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Middleburg Film Festival, Day Two: Hostiles, Call Me by Your Name, and James Ivory

Well, if there’s one thing to be said, the beds at the Salamander Resort and Spa are the kind that once your head hits that pillow, you’ll sleep like a baby, giving you the kind of sleep that leaves you waking up ready to face the next day with vim and vigor. Walking around and talking to fellow cinephiles, it’s hard not to feel the love for this festival. People tell me they’ve been coming here since year one and are impressed how they’ve seen it grow. This is my second year, and in just twelve months, the enthusiasm  of people attending, the passion for film, the praise for Sheila Johnson can be felt in the air.

Day two began nice and early in the cozy wood-paneled Salamander library. James Ivory was in conversation. Ivory’s career is legendary, helming glorious Merchant-Ivory productions such as Howard’s End, A Room with a View, and The Remains of the Day.

Ivory spent 45 minutes reminiscing about highlights from his career before the morning matinée screening of his latest film for which he has adapted the screenplay, Call Me By Your Name. Indefatigable at the age of 89, Ivory said, “As long as I have the energy to make movies, I’ll explore areas I haven’t explored.”

Having made a lot of Merchant-Ivory films around the Mediterranean, Ivory spoke about his particular love for Italy. “I started working in Italy and fell in love with Venice.” Ivory said after a clip from A Room With a View was shown. “I started going to India, but I wanted to go back there after reading the book.”

His 1993 film, Howard’s End would not only have rich and well-developed female roles for Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Maggie Smith, it would also win three Oscars. However, Ivory said he was still passed over for many projects afterwards and, contrary to popular belief, winning didn’t help get his foot further in the door.

With his 1995 film, Jefferson in Paris, Ivory revealed that he had wanted Christopher Reeve to play the role of Thomas Jefferson but Reeve turned the part down due to other commitments, the role went to Nick Nolte. Reeve’s schedule would subsequently open up, freeing him up for Jefferson, but by that point Nolte was fully committed, and Ivory went ahead with him playing the part.

For his 2012 film, Quartet, Ivory said no one wanted to play the role of Jean Horton, until eventually Maggie Smith would say yes, and co-star along Judi Dench and Billy Connolly.

He told the crowd he had always wanted to do Shakespeare, and if he ever got the chance his ideal would be casting Hugh Grant as Orsino. At the end of the conversation, Ivory was feted with the festival’s first Legacy Award, presented to him by Susan Koch.

Film writer and director James Ivory presented with the first #legacyaward @middleburgfilm #mff2017

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Then it was off to the much-anticipated film, Call Me By Your Name. Yes, I’ve been hearing all about this ever since Sundance and the day had finally arrived for me to see for myself. James Ivory adapted the film from the novel by André Aciman. Timothée Chalamet plays, Elio, a 17-year-old enjoying his summer with his parents “Somewhere in the North of Italy.” Right off the bat, you know this film is going to be romantic as all sorts of romantic Italian imagery are conjured in the mind. Armie Hammer arrives as Oliver, a  research assistant who’s working with Elio’s father played by Michael Stuhlbarg.

It’s summer and Elio has a casual girlfriend but he also feels an intense attraction to Oliver. Luca Guadagnino seduces us with his camera work, from the touches, the glances, the lush Italian scenery, emphasizing the smallest of details that combine to spark infatuation. Even a scene with Hammer eating a boiled egg comes across as sexy. The chemistry is scorching hot, and amplified by the cinematography and score, as the two men finally acquiesce to their desires.

They spend the rest of their summer dancing, swimming together in lakes, having that perfect summer of love with Italy serving as an idyllic backdrop. There is just so much beauty and so much to love about the film. It’s impossible not to fall in love with young Elio as he spends his summer days playing piano, writing music, eating the ripest fruits and lusting over Oliver. Oliver, the American who says “later” as he gets up from the table and mocked by the Italians for doing so, is charming and the perfect match as Elio’s first love.

I’ll mention the peach scene because it’s the peach scene, destined to become iconic. Oh Elio, Elio, Elio.

Call Me By Your Name has been much talked about ever since it screened at Sundance back in January. It is perfect, it’s light and it’s warm. It makes you want to spend a summer reading books and succumbing to crushes. There’s a perfect near-end scene with Elio and his father that will touch you deeply, giving the film an extra emotional punch, Stuhlbarg will make you sit up and take note.  Luca Guadaignino’s use of the romantic Italian countryside as another character in itself creates that perfect backdrop to a perfect love story.  It is so delicious you can almost smell the fruit and Italian countryside. Call on James Ivory to take home that Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The romanticism of the Call Me By Your Name jumps off the screen to make you swoon.

