Tuesday, June 15, 2010

FRAMELINE34 2010—Michael Hawley Preview Capsules

This year's edition of Frameline, the world's oldest and largest LGBT film festival, is set to kick off this Thursday, June 17 and will run until Pride Day on Sunday, June 27. Venues include the Castro, Roxie and Victoria Theaters in San Francisco as well as the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley. Here are capsule write-ups of 10 films I've previewed on DVD screener (except where noted), followed by a quick overview of several more.

Elvis and Madona (Brazil, dir. Marcelo Laffitte)—Certain to be one of Frameline34's biggest crowd-pleasers is this charmer about the unlikely romance between a dyke pizza delivery girl and a transvestite beautician. Elvis delivers a pizza on the fateful night Madona's boyfriend, "Tripod" João, robs her of the life savings she's squirreled away for staging a super-spectacular Copacabana drag show. Elvis, who's also an aspiring photographer, is instantly enamored of Madona and offers to shoot her publicity stills. Next thing you know, Elvis is pregnant by Madona and the drug-dealing João is in jail because of an incriminating Elvis-snapped newsphoto. Will Madona make one more porno with João to finance her show? Will Elvis forgive her for it? Will the menacing João kill them both? Not if the girls at the beauty parlor have anything to say about it. Effortlessly fun with flawless lead performances and colorful art direction, I won't be surprised if this takes the festival's audience award.

Plan B (Argentina, dir. Marco Berger)—After getting dumped by his girlfriend, scruffy slacker Bruno plans to get her back by seducing Pablo, her soft-spoken rumored-to-be-bisexual new boyfriend. It's a shaky premise requiring a heap of viewer patience, as the story twists its way through murky motivations and psychosexual machinations. It's two steps forward and one step back, as the guys develop a mutual Man Crush, but then repeatedly retreat to hetero safety. In other words, you'll be tearing your hair out right up until the end, wondering if they're gonna "do it." Sweet, smart and sexy, this film is everything last year's similarly-themed, infantile U.S. indie Humpday was not. One caveat—Plan B's narrative is strangely punctuated by still shots of desolate industrial landscapes. These aren't uninteresting in and of themselves and are perhaps meant to reflect the characters' internal something-or-other. But they're unnecessary and may prove to be the proverbial straw for some exasperated viewers. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar (USA, dir. James Rasin)—This lovely and moving portrait is a swell addition to the pantheon of documentaries about those who've been immortally name-checked in Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." In the back room at Max's Kansas City, Candy was everybody's darlin'; the smart, witty and gorgeous blonde transvestite who saw herself as a throwback to a Hollywood studio system that didn't quite translate into the world of New York underground cinema. Rasin's film incorporates a wealth of archival materials, plus interviews with suspects both usual (John Waters, Holly Woodlawn, Paul Morrissey) and unexpected (Fran Lebowitz, Michael Pollard, Julie Newmar) to understand both Darling and the era in which her star burned. The film is equally about one Jeremiah Newton, who as a young man was Darling's closest friend and confidant. After her death from lymphoma at age 29, Newton had the forethought to tape audio interviews with practically everyone who ever knew her, including Tennessee Williams who had starred her in his off-Broadway play "Small Craft Warnings." These interviews, along with letters, diaries (both lovingly voiced by Chloe Sevigny) and other ephemera Newton rescued from Darling's childhood home, occupy a big chunk of the film. Newton also became the keeper of Candy's ashes, and we watch as he places them in the burial plot he'll eventually join her in. Newton is expected to attend the Frameline screening, along with director Rasin and my personal fave Warhol superstar, Holly Woodlawn, herself long overdue for the feature documentary treatment already accorded Jackie, Joe and now Candy.

Dzi Croquettes (Brazil dir. Tatiana Issa, Raphael Alvarez)—For some, they were the first manifestation of a gay movement in Brazil, and to others they were a catalyst for ending that country's military dictatorship. This extraordinary and inspiring documentary recounts Dzi Croquettes' spectacular rise and fall as Brazil's preeminent ragtag-drag troupe of musical performance artists. Initially inspired by San Francisco's own Cockettes, they would surpass them both creatively and professionally—thanks in large part to the contribution of celebrated American dancer/choreographer/singer Lenny Dale. My favorite part of the film details their conquest of Europe, for which they set sail with two tons of costumes and three kilograms of marijuana hidden in rubber balls. Through the efforts of Liza Minnelli, they became the toast of Paris with the likes of Jeanne Moreau, Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve flocking to their shows. The directors had a dizzying amount of archival footage to work with, but unfortunately only five of the 13 original members are still around to recount their adventures. That responsibility falls upon several key characters instrumental to the scene, including Nega Wilma, the black woman who ruled the troupe's unruly São Paulo commune with a whip and a water hose. Oddly, Frameline has relegated the lone screening of this marvelous doc to an 11:00AM Monday time slot. If you can catch it, it'll be worth it. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

Uncle Bob (USA, dir. Robert Oppel)—Each year at Frameline there's a biographical documentary I like to file under "who knew?" In 1974, 36 million people watched Robert Opel streak by David Niven during the Oscars telecast. Thirty-six years later, Opel's nephew has made this tribute to his Uncle Bob—photographer, performance artist, theatrical producer (Divine's The Heartbreak of Psoriasis) and gallery owner (S.F.'s Fey-Way Gallery, one of the first in the country to exhibit Robert Mapplethorpe and Tom of Finland). Opel was murdered in his gallery in 1979 under extremely sketchy circumstances. To put it mildly, his nephew has long been obsessed with that event, and we see footage of him at age 13 conducting a mock murder trial. While the doc does a fine job at preserving Opel's legacy, it's equally about the nephew/director grasping for catharsis and proving himself a chip off the block. That becomes both the film's greatest weakness and its greatest strength.

