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Virginia Film Festival: ‘Last Days in the Desert’

Ewan McGregor in 'Last Days in the Desert'

Ewan McGregor in ‘Last Days in the Desert.’ Photo Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

It seems difficult to create a fresh perspective on Jesus, given all of the films and television specials that have been released over the years. However, director and writer Rodrigo García was able to do just that in his latest film, Last Days in the Desert. He focuses on a few days at the very end of the forty-day period that Jesus (Ewan McGregor) spent in the desert, fasting and praying before starting his active ministry.

García and producer Julie Lynn were both interviewed recently at the Virginia Film Festival by Harry Chotiner, a professor at New York University. The director, appearing on a large screen through video chat, summed up his film as a story about men “finding destiny under powerful fathers.”

One startling aspect of the film is a significant casting decision: Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and Lucifer. “Lucifer uses human ways to destabilize Jesus,” García said. “He’s the least politically correct character.” Save for a couple additions of jewelry and his evil smirks, Lucifer looks the same as Jesus. His abilities in shape-shifting and mimicry are both entertaining and creepy at once.

There are accounts in the Bible about Lucifer’s efforts to tempt Jesus – asking him to turn stones to bread, jump from a pinnacle, and turn from God. These parts of Scripture are ignored in favor of a different plot. Coming upon a family in the middle of the desert, Jesus is challenged by Lucifer to resolve their problems. The family, which remains unnamed, has a father (Ciarán Hinds), a son (Tye Sheridan), and a dying mother (Ayelet Zurer). The son dreams of going to Jerusalem, but the father wants build him a house and remain in the desert. The major issue is communication, which places Jesus somewhat in the role of intermediary. Second to Lucifer, Ciarán Hinds as the father gets some of the best lines. “It doesn’t matter that we don’t talk,” the father says about himself and his son. “We’re not women.”

Rodrigo García takes questions from Julie Lynn and Harry Chotiner.

Rodrigo García takes questions from Julie Lynn and Harry Chotiner. Photo: Pat Cuadros

When other films depict Jesus at work, he’s not usually undertaking dusty and potentially backbreaking tasks like lifting huge stones, as he does here. That level of strain tends to be saved for the carrying of the cross. Additionally, survival itself in the desert is an arduous endeavor, as he copes with fasting, isolation, and the weather. The desolate sands and rocky outcroppings seem to dwarf McGregor as he walks along, his dark brown garb standing out amidst lighter coloring of the terrain.

It’s also interesting to note that the script, totaling to a mere 60 pages, is rather sparse in dialogue. “More than a couple of agents called asking, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’” García remarked. Thus the frames, artfully rendered by Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity), convey the moods in the silent moments beautifully and enable the film to be more of a psychological study of Jesus’s fears and doubts. It’s not a fool proof presentation though, leaving some moments hanging.

It’s not much of a spoiler to mention that the ending of Last Days in the Desert includes the Crucifixion. “I didn’t want people going out of the theater wondering, ‘Who was that?’” Garcia explained. There are, in essence, three possible endings running together that encompass the weakest part of the film. The overall conclusion feels disjointed, detached, and unsatisfactory. Nonetheless, Last Days in the Desert is a unique exploration of Jesus’s human side in way that is contemplative, creative, and respectful. It’s a version capable of stimulating discourse among religious and non-religious individuals alike.

This article was first published on, under the same title.


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Middleburg and Virginia Film Festivals: ‘Ithaca’

Ithaca Promo Photo

Photo used with permission from the Middleburg Film Festival

Meg Ryan stopped by the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville for a sold-out screening of her directorial debut, Ithaca. Since last month, the actress-director has visited Virginia twice to promote this film adaptation of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, beginning with the world premiere in Middleburg. Ithaca was shot in Richmond and Petersburg, cementing those Virginia connections.

The World War II drama opens with fourteen-year-old Homer Macauley (Alex Neustaedter) riding towards town on his bike. He’s determined to be the best messenger at the local telegraph office. He is hired by Willie Grogan (Sam Shepard) despite being underage. His lofty goal insights perhaps a little envy from his direct supervisor, Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater), who was the previous “Number One” years before.

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Virginia Film Festival: Oliver Stone Revisits ‘Born on the Fourth of July’

Oliver Stone

Photo courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

Even 26 years after its theatrical release, Born on the Fourth of July is a film that can be difficult to watch. Focusing on Vietnam War veterans, it tells the story of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), a Marine who eventually becomes a strong anti-war activist. In the film, his team accidentally kills women and children during the conflict. He is also responsible for an unfortunate incident of friendly fire. What ensues is a downward spiral into violence, promiscuity, and alcoholism as Kovic wrestles with guilt and his physical limitations.

The Academy Award-winning film was screened during the Virginia Film Festival last weekend at Charlottesville’s iconic Paramount Theater. Oliver Stone emerged shortly thereafter for an interview with Bob Toplin, a retired professor of history at the University of Virginia. The legendary and controversial director explained that funding for the film was pulled at the last minute in the 1970s, shelving the project for nearly a decade. “Born on the Fourth was what [studios] considered a bummer,” he added. Platoon, another war film, was one of those so-called “ten-year movies,” too.

