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Yair Hochner’s
Antarctica

20th Annual Newfest:
The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival
34th Street Theater
312 W 34th St. at 8th Ave
June 5-15, 2008

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

To be blunt, Yair Hochner’s Antarctica is one of the most striking and original films I have seen in a long time. This masterfully directed gem commands your attention from the first hyper-sexually-charged frame to the audacious finale--always challenging the viewer and never wavering into contrivance or formula following.

One of the legion of refreshing things about Antarctica is that it’s bold, daring and quite unique in story and character development as well as filmmaking style. It also effectively manages the difficult feat of genre-blending. Tagged as “the first Israeli queer romantic sexy comedy,” I would have no clue where to place it in the DVD section of your local store—except in the ‘Best of 2008’ section!

Hochner probes the complexities of human emotions and the foibles of feelings in exciting and honest ways. We become privy to how our character’s feelings change and evolve, often in a matter of moments--and yet sometimes years cannot erase hurt and humiliation.

In Hebrew with subtitles, Antarctica follows the physical, spiritual and emotional journeys of a group of gays and lesbians in the non-stop city of Tel Aviv. Reminiscent of the work of genius Robert Altman (Nashville, Short Cuts) and his protégé’ Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights) as well as Michael Winterbottom (the auteur admits to being ‘heavily inspired by Wonderland’), Hochner poetically investigates coincidental convergences and adds a cosmic twist!

The movie opens with an unrelentingly graphic (and hot!) multi-screen visceral and visual assault as it depicts a week or month in the nocturnal life of Boaz (hunky Ofer Regirer), clean-cut businessman by day, one night stand sex-maniac by night, who prides himself on the line: “You know how many guys I bring back here?” One hook-up, in particular, jars him. Danny (Yiftach Mizrahi), a sweet, troubled teen, stops Boaz mid-petting and asks if they should talk first, or have coffee. A while later, Danny shows up at Boaz’ place and asks if he can stay for a while.

The screen reads “3 Years Later,” and the mosaic-like plot kicks into high gear as we meet the wonderful cast of characters. They include: Omer (Tomer Ilan), a shy librarian about to celebrate his thirtieth birthday; Omer’s harried lesbian sister Shirley (Lucy Dubinchik) and her on-again/off again girlfriend (Liat Ekta) who owns the local bar; Omer’s slutty friend Miki (Yuval Raz); who cyberconnects with smoldering journalist Ronen (Guy Zo-Aretz) and best-selling author and past-alien-abductee Matilda Rose (Rivka Neuman), just to name a few!

Via a blind date, Omer meets Danny, who is living with Ronen who is carrying on with Miki. Boaz reenters the picture and wants to reconnect with Danny. And it seems Omer and Ronen may have a connection of their own…

I will not give any more plot away (I’m not certain I could, anyway!), but I will say that the sequence of events prove hilarious, heartbreaking, outrageous and ballsy. Hochner’s terrific script is matched only by his great abilities as director and his magnificent cast. The entire ensemble is to be commended. It is rare that so many talented actors come together and seamlessly weave into one great work. There is one curious bit of casting in the film, but upon much reflection, I can accept it—with reservation.

Tech credits are outstanding across the boards, in particular: Ziv Berkovitch’s gorgeous and mesmerizing photography and the appropriate original songs written and performed by Shirly Solomon.

The title is a metaphor for how much a person, in this frenzied and lunatic day and age, will allow themselves to love; to thaw their own carefully acquired chilliness and simply leave themselves open to it—especially when it also means leaving themselves open to the worst kind of pain. Sex can be a beguiling distraction. It can also turn into a consuming compulsion. Hochner never judges his characters, nor does he manipulate them. He respects them and follows them around for an all-too-brief while.

I certainly hope audiences will not let the fact that this is a foreign film stop them from experiencing such sensational cinema. I have a grand idea: why not use the subtitles as an excuse to see the film a second time!

