Sunday, October 26, 2008

SLGFF 2008 #7 - A Steamy wrap-up

Several of the movies I saw at the fest this year had a theme of Gays and Religion, including Testimony, Save Me, and now Equality U. However, unlike films of the past that seemed testy, hostile, and defensive towards organized religion and the (in)tolerance of gays, these new films all seem to be taking a breather and reaching across the divide in favor of discussion rather than arguing. (Send that message to politicians!)

Equality U (6/8) is a documentary that follows a group of young, mostly 20-something Christians as they take a bus tour across and all around the United States, visiting religious-based colleges and universities that all have explicit policies on the books banning homosexual students. For instance, televangelist Jerry Falwell once said he'd rather have the college he founded, Liberty University, burn to the ground than allow homosexuals. The Equality Ride visited about 20 of the 200 schools with anti-gay rules in order to start a discussion and dialogue. Most students wanted to at least talk, but it was the schools' administrations that were most afraid of dialogue, some literally locking their students inside... and the Equality Riders out. The film never stoops to judge harshly the religions involved, but instead condemns the schools and their leaders for destroying the lives of some of the students that they rejected.

My next film was a domestic drama from France, The New World (Le Nouveau Monde) (4/8), a well-meaning but honestly a bit dull lesbian drama. Lucie and Marion are a lesbian couple that decide they want a baby. Or at least Lucie does, and she wants to get pregnant the "old-fashioned way"—no strangers, no sperm banks, just a friendly donation from someone they both agree upon. Well, they find that generous fellow in an old friend of Marion's. He says he'll be scarce, but once the child is born, his fathering instinct kicks in and he feels part of the family... and Marion, increasingly, does not. I liked the emphasis of Marion's isolation from the biological family unit, but overall the film was slow (even at 70 minutes!) and kind of rambling.

The final weekend featured the 3-story dramedy Steam (5/8) as the fest's second Centerpiece. I'll bet most people who saw the film were excited to see Ally Sheedy again (looking completely adorable and healthy again, as a start contrast to her emaciated High Art self). Alas, ladies, she does not play a lesbian. She is a 40-something single mom who has an affair with her young son's hottie, corn-fed, 20-something football coach, much to the shock and disgust of her ex-husband (who has a young trophy wife himself)... and to the shock and delight of her best friend (played by the bluntly hilarious Chelsea Handler).

The lesbian third of the story involves a young hottie college student (Kate Siegel) who hesitates only half a second before embarking on an affair with a sexy bisexual classmate (Reshma Shetty). Girlfriend is a feminist revolutionary, and forgets to mention that she is bisexual (guess how that is discovered). Our main girl decides to fight the power anyways, much to the disgust of her stereotypically uptight rich white parents. This whole plot felt very cliched, and was (unfortunately for this audience) the least interesting of the bunch.

Leave it to the incomparable Ruby Dee to save the third segment. She plays a widow that struggles with moving on with her life until she meets and befriends a charming widower (the lovely Dick Anthony Williams) who relentlessly courts her until she invites him for dinner. Alas, when she finally meets his adult son and his family, things don't quite go so well.

Despite the fine acting in 2/3rds of the film, Steam doesn't have enough oomph to be really memorable or unique. The three leads are supposedly linked by the fact that they all go to a community steam room to unwind, but it is never really explored. And, by the end, you are just left at the end with a "huh" rather than a "wow!" Still, not a bad way to end the fest (for me at least). [Sorry, Elvira, I just couldn't maintain momentum to see you on Closing Night!]

Saturday, October 25, 2008

SLGFF 2008 #6 - Manly TV dinners

On Friday I took it down a notch. Last year, one of my favorite parts of the Festival of the Gays were the "Gay TV Dinners" at Central Cinema, where old TV episodes featuring gay characters were shown while the audience gorged on beer and a set menu. So this year I made sure to schedule at least one TV dinner, and it just so happened that I could fit in The Last Guy You’d Have Figured…, featuring an episode of Alice from the 70s, and Roc from the early 90s.

I vaguely remember seeing Alice when I was growing up, and how later, when I was older, I always wondering why Mel at Mel's Diner always seemed to be wearing a large rollled-up condom on his head (what was UP with that hat?). Single-mom Alice (cutie Linda Lavin) falls hard for Mel’s ex-pro football player pal, Jack, who is foxy in that blond-feathered-hair kind of way. He is nothing but manly, but after a fabulous dinner date out, he tells Alice he is gay (GASP!). But... but... he is a professional football player!?!! Well, "Kiss my grits!" as Flo would say! This show is interesting in that it could only inadvertently emphasize how thirty years later there are still no pro football players (at least as far as I know) that are openly gay. They still wait until retirement to come out.

