Having a difficult time making sense of the dozens of films and events at the Hamptons International Film Festival? While the big films, such as the festival opener “Truth,” sell themselves, the quieter ones can be harder to parse. Star staffers took a look at a sampling; here are some reviews to sort out a few deserving films that might be overlooked in the rush to get the splashier tickets.
East Hampton, Saturday, 1:30 p.m.; Sag Harbor, Monday, 11 a.m.
“The Champions” is no ordinary story about a boy and his dog. In this debut documentary from Darcy Dennett, the boy is Michael Vick, a star professional football player, and the dogs are the pit bull terriers that Mr. Vick trained to fight, until he was busted in 2007 for running an illegal dogfighting operation.
Ms. Dennett, whose film is the win- ner of the 2015 Zelda Penzel “Giving Voice to the Voiceless” Award in the festival’s Compassion, Justice, and Animal Rights program, documents not one but three powerful stories.
The film follows the recovery and rehabilitation of the dogs themselves, including many that were able to lead lives as close to normal as can be hoped for, following their adoption by loving families. Parallel to the healing storyline is a tale of advocacy, in which breed dis- crimination threatens the lives of thousands of pit bulls nationwide that languish in shelters for years at a time or are euthanized simply because they are pit bulls. And then there’s the matter of Mr. Vick himself, the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback who served 18 months in prison, returned to the N.F.L. to play for the Philadelphia Eagles, picked up new endorsements, and claimed to have repaid his debt to society, but who refused to speak with a journalist who had adopted one of the victimized dogs.
“The Champions” features interviews with the dogs’ caretakers, animal welfare experts, and others with direct insight into Mr. Vick’s conspiracy conviction related to dog-fighting. And while the dogs can’t speak for themselves, in many cases Ms. Dennett is able to capture what certainly looks like absolute joy on their faces while being filmed in their new homes.
The film is certain to evoke feelings, whether it’s frustration with breed discrimination or Mr. Vick’s rebound to athletic stardom or pride inspired by the kind people who helped the dogs recover. Ms. Dennett’s gentle but direct and detailed storytelling makes for an inspirational narrative filled with hope, not just for the former fight dogs but also for the breed at large. — CHRISTINE SAMPSON
“Embrace of the Serpent”
East Hampton, Saturday 8 p.m., and Sunday 3:15 p.m.
Like the 1986 film “The Mission” and the 1985 historical novel “Black Robe,” “Embrace of the Serpent,” Colombia’s submission for the Academy Awards and a Hamptons International Film Festival competition film, starkly presents the horror that colonialism vis- ited upon indigenous people. Here, the setting is the Amazonian region of South America during the rubber boom of the early 20th century, as well as the brief second boom brought on by World War II. Inspired by the experi- ences of the German explorer and eth- nologist Theodor Koch Grunberg and the American biologist Richard Evans Schultes, as described in their diaries, “Embrace of the Serpent” is a sad yet powerful illustration of Europeans’ ca- pacity for arrogance and cruelty.
Karamakate, a shaman carrying the traditions, mythology, and knowledge of his people, has retreated deep into the rainforest following the near-eradication of his tribe. Forty years apart, he experiences lengthy, close, and combative relationships with two German scientists, both in search of a rare and sacred plant.
Their common humanity notwith- standing, the shaman and the explorers could not be more foreign to one another. The former owns virtually nothing but is in complete harmony with his jungle home and in full possession of the wisdom to maintain nature’s balance. The latter, encumbered by material goods, hail from an industrial, conquering civilization in the act of feeding its insatiable thirst for power and expansion.
Each a symbol of his culture, their conflicts mirror the clashing of civilizations occurring around them. The rubber barons have murdered or enslaved the indigenous population, while Christian missionaries, self-appointed saviors of the natives, stamp out their language, wisdom, and culture and impose their own, by force as necessary.
In this, his third film, the director Ciro Guerra has opted for black-and-white cinematography. In the colorless landscape that remains, it is as though the lushness of the vast rainforest has been drained of all life and vibrancy, a parallel to the shattered lives of its subjugated inhabitants. The river, too, is often forebodingly threatening as it snakes through the gloomy topography.
With “Embrace of the Serpent,” Mr. Guerra has resurrected an ancient civilization, albeit one in the midst of violent destruction. — CHRISTOPHER WALSH
East Hampton, today, 4 p.m.; Southampton, Saturday, 12:15 p.m.
The plot of “Fell,” the first feature by the Australian filmmaker Kasimir Burgess, can be reduced to a sentence. A girl is accidentally run over by a truck, the driver leaves the scene, and the father sets out to hunt down his daughter’s killer. Which is like saying “Ulysses” is about a guy who spends a day walking around Dublin.
