FESTIVALS: Jeri Ryan, Fuckhead, Inept Drug Dealers And Luminous Boxers--The Hamptons International Film Festival Comes Into Its Own
by Mark Rabinowitz
At the comfortable and well-catered opening night party of the 1999 Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF), there was a palpable tension running through the crowd. Well, the male crowd, at least. The mutterings were offered near and far. From the dance floor to the smoking area to the various well-stocked bars. "Is she coming?" "She's supposed to be here!" "Is she here, yet?" The "she" in question was Jeri Ryan, star of TV's "Star Trek: Voyager," on hand to promote "The Last Man," by Harry Ralston. Now let's get this straight: Jeri Ryan is beautiful. But there's more to her than that, oh yes...much more! I can safely say that if she were living 500 years ago, she would be a warrior queen. She has the bearing that suggests that if she asked you to jump naked into a vat of raw eggs, not only would you do it, but you'd be jolly happy with your choice, as well. At the HIFF opening night party, she bravely withstood the hoards of horny, young (and no-so-young) Star Trek fans, chatting with each and every one, with not an impolite word. She's a damn fine actress, too, turning in an convincing and emotionally varied performance in Ralston's debut film.
After starting each festival with a new Executive Director, the 1999 HIFF kicked off with the first repeat chief in Denise Kasell, and if attendees reactions are to be believed, this year's fest is the best to date. Both the films of co-directors of programming Lynda A. Hansen and Linda Blackaby and the organization by, among others, festival manager Shawn Caila Folz were above par, with several of the films bearing discoveries or surprises. The fest ran smoothly, while screenings ran late at times, I have yet to attend a festival where they didn't.
Star power was indeed dramatically on the rise, with appearances by the aforementioned Ms. Ryan, as well as Jason Alexander, Gretchen Mol, Jurors William Hurt, Martha Plimpton, Spalding Gray and Ted Demme, Julianna Margulies ("E.R."), Bill Murray, Gena Rowlands, Brooke Shields, Peter Bogdanovich, Julianne Moore, Janet McTeer ("Tumbleweeds"), Marisa Berenson (Spotlight film, "Women"), Wes Craven, Barry Sonnenfeld, Steve Buscemi and Adrienne Shelley.
A standout of the fest was Alison Maclean's "Jesus' Son," her second feature following seven years after 1992's spellbinding "Crush" (NOT to be confused with the Alicia Silverstone film, "The Crush"). "Jesus' Son" gives us Fuckhead, or "FH," a protagonist with the overwhelming desire to help people, and the uncanny ability to screw it up. Hence the name. Oh, yeah. He's also a drug addict, hopelessly in love with Michelle, another addict. Based on the same-titled collection of short stories by Denis Johnson, the story is told in a series of vignettes in a back-and-forth, non-linear manner, yet is never confusing. Billy Crudup should forever leave behind his reputation as a pretty boy Johnny Depp clone with a stirring, heartfelt performance as FH, and Samantha Morton is luminous as Michelle. The film is brilliantly adapted by Elizabeth Cuthrell, Oren Moverman and David Urrutia, and along with Maclean's striking directing touch, a film is created that is both broadly funny and deeply moving. Denis Leary give his best performance to date as Wayne, a friend of FH's, and brief turns by Dennis Hopper and Holly Hunter also deliver the acting goods.
One of the world premieres of note at this year's HIFF is the world premiere second directorial effort from Jason Alexander ("Seinfeld"). Set in 1955, "Just Looking" is the story of Lenny, an "almost 14" year-old Jewish Bronx boy who, less than a year after his father dies, is sent to live with relatives in the country for the summer. "The country" turns out to be Queens, and his relatives turn out to be his Mother's sister and her new (gasp!) Italian husband. Lenny has decided that his mission for the summer is to witness a man and a woman "doin' it," and the opportunity seems perfect. Unfortunately, when they arrive to pick him up, it turns out that his Aunt is seven months pregnant and unable to have sex for the remainder of her pregnancy, lest she induce premature labor. His hopes dashed, he arrives in Queens to find, as luck (and the movies) would have it, that his neighbor is Hedy, a beautiful former brassiere model. Written by Marshall Karp, the film doesn't cover any new territory (adolescent coming of age, sexy older woman, first love), but what it does, is present these themes in a refreshing and intelligent manner, with three dimensional characters, and quite a few tender and poignant moments. Gretchen Mol is outstanding as Hedy and Ryan Merriman hits all the right notes as Lenny.