Adapting Kovic’s memoir was a challenge for Stone, who opted for a chronological format rather than the elliptical setup of the book. He also enumerated other changes such as the violent Syracuse confrontation and Kovic’s meeting with Wilson family. Syracuse demonstrations by anti-war protesters never escalated to the horrific incidents at Kent State, but the “provocative” scene is important for capturing the mood of that time. The scene with the Wilsons was essential, even though it never happened. “I don’t think we missed the spirit of it,” Stone explained. “[Kovic] wanted to go.”

Capturing the pain, violence, and confusion of battle scenes realistically was vital to the project as well. Actors were required to train in an intense boot camp in the jungles of the Philippines. “They hated me,” Stone said, as the audience laughed.

Bob Toplin and Oliver Stone

Professor Bob Toplin and Oliver Stone. Photo: Pat Cuadros

To address the problems from war, the director has some ideas. “When we go to war, we have to send everyone of a certain age and women, too,” he told the crowd. “We’ll get this reality picture and I assure you, there won’t be so many wars.” He suggested cancelling football games and other festive events, keeping everyone focused on the significance of the mission.

Stone’s next project is called Snowden, a film centered on Edward Snowden’s leak of classified documents from the National Security Agency. “We have a surveillance state and accept it like we do, like lambs. It’s really bothersome to those who think about it and [Snowden] did,” Stone said. “Whatever you think of him, he was a man who followed his own conscience.” As with Platoon and Born on the Fourth, he faced issues with securing funds for this film. In this case, we won’t have to wait ten years. The backing eventually came from France and Germany, instead of within the United States. Due out next spring, Snowden stars Shailene Woodley, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scott Eastwood, and Nicolas Cage.

Even with such a prolific career as a filmmaker, Stone seemed reserved about his films and their influence. Films with powerful messages have not always changed society but they are still important to develop in order to get the truth out. “You make the movie, you put your heart in, and you let it run,” he concluded.

This article was originally published on under the same title.

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Virginia Film Festival: ‘Mercy Street’

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Tara Summers

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Tara Summers. Photo: Pat Cuadros

PBS drama Mercy Street received a warm welcome on Friday at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, Va. Students, medical professionals, and Civil War history enthusiasts flocked to the University of Virginia’s Culbreth Theater for an advance screening. The first episode, “The New Nurse,” introduces Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emma Green (Hannah James), two volunteer nurses tending to the wounded at the Mansion House Hotel in Alexandria. Mary is a staunch abolitionist and widow, while Emma is a young Southern Belle. Both Union and Confederate soldiers arrive at this makeshift hospital for treatment, highlighting the regional differences and prejudices in 1862 about society and nationhood.

The series was filmed in Richmond and Petersburg, cities located over an hour away from Charlottesville. The local connections don’t stop there, particularly because the story is based on real people from history. After the war, Emma Green relocated to Woodberry Forest School in Madison County, only minutes from where actress Hannah James grew up. Members of the Green family were present at the event and greeted the cast later in the evening. Read the rest of this entry »

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Victor Levin Brings Heartwarming and Unexpected ‘5 to 7’ to the Virginia Film Festival

Victor Levin says he is “allergic” to the overused term “romantic comedy.” Steering away from the former label is probably a good choice, as romantic comedies seem to follow the reused fairy tale formula in Hollywood: guy meets girl, some sort of break up, and then guy gets girl. Rather, writer and director Levin prefers to characterize his directorial debut “5 to 7” as a “romance for grownups with a couple of laughs.”

The new film was screened on the penultimate day of the Virginia Film Festival (VFF) in Charlottesville, Va. Before the opening credits rolled, producer Julie Lynn amused the crowd by saying, “I want to let you know that no one dies in this film.” (Apparently, that has been an issue at previous VFFs.) After the feature, NYU film historian Harry Chotiner delved deeper by putting questions to the panel: Frank Langella, Julian Bond, Julie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis, and Victor Levin. Chotiner says “5 to 7” is a film that is full of “uncommercial choices.” (Frank Langella chimed in, “I was one of them!”) Novel approaches to genres are not new for Levin, the former co-executive producer of “Mad Men.” However, “5 to 7” really puts a new spin on romance, capturing its essence with respect to physicality, companionship, and intellectual discourse in the context of exploring American and French culture.

Critic Harry Chotiner discusses "5 to 7"

Critic Harry Chotiner discusses “5 to 7” with Frank Langella, Julian Bond, Julie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis, and Victor Levin. Photo by Pat Cuadros.

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Frank Langella Talks ‘Frost/Nixon’ and His Career at the Virginia Film Festival

The Virginia Film Festival and the Miller Center hosted a screening of “Frost/Nixon” yesterday at the Newcomb Hall Theater. The 2008 film from director Ron Howard chronicles the interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon in 1977. Even though he’s invested his own capital in the project, Frost (Michael Sheen) has trouble applying himself to the serious task of interviewing the master politician (Frank Langella). Pitting Frost against Nixon almost feels like a bout in the boxing ring, matches periodically broken up by their respective supporters (Matthew Macfayden, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt and Kevin Bacon). It’s unfortunate that the film grossed only about $18 million, because by the end, it’s so easy to believe that Frank Langella is Richard Nixon, or at least, a very humanized version of the former president.