 


 


Guido Santi & Tina Mascara’s
Chris & Don: a love story

20th Annual Newfest:
The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival
34th Street Theater
312 W 34th St. at 8th Ave
June 5-15, 2008


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Like Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, Chris & Don: a love story is an important document to gay history; testaments to the indefinable notions of love and sexuality. Both films also happen to be entertaining cinema.

Christopher Isherwood is one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th Century. He is most famous for writing The Berlin Stories (Goodbye to Berlin, 1939) which was adapted into a stage play and movie called I Am a Camera and later further developed into the musical Cabaret. Isherwood lived an openly gay lifestyle at a time when few would dare.

In 1952, Isherwood embarked on a relationship with Don Bachardy, a boy thirty years his junior. They would remain together until Isherwood’s death in 1986. Chris & Don is their fascinating and inspiring story.

Directors Guido Santi & Tina Mascara have structured their documentary in non-linear fashion and the film is the better for it with many of the moments culled from actual footage shot by Chris and Don during their time together. The filmmakers have also woven interviews with friends, colleagues and, most importantly, with the two men. Isherwood is seen in a 1972 interview promoting the film version of Cabaret. (It is said he thought Liza Minnelli was wrong for Sally Bowles, since she was such a talented artist) Barchardy was interviewed especially for the film and provides a rich treasure trove of insights and anecdotes into Isherwood and their relationship.

Santi and Mascara also splice in a few recreated scenes, which are wholly unnecessary, and the only time the film stumbles…but just a bit.

“He taught me all kinds of wicked things. It was exactly what the boy wanted.” Speaking in the third person Bachardy honestly explains how he fell in love with a man thirty years older than he was and goes on to speak about the difficulties they encountered, being an openly gay couple as well as dealing with the age gap and the stark difference in their class status (not to mention the fact that Isherwood was an established writer and Bachardy was…a teen).

The film discusses Isherwood’s affluent upbringing in Britain and his fleeing to Germany, wherea more flamboyant way of life was being celebrated. “To Chrisopher, Berlin meant boys.” With the Nazi party coming into power, Isherwood was forced to flee in 1933.

Barchardy and his gay brother (who Isherwood slept with first) were raised by a starstruck mother who would take her children to movie premieres where they would pretend be guest in order to get photos taken with the celebrities in attendance.

Chris and Don met on a Santa Monica Beach.

Soon Don found himself immersed in Chris’ world of the rich and famous—and felt awkward and cast aside by these powerful titans. That would eventually change.

Chris took on the role of mentor wholly and completely. Director John Boorman described the transformation of Don: “He (Isherwood) had succeeded in cloning himself.”

With great encouragement from Chris, Don enrolled in art school and found his calling. He would go on to paint many a famous person including: Bette Davis; Joan Crawford; Olivia deHavilland and Montgomery Clift, to name a few.

While the film gives us a lot of juicy background information as well as gossipy tidbits, the heart of the docu is the love story about how these two very different men fell in love and stayed in love for over thirty years, despite many troubles as well as naysayers who felt the relationship was wrong.

The film is a celebration of a different kind of love and a testament to how love can be found in the most unexpected places--if I may paraphrase a Barbra Streisand song. Chris & Don is an inspiring and significant work.



James Bolton’s
Dream Boy

20th Annual Newfest:
The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival
34th Street Theater
312 W 34th St. at 8th Ave
June 5-15, 2008


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Set in the 1970’s rural south, James Bolton’s lyrical film, Dream Boy, begins as a sweet teen courtship, the twist being both teens are boys!

Nathan, a painfully shy and awkward fifteen year old has recently moved next door to Roy, the hunky, honest yet sexually naïve seventeen year old school bus driver. Nathan’s crush is reciprocated and the two begin to learn about one another mostly via what they do not say.

The clumsy, curious and kind way the opening scenes are handled is a refreshing tonic to many films of this nature. But an ominous tone is established early on, setting the stage for a major shift.

