20 flicks: Film Fest hot picks

"Movies and books attempt to find justice when the legal system fails," observes Richard Herskowitz, director of the Virginia Film Festival, as he segues into the theme of the 2005 Film Fest.

"In/Justice" lends a certain gravitas to this year's festival, as do names like Vanessa Redgrave, who will be here October 27 for the U.S. premiere of her son Carlo Nero's film, The Fever, and John Grisham, who will speak at Culbreth October 28.

Award-winning actreses Kathy Baker and Sissy Spacek join director Rodrigo Garcia (indie darling and son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez) for the screening of Nine Lives October 28 at the Paramount's debut as a festival venue.

On the lighter side of the scales of justice, Harold Ramis attends the screening of his new film, The Ice Harvest October 29, and earlier that day discusses his classic Groundhog Day.

The 60-film program is documentary-heavy. The exploration of In/Justice drew the support of many advocacy organizations that are sponsoring films like Searching for Angela Shelton, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, and Same Sex America.

Some lucky filmmakers will be able to add "winner of the Virginia Film Festival Jury and Audience Award" to their press kits. Six acclaimed films looking for distribution will be screened twice each at the Regal Downtown #3, an innovation that keeps the 18-year-old festival from becoming predictable.

The real In/Justice of the Film Festival is always "so many movies, so little time." That's why the Hook asked four local film mavens to choose their top five picks to see. Of course, that's the mere tip of the iceberg.

Justin Humphreys

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

10pm Thursday, October 27


Arguably the last great western by the greatest western director, John Ford's elegiac tale pits the forces of law and civilization, led by lawyer Jimmy Stewart and rancher John Wayne, against frontier barbarity incarnate: outlaw Liberty Valance, a never-better Lee Marvin. Liberty Valance captures the best of the cinema's legendary west, and the grotesque injustices of history with the line, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."


Dirty Harry (1970)

4pm Friday, October 27


With Dirty Harry, master action director Don Siegel and star Clint Eastwood minted dozens of cop movie situations and characters that became clich├ęs in scores of vacuous forgeries over the next 20 years. But no imitator ever came close to rivaling Harry's masterful use of the wide screen– carefully orchestrated, cathartic violence; religious symbolism; stylish editing; liquid jazz score (by Lalo Schifrin)– or had a more monumentally loathsome villain than the Scorpio Killer (Andy Robinson).


Paths of Glory (1957)

10am Sunday, October 30


Banned in France and reportedly praised by Winston Churchill, Paths of Glory is a milestone of black-and-white cinematography. Though Paths' account of a rigged World War I court martial ham-handedly conveys its anti-war message, its visual impact is astounding, especially the central battle sequence. Director/chess master Stanley Kubrick appropriately manipulates his cast like pawns– note the sets' checkerboard floors. (Also watch for Kubrick's future wife in a haunting cameo as a saloon singer.)


The Wrong Man (1957)

1pm Friday, October 28


Director Alfred Hitchcock's starkest, most pronounced expression of his favorite pet theme: an innocent man, convicted solely on circumstantial evidence. Jazzman "Manny" Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is wrongly arrested for a string of hold-ups and imprisoned, while his wife mentally crumbles. Atypically, Hitchcock focuses on realism: actual locations and participants in the Balestrero case appear in the film. In keeping with his film's accent on verisimilitude, Hitchcock does not make his usual comic cameo.


Groundhog Day (1993), hosted by director Harold Ramis

6:30pm Saturday, October 29

Newcomb Hall

"Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!?" "Do you know what the Lama says? 'Gunga galunga.'" "Back off, man. I'm a scientist." Recognize these lines? They're all the handiwork of writer/director/actor Harold Ramis, the bespectacled titan of modern comedy responsible for mega-hits like Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, Animal House, and Analyze This. He'll be here for a screening of his ethereal 1993 comedy, Groundhog Day, which stars his perennial collaborator, Bill Murray.

Justin Humphreys has two upcoming books about film.


Paul Wagner

Chagas: A Hidden Affliction (2005)

7pm Thursday, October 27

Regal Downtown #4

Don't make the obvious, easy choice for opening night (Vanessa Redgrave in her son's movie). Instead, check out Chagas: A Hidden Affliction, a new documentary from excellent Charlottesville filmmaker Ricardo Preve. Rick was a producer on the very successful Mondovino, which created a stir at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Rick directs Chagas and nicely combines his personal perspective as a native of Argentina with a story of critical importance for the health of the people of Latin America– and the U.S.


Shot-by-Shot Workshop with Rodrigo Garcia

 10am Friday, October 28

Regal Downtown #4

This is the festival gig that the inimitable Roger Ebert held down for several years. But I'm betting that Rodrigo Garcia will reinvigorate the shot-by-shot format. Garcia screens his film Nine Lives at the festival. But rather than dissect that feature, he's going to show and analyze his work on some of the best television work out there, including two of my favorites– The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Sure, Roger did nice work with the classics. But it may be even better to hear from a working director on the best of contemporary television.


Chain (2004)

10:15am Saturday

Regal Downtown#3

When you drive north on 29, is it harder and harder to find the miles of farmland that used to separate our fair little burg from the Gainesville sprawl? Maybe we better check out Chain, a documentary about the spread of Wal-Marts and Starbucks and parking lots and... you get the picture. Director Jem Cohen is known for his REM videos and the richly imagined visual style of his previous documentary, Benjamin Smoke, about a Southern drag queen. So look for Chain to be something considerably more hip than just another public policy-wonk piece. This is one of six films up for the new festival award.


