Film Festivals


By • Mar 22nd, 2004 •

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The 13th annual Hamptons International Film Festival returned to being primarily entertaining after a somewhat grim lineup of military and/or politically oriented 2004 version (which took place on the eve of the Presidential election). The result is one of the most satisfying and rich festivals in the history of the HIFF. Among the many highlights of this year’s fest are the following:

The Biggies

The Matador

Matador Director Richard Shepard and costumer Catherine Thomas

The Matador concerns an aging hit man named Julian (Pierce Brosnan) who is experiencing a mid-life crisis when he runs into traveling businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) at a bar in Mexico. Brosnan’s hit man, at a low point, is intrigued by Kinnear’s everyman life, and in his neediness, Brosnan’s character forms a quick bond with Kinnear’s average Joe. Kinnear’s character is fascinated and horrified with Julian. Meeting this hit man is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to Danny, and he is flattered that Julian takes him into his confidence. There are many plot contrivances which stretch reality, but the film is grounded by Brosnan’s chemistry with Kinnear (Hope Davis also has a nice, but too short turn as Danny’s wife). Indeed, The Matador is a kind of coming out party for Brosnan the actor whose raffish performance here has the range, humor and warmth that signals an interesting new direction for the man previously known as Bond.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

A famously “unfilmable” novel, Tristram Shandy was the best and most surprising of the festival’s Spotlight films. Structured as a film about the filming of this novel, director Michael Wintertbottom has managed to craft a very innovative adaptation of this 17th century masterpiece (whose first person literary narrator constantly loses track of his own life’s narrative). Holding this enterprise together is the brilliant Steve Coogan whose smooth exterior and bewildered physical presence (he is nearly handsome) suggests an odd combination of Bill Murray and Roger Moore. The main interest in this film is the way that director Winterbottom handles the material: he films the story by not filming it (paralleling the literary approach of Shandy’s author), focusing on the back story of the film’s production (such as Coogan critiquing the young actor who plays Shandy as a boy) and occasionally showing the filming of a passage from the book (a hilarious and horrifying childbirth scene is especially memorable). TS might be a very influential film as it provides a fairly new blueprint in approaching rich literary material and so-called “unfilmable” novels.


Willem Dafoe and Mark Rhodes attempt to move after 5 hour screeening of Until the End of the World

Winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize in Science and Technology, Kardia was one of the most unusual films of the festival (and one of the best publicized). Kardia concerns the mystical bond that a young woman develops as a result of an experimental heart operation she had as a child. Writer/Director Sue Raynard brings out the often-ignored weirdness and black magic quality of common medical procedures. Kardia also had one of the striking images of the festival within its advertising: A delicately positioned, oddly beautiful bloody human heart in the hands of a surgeon. Ms. Raynard is a filmmaker to watch.

Ballets Russes

A documentary chronicling the past and present of one of the most visionary dance troupes of the twentieth century, Ballets Russes concerns the unlikely story of a group of unschooled Russian refugees that evolved into not one, but two of the premier dance troupes in the world. BR takes great pains in retelling the dramas of the turf wars between these two companies, a topic of great cultural and social interest in Europe between World Wars. The film also takes the viewer from the peak of the companies artistic influence (where its work involved such diverse artists as Picasso, Balanchine, Matisse and Stravinsky) to the curious tours of America in the 40’s which introduced many Americans to the artistry of ballet for the first time, to the predictable decline of the companies in the 60’s when egomania, sloppiness and competition caused the ruination of the troupe. Ballets Russes acts as a great primer for the uninitiated in Ballet history, telling an interesting story. Oddly enough, though the film has many a gossipy anecdote, it never stoops to pure backstage gossip. Most of all, the film is a kind of pas for ballet as a remedy for aging. Nearly all of the retired members of Ballet Russes, many well into their 80’s, are in astonishingly good shape.

Bee Season

One of the more disappointing films of the festival, Bee Season concerns a young spelling champion and her family, is based on a popular novel of a few years ago, and comes out at a time when Spelling Bees are gaining an increasingly strong foothold in popular culture. The film centers around an upper middle class family whose patriarch, Saul (Richard Gere) is a theology professor whose intellectual, culinary and musical skills hold the family in a death grip of his own ego. Family dynamics shift when Saul turns his attention away from his golden boy son Aaron (Max Minghella) to his daughter Eliza (a very effective Flora Cross) when her mastery of spelling garners her recognition in local spelling contests. Within this drama is Saul’s wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) who wanders around the film shooting angry looks at Gere. Bee Season has several problems, the most pressing of which is that the audience does not care about the characters (again, with the possible exception of the sweet faced Cross). Gere’s character in particular comes off very badly, as his overbearing narcissism calls too much attention to itself to let the film’s narrative unwind.

The Weather Man

One of the oddest American films of ’05, The Weather Man stars Nicolas Cage as a local Chicago weather guy whose successful career is undermined by the naturally adversarial relationship of his audience who lob soda, food, and other projectiles at him as he attempts to deal with the messy normalcy of his everyday life. His family life is predictably problematic as he attempts to be a good father to his unhappy daughter (Gemmenne De la Pena) and son (Nic Hoult). He also pines for his ex-wife (Hope Davis) and struggles with the impending mortality of his father (Michael Caine) who happens to be a venerable American novelist, whose accomplishments and greatness are like a constant rebuke to Cage’s character. Director Gore Verbinski and screenwriter Steve Conrad have a good sense of the junkiness of American minor league celebrity and a genuine understanding of the awkward gestures people often fall back on in the face of stress. Strangely enough, Cage seems miscast here (Jim Carrey’s loser charisma might have made this a perfect role for him).The Weather Man’s ambitious script is in the end not fully realized, as Director Verbinski and a game, accomplished cast can’t pull together all the ideas, plots and threads to make a completely satisfying work.

