Thursday, June 20, 2019

Frameline43 2019 – Preview

The 43rd edition of SF Bay Area's Frameline festival, self-described as "the world's longest-running and largest showcase of queer cinema," runs from June 20 to 30 this year. From among the 174 films from 38 countries in the line-up, I've prescreened 16 that reflect a personal passion for foreign language films and documentaries.

As is often the case, Frameline's line-up of Ibero-Latin American cinema is where a lot of the fest's best movies can be found. My top pick from the region is Santiago Loza's Brief Story from the Green Planet, a weird yet endearing Argentine road movie that won the Teddy Award – arguably queer cinema's highest accolade – at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Bathed in a sheen of sensual other-worldliness, Brief Story's story is centered on middle-aged drag performer Tania. After her grandmother dies and she's bequeathed a barely alive space alien, Tania is tasked with returning the creature to the exact location where her granny found it. Hitting the road with two childhood friends, the trio traverse towns, fields and forests to reach their destination, encountering good and bad humanity – and some hilarious 50's-style space robots – along the way. The ending is especially glorious. 

Another Argentine film worth a good look is Mateo Bendesky's Family Members, an offbeat character study of alienated siblings. Neurotic New-Ager Gilda and her prickly teen brother Lucas travel to a remote seaside town to dispose of their mother's remains (the "remains" consist of a lone prosthetic hand). When a bus strike impedes their return to Buenos Aires, their testy relationship is given time to thaw. Lucas also cautiously considers the attentions of Guido, an older townie and fitness enthusiast. I was particularly touched by a scene in which Lucas and Guido visit an internet café and finally manage an intimate conversation – but only as spoken through video game avatars. Family Members also impresses with its strong visual sense, wry humor and handsome widescreen cinematography.

Mexico is represented by three films at Frameline43 and Bani Khoshnoudi's melancholic Fireflies was my favorite. Arash Marandi (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Under the Shadow) stars as Ramin, a gay Iranian refugee stranded in the port city of Veracruz. When he's not working at menial jobs like pineapple-picking (where co-workers call him Aladdin and Kalimán), Ramin hangs out at the harbor trying to arrange transport to Greece or Turkey. He has contentious Skype sessions with his ex-boyfriend in Tehran and develops a guarded friendship with Guillermo, a volatile co-worker and former Honduran gang member (effectively played by Luis Alberti, the guide who taught Sergei Eisenstein about gay sex in Peter Greenaway's Eisenstein in Guanajuato). The film's emotional center, however, lies in Ramin's relationship with Leti, the live-in receptionist at his hotel who has her own set of problems. Exchanging English classes for Danzón lessons, they become friends and bond over their shared Middle-Eastern ancestry – Leti's Lebanese great-grandfather married a Mexican woman and subsequently opened their Veracruz hotel. Ultimately, Fireflies is an empathetic statement about living in a state of abeyance.

From Mexico, I'd also recommend Marcelino Islas Hernández's History Lessons and Hari Sama's This is Not Berlin. The former presents us with an ultra-unlikely friendship between Véronica, a sad-sack 30-year teaching veteran dying of cancer, and Eva, a bratty, sultry student (complete with Bettie Page bangs) who latches onto Véronica and drags the older woman way out of her comfort zone. At times the film strains a bit too hard for edginess, such as when Eva suckers her teacher into paying for an abortion, or when married Véronica has sex with her student's sketchy friend Tupo (Mexican indie stalwart Gambino Rodriguez). A road trip taken by the mismatched women concludes with a memorably tender, lesbian-lite denouement. Compared with History Lessons' relative low-key demeanor, This is Not Berlin explodes with chaotic energy. Set in Mexico City roughly a decade after last year's Roma, but in the same upper middle-class milieu, Hari Sama's film is a sprawling valentine to the capital city's mid-80's art-punk underground scene as experienced by two high-school buddies getting their first tastes of freedom and debauchery.

Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante grabbed international attention four years ago with his award-winning feature debut Ixcanul. He's followed that up with Temblores (Tremors), presented by Frameline as its 2019 World Cinema Centerpiece. As a filmmaker, Bustamante has made an impressive transition from Ixcanul's universe – one steeped in rural folklore – to the terrain of privileged urbanites inhabited by Temblores. After his deeply religious family discovers he's gay, the consequences become dire for married business consultant Pablo. He's fired for violating his company's "flawless moral code" and barred from contacting his young children. The pain is somewhat assuaged by boyfriend Francisco, a level-headed and gregarious massage therapist who tries working behind the scenes – often in cahoots with the indigenous domestic workers of Pablo's family – to maintain a line of communication. Guilt and the pull of family obligation get the better of Pablo, and he subjects himself to brutal, evangelical-run gay conversion 'therapy.' Unfortunately, Pablo's harsh trajectory as experienced in this affecting quasi-melodrama, risks being perceived as archaic from the bubble of 2019 San Francisco. Those seeking an even bleaker portrait of Latin American LGBTQ life will be sated by Alexandre Moratto's Socrates, an earnest but fairly artless litany of awful things that befall a poor 15-year-old São Paulo teen following his mother's death. The film is notable for the Independent Spirit Award best actor nomination afforded lead Christian Malheiros for his committed screen debut (he lost to Ethan Hawke in First Reformed).

