Monday, June 14, 2010
This year's edition of Frameline, the world's oldest and largest LGBT film festival, is set to kick off this Thursday, June 17 and will run until Pride Day on Sunday, June 27. Venues include the Castro, Roxie and Victoria Theaters in San Francisco as well as the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley. Here are capsule write-ups of 10 films I've previewed on DVD screener (except where noted), followed by a quick overview of several more.
Elvis and Madona (Brazil, dir. Marcelo Laffitte)
Certain to be one of Frameline34's biggest crowd-pleasers is this charmer about the unlikely romance between a dyke pizza deliverygirl and a transvestite beautician. Elvis delivers a pizza on the fateful night Madona's boyfriend, "Tripod" João, robs her of the life savings she's squirreled away for staging a super-spectacular Copacabana drag show. Elvis, who's also an aspiring photographer, is instantly enamored of Madona and offers to shoot her publicity stills. Next thing you know, Elvis is pregnant by Madona and the drug-dealing João is in jail because of an incriminating Elvis-snapped newsphoto. Will Madona make one more porno with João to finance her show? Will Elvis forgive her for it? Will the menacing João kill them both? Not if the girls at the beauty parlor have anything to say about it. Effortlessly fun with flawless lead performances and colorful art direction, I won't be surprised if this takes the festival's audience award.
Plan B (Argentina, dir. Marco Berger)
After getting dumped by his girlfriend, scruffy slacker Bruno plans to get her back by seducing Pablo, her soft-spoken rumored-to-be-bisexual new boyfriend. It's a shaky premise requiring a heap of viewer patience, as the story twists its way through murky motivations and psychosexual machinations. It's two steps forward and one step back, as the guys develop a mutual Man Crush, but then repeatedly retreat to hetero safety. In other words, you'll be tearing your hair out right up until the end, wondering if they're gonna "do it." Sweet, smart and sexy, this film is everything last year's similarly-themed, infantile U.S. indie Humpday was not. One caveat – Plan B's narrative is strangely punctuated by still shots of desolate industrial landscapes. These aren't uninteresting in and of themselves and are perhaps meant to reflect the characters' internal something-or-other. But they're unnecessary and may prove to be the proverbial straw for some exasperated viewers. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival)
Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar (USA, dir. James Rasin)
This lovely and moving portrait is a swell addition to the pantheon of documentaries about those who've been immortally name-checked in Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." In the back room at Max's Kansas City, Candy was everybody's darlin'; the smart, witty and gorgeous blonde transvestite who saw herself as a throwback to a Hollywood studio system that didn't quite translate into the world of New York underground cinema. Rasin's film incorporates a wealth of archival materials, plus interviews with suspects both usual (John Waters, Holly Woodlawn, Paul Morrissey) and unexpected (Fran Lebowitz, Michael Pollard, Julie Newmar) to understand both Darling and the era in which her star burned. The film is equally about one Jeremiah Newton, who as a young man was Darling's closest friend and confidant. After her death from lymphoma at age 29, Newton had the forethought to tape audio interviews with practically everyone who ever knew her, including Tennessee Williams who had starred her in his off-Broadway play "Small Craft Warnings." These interviews, along with letters, diaries (both lovingly voiced by Chloe Sevigny) and other ephemera Newton rescued from Darling's childhood home, occupy a big chunk of the film. Newton also became the keeper of Candy's ashes, and we watch as he places them in the burial plot he'll eventually join her in. Newton is expected to attend the Frameline screening, along with director Rasin and my personal fave Warhol superstar, Holly Woodlawn, herself long overdue for the feature documentary treatment already accorded Jackie, Joe and now Candy.
