FRAMELINE35 2011: Michael Hawley's Narrative Feature Capsule Reviews


[Our thanks to Michael Hawley for dispatching from San Francisco's Frameline 35.]

The 35th anniversary edition of the Frameline SF International LGBT Film Festival launched on Thursday, June 16 and continues right up through Gay Pride Day on Sunday, June 26. I've had the chance to preview 14 films from the line-up: the eight narrative features below and six documentaries I've placed in a separate entry. All were seen on DVD screener and where applicable I've noted any special guests that are expected to attend the screenings. These 14 capsule reviews represent only a fraction of the 80 feature films Frameline will show this year, so if you haven't already done so, check out my extensive overview of the line-up. Films I look forward to seeing during the festival itself include Absent, Old Cats, Madame X, The Mouth of the Wolf, Miwa: A Japanese Icon, Daniel Schmid--Le chat qui pense, Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Adventure and The Queen Has No Crown. Finally, in a year when the sheer number of transgender films warranted a special Transgender Film Focus in the festival, it was interesting to note that both my favorite narrative feature (Tomboy) and my favorite documentary (Angel) each explore transgender themes.

logo4.pngTomboy (France, dir. Céline Sciamma)--It's the summer before 4th grade and Laure's family has moved to a new town. When a potential playmate mistakes her for a boy, athletic Laure plays along and becomes Mikael to all the neighborhood kids--a charade that's kept hidden from her parents until just before the start of school. This complex and intelligent tale about gender identity won a jury prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival and it's now one of my favorite films of the year. Writer/director Sciamma has fashioned a heartfelt, matter-of-fact look at a difficult subject without a single dramatic false note or emotional misstep. Her job was no doubt made easier by actress Zoé Héran, on whose young face we can already read the anxiety of being trapped in the wrong body and the exhilaration of being temporarily freed from it.

Weekend (UK, dir. Andrew Haigh)
--Two British gay men hook up on a Friday night--one a reserved, semi-closeted lifeguard and the other an art gallery worker who pushes his sexuality in people's faces. Over the course of 48 hours fueled by alcohol, drugs, sex and a lot of talking, the pair forges the kind of accelerated intimacy that would seem the sole province of gay men. In this remarkable narrative feature debut, director Haigh conveys in small steps how it's possible for two different and imperfect people to move toward something better than themselves. And far from being the claustrophobic two-hander I expected, the film wisely takes time to open up and observe our protagonists interacting with the outside world. Haigh, whose hustler documentary Greek Pete was a highlight of Frameline33, is expected to be present at Weekend's screening.

Leave It on the Floor (USA, dir. Sheldon Larry)
--The world of urban ballroom culture depicted in Jennie Livingston's 1991 documentary Paris is Burning--think voguing, throwing shade and schoolboy realness--is given the full-blown movie musical treatment in this ambitious contempo L.A. updating. Our enrée into this milieu is Brad, a gay teen who leaves home and finds acceptance and mucho d-r-a-m-a living in the House of Eminence, a commune of competitive drag queen castaways ruled by the no-nonsense Queef Latina. The songs, which range from hyper-choreographed production numbers (the show-stopping "Justin's Gonna Call") to aching ballads ("It's Just Black Love") mostly do what songs in a musical should do--amplify emotions and propel the story forward. I have a feeling this will be the uproarious screening of Frameline35, given its vibe and prime Friday night slot during Pride weekend. The film's director and four of its actors will be there as well.

L.A. Zombie (USA/France/Germany, dir. Bruce La Bruce)
--Ghoul-ed out French porn star François Sagat wanders a desolate urban landscape and screws the marginalized dead back to life with his big, prosthetic zombie dick. The grand surprise is that all this is quite touching, silly and disgusting in equal measure. There's no dialogue to speak of--unusual for La Bruce, a director known for characters that rarely stop yammering. The resulting aural void gets filled by ambient sound and an effective electro/classical score. Working with longtime DP James Carman, this is La Bruce's most visually accomplished film to date and much of their color-heightened imagery is haunting and gorgeous. Still, I missed the politics, snotty humor and raggedness of the provocateur's previous work. Monsieur La Bruce, a longtime Frameline habitué, is scheduled to attend the screening.

A Few Days of Respite (Algeria/France, dir. Amor Hakkar)
--Moshen and Hassan are cross-generational gay lovers fleeing Iran. En route to Paris they get waylaid in a French village where the older Moshen becomes fatefully entangled with a lonely widow. Oddly, the men are given no backstory and speak to each other in French instead of Farsi. Events which might have played out believably over the course of a week's time raise red flags of implausibility when crammed into the narrative's two-day time frame. Still, the story is not uninteresting and the film manages a quiet grace despite the clunkiness. And there's certainly no faulting its humanist intentions. Performances are solid, with Samir Guesmi, a French-Arab actor seen in recent films by Rachid Bouchareb and Arnaud Desplechin playing younger Hassan and director Hakkar taking on the role of Moshen.

Three (Germany, dir. Tom Tykwer)
--A shaggy art engineer says farewell to his "deterministic understanding of biology" when he embarks on an affair with a rugged bisexual stem cell researcher in Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) first German language film in 10 years. Complicating matters is the researcher's simultaneous fling with a tightly-wound talk show hostess who has been the engineer's romantic partner for 20 years. No one knows that the other two sides of the triangle are getting it on. Throw in multiple split-screens, graphic testicular surgery, metaphysical goings-on, interpretive dance and athletic camera movements and it all adds up to something fairly uneven and incohesive upon first viewing--especially on DVD screener. Tykwer, a multi-level operator and strong visualist, certainly deserves the big screen experience for which the Castro Theatre is so well suited.

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (USA dir. Madeleine Olinek)
--Frameline35's best-titled flick is a potentially terrific short stretched into a feature-length film of modest appeal. At its heart is the relationship between a dowdy stationary store worker and an intergalactic gal who's been sent to earth to have her heart broken. Parallel stories of two fellow femme space travelers go underdeveloped and a painful subplot about private detectives repeatedly grinds the film to a halt. At its best, CLSASS possesses a sweet charm, nifty low-fi art direction and some genuine chuckles. Director Olinek and three of the film's actors plan to attend the screening.

Kawa (New Zealand, dir. Katie Wolfe)
--A handsome, well-to-do Maori husband and father struggles with coming out just as he's about to assume leadership of the family clan in this adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's (Whale Rider) semi-autobiographical novel, "Nights in the Garden of Spain." While it features several effective performances, the rote direction and stiltedly earnest script are the stuff of low-end cable TV dramas. (The saintly wife reacts to news of her husband's homosexuality by running to the bathroom and throwing up). I can recommend this as having some cultural interest--but barely. Author Ihimaera is expected to attend the screening.

Cross-published on film-415 and The Evening Class.
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