Island Idyll: Hamptons Fest again showcases some fall gems

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Arguably the very last in a long line of large and boutique, important signal-sending global film events, the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) has closest proximity to the all-critical year-end awards and holiday seasons. As such, one of its less touted values is that of not just being a critical window into the near future, but a barometer of marketing efforts. Equally important, especially in these times of tech, political and moral turmoil, is that the fest’s continuing gift of great new offerings is for attendees all the more welcome this year.

Having just wrapped its 24th session on Eastern Long Island, HIFF again delivered scores of narrative features and docs from around the world, many of which are about to hit commercial cinemas. Beyond the big screens, the selections at HIFF, because of the diversity of its patrons, often shine further light on which releases will find which audiences and where. And which are the most probable awards attention-getters.

As mentioned, HIFF also gave distributors and studios an idea of how effective their marketing has been, and with windows seemingly closing between fest dates and release dates, additional awareness boosts. The trend toward shorter fest-release windows (if indeed there is one) might answer the question of whether or not good word of mouth benefits or isn’t given the time to spread and drive traffic.

The fest again also provided a wide array of auxiliary events, by way of short film programs, panels, Q&As, conversations, etc. One of the most rewarding of these was an extended interview with the very smart, articulate, funny, ridiculously talented Aaron Eckhart (Sully, The Dark Knight, Thank You for Smoking, Erin Brockovich, among many). He currently stars in Open Road Films’ upcoming boxing-themed Bleed for This, due soon in theatres. The ur-Californian actor discussed, among many things, how he feared for and tackled his coach character’s Staten Island accent as he provided aspiring acting talent with many nuggets of wisdom. HIFF also gave special and much-deserved attention to Edward Norton, Holly Hunter and, in the Variety sidebar’s always prescient “10 Actors to Watch,” up and coming talent like Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali, Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar! and Warren Beatty’s upcoming Rules Don’t Apply, “The Night of”’s Riz Ahmed and Paterson’s Kara Hayward, among others.

But it was HIFF’s long-form film selections that were the main attraction for fans and the industry-insiders among them. Films like Manchester By the Sea, La La Land (a HIFF audience winner), Lion, I, Daniel Blake, and Moonlight, all rolling in with much positive buzz, lived up to the noise.

Lion puts The Weinstein Company back on track (as will their upcoming The Founder) with its winning trademark formula (story + performances + production values + emotional tugs). Foremost, the film, based on a true story and making its U.S. premiere at HIFF, provides a beautifully photographed, heart-wrenching story (here, Dev Patel as an India-born, Australian adoptee on a search as an adult to reunite with his lost biological family by finding the tiny, remote, impoverished village he strayed from as a five-year old).

Arguably, HIFF’s most coveted ticket was for La La Land, which, like Manchester, is a shoo-in for awards attention (kudos to La La stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle and to Manchester star Casey Affleck and writer/filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan). IFC’s 20th Century Women, clearly benefiting from some savvy marketing, also arrived at HIFF buzzing with Oscar prospects for Annette Bening, starring as a 1979 Santa Barbara single mother and landlady juggling a frisky teen son and quirky tenants. Composed of disconnected snippets that are more fragmented than anecdotal, the film provides a lower-octane, lower California take on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

Other must-sees from HIFF included Focus Features’ Loving, a narrative fiction account (inspired by Nancy Buirski’s heralded doc) of the interracial couple (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in award-caliber performances) who precipitated the 1967 landmark Supreme Court decision to legalize interracial marriages throughout the U.S.; and Lionsgate’s American Pastoral, in which Scotland’s Ewan McGregor as star and debuting director ably survives a plunge into a Philip Roth adaptation as a Jewish New Jersey businessman and former star athlete with a beautiful shiksa wife (Jennifer Connelly) and a stuttering daughter (Dakota Fanning) whose bigger problem is her extreme radical activism in the late ’60s. Again, Roth country for filmmakers (and some readers) is often rough terrain, but McGregor, especially in his performance, again shines.

Another standout was Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, adapted from some Alice Munro works. Many agree that this visually remarkable family drama about loss and recovery (well, maybe) is a crowning achievement for the Spanish filmmaker. Also marking a career high for its filmmaker was indie vet Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, with Adam Driver portraying a poet/bus driver and maybe the fest’s most unlikely screen hero.

