Friday, July 22, 2011

Reverend's Report: When Film Festivals Collide

Most people think it's fun and semi-glamorous being a film critic, and it can be. A film critic's job, however, becomes about as challenging as a job can get when covering not just one film festival but two — while also serving as a programmer for a third festival — simultaneously. Such was my lot from late May through July 17, when I provided advance coverage for and attended the Los Angeles Film Festival and Outfest, the 29th Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, while reviewing submissions for this September's Long Beach Q Film Festival. All in all, I've been subjected to over 300 mostly independent, primarily GLBT-interest shorts and features in 60 days, an average of 5 films per day. And this isn't even my full-time job!

Outfest 2011 came to a close with the LA premiere of The Perfect Family, starring Kathleen Turner as the conservative Catholic mother of a lesbian daughter. On the same day she is nominated for the "Catholic Woman of the Year" award, Mom learns that her daughter and daughter's partner are planning to get married. Out actor Richard Chamberlain plays the local monsignor, and Sharon Lawrence has a great turn as Turner's co-nominee/nemesis. While the film is chiefly a drama, it has its comedic moments and I couldn't help but picture Turner at times as her Serial Mom character and wish she'd make an obscene crank call or two to Lawrence, which only made the movie funnier for me. The Perfect Family doesn't get all the Catholic details right but still presents the church's rituals and parish politics more seriously than most movies. Rating: B


Religious themes were big this year, with several significant entries in both the LA Film Fest (including Vera Farmiga's haunting Higher Ground) and Outfest. The Wise Kids, featured at the latter, is a lovely, teen coming-of-age story that avoids most of the clich├ęs we've come to expect of that genre. Writer-director Stephen Cone (who also plays a closeted, married church leader in the film) won the festival's Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Screenwriting, and the movie was awarded the Grand Jury prize for Outstanding US Dramatic Feature. Its no-name cast is excellent and I was also impressed by the ethereal music score by Mikhail Fiksel.  Rating: B+

Mangus!, by Ash Christian of Fat Girls fame, is a John Waters-type farce that even includes a cameo by Waters (as Jesus, no less). The title character is the latest in a line of family members who have performed the starring role in Jesus Christ Spectacular, a local stage tradition begun when the producers couldn't afford the rights to Jesus Christ Superstar. It's inconsequential, frequently trashy stuff but benefits from a great supporting cast that includes Leslie Jordan, Jennifer Coolidge and Heather Matarazzo. Rating: C


While the standout film for me at both the LA Film Festival and Outfest was the joyous urban ball-musical Leave It On the Floor (which has also been selected to screen at our Long Beach festival), there were a number of other movies shown during Outfest that particularly impressed and/or touched me. These include the documentaries Carol Channing: Larger Than Life and We Were Here. Carol Channing arguably ranks second only to Betty White in the category of 90-year old entertainment legends. The original Dolly Levi in the Broadway cast of Hello, Dolly! as well as an Oscar nominee for her loopy performance in the 1967 movie musical Thoroughly Modern Millie ("Raspberries!") continues to make talk show and fundraising appearances. Channing is also the subject and frequent narrator of this wonderfully informative documentary that explores her illustrious stage career, her upbringing in San Francisco, and the history behind her current marriage of 10 years to her Junior High sweetheart. It can be faulted somewhat for only viewing Channing through admiring, rose-colored glasses, but then I suppose anyone who disparages the endearingly cheery star does so at their own peril. Rating: A-

We Were Here, meanwhile, is a riveting reflection on the initial, devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic on San Francisco's gay community. Don't watch it without a box of tissues handy; my partner had to console me when I broke down at least twice while watching the movie, which I very rarely do. The film won the Audience Award for Outstanding Documentary Feature at Outfest and is scheduled to be released theatrically this September. Rating: B+


Weekend, which won the Outfest Grand Jury Award for Outstanding International Dramatic Feature, is getting a great reception among gay men wherever it shows. It will be released in US theatres starting this October. Written, directed and even edited by Andrew Haigh (Greek Pete), it follows two gay men over the course of 48 hours following their initial, Friday night meeting. Well-written and insightful, I don't think we've seen a gay-themed film this purely romantic and ultimately affecting since Brokeback Mountain. Lead actors Tom Cullen and Chris New have undeniable chemistry and give great, vulnerable performances. Unfortunately, I was put off by the characters' considerable drug use in the film. Getting high on marijuana and cocaine during the early stages of courting is hardly a healthy foundation for a long-lasting relationship. This is the only aspect in which Weekend felt false to me. Still, it's highly recommended. Rating: B+

Romeos is a standout among an unusually high number of transgender-interest submissions at all three film festivals I've been a part of this summer. While Tomboy (which had its US premiere at the LA Film Festival) is in my opinion the best among them (although some are arguing Tomboy is a lesbian-themed story rather than a trans-interest one), I also like this German production a lot. A male-appearing but secretly transgender young adult captures the eye and, eventually, the heart of a very hot gay boy. As false appearances and stereotypical expectations are gradually removed, the two forge a genuinely pioneering romance; well worth seeing. Rating: B+


Quite possibly the most ambitious production screening at Outfest was Woman's Picture. This evocation of/tribute to traditional women's genre films merely represents the first three segments of what is intended to be a 10-year film project masterminded by the highly intelligent and talented Brian Pera (The Way I See Things). Pera, looking Kevin Bacon-esque, co-stars alongside trans actress Calpernia Addams in the first part, "Ingrid." Singer Amy Lavere and the wonderful Anne Magnuson head up the other two, initial chapters. Woman's Picture, which Pera calls an homage to his grandmothers in the press notes, is a bit over-long and self-indulgent at times but it is also stylistically fascinating and beautifully shot by Ryan Parker. Given the film's presumably low budget, Pera deserves props for his economic technique, at least. Rating: B

Other award-winning movies screened during Outfest are Circumstance (Audience Award for Outstanding First US Dramatic Feature and Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Actress, Nikohl Boosheri; it also won the Audience Award at January's Sundance Film Festival and will be released theatrically at the end of August); the ingenious Shakespeare update Private Romeo, which won the Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Actor for its entire, all-male cast; and Tom Tykwer's bisexual-themed 3, which garnered Outfest's 2011 Audience Award for Outstanding Dramatic Feature Film.

The last two months have provided me a wonderful cinematic workout, but I'm ready for a celluloid-free vacation... right after I see the final chapter in the Harry Potter saga and Captain America, that is...

Report by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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