Monday, March 28, 2016

Flare: Family Drama

As I did last year, I shall continue reviewing films from Flare, thanks to the online screening service available for a bit. Today I shall look at some films charting personal dramas.

One of the films that earned repeated screenings at the festival was Akron, prompting me to give it a look. It certainly pushes some populist buttons: two hunky jocks hook up in the US midwest, but then are torn apart by tensions between their families. Christopher and Benny have a meet-cute on a football field while playing "mudball" and then quickly get together. Refreshingly, the drama is not because they are gay, but rather improbably that they were witnesses to a death some years back, something their families can never forget. Aside from the ridiculous premise, it's actually a pretty decent film, with some juicy roles for the two actresses playing their mothers. And it's unusual to see a Mexican-American as the lead character, with his family not portrayed as homophobic. It's a bit neat and clean for me, but an unusual mix of first love and melodrama.

Almost entirely in the melodrama corner is the French short Between Silences, which is a rather drawn out encounter between two lovers, before one threatens to leave. It took me ages to figure out this was an adaptation of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and that the drama was in the power struggle between the two protagonists. Didn't really float my boat, but Fassbinder fans should take note.

A film featuring no dialogue whatsoever is the curious Trouser Bar, directed by Kristen Bjorn and with a script credited to no-one. A series of gentlemen arrive at the titular location sporting awful wigs (to suggest the 1970s), eye each other up, stroke some trousers and proceed to get it on in the changing rooms, all to a 1970s porny soundtrack. While not the target audience, I found it rather funny and silly, especially when other gentlemen arrive to peer through the windows, among them Julian Clary and Nigel Havers!! Online research reveals the gentleman responsible for the script. Well, well.

On a more innocent note, there were tonnes of films featuring kids this year, among them the Heathers-like Little Doll, in which dorky girl Elenore falls in with the beautiful but aloof Alex. At first, all goes well and it seems as if the two will form a band. But, then Elenore comes face-to-face with Alex's circle of friends, including a very jealous girl who looks about five years older. Anyway, it doesn't end well. Kids can be cruel.

On a more positive note, the gender-queer heroine of Take Your Partners, Ollie, finds a way of creating her chosen style and observing school regulations, all while charming the object of her affections. Result! If only all of life were so simple to negotiate.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Flare: La belle saison

The closing night film at Flare was La belle saison (Summertime) (dir Catherine Corsini), which I'd seen some weeks back at a press screening. At the time I found it initially dazzling, losing its verve mid-way through. But, a lovely film. I was struck, though, reading a Twitter comment after the screening last night that it lacked a "lesbian happy ending". Hmm, I thought, it didn't end badly for the protagonists, did it? (spoiler alert) Nobody died.

But, what the viewer probably meant is that the two protagonists, Carole, a sophisticated feminist activist, and Delphine, a younger farm girl, don't end the film by running into one another's arms. True. But, this film is largely about recognising the specificity of existence. Aside from the age difference, the two women come from quite distant backgrounds and the film is set in 1971, when social mores were being prodded from many directions. Geography is important in this film, with Delphine constantly commenting on how different things are, how she's never been this far from home, as she soaks up the vibrant energy of the cause and the thrilling women she is meeting.

For me, the best scene is when the women decide to spring a gay man from an institution where he's been sent to be "cured". The film palls when it deposits Delphine back on the farm to care for her ailing father. Then it becomes more of a family melodrama with typical quandaries: will Delphine tell her family she and Carole are lovers? How will they react? I found this a bit drama by numbers, in contrast to the Paris section where the women are meeting, debating, planning and acting. The ending, by the way, finds the women some years on knowing quite a bit more about themselves and what they need in life. So, it may not be a Hollywood happy ending, but it's a pretty good resolution.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Flare: Horror Show

It's been a striking feature of Flare how many horror films are appearing, something I've noticed for the last couple of years. It may simply be (as someone told me) that it's because one of the programmers, Michael Blyth, is partial to horror. Or maybe there is something inherently queer about horror. It's something I've been thinking about, as my own comic horror is about to swing into production. In any case, I kept an eye on the spooky offerings at this year's festival. I have yet to catch up with Closet Monster, which will be out later this year. But, I sat down to watch Sisters of the Plague with much enthusiasm. And rose 73 minutes later thinking, "File under 'What the Fuck?'"

Hmmm. Where to start? Well, it's a first-time director Jorge Torres-Torres, who also co-wrote. It stars Josephine Decker, herself an acclaimed director, though I have not seen her films so had no predisposition toward or against the film. It's just an ungodly mess. No scares. No atmosphere, though it's set in New Orleans, for cripes' sake! Decker plays a tour guide who lives with her girlfriend and her alcoholic, dying father and wants to find out once and for all how her mother died, all those years ago. Beset by nightmarish visions (wisps of black smoke and crap bubbly screen effects), she consults a psychic. Her relationship with her girlfriend unravels, blah, blah. I could have cried with boredom. The last 15 minutes made no sense and I overheard other audience members commenting on the sound design. Yes, it's that bad.

