By Ken Wilson –
Some go for the rising stars, highly anticipated new releases, and Academy Award contenders. Others relish the classics on the big screen, the probing documentaries, the 72-hour “highly-caffeinated” filmmaking competition, and the foreign films curated by the eagle-eyed team of Festival Director Jody Kielbasa and Programmer Wesley Harris. Digital or celluloid, buttered or plain, the Virginia Film Festival has the movies and the popcorn, the parties and the players, and the attention of seasoned film buffs far and wide each November.
A program of the University of Virginia and the Office of the Provost and Vice Provost for the Arts, the 30th annual festival takes place in Charlottesville from November 9-12, with more than 150 films and such celebrated creative lights as Academy Award-winning filmmakers Spike Lee and Ezra Edelman, Emmy Award-winning actor William H. Macy, and noted author Margot Lee Shetterly.
It’s a lineup, Kielbasa says, which “captures the things that set us apart, and that contributes to our rising profile on the national and international festival scene. Once again, our audiences will be able to choose from a program of extraordinary depth and breadth, including some of the hottest titles on the current festival circuit, fascinating documentaries that address and comment on the most important topics of our time, the latest work from some of the newest and most exciting voices on the filmmaking scene, and the best of filmmaking from around the world and right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Opening Night: Downsizing
“Simplify your life.” “Get rid of clutter.” “Downsize.” They’re popular concepts these days, but “downsizing” takes on a new and astonishing meaning in this year’s Opening Night Film, 7:00 p.m. Thursday, November 9 at The Paramount Theater. Director Alexander Payne combines his trademark dark humor and satire with utopian sci-fi as Omaha couple Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) join a save-the-planet, get-rich-quick movement and undergo bodily miniaturization to a height of five inches.
Hong Chau’s breakout role as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist shrunken by the government against her will, is garnering significant Oscar buzz. “This is the third time we have opened the Festival with a film by Alexander Payne, following up on Nebraska in 2013 and The Descendants in 2011,” Kielbasa said. “Downsizing was one of the highlights of my recent Telluride Film Festival experience, and embraces so many themes that are central to all of our lives today, including acceptance and environmental awareness.” A conversation with the film’s Academy Award-winning producer and Virginia Film Festival Board Chairman Mark Johnson will follow the screening.
Centerpiece Film: Hostiles
Tribal loyalties and cultural clashes, ingrained racism and casual brutality by the supposedly superior—the past is present and the historic is unfortunately contemporary, on the streets and on the big screen. This year’s Centerpiece film, Hostiles, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, November 11 at the Paramount, is set in 1892 and stars Christian Bale as Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker and Wes Studi as Chief Yellow Hawk, an ailing long-time prisoner Blocker escorts through hostile territory back to his Cheyenne homeland to die.
Based on a manuscript by the late Donald Stewart (The Hunt for the Red October), this brutal new western from director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) is a meditation on hatred and how a soul can be forged by violence. Director Scott Cooper, a Virginia native and Independent Spirit Award winner for his highly-acclaimed film Crazy Heart, will be on hand for a discussion of the film after the screening.
Race in America
The seven films in the Festival’s “Race in America” will be presented in partnership with James Madison’s Montpelier and the exhibition, “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” in which the stories of Montpelier’s slaves are told by their living descendants. Acclaimed director Spike Lee will show his latest project, the Oscar-nominated documentary 4 Little Girls, at 3:00 p.m., Saturday, November 11 at the Paramount Theater. The film examines the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama that, took the lives of four African American girls and further galvanized the Civil Rights Movement it was designed to thwart.
Also on the program is Lee’s I Can’t Breathe, a two-minute video combining footage of the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City Police officers with footage of the similar death of the Radio Raheem character in Lee’s iconic 1989 film Do The Right Thing. Spike Lee’s “remarkable body of work and tireless pursuit of social justice,” Kielbasa says, “make him an important presence for us any time but we are particularly pleased to bring him here in the wake of recent events that have impacted us all so deeply and that continue to fuel a national conversation about issues that deeply divide us as a nation.”
Ezra Edelman’s landmark five-part documentary O.J.: Made in America examines the O.J. Simpson murder case in the mid-nineties, and the racial tension it brought out into the open. A conversation with Edelman will follow the final episode. “Particularly in this year,” Kielbasa said “when we are partnering with Montpelier on the ‘Race in America’ series and when issues of race are sadly but rightfully in the forefront of our national conversation, Ezra Edelman is a tremendously important voice to share with our audiences, and we are proud to have him here to present and discuss a project that is groundbreaking in so many ways.”
When the late great critic Roger Ebert was still with us, his “Shot-by-Shot Workshops”—frame-by-frame analysis of classic and beloved films—were an annual Festival highlight. The Workshop returns this year with Nick Dawson, biographer of legendary director Hal Ashby, who will screen and discuss Ashby’s 1971 romantic black comedy-drama Harold and Maude. The film itself will receive a free, uninterrupted and unticketed screening at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, November 10 at Vinegar Hill Theatre. The Workshop will be held at Vinegar Hill in two 100-minute parts, Saturday November 11 at 11:00 a.m., and Sunday, November 12 at 11:00 a.m. Tickets are required for each.
