Hamptons Fest attracts quality films, enthusiastic audiences

Features

The 19th annual Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF), which ran Oct. 13-17, was again a hopping, vibrant event for Long Island’s East End locals and faithful New York City film buffs.

But it wasn’t just fans that HIFF attracted from Manhattan. Over a dozen films that had played at the recent New York Film Festival made their way east. And, as usual, filmmakers, industry heavies and talent from around the world showed up for screenings, special programs, panels, parties and promotions.

As its latest session proves, HIFF has adapted and elegantly evolved into the new age by virtue of its curatorial excellence. In other words, it’s the quality, stupid! So while the impact of digital has jolted all corners of the film business, a boutique fest like HIFF provides a win-win situation for all involved: filmgoers who value quality and new filmmakers who crave exposure, distributors craving word of mouth and awards buzz for their forthcoming releases, and the media who seek access to talent and new product. Inevitably, not all films soared but the crowd-pleasers were impressively abundant and sold out on screens in the concentrated fest hub of East Hampton and nearby venues.

Among the most prominent and most loved of the 14 or so New York Film Festival émigrés were The Weinstein Company’s awards-bound The Artist, which took HIFF’s audience award for best narrative; Aki Kaurismaki’s French charmer Le Havre; Alexander Payne’s George Clooney triumph The Descendants; Steve McQueen’s controversial Shame; and the Dardenne Bros.’ gem The Kid with a Bike.

Beyond the New York imports, HIFF’s power hitters were primarily among its always-strong documentary offerings. A stand-out was photojournalist Mimi Chakarova’s magnificently produced The Price of Sex, her horrifying first-person account (even going undercover) of sex-trafficking in countries like her native Bulgaria and Moldavia, which supply cities like Athens, Istanbul and Dubai with the young, impoverished women who, kept as slaves, work the brothels, streets and bars as prostitutes. The villains aren’t just the men who run the businesses and serve as clients; women are responsible for much of the recruiting. Poverty, desperation, family indifference and pervasive corruption make their job easier.

The doc was a selection of HIFF’s yearly “Conflict and Resolution” sidebar which also showcased The Bully Project and Blood in the Mobile, this latter the first-person account of Danish filmmaker Frank Piasecki Poulsen’s investigation into the mobile phone industry’s use of ill-gotten minerals excavated by poorly paid, often underage workers in Congo mines that also provide money for the disastrous civil wars. Corruption, exploitation, greed, unimaginable torture and death in the millions are the byproducts of this activity that Nokia (showcased in the film) the United Nations and Congolese bureaucrats do not meaningfully confront.

These “Conflict and Resolution” docs suggest the sidebar should be renamed “Plenty of Conflicts But Where Are the Resolutions?”

Another HIFF doc revelation, this time on a hugely positive note, was Bess Kargman’s exhilarating First Position, a kids-in-competition film in the manner of Spellbound or Koran By Heart that follows six young ballet dancers, aged 9 to 19, who compete in the prestigious Young America Grand Prix international competition. This supremely feel-good film, not just a treat for balletomanes, benefits from the wondrously talented, likeable hopefuls (from the U.S., Colombia, Israel) and their supportive families. Sundance Selects felt so good it picked up the film.

Another outstanding HIFF doc was L.A.-based husband and wife team Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock’s provocative Full Frame winner Scenes of a Crime, about yet another miscarriage of justice. The doc focuses on a poor black father of seven accused of murdering one of his four-month-old twin sons. He insisted upon his innocence and respected medical experts came forth with proof of invasive infection, not head trauma, as the cause. But suppression of expert testimony and, more insidiously, a brutally coerced confession from relentless detectives resulted in an innocent man’s conviction and current incarceration. Some dense jurors also helped. But an appeal is in the works and this is one conflict that may find a just resolution. And much-deserved exposure, as sales agent Josh Braun, through Submarine, is fielding offers.

Winner of HIFF’s audience award for best doc was Marc Levin’s painfully timely Hard Times: Lost on Long Island, which follows a number of middle-class Long Island suburbanites who have fallen on hard times (bankruptcy, foreclosure and, most pervasive, chronic unemployment). The stories are sad (there’s even a fatal outcome) and the visual metaphor, via archival material, of the once promising Levittown development sends home the message in this HBO doc of dreams gone surprisingly bad. Again, another conflict without a resolution, although the fate of one family man who eventually lands a job provides a glimmer of hope.

