Let’s get the elephant out of the room. It’s a sad coincidence (or a Russian plot if you prefer) that the movie so many gay men have been waiting for is opening opposite the 32nd Out on Film festival.
But remember, “Judy” will be on local screens for weeks and available in other formats forever. Most of the 126 LGBTQ features, shorts and web series from 16 countries that comprise Out on Film will be hard, if not impossible, to find if you miss their festival screenings.
According to recent surveys, same-sex marriage is approved of by half again as many Americans as Donald Trump. When did we get to be so normal?
Most of the films in this festival have at least one of three goals:
- Celebrating our victories: If you can barely remember when same-sex marriage was illegal, you need a history lesson from someone who remembers Stonewall and what life used to be like for LGBTQ people.
- Planning to move forward: There’s still room for improvement in achieving full equality, with new “religious freedom” laws legalizing discrimination, Trump banning trans troops, 40 percent of transgender teens attempting suicide, and many states not including us in their equality laws.
- Screw it. Let’s just tell a good story.
While I’m only reviewing features, don’t forget the 15 programs of shorts, many of them free. They’re perfect for brief attention spans, and if something doesn’t appeal to you, you’re only stuck with it for a few minutes, not an hour and a half or more.
The quality of festival films seems to improve every year, even if many are the work of novice filmmakers with little or no budget. Though few will have theatrical runs, many compare favorably with some of the films that open wide because they’re thought to have potential to reach a broader audience.
You can read elsewhere about distributors losing bundles by overestimating the appeal of movies they’ve released. It’s a tough call, even in programing a festival for a specialized audience, as Out on Film Director (and GA Voice contributor) Jim Farmer does so well.
While previewing this year’s Out on Film I watched “Sell By” and “Straight Up” back to back. I felt the former was a too-insidey story about a group of friends that keeps the rest of us at arm’s length, while the latter resonated with me so deeply I wasn’t sure anyone else would get it. (I’ve since talked to someone else who saw it and he enjoyed it as much as I did, so there are at least two of us; but a third didn’t like it at all.)
So while I’ll be offering positive and negative views on several films in this issue and the next and online, the best advice I can give is to take a chance if something sounds interesting to you. It would be a dull world if we all had the same taste.
Of the 20-some features I’ve previewed so far, I’d pick “Straight Up” as the best narrative film and “For They Know Not What They Do” as the best documentary.
This year’s festival runs Sept. 26-Oct. 6, with all films through Oct. 3 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinemas and the closing weekend at the Out Front Theatre Company and Plaza Theatre (as noted in reviews below). It’s always wise to check the festival’s website, http://www.outonfilm.org, for last-minute changes.
The ratings below are on a four-star scale, but I never give anything four stars.
FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO ***1/2
(Sept. 26, 7 p.m.)
Several of the year’s best screen dramas are collected in, of all things, a documentary! The subjects are so perfect I had to keep reminding myself they’re not actors, because they bring a sense of heightened reality to the stories they tell. These are four good Christian couples who each learned that one of the children they’d been raising was gay or transgender. Though I suspect at least some of them misremember their initial response (some form of “We love you no matter what,” they say), they all had to go through a process to come to full acceptance, not to mention what their children went through.
Thanks to photos and home videos we’re able to watch the kids grow. Most tell their own stories or augment their parents’ versions. The most prominent family is the Robertsons, devout evangelicals who had already accepted her gay brother ten years before their son Ryan came out to them at the age of 12. They tried various forms of therapy and praying away the gay without success, eventually driving Ryan down a dark path of trying to “cure” himself with drugs.
The McBrides had one of their three sons become a daughter, Sarah, when she transitioned at 21. The Porchers had a daughter who wanted to be a son, Elliot. The Febos are Catholic Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida. Their son Vico Báez Febo moved back to live with his grandmother, thinking it would be easier to come out away from his parents. Wrong!
The stories don’t all have happy endings, or even happy beginnings or middles. I don’t want to give away spoilers, even though some have been in press releases, because they had more impact when they caught me by surprise and I’d rather leave you that option.
With pro-discrimination laws multiplying, especially against transgenders, it’s comforting to know that anti-conversion therapy laws are too, and to see the collapse of Exodus International in this film, even though replacements sprang up quickly. Director Daniel G. Karslake has found the right people to tell the right stories that show true Christianity is about loving. Bring tissues to the screening, but don’t miss it!
END OF THE CENTURY **
(Sept. 26, 9:15 p.m.)
