Coffee, coffee, and more coffee. I think my blood type has changed to caffeine by this point. But that’s not a bad thing, it’s great. I love that we get to watch all these films all day, every day. I’m watching films nonstop and having fun doing it. The day was always destined to be packed, starting bright and early in the Salamander Library and ending with the Closing Night Party.
You see, the thing I love about the Middleburg Film Festival are the intimate conversations in the library. It’s a special moment where fifty film lovers can gather and listen to a filmmaker talk about their work.
Today Kasi Lemmons was in the spotlight for a career retrospective. She talked about her start in films as an actress. Discussing her inspirations, she told us what she learned working for Jonathan Demme: “He’s focused and excited. I did think, I want to be excited and focused.”
Lemmons also talked about how she spends the gaps in between her movies, aside from using the time to spend with her children, “They’re a great procrastination technique.” She joked. “I was fighting to get my movies made,” Lemmons said. The director of Harriet was first told that black films don’t sell well in foreign markets. “First, they went to all the white men, then they went to all the white women, then they went to all the black men, then they went to all the Indian women, then we had a meeting,” Lemmons continued referring to her 2007 film Talk To Me.
Talking about her latest role, actress Cynthia Erivo said she was already attached to the script when Lemmons came on board, but “There wasn’t enough Harriet when I got the script.” Lemmons looked into Harriet Tubman’s family history, diving into the stories there to craft her narrative. “The family stories were better than fiction, so why make it up?”
Lemmons was honored at Middleburg with the Agnes Varda Trailblazing Filmmaker Award.
After the conversation, it was on to interview Anthony McCarten to talk about The Two Popes. Somehow we missed talking about Bohemian Rhapsody, so we caught up on that, and then moved on to how he wrote this imagined conversation between Pope Benedict and the future Pope Francis starring two of Britain’s finest actors.
I have to say, this film gets better on second viewing. The detail of the production design and costumes is awe-inspiring.
It’s hard to believe that it has taken us until 2019 to see a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce together. Finally, here we are with The Two Popes, in a divinely brilliant film, thanks to a script by Anthony McCarten and a vision by director Fernando Meirelles.
The story is a simple one, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce) goes to Rome to offer his resignation to Pope Benedict (Hopkins). They spend time discussing why he wants to leave the church, and what transpires is this fascinating mutual understanding, many heartwarming moments, sentimental tenderness, and above all, the pleasure of watching these two conflicting spiritual leaders become friends. Benedict’s ideals are seeped in the history of the church and conserving the ideals, Bergoglio wants to leave because he no longer agrees with that conservatism.
Throughout, we get flashbacks of Bergolio’s story as a young man who becomes a priest, gets involved in politics, and then becomes head of the Catholic Church.
The Two Popes is a divine film that should definitely be seen in a theater. The cinematography is stunning. The costume design of the papal outfits is brilliant. Mark Tildesley recreates the Sistine Chapel and seeing that splashed on a big screen is nearly as awesome as the real thing.
But the film owes its emotional impact to the superb casting of Pryce and Hopkins. Their chemistry is perfection. There are so many wonderful moments, including a pizza-sharing moment in the Sistine Chapel. The contrast of the in-touch modern Bergoglio who hums Dancing Queen and cheers for the national football team against Benedict’s Jazz loving, classical music-playing Pope is pure joy. McCarten’s script allows for a wealth of meaningful, intimate moments. The joy comes from watching these two masters delivering mesmerizing performances. They are brilliant.
I had never seen so many grown men cry at a movie before. Honestly. I think I counted four men crying here. I was not surprised when McCarten walked out and the crowd gave him a rousing standing ovation. It was one of two films to receive a standing ovation and was the tell-tale sign that this movie was loved by the audience and would go on to win the audience award for Top Narrative.
Up next was Jojo Rabbit, a second viewing for me, and I was curious to see how it would play out with this crowd.
Jojo Rabbit opens with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles. It’s a cover version in German, and the streets of Germany are lined with Nazi supporters fervently cheering for Hitler. Fanaticism meets fantasticism. Enter Jojo, a ten-year-old boy whose bedroom is plastered with Nazi propaganda. His hero is Hitler. Right off the bat, director Taika Waititi is setting the tone for his film.
Jojo’s imaginary friend is Adolf, a wildly crazy, batshit version of history’s most hated man. But as Waititi reminds us through his superb satire, Jojo is just ten-years-old. He’s a ten-year-old excited to be a Nazi, but doesn’t fully comprehend the lunacy of what that involves. He goes to a Nazi training camp by day and thinks it’s cool. But when he has to kill a rabbit as part of his training, he fails.
His mother, Scarlett Johnansson reminds him he’s just a ten-year-old in a silly uniform. The young boy’s world changes after an accident at camp and he soon discovers his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in an upstairs bedroom.What starts off as aggression and hate soon gives in to a beautiful exercise in bonding, understanding and friendship. All the absurd beliefs that Jojo had about Jews give way to taking a deeper look at himself, as he discovers the common humanity between his “enemy” and himself.