HBO was also represented with The Loving Story, a triumph from last spring’s Tribeca that chronicles the interracial Virginia couple in the late Fifties who forced the landmark Supreme Court decision that made interracial marriage legal.

And English-born, France-based actress Charlotte Rampling gets many moments in the doc-portrait The Look. Rampling is remarkably candid and eloquent with her views on some heavy matters (desire, mortality, etc.) and her fans are in for a treat. Clips from many of her films provide the nostalgic frosting.

Sweden, with Vodka Factory, focused on a show biz wannabe and single mother in a snowy Russian town where she works a boring job at the local vodka factory but follows her dreams of escaping to Moscow to become an actress. The doc provides a stirring portrait of working-class women who find solace in too much drink, gossip and negativity, except for the determined heroine who resists the pessimism of her co-workers and rides a wave of hope.

Sometimes a doc provokes the (unintentional) question, what’s the point? Such was the case with Canada’s Inside Lara Roxx, Mia Donovan’s portrait of the eponymous young Montreal porn star and AIDS survivor. Lara was a problem teen who became a wild child, stripper and “escort” service operator before becoming a notorious “actress” in the industry (“double anal” was her achievement). Still in her early twenties, she contracted HIV and returned home amid media frenzy (Diane Sawyer interviewed her). Back in Montreal, she fell into drugs and very bad company but has survived. At best, a guilty pleasure but not a satisfying one.

On the narrative front was FilmDistrict’s handsome and rowdy Johnny Depp starrer The Rum Diary, a second cinematic channeling of Depp’s dear late pal Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journo who excelled at style if not good behavior. Often a visual pleasure, the film, out later this month, serves up a colorful, authentic 1960 Puerto Rico as delish as Cuba in its late Fifties, pre-revolution heyday. But the animal-rights people will see red (also literally) from the scenes of cockfighting, which (hello, Hollywood) also promote the vile “sport.”

HIFF’s opening night selection was Paramount’s Duplass Brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives at Home, starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon as a family of quirky losers (the sons especially). Simple, silly but surprisingly engaging, the film follows super-slacker, slow-witted Segel, obsessed with “signs” (the name “Kevin” drives his nutsy actions), and his accident- and debt-prone married bro Helms. Neither indie/art nor commercial, Jeff, Who Lives at Home totters atop that “tweener” cliff. Might audiences come to the rescue?

Per usual, HIFF had great representation from overseas. One of the best of imports was Tomboy, writer/director Celine Sciamma’s sweet tale of Laure, a 10-year-old girl who just wants to be a boy. More portrait than message, the film delights, thanks to the Sciamma’s restrained storytelling, and a wondrous performance from Zoe Heran as Laure, Malonn Levana as her expressive and protective six-year-old sister, and a convincing supporting cast. New York’s Film Forum provides the NYC theatrical premiere mid-November.

Still inexplicably kicking around with no domestic distributor after its unspooling at last spring’s Tribeca Film Festival is the wonderful Italian/German co-production A Quiet Life, which stars the always remarkable Toni Servillo (Il Divo) as a big shot Mafioso refugee in hiding with a beautiful new life and family in a rustic German town where he’s a restaurateur/hotel owner. Cruel reality and the past play catch up with surprising results.

The German entry Cracks in the Shell is a kind of Fame grows up and goes to a German music and arts academy for twenty-something wannabes. The unstable heroine, played by Stine Fischer Christensen (present at HIFF as a “Breakthrough Performer” honoree), faces a set of challenges: She lands a demanding lead role in the school’s experimental play and must contend with a physically disabled sibling and inattentive mother at home as well as the play’s director who (surprise, surprise) seeks an off-stage performance from her. True romance comes by way of a young construction worker but love is never easy for such heroines. The story generously gives each of the four or five main actors their screen moments, which makes the film akin to an elaborate but interesting multiple audition.

All in all, again a great festival. If HIFF has to sacrifice some of the “discoveries” of the past that it occasionally offered (Open Water, Nowhere in Africa, Seducing Charlie Barker) for a stronger line-up of fewer premieres, so be it. Or so these new times dictate.