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Virginia is for Film Festival Lovers

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When I was a fledgling film critic during my undergraduate days at the University of Virginia, I tried to see every new movie that came to Charlottesville, somehow talking friends into accompanying me to see such seemingly forgettable flicks as Disorderlies, Hello Again, Memories of Me and The Killing Time. (But if I remember them 30 years later, were they really forgettable?) During my final year at U.Va., the first Virginia Festival of American Film was held, and since then, I’ve come back periodically to revisit the event, which has been renamed the Virginia Film Festival. This year, I saw seven movies over two and a half days, including the opening night premiere of Downsizing, which I’ve reviewed separately.

It turned out I saved the best for last, as I’ve just returned from the centerpiece screening of Scott Cooper’s Hostiles. I loved Cooper’s script for Crazy Heart as well as his earlier directorial efforts, Black Mass and the criminally underrated Out of the Furnace. Hostiles reteams him with Furnace‘s Christian Bale, in another Oscar-caliber turn as a U.S. Army soldier assigned to escort a grief-stricken widow (a career-best Rosamund Pike) and an Indian chief (Wes Studi) and his family across dangerous territory from New Mexico to Montana in 1892. It’s a stark, beautifully shot drama that combines the visual sweep of a classic Western like The Searchers with the brutal revisionism of modern masterpieces like Unforgiven. The note-perfect cast overflows with great character actors (Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Ben Foster, Scott Wilson and an especially impressive Rory Cochrane). Much more than a period piece, Hostiles raises relevant issues. The title itself dehumanizes an entire race by referring to a group people by a plural adjective rather than a noun, much like Trump Era racists refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.” In the end, we’re left with a question: Who are the real hostiles?

Earlier in the day, I attended a provocative and entertaining Q&A with Spike Lee, led by U.Va. professor Maurice Wallace, that addressed some of the same issues by way of introducing Lee’s documentaries 4 Little Girls (about the Birmingham church bombing) and I Can’t Breathe (about the killing of Eric Garner, and how life imitated art with the death of Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing). Lee, who wittily pointed out that he might be related to Robert E. Lee but he won’t believe it until he sees the DNA, likened the genocide of Native Americans to the gentrification of NYC neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem. He also took a few well-placed shots at a local sacred cow (“Your boy Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner!”) It was a bracing wake-up call to a community still reeling from the white supremacist terrorism in August.

Issues of racism and genocide also resonate throughout Django, a powerful biopic of the legendary gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) and how he navigated his way out of Nazi-occupied France in 1943. It’s a fascinating chapter in the life of a man whose music remains as invigorating as ever.

I also attended a couple of classic films with something extra: Alfred Hitchcock’s still-entertaining silent thriller The Lodger with live accompaniment from the Reel Music Trio and Harold and Maude with enlightening shot-by-shot commentary from Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson as well as the film’s producer Charles Mulvehill. I first saw Harold and Maude when I was at U.Va., and it remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Which just proves the truth of the festival’s tagline: Virginia is for film lovers.

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Is Downsizing a Movie Mini-Miracle?

 

downsizingThe opening-night feature of the 2017 Virginia Film Festival, Downsizing concerns a scientific miracle: technology allows human beings to be shrunk, alleviating pressures of overpopulation and pollution. Alexander Payne’s sci-fi dramedy is no less a miracle: a big-budget, mainstream Hollywood studio movie that’s entirely original. This isn’t a superhero flick, a sequel or a reboot — it’s a film of ideas, emotions and three-dimensional characters, even if they are only five inches tall.

At an enlightening Q&A following the screening led by The Washington Post‘s Ann Hornaday, executive producer Mark Johnson (a proud U.Va. alum) discussed the challenges of getting such a cinematic unicorn made. Although Payne’s earlier films like Election and Sideways were ironically much smaller in scale, Paramount was willing to gamble on Downsizing after a huge movie star, Matt Damon, signed on to star. He gives one of his best performances as a profoundly decent man who’s unsatisfied with his workaday life and finds greater meaning only after getting small.

The teeming ensemble includes such big names as Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern (reuniting with her Citizen Ruth director Payne). But the breakout star is Hong Chau, a Taiwan-born, Louisiana-raised actress known for Treme who tackles a truly bizarre role — a one-legged Vietnamese-refugee humanitarian maid with a bracingly brusque personality — and infuses it with heart, humor and sex appeal. I’m not sure what mainstream audiences will make of Downsizing (I loved it, though it’s a bit of a feathered fish), but I will be shocked if Chau doesn’t get an Oscar nomination.Also in the running for an Academy Award nod may be two-time winner Christoph Waltz, who makes Damon’s swinging, selfish neighbor deeply endearing.

