Thirty rhymes with flirty, dirty and maybe some other words we associate with our favorite LGBT films. In journalism, it signifies the end of a story, and to hippies it was the age after which a person couldn’t be trusted.
As Out On Film hits the 30-year milestone it’s in good health and certainly trustworthy, longer and with more films than ever. This year’s festival runs Sept. 28 – Oct. 8, primarily at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinemas. Alternate locations are noted in the reviews below, but it’s always wise to check the festival’s website for last-minute changes.
Speaking of reviews, I’m known as a tough grader. I never give four stars (****), because to me that indicates perfection. If you just want to be entertained, informed and/or empowered by a film and are more forgiving of its flaws, you can add at least half a star to my ratings. If you think everything you see is the best thing you’ve ever seen … that’s kind of insane.
But to decide what to see, you should look beyond the shortcuts. Read the capsule reviews in print for an idea of what the film’s about and its most significant pluses and minuses, and the longer reviews below for more details. Also check other opinions, because if we all agreed there’d be no need for more than one critic in the whole world.
Happy 30th, Out On Film! Long may you wave that rainbow flag of film!
B&B (**) (Sept. 28, 9 p.m.) This British battle between a gay couple and a homophobe – er, “good Christian” – left me wondering whose side it was on; or perhaps it’s trying to appeal to both sides.That’s not the only thing that’s confusing about this would-be thriller. It begins with the gay couple, now married, returning to Josh’s (Paul McGann) B&B after winning a discrimination lawsuit because he denied them a double bed.Their only apparent reason for coming is to rub Josh’s nose in their victory, and that’s pretty obnoxious. Well, Marc (Tom Bateman) is obnoxious; Fred (Sean Teale) just goes along most of the time. Paul (Callum Woodhouse), Josh’s 16-year-old son, has decided he’s gay; but of course he’s afraid to tell dad. The other guest this night is Alexei (James Tratas), a massive Russian who looks like a mean, overinflated Channing Tatum. Alexei asks Paul for directions to a local gay cruising park and Paul sees this as his chance to come out. Not knowing which team Alexei plays for, Marc and Fred are afraid for Paul’s safety. Most scenes in the park are confusingly dark, even when they’re viewed through night vision goggles; but it’s pretty clear what happens in the key event. After that there’s a lot of arguing about what to do. In fact there’s so much bickering in this movie about every tiny point, I could have gotten the same effect by staying home with my husband instead of listening to strangers do it. It’s hard to find someone to sympathize with in “B&B.” Even the cutest (Fred) and most innocent (Paul) can do bad or annoying things; and we don’t know about Alexei for the longest time. He may not be guilty of anything but collusion with Trump. I’d have to see “B&B” again to make sense of everything that goes on in the movie – and I don’t want to.
A MILLION HAPPY NOWS (***) (Sept. 29, 7:15 p.m.) Soap opera fans will appreciate “A Million Happy Nows” on at least three levels: It’s about a soap opera star; her life becomes a soap opera; and director Albert Alarr and several of his cast members have a background in TV soaps. Actually this one rises above the soap opera level and approaches the quality of the film it most resembles, “Still Alice,” which won Julianne Moore an Oscar for her portrayal of a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s; not to mention Julie Christie’s Oscar-nominated role in “Away from Her.” Lainie Allen (Crystal Chappell) turns 50, wins the Emmy and loses her memory. Fortunately she doesn’t lose her partner, Eva (Jessica Leccia). Lainie retires from the show and moves with Eva to a modest house with an ocean view, a fireplace and a trampoline. Chappell has the showier role, with episodes of anger, tears and confusion; but Leccia has the more difficult task of remaining supportive and trying to be upbeat as she watches the woman she loves disappear, even while her body is still there. Both perform flawlessly and heartbreakingly. While it’s a lovely love story with a few relatively happy moments, be prepared to have your heart broken along with Eva’s. As long as you know what you’re in for, “A Million Happy Nows” should satisfy.
