Frameline48's cinematic splices of life

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Sunday June 9, 2024
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'The Queen of My Dreams,' 'The Summer with Carmen,' 'The Herricanes,' and 'I Don't Understand You' at Frameline48
'The Queen of My Dreams,' 'The Summer with Carmen,' 'The Herricanes,' and 'I Don't Understand You' at Frameline48

With the closure of the Castro Theatre for renovations, Frameline48, which will screen from June18-29, had to find new venues for their movies. The headlining and center films will appear at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre for most of the festival, then six movies will play at the Herbst Theatre during the final three days.

Movies will also screen at the Vogue Theatre and the Roxie Theater, as well as The New Parkway Theater in Oakland. They will also host special screenings at the KQED Live screening room and the legendary Stud bar, recently reopened in a brand-new space on Folsom Street.

It will be intriguing to see if Castro area residents will make the long trek to the Palace and Vogue Theaters in the Presidio area to watch films. Because the Castro will probably not reopen until September 2025, Frameline49 will most likely also play at these theaters next year as well.

This year Frameline48 is placing an emphasis on the transformative power of art. New Frameline Executive Director, Allegra Madsen, is inaugurating her tenure with this film festival.

"Film festivals are often seen as being by and for tastemakers in our industry, but Frameline deepens that perception by being by and for change-makers," said Madsen in a press statement. "Queer and trans artists don't just influence culture, they create it. Frameline48 celebrates and platforms that tireless innovation and spirit by bringing filmmakers and works from all over the world together in the Bay Area, a place that's historically been on the pulse of propelling queer art forward."

This year's theme is "Intersections: Queer Stories in Film." Our reviews will appear here and for the next two weeks.

He was called The Master. He wrote 60 plays ("Private Lives," "Blithe Spirit"), more than 500 songs ("Mrs. Worthington," "Mad About the Boy"), five screenplays ("Brief Encounter"), 14 films adapted from his plays ("Cavalcade" won the 1933 Best Picture Oscar); nine musicals; 300 poems; 21 short stories, director/producer/singer and acted in over 70 plays and 12 films ("In Which We Serve"), all of which is celebrated like the gaiety of a marvelous party in the documentary, "Mad About the Boy: The Noël Coward Story."

Coward became the epitome of an upper class, witty, sophisticated English playboy despite being poor as a child. Oh, and he was as gay as a goose. His life was a performance, he was his own great invention, and keeping up the mask of respectability was exhausting, as he always felt like an outsider.

By age 30, he was the highest paid writer in the world. He was a secret spy for the Allies during World War II, yet was denied a knighthood because of his homosexuality. He was petrified of being outed when exposure could lead to a prison sentence.

After World War II, since his plays were considered out-of-date, he reinvented himself as a cabaret artist becoming a huge star in Las Vegas and a hit on TV talk shows. By the end of his life he was back in fashion.

This absolutely terrific film, largely told through his own words (read by gay actor Rupert Everett) and narrated by bisexual actor Alan Cummings, as well as video clips, reminiscences by friends, and his own home movies, makes one realize how hard it was to be the genius he was and how much contemporary queer stage artists like Michael R. Jackson ("A Strange Loop") owe him.

The word that comes to mind when discussing the Greek drama "The Summer with Carmen," is frustrating. On one level, it's another beach movie with sun-soaked nude bodies lying on cliff rocks leading down to the sea. Demosthenes (Yorgos Tsiantoulas) and his bestie Nikitas (Andreas Labropoulos), who met in acting school — though, Demosthenes now works as a public servant, while Nikitas focuses on directing — decide they want to write and make a film about their friendship, since a producer friend has agreed to finance the movie, as long as it's "fun, sexy, Greek, and low budget."

Two years ago, they attempted to do so and failed. So Summer is a film about a film, itself involving a failed film. They opt to tell what happened that summer with Carmen (a chihuahua dog, the cutest since the Taco Bell commercial), after Demosthenes broke up with his now ex-boyfriend Panos, although he doesn't want to admit he is entirely done with the relationship, even though he was the one who initiated the split.

The dog reveals Demosthenes's flaws and insecurities, whether it be his casual hookups, conflict with his family who doesn't know he's gay, plus his father is dying. There's too much going on. The movement between time periods is awkward and the meta elements unnecessary.