The less you know about Downsizing‘s plot, the better. The story takes unexpected turns that some may find jarring but I found exhilarating. Through it all, Payne (and co-writer Jim Taylor) maintain a tricky, delicate tone. Imagine if Frank Capra and Charlie Kaufman had a baby, and you might have some idea what I mean. I hope Downsizing proves to be a gigantic hit, but its very existence gives me hope for the future.

Two Daddies and a Son on Daddy’s Home 2

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Bruce Fretts: I just saw Daddy’s Home 2 with my favorite daddy–son combination, comedian extraordinaire David Rey Martinez and his 10-year-old Sebastian. Had you guys seen the first one?

David: No, we didn’t. We were talking about that earlier. We weren’t sure we wanted to see it because we hadn’t seen the first one.

Sebastian: But he said, “We’ll be okay. We’ll be able to follow it.” I was a little confused.

Bruce: The family relationships are kind of complicated. Will Ferrell plays the stepfather of Mark Wahlberg’s kids, and John Lithgow and Mel Gibson join the cast as Will’s and Mark’s dads.

Sebastian: When Will Ferrell said, “Did I die again?” I was like, “When did he die?”

David: So he died in the first one?

Bruce: I saw the first one with my son and enjoyed it, but I don’t remember him dying. Did you guys like this one?

Sebastian: I thought it was funny. It seemed authentic.

David: The family dynamic was very well thought-out.

Sebastian: I liked when they brought in John Cena.

David: You liked the wrestling aspect of it. I liked the way they brought in the grandfathers. The pairings were good.

Sebastian: I think in the next one they’re either going to have great grandpas or bring in uncles and aunts.

Bruce: Did any of the dads remind you of your dad?

Sebastian: (laughs) The nice ones. He’s not hostile.

Bruce: He’s affectionate?

Sebastian: Yes. And he’s funny.

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David: I thought the women in the movie could’ve played a bigger part. It just focused on the guys. Where are the women’s families?

Bruce: We have to see A Bad Moms Christmas to get the female perspective.

David: Didn’t we give Bad Moms a bad review? And they still came out with another one?

Bruce: We tried to warn people. It didn’t work. But I liked both Daddy’s Home movies. Will Ferrell is funny. He reminded me of Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Bruce: Did you have a favorite part, Sebastian?

Sebastian: I liked when they went to the improv comedy show. That reminded me of my dad’s shows, but it wasn’t as funny.

David: My problem was when Will Ferrell grabbed the Christmas lights, and everything came crashing down. It would’ve never happened like that.

Sebastian: You should just accept the movie for what it is.

Bruce: Out of the mouths of babes.

David: If it’s a science-fiction movie, I let all those boundaries go. If you’re making something real, I hold you accountable.

Bruce: But it’s a slapstick comedy. I think it achieved what it set out to do, which was to be a big, dumb movie. So are you going to watch the first one now?

David: Yeah, we’re gonna go back and watch it.

Sebastian: And then watch the second one again.

David: Yeah, when it comes out on TV. We’re not paying to see it again. It wasn’t life-changing.

Bruce: And if they make a Daddy’s Home 3, would you see it?

David: Yeah, we’d see it.

Bruce: I’d see it for free.

Are Wind River’s Oscar Chances Gone?

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It pales by contrast to the stories of the dozens of women who were assaulted and harassed by Harvey Weinstein, but the scandal could cause a different kind of fallout: The Oscar hopes for The Weinstein Co.’s Wind River may have dried up. That’s a shame, because I recently caught up with the sleeper hit on VOD, and it’s easily one of the best pictures I’ve seen this year.

The film’s writer-director, Taylor Sheridan, as well as its producers have wisely tried to distance themselves from Weinstein, stripping his company’s logo from the movie online and at Academy screenings. Some critics have commented that the drama’s storyline, which concerns a woman who is sexually assaulted and murdered on a Native American reservation, could make for an uncomfortable juxtaposition given Weinstein’s behavior. But that’s all the more reason why Wind River should be seen; inspired by actual events, it closes with the tragic fact that no statistics are kept for women who disappear on reservations. The film could shine a much-needed light on that issue.