The String (France/Belgium, dir. Medhi Ben Attia)—The last person I expected to find in a Frameline film was 72-year-old Italian screen legend Claudia Cardinale (, The Pink Panther). Yet there she is, resplendent as a Tunisian matriarch adjusting to the return from Europe of her arrogant, gay architect son. In the film's two loveliest moments she recalls her rebelliousness as a Catholic girl marrying into an Arab family, and dances with her son's male lover on the son's wedding day to a lesbian family friend he's impregnated so that she and her girlfriend can have a baby. Yes, you read that right. The most interesting element of this film is its portrait of an Arab society that seemingly co-exists with lesbian moms, gay sons who bed their mother's handyman, booze, discos, poppers and rough trade assignations in abandoned buildings. One keeps waiting for a violent, fundamentalist retribution to arrive. Happily, it doesn't. Otherwise, the Tunisian scenery is splendid, the titular metaphor is a bit creaky and the appearance of French-Arab actor Salim Kéchiouche (Criminal Lovers, Grand école) as the son's love interest is most welcome.

The Sea Purple (Italy, dir. Donatella Maiorca)—Purple is the perfect color to describe this outlandish, but highly watchable gender-bending melodrama set in 19th century Sicily. The plot is too convoluted—I mean complex—to recount here (the Frameline capsule does an excellent job), except to say that it involves two young women who are permitted to marry because of a bizarre set of circumstances. The script lays the drama on thick—bound breasts, a baby fetus in a jar, a blackmailed priest, imprisonment, drownings, beatings, death by childbirth, gender illusion—and it's all allegedly "inspired by a true story." Lots of handheld camera and a partial electro-rock score give it a contemporary feel, and the whole affair is handsomely photographed. Gay guys looking to see at least one lesbian feature in the festival should check it out—half-naked Sicilian quarry workers abound.

From Beginning to End (Brazil/Argentina/Spain dir. Aluízio Abranches)—If the Lifetime Channel were to make a weirdly idyllic, R-rated movie about incest between two hunky, privileged Brazilian half-brothers, it might come off something like this. Born six years apart to different fathers, Francisco and Thomas sail through childhood despite concerns that their relationship is "too intimate." Two out of three parents get abruptly bumped off mid-film, leaving the smitten siblings, now young adults, to unashamedly do their thing. "To understand our love they'd need to turn the world upside down," they opine. After much anguish, the younger bro is sent off to Russia (?!) for three years of Olympic training. Wedding rings are exchanged and we're asked to believe they remain chaste throughout the separation. What makes this overwrought affair watchable are the performances of Rafael Cardoso and João Gabriel Vasconcellos, who are smokin' hot and 100% convincing as half-brothers obsessively in love with each other.

The Sisters (Austria, dir. Manfred Hoschek)—Until the definitive Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence documentary comes along, this one will do nicely. Highlights include a peek inside the Sisters' San Francisco archives, plus footage of the Union Square exorcism of Pope John Paul II performed during a 1987 Bay Area papal visit. Sisters from Germany, Uruguay and of course, San Francisco (the fabulous Sister Dana and Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch) get profiled, while the bulk of the film spotlights the group's 2009 thirtieth anniversary celebration in Dolores Park. Even at a short 74 minutes, however, there's still too much extraneous material here. I could have easily done without all the shopping trips for beauty products. The film's post-script apologizes to those Sisters left out of the doc, which would include infamous Sister Boom Boom—a former S.F. mayoral candidate who converted to Islam in 2001.

Baby Jane? HR (USA dir. Billy Clift)—I prepped for this locally produced drag parody/remake by watching Robert Aldrich's 1962 original for the first time in 20 years. The sublime art direction belies the film's low-budget and the script is dotted with clever send-ups of its source material. Jane warbles "I've Scribbled a Postcard to Daddy," Bette/Joan movie titles get name-checked in the dialogue, and best of all, the part of nosy neighbor Mrs. Bates has been amplified to accommodate the talents of SF drag impresario Heklina. Unfortunately, the overall result is kind of flat, which will likely go unnoticed by an amped-up Frameline audience. Knock back a few pre-screening beers to get in the mood.

Quick Takes

I can heartily recommend Frameline34's Opening Night film (The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister), an absorbing British TV biopic about an 18th century landowning lesbian whose lusty, coded diaries were recently decrypted. I was equally taken by the fest's Centerpiece Film (Undertow), a poignant, metaphysically-tinged Sundance prize-winner from Peru about a life-changing love between a married fisherman and a vacationing artist. Both were screened for journalists at the Castro following the festival's press conference a few weeks back. Back in January I caught two of last year's most acclaimed LGBT films at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and was impressed by both. Nineteen-year-old French-Canadian Xavier Dolan wrote, directed and stars in I Killed My Mother, a scabrously funny and ultimately touching mother-son verbal slugfest, which I'm dying to see again at the Castro. The other is Eyes Wide Open, a compelling Israeli film about the clandestine love shared between a married, ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem butcher and the young man he takes on as an apprentice. At that same festival, I was less impressed with Brotherhood, a Danish gay-neo-Nazis-in-love movie that comes off as pure exploitation. Finally, I previewed two more films on DVD screener. Sasha is a fairly contrived My Big Fat Balkan Coming Out about a piano student madly in love with his teacher, which nonetheless makes some interesting observations about generational conflict in immigrant families. Then there's Norway's The Man Who Loved Yngve, a messy, directionless love story about confused teens in the 1980s.

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

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