Dzi Croquettes (Brazil dir. Tatiana Issa, Raphael Alvarez)
For some, they were the first manifestation of a gay movement in Brazil, and to others they were a catalyst for ending that country's military dictatorship. This extraordinary and inspiring documentary recounts Dzi Croquettes' spectacular rise and fall as Brazil's preeminent ragtag-drag troupe of musical performance artists. Initially inspired by San Francisco's own Cockettes, they would surpass them both creatively and professionally – thanks in large part to the contribution of celebrated American dancer/choreographer/singer Lenny Dale. My favorite part of the film details their conquest of Europe, for which they set sail with two tons of costumes and three kilograms of marijuana hidden in rubber balls. Through the efforts of Liza Minelli, they became the toast of Paris with the likes of Jeanne Moreau, Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve flocking to their shows. The directors had a dizzying amount of archival footage to work with, but unfortunately only five of the 13 original members are still around to recount their adventures. That responsibility falls upon several key characters instrumental to the scene, including Nega Wilma, the black woman who ruled the troupe's unruly São Paulo commune with a whip and a water hose. Oddly, Frameline has relegated the lone screening of this marvelous doc to an 11 a.m. Monday time slot. If you can catch it, it'll be worth it. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival)
Uncle Bob (USA, dir. Robert Oppel)
Each year at Frameline there's a biographical documentary I like to file under "who knew?" In 1974, 36 million people watched Robert Opel streak by David Niven during the Oscars telecast. Thirty-six years later, Opel's nephew has made this tribute to his Uncle Bob – photographer, performance artist, theatrical producer (Divine's The Heartbreak of Psoriasis) and gallery owner (S.F.'s Fey-Way Gallery, one of the first in the country to exhibit Robert Mapplethorpe and Tom of Finland). Opel was murdered in his gallery in 1979 under extremely sketchy circumstances. To put it mildly, his nephew has long been obsessed with that event, and we see footage of him at age 13 conducting a mock murder trial. While the doc does a fine job at preserving Opel's legacy, it's equally about the nephew/director grasping for catharsis and proving himself a chip off the block. That becomes both the film's greatest weakness and its greatest strength.
The String (France/Belgium, dir. Medhi Ben Attia)
The last person I expected to find in a Frameline film was 72-year-old Italian screen legend Claudia Cardinale (8 1/2, The Pink Panther). Yet there she is, resplendent as a Tunisian matriarch adjusting to the return from Europe of her arrogant, gay architect son. In the film's two loveliest moments she recalls her rebelliousness as a Catholic girl marrying into an Arab family, and dances with her son's male lover on the son's wedding day to a lesbian family friend he's impregnated so that she and her girlfriend can have a baby. Yes, you read that right. The most interesting element of this film is its portrait of an Arab society that seemingly co-exists with lesbian moms, gay sons who bed their mother's handyman, booze, discos, poppers and rough trade assignations in abandoned buildings. One keeps waiting for a violent, fundamentalist retribution to arrive. Happily, it doesn't. Otherwise, the Tunisian scenery is splendid, the titular metaphor is a bit creaky and the appearance of French-Arab actor Salim Kéchiouche (Criminal Lovers, Grand école) as the son's love interest is most welcome.
The Sea Purple (Italy, dir. Donatella Maiorca)
Purple is the perfect color to describe this outlandish, but highly watchable gender-bending melodrama set in 19th century Sicily. The plot is too convoluted – I mean complex – to recount here (the Frameline capsule does an excellent job), except to say that it involves two young women who are permitted to marry because of a bizarre set of circumstances. The script lays the drama on thick – bound breasts, a baby fetus in a jar, a blackmailed priest, imprisonment, drownings, beatings, death by childbirth, gender illusion – and it's all allegedly "inspired by a true story." Lots of handheld camera and a partial electro-rock score give it a contemporary feel, and the whole affair is handsomely photographed. Gay guys looking to see at least one lesbian feature in the festival should check it out – half-naked Sicilian quarry workers abound.
From Beginning to End (Brazil/Argentina/Spain dir. Aluízio Abranches)
If the Lifetime Channel were to make a weirdly idyllic, R-rated movie about incest between two hunky, privileged Brazilian half-brothers, it might come off something like this. Born six years apart to different fathers, Francisco and Thomas sail through childhood despite concerns that their relationship is "too intimate." Two out of three parents get abruptly bumped off mid-film, leaving the smitten siblings, now young adults, to unashamedly do their thing. "To understand our love they'd need to turn the world upside down," they opine. After much anguish, the younger bro is sent off to Russia (?!) for three years of Olympic training. Wedding rings are exchanged and we're asked to believe they remain chaste throughout the separation. What makes this overwrought affair watchable are the performances of Rafael Cardoso and João Gabriel Vasconcellos, who are smokin' hot and 100% convincing as half-brothers obsessively in love with each other.
The Sisters (Austria, dir. Manfred Hoschek)
Until the definitive Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence documentary comes along, this one will do nicely. Highlights include a peek inside the Sisters' San Francisco archives, plus footage of the Union Square exorcism of Pope John Paul II performed during a 1987 Bay Area papal visit. Sisters from Germany, Uruguay and of course, San Francisco (the fabulous Sister Dana and Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch) get profiled, while the bulk of the film spotlights the group's 2009 thirtieth anniversary celebration in Dolores Park. Even at a short 74 minutes, however, there's still too much extraneous material here. I could have easily done without all the shopping trips for beauty products. The film's post-script apologizes to those Sisters left out of the doc, which would include infamous Sister Boom Boom – a former S.F. mayoral candidate who converted to Islam in 2001.