APRICOT GROVES (** 1/2) (Sept. 30, 11 a.m.) If you think reviewing movies is easy, try this one! It has an ending that will come as a surprise to some viewers, though probably not so many who see it in an LGBT festival; but because it’s a surprise I shouldn’t reveal it. But I’m writing for readers who want to know specifically why it’s in the festival, which for some will determine whether they want to see it. In other words, I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. You want my job? Compounding the problem, there’s so much about “Apricot Groves” that’s so good; yet it has serious flaws too. An Armenian film written and directed by Iran-based Armenian-Iranian Pouria Heidary Oureh, it’s about the reunion of two Armenian-Iranian brothers. They were split up in childhood when their father died. Vartan (Pedram Ansari), the older brother, remained in Armenia, while Aram (Narbe Vartan) was raised in Los Angeles. They haven’t seen each other since. In a hint-laden opening scene, Aram is being wheeled into surgery by a talkative nurse. You will probably guess that what follows is a flashback, but it’s not specified. The opening credit sequence gives us a quick tour of Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan. It would have been nice to identify the location for viewers who don’t know where Zvartnots Airport is. Then comes an overlong sequence where Vartan meets Aram at the airport. This and other scenes make the film feel padded, like it should have been an hour-long drama but was stretched to feature length at 80 minutes. Aram is in Armenia for one day, to propose to a woman he met in L.A. It’s the custom that the proposal must involve a meeting of both families for the purpose of obtaining the consent of the prospective bride’s father. No, you can’t just text him. There’s a lot of preparation: a haircut for Aram, picking up suits Vartan ordered and getting food and flowers to bring along. There’s a pervasive sense of awkwardness in this segment but the reason is left to our imagination. The woman’s father is reluctant but agrees to the marriage after a lengthy monologue. Then the brothers make the long drive to Iran to bring us back to the opening scene. Conversations, mostly between the brothers, provide us with a lot of information – some of it incorrect, as it turns out – about local customs and such. An enlightened and enlightening film from a region where you’d least expect it, “Apricot Groves” would be moreso if its unnecessarily gimmicky structure didn’t force it to keep so much covered up.
GOD’S OWN COUNTRY (***) (Sept. 30, 7:05 p.m.) You gotta love a movie that begins with its hero puking into a toilet! There’s not much to do for fun in the Yorkshire countryside where Johnny (Josh O’Connor) provides the primary labor on his family’s farm. He uses rear entry in work and play, fisting a cow to check her pregnancy status and more traditionally enjoying a young blond he meets at a cattle auction. Unless you speak Yorkie, you’ll wish Johnny’s father (Ian Hart) and grandmother (Gemma Jones) came with subtitles; but they don’t say much and you can get the gist from Johnny’s reactions, ranging from disgust to rebellion. He works hard, but for a busy week in lambing season his pa hires a temp to help, a Romanian (“Don’t call me Gypsy!”) named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu, one of the handsomest faces on screen this year). After a couple days of not getting along, Johnny and Gheorghe resolve their differences in a macho mating ritual that proves they’re not so different after all. The next step is for Gheorghe to teach Johnny that sex can have an emotional component too. It couldn’t have been easy to find two men who are such good actors and equally good at farm chores, including birthing lambs, not to mention their willingness to participate in intense male-male sex scenes. Writer-director Francis Lee has succeeded admirably, and the fact that he was raised on a Yorkshire farm himself assures authenticity in this, his first feature after decades as an actor. It’s a powerful love story that offers hope of finding detours to anyone stuck in what seems to be a dead-end life.