Most of the story takes place in Australia’s Victorian Alps, a region of extraordinary beauty and heedless despoliation. Within the first eight minutes, we encounter Chris and his daughter enjoying an idyll in the woods, and a nearby logging site, where chainsaws and heavy machinery are clear-cutting ancient trees.
After Chris’s daughter is killed by a logging truck, the film follows his gradual shedding of the trappings of his urban life for the existence of a mountain man, living in a cabin in the woods and joining the same logging crew as the girl’s killer.
While Chris settles into the new job, the killer, Luke, is seen recording a loving message for his own daughter from a prison cell. When he tries to rejoin the loggers, halfway through the film, it is clear that he is not warmly welcomed, but only after he screams “I’ve done my time!” does Chris realize Luke is the man he’s seeking.
During the second half of the film, Chris not only works with Luke, he also shadows him, and his stealthy observation of Luke’s every move ratchets up the suspense to an almost unbearable level.
Dramatic shifts from silence to noise, from stillness to motion, from long shot to close-up, from the tense to the idyllic, are underpinned by Chris’s silence and his gradual transformation into the man he set out to hunt. At the same time, his prey is revealed to be more complicated than he first seemed. Chris’s transformation brings to mind “Heart of Darkness,” for it is as much a psychological journey as a physical one.
Matt Nable as Chris and Daniel Henshall as Luke give compelling, nuancedperformances as haunted men in a story told more by image and expression than by words. The visual and sound editing and the breathtaking cinematography capture the stark beauty of the landscape and the violent means by which it — and the lives of men — can be changed forever. — MARK SEGAL
“The Great Alone”
East Hampton, Saturday, 2:15 p.m., and Sunday, 10:30 a.m.
“More people have summated Mount Everest than have successfully completed the Iditarod.”
So intones the voiceover near the beginning of “The Great Alone” — or would have, if there had been a voiceover, which, mercifully, there wasn’t through the entire documentary, but here rather a single stark sentence in black type against a vast, and I mean vast, field of windswept Alaskan wastes. Far in the distance, into the all-encompassing whiteness, our hero, Lance Mackey, and his team of sled dogs gradually disappear. You wouldn’t be surprised if you never heard from him again.
It’s just one of a number of stunning images in Greg Kohs’s film, which follows Mr. Mackey’s 2013 attempt at his 12th Iditarod, the “last great race,” traversing 1,049 miles from Anchorage to Nome. We come to learn that he has not only won previously, but did so four times in a row starting in 2007, a feat almost certain to go unmatched.
So this is a comeback story. As is Mr. Mackey’s entire life, for that matter — back from alcohol and drug abuse, back from pointless youthful rebellion, back from wasting time and money, back from a softball-size tumor in his throat that nearly killed him. (About that last setback: He’s from hard-bitten stock, and sure enough midrace we see him tear the filter off a butt and light up.)
But it is also a bitterness-turned-to-emulation tale of a father and a son, his dad being Dick Mackey, winner of the 1978 Iditarod in dramatic, one-second ahead fashion, his 8-year-old son looking on as he collapses at the finish line, his eyes betraying the same haunted stare his son’s would before too long, as if he’d beheld eternity.
Then again, no, it was merely frozen and godforsaken terrain seemingly without end, dotted with the occasional village little more than a shantytown. What a travelogue. - BAYLIS GREENE
East Hampton, tomorrow, 12:15 p.m.; Southampton, Sunday, 3 p.m.
When Albert Maysles turns his trained documentarian’s eye toward the people aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder long-distance train, he stitches together scenes that take us, like railway stops along the way, into a landscape that is, perhaps, the universal subject matter: people and their lives, and the things that change them.
Outside, as the train makes its three day trip between Seattle and Chicago, are the snow-covered mountains, the plains, the oil fields, the lights of one metropolitan area after another as the train pulls into its next stop. Inside, through a series of quiet observations and conversations along with comments made directly to the camera, a wide range of human experiences are revealed.
While understanding what’s going on in some of the conversations and exchanges is not always easy, repeated visits to a handful of riders help us connect and begin to see and care about them — the tough, hopeful, sweet, battered, and very real people, each of whom has a story worth telling.
The repeated shots of a sleeper car hallway, the rhythmic sound of the train on the tracks, interspersed announcements by conductors over the train’s public address system — all of these take the viewer into the confined, anonymous-yet-intimate feel of the train, with its unique opportunities for reflection and connection.
While those looking for more, some kind of upshot or denouement, may feel unsatisfied by this film, viewers who settle in, like riders making their private-yet-public worlds in the space of two seats on the Amtrak train, will be quite moved by its insights into its subjects. — JOANNE PILGRIM
East Hampton, tomorrow, 2 p.m. and Saturday, 7 p.m.