Baby Jane?(USA dir. Billy Clift)
I prepped for this locally produced drag parody/remake by watching Robert Aldrich's 1962 original for the first time in 20 years. The sublime art direction belies the film's low-budget and the script is dotted with clever send-ups of its source material. Jane warbles "I've Scribbled a Postcard to Daddy," Bette/Joan movie titles get name-checked in the dialogue, and best of all, the part of nosy neighbor Mrs. Bates has been amplified to accommodate the talents of SF drag impresario Heklina. Unfortunately, the overall result is kind of flat, which will likely go unnoticed by an amped-up Frameline audience. Knock back a few pre-screening beers to get in the mood.
I can heartily recommend Frameline34's Opening Night film (The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister), an absorbing British TV biopic about an 18th century landowning lesbian whose lusty, coded diaries were recently decrypted. I was equally taken by the fest's Centerpiece Film (Undertow), a poignant, metaphysically-tinged Sundance prize-winner from Peru about a life-changing love between a married fisherman and a vacationing artist. Both were screened for journalists at the Castro following the festival's press conference a few weeks back. Back in January I caught two of last year's most acclaimed LGBT films at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and was impressed by both. Nineteen-year-old French-Canadian Xavier Dolan wrote, directed and stars in I Killed My Mother, a scabrously funny and ultimately touching mother-son verbal slugfest, which I'm dying to see again at the Castro. The other is Eyes Wide Open, a compelling Israeli film about the clandestine love shared between a married, ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem butcher and the young man he takes on as an apprentice. At that same festival, I was less impressed with Brotherhood, a Danish gay-neo-Nazis-in-love movie that comes off as pure exploitation. Finally, I previewed two more films on DVD screener. Sasha is a fairly contrived My Big Fat Balkan Coming Out about a piano student madly in love with his teacher, which nonetheless makes some interesting observations about generational conflict in immigrant families. Then there's Norway's The Man Who Loved Yngve, a messy, directionless love story about confused teens in the 1980s.
Cross-published on The Evening Class and Twitch.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
The queer cinema aesthetics of Andy Warhol, a bounty of LGBT films from South America and a documentary about yodeling twin lesbians from New Zealand are among the highlights of the 34th edition of Frameline, the oldest and largest festival of its kind in the world. Executive Director K.C. Price and Festival Director Jennifer Morris took turns delivering an overview of this year's fest at a press conference last Tuesday. They've programmed everything that's popped up on my cinephilic gaydar in the past 12 months save for one film, Pietro Marcello's The Mouth of the Wolf, which won the Berlin Film Festival's 2010 Teddy Award for Best Documentary. I suspect it'll now show up at the SF Film Society's New Italian Cinema series this fall. Several films have already screened at other Bay Area festivals, but it's nice they've been brought back for the many people who don't attend any other film festival besides Frameline. What's more, the organization has managed to hold ticket prices steady for yet one more year. The following is my subjective overview – meaning an emphasis on the "G" and light on the "L," "B" and "T" – of 2010's massive line-up.
Frameline34 opens on June 17 with The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, a British TV biopic about an 18th century landowning lesbian whose lusty, coded diaries were only recently decrypted. Director James Kent and actress Maxine Peake are expected to attend. Those who want to learn more about Lister will want to catch the following day's Castro matinee screening of the documentary, The Real Anne Lister. The festival closes on Pride Day, June 27 with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman's Howl, a genre-bending meditation on Allen Ginsberg's revolutionary poem. The film got mixed reviews when it premiered at Sundance, but I wouldn't dream of missing this screening with the celebrated filmmakers (The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet) and star James Franco in attendance. The San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park will serve as venue for both opening and closing night parties.
Perhaps inspired by the adulatory appearance of Joe Dallesandro at 2009's festival, Frameline34 will survey Andy's Warhol's output as pioneer of the queer underground cinema movement. Yale University Senior Lecturer and Programming Director Ronald Gregg will be on hand to deliver a lecture with clips and stills titled Gay Aesthetics and Iconography in the Films of Andy Warhol. Supplementing that event will be two retrospective programs of rarely seen Warhol films, Hustlers and Exhibitionists (featuring Haircut #1 and My Hustler) and Sex, Leather Jackets and Cigarettes (featuring Mario Banana #1, Mario Banana #2 and Vinyl). Topping off the Warhol focus is Centerpiece Documentary Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar, about the actress immortalized in the lyrics of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" ("Candy came from out on the Island. In the backroom she was everybody's darling. But she never lost her head, even when she was giving head.")
