SF’s Frameline Film Festival Has Diversity, Variety and Brilliance

by Kevin M. Thomas, @ReelKev

Alan Cumming in AFTER LOUIE

The race is on….

The 41st annual Frameline Film Festival, offering tons of LGBTQ film options in the Bay Area, is here June 15-25, 2017.

It’s a race to me as the minute the titles were announced, I spend almost every waking hour watching films so I can include some highlights in a comprehensive story. Trouble is, too many movies, too little time. I did manage to see 24 films among their 44 features and 24 documentaries – and I am still screening. From what I’ve seen, this is the best Frameline film festival ever. I’ve seen some movies I liked less than others. But I haven’t seen any I didn’t like at all.

DOCUMENTARIES

“The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin”

The festival opens with a documentary and there are some great profiles of famous and not-so-famous characters that make truly riveting stories. “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” is a loving portrait of one of the City’s most famous authors who brought us all a collection of memorable characters in his SF  newspaper column which became best selling novels, highly rated mini-series and even a musical. The movie keeps fans happy with lots of behind the scene’s stories of the characters from the fictitious Barbary Lane in San Francisco. But the doc ups the game by sharing a lot of Maupin’s childhood tales like coming out to his family. It also lovingly shares some insight to his love life, providing a glimpse into his husband’s life and the cute way they met.

“Mansfield 66/67”

Mansfield 66/67” reviews a few chapters in the short life of bombshell Jayne Mansfield. This terrific picture not only shows us how smart Mansfield was (she knew five languages) but how her sex appeal became a moniker to her career. The filmmakers add some nice panache to the story by incorporating some interviews with cult legends and they enhancesthe picture with 1960s dance re-enactments.

American singer Whitney Houston (1963 – 2012), circa 1988. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

Star powered documentaries continue with “Whitney. Can I Be Me.” This isn’t a tell all trashyTMZ-style film that it could be with lots of speculation about Whitney Houston’s bisexual relationship with her associate and childhood friend Robyn Crawford. That is for sure covered in the movie, but the film goes deeper and shows more of some of the early signs in what truly was the beginning of the end of the vibrant and exciting performer.

Director Jeffrey Schwarz has become my go-to man for documentaries. I loved his previous “Tab Hunter Confidential” and “I Am Divine,” among others so I was thrilled to see “The Fabulous Allan Carr,” playing at this year’s festival. Allan Carr, on the surface, doesn’t seem a big of a name as his other subjects – but fabulous and flamboyant he was. Carr would have a huge social media following if he was around today. But instead, in his heyday, he would promote and cause interest in many things that he touched, including producing the movie “Grease” and the Broadway hit musical “La Cage aux Folles.”  Old time gays might remember reading stories of his Studio 54-like club in his own basement or a movie premiere in a subway station. But more likely, gay men perhaps have his awful “Can’t Stop the Music” flop with the Village People and Bruce Jenner on their guilty pleasure list. Schwarz leaves no stone unturned showcasing the highs and lows of this fascinating man.

A self-made star currently at his pinnacle is explored in the interesting “Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall.” What a creative phenom who knows how to sell himself and is able to achieve success by making quality music videos which have lead to over 2.5 million subscribers on his YouTube channel. With all of the success and popularity he’s achieved, he still seems humble and basically is trying to be a gay black positive role model for his teen fans. His fanbase now includes Beyonce, Broadway producers, RuPaul, Wayne Brady and me.

Documentaries aren’t all about those reaching stardom through the arts. Other docs also have equally noteworthy subjects.

STUMPED

Stumped” is the story of bearish filmmaker Will Lautzenheiser whose dreams are derailed as an injection made him, in almost a blink of an eye, lose all of his limbs. The topic is not an easy one but surprisingly Lautzenheiser finds humor as a way to deal with his new life. He adds comedian to his list of accomplishments, finding some really funny jokes in a horrific situation…I am still laughing at the one in which he needs someone to lend him a hand to masturbate. The movie does show the trials of living without limbs and also offers hope in which he becomes one of the first people to have an arm donor. He’s a remarkable man and very funny!

Remembering the Man” is a documentary version of one of last year’s best films, “Holding the Man.” They both tell and share different points from the short life of Timothy Conigrave, whose one claim to fame is writing the novel that both movies deal with: his life story being an early victim to AIDS and his long and most remarkably beautiful love story between Conigrave and his college sweetheart, who also succumbs to AIDS. Their love story is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen and what makes it most beautiful, it is real.

The Lavender Scare” is a taunt tale that actually will make you mad. This is definitely one of those that people would stand together. It tells of the McCarthy witch hunts. Apparently, it was decided that LGBTQ people were Russian spies because we are too weak to hold the nation’s secrets. So if anyone was thought to be gay in the government, they were fired. Soon it went from finding evidence of being homosexual to just stereotypes i.e. “she looks manly” or “his voice is too high.”  A resistance started in the late 1950s and actually took control just before Stonewall. While you think many of these rules are antiquated, just wait until the end with updates of what’s happened since the documentary completed. Those epilogs are as shocking as anything on screen.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” is a harrowing investigation into the possible murder of gay and trans activist, who was beloved in the community but the police wrote off the case as a suicide. Enter Anti-Violence Project member Victoria Cruz who is relentless in getting to the bottom of the case. Her determination would put a TV cold case show to shame and her devotion to the cause – and others as well – is as interesting as the tale of Johnson.