OK, Lucio Castro, you’re more literary than I am. At least I assume what makes your debut feature so incomprehensible is a literary device that’s above – or below – my pay grade.
It helps that Juan Barberini is good-looking because we spend the first 13 minutes of “End of the Century” looking at him, or looking at Barcelona through the eyes of his character, Ocho, before the first word is spoken. A plot has begun to develop by then because Javi (Ramon Pujol) has appeared in Ocho’s line of sight a few times. They fail to meet at an otherwise deserted beach but finally do, and are soon having hot sex.
They get to know each other on a second date in a long single take overlooking a lovely view of the city. “I feel like we’ve met before,” Ocho says. “We have met before,” Javi replies.
With a simple cut the scene changes. Are we in a flashback or an alternate universe as Ocho comes to stay with his friend Sonia (Mía Maestro)? They discuss mutual friends, her ex-boyfriend and his ex-girlfriend. Javi enters this story too, and establishes it as taking place 20 years ago, even though the men don’t look a day younger. Now that we know it was a flashback, we can return to the present and that Barcelona rooftop, to set up an ending that– I wouldn’t spoil it if I could.
“End of the Century” made me horny. Castro has some filmmaking skills and a fine cinematographer in Bernat Mestres, but he’s not much of a storyteller. Though I was repeatedly sucked into the tale, my ultimate takeaway is WTF?
BEFORE YOU KNOW IT **1/2
(Sept. 27, 7 p.m.)
“Calling card” movies are a mixed bag. For every “Sling Blade” there are thousands you never hear about. “Before You Know It” is no “Sling Blade” but it should bring attention to director/star Hannah Pearl Utt, who co-wrote it with co-star Jen Tullock. They play sisters who live with their father (Mandy Patinkin) in a Greenwich Village building above a theater-for-rent.
Rachel (Utt) is a lesbian, but that only figures in bookend scenes that seem to be included only to get the film into this festival. Jackie (Tullock) is the older but less responsible sister, who’s raising her own 12-year-old daughter. They believe their mother died when they were very young, but when their father dies they learn she’s alive, owns their building, and is famous soap opera star Sherrell (Judith Light).
They force their way into her world and she’s surprisingly welcoming, considering that she’s ignored them for three decades or so. About the only explanation she offers is, “I have a low tolerance for controlling men.”
But this movie isn’t meant to be taken seriously and can be enjoyed for some insiders’ insights into the worlds of Off-Off-Broadway and TV’s daytime dramas. Alec Baldwin appears in two scenes as a therapist who needs a therapist. This isn’t a must-see but it’s a fairly pleasant experience.
FROM ZERO TO I LOVE YOU *
(Sept. 27, 9 p.m.)
I don’t have to see all the competition to name “From Zero to I Love You” the worst film of the festival. From its basic plot to details large and small, it’s a textbook example of getting everything wrong.
Jack (Scott Bailey) is married for 12 years and two daughters to Karla (Keili Lefkovitz) before he resumes acting on the gay urges he felt in high school. After numerous meaningless tricks he meets Pete (Daryl Stephens) and embarks on a yearlong affair. He’s forgetful and disorganized but Karla remains clueless.
Pete seems like a decent guy but Jack is the fourth married man he’s been involved with. (They’ve all been white, Pete’s black; so some racial issues can be wedged into director Doug Spearman’s script.)
The melodramatic complications pile up. In my head I could hear the narrator from “Jane the Virgin” saying, “Straight out of a telenovela, right?” But “Jane” is a spoof of telenovelas and we’re supposed to take this seriously, even rooting for Jack and Pete to get together for a happy ending when they don’t deserve one after all the lives they’ve harmed.
Like a film from the 1940s, intense passion is represented by chaste kisses. Supporting characters are poorly defined and easily confused. What’s the point of the therapist Jack tells his story to, saying he doesn’t want to be gay or bi when his actions prove otherwise?
The actors neither distinguish nor embarrass themselves, with Stephens evoking the most sympathy, not for his character but for himself for being trapped in this mess.
SELL BY **
(Sept. 28, 9:15 p.m.)
The honeymoon is over for Adam (Scott Evans) and Marklin (Augustus Prew) after five years together. They’re not married but they might as well be. Or not. Marklin has struck it rich with a fashion website, while Adam is struggling as a painter, doing works in the style of a pretentious artist (Patricia Clarkson – blink and you’ll miss her) who sells them as her own. They’re part of a group of mostly thirtysomething New York yuppies, all of whom have their own stories.
