Island retreat: Hamptons Fest showcases strong international lineup


In its 17th year and with the economic crisis swirling all around it, the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF), running Oct. 8–12, showed few signs of stress.

HIFF executive director Karen Arikian credited much of the festival’s hardiness to a strategy of partnerships with other nonprofit organizations, including HIFF’s documentary program last summer with East Hampton, New York’s nonprofit Guild Hall and the festival’s benefit this session, which turned over all profits to filmmaker Mira Nair’s nonprofit Maisha Foundation.

Such solidarity, plus a little belt-tightening, an embrace of quality and variety in its selections with a focus on what audiences might want to experience (a good strategy for all those in the independent world!) added up to a surprisingly successful fest.

Sixty feature films (with shorts bringing the number to 115) unspooled, approximately the same number presented last year. Economic pressures may be squeezing budgets but not creativity or craftsmanship, as this year’s crop of art/indie fare was unusually strong.

A number of the films, based on a large sampling of the HIFF roster, seem not just playable in theatres but also sustainable beyond the quickie one-week run. Flush with royalty and a high entertainment quotient, the outstanding The Young Victoria, which won a HIFF audience award, goes beyond the historical epic and court intrigues to deliver complex and endearing characters whose emotional lives are at the forefront. Apparition releases the Emily Blunt starrer on Dec. 18.

Several docs ooze with box-office potential. Vikram Jayanti’s BBC-produced The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector combines his startling, creepy interview with the former rock titan (king of “wall-to-wall” sound) convicted of murder with rich archival material and a downpour of the full, original versions of a multitude of Spector-written and/or produced classics (from The Ronettes’ “He’s a Rebel” to The Beatles’ “Let it Be”). Such soundtrack bounty had to translate into many millions in music-licensing fees, but Jayanti dodged a question about who shelled out.

The bumpy ride of The Walt Disney Studios from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s gets an up-close, personal and absolutely thrilling treatment from insiders Don Hahn and Peter Schneider in the informative, entertaining, and downright dishy Waking Sleeping Beauty. Schneider says the film will open next March in five theatres but he’s now showing it anywhere he can for free. Illuminating the art and craft of animation and tales of corporate and personal survival, the film won the audience award for best documentary.

Sweden’s Videocracy, from Italian-born filmmaker Erik Gandini, is a shocking, intimate look at how much the country’s trashy, smutty TV culture has permeated the country and spawned rampant corruption and dissolute behavior. What this compelling doc, which will be shown at New York’s IFC Center Oct. 13, does not do is make any effort to explain why such a unique and lamentable phenomenon has taken hold in Italy. Thus, Videocracy begs for a follow-up.

The festival’s top award, the Golden Starfish, went to director Felix Van Groeningen’s The Misfortunates, a comedy about rowdy males which is Belgium’s selection for the Oscar foreign-language race.

A number of the more impressive efforts came from first-time filmmakers. Atop this pile is Cheryl Hines’ dark comedy Serious Moonlight, from the late Adrienne Shelley’s script about a woman scorned (Meg Ryan) and the extremes she’ll go to keep her straying husband (Timothy Hutton). Magnolia releases it in December.

First-timer Shana Feste directed HIFF’s opening night The Greatest, a drama about the grief shared after a promising young man dies in a car accident. Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, new sensation Carey Mulligan and new discovery Jimmy Simmons star in this engaging drama which Mark Urman, who had the film when he was at Senator, will bring to theatres early next year through his new company Paladin. The acting is outstanding, although Feste, a little too schematically, allows each principal his or her several intense minutes of screen time to chew up the scenery.

Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg debuted as writer-directors of Tanner Hall, about a gaggle of nice and not-so-nice rich girls at boarding school. The traces are there but the excesses of St. Trinian’s and Therese and Isabelle are happily absent. The film is fun, visually strong, but superficial and sophomoric in more than the academic sense.

The crime drama Stolen Lives, another directorial debut, was blessed with stars Josh Lucas, Jon (“Mad Men”) Hamm and James Van Der Beek but damned by the screenwriter’s laziness with one key character who is a one-dimensional cardboard creation. Too bad, because the film otherwise engages in its bifurcated story—several generations apart—of the brutal murders of two boys and the efforts of one detective father to solve both cases.

The Messenger, filmmaker Oren Moverman’s debut, is a gripping war drama—with an especially strong performance from Woody Harrelson—that takes place on home ground and deals with officers who relay news of war deaths to survivors. Oscillosope has slated it for Nov. 13.

Jodie Markel greatly impresses with The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, her first directorial effort, which Paladin releases in late December. In telling her story of a young and restless Southern belle who, in spite of looks, charm and breeding, can’t fit in, Markel had the help of a forgotten Tennessee Williams screenplay and a splendid cast that includes Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Evans, Ellen Burstyn and Ann-Margret.

Tenure, starring Luke Wilson as an English prof on the tenure track, and Mammoth, a first English-language feature from Lukas Moodyson, about New York parents (Gael Garcia Bernal and Michelle Williams) dealing with personal and professional pressures, are both nice but not strong efforts. The former suffers from too light a tone (but ends well) and the latter is just too flat.

Foreign films, especially several dramas from Scandinavia, were winners, including Denmark’s Applause, about a self-involved alcoholic actress and mother on a downward spiral struggling to get her life together. First-time filmmaker Martin Pieter Zandvliet said that, as a novice, he avoided the problem of figuring out how to frame and compose shots by betting on close-ups of leading lady Paprika Steen. He won his bet handily as Steen, in every frame displaying all the right nervous tics of her screwed-up character, delivers resoundingly (and won one of HIFF’s acting awards).

Norway’s terrifically acted A Rational Solution tells the story of two married couples on the verge of break-ups because the husband in one couple and wife in the other fall in love. The husband proposes “a rational solution” to the dilemma which, of course, is anything but.

Terry Gilliam’s visually spectacular, star-studded The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus neglected its story (perhaps due to the tragic loss of star Heath Ledger). This trippy cinematic ride, with extra-special effects and sweeping, showy sets, offers a final chance to see Ledger.  Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law stepped in to help Gilliam after Ledger’s passing. And while Christopher Plummer as the eponymous and painfully immortal doctor is terrific, the story is wobbly. Sony Pictures Classics opens the Imaginarium at Christmas.

Up in the Air, which gives director Jason Reitman an amazing three winners with his first three films, tells a wonderful and timely tale about a totally disengaged traveling, largely airborne exec hired by big companies to do their firing. Reitman, adapting from Walter Kirn’s novel, delivers a wallop of a near ending but ultimately closes the film a bit too tentatively. Still, this dark comedy from Paramount should send grosses soaring into the clouds.

In one of several talks with celebrities, vet producer Martin Bregman, in a lively interview with Hamptons regular Alec Baldwin, emphasized over and over the importance of story, which comes first in his formula for success (the cast and director are numbers two and three). Bregman told some amusing stories about the business, including the time he bullied Paramount’s Robert Evans, who refused to have Bregman-managed Al Pacino in The Godfather.

Sharon Stone was on hand at HIFF to receive HIFF’s Achievement in Acting award and participate in an interview with TV personality Judy Licht. Her mantra for aspiring actresses and success in general is: Keep trying, “keep batting,” endure but embrace failure.

Stone shared her eight-month journey of landing her breakthrough and iconic Basic Instinct role, which nobody wanted her for. She was persistent, and when she finally got the last of a long string of auditions for the part, left the room prematurely after someone broke in with the news that the Gulf War had started. She refused to return to finish the audition but got the role.

HIFF director of programming David Nugent credited the “good taste” of his selection committee for the overall quality of this year’s Hamptons Fest.