SPOTLIGHT is the audience’s favorite film and top prize winner from the Middleburg Film Festival.  From director/writer Tom McCarthy, the film follows the team of Boston Globe reporters who pursued the Catholic Church’s cover-up of pedophile priests.   

“Every film in our slate was a stand-out,” said Middleburg Film Festival Founder Sheila C. Johnson.  “Audiences were especially moved by SPOTLIGHT’s terrific ensemble cast, superb craftsmanship, and most importantly, its riveting and important story.  The touching real-life “Cinderella” tale of Harry — and his beloved horse, Snowman, also captivated festival attendees.”

This year, as in past years, many films was reviewed for The Middleburg Eccentric by Wakefield School’s tenth grade English class and Ryan Perry

2015 Middleburg Film Festival in Review

By Ryan Perry

The cozy rural town of Middleburg has just wrapped up its third annual film festival, running from October 22 – 25, and I can’t think of any other event where I would rather have spent my weekend. It seems as though festival founder Sheila Johnson is constantly upping the ante from the previous year, and this year’s fest was no exception. There were just as many locations as last year’s, ranging from classic vintage venues such as the Hill School, National Sporting Library and Musem, and Buchanan Hall, as well as the elegant Salamander Resort and Spa. Each of these locations truly did a job to encapsulate the small town’s homey heritage, and generally give off a very warm and inviting atmosphere. The illustrious Salamander in particular played host to a myriad of exciting events, including an orchestra concert paying tribute to Fargo and Twilight composer Carter Burwell, as well as the world premiere of actress Meg Ryan’s directorial debut feature, Ithaca. That means that not only was Ryan there in person to present her first film in the director’s chair,but those who saw the film at the Middleburg festival were the first viewers in the world to see it. How were the films this year? It’s a sign that the festival is clearly growing (boasting a body of 26 films as opposed to last year’s 20), and the selection that was able to attend (including Macbeth, Louder Than Bombs, Spotlight, The Preppie Connection, and I Saw the Light) was one of the best that I’ve seen at any of the festivals. Not unlike the selections offered by previous years, each one offered a distinctive and unique experience that distinguished it from the others. While some were certainly more favorable than others, the overall collection proved to be one of the most memorable that I have seen since the festival’s conception back in 2013. Being a few weeks away from turning 20, I’m typically one of the few people in my age group who is excited to see a low-budget independent drama as opposed to a summer spectacle blockbuster film, so I was very excited not to experience a venue that showcased a variety of indie films, but also to see an audience who was just as excited as I was. A particularly fond experience I had was spent waiting in line for one of the films I attended, sharing a conversation with fellow moviegoers about the films that we had seen over the weekend. I hadn’t known any of them before that evening, but they were very eager to share their thoughts and recommendations. It clearly showed that those who were at the festival were there to satisfy a deep love for cinema, and doing so in a rich location at the same time. One of the most exciting experiences that I had was the opportunity to shake hands and converse with actors after two Q&A sessions. Performers that I got to speak with included northern Virginia resident Tab Hunter and young actor Devin Druid, star of the festival’s own gem Louder Than Bombs. In both experiences, the actors were extremely down to Earth, and generally enjoyable to talk to. It should also be noted that one of my assignments for my Film Appreciation college course was to attend at least one of the films at the festival. Upon returning to class on Monday, I had heard stories from all of my fellow classmates who had also attended the festival about how this was their first year of going, and based on their experiences, they are strongly planning on attending next year as well. Each of them had not only enjoyed their films, but more importantly, had also said that they thought the scenic environment was the perfect location for such an event. Being an avid attendant of the festival by this point, I was, of course, looking forward to it, but was very pleased to hear such positive feedback from my peers. Another aspect that simply cannot go unrecognized is the amazing volunteers who make the festival run. Not only do they perform their jobs with a great deal of dedication and commitment, but also with a warm and genuine smile on their faces. Each one that I encountered was overly kind and courteous, and seemed excited that I was there. The experience that they provide really does make the Middleburg festival stand out from the Toronto and Sundance festivals as one of the more personable cinematic experiences you’ll have this season. Overall, the Middleburg Film Festival’s third edition was a riveting follow-up that proves to up the ante in every aspect from the previous years. From the general quality of films to the myriad of esteemed celebrity events on display, the 2015 festival boasted all of the excitement of a more well-known festival like Toronto or Sundance, but also stands out by means of its personable community atmosphere and absorbing horse country backdrop, and it’s an experience I’ll certainly be partaking in again next year.