HELLO AGAIN (***) (Sept. 30, 9:05 p.m.) For better or worse, I feel safe in predicting you’ll never see the like of “Hello Again” again. It’s based on a 1994 Off-Broadway musical by Michael John LaChiusa (which had more dancing) that was suggested by Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde” (which had less). That means it tells ten short stories, with one character from each having a role in the next. The fact that the first five stories involve heterosexual couples, despite a hint of androgyny, hardly disqualifies “Hello Again” from an LGBT festival. It’s musical theater, after all, and no queen ever said Dolly Levi had to pursue Hortense Vandergelder. Actually, Cory Krueckeberg’s screenplay gays things up a little by turning one male character female, to be played by Martha Plimpton as a lesbian senator. She’s partnered with Audra McDonald, whose character is changed from an actress to a singer and gets to do the only real song, “Beyond the Moon,” which was added for the movie. There’s a lot of other singing but it’s mostly sung dialogue or fragments of songs. Designed for the short attention spans of the MTV generation, the film jumps around in time from one story to the next, ignoring the fact that the character who recurs might have gone down (or been gone down on) on the Titanic. Indeed, Tyler Blackburn is with T.R. Knight on the doomed ship in 1912, then gets picked up in a 1976 disco by Cheyenne Jackson. Director Tom Gustafson (“Were the World Mine”) makes no attempt to ease you into this setup; he plunges you in and lets you sink or swim. The framework scene has Plimpton talking to Leocadia (Sam Underwood) in a setting that looks like a cross between a peepshow and a fortune teller. Before you can grasp what’s going on you’re back in 1901 and off to the races. One common denominator of the ten stories is sex. Though there’s no frontal nudity (but some cute butts) or anything explicit, there are more sex scenes than the average porn feature; and it’s always clear who’s doing what to whom. The versatile Jackson goes from bottoming for Blackburn to topping McDonald. Before being Knight’s unsatisfied wife in 1956, Rumer Willis cures Al Calderon’s erectile dysfunction in 1929. Prior to that he was seduced by his nurse (Jenna Ushkowitz) in 1967, after she gave it up for the war effort to Nolan Gerard Funk at the Stage Door Canteen in 1944. Sometimes a line in one episode will refer back to the previous one as a sort of inside joke. There’s also a red jewel that recurs frequently in various settings, to be sure you’re paying attention. There’s a lot to pay attention to in a film that requires a complete reorientation every ten minutes, and I’ve no doubt many viewers will decide it’s not worth the effort. I’m of two minds about “Hello Again” myself. I found myself far from loving it (my husband came closer), yet I have to admire Gustafson for being true to his vision, as combined with those of LaChiusa and Krueckeberg. They knew they were making something that wouldn’t be for every taste, but they did it their way and screw you if you don’t appreciate it.
WOMEN WHO KILL (** ½) (Oct. 1, 11:15 a.m.) If I don’t completely “get” “Women Who Kill,” blame my dude handicap. It’s one of the most lesbian movies ever made! All the main characters are lesbians. A low-key thriller, a deadpan comedy and maybe even a romance, it was written and directed by Ingrid Jungermann, who stars as Morgan. Morgan and her ex, Jean (Ann Carr), are never ever getting back together; but they still live together and do a weekly podcast, Women Who Kill, on which they interview convicted female killers and poll their listeners on such topics as “Hottest Female Serial Killer.” People who do strange podcasts shouldn’t be surprised if they attract strange fans. Morgan meets Simone (Sheila Vand) at the food co-op where she works, and they soon become an item. Simone obviously has secrets. That’s a red flag for everyone else but a turn-on for Morgan. Jean does some research and comes up with the theory that Simone is the daughter of a serial killer – or a killer herself and her mother took the blame to protect her. Paranoia takes root and grows, and with a plot like this, someone could get killed before it’s over. Morgan’s friends, including Alex (Shannon Patricia O’Neill) and Kim (Grace Rex), do things like drink, arm wrestle, play softball, compost and say things like “…unleash my inner Wuornos” and “Pound that pussy!” There’s none of the latter on screen, nothing but a few tender kisses. Jungermann is no exhibitionist. All she wants to show is that she can make a movie, and she’s done that.
