Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Drive-by Shootings (Capsule reviews of films at Frameline 39)

I hope to add more fleshed-out reviews with pictures, links, and all the belles and whiss-holes, but for now here are my quick impressions of the films I've seen at Frameline 39. I'm posting these reviews in alphabetical order by film title.

All about e: The main character, Elmira, or "e" for short, is the most popular dance club deejay in Sydney, but she's a closeted Lebanese as well as a closeted lesbian. Through a mix-up, she and her gay best friend/legal husband Matt find a duffel bag full of cash, so they run off into the countryside, pursued by the club owner who notices that his $50,000 is missing. Fine performances and technical work, but I found the story unsatisfying. The central character comes across as a selfish, immature narcissist with little reason for anyone to be her friend or lover. Also, the story stitches together a love story, a crime caper, and a road trip movie without really doing justice to any of the three facets. The main character's transformation on the road trip feels more like flipping a light switch than a meaningful story arc. However, it bears mention that the women in the audience seemed to like it rather more than I did, so I'll give it a Recommended rating, with the caveat that it has limited crossover appeal.

Ascendance: The Angels of Change Documentary: Children's Hospital in Los Angeles provides healthcare services and group support for young gender non-conforming people and people of transgender identity. As a fundraiser, they produce a calendar and have a runway fashion show. We get to meet Bamby Salcedo, the program coordinator, and several of the young people in the show as they rehearse. It's an inspiring glimpse of some people blossoming as their authentic selves with a little support. Highly recommended.

Beautiful Something: Over the course of a single night, we follow the intertwined wanderings of four gay men in Philadelphia out for a bit of fun or a feeling of connection or perhaps even both. The characters all start off disconnected, having (or seeking to have) almost impersonal sex, and watching from the audience I felt an invisible wall between me and the characters, but gradually they open up to each other and to the audience, moving from nearly anonymous physical intimacy towards deeper personal rapport in a satisfying arc, with plenty of cute guys to provide eye candy on the journey. Highly recommended.

Beira-Mar (see Seashore)

Butterfly (see Mariposa) (not to be confused with the short film Butterfly in Frameline38)

Do I Sound Gay: Filmmaker David Thorpe feels self-conscious that his voice "sounds gay," so he sets out to learn how to sound less gay, but also to explore what that means, both in terms of the nuts and bolts of phoneme variations and speech melodies and in terms of the psychological associations it  involves. He talks to a speech therapist and an accent coach, and also interviews celebrities ranging from George Takei to David Sedaris, plus an Ohio teen who was beaten up at school and an expert on Paul Lynde. The documentary is both funny and thought-provoking, which is an outstanding combination. MUST SEE. Available on cable On Demand beginning July 10, and opening at the Landmark Opera Plaza July 24.

Float: (short film that screened before Peace of Mind) (no dialogue) Sam Berliner filmed several transgender and genderqueer people moving through the water naked. It's a beautiful celebration of the feeling of freedom of being yourself, with the water and the nakedness evoking all manner of metaphors. Highly recommended.

From this Day Forward: Imagine that you're a woman, and you and your husband have two school-age daughters, when your husband decides to begin the transition to living full-time as a transwoman. Would your marriage survive? Marcia Shattuck has stayed in her marriage to Trisha (né Michael), to the amazement of their now grown children, and daughter Sharon Shattuck has made this documentary. Sharon and her sister get the opportunity to ask some of the unspoken questions from their childhood and to reconnect with Trisha. It's a remarkable story of love and commitment, as well as an exceptional story of one individual's navigation of the gender landscape, illustrated in part by her own wonderful paintings. At one point, Trisha says, "I don't think I'm the perfect example of a transgender individual." Had she said "transgender woman," I might not argue, but I would say that she is a perfect example of a transgender individual. She has charted her own path, with a few concessions for her marriage's sake, but without fundamentally compromising her authenticity. MUST SEE.

