Passion Projects Light Up Middleburg Film Festival

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (Photo Credit: Dale Robinette; epk.tv)

By Christian Hamaker

“People love what other people are passionate about,” says a character in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. That sentiment, from a film that was the Saturday Night Centerpiece screening of the Middleburg Film Festival, captured what made this year’s fest so notable: The stories behind the screened films and the emotional responses the movies evoked powered a festival that has quickly become a destination for passionate film lovers in and near the nation’s capital.

Now in its fourth year, the Middleburg (Va.) Film Festival continues to strengthen its case as a budding fall venue for awards-season contenders that might otherwise play this year no closer to Washington, D.C.  than New York or Toronto. Film fans are responding: 2016 festival attendance was up 30% over 2015.

As in years past (see the Schaeffer’s Ghost Middleburg Film Festival 2015 wrap-up), the 2016 Middleburg Film Festival included movies that were not merely well performed and assembled with great skill, but those with themes sure to ring true among Christian viewers less interested in the high concepts and one-dimensional characters of big-studio fare.

Here’s a recap of nine films that screened over four days.

Four Stars

Romania’s new wave may not be as familiar to cinema watchers as the French New Wave, which gave us Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle, but if there’s one person from the Romanian new wave that could become a household name, it’s Christian Mungiu. Best known for the abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Mungiu followed that film with Beyond the Hills, another Cannes awards winner (for its two actresses) that confirmed his skill at tackling moral subject matter.

Graduation, Mungiu’s new film, examines again the way moral compromise has infected his home country. A man in the midst of an extramarital affair attempts to gain an advantage for his daughter on a school exam. The way the deceptions ripple out to other characters shows how a lie that starts on a small level can metastasize. These ideas are timeless, and in Mungiu’s hands, the execution is nearly flawless. Graduation is the rare film, that while watching, gives you the sense that you’re in the hands of a master.

Toni Erdmann, from writer/director Maren Ade, was favored by several awards watchers to take the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The Cannes jury instead went with Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, which also screened at Middleburg this year. I didn’t see the Loach, but watching the inventive, quite hilarious Toni Erdmann, I couldn’t help but ponder whether a comedy unlike any I’ve seen before might have fallen victim at Cannes to yet another “socially important” drama. (My friend Victor Morton, who blogs at Right Wing Film Geek, saw both films at Middleburg and assigned a high rating to both.)

A father who misses his daughter finds creative ways to worm his way into her life, and in so doing pushes her to consider the professional choices she’s made—and their personal consequences. In one key scene, he asks whether she’s happy (she asks him to define the term) and about what makes live worth living—a question that will be asked again, by another character, later in the film. The characters’ answers aren’t entirely satisfying, but their willingness to ask the question and struggle with their response is terrain that most films never even approach.

And then there are the laughs—from the belly, at unexpected moments—and a simultaneously meaningful yet funny performance of a famous ’80s ballad that linger after the film ends. Yet this is not a sweet comedy; it contains a scene of perverse sexual behavior that, while character-revealing, is hard to watch, and its bizarre final 30 minutes feature characters laying bare more than just their souls. (I counted two walkouts during that final stretch.) But Toni Erdmann is, scene to scene, tremendously alive on screen. Across a 162-minute running time, that’s a major accomplishment.

3 Stars

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

I found myself thinking of Roy Scheider’s line from Jaws as I watched the shipwrecked protagonist of The Red Turtle make repeated attempts to set out to sea in a craft assembled from cut-down island trees and vines, only to have the boats capsized by the impact from an unseen (for a time) ocean creature.

That creature turns out to be the title character of the latest film from Studio Ghibli, which in recent years has produced the animated films When Marnie Was There (2014), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) and The Wind Rises (2013). Co-produced with seven other companies and directed by Michael Dudok de Wit from his original story, this nearly silent story of a shipwrecked man who, through unexplained intervention, finds a contented life, is diverting and often charming. But despite the desperate circumstances the main character faces, it rarely feels dangerous. As I watched it, I found my mind wandering to this year’s Kubo and the Two Strings—another animated family tale but one that contains a palpable sense of danger that The Red Turtle, for all its survival stakes, never approaches.

Just as fantastical as the animated Red Turtle is the live action La La Land from director Damien Chazelle—so unlike anything else we’ve seen in years that it screams “passion project.” Jazz pianist Ryan Gosling meets aspiring actress Emma Stone, and they both pursue their dreams, singing and dancing along the way. Yes, La La Land is an old-fashioned musical that nods as much to the films of Jacques Demy as it does to MGM. Transcending and inspiring in its best moments, its willingness to disappoint audiences trained to root for happy-ever-after stories is gutsy and admirable.

