Virginia Film Festival: ‘Last Days in the Desert’

‘Last Days in the Desert’ is a unique exploration of Jesus’s human side in way that is contemplative, creative, and respectful.

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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.

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Middleburg and Virginia Film Festivals: ‘Ithaca’

Tickets were sold-out in both Middleburg and Charlottesville for Meg Ryan’s directorial debut.

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. Continue reading “Virginia Film Festival: Oliver Stone Revisits ‘Born on the Fourth of July’”

Virginia Film Festival: ‘Mercy Street’

The ‘Mercy Street’ cast shared tidbits about preparing for their roles and wardrobe misadventures.

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. Continue reading “Virginia Film Festival: ‘Mercy Street’”

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.” Continue reading “Victor Levin Brings Heartwarming and Unexpected ‘5 to 7’ to the Virginia Film Festival”

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. Continue reading “Virginia Film Festival Offers Friendly and Smart Environment to Meet Great Actors and Directors”