Cammy (Michelle Buteau) is dating a homeless man (Colin Donnell). Haley (Zoe Chao), in a plot point that probably foresaw the recent scandal, wrote a college admission essay for the teenager (Christopher Gray) she’s tutoring, who has a crush on her. Elizabeth (Kate Walsh) is married to Damon (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) but finds out he’s been cheating. That doesn’t sound like a problem to Adam, who says, “Men are men and we separate things easier.” Yet he finds something he can’t excuse Marklin for, even with the couples counselor they’ve been seeing. It’s a strange place to draw a line, but men are men.
The first feature by writer-director Mike Doyle, “Sell By” seems to have been made by and for the characters it’s about. If you don’t fit in with their clique, and I don’t, you can feel excluded; and I did. Rarely did the writing or acting draw me into their problems as most of them dug deeper holes for themselves while supporting each other.
THE GARDEN LEFT BEHIND ***
(Sept. 29, 5 p.m.)
Tina (Carlie Guevara) came to New York from Mexico at five. Now she’s pushing 30 and lives with her grandmother (Miriam Cruz), who still calls her Antonio but is otherwise supportive. Tina lives as a woman but is just starting the process of actually transitioning. She has frequent sessions with a psychologist (Ed Asner) in hopes of getting a “gender dysphoria” diagnosis that will allow her to proceed with hormones and perhaps surgery.
The first feature directed and co-written by Flavio Alves subtly peppers its dramatic story with a lot of information about the nuts and bolts of gender reassignment and the problems transgenders face, from bullying and violence to excessive expenses required of them to the benefit of the medical establishment. A session with a “speech pathologist” seems like a particularly needless extravagance.
The script glosses over questions of how Tina raises enough money to support her grandmother and herself, plus her extra expenses, by driving a rideshare; but it wisely prefers to focus on Tina’s supportive, already transitioned friends; a developing romance with Jason (Alex Kruz); and Chris (Anthony Abdo), the mysterious convenience store clerk who’s obsessed with Tina. Does Chris want to screw her or does he want to be her? This thread will keep you guessing.
“The Garden Left Behind” covers a lot of bases, most of them very well. It’s like a contemporary version of “Pose,” without the ballroom aspect.
GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH ***
(Sept. 29, 7:15 p.m.)
I’ve lived in the South more than half of my life and San Francisco for about a fifth. This gives me a rooting interest for both sides in David Charles Rodrigues’ documentary about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ Lavender Pen Tour of five Southern states after the 2016 election polarized the country further.
The idea was to start a conversation in states that were passing “religious freedom” laws to permit “faith-based” discrimination against LGBT people. Accompanied by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, only a third of whom are gay, the chorus gave 25 performances in a week in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. (Georgia was spared – apparently we’re too woke.)
If you go to the film just for the music, you may be disappointed and wish they would “Talk less. Sing more.” There are several well-sung songs in rehearsals and performances, but a conversation requires talking and there’s a lot of that. Chorus members and others express their views and tell their personal stories of separation from churches and families after coming out. The most chilling comes from SFGMC Artistic Director Tim Seelig. A few chorus members have touching family reunions along the way.
Audiences in some places seem pretty gay, while others are quite the opposite. Some people are truly welcoming and others demonstrate “Bless your heart” hypocrisy. At least the chorus traveled with more freedom and acceptance than Dr. Don Shirley in his day.
The tour probably did some good and the film will do some more. It reminds us how much can be accomplished by leaving our bubble, getting to know the people we disagree with and letting them get to know us.
THE BLOND ONE **1/2
(Sept. 29, 9:30 p.m.)
“The Blond One” inspired me to define a bisexual male as a man who wants to have his cock and eat it too. Sorry, but the mind has plenty of time to wander. Most foreign films require more patience than American viewers are used to. This one, written and directed by Marco Berger, may set a new world record in that regard, but not without a reason.
Nothing happens for more than half an hour. Brief scenes introduce the Buenos Aires locales, the main characters, their friends, families and co-workers.
Juan (Alfonso Barón) has rented his spare room to Gabriel (Gastón Re), with whom he works at a lumber mill. Juan’s girlfriend Natalia visits often and spends the night. Gabo, who says he’s “sort of” seeing Julia, has a seven-year-old daughter from a previous marriage who lives with his parents in a remote suburb.