I’d like to think that very thing will be what makes La La Land endure, and possibly cover over its weaknesses across subsequent viewings. La La Land is a fine if imperfect film that deserves to be sampled broadly. But audience tolerance for challenging material—never high—seems to be diminishing. Therefore, any weakness—and La La Land has few, including dialogue that leaves us longing for the next song (“shut up and sing,” indeed)—could be a reason for audiences to dismiss the film.

While La La Land isn’t afraid to balance flights of fancy with melancholy, Manchester by the Sea (opening in Washington, D.C., Nov. 25) casts its anchor on the heavier end of the emotional spectrum. A drama rooted in a tragedy, Kenneth Lonergan’s drama stars Casey Affleck as Lee, a New England man who takes guardianship of his nephew. The timeline-shifting early in the film kept this viewer off-balance for much of the first hour—to a degree I wasn’t sure was intentional—but the film’s central event is unexpected and devastating, bringing order to what we’ve been watching and grounding the film’s second half. Christianity— in both Catholic and Protestant flavors—is discussed and depicted in ways that dishonor neither (although one exchange about the distinction between the two generates a rare laugh), and a key scene involving Lee and his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) gives the film its most potent emotional moment. In a drama of such weight, that’s no small feat.

Two Stars

Williams has more screen time in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, a triptych of female-centered stories. Williams plays a woman building a house who has her eye on some sandstone owned by an older man (Rene Aberjonois). Her negotiations with the man over acquiring the stone give Certain Women some poignant moments, but the story feels truncated and ultimately unsatisfactory. The film’s first segment, about a lawyer (Laura Dern) representing a volatile client (Jared Harris), has more closure than the Williams story but also feels less meaningful than the rest of the film, especially after its superior concluding segment. Starring Kristen Stewart as a part-time teacher and newcomer Lily Gladstone as one of her students, the segment builds to a finale of emotional nakedness that’s reminiscent of the conclusion to Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. That the interplay between Stewart and Gladstone could recall one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history and, if not equal it, at least not suffer greatly by comparison, is the highest compliment I can pay to Reichardt’s film.

Less worthy of celebration, despite a strong central performance from Sonia Braga, is Aquarius, the story of Clara, an aging woman remembering past romances while still wooing and catching men—both old and young—drawn to her beauty and charisma. Admirable for its depiction of the emotional and romantic needs of an older woman—someone who’s literally scarred by her past—Aquarius seems intent on thumbing its nose at the sanctity of marriage and celebrating a sex-without-strings romanticism that would be foolish and naïve if lived out by younger characters. Why should we think any differently about Clara?

Better is The Salesman, from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. Like Mungiu, Farhadi—director of A Separation, The Past and About Elly—keeps making rich moral dramas, but his previous consistency takes a hit here. Teacher and writer Emad is also an actor, sharing the stage with his wife, Ranaa, in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Forced to leave their apartment, the couple settles in a new building where Ranaa, home alone one night, is assaulted. The observant story turns into a whodunit and, ultimately, a revenge thriller (it’s a bit too close for my tastes to Denis Villeneuve’s superior Prisoners), with snippets of Salesman thrown in as connective tissue. The transitions are far from seamless, distracting from a conclusion that otherwise forthrightly addresses the revenge versus mercy question at the heart of so many vigilante stories.

One Star

It’s not unusual for film festivals to feature opening-night selections that are general crowd pleasers, and such was the case with Lion, the story of 5-year-old Saroo, who ends up far from his home in Calcutta. He survives until he’s adopted by a Tasmanian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), but the older Saroo (Dev Patel) persists in trying to figure out where he’s from and who his birth parents are.

Like its protagonist, Lion is restless and unsettled, racing through numerous title cards (“One Year Later,” “Melbourne 2008,” etc.) that substitute for character development in driving the story forward to a conclusion that feels both miraculous and pat. And yet, Lion won the Audience Award for Best Narrative at the festival (The Eagle Huntress, which I didn’t see, took the Audience Award for Best Documentary)—confirmation that it was a good opening-night selection, even if it pulls up the rear on my own list.

Perhaps that’s another sign of the growing strength of the Middleburg Film Festival: The programmers have found ways to satisfy both critics and casual moviegoers in a setting that’s equal to the beauty on screen.

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