Film Festivals

HAMPTONS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2003

By • Mar 22nd, 2003 •

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The 2003 edition of the Hamptons International Film Festival featured its usual eclectic group of films and themes concerning a plethora of subject manner from Demolition Derbies, the secret lives of Architects, to the public lives of the offspring of the wealthy, to the tragedy of a father gone mad. Among the best of this years offerings:

Documentaries and Features:

The Citizen Kane of demolition derby films, SPEEDO is a fascinating documentary of Ed “Speedo” Jager, a flawed genius of the Long Island demolition derby circuit with a crumbling family life. A man who participates on the fringes of motor sport, but is nonetheless a great performer who transcends the marginality of his “sport.” The rich irony of the film is that Speedo can survive (and even thrive) within the violence of the demolition derby “world.” But he crashes and burns when it comes to negotiating the more treacherous turns of being a husband and father. SPEEDO is probably the most overlooked film of the festival, a victim of its unfortunate, early scheduling.

RICH KIDS was arguably the most anticipated film of the festival and almost certainly the most coveted ticket this year. The premise of the very young, very rich Jamie (Johnson & Johnson) Johnson’s documentary on the life and times of the children of the rich and famous (most his friends or acquaintances) has an unbelievably off-putting premise – which is that children of the rich and famous have it awfully tough. Nonetheless, the amateurish style and ingratiating narration by Johnson manages to humanize a group of individuals that it would be easy enough to dislike (and certainly dismiss) Despite this, the film offers few revelations and one gets the impression that Johnson edited the film to maximize his subject’s likeability rather than examine fully a fascinating and unexplored subject.

The illegitimate son (Nathaniel Kahn) of the great architect Louis Kahn searches for understanding of his father’s Byzantine life and career amidst the wild contradictions of his personality in MY ARCHITECT. Mr. Kahn is superb at drawing out the inconsistencies in his father’s life by at turns showing his great works such as the library at Philips Exter and then examining the elder Kahn’s professional failures such as his frustrated idea to construct a synagogue in Jerusalem. Nathaniel Kahn’s film is at its most interesting when he lets his father’s chronicle play out in an unbelievable and ironic narrative that includes Kahn’s three families and the elder Kahn’s death in 1974, bankrupt, in the men’s room at Penn Station.

Peter Webber, the director of GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING, with Mark Rhodes

GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING stars ‘It Girl’ of the moment Scarlett Johansson as the peasant maid of the great Vermeer, played by Colin Firth. The film is a kind of 17th century “Surviving Picasso” with a built in debate about the role and ethics of the artist in society. With a rich atmosphere, a solid cast and an impressive re-creation of 17th century Holland, GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING should have been better, but the script is underwritten and the film is too content with letting the sets and costumes, impressive as they are, carry the narrative. Firth’s workmanlike performance is admirable (he even looks good in his wig) and effective, but it is Johansson who impresses with her literal on-screen transformation into a 17th century Vermeer painting.

EASY SIX had echoes of EYES WIDE SHUT, LEAVING LAS VEGAS, and especially LOLITA. Despite this lofty pedigree EASY SIX was hands down the trashiest movie of the festival. The film follows the descent of Professor Packard Schmidt (Julian Sands) as he falls for a young prostitute (a daughter of an old friend played by the where- has-he-been? John Savage) during a Milton conference in Las Vegas. The result is a film that aims for some kind of ironic truth about the nature of sex vs. love, reality vs. fantasy but instead ends up being a big wallow. The film almost redeems itself late when Jim Belushi shows up as an Elvis impersonator and displays the most authoritative and charismatic acting of his professional life.

Candidate for biggest surprise of the festival was SCREEN DOOR JESUS (winner of the festivals Golden Starfish Award for Best Narrative), which explored ideas about sex, religion, race, and culture within the microcosm of a small Texas town. The film’s plot revolves around the sighting of the image of Jesus on a screen door of one of the town’s residents and how it affects the lives and spirit of the town and its inhabitants. Director/screenwriter Kirk Davis (a disfellowshipped preacher) creates rich, complicated characters out of such southern fried stereotypes as the town floozy, the Babbitt-like businessman, the good old boy sheriff and the philandering politician. Interestingly enough, the film’s flaws (uneven acting, wild swings in tone and mood) help establish a real-world setting and establish the authority and sting in Davis’ storytelling.