The guys don’t exchange meaningful glances but sometimes Juan looks at Gabo or Gabo looks at Juan. There’s a great shot (repeated too often) where they’re facing each other on a crowded train and the angle makes it look like they’re about to kiss.
The sexual tension mounts ever so slowly. It’s frustrating but effective. With an audience of healthy gay men the characters may be the last ones in the room to reach orgasm. Then there’s a lot more sitting around and standing around, and when neither man has anything else to do they do each other. Near the end of the film each one finally gives a soliloquy that explains his feelings.
I can’t think of another movie like this. I didn’t like being sort of bored much of the time, but I can’t deny being seriously turned on, even though I didn’t find either actor especially attractive.
AN ALMOST ORDINARY SUMMER **1/2
(Sept. 30, 7 p.m.)
This year’s Big Gay Italian Wedding isn’t as good as last year’s, but it’s not bad. Still, it’s a bit disappointing that the dramedy runs out of laughs about halfway through and stays serious until the credit sequence.
Taking place in Italy, the planned ceremony can only be a civil union; but first the men, who call each other Dado and Dodo, have to scale some hurdles in their respective families. Those families – and they’re large enough to keep you figuring out who’s who through most of the movie – meet at the fabulous vacation home of Toni (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), who has invited his own family to celebrate his birthday and supposedly rented the guest house to Carlo (Alessandro Gassmann), the widower he plans to marry, and his family.
Neither clan was told in advance and while Toni’s led a wild life, Carlo’s interest in a man comes as a total shock to his brood, especially his homophobic son Sandro (Filippo Scicchitano). Soon the latter is plotting with Toni’s daughter Penny (Jasmine Trinca, the film’s standout performer) to derail the men’s plans. Penny’s mother, who never married Toni, comes around to help her.
Carlo’s about a generation younger than Toni and has a son and a grandson who are both tweens. Penny and her half-sister were born a month apart, to different mothers. While we’re sorting out their relationships, the characters are getting acquainted and adjusting to the new situation – or not.
Keeping track of all that while reading subtitles make “An Almost Ordinary Summer” more of a chore than it should be; hence the need for more comic relief. But the overall story of two older men finding themselves and each other makes it worth the effort.
LEONARD SOLOWAY’S BROADWAY ***
(Oct. 1, 5 p.m.)
Though it’s changing somewhat, it’s always been easier to be out on Broadway than in Hollywood. That’s not what attracted Leonard Soloway. He was just born a theater queen. If you were too, as I was, you’ll enjoy Jeff Wolk’s biographical film.
I should explain that Soloway has been a fixture in New York theater for 70 years or so, but in spotlight-averse roles like producer and general manager for many of the more than a 100 shows he’s been involved with. His age is established at the outset as 90 (“We’d better hurry,” he jokes, “because I don’t have much time”), but the film’s framework involves his efforts three years earlier, in 2014, to bring Maurice Hines to New York in “Tappin’ Thru Life.” It shows what a producer does and illustrates Soloway’s complaint that it’s all about the money today.
The story of this journey takes up less than a quarter of the film. The rest is Soloway and his friends tracing his story back to his Cleveland childhood with daddy issues. In 1950 he married actress Betty Gillette. “She brought up the gay thing before I did,” he says, telling how that led to their divorce. Fellow producer Manny Azenberg says, “Leonard was gay and Jewish before anyone was gay and Jewish.”
Soloway dishes about people he’s worked with and become friends with, including Marlene Dietrich, Carol Channing, Liberace, Lauren Bacall, Bernadette Peters, Elizabeth Ashley (who can’t speak without emoting), Olympia Dukakis and Whoopi Goldberg, some of whom dish about him too. There are no outings – it’s not that kind of movie. If Soloway had any major relationships they’re not mentioned, but he does show off photos of a few old boyfriends – lovely but unfamiliar faces.
Whatever it is that appeals to you about the theater – history, behind-the-scenes, gossip – you’ll get at least a taste of it here, and see why even a 90-year-old can’t quit it.
SCREAM, QUEEN! MY NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET ***
(Oct. 1, 7 p.m.)
I didn’t know – or had forgotten – that “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” was a gay cult classic. Film festivals are so educational! This documentary by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen begins with an excellent montage that’s a refresher course in the horror films of the ‘80s, the heyday of the slasher movie. Given this context we’re told the success of Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in 1984 spawned a hasty sequel the following year, written by David Chaskin and directed by Jack Sholder, neither of whom would do much of note afterward.