Health Class: (short screened before From this Day Forward) A cute short film in which a young man (probably twentysomething) confronts his sex ed teacher about the inadequacy of the curriculum, especially for gay boys. The class focused on the mechanics of sperm-meets-egg, leaving out entirely the part about boy-meets-boy, let alone non-procreative sex. They trade horror stories about sexual experiences gone wrong because of their own and their partners' ignorance, and come to realize that sex ed doesn't do a very good job of preparing anyone for the reality of sex. Highly recommended.

Mariposa (Butterfly): (in Spanish, with English subtitles) I accidentally saw this film twice, because I didn't realize (nor realise) that the film that Frameline billed as Mariposa is the same film that Inside Out billed as Butterfly. (Mariposa is Spanish for butterfly, but also a slang term for queer, without the aggressive connotation of words like maricón/faggot.) As it turns out, though, the second viewing made much more sense than the first, in part thanks to a tip from the introduction at the Frameline screening: the film follows the same set of four characters (plus one more added later) along two "parallel universe" timelines. Pay attention to the young men's facial hair and the young women's hair style and color to keep track of which timeline you're on, as the film jumps back and forth with little or no warning. Even so, though, for those of us in the audience who are not sufficiently fluent in Spanish to follow along without reading the subtitles, it took a lot of effort to follow what was going on. An Argentinian friend tells me that there were subtle shifts in their speech mannerisms that underlined the two separate tracks and marked them as being of slightly different socioeconomic class. Recommended for native speakers, but too confusing for me to recommend it to a general audience. (Note: director Marco Berger also made Ausente/Absent (Frameline 35) and Plan B (Frameline 34), both of which I liked.)

Peace of Mind: A documentary about a remarkable artist, Flo McGarrell, who moved from the United States to the artists' colony of Jacmel, Haiti, and became director of the FOSAJ art center. Flo was an open transman, and encouraged LGBTQ artists to come to Jacmel and to FOSAJ, sometimes creating friction with the straight artists who felt intimidated by the visible presence of queers. Unfortunately, Flo's life was cut short by the earthquake of 2010-01-12, but this film gives us an insight into his personal life and his work, including how the work carries on after his death, also exploring issues of racial and educational privilege and other social issues interwoven in the story. There's a wonderful quote near the beginning of the film that says a lot about Flo as a person: "Everything she was as a child persisted into his adult life, and I think that's rare." Highly recommended.

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist: I wasn't able to get a ticket in Toronto, where it was the closing night film for Inside Out, but I was able to catch up here in San Francisco. Elsie, the title character, is in her 40's, a nice Jewish girl who moves from one steady relationship to another with fluid ease. When she breaks off a relationship with Robyn, a friend challenges Elsie to stay single for five whole months rather than jumping right into a rebound. There are a good many laugh lines, mostly playing on the tropes and clichés of lesbian dramas, but, while I recognized many of the cues, I didn't find them as resonant as the target audience clearly did. Recommended; highly recommended for fans of lesbian drama.

Seashore (Beira-Mar): (in Brazilian Portuguese, with English subtitles) Martin goes to the hometown of his father's estranged family to pay his respects after his grandfather dies. His best friend Tomaz tags along for the road trip to the seaside town, but seems less interested than Martin in meeting girls. Tomaz has been afraid to come out to Martin, but over the course of the trip, as it becomes obvious, Martin finally asks Tomaz, and then asks him what it feels like to kiss a guy. It's a cute and visually pleasing film, with some layers to the story and with fine performances from the exquisitely photogenic lead actors. Highly recommended.

Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story: Chuck Holmes was the founder of Falcon, the first major gay porn company in the United States. His films were known for a reliable aesthetic: beautiful scenery and beautiful young men with hairless chests, clean and clean-cut collegiate types. He saw making gay porn as an important facet of gay liberation, but never felt truly accepted by gay society because of the stigma attached to being a pornographer. He began to get involved in politics and activism in the early 1990's, in part because he saw his business in jeopardy if the Republicans held the White House for a fourth term of Reagan-Bush, but politicians were reluctant to be seen with him. This documentary covers both the establishment of his film empire and his work with the Clinton campaign, the Human Rights Campaign, and other causes. It's interesting, not least for the interview with Jeff Stryker, who is surprisingly articulate if you've only seen his early appearances in front of the camera. MUST SEE for gay men, highly recommended for all audiences (though you might want the version without the clips from Falcon films, blurred though the explicit parts are).

