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Middleburg: "Ruben Brandt" Collects and "Widows" Thrills

Day two of the Middleburg Film Festival

Friday kicked off with a special "sneak" of Stan & Ollie (which, more on tomorrow) and then two more movies which went like so...

Ruben Brandt, Collector
From the opening shot of this animated film from Hungary you know you're in for an idiosyncratic lark. We're humorously crosscutting between an ultra fast moving train and the molasses crawl of a snail on the tracks. Then we're inside the train with Ruben Brandt, a famous psychotherapist who is promptly attacked by a little girl with a very sharp bite who is dressed suspiciously like Diego Velázquez's  "Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress". I say 'dressed like' because it's hard to make the connection at first...

Rather than lifting styles directly from the famous paintings that are referenced in the picture, the artwork fuses the length of Modigliani faces with Picasso's cubist angles and adds in surrealist touches for humor before simplifying it all with 2-d animation. This mishmash of styles makes for a sometimes difficult but fun guessing game and delayed 'a ha' moments when the references finally become clear though a couple are easy to spot like Edward Hoppers "Nighthawks" and Boticelli's "Birth of Venus".

In short order we learn that Ruben Brandt is haunted by exactly 13 famous paintings. Mimi, a superhumanly skilled thief who Brandt begins to treat in his practice suggests to him that he should take his own advice and 'own his fears to conquer them' and they began to steal the paintings together. A hard-boiled handsome detective (who is also a film buff to squeeze in yet more cultural references) and some less savory gangsters are giving them chase. The eye-popping imagery and deliciously convoluted psycho-babble plot make for an entertaining watch though in the end the movie's relentlessness can prove a bit exhausting. Does it add up to anything? Does that matter? Part noir, part toon, part cubist nightmare, part "spot the reference" cultural slapstick, Ruben Brandt Collector is a strange and amusing affair, and inventive enough to justify  its existence even if its merely a visual riff on seminal paintings and famous movies. The animated nudity and violence might make this a challenge for marketing though there's no reason older and more precocious kids wouldn't thoroughly enjoy the memorably insane images and fast-paced action. (The film will receive a qualifying release from Sony Pictures Classics, and at this point we'd call it a good bet to snag one of the five nomination in Animated Feature Film.)

Widows... (Round Two)
Though we'd already screened and loved Widows at TIFF, it's a fun repeat visit, even if the seams of trying to shove an entire miniseries worth of plot into a two hour movie show a little more. But freed from the need to follow the movie's very plotty and twisty nature, it was fun to concentrate a little more on the acting choices (Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya in particular make the most of their roles) and the decisive craft of the filmmaking; the cinematography, sound, and editing in particular are top-notch. Only in this second viewing did I realize how strangely backloaded Widows actually is, using most of its running time to set up its complicated multi-character stakes before the very climactic central heist takes place. Go see this on opening weekend because the crowd gasp you'll hear at the first big twist is nearly as loud a roller coaster group thrill as that elevator kill was in The Departed years ago. 

General Oscar buzz
That said after a second time through Widows, I'm less sure that it's going to be an Oscar force. It played more like an all star future commercial hit than an 'prestige pic' this go-round. A few 'good not great' grumblings were overheard exiting the theater, as well as the usual conversations that follow very twisty movies in which some people are still trying to work through what actually happened on their way out. In fact one man behind me kept narrating the movie to his wife whenever anything surprised them while it was still playing. Argh!

They Were... What They... Where They...What They Were?Since the Middleburg Film Festival takes place at multiple venues in a small affluent town, a shuttle bus drives the attendees around to different screenings. This is a great time to dig for crowd responses to Oscar hopefuls. The Middleburg attendees tend to be a well to do, older, liberal-leaning, and white...  just like the Academy (in fact Oscar-winner Robert Duvall doesn't actually live too far away). Response to Ruben Brandt was largely positive. I picked the brains or watched for hesitations when people talked about different films they had seen that day. Surprisingly Roma, beloved by critics, was far more divisive than I'd expected. "Depressing and slow" were common complaints. One woman even told me her friend had walked out after half an hour. Hungary's Oscar submission Sunset didn't seem to generate any passion at all. People seemed to be having trouble remembering the titles of Can You Ever Forgive Me? ('the one with Melissa McCarthy'), Wildlife ('Wild Fire!'), and What They Had ('What They Were' / 'Where They... What They...Something'), but they definitely liked the actors in all three. Curiously the most random rave I heard from an attendee was for Iceland's Woman at War (which you already know I love). Can that film make a surprising case for itself with Oscar? I thought it would be too peculiar for non-critics but perhaps I was wrong?