The episode of Roc, which ran on Fox, was just as timely, as Roc's uncle (played by Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree) comes for a visit to let the family know that he is getting married... to a man! And worse yet, a WHITE man! Particularly hilarious in this well-written episode is Roc's dad Andrew (played by Carl Gordon), who can take only so much before his line is crossed. In protest, he turns on the blender in the kitchen while the ceremony is attempting to take place in the living room. All in all, my tum was full of TV-dinner fare of meat loaf and mashed potatoes, and the episodes were once again enjoyable choices. Gotta love the Central Cinema!

Friday, October 24, 2008

SLGFF 2008 #5 - A different kind of tolerance...

The first Centerpiece feature of this year's fest, Save Me (6/8), follows a young druggie gay boy named Mark (Chad Allen) who hits rock-bottom in a hotel room, overdosed on cocaine after yet another fling with a random guy. Mark's brother is fed-up, tired of scraping his brother out of the gutter and gives him an ultimatum: Clean up a Christian retreat center that focuses on healing and saving gay men, or the family will basically disown him, putting him back on the street for the last time. Mark very reluctantly decides to go to the Christian recovery center.

Genesis, as the Christian center is called, is run by warm and very hetero middle-aged couple Gayle and Ted, but it is really Gayle (the fabulous Judith Light) that runs the show. She is stern and is the enforcer. The men can always leave, but if they stay, they have to follow the rules. But what no one expects is that Mark will actually embrace his own recovery, as well as Jesus, but also will fall in love with Scott (Robert Gant), one of the other ex-gay recoverees at the center.

Folks at the fest screening were delighted and more than a little star-struck that Robert Gant (best known as Ben from Queer As Folk) was there in person. Believe me, the entire audience of men and women were shamelessly drooling (he is just as hunky in person as on screen), and he is quite the rambler when it came to answering audience questions (but in a nice way—see? I have a crush, too!). He pointed out that the filmmakers were careful to be equal-opportunity when it came to the characters, and never to demonize the Christian characters in the film. In fact, that is what I liked about Save Me—all the characters are flawed and complex, and Judith Light ends up being one of the more sympathetic characters in the story as she struggles with her true love for the men she is trying to help, but is also struggling over guilt for the dead son that she was too late to save. It is a solid film, and will appeal to those that liked the equally sympathetic Mormon vs. Gays tale Latter Days.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

SLGFF 2008 #4 - ¡Viva la Revolución!

The Brits (whom, you could say, invented the sub-group of haughty, intellectually snobby poofters) have always excelled not only in gay cinema, but also in TV shows and series featuring matter-of-fact gay characters. Being gay just doesn't seem to be an issue, so much so that they can move on from the trauma of "coming out" stories to just getting down to business.

Such is the case for the charming and funny TV series Sugar Rush (7/8). Our heroine Kim (Olivia Hallinan), a 15-year-old virgin, seems less traumatized by the fact that she knows she is a lesbian, but is fretting about the fact that she hasn't had sex yet... and is about to explode with hormones accordingly. It doesn't help that her dysfunctional parents have moved her family from the wilds of London to the "safer" and calmer seaside town of Brighton. And now Kim is completely and utterly obsessed with her new best (straight) girlfriend Sugar (the saucy Lenora Crichlow). Sugar Rush is probably the freshest portrayal of teenagers and hormones (gay and straight) since the delightful Swedish film Show Me Love. The kids are practically glassy-eyed with lust, and can barely contain themselves (Kim even considers drugging her friend into unconsciousness so she can have her way... hello, date rape!). Sugar Rush is also fresh for a new generation. There is no soundtrack of sensitive women singers here, it is all Euro-techno-pop and flashy fashion. The show is a lot of fun, fabulously acted by all, and I can't wait to see more episodes beyond the first three that the fest screened.

Unfortunately I decided to stay for the next show, My Super 8 Season (Ma saison super 8) (4/8), a French film about a bunch of sexual and political revolutionaries at the start of the 70s, fighting for the rights of the gays and women. It revolved around Marc (Axel Philippon), who was obsessed with the blank-faced "I'm not gay" gay-boy André (Roman Girelli) while being best friend to feminist Julie (Célia Pilastre). People sleep with each other, the passion of the revolution flares up then kind of peters out, and they all supposedly mature. But it was dull, and (I'm kind of embarrassed to say) cheap-looking. There were bits that were shot in Super 8, which were convincing and great-looking, but the rest was shot on DV, which just brought me out of the moment in time. It looked like a bunch of modern kids dressing up for the 70s and acting like revolutionary hippies. It is a film very similar in theme to Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, which, funny enough, is also a film I didn't like much. Oh well.

