The red carpets are rolling out as the Virginia Film Festival returns for its twenty-sixth year. While the schedule once again offers the caliber of cinematic fare, guests, and events that have made it a local institution, this year’s line-up distinguishes itself by beefing up the local and independent offerings with more slots for undiscovered filmmakers.
“We have made a conscious decision to bring in more filmmakers who are young in their careers, but have tremendous potential to further reinforce our reputation as a festival that supports emerging talent,” said Jody Kielbasa, UVA’s vice provost of the arts and film festival director.
With something for everyone, the festival kicks off with director Alexander Payne’s acclaimed Nebraska. The film tells a haunting, darkly comic story of an estranged father (Bruce Dern) and son (Will Forte) on a bizarre journey. An award-winner at the Cannes Film Festival, Nebraska was also nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or.
The film that beat out Nebraska for the Palme d’Or is the notoriously sexually explicit Blue is the Warmest Color, which leads this year’s contingent of foreign films. Among the outstanding dramas is Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and on the indie side is Computer Chess, another hit on the film fest circuit.
Festival guests include producers Ron Yerxa (Nebraska, Charlie Countryman) and (UVA grad) Julie Lynn (The Face of Love), familiar faces from previous VFFs. Representing Hollywood’s golden age is Hitchcock muse Tippi Hedren, who will appear at the screening of the director’s The Birds.
As always, filmmakers in Virginia and Charlottesville are amply represented. The documentary CLAW chronicles the off-the-wall history of Charlottesville’s own Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers. Screenwriter Matthew Jones is (locally) premiering his new thriller, A Single Shot; resident experimental film guru Kevin Everson is presenting some of his latest work; and Scott Haze, who attended school in Albemarle County, will be here for a Q&A about actor/director James Franco’s Child of God.
The large stock of documentaries includes promising titles like Our Nixon, featuring Nixon aides Dwight Chapin, John Ehrlichman, and H.R. Haldeman’s pre-Watergate home movies of the ousted president. Producer Brian Frye and Governor Gerald Baliles will be on hand to oversee the proceedings. The popular Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction chronicles the life and career of the unforgettable character actor/singer.
The festival will screen only a handful of classics, with a major highlight being Douglas Sirk’s subversive All That Heaven Allows starring Rock Hudson. The centennial of comic Danny Kaye’s birth will be commemorated with his beloved family-friendly medieval farce, The Court Jester, and influential animator Ray Harryhausen, who died earlier this year, is memorialized with his Saturday-matinee fantasy favorite, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
This is only a sampling of the celluloid marvels set to unspool in our darkened theaters this week. Check out the schedule at virginiafilmfestival.org, and don’t you dare leave your cell phone on.—Justin Humphreys
Choice cuts: Best bets for your film festival docket
All That Heaven Allows
Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows is perhaps the quintessential example of the genre somewhat pejoratively referred to as the “housewife melodrama.” Years of reassessment by queer and feminist film directors and critics have rehabilitated the reputation of the genre in general, and Sirk’s work in particular (his other notables include Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life). It’s impossible to imagine the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder without such films, and Todd Haynes’ 2002 award-winner Far From Heaven is practically a re-make of Sirk’s original. Like the best of the genre, All That Heaven Allows utilizes lush, classic lighting and cinematography to dramatize internal conflict. In this case, widow Jane Wyman’s affair with her gardener Rock Hudson meets the disapproval of her upper-class peers. While the drama is heightened somewhat by what we now know of the stars’ personal lives (Wyman’s failed early marriage to Ronald Reagan and Hudson’s closeted homosexuality), there’s more than enough repressed angst onscreen already. (November 10)—James Ford
Blue is the Warmest Color
If you’ve heard about Blue is the Warmest Color, you know it’s filled with long, explicit lesbian sex scenes. (If not, you’ve just been told.) You should also know it’s one of the most honest portrayals of a young person’s life ever put on film. In its three-hour running time, we follow Adèle as she slowly comes out (to herself, but not her family), finds love (and nearly obsession), and makes a life as a young professional.
And we see every aspect of Adèle’s life, from the way she thinks to the way she eats to the way she sleeps (alone and with Emma, played by Lea Seydoux), to the way she handles her first job. There are countless beautiful scenes, but for my money, its best expression of human emotion is watching Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a teacher, dance with her kindergartners at a school function, as she tries not to burst into tears after a particularly messy break-up. Blue is the Warmest Color is wonderful, and a must-see. (November 9)—David Riedel
When it first began, in the back room of the Blue Moon Diner in February of 2008, few would have dreamed that CLAW would go so far. At first, Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers was merely a fun idea that caught on quickly—women in absurd costumes matching muscles to raise money for charity.
Within three months the crowd had grown so large it had to be moved to the parking lot behind the diner—and now, five years later, it’s become a legitimate pheno-menon known as the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers, with chapters sprouting up around the country. Charlottesville-based photographer Billy Hunt (known for his fun, high-concept portraiture) was there from the beginning, and together with local director Brian Wimer, he’s made the definitive document of the CLAW movement. In addition to a fascinating peek into a subculture that’s allowed women to re-frame their identities and overturn the traditional attitudes towards feminine roles, you can also expect absurdity, spectacle, drunken revelry, and a few broken bones. (November 9)—James Ford
The novelty of Computer Chess’ look isn’t the point—it was shot with retrofitted Sony AVC-3260 tube cameras—but it goes a long way in making you feel as if you’re in 1980. We join a group of programmers in an unnamed city at a cheap hotel for a convention showcasing their latest and greatest creations: computers that can play chess against other computers. The computer that wins will face Henderson (Gerald Peary), a human player who’s never lost to a machine.