After Widows, it was an early night in (well, 'early' in festival clocks) with room service. The restaurants close here inexplicably early;  the last movies let out at around 11:00 and that's when the kitchens of restaurants are closing, too! A group of six of us were turned away from a restaurant because the kitchen was about to close. We saw the same fate befalling dozens of other hungry festival goers. Hint to rural Virginia: people want to eat and drink after movies to discuss them. You're leaving money on the table by sticking to your normal routine during a busy Film Festival weekend! 

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Reader Comments (14)

Is What they Had a little film actors would embrace.

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

mark -- i think if enough of them saw it something could happen for it yes, but it's a modest picture so not sure it can rally enough fans to make a mark with so many big movies around it.

October 20, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'm really tired of this conversation surrounding Widows. Why does every writer frame it as an either/or scenario...either it's going to be a commercial hit or it's going to be an Oscar player. Can't it be both? If we as critics, pundits, film buffs want the Oscars to recognize great commercial fare, isn't Widows exactly the kinda movie we're talking about?

Stop trying to predict things and try to influence them. Part of influencing is framing the conversation.

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered Commentertr

"It played more like an all star future commercial hit than an 'prestige pic' this go-round."

Couldn't you say the same about A Star is Born? I haven't seen Widows but I'm curious why is it a less prestigious film. Or better yet your comparision of The Departed. Why can that go on to win best picture but this isn't even nomination worthy?

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMya

Mya: Because Scorsese hadn't won an Oscar before hand and McQueen HAS. That's the dirty secret of The Departed as a winner. It mostly won because Scorsese hadn't, not because it was that great of a movie.

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

1. The Departed is a fantastic film and a very worthy winner.
2. Nothing else was winning that year. Not the Queen, not Sunshine, not Babel and definitely not Letters from Iwo Jima. I agree that Scorsese not winning before helped A LOT, but the stars truly aligned with the group of nominees we ended up with that year.

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBD (the real one)

Mya -- i never said WIDOWS was unworthy. I like it lots. I prefer it to some of the movies that have a better shot at Best Picture (like First Man, If Beale Street Could Talk, Black Panther) .

TR -- it can be both... a star is born is obviously doing both. i'm just not sure that Widows will do both this year so perhaps I didn't word that well. good punditry, imo, is the ability to predict and the aesthetic righteousness to want to do the latter to make things better in what meager way you can... both of which we do here at TFE.

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Widows is too confusing a mix , it is a mini series adapted into 2 hours plus , it is also more admirable the enjoyable same cannot be said for a star is born , critically and commercially successful ( albeit flabby in second half ) that said Gaga and Davis will both be nominated

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGizmo

I really like "Woman at War" too! In fact, it's been the best thing I've seen at CIFF, which includes Golden Hugo winner "Happy as Lazzaro." I only wish it was a little longer - it's one of the rare films that warrants the criticism of being too short.

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

You did word it well. I don't see Widows or the one with Nicole looking homeless getting a lot of love from the Academy.

It's always interesting when you tell us what people are saying in those venues. I guess now it's the best time of the season, when awards are not given and everyone's opinion feels fresh and unconditioned.

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Was Nathaniel actually at the festival?
That's pretty cool because I was there today. To think I might have bumped into it.
Unfortunately my ride wanted to leave at 5, so I missed seeing most of the films. I'm even more pissed at my friend now for leaving early knowing I could have met Nathaniel. When you live in Virginia, it's not often you get to meet a big-time film critic

October 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterOrrin

Nathaniel : did you read The New York Times' review of Wildlife? It was an all out rave for Mulligan, calling hers the best performance of the year. Can she get in? This ye

October 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Nathaniel : did you read The New York Times' review of Wildlife? It was an all out rave for Mulligan, calling hers the best performance of the year. Can she get in? This year is so competitive.

October 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Orrin -- i was there. I go every year so say hi next year when you see me. I might even be doing a panel next year. Stay tuned...

Michael R -- i haven't read it but I think she's great great great in the film as I've stated. It'll be so annoying if she's snubbed but I expect her to be given the competition.

October 21, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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