Tsiantoulas is riveting as the hunky, hairy, Greek Adonis Demosthenes, being both defensive and vulnerable showing us how stuck he is, not sure what he wants out of life. Did I mention Tsiantoulas is naked for about three-quarters of the film and repeatedly shown having explicit sex with men? As shocking as that might seem, I promise you won't mind.

"The Herricanes" is really a Pentecostal-type testimony to the greatness and power of Title IX. Title IX in 1972 decreed that no school could discriminate on the basis of sex thus making women's sports teams possible. Director Olivia Kuan heard stories from her mother participating in the female football leagues of the seventies and that's full tackle, 11-on-11 football. Kuan profiles that team in this documentary.

The Herricanes played from 1976 to 1979 in Houston. The team members came from all different backgrounds (i.e. lawyer, exotic dancer), races, and sexual orientations and what bound them together was their shared love of the sport, as they weren't paid and they had to buy their own equipment.

Kuan interviews former Herricane team members but also players from their opposing teams. The teams had few followers ("there were more people on the field than in the stands") as it was assumed women didn't want to play contact sports, but as one of the players rebutted, "they've never been given the opportunity to see if they want to play football."

The reunion of the teams towards the end is very touching, but the film is ruthlessly honest about the challenges in a male-dominated industry and parity for women in any sport has yet to be achieved. "Herricanes" is one of the brightest lights at Frameline48, even if, like me, you could care less about football.

'Teaches of Peaches'  

She's about as far away from mainstream that any musician could be, which is one of the main attractions of the German documentary, "Teaches to Peaches," about the career and anniversary tour of Peaches, a punk electroclash artist dating back to the '90s. "Teaches to Peaches" was the name of her 2002 breakthrough second album with her "hit" song "F—K the Pain Away."

Born in Canada as Merrill Nisker (she took the name Peaches from a phrase by Nina Simone) she started off doing folk music, but a health scare (thyroid cancer) compelled her only to do music she wanted: angry, edgy, defiant, explicit sexual lyrics. She embraced the title of a queer artist long before it became acceptable.

She moved to Germany where she established herself as a bisexual icon and her concerts were sexually charged, with visible pubic hair, strap-on dildos, bare breasted (with pasties) on stage. Through catharsis, she gave women permission to explore their bodies and their sexuality by playing with gender identity or mocking traditional notions of gender roles.

She's doing the same act in 2022 at age 56 and give a rat's ass what people think about her older body, even body surfing in the crowd. Gutsy, she makes aging cool. There's lots of archival footage, but at the end a montage features all her 2022 anniversary concerts. Like her or hate her, you can't help but admire her bravado and willingness to beat to a different drum. You won't forget Peaches or this film. (Watch trailer on YouTube.)

The pains of first love are etched in the borderline schmaltzy Belgian drama, "Young Hearts." 14-year-old Elias (Lou Goossens) has a girlfriend, but all bets are off when new neighbors move in and he meets 14-year-old Alexander (Maurius De Saeger) who reveals he's into boys. He attempts to suppress feelings toward Alexander, scared of being ridiculed by others and rejected for being gay.

This is a coming out story with "Heartstopper" vibes all over it. Goossens is terrific, virtually acting with his eyes. His coming out scene to his mother is brilliant reminiscent of Elio's father's speech in "Call Me by Your Name."

Also, there's a lovely relationship between Elias and his grandfather to whom he can tell anything without fear of being judged. His grandfather advises Elias to follow his heart, as it's so rare to find true love. Had the 1970s ABC Afterschool Specials been dealing with gay subject matter, "Young Hearts" would have been the result.

It's all so predictable, but this will be a crowd-pleaser because it is tender, convinced of the power of love, and everyone is so gay positive (like "Big Eden"), making "Young Hearts" close to irresistible.

Theirs was one of the longest partnerships in cinema history, from 1961-2007, making 43 films. So here's the career of independent producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory in "Merchant Ivory" an absorbing and revealing documentary.

Dismissed by some critics as "Laura Ashley filmmaking," some of their elegant costume period, brilliantly written dramas are now seen as Oscar-winning masterpieces, including "A Room with A View," "Maurice," "Howard's End," and "Remains of the Day," all profiled here.