Silent But Not Really
Before surround sound, before award-winning scores like Star Wars that have become part of our cultural consciousness, and before you could even hear the actors, there was a guy in the pit at the old movie palaces, pumping the organ pedals and providing the atmosphere. Screenwriter, composer, and UVA film lecturer Matthew Marshall is that guy these days when the Festival takes us way back to the original, silent films. Marshall had never played music for a silent film outside of his living room when his wife recommended him to former festival director Richard Herskowitz, who needed an accompanist for Phantom of the Opera. That was 16 years ago. Marshall and his Reel Music Ensemble, whose composition fluctuates according to needs, are now Festival favorites, and will provide the music and atmosphere for two programs this year.
“You’d have to go back to 1927 to actually do this for a living,” Marshall says. “You do it because you love it. The majority of classic silent films do not have official scores. Most scores were compiled from cue sheets of existing music that fit the moods of the scenes. By the early 1920s there were music books published for theater organists and pianists called ‘Movie Moods’ which would have descriptive words in the margins like ‘Chase, Romantic, Fight, Comic,’ then a page number to turn to for a piece of music to fit that mood.”
How does a 21st century composer make music for an early 20th century art form? “The music will be original compositions appropriate for the time period and genre,” Marshall says. “When I compose, I will sit at the piano, watch the film straight through, and simply translate the mood of each scene into the music I hear in my head. I will then go back through the film and write specific melodies and motifs for each character. I always leave room between each piece for improvisation. When I write for other musicians, I will write about 20 short pieces for them to play on my cue, and then improvise between each of those pieces, based on the energy of the crowd and my own mood in the moment.”
Saxophonist Emily Cockrell and violist Abby Steele will join Marshall at the Paramount at 10:00 p.m. November 10 for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger. “It is the 90th anniversary of the film and Hitchcock’s telling of a Jack the Ripper type thriller in London,” he says. “Is the mysterious lodger a notorious killer, or is he trying to solve the murders?”
Marshall, Cockrell and violinist Elizabeth Leverage-Hilles will play a 100th anniversary screening of a Chaplin film at 2:00 p.m., November 12 at PVCC’s Dickinson Center: the 70-minute romantic comedy, The Immigrant , features Chaplin in one of his most famous roles. Also on the program are two more of the great comedian’s two-reelers, Easy Street and The Adventurer. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz will introduce the November 10 and 12 programs.
UVA professor of Art Kevin Everson is an internationally acclaimed artist and filmmaker with 130 short films to his credit. “My artwork and films are about responding to daily materials, conditions, tasks and/or gestures of people of African descent,” Everson has written. A loving chronicler of working-class black life, Everson used 16mm black-and-white film to observe the workings of American democracy at Charlottesville’s Tonsler Park last November, capturing voters and poll workers as they exercised their hard won rights. Tonsler Park will be shown at Violet Crown Cinema at 1:00 p.m. on November 10. A discussion with Kevin Everson and UVA professor of African American and African Studies and History Claudrena Harold will follow.
Local and Foreign
The Festival helps us make sense of the American scene, and it takes us away from ourselves into other settings and traditions. In Song of Granite, 2:00 p.m. Sunday, November 12 at the Violet Crown, director Pat Collins combines performance and archival documentary footage with views of the lush Irish countryside to tell the life story of the great traditional Irish folk singer Joe Heaney, and the landscape, myths, and fables of his Connemara childhood. Song of Granite is Ireland’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2018 Academy Awards.
Scots-Irish folk music became old-time mountain music in the New World, and much of that transformation took place here in Virginia. The short documentary The Ruination of Lovell Coleman puts the spotlight on a Charlottesville-based 93-year-old fiddle player with a largely younger but loyal fan base—at local nursing homes. Coleman and Director Ross McDermott will discuss the film after the screening at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, November 11, at the Violet Crown.
Future film stars, producers and directors will giggle and network during this year’s free Family Day, Saturday, November 11 on the University of Virginia’s Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds. Among the day’s events are a screening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the premieres of films made by more than 500 local students as part of the VFF’s Young Filmmakers Academy on the theme of resolving conflict and creating peace.
Staff from the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection will lead children ages 2-5 in “Joey Stories!,” an introduction to the world of baby kangaroos (“joeys”) and the basics of storytelling, with music, videos, crafts and interactive activities. Kids will also have the chance to create their own joey story. The free program is limited to 25 children, and registration is required. Other interactive arts workshops include “The Magical World of Ballet” by Charlottesville Ballet; “Movin’ and Groovin’” by the Music Resource Center; “Five Ways to Begin a Screenplay” by the UVA Drama Department and Arvold Education; and “How Theater Works,” a behind-the-Scenes tour by Steven Warner. There will be free parking at the Culbreth Road Garage.
Closing Night: Call Me by Your Name
This year’s Closing Night Film, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, November 12 at the Paramount, is Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age love story Call Me by Your Name. Based on an acclaimed 2007 novel by the Egyptian-born American writer André Aciman, this story of first love, set in northern Italy in the summer of 1983, centers on Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a teenager sophisticated about music and literature but naïve in the ways of romance. When Elio meets the American scholar Oliver (Armie Hammer), his father’s charming intern, the two form a bond that matures into love.
Late Night Wrap Party
While the last films screen Sunday evening, the Late Night Wrap Party—Saturday night starting at 10 p.m. at Kardinal Hall in the 1939 art-deco Coca-Cola building on Preston Avenue—will feature local snacks and beverages, a DJ, a MoxBox social photo booth, and the chance to mingle with filmmakers and fellow films fans. One phrase sure to start a hundred conversations: Were you at the Festival the year they showed . . . ?