Review: Anomalisa

By Anya Parks

Anomalisa, a beautifully filmed and carefully constructed stop-motion, is the provocative tale of Michael Stone (David Thewlis). Stone is a motivational speaker by trade who finds himself helplessly unsatisfied with his life. He is payed to uplift the lives of others, stating that all humans are individuals that both desire and deserve happiness. This advice, so valued by all (It increased telemarketing sales by ninety percent!), is painfully ironic to both Stone and the audience as Stone is, quite literally, surrounded by clones.

By using the same face molding and voice actor (Tom Noonan) for everyone with the exception of the key characters, directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson clearly convey Stone’s dissatisfaction with those surrounding him, as well as the life he is shackled to. Everything and everyone is the same. There is no change in his monotone world, and on a trip to a conference, he desperately attempts to find something significant by calling an old girlfriend. He asks her back to his room, attempting to find some solace, if not in his soul, then in her body.  The meeting is a disaster, and Stone can do nothing but return to the hotel alone.

When he hears Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he is fresh out of the shower, fully bared to the audience as he yanks on his face, revealing the clay structure beneath. How fortuitous! In his most desperate moments, questioning his identity, his very existence, Stone hears the sound of change. The first voice in what seemed to be years has distinguished itself. Stone’s reaction to Lisa, so meek and plain, is telling of his desperation.

When Stone finds Lisa he is mesmerized by her voice despite its grating pitch, and enchanted by her face, seeing past her scar and to her unique features. Lisa appears to Stone as a miracle. Finally, there is a anomalous face in sea of monochrome! So taken in by this encounter, so desperate to drink in the sound of her voice and the look of her face, Stone fails to see Lisa as a person. Lisa, in turn, fails to do the same.  As a scarred telemarketer of average intelligence, Lisa too, is desperately trying to find something worthy within herself. She turns to Stone to successfully find it.

In the end is a twisted love story, not designed to last, but to comfort the two tortured souls we focus upon. Each contributes to the brief happiness of the other: Stone a reprieve from a repetitious, unsatisfying world, and Lisa, the belief that she is different, an anomaly —an Anomalisa.

Review: Harry and Snowman

By Doria Gilberg

Get out the old riding boots, snap on that helmet, and be prepared for the leap of a life-time- if you can find the horse first.  Harry and Snowman? More like Harry and Harry. The title leads the audience to jump to the conclusion that this is a documentary about the connection between Triple Crown winner Harry deLeyer and his prize-winning horse, Snowman. Snowman galloped away from the screen and refused to come back until half of the film was over. Once you actually find Snowman, saddle up the steed and bound off to the ring.

Harry deLeyer had a very humble start growing up on a farm in Holland during World War II. He arrived in America with his wife through the works of an American soldier Harry never even met. While working as a riding instructor at a female private school, he nearly missed the livestock auction that would change his life. With a flat tire and the clock ticking, Harry arrived at the auction just as the left-over horses were getting settled onto the slaughter truck. Snowman locked eyes with Harry in between the rungs of the trailer, and it was at this moment that Harry paid $80 for what would be a world-renown horse. Snowman and Harry won the Triple Crown in 1958, but the fame did not stop there. Jumping show obstacles became far too easy, so Harry set even higher goals and Snowman soon broke the record for clearing the tallest jump. This so called “Cinderella Horse” has inspired and captured the hearts of millions around the globe.

The film had an enormous amount of potential; the story of Harry deLeyer itself is absolutely amazing. It is the epitome of a rags to riches story.  Who wouldn’t want to be enchanted and captivated by a tale that proves that success comes with dedication and hard-work? However, Ron Davis, the director and producer, ultimately failed in successfully portraying this story. The use of “original tape” of Harry competing in a show or Snowman swimming through the ocean seems like it would be a wonderful inclusion to make the film more raw and authentic. The film was filled to the brim with this “original” footage. Most old tapes are low-quality and fuzzy because the ordinary family member is not an expert videographer, but this wasn’t the case in this film. The unbelievable quality of the “original” tape made me wonder if it was legitimate or not. It seamlessly flowed between shots of current film.