Nor would their star, Mark Patton, the real subject of “Scream, Queen!” He made a convincing – and attractive – teenager in his mid-20s and thought this starring role was his ticket to fame and fortune. But in the early days of the real-life horror known as AIDS, in fact the year Rock Hudson died, the world wasn’t ready for a male scream queen. His character, Jesse Walsh, wasn’t necessarily gay, but he screamed like a girl. Patton, in the throes of Pride and fresh from New York where actors weren’t so closeted, wasn’t too careful about concealing his own sexuality. Though not quite in-your-face, the movie was gay enough to trigger a homophobic backlash and put the brakes on Patton’s career. He vanished from sight for almost 25 years, until the makers of another “Elm Street” documentary tracked him down. This led to a new career: attending horror movie conventions, including a yearlong celebration of the 30th anniversary of “Nightmare 2” in 2015.
A contributing factor to the abrupt end of Patton’s acting career was Chaskin’s statement in an interview that the “gay subtext” in his script was made more overt by the unfortunate casting of Patton, who played Jesse too gay. Another factor, though the film’s not clear on the timeline, is that Patton’s lover, fellow actor Timothy Patrick Murphy, died of AIDS and Patton later tested positive and was very sick before medication brought it under control.
That’s a story worth making a movie about, and they’ve made a good one. Patton is sympathetic without turning it into a pity party, and the story builds to a confrontation between Patton and Chaskin after the 2015 tour. Several actors from “Nightmare 2” – including Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund – offer comments, as do a film professor and some drag queens. Nine years after “Nightmare 2,” Tom Hanks would win an Oscar for playing gay in “Philadelphia.” Timing is everything, and the time is right for “Scream, Queen!” which could be subtitled “Mark’s Revenge.”
BILLIE & EMMA ***
(Oct. 1, 9:15 p.m.)
As Filipino lesbian high school romances go… I’m not sure how they go because I don’t know that there’s ever been another one. “Billie & Emma” may be to girls in the Philippines what “Love, Simon” was to boys in the U.S.; and it won’t hurt American girls to see it either.
Back in the ‘90s (OMG! No cell phones!), Isabelle, known as Billie (Zar Donato), comes from Manila to stay in a smaller town with her aunt (Cielo Aquino) and attend the Catholic school where her aunt teaches. She wears the school uniform but her boots and butch haircut make her stand out, as does her challenge to the teacher when the first lesson of the day is “Homosexuality is a sin.”
Emma (Gabby Padilla) is one of the smartest, most popular girls in school. She quickly forms a love-hate relationship with Billie that moves almost as quickly toward the love side as they work together on a class project. But Emma has a boyfriend, Miguel (Ryle Paolo Santiago), who gets her pregnant. This could cost her the scholarship she’s been working toward, but Catholic schools don’t encourage abortion either.
Emma, whose mother is an aggressive cosmetics saleswoman, falls more deeply in love with Billie. At about the two-thirds point there’s a moment when the curtain could fall and everyone would go away satisfied – the perfect happy ending; but there are a few more complications – and a big surprise – before class is dismissed.
The film’s novelty gives writer-director Samantha Lee (an outspoken LGBT advocate in the Philippines) a lot of responsibility and she takes on even more, besides throwing in some mass appeal items like a talent competition. It’s remarkable how smoothly she makes it all work together at a good pace without seeming rushed.
If the dialogue weren’t partially in Tagalog (subtitled, as is the English, because they’re frequently mixed), you could mistake this for an American film, except that it’s not always clear which are the mean girls. They all gossip behind each other’s backs, but they all have each other’s backs when there’s a crisis.
(Oct. 2, 7 p.m.)
I lived in San Francisco in the 1980s, between my Atlanta stints, so this documentary by Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss about the first decade of HIV/AIDS is full of bittersweet memories for me. But even if you followed the news from a distance, knowing the bomb would eventually drop where you were, if you were a gay adult at the time you weren’t untouched by the pandemic.
While many doctors and nurses, let alone friends and relatives, were afraid to go near AIDS patients before anything was known about the disease but its high fatality rate, San Francisco General became the first U.S. hospital to have a separate AIDS ward, Ward 5B, where the patients could receive compassionate care from health care professionals and volunteers who were willing to take calculated risks to be humane. Several of them survived to take part in this film, which is a well-deserved tribute to them.
The era has been documented, mostly in a fictional context, in the films “An Early Frost,” “Buddies,” “And the Band Played On,” “Parting Glances” and “Philadelphia”; and the plays “As Is,” “The Normal Heart” and “Angels in America.” If you’re researching the period, add “5B” to your list of resources, to see some real heroes, as well as patients who didn’t require makeup to look like they were wasting away.
