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A New York State of Mind at Woodstock FF

 

 

Woodstock, New York, nestled in the majestic Catskill Mountains about 100 miles of New York, has a unique perspective on “a New York state of mind”. Close enough to New York City to its south to be influenced by its multi-culturalism and razor-sharp analysis of everything from fashion to publishing to politics to Wall Street, it has also been a haven for ex-pat New Yorkers who burned out from the impossibly fast pace of the city and found an inspiring solace in the bucolic natural setting and the famed laid-back life that Woodstock almost put on the map.

 

So, it is not surprising that many of the films on tap at this year’s Woodstock Film Festival reflect the different strains of the “New York state of mind”, everything from urban grit to suburban malaise to country splendor. The often “mean streets” are the setting for several films here, including A NY THING, a semi-autobiographical dramedy by Paris-born Olivier Lecot, about a charming Frenchman who comes to New York for three days looking for love and connection and discovering that American women are not nearly as romantic as they are portrayed in the movies. Jonathan Zaccai brings a wary charm to the proceeding, with a winning cast of women playing opposite him, including indie darling Greta Gerwig (GREENBERG). A similar theme of the desire for romantic connection and human connection is played out in HELLO LONESOME, written and directed by Adam Reid, a multi-story tome about four people who are desperate to find their soul mates and a sense of community in the demanding environment of the contemporary urban landscape. In the Godard-esque THE IMPERIALISTS ARE STILL ALIVE!, written and directed by Zeina Durra, a New York City filled with immigrants and ex-pats from Europe, Latin America and the Middle East brings a unique perspective to New York as the world’s most international city. Set in the privileged world of trust fund babies, high fashion models and trendy downtown artists, the film both embraces and mocks the privileged lifestyle of its protagonists, while also exploring their underlying anxiety as their beloved New York is forever changed by the scars of 9-11 and a growing distrust of the “foreign”. 

 

 

Keanu Reeves in HENRY'S CRIME 

The mood is far more ominous in the film THE TESTED, which once again uses the gritty urban chiaroscuro landscape of New York as a palpable character. The film, written and directed by Russell Costanzo, is a powerful document of life on the street and how people struggle to get by. Following the lives of three people all affected by one tragedy, the film is both brutal and tender in its unraveling of the private tragedies of its young protagonists, offering an illusive ray of hope that the truth may set them free. Also challenging, but with a mordant satirical edge that defines black comedy, BITTER FEAST, by writer/director Joe Maggio, delves into the celebrity-obsessed culture that is at the heart of the great metropolis and unravels a bitter pill of a story that teeters between satire and horror. James LeGros plays a renowned chef whose celebrity cooking show is sinking fast and his newly opened restaurant has just received a nasty review from the city’s number one food critic. His reputation ruined, he seeks retribution by kidnapping the critic and tortures him both physically and psychologically in a disturbing protracted battle of wills. The echo of the economic recession and how it has affected New York’s cultural life is but one of the tasty tidbits on display in this horrific revenge fantasy. Economic angst mixes with absurdist comedy in HENRY'S CRIME, a comic caper film set in the rust belt of Buffalo, New York, which brings together pranksters Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga and James Caan in a cranky comedy where robbing a bank and performing a Chekov play mix cinematic rhythms and the boundaries of high and low art. Reeves, who attended the sold-out screening of the film on Saturday afternoon, was the major star attraction of the weekend and received a Career Achievement Award later that evening for his body of work over (hard to believe) more than 25 years.

 

 

 WHITE IRISH DRINKERS (John Gray, USA)

The brutality is also there in the 1970s-set WHITE IRISH DRINKERS by writer/director John Gray. Set in the Irish working class community of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the film harkens back to earlier Brooklyn stories such as SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, as it knowingly recreates the liquor-ridden desperation of the working poor and the aspirations of its young people to get out from underneath. The film posits two different directions to do so, as illustrated by two very different brothers….one, a petty thief looking to make a big score and the other, a budding artist who meets a girl who allows him to see that his more sensitive soul is his ticket out. Featuring a top notch script and great acting by an ensemble cast that includes such veterans as Stephen Lang, Karen Allen and Peter Riegert, and astonishing debuts from Nick Thurston and Geoff Wigdor, the film skillfully turns tragedy into triumph by being honest to the aspirations and limitations of his characters.

 

Urban angst is not limited to the urban environment. As the New York sensibility and former New Yorkers themselves have spread to the suburbs and beyond, the unique anxiety and neurosis that often defines New Yorkers now has taken up residence outside the city. In the drama 3 BACKYARDS, primo indie director Eric Mendelsohn brings mastery and mystery to this tale of residents of a squeaky-clean residents who keep secrets from another and themselves. A strong cast, including Edie Falco (THE SOPRANOS) and Elias Koteas, and a sharp script define this nuanced meditation on suburban angst. In the film HELENA FROM THE WEDDING, the longings and betrayals of a group of New York married friends meeting up in a country cabin on New Year’s Eve, features a terrific ensemble cast and a sharp script by writer/director Joseph Infantolino. The menace is more supernatural in STAKELAND, a skillful vampire saga that posits the iea that following an economic and political disaster, a new breed of terror (one that feeds on blood) has swept across what is left of New York State’s abandoned cities and towns. As skillfully told by director Jim Mickie and set in the Hudson Valley area north of New York City, this is a powerful morality tale that mixes reality and fantasy that both seem palpable and very real. Also shot locally is ROCKSTEADY, a man-with-a-dream tale about a talented young  dirt-track auto driver who longs to turn his hobby into his life’s work and the economic realities of his family’s financial meltdown that prevent him from realizing his passion. The film features pulsating race sequences that contrast with moments of great tenderness and compassion, all set to a reggae score by Steel Pulse.

 

 

 Candy Darling and Andy Warhol

Several of the documentaries being showcased here also count New York as their backdrop, including ARIAS WITH A TWIST, a portrait of downtown gender artist Joey Arias; BEAUTIFUL DARLING: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANDY WARHOL SUPERSTAR CANDY DARLING, a tender and insightful look into the diva drag queen of Andy Warhol legend; CLIENT 9, an eye-opening expose of the rise and fall of New York governor Elliot Spitzer, who resigned when allegations of his misuse of government funds to buy sex became one of the scandals of the new century; THE KIDS GROW UP, a melancholy and loving look at the childhood of his daughter as told through the loving eyes of her “camcorder dad”, celebrated documentarian Doug Block; and MARWENCOL, a highly idiosyncratic look at a local Kingston, New York resident whose traumatic brain injury from a vicious beating transformed him into a passionate “outsider artist” with his own unique philosophy of life and art. Individuals being individuals…..now that is the New York spirit in a nutshell and the best representation of what is meant by a “New York state of mind”.

 

Sandy Mandelberger, Festival Dailies Editor

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