Quantity and Quality: Hamptons International Film Festival delivers the goods

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The just-wrapped five-day 23rd installment of the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF), the last of the year’s North American string of major and boutique film fests that introduce new films and awards potential to cinephiles and industry watchers, repeated its past successes but bore a new message.

As the proverbial cream rising to the top reminds, quality amongst so much quantity can thrive and avoid being buried. Quantity is what the digital revolution has brought: too much to wade through and too much, well, junk. What HIFF made clear, or at least reminded, is that in addition to the amazing volume of product—fueled by lower production costs and easier-to-learn, more efficient digital equipment—quality has become a byproduct and consumers are again the benefactors. And financiers and distributors will gleefully join them as soon as better monetizing of such quality is figured out.

The surge in digital features, on the indie end, began around 1999 when the late digital pioneer Gary Winick, with help from IFC, launched his InDiGent production company around 1999 and got this whole notion of digitally captured low-budget features going.So how fitting that HIFF, in its newly named “Winick Talks” sidebar series (along with the usual celebrity appearances, special presentations, shorts programs, ubiquitous Q&As with filmmakers, readings, parties, conversations, awards ceremonies, etc.) included a talk with IFC Films and Sundance Selects president Jonathan Sehring. Although Sehring’s IFC plays across platforms for big and small-screen consumption he, like the whole world, wondered in a Q&A what’s the best platform bet for yielding profits. The gist of his advice to filmmakers was along the lines of: Don’t make films to make money (try Vegas instead), but tell the good story that’s in you.

HIFF also provided further proof that the exploitation of fests as marketing tools is growing and that fest/release windows are narrowing. Six HIFF selections opened this past weekend, with Bridge of Spies, Truth and Room dominating the very high end of the HIFF selections while Meadowland, a grim, inauthentic drama of a couple dealing with the loss of their son, disappointed. Among other matters in Meadowland, somebody goofed in casting Luke Wilson, fine in appropriate roles, but unconvincing as a New York cop father. Also a wagging finger is due the film for not giving Giovanni Ribisi or Elizabeth Moss something more to chew on. (Room, starring Brie Larson, shines, while Experimenter will serve as an interesting experiment in where audience tastes lie.)

The impression of quality as a byproduct of quantity came by way of both superlative docs (see below) and narrative fiction features. Among the latter, Anomalisa was truly a HIFF high mark. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s fabulously idiosyncratic and surprising stop-motion animated feature depicts a motivational speaker on stopover in deep-Midwestern anomie. Using the oh-so-effective voicing of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan, this twisted, droll tale that largely takes place in the metaphorically cold, soulless climes of a semi-posh boutique Cleveland hotel will delight eyes, ears and intellect. Surprises abound as genders are scrambled and images never relegated to animation hit the screen. Familiar people, like those who fill daily talk-show audiences or file anonymously through small airports maybe on their way to Cincinnati, become kinky surprises.

In a much more traditional vein but every bit as satisfying was Sundance Selects’ 45 Years, essentially a two-character study of the long marriage of a financially comfortable, maybe too-settled English couple (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courteney) dealing with the nuisances of aging and routine (at least Rampling’s character has a lively social circle). As their 45th wedding anniversary party approaches, suspense grows about whether they’ll get there. The film, with Rampling and Courtney at their very best, unfolds so intelligently, credibly and gracefully that many viewers will want a second look.

Entering the Hamptons with the buzz of being All the President’s Men’s little brother was Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, another gripping true-life investigative-journalism procedural, but this one following the Boston Globe’s early-2000s investigative Spotlight team exposing in Greater Boston long and widespread priest abuse of underage boys (mostly) and the Catholic Church’s complicity. Throw in some victims themselves, lawyers from both sides (and even an ambiguous middle) and the dogged reporters and it all adds up to a wonderful two hours. McCarthy and Josh Singer’s award-caliber script keeps the story alive and moving and the cast couldn’t be better. Look for the Oscar bait amongst Liev Schreiber, as the new Globe editor brought in from The Washington Post, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel Adams as the kind of dogged journos audiences love, and Stanley Tucci as the besieged defendants’ lawyer.

