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Virginia is for Film Festival Lovers

November 11, 2017


When I was a fledgling film critic during my undergraduate days at the University of Virginia, I tried to see every new movie that came to Charlottesville, somehow talking friends into accompanying me to see such seemingly forgettable flicks as Disorderlies, Hello Again, Memories of Me and The Killing Time. (But if I remember them 30 years later, were they really forgettable?) During my final year at U.Va., the first Virginia Festival of American Film was held, and since then, I’ve come back periodically to revisit the event, which has been renamed the Virginia Film Festival. This year, I saw seven movies over two and a half days, including the opening night premiere of Downsizing, which I’ve reviewed separately.

It turned out I saved the best for last, as I’ve just returned from the centerpiece screening of Scott Cooper’s Hostiles. I loved Cooper’s script for Crazy Heart as well as his earlier directorial efforts, Black Mass and the criminally underrated Out of the Furnace. Hostiles reteams him with Furnace‘s Christian Bale, in another Oscar-caliber turn as a U.S. Army soldier assigned to escort a grief-stricken widow (a career-best Rosamund Pike) and an Indian chief (Wes Studi) and his family across dangerous territory from New Mexico to Montana in 1892. It’s a stark, beautifully shot drama that combines the visual sweep of a classic Western like The Searchers with the brutal revisionism of modern masterpieces like Unforgiven. The note-perfect cast overflows with great character actors (Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Ben Foster, Scott Wilson and an especially impressive Rory Cochrane). Much more than a period piece, Hostiles raises relevant issues. The title itself dehumanizes an entire race by referring to a group people by a plural adjective rather than a noun, much like Trump Era racists refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.” In the end, we’re left with a question: Who are the real hostiles?

Earlier in the day, I attended a provocative and entertaining Q&A with Spike Lee, led by U.Va. professor Maurice Wallace, that addressed some of the same issues by way of introducing Lee’s documentaries 4 Little Girls (about the Birmingham church bombing) and I Can’t Breathe (about the killing of Eric Garner, and how life imitated art with the death of Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing). Lee, who wittily pointed out that he might be related to Robert E. Lee but he won’t believe it until he sees the DNA, likened the genocide of Native Americans to the gentrification of NYC neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem. He also took a few well-placed shots at a local sacred cow (“Your boy Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner!”) It was a bracing wake-up call to a community still reeling from the white supremacist terrorism in August.

Issues of racism and genocide also resonate throughout Django, a powerful biopic of the legendary gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) and how he navigated his way out of Nazi-occupied France in 1943. It’s a fascinating chapter in the life of a man whose music remains as invigorating as ever.

I also attended a couple of classic films with something extra: Alfred Hitchcock’s still-entertaining silent thriller The Lodger with live accompaniment from the Reel Music Trio and Harold and Maude with enlightening shot-by-shot commentary from Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson as well as the film’s producer Charles Mulvehill. I first saw Harold and Maude when I was at U.Va., and it remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Which just proves the truth of the festival’s tagline: Virginia is for film lovers.

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