There were enough films from Brazil, Argentina and Peru this year to warrant their own festival sidebar, South America's New Queer Cinema. Be sure and check out the fine introductory essay on page 24 of the festival catalog, written by Lucho Ramirez from Cine + Mas. Plan B is a sweetly unnerving Argentine "bro-mance" that goes where infantile U.S. indie Humpday didn't dare. Also from Argentina is The Fish Child, Lucía Puenzo's follow-up to Frameline32's audience award winner XXY. (The Fish Child also screened at Frameline last year in a TBA slot). The theme of intersex adolescents explored in XXY shows up this year in another Argentine film, The Last Summer of La Boyita.
From Brazil you shouldn't miss the fabulous documentary about Dzi Croquettes, a drag troupe inspired by SF's own Cockettes who ultimately surpassed, both creatively and professionally, their American counterparts. Too bad the lone screening of this is at 11 a.m. on a Monday. One Brazilian film I'm anticipating, albeit for the beefcake factor alone, is Aluízio Abranches' From Beginning to End. This story of half-brother incest was a controversial box office smash in Brazil last year. At the Frameline press conference, Jennifer Morris declared Brazil's Elvis and Madona to be one of her "absolute favorites" of the fest. It's about the romance between a dyke pizza deliverer/photographer (Elvis) and a transwoman cabaret performer (Madonna). Rounding out the Brazilian selection is Paulista, which concerns three tenants in a São Paulo apartment building all searching for love. Finally, we have this year's Centerpiece Film from Peru, Undertow. Winner of the audience award for Best World Narrative Feature at this year's Sundance Film Festival, this is a poignant, fanciful tale of a life-changing love between a married fisherman and a vacationing artist.
LGBT films and filmmakers have gained increasing influence in the world of international art cinema, as evidenced at the recent Cannes Film Festival. An openly gay Thai director took the fest's top honor, the Palme d'or (Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), and the fest awarded its first ever Queer Palme to Frameline alum Gregg Araki's Kaboom. At last year's Cannes, a 19-year-old queer French-Canadian named Xavier Dolan won three prizes in the Directors' Fortnight side-bar with his stunning debut film I Killed My Mother. If I had to name one must-see film at this year's Frameline, this scabrously funny and ultimately touching mother-son verbal slugfest would be it. Dolan returned to Cannes this year with another film, Heartbeats, which we'll no doubt be seeing at Frameline35.
François Ozon (8 Women, Swimming Pool) and Sébastien Lifshitz (Come Undone, Wild Side) are two French filmmakers with names familiar to Frameline audiences. I missed Ozon's new film, Hideaway, when it screened as a sneak preview at the recent SF International Film Festival. French pop music star Louis-Ronan Choisy plays a young gay man who takes care of his dead brother's pregnant junkie girlfriend. The original French title was Le Refuge, and I don't quite understand the clunky name-change. Did Le Refuge, The Refuge or simply Refuge not have the right ring? In Lifshitz' Going South, a brooding Yannick Renier (older brother of European art film habitué Jérémie Renier) drives to Spain in his Ford with a pregnant girl, her gay brother and a macho stranger in tow – imagine the possibilities. I'm also excited to see The String, in which a gay architect returns to Tunisia to live with his mother and falls in love with the family handyman. Mom is played by Tunisian-born, Italian screen legend Claudia Cardinale and the handyman by French-Arab actor (Ozons's Criminal Lovers) and former Pierre et Gilles model Salim Kéchiouche. A fourth French film, Out of the Blue, is about a woman who walks out of a 22-year marriage and into the arms of a beautiful antiques dealer.
I can't remember the last time Frameline had so few films from Asia. Fortunately, they've programmed the one I really wanted to see, Lou Ye's Spring Fever. In 2006, Lou was banned from filmmaking for five years by pissed-off Chinese authorities. It was punishment for submitting his film Summer Palace to the Cannes Film Festival without government approval. He circumvented the ban by shooting Spring Fever on the sly and submitting it to Cannes in 2009. The film, in which is woman hires a private detective to follow her husband and his male lover, got decidedly mixed reviews. But to everyone's surprise, the Cannes jury awarded the film its prize for Best Screenplay. The only other Asian narrative feature in Frameline34 is Mateo Guez' Off World, about an adopted Canadian-Filipino who returns to Manila in search of family and reconnects with a gay hustler brother.