Odd but worthy for admittedly morbid reasons was Antonio Campos’ Christine, starring a committed Rebecca Hall, going odd and morbid (but worthy) as the cold, creepily robotic real-life enigma Christine Chubbock, a 1970s Sarasota, Florida newscaster/reporter for a local station who shot herself fatally during her broadcast. Tracy Letts is excellent in the role of her tough boss who demands more sensationalistic stories from the newsgirl who prefers warm, uplifting stories. Michael C. Hall also appeals as the handsome newsroom colleague on whom she has an apparent crush but with whom she just can’t connect sexually or emotionally. As in Tower, the HIFF doc about the equally morbid 1966 University of Texas sniper massacre, Christine provides no insight into what made its subject tick, pop and resort to atrocity. Tower does put the trend of integrating animation into docs (here, rotoscoping some of what’s happening) to good effect. But in both films, the perps get away with not revealing who they are, which is usually not satisfying.

Also on the doc front and perhaps most prominent was HIFF doc audience prize-winner I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s remarkable look at the eloquent, impassioned author James Baldwin through his lectures, ruminations and writings (notably a 1979 proposal for a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. Medgar Evers and Malcolm X). Well-chosen archival material conveys the many subtle to blatant manifestations of black oppression, all providing in both sober and startling ways the reasons for black anger (an unlikely clip from the musical The Pajama Game stuns with its hidden message). Here, the perps and motives come alive loud and clear: America’s shameful, often heinous treatment of its black (non) citizens since the days of slavery and through the 1970s and, to many eyes, ongoing today.

With its lineup and sidebars, HIFF has always paid considerable attention to sociopolitical issues, and with the doc Disturbing the Peace once again the unending battles between Israelis and Palestinians are in focus. The doc does a nice job of presenting some former combatants on both sides who have come together as dedicated, non-violent activists (Combatants For Peace) in their cause to stop the killings. But as in real life, a real solution totally eludes because realistic ways to an actual two-state solution (the only solution, as many see it) is left out of this picture. But the sentiments and intentions do impress.

Other strong docs included Sony Pictures Classics’ The Eagle Huntress, another HIFF prize-winner and a magnificently shot bit of exotica for the big screen. A work full of charm and beauty (man and beast and landscapes!), the film takes viewers on a journey with a 13-year-old girl who lives at the remote Mongolian Steppe and trains an eagle for an annual, all-male competition.

Also impressive for its visual splash, though a tad crude around the edges, is the doc Franca: Chaos and Creation, about Vogue Italia’s longtime and legendary (to the fashion crowd) editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani. Her sensationalistic, outrageous, kinky photo spreads changed the fashion magazine business and increased their popularity worldwide. Sozzani has many illustrious admirers (among them, Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace and Bruce Weber) who pay homage in new interviews or via archival clips. Franca’s son shot the doc, so there’s a mix of intimacy and benign, playful tension lurking throughout.

In the something-for-everyone category of docs best consumed cautiously and on small screens came Supergirl, about an Orthodox Jewish New Jersey girl approaching her bat mitzvah who excels at and competes in powerlifting. What most impresses here is the degree to which she and her parents (including her powerlifting dad) adore the cameras following their every move and the suspicion that the rather tacky, sparsely attended powerlifting competitions for girls may be as bogus as kid beauty pageants.

On the far side of decadence came Bunker77, going deeper than necessary into the life of West Coast sugar heir A.B. Spreckels III (“Bunker” was his nickname)—playboy, surfer, shlock filmmaker, Kenneth Anger star, self-styled pimp, aimless layaout, drug addict (yes, all in one) who died of an overdose at 27. Of interest is the possibility that never has an individual so without value been depicted so worshipfully on screen. Some truly amazing surfing footage provides some redemption.

Beyond such extreme sleaze, some other HIFF selections registered because of their insights and reminders. For instance, Late Summer, a Norwegian mystery about an elderly Norwegian woman living in rural France who gives lodging to some stranded but pushy young Norwegian tourists, was a lesson in storytelling: Ambiguity, which requires toeing a fine line, is great for suspense, provided not too many ambiguities are piled on.

The above-mentioned films are just a fraction of those offered and caught. If HIFF isn’t so much an example of content overload, it could be described as an antidote, thanks to its continuing savvy curation of so much plenitude.