SXSW 2018: ‘Final Portrait’ a look at the frustrations of creating art, with Armie Hammer as the muse

“Final Portrait.”

Let’s say you’re going to make a movie about the celebrated 20th century artist Alberto Giacometti, and you’re going to set the film in his Parisian studio, while he’s painting the portrait of a young man who’s not only an admirer but also his future biographer.

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That’s what Giacometti did with the well-bred, upper-class writer James Lord, who eventually wrote a memoir about the experience, “A Giacometti Portrait.”

One of the first things you’ll need to have is a first-rate set, with detailed reproductions of the artist’s famed elongated sculptures and other items. And if you’re going to sustain the movie, you’re obviously going to have to have good dialogue. And you’ll need even more. You’ll need characters coming into the studio over and over again, gradually revealing the lives of the artist and the subject.

That’s what happens in Stanley Tucci’s new film, “Final Portrait,” which made its debut Friday night at South by Southwest. Geoffrey Rush stars as Giacometti, while Armie Hammer, fresh off acclaim for “Call Me by Your Name” and honors from the Austin Film Society, plays Lord.

To Tucci’s credit, the movie flows well. The dialogue isn’t as snappy as that in a play by Edward Albee or David Mamet, but the intrusion of characters during the portrait sessions provides lots of tension, humor and sadness.

First, there’s Giacometti’s wife, Annette, played by the wonderful French actress Sylvie Testud, virtually unknown in the U.S. despite her pairing with Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose.”

She’s a rather sad presence in “Final Portrait,” mainly because she plays second fiddle to Giacometti’s favorite prostitute, Caroline (Clemence Poesy).

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And then there’s Giacometti’s wry brother, Diego (Tony Shalhoub), who offers his own interpretation of events as they unfold before Lord’s rather stoic posing.

The heart of the movie, however, lies in the bond between Giacometti and Lord. Giacometti repeatedly paints over the portrait of Lord, telling him that it’s not right, that it’s a failure, that it might always be a failure. But Lord keeps coming back, for session after session, finally wondering when the posing and the painting will ever end.

For Giacometti, it’s a classic artistic problem – that the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.

So it’s up to Lord to figure out a way to end the sessions, without offense, without recriminations but with collegiality.

It’s a delicate minuet. And Tucci, who gets fine performances from Rush and Hammer, manages to pull it off. It won’t please the blockbuster crowd. It’s a subtle rumination on the creation of art.

“Final Portrait” premiered at SXSW on Friday. It screens again at 9 p.m. Saturday at the AFS Cinema. Grade: B

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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-

SXSW 2018: ‘Lean on Pete’ shows why Charlie Plummer is destined to be a star

“Lean on Pete” tugs at the heartstrings in the best way, and most of that tugging is the direct result of the acting of Charlie Plummer, who appears poised to become one of our most versatile young stars.

In “Pete,” the 18-year-old who played John Paul Getty III in “All the Money in the World” is guided by the low-key yet distinctive British director Andrew Haigh, whose earlier credits include “45 Years,” “Weekend” and HBO’s “Looking.”

Plummer plays Charley Thompson, who’s being raised by his single father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), and the two have recently moved to Portland, Ore., because of work. Charley likes to go on runs during the summer vacation and discovers that they’re living near a quarter horse racetrack. He’s fascinated with the track and especially with a horse named Lean on Pete, who is owned and trained by the cranky Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi).

Del notices that Charley isn’t afraid to pitch in and help in order to be around Pete, so he offers him a part-time job. While at work, Charley also meets Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), a local jockey who is good friends with Del.

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All of this sounds fairly straightforward – and somewhat old-fashioned – from a narrative perspective. And the movie is indeed traditional. But the movie stands out from many others because of Plummer’s performance. It’s hard to watch him and not understand the loneliness and need for connection that’s just under Charley’s skin. And the scenes between Charley and the horse are classic in the way that they develop the bonding between a teen and an animal.

Without giving away too many spoilers, Charley’s home life takes a drastic turn for the worse, and then so does his life at the track. So Charley takes off with Pete on an epic journey to find his aunt – whom he has not seen in many years but remembers fondly.

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For the cynical among us, the narrative might smack of sentimentality, like an afternoon family TV movie. The cynical among us would be wrong when it comes to “Lean on Pete.” Yes, it’s hard not to shed tears throughout Charley’s ordeal, but Haigh does not hammer us over the head. Instead, he shows Charley’s resilience, his longing for love and his desire to finally find a safe home – for him and the horse.

The book is based on a novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin. He and Haigh worked on adapting it for the big screen.

But this movie is all about Plummer’s Charley. Go see it, and you’ll understand why. The guy has acting chops – in spades.

“Lean on Pete’ had its South by Southwest premiere on Friday. It screens again at 6:15 p.m. March 11 at the AFS Cinema and 2:15 p.m. March 14 at the Alamo South. Grade: B+

SXSW 2018: Armie Hammer is in Austin, and the ‘CMBYN’ star isn’t worried about any social media spats

Armie Hammer says he thinks actor James Woods “must have blocked me on Twitter” because he hasn’t “heard a word” from Woods since a dustup on social media.

