Place in the sun: Hamptons Film Festival delivers a potent lineup


Maybe it was the especially strong line-up, but even five sunny beach days couldn’t keep the crowds away from the recent Hamptons International Film Fest (HIFF) in New York’s Long Island.

“Less is more” continues to define the fest, meaning less clutter, filler, bad crowd behavior, confusion and griping, and more of a fulfilling festival experience. Yes, there was the rare but inevitable cell-phone ring in a darkened theatre for that entitled Hamptonian, but good behavior and great films ruled, as did plenty of prizes, cash awards, and talk that this was the fest’s best year yet.

HIFF continues as a tremendously well-oiled machine powered by astute programming, generous sponsors (American Airlines, The Wall Street Journal, etc.), hard-working functionaries and loyal, enthusiastic audiences who truly, truly love film. The latter could easily have opted for the area’s great beaches as the weather for the five-day run was perfect. Instead, fest-goers formed lines and filled seats as testament to their greater, celluloid-over-sun allegiance.

The just-ended 18th installment again impressed with its choice selections, user-friendly scale, and delicate balance of events. The cinephile feast provided a broad range of domestic and foreign films to see (from tiny Tiny Furniture to the mega Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and Oscar magnet The King’s Speech), celebrities to engage (Marcia Gay Harden, Stanley Tucci, James Franco, among them), indie titans to bump into (Harvey Weinstein, Sony Classics’ Michael Barker, former New Line co-chief Michael Lynne) and a smattering of parties to attend.

HIFF 2010’s exceptional lineup included many films that were already high-profile and/or had previous fest exposure. And for the first time, the fest exhibited three features (all documentaries) already in commercial but limited release: Davis Guggenheim’s acclaimed Waiting for 'Superman' and the Nazi era-themed Nuremberg and Ahead of Time.

While films in commercial release are off-limits to the fest, executive director Karen Arikian said the documentaries were included due to HIFF’s “demanding audience…and providing opportunities for discussion around important subject matter. So we were absolutely thrilled to showcase these three great films.”

As for other changes at HIFF, Arikian cited “much greater awareness of us as a valuable platform for awards season by the studios. That awareness serves us, our audiences, who are very discerning, and the studios themselves. This heightened attention from the studios gave the festival overall greater visibility.”

There were the usual premieres (World, U.S., East Coast, New York) and geographic diversity (films made in the Hamptons, Chad, Korea and Europe and places in between). Among the strongest films, many will land in theatres with legs (Black Swan, The King’s Speech, etc.), at least one without a theatrical distrib will land one (the up-for-grabs Seducing Charlie Barker), another with The Sundance Channel behind it (Beautiful Darling) deserves theatrical, and other worthy entries are gripping docs that are TV-bound (PBS’ Welcome to Shelbyville, ESPN’s Once Brothers, etc.).

The must-see films included some of the most highly anticipated indie releases bound for theatres. Sony Pictures Classics’ Barney’s Version, the fest opener, is another film adaptation of a Mordecai Richler novel (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) and, as in Duddy, schlemiels rule. The cast is everything here, as Paul Giamatti plays a Montreal TV producer with a yen for shiksas and Dustin Hoffman is his dissolute father. Both characters are variations of the schlemiel (Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy was a more colorful spin) and, were it not for the obvious quality of the performances, aren’t people you’d want to spend much time with.

Barney could also use a few minutes lopped off, and its time shifts occasionally disorient. But the hero’s journey interests, from a bad marriage to a spoiled Jewish-American princess (Minnie Driver) to a good one with the woman of his dreams (Rosamund Pike) before a drug-addled friend (Scott Speedman) and old age mess things up.

Also adding to the appeal are the film’s little mystery, an immersion in Montreal’s sizeable Jewish community (plus nice forays to Rome) and the participation of a fine supporting cast and cameos (in case you can spot them) from some important Canadian filmmakers (Atom Egoyan, Denys Arcand and David Cronenberg).

The Weinstein Company’s The King’s Speech is exactly the kind of quality, adult, intelligent, Oscar-quality film identified with Miramax in the good old days. The U.K./Australian reality-inspired film is about stammering Brit monarch George VI (Colin Firth) and the eccentric Aussie speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) who gave the king the ammo to speak to his people fairly fluidly if somewhat idiosyncratically and stayed by his side over the years. As with so many of the HIFF films, an outstanding cast (including Helena Bonham Carter as the future Queen Mum, and Guy Pearce as the party-loving, Wallace Simpson-loving royal who abdicated the throne to brother George) make The King’s Speech an intriguing and delicate spectacle.

Disney’s The Debt, from John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and starring Helen Mirren, is a highly entertaining if sometimes implausible drama about a trio of Mossad agents sent to East Berlin in 1965 to kidnap and expedite to Israel a Nazi doctor notorious for unspeakable, sadistic acts at the Birkenau camp. When the assignment does not unfold according to plan, the trio contrive a false, press-friendly resolution which may be revealed only years later when a book about the incident is published. Again, the time shifts (1965, 1970, the late ’90s) aren’t always clear and some twists are ridiculously improbable. But the film always holds our attention, thanks also a fine supporting cast.