(Oct. 2, 7:15 p.m.)
Even his mother (Patricia Richardson) recognizes that Mark (Mark Blane) is “somewhat unbearable.” That could be seen as a warning by potential viewers who avoid unbearable people, but don’t let it scare you off. The 30-ish Mark ranges from lovable (when he’s on his meds) to scary (when he’s off them).
He’s lived at home in Indiana until now, channeling his gay sexual desires into drawing pictures he’s imagined or copied from porn. But now Mom has driven him to New York, where he claims to have a job as a gallery receptionist. He finds a group apartment he can share through a guy he lusted after in college, and gets actual work babysitting a six-year-old, Milo (Joseph Seuffert).
Milo becomes Mark’s best friend, but Mark also has an imaginary friend, Leather-Man (Christian Patrick), who he discovered in a hidden magazine when he was six years old. His first actual crush in New York is Russell (Rodney Richardson), who may share his interest.
If you take “Cubby” too seriously you can question whether Mark, who never has enough money, is capable of living on his own; but this is a movie that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. We’re constantly reminded of that by animated sketches and other effects that would once have been described as “trippy.”
Blane, who actually hails from Indiana, wrote “Cubby” himself, directed it with Ben Mankoff and was one of several producers. It’s an impressive enough debut that one hopes it’s not the only story this multitalent has to tell.
THE SHINY SHRIMPS ***
(Oct. 3, 7:15 p.m.)
It’s not whether you win or lose that counts, it’s whether your opponent wins or loses. That’s my philosophy, not that of the Shiny Shrimps, the gay water polo team (based on a real team) in this French comedy.
It would be just another “Bad News Bears” knockoff, about a reluctant coach turning a bunch of losers into champions, if it weren’t for the gay angle; but as we all know, what a difference a gay makes! The coach is Matthias (Nicolas Gob), an Olympic swimmer who called an obnoxious TV interviewer a “faggot.” To redeem himself he’s sent to coach the Shiny Shrimps for three months, then accompany them to the Gay Games in Croatia.
The Shrimps haven’t played in a couple of years, since their leader, Jean (Alban Lenoir) came down with cancer. He’s back on the team, where every player has a story, some more dramatic or melodramatic than others. The young newbie, Vincent, is just coming out; his opposite is Joel, a grumpy old man. Fred used to be Fredo but she transitioned recently and is more interested in choreographing a number for the team than playing the game. Alex was Jean’s lover and still loves him. (How did they get around the “No shagging between Shrimps” rule?) Damien is lonely, Xavier is promiscuous. Cedric has a husband and year-old twins, and has to sneak off to play with the Shrimps. Coach Matthias shares custody of a young daughter, who takes an instant liking to the Shrimps when he brings her to a training session. It takes him a lot longer to warm to them, but you don’t want to bet against it happening.
After a funny start the movie gets a bit overly dramatic as the various stories play out, but it retains a positive energy that saves the day. That Matthias is bald suggests they’re hoping to get Dwayne Johnson to star in an American remake. (It would be a stretch to have him play 33, so don’t mention his age.) “La Cage aux Folles” became “The Birdcage.” “The Shiny Shrimps” could be remade as successfully and do as much good in reducing homophobia.
ALL MALE, ALL NUDE: JOHNSON’S **1/2
(Oct. 3, 9:15 p.m.)
Close your eyes and just listen to the pious platitudes and you may think this documentary is about a monastery rather than a strip club. A monastery that plays continuous dance music by Corey Tut, but a monastery. Except that from what I hear, there’s more gay sex in a monastery. In Johnsons there’s just a lot of flirting, groping and lap dancing as men spin around on poles in their underwear. That underwear – jockstraps in many cases – makes the film’s title deceptive but allows Johnsons to be classified as a “go-go bar” (I didn’t know that was still a thing) rather than a strip club.
This is Gerald McCullouch’s follow-up to 2017’s “All Male, All Nude,” which was about Atlanta’s Swinging Richards. Footage from that club, along with locker room scenes, provide some full nudity in the new film but not enough to justify the title.
Johnsons is a bar in Fort Lauderdale-adjacent Wilton Manors, Florida. It was opened by former Swinging Richards d.j. Matt Colunga, an award-winning body builder. Testimonials of customers and present and former dancers and staff lend credence to his claims of running a clean business and being good to the people who work for him. The money being thrown around and stuffed into “mini-ATMs,” as some guys call their underwear, could adequately decorate the set of a mid-budget movie about drug cartels.
