after the death of Zoe’s girlfriend, and then watch the next few weeks unfold in front of our eyes. While there is nothing wrong with the narrative style in itself, every transition from one day to another is punctuated with a fade to black, a trend that almost makes the scenes feel like vignettes and keeps the movie from having a smooth pace.

“The Stand Up” works best when we see Zoe interacting with his kindergarten class. Sollis has a natural warmth and jovial quality that makes it a joy to watch him interact with children, particularly in a battle of wits he has with one way too smart child. Unfortunately, the rest of the film didn’t pull me in enough to truly have any attachment to the characters. Sollis has good chemistry with Leviva, but their relationship is a little rushed to give it a true emotional impact. While “The Stand Up” has a few great moments of both comedy and drama, I mostly found myself unmoved by the story and distracted by the structure of the editing.

Even though it was not even 7 p.m. yet, I had been monitoring the FestivalGenius webpage for my AFF scheduling and found that approximately 250 people planned on seeing “Shame.” The problem? The theater it was showing at holds about 150 people.  Since “Shame” is a movie with huge buzz and potential Oscar nominations, we made the executive decision of skipping the Duplass Brothers’ new film “Jeff Who Lives at Home” (which I really wanted to see) and opted to assure ourselves a spot in line for “Shame.” Well, when we got there, we walked up and were happy to find that there were only a handful of people in line…for the movie before “Shame,” which hadn’t even started yet. That’s right, we were there about 2.5 hours early. After patiently waiting at the front of the line for a couple of hours, and watching the badge, film pass, and single ticket lines grow, we finally made our way into the theater.

Since we were at the top of the line, we had our choice of seats, but that wasn’t the same for the people behind us. Nobody from the festival was keeping a headcount and they let WAY too many people into the theater. As the seats began to fill up, badge holders began roaming by every row, asking if seats were available. It got so bad that they had to make an announcement that they were booked to capacity and everyone not in a seat had to vacate the auditorium immediately. I felt bad for the film pass holders and ticket holders who were there just as early as we were and didn’t even step foot in the theater. It is still a mystery to me why AFF would choose to host one of the most buzzed about films of the entire festival in one of the smallest venues…but I digress.

(From left) Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender star in Steve McQueen's "Shame."

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Written by: Steve McQueen (“Hunger”)
Directed by: Steve McQueen (“Hunger”)

Shame follows a New Yorker named Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his struggles with a sex addiction that reach their peak when his sister (Carey Mulligan) moves in with him. I can’t wait to see what audiences think of this film. It is easily one of the most sexually graphic movies in recent memory. There is gratuitous nudity, both male and female, and just the nature of the film alone will cause some audiences to be uncomfortable. Over the past week, Fox Searchlight has stated that they plan on releasing the film as NC-17, which is something that is rarely done in the industry these days. Many movie theater chains won’t even show NC-17 films. Usually if a film is given the NC-17 rating they will cut it down for an R rating (“Blue Valentine,” “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” etc), but Fox Searchlight is choosing to leave the film as is, a decision that I very much admire.

As far as the movie itself, it is an absolutely brilliantly-crafted study into the life of a sex-addict. Director Steve McQueen shows that he is a rising filmmaker with beautifully constructed shots, none better than in long, single take scenes with camera movement and unique angels. Fassbender gives a riveting and emotionally-driven performance that puts him in serious contention for an Oscar nomination.

While his character’s sex addiction is evidently severe from the start, dominating all aspects of his life both professionally and socially, it is fascinating to watch Fassbender spiral out of control when his sister comes into the picture. Mulligan continues to show why she is one of the great young film actresses in a role that causes her to step out of the sweet girl audiences have come to be familiar with. The film will undoubtedly be controversial among wider audiences, but expect heavy awards buzz to surround this unique and daring picture, especially for Fassbender.

All and all it was a really fun first day at a film festival. I can see why people advise to plan ahead and to make sure you don’t overload yourself, but for me, that’s part of the fun. I feel like I’m not taking in the whole experience unless I’m trying to cram as many films into a one week period as I possibly can. As a side note, when I was waiting in line for “Shame,” I was able to secure an interview with the filmmaker and lead actress for the film “Restive,” so I rushed back to the hotel room and watched it. More on that in the next entry.

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