Aside from its social significance, it’s also just a damn good thriller. Jeremy Renner gives his best performance since The Hurt Locker as a fish-and-wildlife ranger who discovers the body, which triggers memories of a daughter he lost under similar circumstances. He’s teamed up with the often-underrated Elizabeth Olsen as an FBI agent sent to investigate the crime, and together they track the killer.

After his deservedly acclaimed screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water, Sheridan completes his Western revisionist trilogy brilliantly, and in his debut as a director, he shows an impressive eye for strikingly composed images. Among the flawless ensemble are two gifted Native American actors: Graham Greene (who got an Oscar nomination for 1991’s Dances With Wolves) as Gil Birmingham (who should’ve gotten one for Hell or High Water) as the murder victim’s grieving father.

Oscar voters, please don’t punish Wind River for Harvey Weinstein’s crimes. This film isn’t part of the sexual-assault problem; it could be a part of the solution.

Is 2017 The Year of the Woman Director?

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The sexual-harassment scandal gripping Hollywood has put a focus on gender inequality in the film industry, where women are disproportionately underrepresented in positions of power. But there is reason to hope: Women’s voices are being heard not only as they stand up and speak out against creeps like Harvey Weinstein and James Toback but also as directors of some of this year’s biggest and best movies. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman has shattered box-office records, while Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Maggie Betts’ Novitiate are expected to compete for Oscar nominations. I’ve just seen two more films made by women, Dee Rees’ Mudbound and Noel Wells’ Mr. Roosevelt, and they bring diverse points of view to stories that also happen to be immensely entertaining.

Mudbound would be a lock to make Rees the first African-American woman to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, were it not being streamed on Netflix simultaneously with its limited theatrical release on Nov. 17. It certainly deserves to break down the barriers that have kept the service from getting nods for films like Beasts of No Nation and The Fundamentals of Caring. The deeply affecting drama represents a huge step forward for Rees, as it’s on a grander scale than her indie breakthrough Pariah as well as her Emmy-winning HBO biopic Bessie.

At the very least, Mudbound is a sure bet for a best ensemble nomination at the SAG Awards. Carey Mulligan stars as a farm wife torn between her small-minded husband (Jason Clarke) and his World War II-vet younger brother (Garrett Hedlund, who brings a beautifully wounded intensity reminiscent of Heath Ledger), while Mary J. Blige belies her song “No More Drama” with a quietly powerful performance as a midwife whose son (Jason Mitchell) returns from the war to face the horror of racism on the homefront. Equally fine are Netflix staple Rob Morgan (Stranger Things, Daredevil) as her sharecropper husband and Jonathan Banks as a virulent Klansman.

Mudbound has the scope and impact of a classic Hollywood epic, while Mr. Roosevelt has much more modest ambitions, but it’s no less refreshing. Wells, who showed promise during her sadly short-lived tenure on Saturday Night Live, writes, directs and stars in this eccentric comedy as improv/sketch artist Emily, who leaves L.A. and returns to Austin, Texas after her titular cat falls ill. Unaware that her ex-boyfriend (Nick Thune) has a seemingly perfect new girlfriend (Britt Lower), Emily melts down, and Wells proves unafraid to cast herself as an hysterically flawed mess.

Mr. Roosevelt is Wells’ first film as a writer-director, yet she’s already adept at creating three-dimensional characters (there are no heroes or villains) and using the camera for maximum comic effect. She’s particularly skilled at finding the painful laughs in random sexual encounters. In a just world, Wells could the cinematic successor to Woody Allen. She’s a seriously funny filmmaker.

Battle of the Sexes: Why No Love?

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Ninety million people watched the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, and I was one of them. I was seven years old at the time, and I’m pretty sure I rooted for Riggs because I thought he was funny. Battle of the Sexes captures Riggs’ ridiculous sense of humor, as Steve Carell reunites with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the directors of his 2006 sleeper Little Miss Sunshine, which earned $60 million off an $8 million budget. Alas, Battle of the Sexes isn’t doing nearly so well, having grossed less than half its reported $25 million budget in its first month of domestic release. Why? Let me lob a few theories at you.

