Two Film Buffs Take On The Virginia Film Festival

by Sam Gruber and Jarel White

Art by Evelyn Hall and Madeleine Babcock

We’re Sam Gruber and Jarel White, two seniors in The College of William & Mary’s Film and Media Studies department and self-proclaimed movie nerds. Every year, we set sail to central Virginia for the Virginia Film Festival (VAFF), and this year marks our third straight year in attendance. We finished our VAFF experience with a bang. The weekend offered a treasure trove of cinematic riches: movies screened on film stock by the Library of Congress (LOC), discussions with world renowned poets, and a diverse ensemble of movies. We’ll preview what we saw, how we liked it, and how you can watch it.

Friday, October 23, 2023

7:30 PM – 9:45 PM

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Sam’s Rating: 4/5

Jarel’s Rating: 3.5/5

Who should see it: Audiences who enjoy campy, technically stunning popcorn flicks (and brilliantly over-the-top performances by Anthony Hopkins, Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, and Keanu Reeves never hurts!)

Where to see it: Free on PlutoTv with ads, available for rent on Amazon Prime and Apple TV. 

Our first screening was unrelated to the Virginia Film Festival, but was a function of the LOC. After a hasty getaway from Williamsburg, we careened into the LOC’s Packard Campus in Culpepper, Virginia. The Packard Campus of the LOC serves as the world’s largest collection of film, television, radio, and sound recordings.The building, located just an hour from Charlottesville and an hour and twenty minutes from Washington, D.C., serves as the U.S. government’s primary storage facility for historically significant media.They have a beautiful theater that offers free film screenings open to the public that you can check out by looking up “Library of Congress Screenings.”

On the first cold and misty night of our film journey, we had the pleasure of watching Francis Ford Coppala’s 1992 production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, screened in 35mm on the big screen at the Packard Theater in Culpepper. The film is an exercise in excess filmmaking – more concerned with spectacle than coherence. The filmmakers push all of the recognizable iconography of the vampire, from spooky rat-infested mansions to pointy fangs to their visual extremes. Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) doesn’t just walk into the frame, he glides through the air in an absurd shiny red cape. Elaborate costume designs, ornate camera work, and glamorous editing mostly compensate for what the movie lacks in plot and character development. Coppola opted to only use on-set and in-camera (practical) effects and fired his entire visual effects team after they insisted the director use computer generated imagery (CGI). The results speak for themselves: the movie’s visuals are as enduringly astonishing and timeless as the titular Dracula himself.

Saturday, October 24, 2023

11:45 AM – 2:00 PM

Perfect Days (2023)

Director: Wim Wenders

Sam’s Rating: 4.5/5

Jarel’s Rating: 4.5/5

Who should see it: Lovers of poetic realism and those looking for a captivating quieter film

Where to see it: TBD (unconfirmed release date in the United States)As Perfect Days‘ protagonist Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) plugs his tape deck into his work van, the lyrics of The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” fade into the background: “Sometimes I feel so happy. Sometimes I feel so sad.” These simple lyrics communicate what Hirayama, a quiet Tokyo toilet cleaner, can’t say for himself. At times, Hirayama’s silence reflects his tranquility; at other times, his muteness is imposed like a muzzle by a cruel world. At its best, the film manages to blend the global with the individual. Perfect Days was directed by German filmmaker Wim Wenders, filmed in Tokyo using an all Japanese cast, and featured a soundtrack of exclusively American alternative rock. The film offers universal truths about the struggles of living at the margins of a wealthy urban center without losing the particularities of its characters. In the same vein as Jim Jarmusch’s Patterson (2016), the film gives tender consideration to subjects usually unseen on the silver screen.

From You (2023)

2:30 PM – 4:15 PM

Director: Shin Dongmin

Sam’s Rating: 2/5

Jarel’s Rating: 1.5/5

Who should see it: Anyone who’s interested in aesthetically experimental films or family dramas

Where to see it: TBD (unconfirmed release date in the United States)

This South Korean family drama, shot in black-and-white with a 1:1 aspect ratio, is a meta-cinematic meditation on a filmmaker’s complicated relationship with his cancer-afflicted and alcoholic mother (with the film’s director, Shin Dongmin, and his real mother, Hyejeong, inhabiting these “fictional” roles, respectively). Separated into three chapters, the film focuses on three different siblings’ aspirations to realize their artistic potential. It starts with Minju’s story, a design student in search of a replacement sewing machine. Then, it transitions into her sister, Seungju’s story, who prepares for a casting call.  Finally, it arrives at their brother, Dongmin, who premieres the film he shot with his mother in her hometown. From a technical standpoint, the film is quite admirable, with its static camera and lingering shots. The film’s execution, however, is amateurish at best. The film’s long takes are excruciating at times, the dialogue is laughably terrible, and conceptually the film has promise, but is structurally undone by its sophomore director’s own grandiose ambitions. Overall, the film was a blight on a rather incredible weekend.

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project (2023)

4:15 PM – 7:00 PM

Directors: Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson

Sam’s Rating: 4.0/5

Jarel’s Rating: 3.5/5

Who should see it: Those looking for inspiration, contemplation, and just about any other word with the suffix “-ation”

Where to see it: HBO, Max in 2024

This documentary packs in a lot. In its hour and 36 minute run time, Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project treats its subject’s life with care and creativity. For those unacquainted with Nikki Giovanni, the film offers a well done portrait of one of the world’s most important poets, public intellectuals, and female African American celebrities. The movie works firmly within the talking head documentary structure while breathing new vitality into its rigid form. The audience sees standard sit-down interviews alongside a variety of abstract visual metaphors created with clever camera work, editing, and sound design. Directors Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson’s artistry as filmmakers ultimately serves to underscore the creative boldness of its poet subject, Nikki Giovanni. In a post-screening interview, an 80 year old Nikki Giovanni felt as forceful, bold, and imaginative as the documentary portrays her to be.

La Chimera (2023)

8:00 PM – 10:00 PM

Director: Alice Rohrwacher

Sam’s Rating: 5/5

Jarel’s Rating: 5.5/5 (slightly violating the rules of our rating system, but the film was just that great!)

Who should see it: Italian cinema enthusiast, specifically fans of Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini

Where to see it: In select theaters on November 23, 2023 We capped off our weekend with Alice Rohrwacher’s (Corpo Celeste, The Wonders) sublime new film, La Chimera (2023), which is by far the best film we’ve seen at VAFF during our three years of attendance. The film, set in 1980s Italy, depicts an English, ex-convict archaeologist, who, afflicted with memories of his deceased lover, Beniamina, desecrates graves to cultivate rare Etruscan artifacts using his supernatural abilities (dubbed his “Chimera”). The film is practically flawless, with unforgettable visuals (done by Rohrwacher’s long-time cinematographer, Hélène Louvart), a nostalgic soundtrack, and impeccable performances all around (especially from lead Josh O’Connor, who plays Arthur, and Rohrwacher’s sister, Alba, as Frida). Evoking the spirit of Italian cinema classics (the Fellini and Pasolini influences are incredibly apparent), the movie is a beautiful addition to Italy’s storied, national film culture.