We soon learn the reason for Nathan’s odd and awkward nature (as well as why he is more sexually knowledgeable than Roy) have everything to do with his abusive father.

Based on the best-selling novel by Jim Grimsley, Dream Boy tells a story of awakening physical and emotional desire that take a terrible turn late in the story. Which boy is the ‘dream boy’ for which boy is one of the many questions the film asks. It also probes the effects of sexual abuse on a small family that has nowhere but prayer to turn in order to deal with such horrible realities. I only wish the story had allowed for a more complex ending that was true to the domestic story as well as the love story. (more about that below)

The film is poignant and piercing. Bolton’s script is perfectly sparse and his direction is meticulous and powerful. And the score is understated and wonderfully effective.

Stephan Bender and Maximillian Roeg are to be commended for outstanding work—the kind of natural and honest acting one rarely sees anymore. Bender embodies Nathan completely, both physically and mentally. And Roeg has the perfect jock exterior, but such a loving quality about him, it’s jarringly mesmerizing. The two have a strange and wonderful chemistry.

I highly recommend Dream Boy, but prepare to go through an emotionally wrenching and devastating experience.

********SPOILER ALERT***********

Do not read on if you do not want things about the ending revealed.

As much as I love a good emotionally crippling film ending, I felt Nathan’s final humiliation was gratuitous and cruel. Perhaps it’s because I had come to love the character so much as wanted him to escape his horrific genetic burden. Maybe the filmmakers felt he needed to be martyred via being put out of his misery and returning as an angel of sorts. But I still felt cheated and angry. To show us a boy who has been victimized his entire life finally find love only to be raped and murdered because of who he is (by a character who is sketchily realized at best). It was a bit too much.

The final ten minutes is also narratively confusing and apparently the book’s ending is as well (I have not read it). So maybe we are meant to bring our own ending to the film. I must tell you, happy-ending hater that I am, I wanted Roy to find out about Nathan’s dad and take Nathan away. And the two boys could live hopefully ever after in a big city somewhere! Now, how pathetically Hollywood is that?


 


Newfest
Gabriel Fleming’s
The Lost Coast
20th Annual Newfest:
The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival
34th Street Theater
312 W 34th St. at 8th Ave
June 5-15, 2008


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Gabriel Fleming’s The Lost Coast is a moving yet muddled narrative feature (barely, at 73 minutes) where nothing much happens onscreen. Nicely photographed, the film is contemplative and evocative yet, ultimately, unsatisfying.

It’s Halloween in San Francisco’s Castro District and brooding twentysomething Jasper (Ian Scott McGregor) is visiting old friends; the handsome and gregarious Mark (Lucas Alifano) and the aloof Lily (Lindsay Benner). Mark and Lily were a couple back in high school, despite the fact that Mark and Jasper also had a relationship—of sorts. Mark is now gay, while Jasper is engaged to a woman.

The film begins and is narrated via an email Jasper is sending to his girlfriend Wendy explaining his relationship with Mark and the sequence of events that occur on this particular Halloween.

What does occur involves a search for Ecstasy (the drug) which leads our trio (plus a pathetic friend of Mark’s) to a lame party, then across Golden Gate park where they discover a corpse--and finally to the ocean where Mark and Jasper finally confront their feelings for one another…sort of.

Fleming’s story is too sparse. Visually the film is quite enticing (I thought of The Blair Witch Project on occasion since nothing really happens in that film either), but we are never truly brought into the hearts and minds of our two main characters. And poor Lily (Benner is a trouper) is relegated to having to portray a one-dimensional oddball.

McGregor does his best to tap into the enigmatic Jasper. On the one hand you could argue he’s a closet case, yet the final moments seem to indicate otherwise.

Alifano gives the richest and best performance. He wholly leaps into Mark’s egotism while displaying true loving feelings for Jasper. His final moment is the most poignant one in The Lost Coast.

