For the fourth year in a row, I attended the Middleburg Film Festival (founded in 2013), which ran this time October 17-20, in its seventh iteration. Middleburg, Virginia, just about an hour from our nation’s capital, was as lovely as ever. There were 34 films to see, though I only managed 7 on the ground (I had previously seen 4 others, 3 of which at the Toronto International Film Festival. The winners of the audience awards were Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes (for fiction) and Laurence Mathieu-Leger’s Willie (for documentary). Sadly, I only saw the first one. What follows are brief capsule reviews of the three films I enjoyed the most (including The Two Popes). Enjoy!
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, 2019)
If not as profound as Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the 2018 documentary about Mister Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has the great virtue, at least, of not simply replicating that masterful nonfiction biopic in fiction form. From director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and loosely based on a 1998 Esquire article by journalist Tom Junod, the film offers a mixture of homage, fantasy and real-life drama to create its own special, indelible portrait of the late, great Fred Rogers. Our way in is via “Lloyd Vogel” – a stand-in for Junod – played by Matthew Rhys (FX’s The Americans), who here is an emotionally troubled magazine writer in need of saving. When he is assigned to profile Rogers, he scoffs, “That guy? The hokey television host?” But soon he finds himself drawn to the man, even as he initially rejects his goodness and sincerity of purpose. As played by Tom Hanks (The Post), Rogers is as sweet as he looks, but with many complicated layers beneath, none of which detract from the person we know him to be. Though I often found myself measuring my heartfelt reaction to the narrative by wondering how much actually happened and how much was from the screenwriters’ imagination, which detracted (slightly) from my overall enjoyment, I was still deeply moved, thanks to Rhys and Hanks and the rest of the cast.
Knives Out (Rian Johnson, 2019)
Speaking of layers, there is Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. Scaling back after the special effects-laden Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and Looper, Johnson presents an Agatha Christie-like whodunnit, complete with his own Hercule Poirot wannabe, Daniel Craig’s over-the-top southern “gentleman detective” Benoit Blanc. Craig (Kings) has loads of fun, as do the other members of the ensemble, including Toni Colette (Hereditary), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049), Chris Evans (Gifted), Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World) and more. Plummer plays octogenarian Harlan Thrombey, successful mystery writer and patriarch of a dissolute clan unprepared for their long overdue comeuppance. When Thrombey is discovered, the morning after his 85thbirthday, with his throat cut, suspicion falls on all the progeny. Or was it the housekeeper, or maybe the nurse (de Armas). As Blanc peels back sheet after sheet of script invention, one wonders at the sheer inventiveness of at all, except when it feels too contrived for its good. Perhaps it’s best to sit back and enjoy, embracing the excess and thrill of it all.
The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles, 2019)
Saving the best for last, I end with The Two Popes, from director Fernando Meirelles (360) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour). Starring Anthony Hopkins (Misconduct) and Jonathan Pryce (The Wife) as Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict) and Jorge Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis), respectively, the film is structured as a series of conversations between the two men as the former prepares to resign and pass the torch to someone younger and more open to change, whom he hopes will be the latter (despite their vast ideological differences). Meirelles and McCarten cut back and forth between the present of 2012 and various moments from Bergoglio’s past (where he is played by the wonderful Argentinian actor Juan Minujin). Though the viewer’s sympathies are clearly pushed towards the reformer, Ratzinger emerges as a three-dimensional human being overwhelmed by events and sincerely wishing the best for the Church and its followers, despite his complicity in covering up – or, at the very least, not doing enough to expose – the pedophile priests who have done so much damage. There is great humor and wisdom in the back-and-forth discussions, which touch upon faith, forgiveness, love, hope, grief … and soccer. Despite Bergoglio’s warmth and humility, he is far from a perfect man, and the film does not shy away from the sins of his past, when a military junta took over Argentina. What results is beautiful dialogue about the nature of who we are and who we would like to be. I’m an atheist, but still loved the film.
I also watched Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, Dave Simonds’ The Hoy Boys, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, none of which I particularly liked (though the documentary The Hoy Boys falters because of structural confusion, rather than consistent mediocrity, and still has its fine moments). I was really rooting for Harriet, but despite a vibrant central performance from lead Cynthia Erivo, it manages to reduce the great Harriet Tubman’s vital slave-freeing activities into a series of near-manic religious episodes that take away from the very real human achievements of the Underground Railroad (with an incessant, pleading score that never lets up). The Irishman feels like a retread of every other Scorsese movie about gangsters, though the de-aging technology used on Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and others fascinates, throughout. At 3½ hours, it is at least 90 minutes too long. Finally, Waves is an exercise in sadism (by the director) and masochism (by the viewer), where we follow a young man as he descends into depressive madness, only to abandon his story just as he does his worst and move into a parallel narrative that never fully justifies itself. I really hated it, though the actors are all excellent.
Of the films I had already seen, I recommend Jojo Rabbit and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as well as the documentary This Is Not a Movie. Be sure to check out my coverage of the 2016, 2017 and 2018 festivals, as well. Hope to see you there next year!