Wilton Manors is America’s second gayest city per capita. Gary Resnick, the city’s openly gay mayor for ten years, offers a Chamber of Commerce pitch for the place. Though Resnick seems supportive of Johnsons, Colunga says they’re often hassled by police and lost most of their parking lot because of a selectively enforced law.
We get to know Alexander, Javi (not their real names) and some of the other Johnsons dancers, about half of whom are straight! We don’t even have to pay ten bucks to get into the VIP Room, where private dances take place but the curtains remain partially open at all times.
Dancers say they’re selling “illusions” and “fantasy.” Ol’ skeptical me thought McCullouch might be doing the same thing, but I still appreciated getting some insight into the club business. And some of the guys weren’t too hard to look at.
(Oct. 4, 7 p.m.)
“Bit” is an ambitious attempt to reinvent the teen vampire genre, but it bites off more than it can chew.
After a confusing opening, we attend a high school graduation party in Oregon. Laurel (Nicole Maines, who looks old enough to be in “Grease”) is taking a gap summer to stay with her brother (James Paxton) in L.A. and decide what she wants to do with her life. That life is extended indefinitely when she’s sucked into a group of lesbian vampires, led by Duke (Diana Hopper). It’s neither obvious nor relevant that Laurel and the actress who plays her, who also appears on “Supergirl,” are both trans.
The lesbian aspect of Duke’s gang is less important than their feminism. (Lesbian vampire movies are so early ‘70s.) Such tropes as sunlight, garlic and crosses are dismissed at the outset. The rules that replace them in “Bit” require a lot of exposition. (“Never turn a man. They have power already and look what they’ve done with it.”) Fortunately the lengthiest of these scenes is accompanied by an interesting montage that traces the history of Duke and The Master (Greg Hill in the film’s worst performance), whose heart she keeps locked in a vault.
The effects are above par for the budget – beating hearts, a moderate amount of blood and a great head-stomping shot. The political points are questionable, since the film’s cure for toxic masculinity could be seen as worse than the disease; but maybe that’s intentional since writer-director Brad Michael Elmore is a dude.
Though it’s billed as a “horror comedy,” the humor in “Bit” is as understated as the trans factor. A superfluous scene shows us these vampires can fly, but there are no bats in the movie – just people who are batshit crazy.
CHANGING THE GAME ***
(Oct. 5, 2 p.m., Out Front)
Should there be a “T” in Team? Michael Barnett’s documentary about three transgender high school athletes in different states with different rules, studies legitimate questions, if from an admittedly biased point of view. Sympathetic or not, no approach fully resolves the issue of testosterone, natural or injected, giving an individual an unfair advantage over cisgender female competitors.
Mack Beggs agrees and wants to wrestle on the boys’ team but Texas law won’t let him because he was born female. Against girls he’s unbeatable. In New Hampshire Sarah Rose Huckman is forbidden to compete against other girls in skiing until she’s completed gender reassignment surgery. She focuses more on activism, organizing on behalf of nondiscrimination laws and vlogging about her own transitioning to make it easier for others to follow.
In Connecticut, where gender identity is the only criterion for which team to play on, Andraya Yearwood is a track star whose openness inspires another teen, Terry Miller, to follow in her fast-moving footsteps. Again, they seem to have an unfair advantage.
Negative opinions are expressed, but even if protestors are standing up for the rights of their cisgender daughters, most are portrayed as snarling haters, while Mack, Sarah and Andraya are defended by supportive parents, grandparents and coaches who are shown as heroes. It may require the wisdom of Solomon to come up with a solution that’s fair to every body.
The film’s not “fair and balanced,” but it can save the lives of some young transgenders, 40 percent of whom attempt suicide. That and getting to know three likable young folks make “Changing the Game” supremely worthwhile.
MOM + MOM ***
(Oct. 5, 9 p.m., Out Front)
I generally have as much interest in seeing stories of women trying to get pregnant as I have the desire to impregnate one, but I enjoyed being plunged into the wacky world of Karole (Linda Caridi) and Ali (Maria Roveran) as they attempt to make it happen.
Director and co-writer Karole Di Tommaso based the story on her own experience in Italy, where the law forbids lesbians to co-parent. The women have to go to Barcelona to get Ali inseminated, and they’re not immediately successful.