Much more entertaining is Sauna the Dead, a well executed concept short of zombies invading a gay male sauna. The rather obnoxious lead, Jacob, tries to evade them, eventually teaming up with another client he initially shunned. And there is a heartwarming ending, utterly not in keeping with the previous 18 minutes of towel-clad zombies lurching around the cubicles tearing into flesh, which I found hilarious.

Not at all horror-oriented, but rather downbeat is the much heralded Tangerine, which I finally saw and had mixed feelings about. Cleverly shot, brilliantly acted, but rather short on sexual politics. Two transgendered sex workers, Alexandra and Sin-Dee, roam the streets of L.A. in search of the woman Sin-Dee's boyfriend Chester is meant to be seeing behind her back. There are many, many laugh-out-loud moments, usually from the mouths of Alexandra (Mya Taylor) or Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and a bit of a less interesting plot involving an Armenian cab driver whose mother-in-law has come to stay. But, my main misgivings were about the film's treatment of the so-called love rival, Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), a white cis-gendered sex worker who spends much of the film being abused by either Sin-Dee or Chester.

Is it funny to see women beating up other women? Is it hilarious to see them cutting each other down, seeking male approval? Do we just watch and let it go because well, that's how shit is? Where is the revenge film in which the sex workers gang up on the pimp and fuck him up? I'd definitely watch that one. This film isn't it, though it does pay careful attention to the lives of the two protagonists, which is something.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Flare: Young Love, Old Love

One of the best films I've seen in the high school canon is the Israeli film, Barash (dir Michal Vinik), featuring a trio of teenaged girls who roam the streets of their town, bunking off school and smoking various substances. Then a new girl, Dana, turns up and they let her join their gang. The titular character, Naama Barash (everyone goes by surnames), falls hard for the newcomer, attracted by her brash attitude and partially shaven hair. What really stands out for me are the minutiae of Naama's existence, her exasperation with her parents' squabbles, her detachment from her older sister, who is in the army and her infatuation with the mysterious Dana, who represents something else: freedom, non-conformity and sexual allure. How it all unwinds is interesting, but the camerawork is exquisite, the performances captivating and the dialogue quite witty. Naama and Dana checking out their schoolmates and vowing to offer their services to sexually enlighten them is marvellously bold.

The course of love doesn't run smooth in the Israeli short Words Unsaid, as best mates Danny and May get a little too close on the former's hen night and need to renegotiate their relationship. I found it disconcerting as the lead actresses so closely resemble Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths from Muriel's Wedding, which is quite funny. Watching hetero pre-wedding rituals is enlightening, but the film goes a bit melodramatic for me.

As a tonic, one could try out the US short Partners, in which a lesbian couple enacts a full cycle of dysfunctionality in six minutes, waking up, arguing over sex and bringing up untold historical baggage before heading out for a juice. Laugh out loud funny.

And just to show you are never too old to find love, there is the Spanish short, The Orchid, one of this year's Five Films for Freedom, in which an elderly man attempts to get through to his son in Berlin to share his big news. A big "Awwwwww!" is in order. This film is available to watch online through 27 March.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Flare: A Woman of Words

I've had things going on, so haven't spent as much time at Flare as I would like, but I hope this will be the first of a flurry of reviews from the LGBT film festival in London.

To start with, there is Welcome to This House, which I prioritised because: 1) it's about Elizabeth Bishop and 2) it's made by Barbara Hammer. Well, what a coupling, eh? And it starts off well enough with Hammer nosing about (she remains off-camera, save one reflection) in Bishop's childhood home in Nova Scotia. As one interviewee makes clear, the poet was someone who never found home. And that's the premise: Bishop's various living places and her relationship to them, taking Hammer on a journey from Canada to Brazil and various places in the USA.

In part, it works, as Hammer can focus her camera on small details in each house, from furniture Bishop purchased to things she had on her wall, recounted by a range of interviewees who are not particularly well introduced. I found myself stopping the film to Google various folk to understand why they were picked (possible as I watched it in online form!). Thus, the running time jumped from 79 mins to almost double that, as I found myself increasingly frustrated at the storyline emerging. How did Elizabeth end up in Nova Scotia? How long was she in Seattle? Why wasn't there a stop in New York?

It's described as an "impressionistic" documentary, which gives Hammer licence to skip around and her focus is clearly on Bishop's love life as much as her homes, which is a refreshing counter-balance to earlier biographies of her which completely ignored her queerness. What a writer! There is a generous serving of her writing, both her poems, as wel as excerpts from letters and journal entries. But, far from featuring interviews with former lovers as the accompanying notes claim, the interviews are with academics, a few male former students and a housekeeper. Unless I missed something, no lovers. Perhaps they are no longer with us. But, it does rather reek of tittle-tattle. In the end, I found it a bit unsatisfying. What emerged was a fascinating woman not quite given her due.