Tuesday, September 15, 2020

FRAMELINE44 2020 Preview

Frameline announced the postponement of its 44th edition on March 31. When the June event got rescheduled for autumn, I think most of us believed movie-going normalcy could return in six months. (As a June placeholder, the festival hosted a successful, four-day online "Pride Showcase.") Well, here we are a half-year later and things aren't at all normal, with Bay Area indoor movie theaters still shuttered due to COVID-19 concerns.

This year's Frameline, which runs from September 17 to 27, therefore remains a strictly online streaming affair. The lone exception will be the Opening Night world premiere of Shit & Champagne, SF drag legend D'Arcy Drollinger's sendup of 1970's sexploitation flix, which screens at Concord's West Wind Solano Drive-In. All but three of Frameline's 43 programs will be available to watch anytime during its 11-day run. Ticketholders are encouraged, however, to tune in at specific screening times to enjoy Q&As and panel discussions. I've had the chance to preview 13 Frameline44 selections, mostly culled from the fest's foreign film offerings.

Of all the movies in Frameline44's World Cinema section, Two of Us arrives with the biggest buzz. Premiering to acclaim at last year's Toronto Film Festival, Filippo Meneghetti's riveting directorial debut concerns two older lesbians, Mado and Nina, who reside in the same apartment building but live across the hall from each other. Comfortable in a decades-long clandestine relationship, their dream is for the diminutive Mado to sell her apartment so they can move to Rome. That plan is thwarted when Mado suffers a stroke, reducing Nina to little more than a meddling neighbor in the eyes of Mado's adult children. Legendary German actress Barbara Sukowa (Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz and Lola) gives a fierce performance as Nina, who'll take extreme protective measures once Mado's kids get wise to their mother's true nature. The festival's 'Hold Review' policy for Two of Us restricts me from saying more about this exceptional film. Be advised Two of Us only has a three-day screening window (September 25 to 27).

A second World Cinema offering I unequivocally recommend is Rūrangi, Max Currie's breezy, big-hearted New Zealand social dramedy. Originally broadcast as a web TV series, its five episodes have been strung into a cohesive 96-minute feature. After a decade of Auckland urban living, trans-male activist Caz Davis reluctantly returns to the rural hometown he left behind as a young woman. The physical change is such that he's initially unrecognizable to all those he was close to. Quick-witted Anahera, his Maori former BFF who now runs the town's thrift store, is first to discover and embrace the transition. Caz gets a chillier reception from his father, a budding eco-activist and farmer still bitter over Caz not showing up for his mother's funeral. The most poignant reunion occurs with Jem, his bumbling (and straight) ex-lover who's still in love with Caz, even though his ex now presents as male. With its affecting performances, intelligent script and gorgeous photography, Rūrangi was the most delightfully surprising of the films I previewed. Fortunately, the ending leaves open the possibility for a sequel.

In terms of sheer cinematic audacity, nothing in the World Cinema section tops Dry Wind, Daniel Nolasco's sly-humored, homoerotic fever-dream set in central Brazil's arid Goiás region. Middle-aged Sandro is an unassuming gay bear and fertilizer factory manager who lives in a perpetual state of being hot and bothered. And who can blame him when his environs – whether at the factory, public pool locker room, police station or nearby eucalyptus forest – are just one big Tom-of-Finland fantasyland of both real and imagined, neon-hued hardcore sexual encounters. Jealousy rears its head with the arrival of Maicon, a blond cycle-riding Adonis who begins tricking with Sandro's co-worker-cum-fuck-buddy Ricardo. (A scene where Maicon abruptly joins Sandro on a terrifying carnival ride, and insists on holding his hand, is an inspired moment of guard-dropping tenderness). Dry Wind is the movie I'll most regret not seeing on the Castro Theater's giant screen with an energized audience. Be advised that Frameline's "sexually explicit material" caveat is fully warranted here.

The Berlin Film Festival's Teddy Award is arguably queer cinema's highest accolade, and each year Frameline dependably programs the winner. This year's recipient was No Hard Feelings, first-time director Faraz Shariat's somewhat flighty refugee drama that deepens in gravitas as it moves forward. We initially meet Parvis – an assimilated dyed-blond German-Iranian club kid – as he reports to a Hanover refugee center to perform community service. It's there he befriends resident siblings, the handsome Amon and his ebullient sister Banafshe. In contrast to Parvis, who's openly queer and has an accepting family, Amon is deeply closeted due to the homophobia of his refugee center peers. Just as Parvis and Amon enter into a furtive love affair, Banafshe runs out of options to keep herself from being deported back to Iran. It's the latter development that causes Parvis to mature and see beyond his own wants and needs. No Hard Feelings suffers a bit from awkward construction and quizzical plot ellipsis, but not enough to detract from its humanist message.