Alabama Bound” shows how far we’ve come – and far we’ve yet to go. It combines three tales of citizens of the state who are all fighting for equality in their lives, which they are denied simply for being lesbians.  This tale goes beyond just marriage equality but parental custody.

Hot to Trot” is this year’s entry for same sex dance competition movie. What makes this one stand out is we hear more about the stories behind the dancers, rather than just their dancing. Furthermore, a lot of the dance competitions take place in Oakland, giving a nice local angle.

NARRATIVE FEATURES

SIGNATURE MOVE

One of my favorite films of the festival is the really cute and sweet “Signature Move.” It’s a love story about a closet Muslin woman whose traditional mother moves in at the same time she meets a really nice girl. Being true to herself while balancing a blossoming love and keeping her mother in the dark are just the tip of the iceberg that also involves wrestling!  The chemistry between Fawzia Mirza and Sari Sanchez is evident throughout.

A MILLION HAPPY NOWS

Great chemistry is needed and deliveries in “A Million Happy Nows,” another beautiful lesbian love story. This one, though, has a tougher topic. Soap star Crystal Chappell plays a closet soap star who decides to retire with her partner. The retirement, though, isn’t for the two to enjoy life away from the camera. Chappell’s character has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. While the movie is full of soap stars in front of and behind the camera, it isn’t a melodrama tale. Instead, it’s honest and sensitive as it takes steps as a couple go further into the disease.

Lesbians also play a key role in the quirky “Sensitivity Training,” a riotous deadpan film of a female scientist who may be brilliant and successful but she has no people skills and is forced to go through sensitivity training with an overly perky coach whose job it is to show our scientist that people have feelings. This is truly and odd couple match and its fun to see the two leads work off of each other’s strengths.

A story of love and friendship among mostly lesbians is the plot behind “The Feels,” where friends gather for a final party before two of them plan to get married but not before a weekend of secrets are revealed. Great ensemble cast reminds me of a recent Frameline film I loved “That’s Not Us” and, like “Us” these people seem like real friends and not acting the part.

There are several coming out stories that shine as well – two in particular are standouts.

“Alaska is a Drag”

Alaska is a Drag” is a terrific tale of a young man coming out who is stuck in the manly state of Alaska and works along side people who torment him. In walks a hunk who may or may not be gay but is happy to befriend him. Then our lead is faced with   a boxing match he’s trained for (to take on his bully) and a drag competition that could hopefully help him get out of Alaska.  Throw in a few scenes with Margaret Cho and you can call this film a knockout.

SATURDAY CHURCH

Saturday Church” at first seems likely your typical film in which a young black man gets bullied at school and has to hide to avoid any further torment. Then, wait. They start singing. Wow, it’s a terrific gritty drama of not fitting in set to songs sung by bullies, drag queens, trans teens and family drama. This is more than meets the eye and will likely become a major film of 2017 outside of the film festival circuit.

“HELLO AGAIN”

Musicals also play a major role in “Hello Again,” based upon the sexy Off-Broadway musical that transcends time, genders, sexuality and roles. The movie perfectly interlaces scenes from different time periods with each member of the cast playing two roles in different segments. The movie has definite Broadway star power with the likes of sexy Cheyenne Jackson and multiple Tony winning diva Audra McDonald who gets to sing an original song in the film. Director Tom Gustafson made quite an impression with his debut about 10 years ago with “Were the World Mine” and he continues with topsy turvy narratives with this bold feature.

Movies for gay men also have a voice at Frameline.

“DATING MY MOTHER”

The title to the lighthearted “Dating My Mother”  can actually be interpreted many ways, which is part of the fun. A lot of us have “dated” our mother, meaning we find enjoyment watching DVDs and eating popcorn and sharing each other’s company. Then, there’s the other interpretation in which a sweet young man returns home and decides to date but needs to get his mother back in the dating mix. It’s a fun tale of friendship between parent and child. TV’s Kathryn Erbe makes for a nice mom and the gay street cred is enhanced by the presence of Kathy Najimy.

The festival closes with “After Louie,” starring Alan Cumming who has become a staple at LGBT film festivals. Cumming plays an artist who decides to make a documentary. Trouble is, he never seems content with the film or even finishing it. Perhaps he’s guilty that his friend has died of AIDS and he’s still alive. Or perhaps he’s just bothered that today’s generation can take PrEP and not have the worries of yesteryear. As Cumming explores all of these feelings, the audience relishes in a magnificent performance and a beautiful musical score. One scene involving chalk and a wall is actually one of the most haunting movie moments of this Frameline season.

Still lots to see. But for now, check out show times and other titles at www.frameline.org.

 

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