Researcher Ken Hughes interviews Frank Langella after a screening of

Researcher Ken Hughes interviews Frank Langella after a screening of “Frost/Nixon.” Photo: Pat Cuadros.

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Virginia Film Festival Offers Friendly and Smart Environment to Meet Great Actors and Directors

Every November, the small college town of Charlottesville welcomes a wide array of talented actors, producers, writers, and directors at the Virginia Film Festival. During this wonderful event, there are about 120 films to check out. 2014 has been a particularly great year for the festival, which wraps up tonight. Headliners included Barry Levinson, the cast of “Big Stone Gap,” Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”), Katie Couric, writer and director Victor Levin and more. There are some milestones worth noting, such as the 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz,” the 25th for “Dead Poets Society,” and the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin to name a few.

Advantages of a Smaller Film Festival

Sadly, the small time frame of the festival means you can’t be in two places at once and you probably can’t hit up every event that you want to attend. Nonetheless, you’re always in for a fantastic experience, given the advantages that a smaller festival offers in contrast to the crush of something as large as say, Tribeca. You can line up right when the doors open for a show and still make the front row, which furnishes you with the perfect vantage point for photo taking during the panel discussions. Kudos to Charlottesville for generally having orderly attendees!

Frank Langella autographs a "Dracula" poster for a young fan. Photo by Pat Cuadros.

Frank Langella autographs a “Dracula” poster for a young fan at the “5 to 7” screening. Photo by Pat Cuadros.

The panel discussions this year have been top notch, with NYU film critic and professor Harry Chotiner at the helm of the larger screenings such as “Big Stone Gap” and “5 to 7.” Questions have been insightful and probing, but also generated a lot of laughs, as in the cases of Jasmine Guy, Adriana Trigiani, and Frank Langella. Harry Chotiner balanced the sessions well with his questions, but he left plenty of time for audience members to chime in with their own inquiries. On top of that, these screenings are reasonably priced, with “5 to 7” at about $9.00 and “Big Stone Gap” at the upper end of $25.00. “Big Stone Gap” sold out in five minutes during the online ticket sale, but luckily a limited number of tickets were released days before for last minute hopefuls (myself included).

Meeting Frank Langella after the "Nixon/Frost" screening. Photo by Tony Cuadros.

Meeting Frank Langella after the “Nixon/Frost” screening. Photo by Tony Cuadros.

The Future of the VFF?

The Virginia Film Festival seems to be getting bigger with every passing year, an achievement largely due to the hard work of the festival’s director, Jody Kielbasa. Kielbasa is also the Vice Provost for the Arts at the University of Virginia, which has devoted a lot of energy and funds to promoting the arts in the community. In saying that the VFF is “bigger,” I don’t mean strictly that the elite of Hollywood are gracing Downtown Charlottesville with their presence. Certainly, we attract big names in the industry like Patrick Wilson, Frank Langella, and Barry Levinson. Rather, we see top quality independent productions which happen to have those types of actors and directors. Such independent films are smart, heartwarming, and insightful: endeavors that deserve to reach the heights of the box office through small town initiatives and word-of-mouth in social media.

Talking with Victor Levin and Julie Lang at the "5 to 7" Screening.  Frank Langella signs autographs. Photo by Tony Cuadros.

Talking with Victor Levin and Julie Lang at the “5 to 7” Screening. Frank Langella signs autographs behind us. Photo by Tony Cuadros.

I believe the VFF has set a great course for future years, as it promotes current and future talent. Governor Terry McAuliffe emphasized on opening night that Virginia is a power player in relation to L.A. and N.Y., which is increasingly seeing film productions being created in other parts of the country. Because of that, I think that the VFF can bring in more overseas projects. For instance, Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut, “The Legend of Barney Thomson,” is slated to come out next year through Myriad Pictures and would be a stellar addition to the lineup.

The Best Part?

You may have guessed the best part of the Virginia Film Festival from the visual hints I’ve dropped throughout this post. If you know where to look, it’s rather easy to run across an actor, writer, or a director at the festival and speak to him/her in person, without too much interference from an entourage. Of course, being a volunteer at the events can be helpful (to yourself and the community), but isn’t always the key to getting “an in.” Actually, in most cases, there is no entourage to contend with. It’s a relaxed, fun, and safe environment for everyone.

At the “Frost/Nixon” screening, I managed to get the last front row seat prior to Langella’s discussion panel with Watergate researcher Ken Hughes. I’d asked a gentleman if the seat next to him was taken and it was not. After the talk, I got up for a few words with Mr. Langella. Unbeknownst to me, that entire session I had been sitting next to the former co-executive producer of “Man Men,” Victor Levin. It made for an interesting conversation after the “5 to 7” screening later that evening, where I also ran into Frank Langella again.

2014 has been an amazing year for the Virginia Film Festival. Watch out for 2015 and be sure to come out for the excitement!

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