NO DRESS CODE REQUIRED (***) (Oct. 1, 11:30 a.m.) If you see “No Dress Code Required” on a theater marquee, will you think, “Oh good, I don’t have to wear a tie!” or “Here’s a swell documentary about a gay Mexican couple fighting for the right to marry”? Actually, both answers are correct.The award for Happiest Ending goes to this documentary by Cristina Herrera Borquez about the two-year struggle of two beauticians, Víctor and Fernando, to tie the knot in their hometown of Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico. When they first decide to marry in 2013 after nine years together, they plan to go to Mexico City, where it would be simple. They’re persuaded to stay home and set a precedent, to make it easier for others to follow. The lawyer who helped win the case nationally finds a local attorney to represent our guys, but no one realizes how difficult it will be or how long it will take. Both the mayor and governor are opposed to same-sex marriage, but titles tell us their reigns end in 2013 so we have hope, especially since the Mexican Supreme Court has ruled the men can marry. The new Mexicali administration is as bad as the old, throwing one roadblock after another in the men’s path to the altar, from absurd paperwork to a false bomb scare to clear City Hall when they come to be married there. But as noted, there’s a happy ending – at least a climax that should make you stand up and cheer, even if it’s followed by a bit too much anticlimax. Brush up your Spanish, if you have any, before seeing this film. The director is afraid of silence and our heroes, especially Fernando, are happy to oblige with wall-to-wall chatter the subtitles have trouble keeping up with. There are other things to read too, including signs at demonstrations. In one scene three city officials are identified at once, in Spanish and English, by titles partially obscured by translations of what’s being said. An additional source of confusion is that Fernando’s last name is Amparo, which also happens to be a frequently cited legal term that translates as “protection” but has no equivalent in our legal system. But even if you miss a few details, you’ll suffer along with Víctor and Fernando the frustration that makes their ultimate victory so sweet, and celebrate that victory with them. Seeing “No Dress Code Required” so soon after the death of American trailblazer Edie Windsor adds yet another layer of appreciation for people like her – and Víctor and Fernando – who suffer to win victories for all of us.
THE FABULOUS ALLAN CARR (***) (Oct. 1, 3:15 p.m.) Following praiseworthy documentaries about Tab Hunter, Divine, Jack Wrangler and Vito Russo, Jeffrey Schwartz does it again with another gay entertainment figure, the late Allan Carr. Producers usually stay in the background writing checks, but Carr worked at making himself as much of a celebrity as those he worked with. Carr, born Alan Solomon, was raised in the Chicago area but moved to Hollywood to become a talent manager. He handled celebrities (Rosalind Russell, Roger Smith, Ann-Margret), helped promote movies (“Tommy,” “The Deer Hunter”), and partnered with Australian mogul Robert Stigwood to import the Mexican schlock thriller “Survive!” The last made him a millionaire, but he still needed Stigwood’s backing to produce “Grease,” which became the highest-grossing movie musical ever – a dream come true for a gay boy who grew up on the classic musicals of old. (Schwartz suggests “Grease” made John Travolta a movie star after his TV success on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” as if “Saturday Night Fever” never existed.) This high point was followed by several lows (“Can’t Stop the Music,” which director Nancy Walker called a “piece of shit”; “Grease 2,” “Where the Boys Are ’84”). In the midst of these, Carr saw a play, “La Cage aux Folles,” in Paris and came up with the idea of bringing it to Broadway as a musical, which won him a Tony. But another dream come true, producing the 1989 Academy Awards, turned into a nightmare, remembered mainly for the disastrous opening number featuring Rob Lowe and Snow White. A former personal assistant makes Carr sound like Donald Trump, describing him as a Jekyll and Hyde who could be a great guy one minute and a monster the next. Hollywood was the same way toward him, treating the golden boy of “Grease” as a pariah after the Oscar fiasco. It’s said that Carr was so flamboyant everyone knew he was gay, but it still wasn’t discussed in the mainstream media. It sounds like he didn’t have much of a sex life, with his first experience in his early 30s. He’s said to have had an appetite for twinkies, who were thrilled to be invited to his famous parties in hopes of being discovered. All the glamorous people attended his parties, but at a certain point all the women and straight men would leave and the real party would begin. A former twink who became his friend says Carr didn’t take advantage of his position, preferring voyeurism to participation. Perhaps that’s why he avoided AIDS, which a brief section of the film mentions took the lives of many of his party guests. He still died at 62 from various health issues, including bone cancer. Schwartz is kind enough to let us remember dozens of stars as they were through archival footage and photos, but includes recent interviews with Connie Stevens, Marlo Thomas and Valerie Perrine, as well as Carr’s friends Lorna Luft, Bruce Vilanch and Paul Rudnick. “The Fabulous Allan Carr” is a well-rounded portrait of a well-rounded (he constantly battled with weight, concealing it with caftans) gay man who experienced highs and lows most of us could hardly imagine.
THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARSHA P. JOHNSON (***) (Oct. 1, 5:15 p.m.) With everything from entire cable channels to award-winning miniseries devoted to true crime stories, the time has come for this documentary, which would be welcome anytime. Like any LGBT film that’s heavy on archival footage, it will be nostalgia for some and a history lesson for others. A Stonewall veteran who modeled for Andy Warhol, Marsha P. Johnson was a beloved drag performer and activist. With her friend Sylvia Rivera she helped put the “T” in LGBT when the mainstream of the movement tried to shut them out. There’s a shocking scene at a 1973 Washington Square rally where Sylvia demands to speak and is booed off the stage. Born Malcolm Michaels Jr., Marsha died in July 1992 at the age of 46. Her body was found floating in the Hudson River near the Christopher Street piers. The police ruled it a suicide and didn’t bother to investigate. Their stories form two threads of the film, which is held together by the work of Victoria Cruz, a woman with a great face for drama. Before retiring from the NYC Anti-Violence Project, Cruz resurrects the cold case of Marsha’s death and determines to solve it. As expected, she gets stonewalled (pardon the expression) by police and officials, who are more likely to perpetrate violence against transgenders than investigate it. She finds new evidence, raises new questions, develops new theories; but the ultimate solution remains elusive. The murder of another transgender woman, Islan Nettles, is in the news at the time of Cruz’ investigation. Someone is arrested for this one, and his trial forms another thread. Hundreds of other transgender people are still murdered every year, and in many cases the police show as little interest as they did in Marsha’s. Randy Wicker, Marsha’s longtime roommate, shares his memories and a large video collection, one of many sources for countless clips of Marsha, Sylvia and many others. Director, co-writer and co-producer David France, Oscar-nominated for “How to Survive a Plague,” is a bit loose with describing participants as “LGBT Movement co-founder.” Still he’s done a praiseworthy job in telling and illustrating the various stories.
AFTER LOUIE (** 1/2) (Oct. 1, 7:15 p.m.) If “3 Generations” hadn’t been used as a title recently, it would be a perfect substitute for “After Louie.” It divides the world, especially the gay world, into the young (“millennials” is never said), the middle-aged and the old. The central character, Sam Cooper (Alan Cumming) is an obvious surrogate for director Vincent Gagliostro, who has been working for years on art installations and such as a tribute to his late friend William Wilson, author of the memoir “After Louie.” Filmmakers who have strong feelings about (or a personal connection with) their subject need at least one more pair of eyes to be sure they’ll connect with the rest of us. Gagliostro has wisely enlisted a younger co-writer, Anthony Johnston, who also appears in the film, to represent his generation’s viewpoint; but I suspect Johnston was too often overruled. Sam is a well-known artist (although we never see any of his work, except in a scene of body painting-as-foreplay and when he scrawls the names of dead friends on a wall) who has given up painting to devote himself to a video tribute to the same William Wilson (David Drake). “I’m trying to get back to doing something important again,” he tells gallery owner Rhona (Justin Vivian Bond). An AIDS activist (Gagliostro was a founder of ACT UP), Sam hasn’t been able to move on. Though attracted to younger men as sex partners, he doesn’t respect them because they’re not as political as he was and don’t revere him for his efforts. It might be noted that the next older generation is represented by Sam’s art teacher, Julian (Everett Quinton), and there’s no mention of their groundbreaking efforts at Stonewall and even before. He’s just a sweet, nellie old queen. Does this prove Sam/Gagliostro’s point or expose him as a hypocrite? Sam is so accustomed to paying for sex that when Braeden (Zachary Booth) goes home with him from a bar, Sam automatically puts money in his shoe, turning him into an “accidental prostitute.” Braeden is in an open relationship with Lukas (Johnston), who would rather close it, but continues seeing Sam. When Jeffrey (Patrick Breen), one of Sam’s oldest friends, marries his partner Mateo (Wilson Cruz), Sam goes on a rant about marriage representing “heteronormativity,” instead of acknowledging it as a political accomplishment of the post-AIDS generation. You could say that the more we achieve as a community, the less we have to fight the establishment for, so we find reasons to fight each other. Being played by Alan Cumming, there’s no way Sam can be totally unlikable, but he comes close enough that “After Louie” isn’t very likable either.
SCREWED (***) (Oct. 1, 9:10 p.m.) Coming-of-age films tend to be clichéd because there are just so many ways young people can lose their virginity and/or their hearts for the first time. “Screwed” may have its share of clichés, but Finnish filmmakers tend to do things a little differently, so there’s a blend of old and new that keeps you guessing where things will go and how. The odd opening minute is like a trailer, showing brief clips from the film ahead. It’s pointless, but alerts us to expect the unexpected. Miku (Mikko Kauppila) is in his late teens. While their parents are away, his older brother throws a party to help him get laid. It works, but Miku even tells the young lady he “may want something else.” The party thoroughly trashes the house and when his parents come home the next day, they grab Miku and haul him off to the family’s summer cottage in the country. There their closest neighbors are a more liberal family who have summered there for many years, yet they’ve never met (a big flaw in the script). When Miku’s eyes meet those of Elias (Valtteri Lehtinen), a boy his own age, it’s lust at first sight for both of them. Soon they’re inseparable – literally, unless you have a crowbar. Then we’re in more familiar territory as they go back and forth about whether this is a summer romance – if even that – or just a casual flirtation. Well, it’s all new to Miku. The more experienced Elias proves to have issues. He also has a sister, Sini (Amanda Virolainen), who is cool and usually high. She steals the boys’ clothes while they’re skinny-dipping and makes a pun about “sodomeeting” that sounds similar in Finnish. I shouldn’t oversell it but the scene where Miku comes out to his mother is priceless, worth sitting through the whole movie – nay, the whole festival – for! Not that “Screwed” is hard to sit through. Director and co-writer Nils-Erik Ekblom can take me on an unfamiliar path through familiar territory anytime.
I DREAM IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE (*** 1/2) (Oct. 2, 7 p.m.) To those who appreciated “The Lost City of Z” for its academic aspects, the gay love story behind “I Dream in Another Language” may be of secondary interest. It’s a marvelous film about forgiveness and the preservation of ancient cultures that mixes the natural, the unnatural and the supernatural. The more open you are to its many facets, the more likely you are to be gently blown away by it. If you’re just in it for the gay, you may get frustrated waiting for it while two heterosexual love stories develop, one in the present and one in the past. At least you have three good-looking young men to ogle while you’re waiting. It takes nearly half the running time to reveal what really broke up the boyhood friendship of Evaristo (Juan Pablo de Santiago) and Isauro (Hoze Meléndez) over 50 years ago. Young linguist Martin (Fernando Álvarez Rebeil) arrives in a remote Mexican jungle village to record the last living speakers of Zikril, the language of a (fictional) vanished tribe that could supposedly communicate with animals. Unfortunately, one dies and the other two, Evaristo (Eligio Meléndez) and Isauro (José Manuel Poncelis), still aren’t speaking to each other. Martin eventually wears down their resistance, with the help of Evaristo’s granddaughter Lluvia (Fátima Molina), and falls in love with her in the process. Not everything goes the way you expect, but writer Carlos Contreras and director Ernesto Contreras (they’re brothers) make it easy for you to visit their world on their terms, if you’ll leave yourself open to enchanting surprises.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN: TODRICK HALL (***) (Oct. 4, 7 p.m.) “Behind the Curtain” is a crash course in one of the biggest You ubers, Todrick Hall, as he shoots 16 videos in the two weeks prior to the release of his “Lemonade”-inspired visual album, “Straight Outta Oz.” And two weeks later he starts a national tour (international, since it starts in Vancouver) of a stage version of the album. Perhaps the thing I liked most – of a long list – about “Behind the Curtain” is that it prodded me to watch “Straight Outta Oz,” and I must say this preview doesn’t do it justice. Seeing two women paint Todrick’s garage prior to a shoot, and knowing it was all shot in two weeks, made me expect some low-budget DIY effort. It’s anything but. But that’s not what I’m reviewing. This documentary goes back and forth between Todrick’s childhood as a gay African-American in the ‘90s in a small Texas town, hearing every week in his mother’s Baptist church that gay people go to hell; and the summer of 2016, when he’s preparing for the video shoots, album release and tour while reeling from the shootings at Pulse, which he frequented when he worked at Disney World. Brief clips from the video and stage performances mix with backstage life and old home movies. Director/cinematographer/co-editor Katherine Fairfax Wright shows some problems arise – the custom-built stage set is too big for the truck they have to transport it in; the tour is in danger of being cancelled when they’re “living off the merch money” – without showing how they’re resolved. Having toured with shows myself – that’s what originally brought me to Atlanta via Fort McPherson – I know one of this scale has to be a lot better organized than the movie makes it look. It’s mentioned that Todrick’s relations with his mother have been strained and they haven’t spoken in several months, but when she shows up at his performance they’re all lovey-dovey. And speaking of love, Todrick talks at length about his first serious boyfriend, Garrett, who is featured in a song on the album. I wonder how his current boyfriend, Jesse, seen canoodling with Todrick in several scenes, feels hearing the way he gushes about his predecessor. I’d be offended in Jesse’s place, even if I were a one night stand. But this is about Todrick, and I can’t imagine anyone not being at least a little bit in love with him by the time it’s over. He’s a man of many talents and grateful to fans and friends for getting him so far.
SENSITIVITY TRAINING (***) (Oct. 4, 7:05 p.m.) I’ve found my soulmate! Dr. Serena Wolfe (Anna Lise Phillips) is a bad-tempered blonde with a low tolerance for the imperfections of others. Hey, it’s lonely always being right. Or as she puts it, “I have a strong personality. I don’t think it’s a problem.” Her co-workers at a university research lab disagree. After a tragic event, Serena is required to undergo sensitivity training to keep her job. Her trainer, Caroline (Jill E. Alexander), is a bubbly red-haired lesbian who says things like, “Positive reinforcement encourages productivity.” Caroline is glad of the new challenge, having been relegated to sexual harassment cases where men sign apologies to avoid lawsuits. Despite having a partner and their five-year-old daughter at home, she latches onto Serena in an earnest effort to change her personality. If this were your basic romcom, they would simply fall in love. Serena is heterosexual, which could be a stumbling block; but after falling under Caroline’s spell (a bit too quickly) she starts Googling lesbian things like she’d be willing to change. Of course there’s the risk of breaking up Caroline’s happy home; and after painting herself into a corner on this question, writer-director Melissa Finell finds a brilliant way out of it. I don’t know where Anna Lise Phillips has been hiding all these years (Australia, apparently), but based on this performance someone could build a sitcom around her and it would run for years! There can’t be more than a handful of movies this year that have made me laugh out loud more than “Sensitivity Training.”
SIGNATURE MOVE (***) (Oct. 6, 7 p.m., Out Front) Quite possibly the best Chicago-made lesbian film since “Go Fish,” “Signature Move” is Donald Trump’s nightmare: a love story between a Mexican-American and a Muslim. Zaynab (co-writer Fawzia Mirza) is an immigration lawyer whose Pakistani mother (Shabana Azmi) moved in with her a year ago when Zaynab’s father died. Ma never goes out, but spends the day watching Pakistani soap operas and peering out the window with binoculars, hoping to spot a potential husband for her daughter. Zaynab (the y is silent) is well into her 30s and she still won’t come out to her mother. One night Zaynab is hit on in a bar by a flirtatious woman, Alma (Sari Sanchez). It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but not without difficulties. Alma says she’s “not in it for a relationship,” but one develops anyway, until Alma gets upset about Zaynab remaining closeted at home. A subplot arises after a client offers to pay Zaynab with wrestling lessons instead of cash, and she winds up competing in a lesbian tournament. Director Jennifer Reeder keeps the tone somewhere between a light drama and a heavy romcom. I got the feeling Mirza would rather be playing broad comedy, although she’s a fine dramatic actress – and her wrestling, well…! Unfortunately, in the year of “The Big Sick,” “Signature Move” can only be the second-best romcom with a Pakistani-American character in the lead; but it comes close enough to a really high bar.
THE UNTOLD TALES OF ARMISTEAD MAUPIN (***) (Oct. 6, 11 p.m., Out Front) If you’ve never read Armistead Maupin’s books or seen the miniseries based on his “Tales of the City,” you may not have a lot of interest in Jennifer M. Kroot’s documentary. Or you may let it inspire you to catch up before the planned, long-delayed fourth season of “Tales” that’s been announced by Netflix. You should know something about Maupin, one of the first openly gay celebrities to appeal to a mainstream audience, to earn your gay card. As his “Untold Tales” tell, it wasn’t always easy. Raised in Raleigh, this great-great grandson of a Confederate general was the son of a “white supremacist,” he says, and grew up with a lot of his family’s conservative values. As a teenage Republican, Maupin’s first job was working for Jesse Helms, who would become the most homophobic person in the U.S. Senate. After serving in Vietnam and volunteering to return there on a humanitarian mission, Maupin was invited to the White House to meet President Nixon. The story gets better from there. Although he knew at 12 he liked men, his religious upbringing kept him in the closet until he was 25. He had sex for the first time in a park in Charleston during the summer of Stonewall, and never looked back. He soon moved to San Francisco. Enjoying and marveling at the delights of the world’s gayest city, Maupin started writing a fictional column for a weekly paper. Both main characters were based on himself. Mary Ann Singleton was a young straight woman who was new to the city and somewhat overwhelmed. Michael Tolliver was a gay man who was enjoying sex while looking for love. They lived at 28 Barbary Lane, where their quirky landlady, Anna Madrigal, would eventually be revealed as transgender. That may sound pretty ordinary today, but in the mid-‘70s it was revolutionary; and the writing was good enough that it’s held up since the subject matter became almost commonplace. The column was quickly picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle to run five days a week. It was pretty racy for a “family” newspaper but hey, it was San Francisco. The columns became books, which reached a worldwide audience. PBS aired the first miniseries in 1993 and conservatives in Congress used it as an excuse to try to deny funding for Public Television. Showtime aired “More…” and “Further Tales of the City” within the next decade. Laura Linney (Mary Ann) and Olympia Dukakis (Mrs. Madrigal) appear here to discuss the show and Linney tells of riding with Grand Marshal Maupin in a San Francisco Pride parade. Sir Ian McKellen recalls asking Maupin and his then-partner whether he should come out, and credits their encouragement as a factor in his decision. Maupin may have been the first to officially out Rock Hudson when he died of AIDS. He thought gay celebs owed it to their community to be open and make it easier for the next generation to take the step, and he didn’t mind outing those who wouldn’t come out on their own. (When I interviewed him in the early ‘90s he told me stories about Tom Cruise and John Travolta, although he didn’t have personal anecdotes to back up the rumors, as he did with Hudson.) Yes, “Untold Tales…” is something of a tell-all, with Maupin mostly telling on himself. He talks about how LGBTs in particular transition from our “biological family” to our “logical family.” Familiar faces and places made this film a real nostalgia trip for me. If you’re too young to remember, you’re old enough to learn.
SATURDAY CHURCH (***) (Oct. 7, 7 p.m., Plaza) As the coming of age story of a gay African-American, “Saturday Church” starts like “Moonlight” with drag instead of drugs; but after the surprising first musical number we realize it’s more of a hybrid of “Moonlight” and “La La Land.” Faye Dunaway would really be confused! Ulysses (Luka Kain) is a teenager whose father has just died. His mother, Amara (Margot Bingham), has to work, but Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) offers to look after Ulysses and his eight-year-old brother Abe (Jaylin Fletcher). Ulysses has already been caught trying on his mother’s clothes and told not to, but Aunt Rose is a stricter disciplinarian. Ulysses’ taste runs more toward ruby slippers (with heels) than kinky boots. He goes down to Greenwich Village and is adopted by a foursome of former runaways who have settled in, working as prostitutes. Three of them – Ebony (Mj Rodriguez), Heaven (Alexia Garcia) and Dijon (Indya Moore) – dress as women. The fourth, Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez), holds potential as a love interest for Ulysses. Our young hero becomes more involved with the Village people, including their weekly free dinner at the Saturday Church (apparently a real charity). He experiences his first time in lipstick, his first kiss and his first – you know – but still lives at home, goes to school and attends Sunday church with his family. Writer-director Damon Cardasis, making his first feature, softens the intensity of the story with periodic songs, most of them low-“Rent” but serviceable. There’s also a variety of dancing, from hip hop to a very good modern dance troupe. The ball scene of “Paris Is Burning,” etc. is only suggested until the closing credits, which include clips from a real event. Kain’s performance ensures that you will empathize with Ulysses, and the director’s approach keeps you from being traumatized by some of the things that happen to him. I’d call that a win-win, even if it lessens the chances for award consideration.