Here are quick takes on four additional World Cinema offerings, representing a diverse range of countries and cinematic styles. Veteran Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek (Steam: The Turkish Bath, Facing Windows) delivers another of his highly-accomplished dramedies about upper class gays in The Goddess of Fortune, wherein a pair of married (to each other) middle-aged hunks haltingly salvage their deteriorating relationship when forced to care for a dying friend's children. A far bleaker portrait of middle-aged gay life emerges in Peter Mackie Burns' Rialto. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor gives a memorably desperate performance as Colm, a married yet emotionally isolated Irish alcoholic who can only find succor in the company of a blackmailing teenage hustler. The opportunity to watch Crazy Rich Asians heartthrob Henry Golding make out with guys is but one good reason to see Hong Khaou's Monsoon, a low-key meditation on identity and memory in which a young Asian-Brit returns to a Viet Nam he scarcely recognizes from childhood. Making its world premiere at Frameline44 is Nicol Ruiz Benavides' Forgotten Roads, which is set in a Chilean backwater town. When recently widowed Claudina moves in with her daughter and grandson, a long-awaited opportunity for happiness appears in the form of a free-spirited neighbor woman. Among the film's delights is a subplot about UFOs, a notion no less fantastical than the tiny town having its own gay nightclub.

In addition to the 12-film World Cinema side-bar, Frameline44 expands it international scope with a Spotlight on Taiwan. Chen Ming-lang's The Teacher is an earnest, but overcooked relationship drama about two gay men. Moody high school civics teacher Kevin experiences homophobia at work and lives with his supportive, beautician mother. He falls in love and moves in with Gao, a slightly older, HIV-positive factory owner who's still married to a wife that wants children. High anxiety over a single condom-less sex act renders the film an antiquated AIDS drama the likes of which we haven't seen in ages. While it's admirable to have a movie that doesn’t downplay the still salient issue of HIV transmission, perhaps the filmmaker should have set the film 25 years ago and gone for a full-bore melodrama.

The Teacher is partially set against the backdrop of Taiwan's effort to become the first Asian country granting full marriage equality. That years-long struggle, which finally triumphed on May 17, 2019, is effectively documented in Sophie Yen's documentary Taiwan Equals Love. Yen recounts how events unfolded in the public arena – pro-equality street demonstrations vs. conservative counter-attacks, disappointing legislative setbacks vs. progressive court decisions. This narrative is woven around the intimate stories of three couples whose lives would be positively impacted by marriage equality. Lesbians Jovi and Mindy want their relationship legitimized for the sake of Jovi's young daughter. For gay seniors Hsiang and Tien-Ming, who've been together 30-plus years, marriage becomes important as one of them experiences the onset of Parkinson's. Finally, the story of young lovers and business partners Gu and Shin-Chi reveals a limitation in the new law – Shin-Chi is from Macau and transnational gay marriages unfortunately remain illegal. The fight continues.

The only other selection I previewed from Frameline44's Documentary section was Laurie Lynd's fascinating Killing Patient Zero, which decimates the theory that Air Canada flight attendant Gáeton Dugas was, as the New York Post so ineloquently put it, "The Man Who Gave Us AIDS." Topping the film's revelations is how Dugas acquired the "Zero" misnomer is the first place: a study identifying him as Patient "O" (as in the letter O, meaning Out of California) was misread as Patient "0" (as in zero, or "the first.") The fact is, out of the initial 248 AIDS cases identified in the US, Dugas was only linked to 48. The official making that disclosure also reveals how tremendously helpful Dugas was to the CDC. He willingly shared all the info in his personal "black book" and traveled to Atlanta to give blood for CDC studies. (Regrettably, Dugas continued having sex during this period, believing the sexual transmission theory of AIDS had yet to be proven. He died in 1984). The doc's most cynical reveal, however, was the decision by author Randy Shilts and his publicist to leak the 11 Dugas-related pages of "And the Band Played On" to the New York Post. They knew the conservative paper would use it to foment outrage towards this "monster," and thereby send book sales skyrocketing. In addition to interviews with medical authorities and government officials, director Lynd sagely employs B. Ruby Rich and Fran Lebowitz to place the early AIDS crisis within a sociological context. Equally welcome are the loving testimonials by Gáeton Dugas' friends, lovers and fellow Air Canada flight attendants as to what a gregarious and life-affirming person he was. My only (minor) quibble about Killing Patient Zero, is that it provides no information or speculation about what the origins of AIDS in North America might have actually been.

Finally, I also had a look at two American narrative films. Anna Kerrigan's Cowboys pops up in both Frameline44's US Feature and Famous Faces sidebars, the 'faces' herein being those of Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell (Brittany Runs a Marathon). Both actors give committed performances as the parents of an 11-year-old Montana girl who inherently knows she's meant to be a boy. Zahn has the showier of the two parts, playing a supportive parent with manic tendencies who in effect, kidnaps his 'son' and heads toward the Canadian border on horseback towards an uncertain future, with the law in hot pursuit. I was impressed with the film's seamless flashback structure, as well as its choice to set a trans-narrative within a Red State milieu. Apart from a few heavy-handed missteps, Cowboys is the best film I've seen on this subject since French director Céline Sciamma's Tomboy in 2011. I wasn't quite as taken by Ali LeRoi's The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, which is one of four Frameline44 Centerpiece films. The titular character is a queer Black SoCal highschooler of well-to-do Nigerian parentage, who repeatedly awakens from dreams/daydreams in which he's murdered by white police. What's interesting is the writer and director's decision to place the anxiety-laden Tunde in an extremely haut-bougie world almost exclusively populated with white people. What's not interesting is the overwrought, sudsy teen drama that plays out once Tunde enters into an affair with his female bestie's dimwitted jock boyfriend.