Film Festivals


By • Jul 30th, 2004 •

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The Stony Brook Film Festival at Stony Brook University on the North Shore of Long Island has carved itself a unique place as a kind of film festival for the people on Long Island. For a mere $45.00 you can get a festival pass admitting the holder to all screenings (over 20 features this year). For $15.00 more you can get a ticket to the Closing Night Awards event. In addition to this, the films typically start after 7pm during the week and late in the afternoon on the weekends which gives working people (like myself) a chance to experience a first class film festival very inexpensively and without taking off large blocks of time from work.

In addition, the festival is run beautifully by Alan Inkles and Julie Greene and their professional and courteous staff of (mostly) students. Indeed, the festival’s ‘green room’ had the most pleasing service, good-humored staff and food and drink that one could expect (most by the University’s catering staff).

Inkles was especially good at running the Question and Answer portions of the festival which saw the producers/actors/directors field questions from the audience after the film was screened. He managed to keep these sessions at a good, length, prolonging the discussions when needed and wrapping them up before they became repetitious or overlong. More than once the filmmakers hung around so that Inkles, journalists, filmmakers and fans could continue socializing and debating at Stony Brook’s University Club, a kind of combination Junior Rat Pack lounge and smoky Euro-cafe (the nights I was there the plasma television was showing BLOW UP). The other mainstay of late night festival diehards was the Curry Club in nearby Setauket, which served anti-Atkins fare several nights of the festival well past the witching hour. Again, all of this was done by Inkles with good humor and no apparent wear and tear during the 10 days of the festival.

This year’s festival had an impressive array of movies. Scoring OPEN WATER, and GARDEN STATE and the dark horse DANNY DECKCHAIR before or just after their opening in Manhattan. Among the festival highlights for 2004 were the following.



The ‘we didn’t know he had it in him’ award goes to Zach Braff (one of TV’s Scrubs) for this ambitious mediation on the great state of New Jersey. This film qualified as the hottest ticket by far and was easily the most buzzed about film in the festival due to an inordinate amount of publicity it was getting in the NY and national press. Unfortunately, Braff’s reach exceeds his grasp here as the film’s tone lurches from comedy to pathos without any real grace or aplomb. The acting is also wildly uneven with Braff giving an uncharasmatic performance and Natalie Portman testing the annoyance level of the audience with each line reading. Braff does have a nice eye for composition, however, and puts together some striking images. He also gets some good lived in performance by a diverse group of supporting actors such as Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm and Jane Smart.


Not the best film of the festival, but by far the most interesting and talked-about, OPEN WATER functions as possibly the most nightmarish home movie ever made. Shot on the cheap, telling the story of a kind of stressed out, ordinarily attractive couple on vacation in some non-specific Caribbean locale, OPEN WATER is reportedly based on the true story of a couple who were accidentally left behind on a chaperoned diving trip. The film has much going against it: Poor acting, amateurish camera work and film quality (by accident, the early part of the film has the tacky sheen and hokey set up of a porn film), and an overlong running time (even at 79 minutes). Despite these undeniable drawbacks, there is an unbeatable premise: It is a shark film with real sharks. The filmmakers manage to use this one advantage expertly through the whole film, which is the only thing that holds it together. The film also benefits from one of the most eerie endings in recent mainstream film as well as an even more eerily witty coda.


The story of an Australian who takes to the sky in a deckchair fastened with helium balloons to escape his unappreciated girlfriend, unsatisfying job and generally unhappy existence only to find himself transported to a community several hundred miles away to begin a better life. This charming tale pulled off the rare feat of being not only the most crowd pleasing film of the festival, but also the best. An Australian twist on any number of classic Hollywood fables such as IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN and especially THE WIZARD OF OZ; DANNY DECKCHAIR benefits from an offbeat but charismatic leading performance by that secret weapon of an actor, Rhys Ifans. Indeed, Ifans makes a spectacular transformation from scruffy Chris Elliot look-alike to a handsome, assured movie star, which literally elicited gasps from the audience. Miranda Otto (from THE LORD OF THE RINGS series) is equally charming in the role of traffic cop who recognizes the handsome prince charming within Ifans’ scruffy exterior. A perfect film to close the festival on.

LOVE TRAP (Feestje)

A film from the Netherlands, which was too ribald and irreverent to completely win the Stony Brook crowd over (although the stars of the film Antonie Kamerling and Beau van Erven Dorens charmed the crowd at the Q and A afterward). LOVE TRAP explored ideas about commitment and sexual maturity that mainstream American films such as SINGLES and BARCELONA have explored recently. Thijs’ (Kamerling) best friend Ben (Dorens) has broken the friend’s commitment to not commit and is getting married. Thijs manages to become ensnared in the mechanism of this wedding (and his own dreams and ambitions). It is giving nothing away to say that Thijs ends up revising his own rules about love and commitment.

This solid, lightweight entertainment’s real find is the on and off-screen chemistry between the two male leads. If they work together on a regular basis they might develop into a kind of Euro Hope and Crosby.


Winner of the Audience Choice Award, HER MAJESTY tells the charming tale of a young girl (Elizabeth Wakefield) who is about to realize her dream of meeting Queen Elizabeth, who is coming to her small town in 1953 New Zealand. Naturally, as the arrival of the Queen approaches, the young girl has a conflict come between her and her friend, a Maori woman with whom she develops a unique relationship. This film clearly moved the audience and, if properly marketed, may be the kind of exotic family film that captures a wider audience than it intended (a la WHALE RIDER).


The opening night film and a real oddity. A film about swimming and a swimmer. But, not a swimmer who was an Olympic champion and not a story about winning or losing a big competition. SWIMMING UPSTREAM is the true story of a world class Australian swimmer, Tony Fingleton (played by Australian soap star Jesse Spencer) who managed to turn a genuinely horrible childhood into athletic fame and an Ivy League education. The film benefited immensely by the prescience of the great Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis as Singleton’s abusive father and sympathetic mother. Director Russell Mulcahy manages to film a visually uninteresting sport and make it dynamic, and he also manages to get excellent performances out of the young performers, especially Jesse Spencer who more than holds his own with the heavyweights Rush and Davis.


An account of the Battle of the Bulge, SAINTS AND SOLDIERS references any number of Hollywood classics such as THE BIG RED ONE, and, of course, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. The film (made for less than 1 million according to the filmmakers present at the event) manages to give a matter of fact quality to war that shows the influence of PRIVATE RYAN. Most impressively, director Ryan Little manages to get excellent performances out of a fresh-faced cast. Particularly noteworthy is Peter Holden who, in an interesting bit of trivia, plays a character based upon his grandfather who fought in the actual Battle of the Bulge.

THE SHORTS (of which yours truly was a juror)

The great Eva Saks had two very well received Shorts in this year’s festival. COLORFORMS and DATE both very different in tone but both clearly her handiwork. COLORFORMS is the story of a messy little girl who finds herself with the help of her grandfather and an ethnic holiday called ‘Pagwa.’ DATE is a kind of meditation on 9/11 and the emotional effect it has had on the perspective and behavior of Manhattanites. Both films had the impact and economy of one of the better O. Henry short stories. Academy Award winning director Chris Shamina’s 27 minute DAY OF INDEPENDENCE about how baseball connected to the thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry in US internment camps in World War II won the jury award and managed to show influences of Hawks and Renoir. Rob Meltzer’s I AM STAMOS (starring the great John Stamos as himself) referenced the existential setup of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH in only 18 minutes as an unsuccessful actor gets to live out his existence as an actor as ‘John Stamos.’ STAMOS was a great witty tonic managing to stand out in the shorts program which was bereft of purely humorous offerings.

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