Merchant/Ivory were both gay and an open couple. Ivory discusses their gayness more than he has done previously, since Merchant, who died in 2005, came from a conservative Muslim family where homosexuality was a taboo. Also, part of the Merchant/Ivory family was screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and composer Richard Robbins, the latter had a long-term relationship with Merchant, much to the consternation of Ivory, who had his own dalliances, such as with travel writer Bruce Chatwin.

E.M. Forster's gay classic love story "Maurice" is discussed in depth with Ivory championing the film overcoming Merchant's reluctance to make it. Because their movies were low budget, their sets could be contentious when actors and crew weren't paid in a timely manner, but such interviewed stars as Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Hugh Grant, and Vanessa Redgrave have mostly fond memories and appreciate their artistry. Only Ivory survives and at 96 continues to work mostly as a screenwriter, receiving an Oscar at age 89 for "Call Me by Your Name." Film lovers shouldn't miss this gem.

'I Don't Understand You'  

At first "I Don't Understand You" appears to be a typical story of a gay couple, Dom (Nick Kroll) and Cole (Andrew Rannells) adopting a baby about to be birthed by surrogate Candice (Amanda Seyfried). They travel to Italy to celebrate their 10th anniversary.

Then the film switches gears and becomes something different entirely, a dark horror farce. The less you know going into the movie, the more you will enjoy it. The couple, victims of an adoption scam previously leading to heartache, want a baby more than anything. On their way to a dinner reservation, their car gets stuck in a ditch during a rainstorm and dead bodies start accumulating. Then all hell breaks loose, wildly out of control in light comedy with droll one-liners.

Kroll and Rannells, playing quirky well-intentioned goofballs, have a natural rapport, spontaneous banter and project an us-against-the-world feeling. The key is to go with the flow and don't ask commonsense questions since the potholes in the plot are huge. Accept it as a gay nightmare version of the old Chevy Chase comedy, "Vacation."

With the gay couple directors (David Craig/Brian Crano) basing parts of the film on their own experience, the movie is a love letter to adoptive LGBTQ parents and all the stress and struggle they must endure to make their dream come true. This sincere, heartfelt film asks the question what lengths would you go to have a child and the answer to the delight of audiences is anything.

A young California backpacker (Michael Taylor Jackson) called Yankee arrives in Buenos Aires to visit the grave of Hipolito Bouchard, a 19th-century pirate who in 1818 conquered Monterey, California in the Argentinian film "Underground Orange." Unfortunately, he's mugged on the street, his murse with all his belongings, including money and passport, are stolen. He goes to the American embassy, but they are closed.

He ends up sleeping in a cemetery, where he's discovered by Bajo Naranja (Underground Orange), an independent anarchic cultural collective/theatrical group that rejects fascism and capitalism. They invite him to appear in a play to portray former Nixon Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who is on trial for collaborating with state terrorism (the film's highlight).

They practice polyamory and are true rebellious antiheroes, robbing a bank and challenging the status quo. Yankee has sex with the one male member, but this film is primarily political with sexuality playing a very minor role. We learn nothing about any of the Bajo members or why they are so angry, though the chemistry in the group is palpable. It's fast paced and we learn a bit about the classicism of Argentinian society, but overall, it never quite clicks.

Sexuality and trans identity are at the core of the hybrid documentary fiction film "Desire Lines," in which Ahmad (Aden Hakimi), an older Iranian-American trans man, visits an LGBTQ archive in Chicago run by a younger flirty transmasculine man Kieran (Theo Germaine). Ahmad is researching how bathhouses dealt with the onset of AIDS, but also as a means to figure out his own sexual desires.

Ahmad has never visited a bathhouse, so he fantasizes what it would have been like to cruise in one during the 1970s and early 1980s. Concurrently, we watch a contemporary video series of transmasculine men sharing their sexual experiences with cis gay men, how they are rejected, fetishized, or commodified.

To provide a connection between Ahmad and Kieran, the latter shares his research in the history of transmasculine activist Lou Sullivan (who died of AIDS), the first transgender man to identify as gay, so other trans folk wouldn't feel so lonely. The videos and archival footage are powerful as well as sex positive.