Cate Blanchett had dueling Oscar-caliber performances in two top-flight HIFF selections: the lesbian drama Carol, the fest’s Centerpiece selection which The Weinstein Company releases in late November, and Sony Pictures Classics’ Truth, another gripping true-investigation twister. This one also digs up recent history with its story of CBS’s 2004 “60 Minutes II” venture into a too-close look at then President George W. Bush’s earlier Vietnam years, when, allegedly, he dodged war action by using influence to get into Texas Air National Guard and then was mostly a no-show, or so the show’s feisty, fiery producer Mary Mapes (Blanchett) dug into and the show’s anchor and CBS legend Dan Rather (Robert Redford) reported. Beyond the unfolding drama, the film is also a powerful reminder of corporate and political power having its way, right or wrong. Blanchett seals her Oscar chances with this one.

HIFF has traditionally pulled quality from overseas (hey, it’s middle name is “International”) and even more evidence of that was on tap. From Focus Features, by way of England, came Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep (seen too briefly as the great movement leader Mrs. Pankhurst) as London women in the early 19th century who actively campaigned and sacrificed for women’s equality, especially in securing the right to vote. A handsome production on all counts, Sarah Gavron’s film delivers some poignant moments in its portrait of a passionate struggle, but may or may not depict the hoped-for victory both characters and audiences want to see.

Also from the U.K. but in a much lighter vein came the fanciful and flat-out fun, what-if fiction of Ketchup Entertainment’s A Royal Night Out, which dares (but succeeds) in telling the whimsical story, set in London on the eve of the historic 1945 VE day when Germany surrendered, of cosseted young royal daughters Elizabeth and Margaret’s escape (with parent-appointed escorts they will soon dump) into London’s madly jubilant nighttime victory celebration for a never-to-be-forgotten (or fully disclosed) adventure. Emily Watson and Rupert Everett as the famous parents who happen to be the King (yes, George the occasional stutterer) and Queen of England are delish in their roles of clueless but ever-dignified and stern parents. Bel Powley as Princess Margaret does a good job of suggesting the bad girl/club-loving princess who would emerge in real, headline-grabbing life.

From France came Sundance Selects’ Disorder, a crime drama starring ever-rising Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts as an ex-military man assigned to security on the Riviera estate of an absentee arms dealer with a mission to guard the dealer’s kid and beautiful wife (French star Diane Kruger). Maybe distracted by the wife or just being the ex-Army guy he is, he senses danger everywhere in the sprawling villa and on its grounds until that danger finally hits. The film is believable and suspenseful and notably smart in not delivering what’s expected.

Paolo Sorrentino, who delivered the 2014 Oscar-winning Rome extravaganza The Great Beauty, falters with his English-language Youth, from Fox Searchlight. Still milking his affinity for things beautiful (human, scenic, artistically rendered, imagined), this is Sorrentino’s self-assured whimsy onto new narrative ground (almost as dazzling as the Rome he depicted). A strong cast helps (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda, among others) as he focuses on two old-timer pals (Caine as a retired composer/musician and Keitel, a film director prepping his final work) meandering in a in a rather sterile but elegant Swiss Alps hotel surrounded by the requisite mountains. There’s nary a character or situation to really care about, including an odd father/daughter relationship (Caine and Rachel Weisz) and Caine’s mysteriously afflicted, fleetingly seen ex-wife. Some Felliniesque folly is injected but isn’t anything beyond visual superficiality.

Tikkun is a depressing Yiddish/Hebrew black-and-white drama about a young, somehow afflicted Hasid man buried in his Yeshiva studies, whose father is a slaughterer of animals to keep things kosher (and gruesome). This Israeli film doesn’t register on the quality meter but is intriguing because it so doesn’t give a damn about audiences. It conveys no comprehensible point of view or worthy virtue except to suggest that extreme Hasid life as lived in Jerusalem couldn’t be drearier. The “hero” is described in program notes as a prodigy, but if that’s a prodigy... “Feh!” might be the fractured Yiddish word for this oddity.

Thankfully, plenty of HIFF docs came to the rescue (and also some indie narratives, cited below) to revive the quality argument. For viewers and industry people who care about great American cinema, award-winning Nancy Buirski’s "American Masters" co-production By Sidney Lumet provides a rare, highly informative close-up, literally too close as that’s how the late filmmaker is captured in this lengthy interview that includes ample film clips of his work. He rarely spoke with the press but is so generous here. He loved New York (where he mostly filmed) and shares anecdotes about his professional origins in Yiddish theatre and vaudeville and insights into his directing m.o. and understanding of drama. Lumet helpfully gets specific talking about his unique film career directing some of the country’s most honored and beloved features. A must for the aspiring filmmakers and devotees of fine cinema.