Without a doubt the worst high profile film of the festival was VIRGIN, which inexplicably won the festival’s Zichermann Family Foundation award for screenwriting. The film told the grim narrative of a young lower middle class woman named Jesse (Elizabeth Moss) who becomes pregnant and, convinced she is carrying a child of God, predictably becomes a heretic in her own backward community. Director/Screenwriter Deborah Kampmeir conjures up the usual stereotypes of male brutality and female martyrdom that are equally flat and unfair to each gender. Ms. Moss’ performance lacks the necessary charisma that would allow for audience empathy and interest.

Campbell Scott’s directorial effort, OFF THE MAP concerns the tale of an unconventional family living in the mystic desert of New Mexico. Eleven-year-old Bo Groden (Valentina de Angelis) lives with her earthy mom (Joan Allen) and dad (Sam Elliot). The family lives in unintentionally stylish self-sufficiency hunting or growing their own food, and bartering for the rest of their needs. Elliot’s patriarch is in a losing battle with depression when the IRS comes calling in the form of agent William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost). The New Mexico environment transforms the young agent and he becomes inspired to unleash his considerable creative energy.

Joan Allen at Screening of Campbell Scott's OFF THE MAP

OFF THE MAP was the best film of the festival. The most satisfying, the least conventional, and the best acted. Valentina de Angelis gives the finest performance by a young actor since Anna Panquin’s work in THE PIANO. Joan Allen, always a reliably fine performer, displays a warmth and earthiness that she has rarely exhibited onscreen. Jim True-Frost manages to invest his hapless IRS company man with great complexity and charm. It is Sam Elliot, however, who is the real surprise. Elliot has always seemed chiseled out of stone and he indeed looks as craggy and weathered as the New Mexican landscape of the film. The result of his work in this role as the visual embodiment of a man of the west battling crippling depression is all the more jarring because of our memory of Elliot’s previous roles as a taciturn cowboy/soldier whose indomitability is assured. According to Mr. Scott, this film is to be released in the spring of 2004. It is not inconceivable that if this film is marketed correctly and receives favorable distribution it could become one of the early favorites in the 2004 Academy Awards race.

THE COOLER, an offbeat movie set in Las Vegas (is there any other kind of film set in Las Vegas) about Bernie Lootz (a glum William H. Macy) an unlucky guy in a town where luck is everything. Lootz works for his casino-owner friend Shelley Kaplow (a well-cast Alec Baldwin) paying off his considerable debt to Shelley who covered his debts and saved his life years early. Lootz’ main contribution to the casino is working as a “cooler” a guy whose very presence brings bad luck. Lootz is just days away from repaying his debt when he falls for Natalie (Maria Bello) a cocktail waitress who reciprocates his affection. The result of this, as you may have guessed by now, is that Lootz’ luck changes. Naturally, this proves problematic to Baldwin’s character who can afford neither to lose Macy’s character nor have his luck change. With lesser actors, this film could have seemed ridiculous and over-written. Luckily, the film had the services of Macy, and such yeoman character actors like Paul Sorvino and Ron Livingston. Alec Baldwin’s performance is not quite Oscar worthy as some of the festival buzz indicated. It was, however, one of his strongest and most enjoyable performances in many a year.

In the late 1960’s, Professor Jean Morrison was a professor and Kafka-obsessed intellectual. His striking looks and classroom theatrics (he typically cried while reading Joyce) as well as his nightmares of military service in Korea made him seem like some kind of sixties generation version of a Joseph Conrad character. He was also an erratic husband and father of six. All of this changed when his lover’s husband brained him in the back of the head. This event changed the romantic madman into a nightmarish madman who had nothing but violence and squalor to offer his family. THE MORRISON PROJECT is Amy Williams’ attempt to exorcise the demons of her family tragedy and understand the pain and violence, which have marked her siblings to this day. Ms. Williams has the natural gifts of a storyteller and indeed the opening of the film and narration are as beautiful and polished as any high-end PBS documentary. Nonetheless, Ms. Williams’ technical gifts as a filmmaker aren’t yet evolved, and the film contains too many amateurish defects. In spite of this, it is without a doubt one of the most haunting tales of an American family in recent times. Director/Screenwriter Allison Bagnall’s PIGGIE tells the tale of Fannie (the outstanding Savannah Haske) who has matured into a young woman lacking a mother and with only slight inspiration from her father on the ancestral farm in upstate New York. With a pet pig and an aged woman as her most consistent “friends.” Fannie comments on her life by composing, appropriately enough, a series of country and western ballads. These songs have the effect of conjuring up a boyfriend fantasy in the guise of Nile (Dean Wareham of the bands Galaxie 500 and Luna). Fannie of course, sets her sights on Nile who is fairly clear about his lack of interest in her. The narrative picks up momentum at this point and the resulting pursuit is at times funny, weird and painful. PIGGIE is an uneven effort and the script by Ms. Bagnall the author generally outpaces the directorial skill and deftness of Ms. Bagnall the director.