I wonder where Fleming might have taken the picture with twenty more pages of script. I sure wish he’d chosen to be really daring and develop his characters further.


 


Newfest Opening Night
Stewart Wade’s
Tru Loved
20th Annual Newfest:
The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival
34th Street Theater
312 W 34th St. at 8th Ave
June 5-15, 2008



Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

I hate to sound like one of those negative Nancy naysayers but Newfest’s Opening Night choice, Stewart Wade’s Tru Loved, is a big disappointment. And that sucks because Wade’s heart is in the right place and the movie does try to please everyone. But that is one of the principle problems, it is too intent on pleasing everyone in the gay/lesbian/bisexual community. Furthermore, the movie moves from fairy tale to comedy to drama without any cohesion.

If it weren’t for the strong lead performance by the remarkable Najarra Townsend, Tru Loved would be little more than a painfully politically correct Afterschool Special (it also feels dated and out of touch). Yet showing it to adolescents is not a bad idea because it does present an ideal notion of how people should be accepting.

The basic plot follows sixteen year old Gertrude aka: Tru (Townsend), who has been raised by her two lesbian moms and two gay dads, embarking on a relationship with Lo (Matthew Thompson), all-American jock and star quarterback. Tru soon realizes that Lo is actually gay and deeply closeted, but agrees to act as his beard. Tru makes friends with openly gay and victimized Walter (Tye Olson) and the two decide to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at the High School. During the first meeting Tru meets Trevor (Jake Abel), who appears to be gay but is actually straight and very interested in Tru.

As you can see from the plot description, the film has so much promise. I appreciate the filmmakers wanting to explore the angst and difficulty of being gay in a small town high school where the notion of what is and isn’t masculine is taken very seriously. But here it’s presented in such a flimsy manner, as opposed to so many other films (Get Real and Edge of Seventeen come instantly to mind) and even on television (recently with Gossip Girl) where the characters actually feel real and distraught. The happy, feel-good denoument is just insulting icing on the fake feeling cake.

There are things to enjoy in Tru Loved: a few fun cameos (Marcia Wallace, Bruce Villance), the wonderful scenes between Tru and Trevor (a frustrated Trevor asks: “Can I please just feel you up?”) as well as Tru’s relationship with her parents (all four of them).

Chief among the joys is Najarra Townsend who imbues Tru with a believable grounded belief system, even when she also craves acceptance.
Jake Abel has both matinee idol looks and terrific acting chops (an unusual combination). But the scene-stealer in this movie is Star Trek’s own Nichelle Nichols, who is a hoot and a half as Lo’s racist grandmother. Nichols has aged nicely and taken on a Ruby Dee quality, combining feistiness and grace. Her hilarious final line will have you leaving the theatre with a wide smile on your face. And maybe that was Wade’s intent with the film (and I am sure many will appreciate the paint-by-numbers ‘careful’ quality of the pic).

Tru Loved has the dubious distinction of featuring one of the worst performances by an actor I have seen in years: Vernon Wells as the homophobic Coach Wesley. I realize we’re not supposed to like this character but Wells line deliveries were so laughable that it was impossible to take him seriously.

I really don’t get this choice for the Opening Night film. Yair Hochner’s Antarctica (see my review), a brilliant cinematic achievement, would have made so much more sense since it also blends different gay and lesbian stories. The difference is that it does so in an original and exciting way. Perhaps the Festival committee wanted an American feature to open Newfest. I just wish they had made a wiser choice.



Gustav Hofer & Luca Ragazzi’s
Suddenly, Last Winter (Improvvisamente l’inverno scorso)

20th Annual Newfest:
The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival
34th Street Theater
312 W 34th St. at 8th Ave
June 5-15, 2008

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Let’s play a little game. It’s called what country, what year?

The capital city elected a fascist mayor.
The media is controlled by the state.
Gays and lesbians have absolutely no civil rights.