Although technically an Argentine film, I situate Lucio Castro's End of the Century within Spanish cinema's realm, given its Barcelona setting and national identity of a main character. In this laconic two-hander we're first introduced to Ocho, a handsome marketing executive and aspiring poet who's recently ended a 20-year relationship. After checking into an Air B&B he heads to the beach and spies Javi, a kid's TV show director who's married to a German man. The 13-minutes between the movie's opening frames and the pair's inevitable hook-up are entirely free of dialogue, which is the first indication Lucio Castro is in possession of strong directorial chops. Naturalistic post-coital dialogue reminiscent of Andrew Haigh's Weekend leads to Ocho and Javi's realization they were briefly an item 20 years ago. In an eye's blink we're off on an extended flashback, before doubling back to the present for the film's enigmatic third act. End of the Century is an intricate and affable riff on life's "what-if" moments.

The other Spanish film I previewed was Arantaxa Echevarría's Carmen & Lola, which is set within Madrid's tight-knit Roma community. Teenage graffiti artist Lola wants to be a teacher, a lofty aspiration in a culture where hairdressing is the only respectable 'profession' afforded women. She's also attracted to her own sex, signaled in a hilarious scene of her stumbling upon lesbian porn in an internet café. Lola's big IRL crush is her cousin's gorgeous fiancée Carmen. Their see-sawing affections occupy the movie's bulk until the relationship is discovered by Lola's family, at which point shit inevitably meets fan. I'd recommend Carmen & Lola for its fascinating, eyeball-deep immersion into Spain's Roma culture, and the searing chemistry between lead actresses Zaira Romero and Rosy Rodríguez.

Of all the works previewed for this year's festival, I was most impressed by Ali Jaberansari's Tehran: City of Love. The un-ironic title for this exquisitely crafted, deadpan social satire would be "Tehran: Triptych of Thwarted Desire." When we first meet Hessam, a man-bun sporting, ex-bodybuilding champ turned trainer, he's posing for beefcake pix in hopes of landing a film role with "France's most famous actor," Louis Garrel. Hessam's story arc follows his excruciatingly awkward and unrequited crush on a younger bodybuilder put in his charge. The film's other two (straight) protagonists are equally unlucky in love. Manipulative Mina works as a skincare clinic receptionist who arranges fake 'dates' with her workplace's hunkiest male clients. Meanwhile Vahid, a depressed funeral vocalist whose fiancé recently split, struggles to transform himself into an ebullient wedding singer. With a surfeit of delicious visual jokes and captivating supporting characters, director Jaberansari masterfully weaves these three stories into a pathos-filled, near perfect movie.

It's almost unheard of for Frameline to program just one French film, but there you have it. Luckily School's Out, Sébastien Marnier's delectably disturbing thriller with metaphysical overtones, is a clear standout. Hunky Laurent Lafitte (Isabelle Huppert's rapist neighbor in Verhoven's Elle) stars as Pierre Hoffman, a new teacher whose immediate predecessor attempted suicide by jumping out a classroom window. The kids who witnessed it, a Children of the Damned pack of arrogant and secretive "intellectually advanced" 9th graders, immediately challenge Pierre's authority and begin stalking him. That's OK because he's stalking them, too, observing their hyper-aggressive gameplay at a local quarry where a mysterious DVD cache is buried. As humans and animals act increasingly skittish and the town's nuclear plant looms on screen, can apocalypse be far behind? It's all a bit overstuffed and not everything adds up, but otherwise this is tremendously skillful entertainment. Zombie Zombie's score is worth singling out, particularly two unnerving, dirge-like arrangements of Patti Smith's "Pissing in a River" and "Free Money" which we see performed by the school's choir. I also dug how Pierre's homosexuality, apart from helping to brand him as an outsider, is coolly sublimated (and limited to an attraction towards the school's athletic math teacher, played by French rapper Gringe). Lastly, French film fans will welcome the sight of Emmanuelle Bercot, Pascal Greggory and Grégory Montel (Netflix's Call My Agent!) in the supporting cast of teachers and administrators.