Stuff: Deb and Trisha have been together for 14 years and have two kids. Trisha is a dentist, busy with work and also dealing with her mother, five years after her father's death. Deb handles the bulk of the work of raising the kids, but feels increasing distance from Trisha, who shuts down Deb's attempts to support her through the situation with her mother by saying simply, "You don't understand!" Then Jamie comes into the picture, the single mother of a classmate of Deb and Trisha's younger daughter. Jamie is training to be a tattoo artist, and she and Deb grow closer over the course of several playdates with the kids. How will Deb and Trisha's relationship weather the coming storm?  Stuff is an in-depth treatment of the complicated interrelationship among its characters, but Trisha doesn't open up to the camera much more than to her mother or her wife, the older daughter is a poorly drawn character, and Trisha's mother spends most of the movie as a one-dimensional crabby old lady. Recommended; highly recommended for lesbian audiences.

The Summer of Sangailė: (in Lithuanian, with English subtitles) Sangailė is 17 years old, staying with her parents at their vacation home in the country and going to a local aerobatics show, where she meets Auste. The two are different in many important ways, but it's a case of opposites attract, and they spend more time with each other, opening up in ways that Sangailė especially hasn't with anyone in a very long time, particularly about her cutting herself. (Note that the scenes involving self-harm are suggestive rather than explicit; in particular, you don't see the sharps actually break the skin.) It's a serious coming-of-age story, beautifully filmed. Highly recommended.

Together Forever: (short that screened with Portrait of a Serial Monogamist) A lesbian couple seeks to create the perfect moment for a proposal. Very well done, and a teaser for a feature-length film, Brides to Be, currently in development. Highly recommended.

Two 4 One: Adam gets a call from his former lesbian lover Miriam (Adam is a transman, by the way), who is desperate for someone to help her with the process of artificial insemination. The mail-order sperm has arrived and won't keep, so Adam reluctantly re-enters the mælstrom of the relationship that ended when he came out as transgender. One thing leads to another, and Adam winds up pregnant, making his determination to distance himself from Miriam more complicated, and also complicating his situation at his new job in a very "dudebro" construction engineering company. There are some good laughs, but also some nuanced insights. Adam is a fully fleshed out character, with his transition only one facet of his life. MUST SEE.

A Woman Like Me: A filmmaker learns that she has terminal metastatic breast cancer, so she reacts in a typically filmmaker-ish fashion: let's make a film about this. She begins writing a fictionalized rendering of the events, with a version of herself who has a somewhat sunnier disposition and prognosis, but comes to realize that the fictional film would better serve as a framework for a documentary about her actual process. She is very open and vulnerable in showing the process of coming to terms with her impending mortality, and the husband and young daughter she will leave behind. We go with her to doctors and New Age healers, as she explores all of her treatment options and works to keep a positive attitude and a sense of humor in the face of death. MUST SEE.

The Yes Men are Revolting: The Yes Men are a duo of prankster activists, known for posing as representatives of corporations and government agencies to shed light on the deplorable policies of the real entities they caricature. We see some of the behind-the-scenes work, complicated by the fact that one of the Yes Men, Mike Bonanno, is married with two kids and moved to Scotland, but they carry on, taking their activism to Uganda, Canada, and the global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Mike's partner-in-funny-business Andy Bichlbaum, wonders how to carry on with Mike's attention divided, and also openly wonders whether the Yes Men's style of activism can really make a difference on a worldwide scale. This documentary is both wonderfully enjoyable and viscerally inspiring that small actions, multiplied around the world by people power, can push the agenda of real change. MUST SEE.

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