MARVIN ANDERSON’S NIGHTMARE: STORIES OF THE INNOCENT PROJECT, an oddball festival entry was an hour-long offering from Court TV (apparently the first entry in an upcoming series on this cable channel) and told the unbelievable story of Marvin Anderson who was wrongly convicted of, among other charges, two counts of rape in 1982 and sentenced to 210 ten years in the Virginia penitentiary. Needless to say, the evidence that convicted him was impossibly thin and Anderson and Anderson’s lawyer’s attempts to free him from prison were thwarted at every turn by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Only with the advent of DNA technology did Anderson manage to overturn his conviction. This work borrows heavily from THE THIN BLUE LINE stylistically and even the music seems to be cribbed from Philip Glass’ memorable film score. Nonetheless, the work is riveting and the filmmakers tell the story in such a way that Anderson’s eventual exoneration, although a foregone conclusion, remains a genuine relief to the audience.

The Shorts:

Eva Saks’ crowd-pleasing double bill Colorforms (concerning a messy little girl and her uptight parents) and Confection (about a little girl who wants to be a ballerina and learns the real world meaning of grace) had a polish and sophistication that connected to some of the work of Old Hollywood masters such as Michael Powell and Blake Edwards. Both shorts are well cast with interesting faces and Ms. Saks makes the most of the striking locales of New York. More than anything else the films are hopeful valentines of a post-9/11 Manhattan that is tolerant and humane.

Combing elements of a Pinter play, an Aaron Spelling opus, and the myth of Adam and Eve, COYOTE BEACH packed in a lot in just over 20 minutes. The film, shot on nearby Long Island beaches was an examination by director Markus Griesshammer of the contemporary dynamics of the battle of the sexes. The film is a two-person drama concerning a couple whose dynamic is suddenly out of balance when the girlfriend, an actor, gets a starring role in a Sean Connery vehicle. The balance of power shifts abruptly back and forth through the short and remains unresolved at the end. Director Griesshammer makes the most of his attractive cast, the beautiful setting and is able to push the narrative in several different directions seamlessly in the short amount of time he has to build tension, develop characters and bring his narrative to a satisfying (if inconclusive) conclusion.

The film which had the best title of the festival was A NINJA PAYS HALF MY RENT, a funny 5 minute haiku of a film which exploited the twenty something anxiety about the more sinister aspects of having a roommate. A young man shares his apartment with a ninja who stealthily passes him the syrup when he is not looking, stalks silently out of the bathroom with a towel around his waist and has graceful fights with a rival ninja who quietly attacks the apartment.

Other noteworthy shorts were the delightfully raunchy PROM NIGHT which makes hay with the adolescent fear and insecurity of their own lack of sexual experience and with the horror and denial of their parents’ sexuality. A great ribald piece that is all the more refreshing in its setting in New Jersey. OUT OF TIME played heavily upon the metaphysics and built-in-anxiety of living in an apartment in Manhattan and was an effective exercise in combining humor and genuine horror. Director Amy Lippman’s HOUSE HUNTING (based on a Michael Chabon short story) was a strong entry in the festival due to its quirky narrative and use of fresh, but recognizable performers such as Paul Rudd and Zooey Deschanel. HAUTE VOLTAGE was an experimental short that seemed like a 2004 trailer for the silent classic CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. Director Liz Hinlein’s images and alternating use of baroque and 21st century music underlined what seemed to be the point of the film, which was that there is no past and no future in fashion, only the present.

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