“Missing People” is a dark and moving documentary that plays with viewers’ expectations. The subject of this festival competition film is Martina Batan and her search, in middle age, forclosure on a tragic incident in her young life, the murder of her 14-year-old brother in 1978.
Shot in both New York City and New Orleans, the film follows both Ms. Batan’s journey of discovery and the story of the Ferdinand family, who have lost one of their relatives to a premature death, and, in Hurricane Katrina, most of their possessions.
The link between them is Ms. Batan’s obsessive collection of artworks by Roy Ferdinand, a self-taught New Orleans artist whose subject matter is based on violent crimes reported in the city. She meets with his family, hoping to learn more about him, while hiring a private detective to research her brother’s killing.
Ferdinand’s family is welcoming but cautious, not sure of Ms. Batan’s motives. But over time and several visits she earns their trust and affection. At the same time, her own story, including her successful career as a gallery director, comes out.
Although there is closure in the film, it comes as its own tragedy, raising the question of whether unraveling the mysteries of the past is worth the cost.
When should memories, and the totemistic worship of objects of memorabilia, be put aside? — JENNIFER LANDES
“Take Me to the River”
East Hampton, tomorrow, 1:45 p.m. and Saturday, 6 p.m.
“In the end . . . the real story isn’t on the screen, it’s unfolding inside of the heads of everyone in the audience,” Matt Sobel, the director of “Take Me to the River,” said in an online Q & A with the Hamptons International Film Festival. His quiet and unsettling feature-film debut, one of the competition films, raises more questions than it answers, and those questions are likely to keep rolling around in your brain for days.
Ryder, a gay teenager from California, is in Nebraska for a big maternal family reunion, and no, his mother has not told the family that he is gay, urging him not to make an issue of his sexuality on their brief visit with her relatives. It’s not about you, his parents tell him. From that first lie-by-omission to just about everything that happens afterward, that couldn’t be more true. Even when Ryder is at the center of the drama, it’s not really about him.
There is much that sets him apart from his conservative relatives who have never been far from the old family farm, and it’s clear they don’t know what to make of him. He’s an outcast amongthem, even though they don’t know the central truth of his young life. The only one who seeks him out is his 9-year-old cousin Molly, who seems far more sure of herself than he does, but may be too young to understand her own actions. A bizarre but unexplained incident between them puts Ryder at the center of a drama neither he nor the audience can quite comprehend, and tangles him in a psychological web with his mother’smercurial brother.
What happened? Was someone hurt? Who was responsible? Did anything happen at all? Will there be retribution or reconciliation, and if so, for what? The audience, just like Ryder, his parents, and most everyone else in the film, is left guessing.
That unknown is emblematic of all the unspoken truths in “Take Me to the River,” and brings with it an uncomfortable sense of foreboding that permeates the film. The message, perhaps, is that truth cannot exist in any real way without trust.
The cast strikes just the right tone in this ambiguous tale. Logan Miller as Ryder and Ursula Parker as Molly are spot on, and Josh Hamilton brings a disturbing duality to his role as the uncle. — CARISSA KATZ
“When I Live My Life Over Again"
Guild Hall, tomorrow, 1 p.m.; Sag Harbor, Saturday, 5 p.m.
In “When I Live My Life Over Again,” Christopher Walken plays an aging singer just famous enough and wealthy enough to live full time in what he terms “the slums of the Hamptons‚“ or what locals might call up in the woods.
As his daughter Jude drives east from New York City, flashes of Queens, midisland, and then familiar South Fork landmarks come into view. The filmmaker paints with a broad brush, showing East Hampton scenes, then Southampton scenes, and then back to East Hampton again, obviously favoringthis flow of imagery to exact verisimilitude.
Jude, also a singer, played by Amber Heard, is having a mid-career crisis. She leaves the city to sort things out in her father’s house, a move she immediately regrets when the rest of her family presents< itself in all of its disdain. Her stepmother, played by Ann Magnuson, treats her like a servant and Corinne, her sister, is condescending and perfect with a husband and son.
Jude’s pink hair marks her as a misguided rebel. Her affair with a married man, who happens to be her analyst, seems hackneyed but works as a short-hand guide to her troubling choices. Although she pegs her problems to life in the city, it is clear that a new or temporary life in the Hamptons is not going to do her any favors either.
Still, she finds some space to grow and learns some valuable lessons, from her father’s mistakes as well as his successes. Whether she will ultimately profit from them is uncertain, but she does leave his house with a sense of hope and a better understanding of how far her talent could take her if she was just a bit more disciplined and a lot less scared. — JENNIFER LANDES