Michael Moore’s doc Where to Invade Next, his hugely amusing and insightful foray into some European countries that do certain important things better (education, bank oversight, etc., etc.) than America can manage, was covered as one of the New York Film Festival highlights, but deserves mention here as another HIFF selection that is a hot item for an Oscar nom.

Also from HBO and outstanding comes Marc Levin’s Class Divide, a close-up look at the radical gentrification of Manhattan’s once grungy West Chelsea neighborhood to posh-hood by focusing on project kids who live across the street (on or near 10th Avenue, actually) from a very pricey Avenues school which caters to wealthy families but seeks diversity. (The will and effort are there but could it really happen?)

The Championsis a heart-wrenching doc for all dog lovers, as it portrays rescued pit bulls who turn out to be among the sweetest and most loving canines imaginable. On the coldly political side is A German Youth, a largely interesting profile of Germany’s notorious and controversial left-wing radical group of the mid-’60s to mid-’70s that began as a propaganda group using film, pamphlets and demonstrations to rebel against what youth perceived at the time as establishment oppression (common across young people of the West) but grew increasingly violent. The story is entirely told through archival material, and a familiarity with German history and politics helps in understanding what is shown.

HBO’s Bolshoi Babylon teases with a title that suggests it might be an exposé of the brutal acid attack on the Bolshoi’s artistic director Sergei Filin, which nearly blinded him, but the doc falls short. Yes, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre is gorgeous, as are the ballet pieces on view, and some of the backstage bickering is interesting, but it’s a murky picture of show-biz jealously that apparently went amok.

On the American indie narrative front, John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a wonderful period piece about a young Irish woman’s immigration to America, previously covered on this site as a New York Film Festival entry, was another of the stronger HIFF selections. Fox Searchlight releases it in early November.

IFC Films’ Born To Be Blue has Ethan Hawke as the talented but doomed trumpeter/vocalist jazz legend Chet Baker on the comeback trail in the 1960s. The indie, which also features the excellent Carmen Ejogo (Selma) as his loyal-until girlfriend, is an exercise in minimalism, as was Baker himself in his instrumentals and vocals but not his drug use. Thanks to the ever-watchable Hawke, whose Baker is appropriately soft and cool albeit dangerous, the film—also a glimpse at the small-label record business when it worked—is worth a spin.

There’s much to be desired in the supposedly fact-based The Preppie Connection, about a supposedly gifted town local who gains entry to the town’s posh prep school as a day student. The bland, listless hero, played by Thomas Mann, emits no intelligence whatsoever, with only a manifest interest in getting his hands on an attractive co-student, a member of an elite clique. The kids, except for the main protagonist, are all rich and soon realize he’s a great connection to the local drug trade. The kid seizes the opportunity and ends up making trips to Colombia but is finally arrested. The film answers nothing but asks the question off-screen: Why bother with a character and story like this? But Logan Huffman, the young actor who plays the school’s rich instigator, delivers a quality performance and is someone the industry might watch.

HIFF was a celebration of quality, but it wasn’t just up on the screen. The Hamptons event, like most in this fest circuit, is well-run with, again, executive director Anne Chaisson keeping it a smooth, well-funded machine and overseeing a polite, well-informed staff. Kudos too to the Regal East Hampton multiplex for the welcoming venue and on-time lineup (not easy to achieve). But, oh, those concession choices and prices!

Stuart Suna, HIFF co-founder and longtime chairman, stepped down earlier this year but continues strong as a loyalist, as his Silvercup Studios is the lead sponsor, along with presenting sponsors Delta and Altour, and so many other sponsors stretching from local East Hampton businesses to Tasmania (shoe company Blundstone) and many other sponsors in between (geographically speaking).

Might there be some lessons gleaned from the fact that while every sector of entertainment throughout the chain, from creation to consumption and monetizing, seems to buckle from so much change, film festivals like HIFF hold their own and hold on as if it were business as usual? Just wondering.

Correction: The Sidney Lumet doc was previously attributed to HBO. It is an "American Masters" co-production and will have its exclusive U.S. broadcast premiere on PBS.