Darren Aronofsky did for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler what he might do for Natalie Portman in Fox Searchlight’s Black Swan—get her an Oscar nod. While the hormonally charged film is mighty derivative (All About Eve meets The Red Shoes with a little of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? thrown in) and its metaphors as subtle as an elephant in tights, the ballet-themed film grips at every beautiful/ugly moment (of which there are many of the latter).

Portman is sensational as a driven, troubled young ballerina with a pushy mother (Barbara Hershey) and enough repressed sexuality to fill a convent. Her demanding, seductive mentor (the always exciting Vincent Cassel) pushes her in right/wrong directions so she can play the ballet’s starring dual swan roles (virginal/promiscuous) as a rival dancer (Mila Kunis) makes her own evil swan moves off-stage.

Also terrific was The Weinstein Company’s The Company Men, which has the very good fortune to have Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper as the eponymous Boston area men who get downsized. Jones is the big-gun exec of a billion-dollar conglomerate which had humble beginnings building ships, Cooper the loyal company lifer, and Affleck the on-the-rise sales ace. But all walk into that unforgiving brick wall of an economic downturn.

Vet TV writer/executive producer John Wells makes an amazing directorial debut with this drama that reveals how each pink-slipped man copes, craters or conquers. The acting couldn’t be better and the extensive Boston locations contribute much to the film’s marvelous authenticity.

A number of the most popular want-to-sees divided audiences, including Doug Liman’s Fair Game, about the recent true story of CIA covert agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) and the dire repercussions that emanated from allegedly as high as Bush’s Oval Office after Plame’s husband Joseph Wilson IV (Sean Penn) published a New York Times op-ed piece discrediting the administration’s rationale for its war in Iraq. Watts, an otherwise electrifying performer, is rather bland as Plame, although Penn vividly evokes an outraged, somewhat gentlemanly diplomat who combines appetites for danger, truth, service and the good life.

The film (with the promise of an “All the President’s Venom” build-up to government wrong-doing) is literally and figuratively all over the map as it tracks the government’s efforts to prove that Iraq was secretly purchasing uranium for the manufacture of WMDs. But the precipitating event for the whole scandal—Wilson’s damning Times article—gets lost, as do details, real or deduced, critical to the leak of Plame’s name and undercover work.

Viewers, including this reporter, deemed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third adaptation of Steig Larsson’s wildly popular Millennium book trilogy, less strong than the previous art-house hits and in need of the back-story they provided.

Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine was no doubt a draw because of its stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a young working-class couple whose marriage disintegrates. The problem here is that there’s no complexity to these characters or their dilemma and their persistent ordinariness and drab surroundings discourage interest. British filmmakers back then (especially the “Kitchen Sink” directors) and now (Mike Leigh) brought and bring passion, nuance, universality and surprise to such stories, but Blue Valentine, which kicks off with a fatally injured family dog, is pervasively single-minded and dreary.

Also dreary (in spite of being billed a “comedy”) but more textured and expansive is Strand Releasing’s Norwegian import A Somewhat Gentle Man, which benefits from another eminently watchable performance from star Stellan Skarsgård. His seemingly defeated, inarticulate character Ulrik is just released from prison into working and living situations that are sure to drive him back to crime. But story strands involving both mob guys and his own family punch up what could have been a hero’s tragic, one-way ticket back to hopelessness.

A number of other small films provided big dividends. The proverbial “revelation,” that unexpected truffle that dogged cinephiles hope to unearth at fests, came by way of Amy Glazer’s (brother of Mitch Glazer, niece of late producer Sidney Glazer) Seducing Charlie Barker, vet theatre and TV writer Theresa Rebeck’s adaptation of her play. It’s a sad, hilarious, witty and right-on rendering of a talented but unemployed New York actor who, as his own worst enemy, makes all the wrong decisions. His vocation’s poor odds and his bad attitude and manly/immature urges converge in a perfect storm of doom.

Daphne Zuniga (the only “name” here) as his TV-exec/bread-winning wife and newcomer Heather Gordon as a maybe not so ditzy gen-X femme fatale are both delicious. Casting throughout is pitch-perfect, as is the writing, direction and storytelling. And a good surprise ending never hurt any film, although this one awaits a distributor.

A smaller gem, not distrib bait but certainly calling card-ready, is writer-director Stephen Padilla’s three-character/one-setting Kisses, Chloe, a HIFF world premiere shot in nearby Hampton Bays. It tells the story of three twenty-somethings flirting with thirty and one another during a weekend at a beach house, where a couple in a faltering relationship visit the titular Chloe, the promiscuous fashionista who is their hostess. Chloe is also a promiscuous storyteller who brags about her exploits and more than teases trouble when she reveals a previous tryst with one of her two guests. The beach house-bound story is slight but always engaging (Who will end up with whom?), thanks to the nice acting and writing.

