Despite a few (hotel reservation and RSVP) potholes on the road to this year’s Middleburg Film Festival, all’s well that ends well! And what an ending it was. The closing film was my favorite film – by far – securing my only four-star ballot after four days of movie madness in the Virginia countryside.
So, without further ado, here’s what I saw, and how I ranked ‘em:
What can I say? I absolutely loved this movie! I know it’s still early, but Green Book is now my leading pick for Oscar gold, overtaking A Star Is Born atop my admittedly subjective list of best films (so far) of 2018. It has everything: a fascinating story inspired by a true friendship; a crazy good dynamic between two phenomenal lead actors, Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings, Captain Fantastic) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight); humor, heart, relevancy and poignancy; great music; and solid direction by Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary). Green Book is a roadtrip movie with shades of Driving Miss Daisy, The Bodyguard, My Fair Lady, and so much more. It’s about a street-smart, blunt-talking Italian-American bouncer Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Mortensen) who is hired to drive and protect a well-educated, dignified world-class black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) as he embarks on an eight-week concert tour into the Deep South in 1962, when appalling segregation laws were still in effect. At the time, black travelers relied on a guide called the Negro Motorist Green-Book to steer them to “safe” places to stay, eat and recreate. Both men enter the journey with their own set of assumptions and prejudices about race, class and society. By the end, the two men are forever changed, and forever friends. The film comes out at Thanksgiving. Be thankful for that – and go see it! (4/4 stars)
Ben Is Back
Ben Is Back is a solid, timely film about opioid addiction and a mother’s desperation to help her son. Lucas Hedges (Manchester By the Sea) plays Ben Burns, a troubled but seemingly good-hearted 19-year-old who shows up at home unexpectedly on Christmas Eve morning after 77 days in rehab. His mom, played by Julia Roberts, agrees to let him stay for 24-hours on the condition that she follow his every move. His destructive past starts catching up with Ben in unexpected ways, leading to a tense overnight search for the family’s kidnapped dog. Ben Is Back was directed by Lucas’s real-life dad Peter Hedges (About a Boy, Pieces of April) and both have reason to be proud. The film is very moving without being oppressive, so it’s suitable for family viewing. It comes out on the heels of a tougher watch, Beautiful Boy, about a father’s struggle to help his meth-addict son (Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name) as he cycles through relapse and recovery. I give Ben Is Back the slight edge overall, though Chalamet’s performance in Beautiful Boy is definitely awards-worthy. Both Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet are credits to their generation of young-adult actors. (3/4 stars)
What They Had
I happened to have watched What They Had shortly before my arrival at Middleburg so I was more interested in the post-screening Q&A with director Elizabeth Chomko. I also wanted to gauge audience reaction since my ‘day job’ (as a content consultant at AARP) revolves around the film’s central theme: family caregiving. The response was overwhelmingly positive – and emotional. Chomko was inspired to write the film based on her own family’s experiences caring for a grandmother with Alzheimer’s. What They Had stars Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner and Robert Forster as family members sometimes at odds, but operating from a place of love, as they debate whether mom Ruth (Danner) is safe to stay at home or whether she belongs in a memory-care facility. The powerhouse ensemble cast deftly navigates a range of emotions and family dynamics that everyone can relate to. It’s a poignant film with enough good-natured humor to make it palatable to the masses. You can read a lot more about the film – and resources available to family caregivers – at aarp.org/caregiving. (Sorry for the PSA, but with 40 million family caregivers out there, it’s info worth sharing). (3/4 stars)