The characters are people we’ve come across at some point in our lives, and the beauty of Computer Chess is that they’re great with machines but terrible with each other. Much of the comedy is derived watching Peter (Patrick Riester) try to interact with people, including a couple that wants to involve him in a threesome. There’s also Papageorge (Myles Paige), an officious programmer who loses his hotel room and spends the bulk of his time trying to find a place to sleep in a hotel filled, inexplicably, with cats. Watch for an excellent Wiley Wiggins—the kid who grabbed his nose a lot in Dazed and Confused—as a programmer looking for deeper meaning in the circuits. (November 7)—David Riedel
The Deflowering of Eva van End
Director Michiel ten Horn and his co-writer, Anne Barnhoorn, take from Wes Anderson, add cruelty (albeit mild cruelty), and let the perfectly staged cameras roll. How else can one describe the shot compositions, which are expertly planned and executed, and the increasingly outlandish behavior of the participants? In fact, it feels like it has a touch of Todd Solondz thrown in, too.
The Deflowering of Eva van End is a satire, albeit a breezy one, of married life, school, the suburbs, and contemporary notions of beauty. Eva (Vivian Dierickx) is a miserable teenager, an outcast, and from the looks of it, she doesn’t like herself much.
When she brings German exchange student Veit (Rafael Gareisen) home, her family is shocked. Soon after, beautiful Veit—as his character must in a movie like this—starts to have a profound effect on everyone. Eva, who spends most of her time as the audience surrogate, ends up in bed with Veit (that’s not a spoiler—it’s the title of the movie).
There are other films about strangers coming to town and sparking change, from Pasolini’s Teorema to Hal Ashby’s Being There, and while The Deflowering of Eva van End doesn’t break new ground in the story department, its visuals are sharp, with tight editing and camera work, and there’s excellent production and costume design. And it has a happyish ending. (November 8)—David Riedel
I Used to Be Darker
At what point do we put away childish things and live as adults? For Bill (Charlottesville’s Ned Oldham), that’s now. For his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Kim (Kim Taylor), that’s later. It’s not entirely fair to pigeonhole either of them in such a manner, and director Matthew Porterfield and his co-writer Amy Belk do well to show Bill and Kim as complete, difficult people at crossroads in their lives.
Further complicating things is the unannounced arrival of Taryn (Deragh Campbell), Kim’s niece, who’s run away from her home in Northern Ireland and found them in Baltimore. The camera gives the actors plenty of room and there’s great music, with a standout performance by Taylor. Campbell and Oldham are also excellent. (November 8)—David Riedel
If We Shout Loud Enough
For 10 years, the Baltimore band Double Dagger made obnoxious, yet infectious, art-punk, gaining notoriety for its live shows, which were frequently provocative and occasionally very good. Its secret weapon, and possible recipe for success, is that the band members all had day jobs as graphic designers (the name comes from a term from typography), and its show posters, album covers, and T-shirts were all impeccably designed, frequently outshining the music contained within. Though the group called it quits in 2011 (there was an ill-attended yet memorable stop here in town on the final tour), a new documentary about the band is bringing more attention than ever. If We Shout Loud Enough uses the band’s members, and its music, as a window into the passionate world of underground DIY music. The director will be on hand for a Q&A following the screening. (November 7)—James Ford
Kevin Everson’s Short Films
Though most locals know him as UVA’s film professor, Kevin Everson is a well-established and widely admired filmmaker in his own right. A regular on the international art and film festival circuits, Everson is alarmingly prolific, cranking out dozens of films and videos per year, that range from quick, conceptual shorts to full-length experiments. They often examine multiple facets of African-American culture in ways that are clever, conceptually rigorous, and cinematically engaging. His 2011 feature Erie was one of the single best works screened at the Virginia Film Festival in recent years, and this year’s 50-minute program of short films will showcase selections from Everson’s short works. (November 8)—James Ford
Le Joli Mai
When Chris Marker passed away last year, he left behind a unique and wide-ranging body of work that continues to be admired and treasured by film lovers around the world. A unique mixture of essay film, political documentary, fictional construction, and cinematic poetry, his films are difficult to describe or classify but even harder to ignore. 1963’s Le Joli Mai is a two-and-a-half hour portrait of Marker’s hometown of Paris at the end of France’s war in Algeria. The film is being shown for the first time in U.S. theaters to celebrate its 50th anniversary. (November 8)—James Ford
Filmmaker Jem Cohen may be best known for his work with musicians—he shot Document, the Fugazi documentary, as well as the unforgettable Benjamin Smoke and a handful of classic music videos—but his broad body of work stretches well beyond that, from the gorgeous hand-crafted lo-fi snapshot experimental films he’s been making for decades to his narrative cuts. In recent features like Chain, he’s controversially upturned traditional distinctions between fiction and non-fiction styles, creating confusing yet insightful films that at first appear to be unusually intimate documentaries before gradually revealing themselves to be carefully staged stories. Museum Hours tells the tale of a relationship between an art museum security guard and one of the museum’s visitors. Shot in Vienna, the film reportedly contains copious footage of classic works of art, lovingly photographed. (November 10).—James Ford
A Single Shot
Sam Rockwell is one of the best actors working today. Wholeheartedly and unselfconsciously committing himself to projects both inspired and tragically flawed—even if the film he appears in is sub-par (and they often are). Rockwell is always a captivating presence, portraying sympathetic and foolhardy schlubs with remarkable subtlety and range. He stars alongside equally dependable actors William H. Macy and Jeffrey Wright in the new film A Single Shot, a promising neo-noir thriller with a wintry setting that recalls Fargo, A Simple Plan, and the recent Thin Ice. (November 9)—James Ford