The film is crammed with dreams, memories and fantasies; and supporting characters including friends, family members and a crippled neighbor who’s a good businessman. We’re still allowed to focus on the two women but Di Tommaso’s overabundant imagination makes everything around them fuzzy and gives the impression that everyone in Italy (except our heroines, of course) is eccentric.
The sponge who lives with them, Andrea (Andrea Tagliaferri), is either Ali’s brother or “like a brother” to her. Karole has a for-sure brother, which made me wonder why he doesn’t inseminate Ali and make the eventual baby more directly related to Karole. By the time I thought of that I’d long since been lured to the film’s odd wavelength and found it too irresistible to be spoiled by logic.
STRAIGHT UP ***1/2
(Oct. 5, 9:30 p.m., Plaza)
“Straight Up” appealed to me on such a deep personal level, I hesitate to recommend it to anyone else without a test to show we have the same DNA. Writer-director James Sweeney, who also stars as Todd, even has some physical resemblance to my much younger self, although I don’t share all aspects of his character. Todd has OCD and can’t stand bodily fluids; hence he doesn’t want to have sex – with anyone. He’s obviously gayer than I was on the gayest day of my life; but he won’t acknowledge it, even when his only friends, a straight woman and a gay man, say they have no doubt.
At first Todd doesn’t seem like someone you’ll want to spend the next 95 minutes with. Nor does Rory (Katie Findlay), a wannabe actress who blows every audition and pisses off fellow members of an improv group. Even her temporary career as a waitress ends badly.
Individually they’re a mess, but once they get together there’s hope – for them and the movie. Even if you can’t follow all their rapid-fire intellectual chatter it’s delightful to watch them chattering.
Rory’s not a big fan of sex either, but she’s not as opposed to it as Todd. Will that be a dealbreaker when they’re so compatible in all other respects? That certainly adds an element of suspense to this odd romcom.
I think the moment my liking of the film turned to loving was when “We Need to Talk about Kevin” popped up among its many pop culture references (especially The Gilmore Girls). That’s not the sort of thing a respectable, objective critic would admit; but the happiest times of my career are when I see something that knocks the objectivity out of me.
Take a chance. Maybe we’re related.
MAKING SWEET TEA ***
(Oct. 6, 4:15 p.m., Out Front)
There’s so much to like about “Making Sweet Tea” I can pretty much excuse the haphazard organization that becomes distracting when you try to put the pieces together in your head and find some are missing.
Sweet tea – I never realized how much sugar it takes to sweeten it – is a part of the Southern upbringing in the mid- to late-20th century of the black gay men we meet here, as much as religion, poverty, bullying, discrimination and police harassment.
We’re reminded early on that “tea” is also gay slang for personal information, revealed either by the person themself or by others as gossip. First we meet Dr. E. Patrick Johnson (call him Patrick) as he visits his mother in Hickory, NC. The other men we’ll meet are among the dozens profiled in his book (one of several he’s authored), “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South.” Patrick – er, Dr. Johnson – is also a professor at Northwestern.
Amazon gives the publication date of “Sweet Tea” as 2011 but the film is at least partly about adapting the book into a stage play – apparently a solo show with Patrick playing all the characters – which premiered in 2010 at Chicago’s About Face Theatre.
Patrick became friends with the men he interviewed for the book, at least the ones who participate in the film and are portrayed in the play. Some of them have died since they were filmed; but while we’re kept informed of the places we’re visiting, including Atlanta and Decatur, there’s no indication of whether what we’re seeing was shot last week or ten or more years ago. After six subjects are introduced, some aren’t seen again for nearly an hour, so good luck remembering who’s who.
Charles Kenneth Danner, Jr. is a hairdresser who chose celibacy because he believed his church’s condemnation of gay sex. He also had a career as a drag queen. Duncan Teague came out after a gay friend was murdered. He worked for AID Atlanta and is a Unitarian minister. Shean Atkins struggled to come out to his mother when he turned 25. Freddie Styles is an artist who paints with pine needles. He was also an avid gardener until his partner got sick and needed care. Harold Mays married his partner, also Harold (Herman), just before their 50th anniversary. “Countess Vivian” (George Eagerson) was a New Orleans fixture who died two months before turning 100.
These men – and Patrick – have many stories to tell, including love stories, some of them interracial. Patrick does a good job of telling them in the men’s voices as he gives some of them a private preview of his show, but the film is at its best in the many times when it just lets the men spill their own tea.