He grows as he learns life lessons fast. He learns from interaction and experience. He learns from Rosie and Elsa. And bravo to Waititi for crafting such incredibly strong women. Johnansson is superb as the single mother here, left in charge since her husband is away at war. She knows her son is being swept up in the Nazi ideology, but she berates him and confides in Elsa how she knows deep inside her angel, that his innocence is intact. It’s Jojo’s friendship with Elsa that helps him in his journey of discovery.
Jojo Rabbit is a delightful production and special kudos must be bestowed on the film’s costume designer. Creating the uniforms, the clothing by Mayes C. Rubeo is worth noting. Also, the production design and color palette of the film by Ra Vincent are stunning. We are so used to seeing dull, grey, war-torn colors in WWII Germany — but not here. Instead, Waititi gives us a beautifully vibrant screen.
Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is a crowning achievement. It gives us a unique slant on one of the darkest chapters in world history, with a remarkable breath of fresh air. He’s not here to lecture us, or educate us; he’s here to remind us. He marries humor and heart with a superb ensemble cast. Roman Griffin Davis is incredible, but his best friend Yorkie (Archie Yates) steals every scene he’s in. One minute you are laughing so hard, the next you’re wanting to cry. It is absolutely phenomenal and incredibly rewarding cinematic experience. Hail Taika!
The crowd seemed to be a bit split. Either they got it (there was an accompanying video before from Waititi to help explain the satire) Or else they didn’t. As I left, I spoke to someone and raved about my love for the film, and framed it in terms of looking at it as a Monty Python spin. In return I got a simple nod of, “Ah-ha.” Followed by, “I guess I need to see it again.” Perhaps we need to be reminded the movie unfolds in a worldview re-imagined through the eyes of a child, and it’s okay to laugh in the face historic horror…
After the film, I would have like to walk across the lovely grounds of Middleburg, but time was short so I decided to shuttle it over to the next film, Honey Boy.
The beauty of Honey Boy is the way Shia LaBeouf lets the rawness shine through in this deeply personal story, loosely based on a desire to mend fences with his alcoholic father.
Noah Jupe plays the younger Otis, a TV star whose father James (LaBeouf) accompanies him whenever he’s filming. When they’re not on the set, Otis and James are home in their squalid apartment rehearsing lines. Except it’s not a great relationship because James is perpetually berating Otis for no particular reason and then takes that as a chance to remind him of being the sole parent who’s present. And by berating, we’re talking intense verbal abuse.
Lucas Hedges plays the older Otis, in rehab. Trying to work through his demons, as we flashback to his younger self. Jupe’s Otis is superb, as he was in A Quiet Place. He is a star on the rise and one to watch.
It’s a deeply personal film to LaBeouf, and you have to wonder how cathartic it was for him to make a film like this. It’s another film about understanding and learning how to judge or accept someone. It’s a portrayal of how a toxic parent can shape a person in unexpected ways. He doesn’t attack his father; instead, he tries to show how James wants to be a good dad. Laura San Giacomo is great in her small role as Otis’ counselor.
It’s a raw watch but a good one nonetheless, and Jupe is easily the film’s most valuable player. Another talent to watch for.
I have to say, the next and final film of the night was a much welcome change from all the heavy themes I’d seen earlier that day: In contrast, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a romp.
Christopher Plummer plays Harlan, a famous crime writer, and is found dead in his study. Enter Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) who is convinced this was no suicide.
Filled with twists and turns galore, Johnson takes us on a fun whodunnit adventure with an all-star cast as suspects; daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), son Walt (Michael Shannon), and daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette). There’s Don Johnson who plays Linda’s husband Richard, and Chris Evans plays Ransom who misses the funeral but comes home just in time for the reading of the will. Ana De Armis plays Marta Cabrera, his nurse. These characters are all freeloaders and they want one thing, the lion’s share of that inheritance. They all have a “rightful claim” to it.
To reveal anything further would ruin the thrill of the film.
The setting at the Thrombey estate is a production design dream. It’s a Houdini palace, complete with hidden panels, and secret hallways in a cleverly layered environment that lends itself to brilliant cinematography. The details are to die for!! Johnson plays with the genre tropes, but his genius comes in delivering a story where you think you know it all, but of course you don’t, filling the film with one unpredictable revelation after another. He plays out the nods to Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, and even Jessica Fletcher as he keeps us guessing on a laugh-a-minute thrill ride, ensuring maximum stuns and fun.
Craig’s accent is hilarious and you can see what fun this cast is having in their outlandish performances. He and Curtis are the MVPs here. Knives Out is sheer joy from start to finish. It’s hugely hilarious entertainment and delivers just what the trailer laid out to fulfill our wildest expectations.
Kudos to Johnson for taking a classic genre and bringing it right up to date in 2019 with Twitter, alt-right jokes, and all. Knives Out is a film that’s so much fun you’ll want to revisit it again and again. It’s whodunnit perfection.
Of course, this went down a riot. Laughs and applause and high entertainment. What a great way to end the evening.