Monday, October 20, 2008

SLGFF 2008 #3 - Homo horror and real-life tragedy

I decided to fill my Sunday at the Festival of the Gays with a reality-check list of films... aka documentaries--with an intermission of a stern lecture. Well, not stern at all, but more on that later.

First up was the Canadian doc She's a Boy I Knew (7/8), by filmmaker and subject Gwen Haworth. I have to admit that I was intrigued by the publicity photo on the right, as it was so arty that it looks like a sensitive indie-rock duo's publicity shot. But that is actually Gwen (right) and her ex-wife Malgosia, whom she married when she was still Steven. Steven was a hockey jock who had a fine upbringing, but never felt right in his body. He struggled and fought against these feelings, even getting married (he was, and she IS attracted to women), until he finally confessed to his loved ones his secret in his late 20s, when he decided to begin his steps toward becoming a woman. However, She's a Boy is not really about Steven/Gwen, but about the friends and family that had to deal with this huge decision by someone they thought they knew. Gwen's sisters, best friend (her adorable guy-friend Roari), ex-wife, and (most touchingly) her parents are interviewed, and they are brutally honest. Gwen's father, a man of few words, struggles to open up, and confesses that he feels like he lost his only son. They tell of the hurt and in some cases betrayal they felt about Steven's decision to become Gwen. And lucky for Gwen, these people were supportive and are still in her life. It is an extremely intimate film, and fascinating in its emotional honesty.

Next my co-horts and I scarfed down some tacos and scurried down to the fabulous Central Library to catch author Harry M. Benshoff's lecture Monsters in the Closet (5/8), based on his book “Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film”. There are certainly types of horror movies that are resoundingly queer, like anything with vampires for instance, but Benshoff broke it down with a bunch of funny categories, like "Mad Scientist" and, well, others that I honestly can't remember right now. The fear of the (monstrous) outsider is a common plot in horror films, and Benshoff claims that is easily transferable to society's fear of The Gays. The time period allowed for this lecture was really too brief to get into anything in depth, and it seemed that lots of clips were rushed through without enough supporting explanation (as in, "Um, now WHY is that scene gay?"), but it was interesting and timely enough topic to perhaps spark curiosity in checking out his book.

My last film of the day played to a packed matinee at the lovely Cinerama. For My Wife... (7/8) has resounding local connections, not just politically, but in the city's common memory of horrific events. If you lived in Seattle a couple winters ago, you'd remember this crazy flash-flood of a rain storm that came so fast just around afternoon rush hour, that it created a river with whitecaps down the hilly sidewalks and flooded stores within a matter of minutes. The most talked-about tragedy of the event was the story of audio-book narrator Kate Fleming who literally drowned in her own basement, after getting trapped by water rushing down the stairs. After being briefly revived and rushed to the hospital, Fleming's partner of a decade, Charlene Strong, was denied visitation at her bedside because she was not a legal spouse. She was finally granted permission to be at Kate's bedside in her final minutes after getting permission from Fleming's mother... on the other side of the country.

But this was just the start of Charlene's story. Her side of the tragedy also made the news, and she was asked to testify just six weeks after the death of her partner in Olympia, during the hearings about the Domestic Partnership Registration Bill that has slogged around unpassed in the Capitol for years and years. Her raw, recent personal story made all the difference, and the bill ended up passing by a 2 to 1 vote. This first half or so of For My Wife... is shockingly powerful. I don't think I've ever been riveted by congress people's testimony before (it is amazing the things that some of them said in against the bill, like the standby catchphrases of "bestiality," "necrophilia," etc.). But I discovered there is a Rock Star at our State Capitol, and her name is Rosa Franklin. Married for 57 years herself, her eloquent speech about how she has supported the DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) in the past, but was now supporting the Domestic Parter bill left no dry eyes in the house. The second half of For My Wife... almost comes across as an extended "Where are they now?" extra after the climax of the film (the passing of the bill). The rest of the film is fine, but as Strong finds herself mingling with movie stars at the GLADD Awards and chatting with Gloria Steinem, it starts to feel a bit after the fact, like the story is still waiting for its ideal conclusion, which would be the freedom for gays to marry all across the country. That is my only complaint about the film, however. It is a very strong documentary that will hopefully find a wider audience beyond the festival circuit.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

SLGFF 2008 #2 - Murderous ghosts and killer drag queens

The Festival of the Gays loves novelist Sarah Waters. Seattle got to host her in a virtual lesbian-rific hootenany a few years ago when she came to present the theatrical premiere of Tipping the Velvet, then a couple years later, SLGFF hosted Fingersmith. So it is no surprise that SLGFF screened Affinity (4/8), her third adaptation (all have been adapted for British television).