One of the most refreshing "discoveries" at the fest was John-Luke Montias, whose Golden Starfish competition film "Bobby G. Can't Swim..." presents a new look at the urban drug dealer with this morality tale set in New York's Hell's Kitchen. Trading drugs for vintage bowling balls is not the way to build a successful dealing career, so it's no surprise that Bobby G. (Montias, in an exceptional performance) lives in a hovel of a room with his prostitute girlfriend. When three yuppies from the 'burbs approach him to set up a coke deal for them, Bobby can't resist the lure of a score that could potentially net him a large chunk of change and get him out of "the life." Unfortunately for Bobby, he was born under an unlucky star, and things spiral downward from there. Also written by triple-threat Montias, the shot-on-a-shoestring "Bobby G." gives us a glimpse of what might be expected if someone were to give Montias a real budget to work with.
Of the other Golden Starfish competition films (in addition to Eric Mendelsohn's upcoming Shooting Gallery release "Judy Berlin" which won the award), Paul Todisco's "Freak Talks About Sex" and Christopher Livingston's "Hit and Runway" were the most talked about, and Hopwood DePree's triple Newport fest-winning film, "The Last Big Attraction" has a winning script and is loaded with charm.
Spotlight film "I'll Take You There," Adrienne Shelly's second film continued to receive excellent buzz following the good notices it received at this year's Telluride fest. Another Spotlight entry, Gavin O'Connor's "Tumbleweeds," also appears to be building on the positive word of mouth that it received at the 1999 Sundance fest, where it was acquired by Fine Line Features. As an example of the rising industry presence at the HIFF, Fine Line and its President Mark Ordesky used the festival as a launching pad for the film's November opening. As part of their presence at the fest, Ordesky and Fine Line hosted an intimate dinner at local restaurant Nick and Toni's, where guests included Variety's Oliver Jones, producer's rep/attorney Stephen Beer, the film's lead Janet McTeer (likely to be heavily touted by Fine Line for an Oscar nomination) and writer/director O'Connor, Fine Line's Marian Koltai-Levine and Jennifer Stott, and New Line's Michael Lynne, among others.
Katya Bankowsky's debut film "Shadow Boxers" deserves special recognition for bringing a subject unknown to many, women's professional boxing, into the light that it deserves as a serious sport. Say what you will about boxing--and to abolitionists the very thought of women boxing is particularly abhorrent-- but it's been a recognized sport for well over a century, and women have been boxing professionally since the 1950's! Bankowsky's film does not pretend to give a complete history of women's boxing, in fact it only briefly touches on the back story of the sport and the vast array of current performers. The film settles on one of the most charismatic athletes I've ever seen: Lucia Rijker, the Dutch-born 5-time world kickboxing champion. That she is an accomplished technical boxer in a sport where far too many of the fights end up being disorganized "cat fights," for lack of a better phrase only begins to describe Rijker. She is intelligent, thoughtful, spiritual and absolutely gorgeous. At a Q & A following the film, Bankowsky let on that Rijker had been offered the role of Trinity in "The Matrix," but had turned it down because her first title fight was only a month away. She is apparently being considered for roles in the sequels. Upon meeting Rijker at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival at a party populated by various film notables, she stood out from the throng with a special radiance reserved for the truly gifted stars.
Other docs that garnered the most praise among festival goers included Scott Morgan's "Hand of Fate," a spiritual profile of six psychics around the world; Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine's "Now & Then: From Frosh to Seniors," a sequel to "Frosh: Nine Months in a Freshman Dorm"; Don McGlynn and Joe Lauro's "Louis Prima: The Wildest," a look at the life of the jazz great and the era in which he lived, and Owsley Brown's "Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles," a look at a lesser-known but equally accomplished side of one of America's most renowned authors.