Actor Armie Hammer at the Four Seasons on Friday. Contributed by Charles Ealy

It all started back in November, just before the release of “Call Me by Your Name,” when Woods got riled up about the movie about a romantic gay relationship between a 24-year-old graduate student and a 17-year-old son of a professor.

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In the movie, Hammer plays the grad student, while Timothee Chalamet plays the youth. (Chalamet is in his 20s.). In a tweet about the movie, Woods acted aghast over the subject matter, saying that the film was quietly chipping away “the last barriers of decency.”

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When Hammer, 31, saw the tweet, he responded to Woods by pointing out that he has dated young women, writing, “Didn’t you date a 19 year old when you were 60…….?”

Indeed, several reports have mentioned Woods’ penchant for dating women either 19 or 20.

And then actress Amber Tamblyn entered the Twitter storm, saying Woods hit on her when she was a teenager – and tried to take her to Vegas.

Hammer, who was in Austin to receive an award from the Austin Film Society and to promote Friday’s premiere of his new movie, “Final Portrait,” seems to be enjoying himself around town – and he says he’s not all bothered by being blocked by Woods. He’ll be on the red carpet for “Final Portrait” – promoting another movie in which he plays a gay character, James Lord, the biographer of artist Alberto Giacometti.

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SXSW 2018: A few things we learned at the ‘Ready Player One’ VR experience

A light tunnel leads to the OASIS at the “Ready Player One” experience during the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, March 8, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In anticipation of the March 29 release of Steven Spielberg’s new action adventure, “Ready Player One,” attendees at this year’s South by Southwest Conference and Festivals can check out the immersive Ready Player One Experience with Vive VR. The two-story installation is at Brazos Hall on East Fourth Street from March 9-11; there was a preview party March 8.

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Let’s discuss it. All quotes are from a news release about the event.

“The RFID wristband (guests receive at the entrance) will keep score as guests test their knowledge of `80s trivia.”

Anyone over 40 will crush the trivia. The down side is then you get to see millennials totally stumped by questions about, like, Richard Pryor being in “Superman III,” and then you feel incredibly, monstrously old and begin eyeing the bar with a very certain desperation as you start counting the number of SXSWs you have covered.

“Visitors can browse at Avatar Outfitters, offering the Hot Topic Ready Player One Pop-Up Shop.  Guests will have a chance to score officially licensed gear, including exclusive T-shirts, caps, jewelry, backpacks, collectible pins and other cool accessories, as well as fan-favorite Funko Pop! vinyl figures.”

This is a merch shop. I took photos of the stuff and sent them to my 9-year-old, who recently finished the book and loved it and is very excited indeed for the movie. One of these days, FunkoPops are going to all move to the next phase of their evolution and kill us all, I just know it.

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“Guests can try out the “Ready Player One” Avatar Creator by VIVE to choose their new digital identity, and then send the avatar to their personal email.”

I did this, and because I am kind of terrible at many, many video game things (ex: I am pretty sure I called my avatar “Joe”), my avatar managed to look EXACTLY like me with small tweaks. IRL, I do not have a large disk in the middle of my head, nor am I made of wood and wouldn’t tuck jeans into boots — in fact, why is that even an option?

I mean, really. ( JOE GROSS/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

“Drop into 2045’s hottest nightclub, The Distracted Globe, where infinity mirrors create the impression of being gravity-free for a cool photo op, and guests can enjoy ‘Ready Player One’-themed specialty cocktails.”

There was never more than one person in there at a time when I was there, but I bet it looked pretty cool filled up.

The Distracted Globe, a nightclub in “Ready Player One,” attempts to create the feeling of being gravity free with infinity mirrors at the “Ready Player One” experience during the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, March 8, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

It seemed like the DJ was cutting together every single hit from 1982 or so to 1989. At one point Eric B and Rakin’s “I Know You Got Soul” cut right at “pump up the volume” into the stripped down bit from “Jack and Diane,” of all things, instead of Bomb the Bass’s “Beat Dis,” as God intended, and it was kind of an existential crisis for everyone, again, over 40. Everyone else’s face held a a very “Whatever, man” expression, which is probably the correct response.

The second floor featured an installation that looked like the stacks of mobile homes envisioned in the book (and movie).

On the roof. ( JOE GROSS/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Each “trailer” featured one or two VR rigs that had various VR versions of classic arcade games and “RP1”-inspired “experiences.”

Raymond Wong plays a VR game at the “Ready Player One” experience during the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, March 8, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

I was also very bad at this. I picked the DJ one and just kind of stood there for a bit, switching between various points-of-view. Make sure the headset fits TIGHTLY on your head — I didn’t, and the bleed-through from outside noise was substantial, which pretty well takes you out of the moment.

Want more? “On March 10, the SXSW Film Festival will hold its 25th Edition party, celebrating the anniversary of the film festival, at the Experience. On Sunday, March 11, the venue will hold a livestream, Ready Player One LIVE at SXSW, powered by Twitch and IMDb, hosted by Aisha Tyler and correspondent Alex Correa. The stream will be live on http://www.twitch.tv/twitch and http://www.imdb.com/readyplayerone and will feature some of the stars and filmmakers from “Ready Player One,” including cast members Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao and Ben Mendelsohn; screenwriter Zak Penn; and author/screenwriter/co-producer Ernest Cline.”

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