Of the remaining World Cinema features, I can strongly recommend Eyes Wide Open, a tale of clandestine love between a married, ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem butcher and the younger man he takes on as an apprentice. I wasn't so crazy about the Danish gay-neo-Nazis-in-love movie, Brotherhood, despite its win as Best Film at the 2009 Rome Film Festival. I'll be writing more about these later. I certainly won't miss the rare revival screening of 1958's Mädchen in Uniform, starring the fabulous Romy Schneider as a schoolgirl with a mad crush on teacher Lilli Palmer. I heard very good things about 19th century Sicilian lesbian melodrama The Sea Purple, when it screened last year as part of the SF Film Society's New Italian Cinema series. Another one that sounds promising is The Consul of Sodom, a biopic on Spanish writer Jaime Gil de Biedma which was nominated for five Goya Awards (Spain's Oscar). Should time and energy permit, I'll also check out Norway's The Man Who Loved Yngve and a rare gay film from the homophobic Caribbean, Children of God from the Bahamas.
I spend so much time at Frameline seeing foreign films that I give short shrift to the U.S. features. This year will probably not be an exception, although there's no way I'll miss Baby Jane?, a locally produced drag recreation of Robert Aldrich's 1962 classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I'm also intrigued by The Stranger in Us, after reading Michael Guillén's interview with director Scott Boswell at The Evening Class. BearCity looks like a crowd-pleasing comedy and should be the perfect lead-in to the Castro neighborhood's night-before-Pride street celebration, Pink Saturday. Just don't confuse the film with Bear Nation, a documentary by Malcolm Ingram (Small Town Gay Bar). Director Cheryl Dunye (Watermelon Woman) returns to Frameline with The Owls (short for Older Wiser Lesbians), which reunites the cast of 1994's seminal indie hit, Go Fish. If you like it, you'll probably want to see the film's 'making of' documentary Hooters, which screens the following evening. Finally, I've read interesting things about Andy Blubaugh's The Adults in the Room, a meta-narrative about the director's efforts to make a film about a teenage relationship he had with an older man.
Every year I look at the Frameline documentary line-up and realize I could happily spend the festival seeing nothing else but. Topping my list this year is The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, which profiles a pair of yodeling lesbian twins whose stand-up musical-comedy act is all the rage in New Zealand. I'm dying to see the Topps perform live on the Castro Theater stage and you should be, too. Other docs that sound like fun include a Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence profile (The Sisters), a look at the history of gay Mardi Gras (The Sons of Tennessee Williams), a bio-doc about the man who streaked the Oscars ceremony in 1974 (Uncle Bob), a long overdue bio-doc on writer William S. Burroughs (William S. Burroughs: A Man Within) and a close-up on drag cabaret singer Joey Arias and his collaboration with puppeteer Basil Twist (Arias With a Twist: The Docufantasy). Those hoping to see a little flesh in their documentaries should make a date with The Adonis Factor, which deals with gay male body image issues, and All Boys, which gazes in on the world of Czech gay porn.
Every year Frameline takes place during the 10 days leading up to Gay Pride Day and this year there are four Pride-related documentaries. Stonewall Uprising purports to be the most thorough examination yet of that pivotal event, and On These Shoulders We Stand explores the early gay rights movement in Los Angeles. Gay Days traces the evolution of Pride in Israel, and Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride is a sober reminder of how awful things are for us in places like Sri Lanka, Poland, Jamaica and Russia. Relatedly, Other Nature takes on the fight for LGBT rights in Nepal. Two documentaries look back on the early years of the AIDS pandemic, The Cockettes' co-director David Weissman's We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco and a history of the safe sex movement, Sex in an Epidemic. Preceding the latter is a short by director Ira Sachs (The Delta, Forty Shades of Blue) called Last Address, "a simple, touching reflection on the many wonderful artists we've lost to the disease." Also taking a look back is acclaimed German director Rosa von Praunheim's New York Memories, which compares the sterile NYC of today with the wild place she loved in the 1970s and 1980s. And finally, there's the self-explanatory 8: The Mormon Proposition and Mountains That Take Wing: Angela Davis & Yuri Kochiyama – A Conversation on Life, Struggles and Liberation.
Cross-published on The Evening Class and Twitch.