Next up, was Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool with Annette Bening as 1950s movie star Gloria Grahame. I hadn’t planned on seeing this, but because I had an interview lined up this film was the one that would least throw my festival scheduling out of whack. Anyone who has ever been to a festival knows there’s a lot of planning and scheduling that needs to be done to coordinate the many events of each day. I had read the book upon which the film is based so was curious to see how this would translate to screen. Oh, and Annette Bening appears in this so that was my afternoon sorted.

At the time the film is set, Gloria is already considered to be an aging Hollywood actress. As a woman in her forties, I’ve come to hate that term. Aging. We never talk about aging Hollywood actors. Or at least we don’t make many movies about them that lament that fact. (Don’t quote me on that).

So, Gloria meets and falls in love with Jamie Bell, a young actor. Grahame is in the autumn of her life and the love story despite the doomed ending is a tender and warm one. With a supporting cast that includes Julie Walters and a cameo from Vanessa Redgrave, the film is very much a touching celebration of Grahame’s unique personality. Bening and Bell have fascinating and sincere chemistry. As their love develops in the film, Bening is captivating in a wide range of unpredictable  scenes — as she goes from seducing the young Bell by inviting him to “hustle” with her, to painfully concealing facts and feelings from him after overhearing a phone call in which he turns down an audition back in London because his relationship with “Glo” has enveloped them so deeply. It’s the same day she learns she has cancer and is dying. The film is an emotional journey well executed by its leads, and director Paul McGuigan does an excellent job of bringing the book and Grahame’s story to the screen.

As soon as the credits rolled, I made a mad dash  over to Last Flag Flying with more coffee and festival adrenaline to keep me going.  The film screened at the Community Center, a great venue just down the road from the main resort. A perfectly timed shuttle bus took us down the winding road, through the town center.

Linklater is in fine form writing and directing a film about three former war veterans. Steve Carell plays Larry whose son has died in Iraq. He asks his two friends played by Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne to go along and help him claim the body when its flown home. The drama-comedy is a look at the fallout of war and loss, excellently executed by its cast. Salty and abrasive,  Cranston’s Sal is responsible for much of the laughs provided as counterpoint to the mourning Larry. This is a war film that takes place on the East Coast in 2003 instead of the streets of Baghdad. There are no loud explosion or bombs, except for the blasts of emotion.  This is a film about three veterans who spend time together at a time when one of their brother’s needs them the most. Cicely Tyson plays the mother of a fallen soldier, her scene towards the end of the film shines in the way only Cicely Tyson can deliver. Last Flag Flying is endearing and profound, offering an angle on war rarely explored, at a time when we all need to better connect with the sacrifice that soldiers and their families make for us.

Day two at Middleburg was coming to a close, but there was still time to head back to the Salamander Resort for Hostiles, Scott Cooper’s brutal and powerful film that packs a hell of a punch right from the opening moments. Christian Bale raises the bar playing an American soldier in 1892 who has to take a dying Indian chief back to his native home in Montana. Bale’s Captain Blocker reluctantly agrees to lead the mission. As he travels from New Mexico through frontier America we don’t only accompany him on the physical journey, we follow him on a life-altering journey. It’s a journey of enlightenment wonderfully executed by Bale as he transforms from someone indoctrinated with hate by his government, to arrive at a destination of of acceptance. Rosamund Pike is outstanding, Rosalee, a wayward pioneer representing the fortitude of the American spirit, a woman who makes the best of the cards life has dealt her, because what other choice is there. That emotional power punch I mentioned earlier comes when Rosalee’s family being slaughtered right before her very eyes, but as she goes on this journey, her spirit prevails, she shows resilience and overcomes the tragedy that she has had to endure. Hostiles is  brutal but riveting and has a remarkably timely message given the current travel ban in a nation that owes its very existence to immigrants, with artificial racial divides being erected by leaders who derive more personal benefit from hatred than harmony. This is a film that stays with you long after the credits have rolled, with indelible images that will make you think about what can be done to undo the damage of recent months. Hostiles is brilliant. Pike and Bale are extraordinary, and this is one of Cooper’s best.

Well,  with that said, that’s a wrap on day two. Tomorrow, we look forward to watching I,Tonya, listening to conversations with Scott Cooper and Dee Rees, seeing Nicholas Britell perform with the local symphony orchestra, and I’ll get to end my night with Lady Bird.