Unfortunately, Affinity is Waters least-gripping novel, and that is reflected in the film. The story takes place in Waters' fave Victorian era, and follows a single society lady, Margaret Prior as she decides to go out of her comfort zone (and the pressures of her mother to marry) and become a regular visitor to the local women's prison. There she becomes intrigued and then besotted with the lovely inmate Selena Dawes, who is imprisoned for a murder she claimed she did not commit. It was a sinister male ghost who was the murderer, she claims (she is, after all, a medium to the spirits). Margaret is so obsessed with her new bosom friend that she believes heart and soul in her innocence, especially as unexplained supernatural things happen, like when she finds a lock of Selena's hair in her own bed. You can see it coming... in order to run away, Margaret needs to escape her prison of society life, and Selena her literal prison. But it may not be so easy.... What was missing from both the novel and the adaptation is the more blatant romance, and, well, sexiness of Waters' other stories. This leaves for a lot of repression and blank-faced repression. Affinity is OK, but it never really takes off as being something memorable.

The fest this year has tons of documentaries, some with local roots like Testimony (and tomorrow's For My Wife...). Testimony (4/8) is a well-meaning talking-head feature that interviews a variety of queer folks about the question: Can one be queer and religious? The resounding answer is YES! So much so that I couldn't help but feel that there could have been more diversity in these folks' answers. Their backgrounds are of various Christian denominations, Jewish, and Jehovah's Witness, but they are all overwhelmingly white, and look comfortably upper-middle-class based on their backyards and homes where the interviews took place. Everyone seemed so, well, happy that it didn't acknowledge in any depth the hurt and rejection that is faced by many gays as they are rejected from their church or religious community after coming out as gay. I think I just wanted more grit.

Funny enough, there was more dirt to be found in the charming behind-the-scenes Pageant (6/8), which follows half a dozen contestants as they vie for the Miss Gay America title. The rules: No hormones. No surgical enhancements. But everything else, in the female impersonator arena sure looks like fair game! Follow these earnest contestants, some whom enter year after year, as they represent their states with pride. They may be flight attendants, or work at Disney World in their real lives, but oh how they blossom on stage in full drag. My jaw dropped at some performances, particularly those of adorable drag veteran David Lowman, aka Coti Collins. Coti's Reba McEntire and Judy Garland impersonations have to be seen to be believed. Pageant has the homey charm of films like Spellbound and even Best in Show, and it certainly worth checking out.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

SLGFF 2008 #1 - Of faeries and Shakespeare

There's a chill in the air, it's getting dark awfully early, and it seems just about time to head back into the theaters. That must mean that it is time again for Seattle's Festival of the Gays! More formally known as the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, the 2008 fest is celebrating its 13th year. Going with that superstitious number, and the fact that the fest always falls in October, the programmers have gone with a rough "homo horror" theme.

Alas, there was no horror to be found in the Opening Night film, Were the World Mine (6/8). The rather clunky title is unfortunately kind of hard to remember the first time or two you hear it... kind of like Shakespeare [because it IS Shakespeare! - ed.]. So it is really not much of a surprise to see that this gay fantasia (if there ever was one) is framed around Shakespeare's own "Midsummer Night's Dream". High schooler Timothy (Tanner Cohen) is a gay boy that doesn't fit into the testosterone-fueled jock aesthetic that surrounds him at all-boys high school. He crushes on the hero rugby player Jonathan (Nathaniel David Becker), imagining him crooning, open-shirted, to Timothy while lounging atop the teacher's desk. In fact, Timothy's attention slips into an alternate, better musical universe often, so when their artsy-fartsy teacher Ms. Tebbit (Twin Peaks' Wendy Robie) announces that the school play will be "Midsummer," Timothy finds himself one audition later in the lead role of Puck. Puck is perfect for Timothy, as he wishes that he could spray a magical juice on the eyes of others to open their eyes to love... in his eyes, gay love. So when he is practicing his role in his bedroom one night, he concocts a recipe for the juice, right out of Shakespeare, and tries it on his straight friend Max. One squirt from a prop flower, and Max is suddenly besotted with Timothy! Now if Timothy could just see if it works on his straight-boy crush Jonathan...

Were the World Mine is very charming--unsurprising, as it was based on, and created by the same folks that did the short film Faeries five years ago (also a festival favorite). Though the dramatic parts and the editing are sometimes a little clunky in this feature-length version, it still retains its warmth and gentle magic. Most credit goes to the great musical sequences. In fact all the major cast members get to sing, and the first time lead Tanner Cohen opened his mouth to sing, I was literally stunned by his gorgeous voice... it brought a tear to my eye.

Were the World Mine should find a cult audience on the fest circuit, and everyone was delighted to hear that yes, the soundtrack score will be released on CD later this year.

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And... just because it is fun, here is the trailer for this year's festival: