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Jules Rosskam’s
Against a Trans Narrative
2009 Newfest
June 4-11, 2009
SVA Theater (Between 8th & 9th)

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The most extraordinary thing about Against a Trans Narrative is that I felt it was the first film about gender identity that truly enlightened it’s audience simply by documenting stories and debates, as well as using a very effective framing device where actors are directed to act out scenes from real lives.

The film presents fascinating and thought-provoking discussions about identity, labels, gender, authenticity and, most provocative, at what age a person can decide to take trans-gender steps (legally it’s 18 but drugs are available to anyone on the streets).

In the area of gender labeling, one of the subjects spoke about how someone who is in “trans” is expected to eventually pass as a woman or a man. “I wish it would be possible for me to pass as trans,” the subject offers.

In addition, the notion of community belonging is addressed. Where does a transsexual belong? Is a lesbian who becomes a man still a part of the gay and lesbian community?

This “experimental documentary” pursues an intellectual discourse in regards to breaking down accepted gender and identity norms.

At one point, a trans subject discusses how they have their own gender identity but their significant other’s notions of who and what they are can’t help but influence the way they see themselves.

Rosskam takes on many important points and doesn’t seem afraid to examine them. My only beef is that the film occasionally comes across as being too politically correct (I wanted Rosskam to challenge the bitchy and uncooperative African-American trans into answering the questions posed instead of capitulating to the subject’s petulance!)

Against a Trans Narrative should be viewed by anyone who feels they do not “get” the idea of transsexuality. It may prove quite educational.




Jesse Rosen’s
The Art of Being Straight
2009 Newfest
June 4-11, 2009
SVA Theater (Between 8th & 9th)

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The Art of Being Straight is that rare film that dares to explore bisexuality. It’s a damn shame it does not go far enough , but it is still a worthwhile effort.

Straight man Jon (Rosen) has grown tired of New York City (is that even possible?) and moves to Los Angeles to room with his frat buddy Andy (Jared Grey, good here, great in Pornography—another fest entry). Jon soon allows himself to be seduced by his gay older boss (Johnny Ray). Simultaneously, Jon’s lesbian friend Maddy (a terrific Rachel Castillo) finds herself attracted to her hot new neighbor (Pete Scherer, also in Pornography and excellent in both films).

Writer, director and star, Jesse Rosen writes fresh and crisp dialogue, has a fluid and attention-holding directorial style and boasts a charming screen presence—making him a triple filmic threat.

The chief problem with The Art of Being Straight is that at 70 minutes—it’s too bloody short! Twenty more minutes would have allowed for a more in-depth exploration of Jon’s torn feelings as well as Maddy’s parallel plight.
I do like the idea that the film is saying labels are silly and sometimes our sexual orientation depends on the time, place and situation we find ourselves in. But the film feels too safe and careful.




Jacqui Morris’
Mr. Right
2009 Newfest
June 4-11, 2009
SVA Theater (Between 8th & 9th)


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

 

The great Robert Altman may be dead but his influence is far reaching. Gay-oriented filmmakers, in particular, seem to have adopted the Altmanesque ensemble-mosaic perfected in films such as Nashville, A Wedding, Short Cuts and Gosford Park and are placing their own personal stamp on the genre.

Mr. Right, Jacqui Morris’ directorial debut, is a terrific example of taking the best of Altman, funneling it through the urban frenzy of Michael Winterbottom (Wonderland specifically) and giving us a clever spin on character-driven cinema.

Last year Newfest presented Yair Hochner’s outstanding Israeli ensemble pic Antarctica—a film that deserved the opening night spot but was bumped for a lesser effort. This year Morris’ exciting, savvy and screwball film justly opens the Fest.

Mercifully avoiding the camp stereotypes, Mr. Right follows the journeys of a gaggle of London blokes who happen to prefer other blokes. These guys, like most folks, are simply attempting to live their lives amidst a world moving seemingly at the speed of sound.

The dudes include: Alex (Luke de Woolfson), the cliché actor currently waitering banquets; his older significant other, Harry (James Lance), a TV producer who hates his job and longs to travel to Asia; William (Rocky Marshall), an antiquer with a precocious 9-year old daughter, who is attempting to date a TV star (Leon Ockenden); Larrs (Benjamin Hart), an arrogant model/hustler who is being ‘kept’ by Tom (David Morris), who is either oblivious, pathetic or both. Add into the mix, Louise (Georgia Zaris), the obligatory fag-hag and her current beau (Jeremy Edwards), who may or may not be a closeted homo, and the plot is just boiling over with possibilities.

Ms. Morris and her screenwriter brother, David Morris, do a nice job of weaving plot together in a frenetic, yet unpredictable way. The film insightfully explores the struggles these folk go through as parents, children, lovers and friends, sexual orientation notwithstanding. Mr. Morris’ script boasts the witty, bitchy Brit banter without relying on the obvious.

I especially liked the film’s exploration of how people sometimes get under our skin, without our realizing it or even wanting it to happen.

The cast does a fantastic job. The two standouts (among standouts) are: Marshall who effectively conveys the conflicting feelings of being an overprotective father with the desire to have a love life and de Woolfson who is poignant and heartbreaking as the actor realizing he just may not be good enough.

Ms. Morris sometimes shortchanges certain characters but that’s my only beef because Mr. Right rocks!





Ann Verrall’s
Nonsense Revolution
2009 Newfest
June 4-11, 2009
SVA Theater (Between 8th & 9th)


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

A tight group of high school friends must deal with their own complicity in the death of one of their own in Ann Verrall’s absorbing and unexpectedly whimsical Nonsense Revolution. After we meet and greet the gang, we witness the accidental murder. The film then jumps 364 days and the remaining five teens are estranged and about to graduate.

Suddenly, Kaz (Alex House), the victim, appears as an angel (wings and all) to his best friend Tess (Anastasia Phillips). Kaz has seemingly returned to bring the friends back together but in actuality he’s angry, vindictive, wicked and perpetually horny!

The film could have been enjoyably predictable but instead surprises by occasionally veering into the land of inspired madness.

Ms. Phillips gives an outstanding performance. Her Tess is a blundering barrel of neuroses and it’s a pleasure to watch her every misguided move. I could have lived without the excesses of the overweight and annoying Curtis character, otherwise, the ensemble is pretty strong.

Nonsense Revolution is funny, touching and definitely worth your time.


 

David Kittredge's
Pornography A Thriller
2009 Newfest
June 4-11, 2009
SVA Theater (Between 8th & 9th)

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

By far the most audacious film at Newfest, Pornography A Thriller, challenges and mindfucks it’s audience the way the best David Lynch films do (Mulholland Drive, in particular, leaps to mind).

In his (non-linear) narrative feature directorial debut, David Kittredge poses fascinating and disturbing questions and refuses to answer them in any direct, cohesive or obvious way and how fucking refreshing is that? Instead, audience participation is key to enjoying this bold and exciting film.

One of the many joys of Pornography (love that fragment!), is the various themes presented about the nature of desire and why people are drawn to porn. The movie also delves into the dark side of the industry and how aficionados of porn (as well as folks in general) are soon bored with the same old-same old sexually, and crave the new and thrilling—and how dangerous losing oneself in fantasy can be.

Kittredge is a clever filmmaker and he keeps the mystery of his crazy/crackers/cuckoo narrative alive. He even pokes fun at the expectations—requirements that audiences have (thanks mostly to Hollywood) that films be simple and packaged---all must be explained in the end…well, not in this madflick! Kittredge dares the audience to fill in their own blanks—to think, for a change—to piece it together themselves, but to also ruminate on their own complicity in the necessity for pornography.

Broken into three specific portions, the film first chronicles the last few days in the life of porn star Mark Anton (Jared Grey). The bracingly lengthy scene between Alton and the sleazy producer is compelling and a perfect example of how well written, directed and acted the film is. The look of this first segment has a very gritty, 70s-movie feel to it with a porno-blue color domination.

Just when you’re settling in for being unsettled, the film jarringly switches gears as we flash forward 14 years and writer Michael Castigan (a believably grungy Matthew Montgomery) is investigating the actual disappearance of Anton. He has just moved into a new place with his lover and the apartment seems to hold some clues to the ever-growing mystery.

But don’t get too comfy because just when you feel you’re becoming as unhinged as the characters onscreen, the film shifts a third time as we watch porn star/writer/director-wannabe Matt Stevens (Pete Scherer) writing the story of Mark Anton. Apparently he’s been dreaming his life, not even certain there was ever a real Mark Anton, and has been typing it into a porn extravaganza. Stevens insists on playing Anton and directing. Many of the characters in this segment resemble people in the first and second segments.

The surreality of the situation reaches a plateau as the film speeds towards its highly ambiguous and spellbinding conclusion.

The cast is mostly above par with Jared Grey and Pete Scherer particularly outstanding as the porn star and his portrayer. Ironically, these two actors are also in The Art of Being Straight. Kudos to both for being discerning.

Midway through Pornography, images are shown of a hot young porn star and a story is told about how he went berserk and killed his director and co-star. On occasion these images are returned to but I was hoping for another alternate reality link to the already spider webby story. And maybe there was and I just need to see it a third time…or wait for the DVD deleted scenes.

I look forward to seeing more of what Kittredge has to offer as a filmmaker. His work is vital and original and he isn’t afraid to piss the viewer off. I can respect that. In a year where there is a dearth of good gay films, Pornography’s a fabulous fucking exception!



John G. Young’s
Rivers Wash Over Me
2009 Newfest
June 4-11, 2009
SVA Theater (Between 8th & 9th)


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

“We have got to get the fuck out of this hellhole.”

This prophetic line is uttered by Lori (Elizabeth Dennis), a scanky drugged-up, white bitch, to paraphrase the film’s vernacular.

Rivers Wash Over Me may not be an easy film to sit through but it’s a damn important one. The movie grittily captures the necessity to conform—especially among teens growing up.

But our protagonist, Sequan (Derrick L. Middleton), isn’t simply different. He’s black, literary and…gay! And he’s been forced to move from the accepting city of New York to the oppressive South, where he is picked on at school and repeatedly molested by his closeted cousin.

Director John G. Young and his co-writer, Darien Sills-Evans, have quite a bit to say about the neglectful, borderline criminal ways parental figures raise their children as well as how folks, too often, are willing to look the other way when someone is being brutalized because of their sexual orientation.

Middleton coveys the angst, fear and inner turmoil of a teen struggling to hold onto his individuality. The few scenes where he is able to feel some type of joy are a delight to watch--especially the moments where he falls in love with Jake (Aidan Shultz-Meyer delivering a lovely performance).

Elizabeth Dennis, at first, resembles a Larry Clark film character but proves a revelation, slowly showing us layers to Lori that we would never have believed existed.

Intense and evocative, Rivers Wash Over Me ends on an ambiguous note, a fitting conclusion since the problems depicted in the film are not going away any time soon.




David Oliveras’
Watercolors
2009 Newfest
June 4-11, 2009
SVA Theater (Between 8th & 9th)


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Watercolors is another queer coming-of-age story where the geeky gay kid falls for the hot, closeted jock. FYI: Get Real is among the best of this sub-genre of gay cinema.

Danny (Tye Olson) is a sweet teen whose passion focuses on watercolor paintings. Thanks to his mother, he must share his room with swim team champ Carter (Kyle Clare). The sexual attraction is palpable on both sides but, unfortunately, the world they live in does not allow the boys to openly love one another.

The film’s heart is in the right place but everything about it is uneven. The screenplay (by director David Oliveras) vacillates from depicting truly tender and real moments to resorting to the contrived and cliché. The direction is simultaneously heavy-handed and, in many of the swimming and painting sequences, inspired.

The actors do their best and, for the most part, emerge triumphant. Clare struggles in the early scenes but handles the later dramatic moments like a pro. And the camera loves him: his perfect hair: his perfect ass. Olson skillfully captures all the pain, joy, lust and confusion brought on by first love.

Casey Kramer makes an indelible impression as Danny’s mom—especially in a scene where she expresses her unconditional love for her son.

Two gay icons pop up in the film. Karen Black, one of the most promising actresses of the early 70s, is simply terrific and etches a smart and nuanced performance as Danny’s art teacher and champion. Greg Louganis, unfortunately, does not fare as well. Suffice to say, he is NOT an actor.

Watercolors probes the idea that we should be more cognizant of the effect we have on people (youth, in particular) and that we should be more accepting of teens expressing their individuality.


 


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