Harry and Snowman became a celebrity duo quickly rising to fame across the world. His entire life and soul revolved around this single animal. The editor, Nancy Kennedy, did an extraordinary job making the film seem very personal. Played over top of these images of the power couple were audio interviews of Harry’s ex-wife, children, and friends. His wife admitted that Harry’s biggest priority was not his own flesh and blood; it was his victorious horse. His daughter even confessed that the eldest brother left the family because he could not handle the pressure of the deLeyer family to win. The inclusion of the accounts from his family enables the audience to intimately see the real Harry deLeyer. He is not just a modest man who ended up being successful, but a real, flawed human. However, the commentary shifted the focus from the duo. This film would have been fantastic had Davis focused on that Harry deLeyer is simply a regular man who built a phenomenal bond with an ordinary horse and together they became extraordinary.

Review: Arabian Nights: The Desolate One

By Juliana Parra

To be honest, when I was perusing through the movie titles that would be showing at the Middleburg Film Festival, Arabian Nights: The Desolate One immediately jumped out at me. I imagined a beautiful film filled with enchanting characters in a whimsical setting; something like Aladdin, if you will. Before the movie began, two men introduced the film and talked about the process of creating director Miguel Gomes’s vision. They talked about how Arabian Nights: The Desolate One was the second movie of Gomes’ trilogy, but knowledge about the first film was not necessary for understanding this one. Regardless of their assurance, I did not understand how the two films could be so disconnected that information from the first movie was irrelevant to its sequel; nevertheless, I focused on the screen and decided to remain open-minded as the opening credits rolled through.

Arabian Nights: The Desolate One is comprised of three different stories all completely unrelated to one another. Throughout the 120 minutes I sat in that theatre, I tried my hardest to make sense of each scenario but found it was nearly impossible to pry a plot out of that film. The characters were not linked in any way, the scenery was dull, and the conflicts were insignificant; I was not emotionally attached to people on the screen and felt no sympathy towards their trivial problems. One of the main reasons I struggled to connect with the characters was due to the excessive use of profane language and nudity in the film; I completely understand that every director has his or her own distinct taste, but I personally was uncomfortable with the amount I witnessed. I could not identify any need for the vulgarity and was frankly confused, along with a few audience members, about its significance. I at least tried to remain in my seat while others chose to leave; nevertheless, I focused on the screen and continued to stay open-minded as the story continued.

Overall, the only correlation I could make from the three stories was that the protagonists were all isolated from their families or society in some way. In the first story, a murderer, who has been on the run for the past six months, has a sudden change of heart and allows the authorities to finally take him captive. In the second story, a judge finds herself unable to deliver a proper verdict when the citizens reveal a strange chain of crimes that have been uncovered from the past year; she is lost among the chaos and insanity of the unraveling situation. Lastly, in the third story Dixie the dog goes from family to family trying to bring them the same joy that the previous Dixie had given them; the current Dixie is living in the shadow of the former dog, yet he tries his best to bring the people comfort during their hardships. In retrospect, I assume that is why the title is The Desolate One, but it could be a longshot. I left the show scratching my head and trying to put the puzzle pieces together as I wrote down my thoughts. It is safe to say I did not understand Gomes’s film, so if you went to see it and have any thoughts, please feel free to share them with the rest of us.   

Review: Louder than Bombs

By Kate Granruth

Louder than Bombs, the first English language film directed by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, is the type of film that makes you want to run home and hug every single member of your family, and never let go ever again. Those who watch take an emotional roller coaster ride as the characters mourn, mess up, and pretend to process their feelings with and about one another. The story is told from the perspectives of a father, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and his two sons, Conrad (Devin Druid) and Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), who are all attempting to live in a world following the death of their wife and mother, famed war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert). This is a story that could very easily fall into cliché; it is not the first time a movie has been made describing a family dealing with the repercussions of the death of a loved one. However, Louder than Bombs deftly avoids all tropes and expectations its plot could entail, through outstanding filmmaking choices and stellar performances from the entire cast. What sets this film apart in terms of filmmaking is the fact that the focus is not on the big picture, but on separate moments in each character’s lives. There are few scenes in which Conrad, Gene, and Jesse truly discuss the main conflict of Isabelle’s death, yet this remains the constant recurring theme due to the detail oriented approach Trier took. Audiences are exposed to tidbits of information that gain them access to the thoughts of each character. For example, Conrad’s crush on the girl in his English class is revealed at the same time that it becomes known that he keeps thinking he sees women wearing his mother’s donated clothing, and that he wants to hug them because it would be like hugging his mother, or his discovery of an article written about his mother’s death while shopping at a gas station. The lack of sharp contrast and distinct transitions between these small, “normal” moments and these crucial, heart-wrenching to watch moments, make the entire film much more poignant and effective, as it showcases the way real life works, where big occurrences happen with no warning, falling along in place with the smaller ones.