Europe at HIFF was again well-represented. From Germany, When We Leave, that country’s bid for an Oscar nod, is an exceptionally well-done, searing drama about a young Turkish mother trying to escape an abusive husband and tradition-bound family. Meanwhile, France’s Sisters is based on young French star Sylvie Testud’s novel about three sisters raised in France by their Italian-born mother. The siblings, the creative one especially, are haunted by the French father who bailed from the marriage. Testud herself stars in this period piece that is loving and evocative of an Italian take on French joie de vivre and family.

One would think that with so many documentaries in both cyber and real space (thank you, technology, for lowering prices and barriers to entry) and so many exhausted subjects, the nonfiction flood might have abated. But HIFF proved that many terrific docs are still being produced. The National Film Board of Canada’s engrossing Life with Murder, about a small-town Ontario couple who come to terms with the fact that their son murdered their loving teen daughter, manages an even darker twist as it shines an unflattering light on denial and human nature while exposing aspects of forgiveness.

For those who want to see the latest in the canon of films about the legendary artist/personality Andy Warhol and/or those in his crowded, crazy orbit and who want some insight into the subtle difference between mere charisma and the more mysterious, elusive “aura,” there’s James Rasin’s appropriately entertaining Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar. The doc, which benefits mightily from the on and off-screen participation of producer Jeremiah Newton, Candy’s friend and roommate, features (also appropriately) an all-star cast of Warhol regulars who knew the gender-bending glam superstar. Fran Lebowitz, always the wittiest, elucidates on Candy’s appeal and the Factory dynamics that made her “in” one moment, “out” the next. There’s plenty of vintage footage, including scenes at Max’s and most importantly Candy, the embodiment of “aura,” interfacing with those cameras that so loved her. Beyond the ups and mostly downs of an eventful, unique life that ended when she was only 29, the revelation here is how obsessed and truly talented she was. She, by the way, was born Jimmy Slattery and grew up in a cookie-cutter Long Island suburb.

In Welcome to Shelbyville, filmmaker Kim Snyder turns her cameras on the small Tennessee town, which, having emerged from painful eras of segregation (the Klan raged and blacks drank from separate fountains) and a more recent flood of Latino immigrants, now deals with an influx of Somali refugees who seem more resistant to assimilation. Shelbyville, as evoked here, serves as a provocative microcosm for the immigration conundrums and troubles plaguing the whole country. The film provokes many questions, if not the solutions.

Other important HIFF docs were Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, moving East from the New York Film Festival, and Client 9, Alex Gibney’s take on fallen New York ex-governor Eliot Spitzer and that familiar convergence of money, power, ego, revenge and illicit sex.

And there were the usual films that tend to really polarize audiences. Such was Wild Target from Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinny), an over-the-top, ridiculous comedy about a high-end Brit assassin (a great Bill Nighy), a spoiled, prissy mother’s boy who only finds love when he meets his next target, a beautiful, erotically charged sociopath (Emily Blunt) who knows how to dodge bullets and seduce men. The Freestyle release’s outrageous, often visual humor, which is an improvement over that of the similarly excessive The Brothers Bloom (a HIFF selection a few years back), will definitely hit the mark for some. Most will be taken by the smart look of the production and a yummy cast that also includes the great Eileen Atkins as the skilled assassin’s lethal mother, Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint as a naïf taken under his boss-assassin’s wing, and Rupert Everett as a rich art dealer.

Among the “Huh?” films were the black-and-white, pretentious Ellen Barkin starrer Shit Year, which wastes her talents in an incomprehensible, experimental tale of a retiring Hollywood actress and her boy toy. A tip-off was HIFF’s catalog description (let the buyer beware) that invoked the ominous adjective “phantasmagoric” and the names of Godard, Cassavetes and Jarmusch in its pitch for the film.

Another baffling entry was the broad comedy The Family Tree, starring Hope Davis and Dermot Mulroney as parents in the most dysfunctional family to ever hit the screen. The lunatic ensemble includes a pot-loving reverend (Keith Carradine) who loves to give kids loaded weapons, and an alcoholic lesbian teacher (Selma Blair) who preys on her students. Of note is the participation of “Mad Men”’s Christina Hendricks, who should have stayed back at the agency.

Off the HIFF screens, James Franco, in conversation with the Museum of Modern Art’s Raj Roy (previously with HIFF) at a special event, shared that Gus Van Sant is his favorite director, Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho his favorite movie, and that he watched the film many times over when he was a teen. OK, we gotta have another look.

And in private conversation, Harvey Weinstein, responding to a reporter’s observation about how so much has changed in the business, shared that “things haven’t changed”—meaning that it’s the quality of the films that still counts. Up on HIFF screens, Weinstein and his brother Bob’s TWC films proved that notion.