Two remaining narrative features I previewed hail from Romania and Indonesia. Marius Olteanu's Monsters is a puzzle-like domestic drama divided into three acts, the first of which accompanies an irritated woman on an all-night taxi ride around Bucharest. The second watches as a man endures an amusing-for-us, hellish-for-him Grindr date, and the Act Three reveals the woman and man as two halves of a crumbling marriage. Monsters' strict formalism – encompassing shifting aspect ratios, extended tracking shots and long talky scenes played out in real time – may be an acquired taste. Stephen Dalton's Hollywood Reporter review tags the film's target audience as "masochistic misery junkies who attend film festivals and art house theaters." You all know who you are. 'Acquired taste' is an equally apt heads-up for Garin Nugroho's opaque Memories of My Body. I'm a huge fan of the filmmaker's eye-popping Opera Jawa from 2006. With its cultural density and enormous plot ellipses, however, I floundered my way through Memories, even with the aid of a press kit. Ostensibly it's 'about' the boy-to-man journey of Juno and his transformation within the world of traditional Javanese lengger dancing. On the plus side, the movie is visually arresting and rarely dull.

There were two documentaries I'd fervently hoped to find in this year's festival. Frameline programmed both, and both are superb. Robert Anderson Clift and Hilary Demmon's Making Montgomery Clift eschews a traditional bio-doc route in favor of something more specific. Namely, it sets to proving the acclaimed actor was not an unstable, self-hating homosexual tortured by his sexuality, but was in fact very full of life and in complete control of his craft. The film's co-director happens to be Clift's youngest nephew, and the biggest weapon in his arsenal is a fount of recordings made by his father, Monty's brother Brooks Clift. Among the controversies into which the film takes a deep dive is Clift's Oscar-nominated performance in Judgement at Nuremberg, which popular belief holds was simply Monty having a real-life, on-screen mental breakdown. Using recorded conversations and Clift's actual annotated shooting script, they irrefutably demonstrate that every spoken word and nuance was intentional. Equally compelling is the film's scrutiny of homophobic director John Huston's lawsuit against Clift over the biopic Freud, which irreparably damaged the actor's career.

Making Montgomery Clift contains enough general interest material regarding the actor's life and career to please casual fans and acolytes alike. I'm not sure the same can be said for Jeffrey McHale's You Don't Nomi, which takes Paul Verhoven's $40 million "masterpiece of shit" Showgirls and risks analyzing it to death. But if you're like me, and Showgirls is your absolute favorite movie of the 1990's, you'll eat up the detailed dissertations on topics like the inherent puns contained within the name Nomi (the first name of Elizabeth Berkley's main character) or whether the film qualifies as camp (as one observer puts it, is camp even possible in the age of Sharknado?). I also devoured the doc's queer reading of Showgirls and its resonance with gay men, as well as a fabulous discourse on the infamous Spago scene (written like "brain-dead Harold Pinter.") Archival interviews with key participants like Verhoven, Berkley, Gina Gershon and Kyle MacLachlan, are augmented by fresh exchanges with Adam Nayman (author of pro-Showgirls bible, "It Doesn't Suck") and our own Peaches Christ, whose legendary Midnight Mass screenings (complete with horrifying "free" lap dances with every large popcorn) almost single-handedly gave birth to the film's oversized Bay Area cult status. If I had one quibble, it might be You Don't Nomi's overuse of clips from other Verhoven works. 

Frameline43 closes on Sunday, June 30 with David Charles Rodrigues' Gay Chorus Deep South, which documents SF Gay Men's Chorus recent concert tour of the American South. It's a topic I have zero personal interest in, but ecstatic reviews from the Tribeca Film Festival premiere convinced me to have a look. I'm confident you'll be as touched as I was. In a move that practically defines bravery bordering on foolhardiness, SF's gay chorus chose to tour (along with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir) five southern states with the country's most discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws – namely AL, MS, TN, NC and SC. What emerges from the resulting documentary is a balanced portrait of red-state America that isn't blind to the region's major shortcomings. The film's soul lies with the chorus' ex-Southerners, who'll be anxiously returning to a place that symbolizes hate and rejection. Some will use the tour to reunite with estranged family members. We also spend time with current LGBTQ Southerners, whose resilience has resulted in the creation of strong local communities. Rodriguez's film benefits greatly from the presence of Tim Seelig, the chorus' formidably articulate artistic director who was banished from a Texas mega-church's employ for being gay in 1986, resulting in the loss of home, family and friends.