Every role in the movie was acted brilliantly. Eisenberg masterfully adds the perfect amount of sarcasm to the melancholy role of Jonah, keeping him likeable while also maintaining the character’s deep-seated flaws. Byrne showcases an incredible range of emotional expression, going from comedy-fueled scenes about his attempts to connect with his son to forlorn ones that focus on the troubles of his marriage, and Reed is impressive as well. Despite being in the film much less than the others, she creates undeniable chemistry with each of her costars, and expertly portrays a mother who is absent but wanting to feel needed. The true showstopper of the Louder than Bombs, however, is Devin Druid. His depiction of Conrad is phenomenal; there is no better word for it. He can say more in a single stare than most could say in a monologue. The actor possesses a rare talent; the role of a teenager struggling to feel normal when everything around him is far from it is one of the hardest to play, and Druid is stellar. 

Louder than Bombs is a film that delivers, managing to balance melancholy overtones with gritty humorous undertones, while continuing to surprise the audience. The cast perfectly plays out Trier’s vision, and it will resonate with audiences long after the credits roll.

Review : I Saw the Light

My Ryan Perry

This really has been quite the year for music biopics, hasn’t it? Love & Mercy covered the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Straight Outta Compton tackled controversial rap group NWA, and now I Saw the Light zeroes in on country music icon Hank Williams. Unfortunately, not all of them can hit the mark, and I Saw the Light tends to fall into that camp.

The story follows Hank Williams (The Avengers’ Tom Hiddleston) during the late 1940s through the early ‘50s, when the only thing that can match his musical popularity is his crippling alcoholism.

Hiddleston is easily the best aspect about the film, getting completely absorbed in his role. Best known for his villainous role in the Marvel films, Hiddleston proves his ability to take on a polar opposite character and become unrecognizable in it. His mannerisms and southern singing voice are spot-on, and the most enjoyable scenes are easily those of him onstage performing.

Elizabeth Olsen also shines as Williams’s wife, Audrey. She’s no Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line (though that is a tough act to match), but she certainly gives the job her all, and gives way to one of the film’s most interesting aspects: the opposite dynamic between Audrey and Hank. Audrey has the drive to be a singer, but lacks the voice for it, whereas Hank has enough talent for the both of them, but is too busy drowning himself in booze.

Another strong quality that the film boasts is its production design. From the sets to the cars to the costumes, everything feels like an authentic representation of the time period. The film is what you would call a “period piece,” intended to encapsulate a specific era, and in that regard, I Saw the Light hits the mark.

Unfortunately, for every technical nd acting quality present, there’s at least one aspect of the story that falls flat. For example, when the film starts, Hank and Audrey are nearly ready to divorce, and you feel like you’ve missed a good thirty minutes of back story. This ties into the big problem with Hank himself: there’s no growth. As amazing a job as Hiddleston does with the material, the material just doesn’t offer any development for the character; he starts as a self-destructive drunk, and that’s how he ends. I understand that that was a big part of his life, but it just would have been more impactful to see him in his early days and then fall from grace. Exploring Williams’s songwriting process would have also been a nice touch. I don’t need a history lesson on his inspirations or anything, but I’d like something greater than “songs just happen.”

In the end, I Saw the Light is far from being a terrible movie. It has a lot going for it, from the acting to the visual design, and especially the music. But there just aren’t enough musical moments, and the spans of time in between them can tend to drag because you feel like you’re missing information. For all that the film does well, I’m giving I Saw the Light two and a half stars out of four.

Review: Macbeth

Ryan Perry

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of the playwright’s most popular tales, has been brought to the screen for a new generation by up-and-coming director Justin Kurzel. And does Kurzel’s interpretation do the tale justice? Well, mostly.

