June is busting out all over and film festival season has begun in Los Angeles. Dances With Films (DWF), celebrating its “Sweet 16” edition, is running now through June 9 and will dovetail this weekend with the annual Los Angeles Greek Film Festival. Next week brings the LA FilmFestival, which will run June 13-23 and will be followed in early July by Outfest, the LA Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.
While DWF is a bit deficient with GLBT-themed movies this year, it does feature the LA premiere tonight of a romantic-comedy starring one of gaydom’s favorite actors. Cheyenne Jackson, Broadway’s hunky leading man as well as a regular on 30 Rock and other TV series, is the biggest name among the ensemble cast in Matthew Watts’ Mutual Friends. Gay fans may be disappointed to see the openly-gay Jackson play straight here but he impresses as usual with his turn as Christophe, an engaged man celebrating his 30th birthday. After making his entrance shirtless and in bed (thumbs up for that), the sweet but clueless Christophe is dispatched with for a while as his fiancée plans a surprise birthday party for him.
The party preparations end up serving as a catalyst for various tensions, explorations and revelations by the angst-ridden New Yorkers who are Christophe’s friends. His fiancée even realizes, quite predictably, by the party’s start that she is in love with another man. No less than seven screenwriters are credited for the film’s multiple storylines dealing with people “afraid of making a real connection.” While it is perfectly acceptable for Jackson to play a heterosexual man, I did find it odd that there are neither GLBT characters nor people of color among Mutual Friends’ fairly large cast of characters. They do live in NYC after all.
There are a number of very good, naturalistic performances rendered by the movie’s largely theatre-trained players, as well as some funny lines of dialogue in the script (example: Upon discovering Christophe’s initial, accidentally penis-shaped birthday cake, one party planner remarks “I hope it doesn’t taste like cock”). Mutual Friends is pleasurable enough in the watching but left me wanting more, especially more of Jackson.
A few other intriguing films screening during DWF are the world premiere of Automotive, a piece of modern noir told through “the eyes” of a 1964 Mercury car; Forever’s End, also a world premiere, in which the presumed last woman on earth following an apocalyptic event suddenly meets a strange man; the 1980’s-set, John Hughes-inspired Murt Ramirez Wants to Kick My Ass; and John V. Knowles’ Chastity Bites, a horror-comedy based on the real-life vampiress, Countess Elizabeth Bathory.
Meanwhile, over at the Writers’ Guild of America this Friday night will be the US premiere of Panagiotis Evangelidis’ provocative They Glow in the Dark. Though part of the LA Greek Film Festival due to the director’s national heritage, the documentary is a New Orleans-based examination of two gay longtime friends who have forged a threadbare life together in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. It recently won the prestigious FIPRESCI Award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.
Jim Baysinger and Michael Glaab moved to the Big Easy together from Illinois in late 2005 expecting to take part in an anticipated post-hurricane “renaissance” that, according to them, has yet to happen. They live in a formerly waterlogged house along with a number of stray cats and a dog they have taken in. Both men are HIV+ and “basically are partners,” according to Jim, although they no longer sleep together or have sex. They eke out a living selling luminescent figurines made by Jim of New Orleans’ legendary underworld guide Baron Samedi as well as bags of “ghost poop” to tourists.
They Glow in the Dark, well shot in verite style by Evangelidis himself, turns an unblinking eye on both the harsh reality of the men’s existence and the palpable devotion they share. “I wish I could take his pain away,” Jim says at one point regarding Michael’s AIDS-related neuropathy. Both Jim and Michael share their grief over past loves who have either died or weren’t meant to be had in the first place, but they often do so with a sense of humor. Attractive in their youth (Jim was even a frequent centerfold in gay men’s magazines), age, HIV and poverty have taken their toll. “I’ve got Nureyev’s butt and Golda Meir’s face,” bemoans Michael. “It’s just not fair.”
As Jim insightfully observes, “a lot of people come (to New Orleans) to either initiate or complete their self-destruction.” It seems clear by the film’s end, though, that he and Michael have gained a new lease on life as well as an enduring — and endearing — bond since they moved there. They Glow in the Dark serves as a memorable testament to love, regret and hope in the city of broken levees and dreams.
Not film fest-related but new on home videois this year’s hit comedy Identity Thief, starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy. I avoided the movie when it played in theaters due to the involvement of director Seth Gordon, whose last film was 2011’s inexplicably successful, truly horrible Horrible Bosses. Sent an advance copy of the Blu-ray, however, I did my critical duty and watched it… and was pleasantly surprised. Identity Thief is no classic but McCarthy’s vivid performance may well become one. Playing the title character, a gleefully morality-free Florida woman who nearly bankrupts Bateman’s family man, McCarthy is hilarious but brings a welcome, surprising poignancy to her role. Although it threatens to do so at one point, Craig Mazin’s script wisely avoids explaining how McCarthy’s Diana became the destructive force she is. Bateman serves as a great foil, even if his financial-minded character comes across as way too naïve initially. Identity Thief and, especially, McCarthy may well steal your heart.
Mutual Friends: B-
They Glow in the Dark: B+
Identity Thief: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.