Tipping the scales: Weighing in on the Film Fest

Wrongful convictions, executions, rape, sexual abuse– In/Justice, the meaty theme of this year's Virginia Film Festival, could be enough to send some filmgoers scurrying for the nearest romantic comedy. Fortunately, the 18th film fest offered something for everyone, even the least socially conscious. There were stars for the stargazers, classics on the big screen, experimental films, premieres, and important documentaries.

It's no surprise The Fever with Vanessa Redgrave, Nine Lives with Sissy Spacek and Kathy Baker, An Evening with John Grisham and Groundhog Day with Harold Ramis sold out. But The Untold Story of Emmett Till, Bee Season, Amandala, Swimmers, Deepwater, and Green Street Hooligans also joined the sell-out list.

There were cinematic efforts that worked– and those that didn't. And sometimes you can't tell which will be which, no matter how carefully you vet your choices.

Life, indeed, is not fair.

Why activist/actress Vanessa Redgrave likes the United States so much: Because of its revolutionary history. Redgrave kicks off the festival October 27 at a sold-out Culbreth Theater with the U.S. premiere of son Carlo Nero's The Fever, in which she stars.

How a movie like The Fever  gets made: "HBO was a little confused about it, but there are a lot of important people in it, and it's not going to cost very much," explains Fever producer Jason Blum. The movie stars Redgrave, Angelina Jolie, Joely Richardson, and Michael Moore in his acting debut.

"It's not a polemic": Redgrave denies the thought that occurred to many in the Fever audience. It's just a film about an affluent woman living a life that's "irredeemably corrupt."

"Have any of you read a book about economics since 1945?" Local Richard Sincere, an alum of the London School of Economics, causes a stir after the screening when he poses that question to Redgrave and Nero. To which Redgrave responds, "I don't think it's old-fashioned to care as much as ever." Insert audience applause here.

What becomes a legend most: The elegant Redgrave avoids cold feet at the festival opening and at the University Art Museum gala by wearing Uggs, the Australian sheepskin boots.

Where writers rule: In TV series, says Rodrigo Garcia, who presents the shot-by-shot workshop October 28 using an episode he directed for HBO's Six Feet Under. Garcia has also directed critically acclaimed films like Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and Nine Lives, where the director is "king of the hill."

The son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez never considered using the supernatural in his own films: Rodrigo Garcia says, though, that he became more comfortable with black humor and the supernatural after directing Six Feet Under, in which dead characters occasionally pop up. The episode he screens features a sex scene between the Grim Reaper and Life.

But he always seems so urbane on the radio: WINA reporter Bruce Sanborn serves up a convincing portrayal of a slack-jawed yokel in his hilarious 10-minute film, Uriah Justice.

How Vanessa Redgrave sent us to Dirty Harry: After the monologue-driven The Fever, we just needed to see Clint Eastwood blow a few bad guys away.

Things you've forgotten about Dirty Harry after watching it umpteen times on TV: The two different full-frontal nudity shots in this 1971 classic– plus, how campy it is.

Deconstruction of "Are you feeling lucky, punk?" Vigilante justice no longer means "fascist medievalism," as one early review described Harry. And, in fact, its director Don Siegel was a liberal.

Somebody's gotta take the slot opposite John Grisham: "I know your choices were one of the biggest authors ever– or coming to see an indie film no one's ever heard of," says David Marfield, director of the looking-for-distribution Deepwater, based on the novel of another Charlottesville writer, Matthew Jones, at its October 28 screening as one of the Virginia Film Festival Jury and Audience Award entries.

He seemed like a normal guy to me: Jones admits he didn't realize one of his characters would turn into a paranoid schizophrenic in the extremely well-done film-noirish, psychological thriller, Deepwater, which stars Lucas Black, the kid from Sling Blade now grown up, as well as Peter Coyote and Leslie Ann Warren.

The difference between prostitutes and artists: "Prostitutes give people pleasure; artists just make everyone miserable," says the wife in The Definition of Insanity, about actor Robert Margolis' struggles and humiliations in pursuit of his acting dream. Insanity wins the Jury and Audience awards, setting it up for $5,000 and a screening at the Regal Battery Park in New York.

Genre-bender: Is it a documentary? Is it fiction? Documentary elements crop up in both Definition of Insanity and Charlottesville filmmaker Kevin Everson's Cinnamon, both of which cast real people to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

Who knew drag racing could be so... tedious? Everson focuses on the "relentlessness of labor" to demonstrate the craft of local ace mechanic John Bowles in maintaining a performance machine, rather than going for the cheap thrills of driving 130 mph.

Oops– the perils of low-budget filmmaking: There's only one shot from the camera inside the hurtling race car because Everson forgot to switch the camera on or put a tape in at three of the four drag races he filmed.

"Drag racing is the safest thing for kids to do": Avowal of Bowles, whose 12-year-old daughter Ashley has been racing since she was 7-1/2.

Counselors will be standing by in the lobby: Angela Shelton, director of the documentary Searching for Angela Shelton, in which she discovers that 60 percent of the Angela Sheltons across America she spoke to were survivors of rape, incest, or domestic violence, tells a nearly full audience at Culbreth October 29 that the film often triggers reactions in survivors in attendance.

The new George Cukor: Rodrigo Garcia assembles a stellar cast of actresses– Sissy Spacek, Kathy Baker (both at the film fest), Robin Wright Penn, and Glenn Close– in his low-budget Nine Lives that sells out the Paramount for its October 29 screening. "Anyone who works with Rodrigo wants to do it again," says producer and UVA alum Julie Lynn.

"What money?" Baker answers the question of whether financing followed once Nine Lives was cast.

The pitfalls of one continuous real-time shot: Garcia uses that technique to capture pivotal moments in the lives of nine women, and if it gets screwed up, he has to start the whole 12-minute scene over again.

"I did some of my best work in the takes you didn't see": Spacek admits she messed up towards the end of her scene, resulting in eight takes.

Spacek's biggest challenge in Nine Lives: "I ironed the whole time– that was the hardest part for me," says the Academy Award-winning actress.

Man, do we love the Paramount: Roomy, deluxe, the restored theater debuts as a festival venue with Nine Lives.

Get us out of here: The crowd of 1,000 at the Paramount is not allowed to use fire exits, but instead has to funnel out through the main doors, creating claustrophobia and high anxiety in filmgoers rushing to their next movie.

"It's important for me to come here and promote myself": Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis buzzes by– once the Paramount is finally cleared– for the late-starting 10pm October 29 screening of his new movie, The Ice Harvest, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.

We hated ourselves for laughing: A Christmas Eve story of "men who are spiritually adrift looking for meaning in strip joints and bars" is how producer Ron Yerxa describes The Ice Harvest, a film noir comedy so noir that its characters are, as Vanessa Redgrave would say, "irredeemably corrupt."

Final In/Justice: Our batteries are too dead– literally and figuratively– to catch any screenings October 30, the final day of the fest.

This year's film fest theme– In/Justice– proved a perfect fit for Ugg-wearing Vanessa Redgrave.


Sissy Spacek and Kathy Baker yukked it up after a screening of
Nine Lives at the Paramount.

Harold Ramis thinks Jefferson might have blessed his strip club black comedy,
The Ice Harvest.