Virginia-centric: Sandra Bullock yes, Ebert no

Sandra Bullock burst onto the American screen in 1994 with Speed, so it seems a natural fit she'd appear at this year's speed-themed Virginia Film Festival.

Bullock gets the main stage at Culbreth Saturday night, October 30, not only because she can drive a fast bus, but also because she's a Virginian– an emerging trend in this ever-more-Virginia Film Festival. The Arlington native will receive the festival's Virginia Film Award and bring along a clip of her newest film, Miss Congeniality 2.

The October 12 announcement of Bullock's attendance provides the star power some fans have come to expect at an event that in the past has hosted Anthony Hopkins, Sigourney Weaver, and in 2002, Nicolas Cage (who brought along Lisa Marie Presley during their momentary marriage).

Of course, for festival director Richard Herskowitz, finding a star is a distraction from the real business of programming a film festival, which he says is becoming more of a "director's" festival.

One missing luminary this year is film critic Roger Ebert, whose biannual shot-by-shot sessions are festival favorites. This year, writer/director Paul Schrader is filling the shot-by-shot slot, discussing Robert Bresson's 1959 classic, Pickpocket.

So where's Ebert?

He'll be at the Savannah Film Festival receiving a lifetime achievement award, but Herskowitz assures us that isn't a deliberate snub to the Virginia Fest.

"The person who asked him is an old, close friend," says Herskowitz. "He said he'd maintain his commitment if we insisted, but, 'I really want to do this.' He's been so generous with his time." Herskowitz promises that Ebert will come next year.

Even as the festival downplays star appearances, it's being offered so many major premieres that it has added a special premieres section to the October 28-31 program. Nicole Kidman's new film, Birth, and Liam Neeson and Laura Linney in Kinsey– about the sex study pioneer– will fill in two of the TBA spots. Another addition Herskowitz touts is the critically acclaimed Tarnation, a Jonathan Caouette documentary about growing up with a schizophrenic mother.

Already on the list of premieres is Chrystal, starring Billy Bob Thornton and directed by Ray McKinnon, the latter of whom will be on hand, as will David Gordon Green for the screening of his Undertow.

And the festival has become more homegrown, with Virginia filmmakers in general and Charlottesville in particular dominating the screenings. Academy Award-winner Paul Wagner offers a sneak preview of his work in progress, Angels; a UVA neurosurgeon's daughter, Sundance-acclaimed director Nicole Kassell screens The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon; and Jeff "Mother's Maiden Name is Couric" Wadlow heads the Adrenaline Film Project, in which a group of locals will make and screen a film in three days.

Another politician's progeny, director John Warner Jr., shows his "Speed"-appropriate films, The Golden Era of NASCAR and The Wendell Scott Story, with his U.S. senator dad on hand for the October 30 screening of the former.

Charlottesville producer Rick Preve contributes two documentaries to the festival– Tango: A Strange Turn, and Mondovino, a movie about wine production that will be followed by a Slow Food brunch with wine expert Neal Rosenthal picking the wine.

"We're expanding our interests and going beyond film, using film as a springboard," says Herskowitz. "It makes us different from other festivals, and this sort of thing gives it a big kick for me after 11 years. It's not getting boring."

A special treat for sexploitation fans, the festival pays tribute to the late Russ Meyer, the "King of Leer," on October 29, with a rare screening of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

The festival also honors the Great Escape and Bullittmeister himself, Steve McQueen, whose stunt double, Loren Janes, will be on hand for the October 30 showing of Bullitt.

 "The theme is still a major component of the festival," says Herskowitz, "but we're reinventing ourselves all the time."

Festival guides will be out October 19, and look for the Hook's Guide-o-rama October 28.

Take a deep breath and try to keep up.


CHRIS, if this publicity shot of Sandra Bullock doesn't come through, there's one of Paul Schrader on the festival website.


Sandra Bullock won't be here in time for the
Speed  screening, but the consolation prize is a clip from Miss Congeniality 2 .

Taxi screenwriter Paul Schrader is manning the shot-by-shot session for Roger Ebert this year. Schrader also will discuss his 1992 flick, Light Sleeper, which stars Susan Sarandon and Willem Dafoe as drug dealers.