Other Films of Note

Norman Jewison discussing his distinguished career with a rapt audience

Muskrat Lovely is Director/Producer Amy Nicholson’s documentary tribute to a couple of the strangest events in the US: The World Championship Muskrat Skinning Competition and Miss Outdoors Beauty Pageant (both part of the National Outdoor Show in Dorchester County, Maryland). Somehow, Ms. Nicholson manages to connect these two very different events in a deft and funny way. Amazingly, she manages this in a brisk 57 minutes. Menage A Trois was one of the more charming offerings in the Hamptons Fest’s NY Women in Film series chronicling the ramification’s of a cell phone and its alienating affect on a couple’s relationships. The Tourist was a short film with much power, and an almost mystical instinct about the weirdness of everyday life. The Fan and the Flower was a typically brilliant work from animator Bill Plympton (with story by Dan O’Shannon and narration by Paul Giamatti). The Seventh Dog was Director Zeina Durra’s view of post 9/11 profiling told with the skill and finesse of Hitchcock. Goodnight Bill was a sweet and tough meditation on starting and re-kindling friendship as mortality is imminent. Cheeks was an intense 12 minute look at the life and upbringing of a young boy dealing with a mother and father who are severely mentally ill. Dimmer was a brilliant meditation on the life of a young blind man growing up in the decay of Buffalo, NY (the sick joke being that there is really nothing worth seeing). At the Quinte Hotel was one of the coolest films of the festival utilizing stop motion and traditional animation to dramatize a reading of the earthy poetry of Canadian poet Al Purdy. The Phantom Limb was an affecting half-hour look at the impact of the death of a nine-year old brother through the imaginative use of home movies, interviews and found footage. Who Gets to Call it Art? was an interesting and insightful film about one of the important figures in twentieth century art, Henry Geldzahler, whose work as a Metropolitan Museum of Art curator and art historian helped define and re-define artistic greatness in the mid to late 20th century. West Bank Story, a re-telling of the conflict in the Middle East filtered through West Side Story was the funniest and most perfect short of the festival.

The parties

French Film Legend Claude Lelouch and Mark Rhodes

As the HIFF goes on during the late weekend in October, the parties become more and more necessary to assist in getting through the festival. This year, the chic French vodka (and festival sponsor) Ciroc helped get many a journalist a second wind on the way to an 11 pm screening (including this journalist and his photog wife). This year though, the parties were especially memorable. None more so than the party held at the Wolffer Estate and Vineyard in honor of the great French Director Claude Lelouch (A Man and a Woman). The great Mr. Lelouch had a film in the World Cinema program at the festival (La Courage D’Aimer). Mr. Lelouch seemed more like a dignified European statesman than a popular director of sleek, well-crafted films for over 40 years. The Wolffer Vineyards are probably the most picturesque in the Hamptons, and its wine (on great display at this gathering), crafted by the great winemaker Roman Roth, almost certainly the best and most consistent in the wine rich east end of Long Island. Other parties of note included a spirited opening night party at Gurney’s Inn in Montauk (a highlight of which was the electric ice cubes in the drinks) attended by Alec Baldwin and allegedly Debra Winger. The strangest party was sponsored by the great dandy Alan Cumming whose party at the Star Room in Wainscott was as civil and warm as a tea party.

Long Island Connections

HIFF Executive Director Denise Kasell Chairman of Board of Directors: Stuart Suna, Kyra Sedgwick, Kevin Bacon

The HIFF has typically been very conscious of its Long Island setting. Never more so than this year with the unofficial mayor of the HIFF, Alec Baldwin, receiving the Golden Starfish Award for career achievement in acting and a very well-attended program of readings at Book Hampton by the late, great Sag Harbor resident, Spalding Gray. This event was the most touching of the fest as it was attended by Gray’s widow, Kathleen Russo (who reported that she is working on a film about her late husband with Steven Soderbergh), Roy Scheider, Steven Gaines and Bob Balaban all of whom read from Gray’s posthumous work Life Interrupted. Another of the festival’s highlights was the “Conversation With…” program which featured Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgewick (Bacon’s father died just a couple of days later). Finally, the great and entertaining Norman Jewison was the subject of a very funny discussion and book signing (This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me) where he spoke at length about the filming of the great and trashy Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.

Long Island Footnote: Until the End of the World

Roy Scheider speaking at tribute to Spalding Gray

The nearly 5 hour “Director’s Cut” of Until the End of the World was screened just before Thanksgiving at one of America’s great film venues, the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY. Present was the great Wim Wenders whose charming ways and thick Germanic accent rendered his every word a punchline. The 1992 film has had a fascinating history whose origin stretched back to the 70’s according to Wenders. There was also at one point “a legendary 24 hour version” according to the Director (although his wry delivery made it hard to tell if he was completely serious). This version of the film is not a genuine improvement on the original theatrical release. The first hour of the film is bolstered by the extra footage, but the final third of the film goes on much too long and is handicapped by huge gaps in logic. The film did remind the audience what an effective and underrated performer Sam Neill has been (and still is), particularly in this performance which is not an attractively written part (William Hurt has the glamorous part here). In an interesting footnote to this footnote, Willem Dafoe was in the audience (for no apparent reason) watching with everyone else, taking intermission breaks and amiably posing for cell phone snapshots with young fanboys. Not surprisingly, during the screening of the film, Wenders did a very Wenders-like thing to do, taking an almost 200 mile round trip to and from Montauk.

Photos by Lynn Rhodes

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