The bathhouse scenes, an obvious attempt to balance the talking heads conversation with erotic storytelling, are superfluous, because those testimonies are so poignant, honest, and erotic in their own right. "Desire Lines" is most effective showing how varied desires, proclivities, and sexuality is in the trans community and how we should be celebrating all freedoms of passionate expression.

With the legalization of same-gender marriages globally, it's inevitable there will now be movies on divorce, which is the theme of the quirky Belgian/Canadian dramedy, "Turtles." Henri (Olivier Gourmet) has just retired as a police officer and for 30 years has lived with his stay-at-home husband Thom (Dave Johns), a former drag star.

But Henri is depressed and lacking any empathy, ignores Thom's efforts to revitalize their relationship. He wants time away from Thom, even bringing home a police dog named Sherlock (who like Carmen in "The Summer with Carmen," almost walks away with the movie) even though Thom is allergic to canines.

There are tears, screaming fits, and attempts to make each other jealous by using Grindr for hook-ups, which leads to a possible divorce. Will they or won't they split? The English actor/stand-up comedian Johns is an absolute delight, his sassiness animating the film, while Gourmet, a straight major star in Belgium, is okay, but I didn't quite find him believable as gay.

This is a film that shows the challenges involved in maintaining relationships over the long haul, especially when faced with a major life change like retirement. Charming and sad with an ambivalent ending, enjoyable though not scintillating, but will probably mostly interest older folk.

A Canadian jewel in the form of a nod to Bollywood is writer/director Fawzia Mirza's debut "The Queen of My Dreams." We begin in 1999 Toronto in a voice-over, "I used to worship my mother. I thought she was perfect. I tried to be like my mother, but I wasn't."

Queer MFA student Azra (Amrit Kaur) is showing her girlfriend her favorite film, 1969's "Aradhana," starring Bollywood star Sharmila Tagore, introduced to her by her mother Mariam (Nimra Bucha) with whom she has a strained relationship.

On a trip to Kurachi, Pakistan, Hassan (Hamza Haq) her supportive father, dies suddenly. She and her brother return to Pakistan for the funeral. The film slides back to 1969 when wild, rebellious Mariam (also played by Amrit Kaur) defies arranged marriage protocols by meeting on her own medical student Hassan, whose dream is to emigrate to Canada. Mariam yearns for freedom from her parents, so they marry and move to Canada...all of which is done like a Bollywood extravaganza with splashes of vibrant colors.

We also return to 1989 Nova Scotia, where 12-year-old Azra is starting to explore her sexuality. Her mother walks in seeing Azra kiss her girlfriend, which horrifies a now conservative Muslim Mariam. One wishes this too fast segment had been developed more in depth. The flashbacks, while entertaining, are disorienting, because Mariam has told none of this to Azrit, so we're not sure it's a fantasy.

Despite this weakness, overall, this stylish, eye-popping film with superb performances by Kaur and Bucha bubbles with creative energy that will enchant viewers.

A hybrid documentary (with fictional elements) on queer bodies in sports informs, "Life Is Not a Competition, But I'm Winning." The title comes from the hit song by the English band Kaiser Chiefs. While peak white male athletes like Michael Phelps are celebrated, an exceptional female, Black, or transgender competitor is viewed with suspicion.

The film looks at the Olympics through the decades pointing out egregious cases, by using archival footage and then like Forest Gump, inserting modern-day athletes into them to rewrite history in favor of the victims, ala Quentin Tarantino.

For example, a sad case was Polish-American Olympian athlete Stella Walsh in the 1930s, "who ran almost like a man," admired worldwide, until later when killed in an armed robbery, the autopsy found out she was intersex, having no uterus, so her victories were quietly erased from the history books.

Simultaneously contemporary queer athletes discuss their sporting experiences and the obstacles they faced. For example, trans marathon runner Amanda Reiter says she can feel the hatred of the crowd when she runs in women's sporting events or the fury of male runners if she beats them in a competitive race.

Ugandan runner Annet Negesca's testosterone levels were judged too high and she could only compete if she had hormone surgery, which damaged her body, basically ending her career. The film argues sports needs to get rid of these outdated gender norms by expanding classifications to deal with non-normative bodies and just let everyone perform at their own personal best. There's an AI-like voiceover that was a bit annoying, but overall compelling and visually inventive.

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