The story follows Macbeth (Steve Jobs star Michael Fassbender), a servant to King Duncan of Scotland during wartime. After returning from battle, Macbeth and his friend Banquo encounter a trio of witches who speak of an enticing prophecy: that Macbeth, as well as Banquo’s children, will one day rule Scotland.

Spurred by greed and a lust for power, Macbeth’s conniving wife, Lady Macbeth (Two Days, One Night’s Marion Cotillard) convinces her husband to do the unthinkable: murder Duncan in his sleep and forcefully succeed the throne. After becoming king, Macbeth’s corruption quickly transforms him into a monster that even Lady Macbeth comes to fear.

Though I’m a fan of Shakespeare, my most anticipated feature for this film was the casting. Fassbender and Cotillard are two of my favorite actors working today, and unfortunately, the acting was the only area that fell short. A part of this effect comes from the screenwriters’ decision to commit fully to Shakespeare’s original dialogue. While this is certainly an ambitious feat and should be acknowledged, it also takes a toll on the acting. Most of the delivery feels as though the script was memorized and then repeated exactly as it appeared on paper, with little room for emotion. Occasionally, a character would break the monotone by shouting their lines, as though to emphasize the emotional importance, but the result feels rather forced. Not all Shakespeare films are like this, so it’s disappointing to see this effect on such talented actors.

Fortunately, my complaints for the film end there. In terms of visual style, Macbeth is an absolute triumph, boasting costume designs and scenery that evoke the time period excellently. The majority of the film was shot on location throughout the Isles of Scotland, and every image, from the shots of gorgeous landscapes to Macbeth’s vast castle, looks as crisp and authentic as it gets. The music is also well-composed, matching the plot’s dramatic tension and, when paired with the visuals, wraps you up and takes you into the film’s world.

In all honesty, Macbeth is a really good movie – it’s just not as good as I had hoped. If you’re a Shakespeare fan, you’ll probably appreciate the use of Shakespearean language, it just didn’t do it for me. Fortunately, the commitment to dialogue and faithful story retelling show Kurzel’s dedication to the material, and the film’s technical excellence is strong enough to eclipse its flaws. I’m giving Macbeth three stars out of four.

Review: Spotlight

Ryan Perry

There’s been a lot of Oscar buzz for director Tom McCarthy’s dramatic true story film, Spotlight, saying that we could even be looking at this year’s Best Picture winner. And I’m here to tell you to believe the hype.

The story takes place in 2001, following the newspaper staff of the Boston Globe as they attempt to cover a massive and dangerous story from multiple angles: uncovering an unprecedented molestation scandal within the Catholic church, in a town where interviewing a priest on the subject is practically the same thing as suing the church.

Right away, the most noticeable thing about Spotlight is its impressive cast. The reporters working the story are played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber (I’d see a movie with any one of them in it), and they all bring their A game. Although these are A-list actors, you hardly see the performers as much as you see the characters they play, becuase they slip into their roles and play off of each other so naturally. This is an ensemble picture, and no one performer outshines the others.

A reason for this is because, though they are expertly acted, the characters are already written so well. The script effectively captures the commeradery that develops between a publication staff, and while it is interesting to see the staff cover the same story from four different angles, it’s just as rewarding to see them shooting the breeze in the newsroom. They really do feel like characters who would hang out together outside of work, which makes their work all the more effective.

Another interesting feature that film buffs are sure to take notice of is the cinematography. Now, I’m not talking about the use of fancy camera angles, but rather where the actors are placed within the frame. A good example is when the director places a character who is talking in the center of the frame, and the character who is listening is in the foreground (in the audience’s perspective). It may sound like a small detail, but it makes a big difference in visual storytelling, particularly in a film that’s practically driven by dialogue.

Whenever a journalism film comes out, the first instinct of the viewer is to compare it to the 1976 drama All the President’s Men, and Spotlight is the first film to come out in a good while that lives up to that standard. The story is briskly-paced and is anything but one-sided, the acting is spot-on, and the cinematography is expertly framed. The result makes for a journalistic story that joins the ranks of All the President’s Men and Zodiac, and a film that I surely won’t soon be forgetting. I’m giving Spotlight four out of four stars.

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