Cruising the Hamptons Film Festival

I just finished a busy weekend of filmgoing at the Hamptons International Film Festival. This annual Hamptons ritual — which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year— has always struck me as a bit of a superfluous stop on the film-festival circuit.  It overlaps with the higher-profile New York Film Festival, just a hundred miles to the west, and most of its big films are second helpings from more prominent festivals in Toronto, Cannes and elsewhere. Still, the festival always brings in a lot of interesting little films looking for attention (especially foreign ones and documentaries), draws an enthusiastic crowd of non-cineastes to its packed screenings, and is increasingly regarded by the film studios as a good place to generate buzz for their big fall releases. Nearly all the major Oscar nominees from last year were previewed at the Hamptons festival — including Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea and La La Land. Unfortunately, I missed all three and wasted my time seeing The Human Stain instead.

This year I worked a bit for my press pass, moderating Q&A sessions following three of the film screenings: Spielberg, Susan Lacy’s admirably comprehensive HBO documentary on the director;  China Hustle, a well-crafted doc from Jed Rothstein on how American investors are being bilked by fraudulent Chinese companies; and Marshall, Reginald Hudlin’s earnest, if simplistic, account of one of Thurgood Marshall’s early court cases for the NAACP, defending a Connecticut black man accused of raping the white woman he worked for.

A few quick reactions to some other films I caught in between my moderating duties:  I liked The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s monster-in-love movie, starring Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor in a secret government lab, who falls for an amphibious creature being kept under tank and key. Sort of Creature from the Black Lagoon meets La La Land — nervy, wacky, manipulative, but it worked for me.  I Tonya, British director Craig Gillespie’s rambunctious account of the Tonya Harding story, was a little too tricked-up with tongue-in-cheek, faux-reality-TV touches, but it has some white-trash authenticity, and Margot Robbie skates through quite nicely as Tonya. After seeing Darkest Hour, I’d like to call a halt to movie impersonations of Winston Churchill. Following John Lithgow (The Crown) and Brian Cox (Churchill), Gary Oldman’s turn with the cigar just seems redundant, and the material — Churchill’s first weeks as prime minister, when the Nazi march seemed unstoppable — overly familiar. High marks, however, for The Square, a surprise winner of the Palm d’Or at Cannes, Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund’s satiric, episodic, provocative and often poignant film about the director of a contemporary art museum (Claes Bang) and his awkward encounters with the alien world of real life. Some memorable scenes, plus a nifty supporting turn by Elizabeth Moss.

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