Adrenaline Project Screening

 4pm Sunday, October 30


A number of my friends participated in the Adrenaline Project at last year's festival, including a group of students from our very own Light House youth media center. But I missed the Sunday afternoon screening of the completed– well, sort of completed– films. Everybody said it was a blast, and it's sure to be the same this year. Local-gone-Hollywood director Jeff Wadlow presides over the celebration of bootstrap filmmaking-on-the-fly. I'm not gonna miss it this year.


The Exonerated

 7pm Friday, October 28

Regal Downtown Mall#4

If you really want to jump into this year's festival theme, a good bet might be The Exonerated. Now let's be frank, a movie that consists of actors playing the parts of innocent people sentenced wrongly to death row is not likely to be a "fun" movie. But when I saw the stage version of this piece in Charlottesville a few years ago, it was a very powerful drama– and a good reminder of why the death penalty is a really dumb idea.

Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Paul Wagner premiered his second feature film, Angels, at last year's fest.


Steve Warren

Inherit the Wind (1960)

10am Friday, October 28


The Festival's showing the greatest pre-Grisham courtroom dramas, and the most relevant is Inherit the Wind, Stanley Kramer's film of the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. With great performances by Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, it's a fictionalized version of the 1925 "Monkey Trial" of a Tennessee teacher who dared to teach evolution. Eighty years later the fight continues, with "intelligent design" replacing "creationism" as the alternative theory anti-Darwinists want taught.


The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (2005)

4pm Saturday, October 29

Regal Downtown Mall #4

Matthew Shepard's 1998 slaying proves we haven't learned this history lesson. Keith Beauchamp's documentary about 14-year-old Emmett Till's brutal 1954 Mississippi murder isn't great cinema, but Beauchamp's research convinced the U.S. Attorney General to reopen the case last year. The mis-titled film combines archival footage with Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who died in 2003, telling the story for the umpteenth time; plus testimony from friends and relatives. "Untold" or not, it's important that Emmett's story not go unheard.


Nine Lives (2005)

7pm Friday, October 29


Rodrigo Garcia's debut feature, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, made me a fan for life. Not his only one, apparently, judging from the list of actors who signed up to work on this collection of nine short stories. The Colombia-born filmmaker, one of the best "women's directors" since George Cukor, seems to be trying single-handedly to make up for the lack of good women's roles in Hollywood, and at this rate, he'll succeed.


Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic (2005)

10pm Saturday, October 29


What's a nice Jewish girl doing in a movie like this? Define "nice." Surrounded by better-known comics, Silverman made one of the strongest impressions in The Aristocrats and on Comedy Central's Pamela Anderson Roast. If you think the festival scheduled this half-documentary, half-sketch comedy showcase on Saturday to draw the church crowd, you may not be ready for Silverman's politically incorrect humor. If you're right, the festival isn't ready for it.


Adrenaline Film Project Screening

 4pm Sunday, October 30


If you've never attended one of these, you'll be amazed at what local talent can do with only 72 hours to make a movie. Granted, each of the 10 in competition runs only three to five minutes, but that still leaves a lot to do, from conception to scripting to casting to shooting to editing. And project mentors Jeff Wadlow and Beau Bauman will be teaching mandatory workshops and checking each team's progress at every step.

Steve Warren reviews movies for the Hook.


Jenny Mead

Nine Lives (2005)

7pm Friday, October 29


There are several Charlottesville connections here: Sissy Spacek (in a terrific cast that includes Glenn Close and Holly Hunter) and two UVA alum producers (Julie Lynn and Kelly Thomas). The film is directed by Rodrigo Garcia (son of the famed Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez), whose wonderful Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her was a quiet, virtually unnoticed little gem. Nine Lives focuses on nine women apparently trapped, figuratively and/or literally, and each segment, in an interesting and gutsy technique, is filmed in one continuous shot.


The Definition of Insanity

 10:15am Friday, October 28

Regal Downtown #3

Faux documentaries can be fun (think Best in Show and This is Spinal Tap), and this sounds like no exception, with writer/director/actor Robert Margolis schlepping us through the streets of New York from one humiliating audition to another. A struggling actor's worst nightmare: doing dog food commercials, surviving on parental handouts, and inevitably being a thespian also-ran. A mix of autobiography and fiction, apparently, with a lot of self-denigrating, Woody Allen-ish shtick.


Manderlay (2005)

10pm Friday, October 28


Director Lars von Triers is one of the film world's premier "bad boys," a controversial figure both on the set (most actresses won't work with him a second time) and off (inspiring either deep loathing or cinematic "shock and awe"). I've been a wary fan since Breaking the Waves, although his latest– Dogville– felt like a warped version of Our Town. Manderlay is the follow-up to Dogville (without Nicole Kidman), and I'm curious about how von Triers plans to irritate his audience this time, while inevitably remaining thought provoking.


To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

4pm Saturday, October 29


It's always comforting to re-visit Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill, and Boo Radley (Robert Duvall's film debut, by the way), and even better to do so on the big screen, where most movies play better anyway. Although the subject matter– race in the 1950s South– is sad and painful, this is a timelessly moving and complex film, with all the various layers that make a movie a classic. Shot in beautiful black and white, with the incredible score by the legendary Elmer Bernstein.


Long Night's Journey Into Day (2000)

4:15pm Sunday, October 30

Regal Downtown #3

After the nightmare of apartheid ended in the early 1990s, South Africa underwent an astonishing and unusual social phenomenon: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Anyone who had a role in apartheid could testify in front of the commission (and television cameras); if they told the truth, however painful, they were granted amnesty. This documentary covers the stories of four people, with varying degrees of culpability, who testified, and the effect it had on themselves, the victims' families, and a country trying to heal.

SPCA chairwoman Jenny Mead in a previous life was a movie executive for Paramount.