So you’re, perhaps, guessing Germany in the late thirties/early forties.
No and no. Let’s continue…

The population is anywhere from 95% to 97% Catholic, depending on the source.
The government is heavily influenced by the Vatican.

Okay, now you’re saying Italy in the late thirties/early forties.

You’re half correct. Let’s give it one more go, shall we?

Homophobia is on the rise, mainly because the current Pope and his Papal underlings are promoting mandatory heterosexuality. "The union of love, based on matrimony between a man and a woman, which makes up the family, represents a good for all society that can not be substituted by, confused with, or compared to other types of unions."

Herr Benedict, the ruby-slipper wearing Pontiff himself, spoke these words on May 16, 2008, the day after a California court ruled in favor of gay marriages.

So you now realize that all of the above is happening TODAY in Italy.
And how frightening is that?

I know it’s not that difficult to believe that Pope Benedict is promoting intolerance, after all this is the same person who deliberately covered up the sex abuse scandal. What is shocking is just how many Italians are allowing such obvious religious propaganda to permeate their judgment.

Brave Italian journalists Gustav Hofer & Luca Ragazzi, who also happen to be partners for the last eight years, have made an important and incisive documentary on the current state (or non-state, as the case shamefully is as of late) of rights for gay and lesbians in Italy. The result is the courageous and compelling, Suddenly, Last Summer.

There seemed to be hope for a civil union law in Italy. Two years ago a law was presented concerning same-sex partnerships. A heated national debate ensued throughout Italy and soon turned terribly homophobic, in large part due to the Vatican’s unwavering anti-gay pressure.

In February of 2007, the Center-left government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi fell. The reason, it turned out, had everything to do with a missing vote from Senator Giulio Andreotti, a member of Parliament, closely associated with the Vatican. Andreotti confessed that he “could not sustain a government that tries to pass a law for gay and lesbian couples.”

An agitated Gustav convinced an apprehensive Luca to parlay their anger and outrage into action, via filmmaking. The duo took their camera and, literally, took to the streets and to the House of Parliament.

Gustav and Luca made the wise decision to cast themselves in the film, giving it a periodic comical tone. And since the subject matter is anything but funny, it comes as a nice relief. Luca’s incredulous reactions to the sheer stupidity of many of the statements made by government officials, religious leaders and street zealots are hilarious.

In street interviews with Romans, almost all of them are opposed to civil rights for gays and lesbians using the family values argument. Many are also opposed to any type of same sex relationships because “it goes against nature” and “God doesn’t want that,” as one Italian woman firmly puts it—as if she just got off the phone with the Almighty. An elderly clergyman vehemently proclaims: “one must never question the Holy Roman Church because it’s the center of the world…the Church, you obey.”

The film discusses how the Vatican fuels the homophobia by stating that homosexuality is on the same level of abomination as incest and pedophilia. Except for Islamic countries, this type of gay hatred is unheard of in civilized nations. But with Vatican City literally in their back yard, Italy has become a festering cauldron of Church-led brainwashing against tolerance and for hatred and alienation.

With the Berlusconi regime in power again, the Vatican is getting exactly what they want when it comes to their mental gay-bashing. Italian citizens are following blindly as good Catholics are taught to do from a very young age (speaking from experience here!) Consequently, violence towards Italian gays is on the rise. But the fight continues—as it must. And Gustav and Luca are leading the way.

Earlier this month Berlusconi met with Pope Benedict for forty minutes and proclaimed that a priority of his government is “"the sacredness of the human person and of the family." He defended the Vatican’s interfering in domestic Italian affairs and punctuated it with: "We are on the side of the church and we believe in the values of our Christian tradition."

It’s a scary time in Italy, not just for gays and lesbians, but also for those who cherish basic freedoms. Bravi to Gustav Hofer & Luca Ragazzi for having the balls to expose the travesties going on in their country.