Emma Stone is miscast as Billie Jean King. Sorry to say it, because I usually love Stone and was overjoyed when she won a Best Actress Oscar in La La Land. She’s not exactly a chameleon, though. She brings a certain Emma Stone-ness to all of her roles, whether she’s in Birdman or The Amazing Spider-Man (those movies are a lot different than their titles might suggest). She doesn’t look or sound much like King, which might be okay if Carell weren’t doing an ace impression of Riggs.

The story has been told before. In 2001, Holly Hunter and Ron Silver co-starred in a TV-movie, When Billie Beat Bobby. The title spoiled the suspense for anyone who didn’t know the match’s outcome, and more important, Hunter absolutely nailed the role of King. The only advantage Battle of the Sexes has over When Billie Beat Bobby is how the big-screen version seamlessly weaves in the actual footage of Howard Cosell’s color commentary. The TV-movie cast Fred Willard as the controversial sportscaster, but there is only one Cosell. And some might say that’s a good thing.

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The title is a turnoff. True, it was the tagline used to sell the match, but that was nearly 45 years ago, and now it sounds as dated as Battle of the Network Stars, another Cosell-fronted artifact, which ABC unsuccessfully tried to reboot this summer. No question the film raises relevant questions about sexism and equality, especially in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that has cast a shadow over nearly everything coming out of Hollywood lately. But why pay to see Battle of the Sexes when you can read about the gender wars for free on the Internet every day?

It’s a tennis movie. Unlike boxing or baseball, the sport hasn’t scored cinematically. When the most successful example is a Woody Allen film (2005’s Match Point), you’re not dealing with a lucrative genre. Still, that didn’t stop Shia LeBeouf from picking up a racket in the upcoming Borg/McEnroe. My prediction for its prospects? Double fault.

Game. Set. Match.

Will Lady Bird Soar at the Oscars?

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Lady Bird and LBJ — together again! Okay, so writer-director Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age comedy has nothing to do with the late First Lady, but it is opening the same day as Rob Reiner’s presidential biopic, Nov. 3.  While LBJ has been sitting on the shelf for more than a year (perhaps to put some space between Woody Harrelson’s performance as Lyndon Johnson and Bryan Cranston’s Tony- and Emmy-winning turn in All the Way) , Lady Bird has been earning raves on the festival circuit and seems more likely to win over Oscar voters.

Set in her hometown of Sacramento in 2002-3, Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical gem follows high-school senior Christine McPherson (the prodigious Saoirse Ronan, who should earn her third Oscar nomination at 23, after Atonement and Brooklyn). Dubbing herself “Lady Bird,” she’s determined to fly the coop for college in New York City, over the objections of her hypercritical yet loving mother, played with shattering sensitivity by Laurie Metcalf. A Tony winner for this year’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 and a three-time Emmy winner for Roseanne (a role she’ll soon reprise in the reboot), Metcalf could add an Academy Award to her collection. Now she just needs to sing or record an audiobook and she could have a shot at becoming a member of the EGOT club.

An actress who has frequently worked with real-life romantic partner Noah Baumbach, Gerwig shows a great facility for eliciting vivid performances; the impressive ensemble also includes Manchester by the Sea‘s Lucas Hedges (as a closeted classmate), Fences‘ Stephen McKinley Henderson (as a depressed priest) and Marjorie Prime‘s Lois Smith (as a good-humored nun). Like Tracy Letts, who plays Lady Bird’s soft-hearted father, they’re all veterans of the theater, and Gerwig’s love of the stage shines through in endearingly amateurish scenes from high-school productions of Merrily We Roll Along and The Tempest.

Judging by the warm reception Lady Bird received at the Writers Guild of America East screening I attended, Gerwig seems a shoo-in for screenplay nominations. Whether such a small, sweet film can compete in Best Picture and Director categories depends on how the rest of the field shakes out. It may have competition for Original Screenplay and Supporting Actress from Novitiate, another coming-of-age period piece about a Catholic schoolgirl (Margaret Qualley), only this one dreams of becoming a nun. The feature-film debut of writer-director Margaret Betts, Novitiate boasts powerful work from Melissa Leo as a domineering Mother Superior whose worldview is shaken by the Vatican II reforms of Pope Pius XXIII in the early ’60s. A nominee for Frozen River and a winner for The Fighter, Leo may find herself duking it out with Metcalf on Oscar night.

More importantly, though, with Lady Bird and Novitiate, we have two stellar films written and directed by women with strong, specific points of view. In the post-Harvey Weinstein indie-movie world, that’s reason to rejoice.