This black and white film from celebrated director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) was probably the most divisive film I saw at Middleburg, and it came on opening night. Reactions ranged from total awe to quiet disappointment, and even included a handful of walkouts. The film follows a young domestic worker named Cleo (first-time actress and recipient of MFF’s Rising Star Award, Yalitza Apararicio) who works for a family in Mexico City’s middle-class Roma neighborhood. Cuarón painstakingly recreated scenes from his own youth to showcase domestic strife and social hierarchy amid Mexico’s political turmoil of the 1970s. The film is beautifully shot, but is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s Mexico’s submission for a ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ Oscar and is getting buzz for bigger awards consideration as well. But it’s more of a critical darling than a crowd pleaser. I was somewhat on the fence. Let’s just say Arty Chick enjoyed it far more than I did. (3/4 stars)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy (Life of the Party, Bridesmaids) tones down her looks and comedy shtick to portray Lee Israel, a best-selling celebrity biographer who fell on hard times and resorted to forging witty letters from famous people in order to make ends meet. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the book by Israel about her exploits and her partner in crime, a street hustler and drinking buddy named Jack (Richard E. Grant). The story is quite interesting and McCarthy and Grant are both very good, but the film was rather slow and I wasn’t caring all that much about the characters until the final minutes of the film. In my book, it’s more of an okay rental than a must-see on the big screen. (3/4 stars)
Another black and white film inspired by its director’s own family experiences! This one is Poland’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film and it won Pawel Pawlikowski the best director award at Cannes. Cold War is a sometimes bleak, sometimes bittersweet melodrama set in 1950s Poland. It’s about a star-crossed couple who can’t seem to live with each other, or without each other, amid the ruins of post-war Poland. Their epic romance is undermined by politics, character flaws, and a series of unfortunate twists of fate that follow them across Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris. Music plays a significant role in the film, seamlessly integrating Polish folk music, Parisian jazz, and some early Rock and Roll. It feels a bit like watching a classic old film, with subtitles and an ending that is either a total downer or a fitting end to a potent love story, depending on your point of view. I wasn’t particular enamored with the ending. But overall, Cold War was definitely engaging, thanks in large part to the music and the chemistry. (2.5+/4 stars)
The Front Runner
This one was a bit of a disappointment for me because I love Hugh Jackman (The Greatest Showman, Wolverine) and usually like the work of director Jason Reitman (Up In the Air, Juno). And I generally remember the scandal that sank the Presidential aspirations of Gary Hart back in 1987 (Donna Rice, Monkey Business, etc.) The Front Runner features Jackman as the charming Senator from Colorado who, in the span of three short weeks, went from overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination to being forced to withdraw from the race. Trouble is, the real Hart was way more charismatic than his cinematic counterpart, and the film intentionally declines to take a particular point of view. The result is a flat political drama that fails to inspire much of any reaction at all – good or bad. Major bummer for a highly-anticipated Centerpiece Screening at MFF. (2.5/4 stars)
The Kindergarten Teacher / Maggie Gyllenhaal tribute
I’m still processing what to make of The Kindergarten Teacher, though it was great to see Maggie Gyllenhaal presented with the festival’s 2018 Leading Actress Award in recognition of her courageous artistic choices. Gyllenhaal spoke after the screening of the film in which she plays Lisa, a Staten Island kindergarten teacher who becomes obsessed with nurturing the poetic talents of a five-year-old boy. Lisa ends up on a dangerous and desperate path that borders on icky. The very last moments of the very last scene give one pause to reflect on her motivations and perhaps be a tad less judgmental. But still… it’s downright disturbing to watch.
This was my third straight year attending the Middleburg Film Festival, which continues to grow in popularity and prestige since its launch six years ago by longtime Middleburg resident Sheila C. Johnson. Such success is a double-edged sword for minor players like myself who don’t have a major outlet or the benefit of complimentary lodging at the swanky Salamander Resort & Spa. Plus, it gets harder and harder each year to choose from among the dozens of films and special events across several venues, each with its own unique charm. First World film problems, I know!
It’s not just the fantastically diverse slate of films that makes the Middleburg Film Festival worth making time for each October. It’s what goes on between the screenings: chatting with volunteers while waiting in line; grabbing lunch with colleagues at a restaurant on Middleburg’s quaint main street; meeting sponsors and filmmakers and new friends at the after-parties or in the lobby; taking a stroll at sunset down by the stables; and of course, debating the films themselves, lamenting what we may have missed, and looking forward to doing it all again next year!!
Til then, a few pix from MFF 2018…