One final note: Distributors in Italy are afraid to touch the film so the directors are doing a tour and showing it themselves throughout the country. They are also traveling the world showing the film wherever they can. It would behoove a savvy U.S. company to pick this gem up and release it to as wide an audience as possible. As cozy as we sometimes feel here in the U.S., we should remind ourselves of the last eight years and the erosion of so many of the rights we always assumed would protect us.



Sam Zalutsky’s
You Belong to Me
20th Annual Newfest:
The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival
34th Street Theater
312 W 34th St. at 8th Ave
June 5-15, 2008

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

In Sam Zalutsky’s surprisingly suspenseful and wickedly intriguing new thriller, You Belong to Me, Boy is so taken with French Boy that despite a pretty obvious brush off, he decides to move into French Boy’s building. But Boy gets a bit more than he bargains for when he discovers some terrifying secrets under his rotting floorboards.

The film is completely absorbing and damned scary.

But that’s nothing compared with the creepy and campy tour de farce bravado of Patti D’Arbanville. She is landlady Gladys: sweet, doting…a bit too doting…and ultimately terrifying. D’Arbanville reminded me of a younger version of Sylvia Miles (was Sylvia Miles ever young???) crossed with a much younger version of Ruth Gordon (in her Rosemary’s Baby heyday). Her Gladys is hilarious and monstrous all at the same time. But in the end D’Arbanville makes us understand her insanity and feel for her.

Daniel Sauli plays Jeffrey, the way-too-impulsive architect. Sauli shines in a complex role that is sometimes erratically written.

Heather Simms is Jeffrey’s black fag-hag. Simms has all the fun retorts and tell-it-like-it-is charm we have come to expect from this gay film staple.

You Belong to Me is good filmmaking. My one major complaint is that the movie deserved a more thought out ending.



Jeffrey Schwarz’s
Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon
20th Annual Newfest:
The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival
34th Street Theater
312 W 34th St. at 8th Ave
June 5-15, 2008

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

“I didn’t want to be wanted for my intellect or my wit. I wanted to be lusted after.”

Such were the prophetic words of Jack Wrangler, gay porn pioneer.

John Robert Stillman was born into affluence in California. His father was a prominent film and TV producer. “Jack” grew up with MGM star Eleanor Powell as his Sunday School teacher and was bitten by the entertainment bug early on. He was soon working as an actor and director. He did the dinner theater circuit where he had to deal with the aging egos of divas like Betty Hutton, Jane Russell and Yvonne DeCarlo.

In the 1970’s Jack Stillman became Jack Wrangler, the first brand name gay porno star. It was the golden age of adult cinema and Wrangler (taking his name from the Jeans label) was at its center. In the midst of his “film” career, Jack decided to branch out and became the number one attraction in straight porn as well.

In 1976, Jack met popular singer Margaret Whiting. By 1979, they were married, despite the fact that he was 22 years her junior.

Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon chronicles exactly how such a privileged and awkward young gay boy could become queer porn star extraordinaire and then switch gears and settle down to a monogamous “and masturbatory” straight life with an older woman.

Wrangler’s story defies convention, which makes it all the more fascinating and enveloping. The film is chronological and features interviews with many important figures in his life as well as the man himself. Wrangler is very honest about his sexuality: I’m not straight. I’m not bisexual. I’m a gay man.” And about desire: “On the one hand we want the lover and the fireplace. On the other hand we wanna be pure trash.”

He also acknowledges that he was one of the lucky ones who escaped the early years of AIDS, because he had given up porn for Whiting.

Yet the documentary shows how, all these years later, Jack feels the need to make his father proud; to receive the acceptance he had always craved but had never gotten.

Wrangler discusses how he is always introduced as “former porn star, Jack Wrangler,” no matter what his other accomplishments are. He does not say this with any shame or regret, but with a combination of pride and humility. It’s in these perceptive moments that the film shows a truly extraordinary talent who went down an unknown path and broke ground, without ever having intended to do anything but make an audience happy.



 

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