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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: A creaky gay 'Sublet' and a heady...

Screen Grabs: A creaky gay ‘Sublet’ and a heady lesbian ‘Curve’

Plus: 'Holler' shines through strong performances; 'In the Crosswinds' too pretty for tragedy

Though the spectrum of LGBTQ+ cinema is currently on display via Frameline (see our preview here), that doesn’t mean gay movies temporarily cease being shown elsewhere in deference to the world’s oldest/largest such festival. Indeed, a couple recently opened at local theaters.

Sublet (now at the Embarcadero and Shattuck) is the latest from Eytan Fox, Israel’s leading gay filmmaker since Yossi & Jagger nineteen years ago. This is his first feature since 2013’s quasi-musical Cupcakes, a sugary confection that again proved Fox’s most substantial work (like Y&J and the subsequent Walk On Water) tends to be written by others, while those projects where he has a hand in the screenplay can be pleasant but a wee trite. Though Sublet has a gloss of melancholic seriousness, it’s another lightweight diversion in the vein of Cupcakes and The Bubble, content to bask in the picturesque and pleasure-seeking aspects of liberal, gay-friendly Tel Aviv as Fox has repeatedly done before.

This is his first largely English-language movie, however, simply because the main character is Michael (John Benjamin Hickey), a fiftysomething American travel writer who’s journeyed here to write a touristic piece about the city. To get a better feel for locals’ experience, he’s arranged a short-term apartment rental in a trendy neighborhood from Tomer (Niv Nissim), a university student and aspiring filmmaker half his age. Tomer is young in such a stereotypically irresponsible, flaky way that when Michael shows up, he hasn’t even prepared the flat for his guest, having forgotten the day of his arrival. After this awkward start, however, the two become friendly enough, to the point where Michael (upon realizing Tomer is crashing at friends’ houses in order to make money subletting his own place) lets him stay during the rental, in exchange for some casual tour-guide services.

Their dynamic is pretty simple: Michael is the sober, stable elder who views his cute young host with mixed bemusement and mild lust, while Tomer is the callow, commitment-phobic young’un mystified by the perspective of anyone with an attention span, or a birthdate before 1990. Eventually the latter realizes that the former is rebounding from something of a trauma back home in NY; and eventually, too, the minor sexual tension between them boils over. At the end we’re meant to buy that they’ve forged some deep if fleeting bond, but for me that was no more plausible than the notion of Michael’s supposed job as a New York Times travel columnist. (Fox and Italy Segal’s script seems to have no idea how even a fluff-piece journalist might actually work.)

The generation-gap riffing is creaky, as if adapted from a story penned 50 years earlier. And while as usual Fox makes Tel Aviv seem a lively, attractive place to visit or live in, the glimpses of supposedly cutting-edge culture we see (esp. a bad contact-improv-type duet danced by Lihi Kornowski as Tomer’s friend Daria) are less impressive than the director intends. Eytan Fox, who is 56, seems to be clinging to an identification with youth even as he no longer grasps it. Both shallow, Grindr-ready Tomer and perpetually sports-jacketed “boring nice guy” Michael seem cliches—as if there were a hard line in the middle of the age continuum, and you can only be conventionally Young (sexy, tactless) or Old (sexless, sad). Sunny, seriocomic Sublet is an easy-enough watch, but it struck me as a little vapid.

The cutting edge was exactly where the subject of documentary Ahead of the Curve was upon its SF-based launch in 1990. First published as Deneuve, until a certain French actress’ objections required a name change six years later, Curve magazine defined “lesbian chic” and a whole lot more throughout that decade. Jen Rainin’s film chronicles the heady history of founder Franco Stevens’ publication, which still exists (albeit under Australian ownership) three decades later. But it was in those early days that its innovation and influence was highest as a sophisticated, glossy and envelope-pushing community voice.

Featuring such fans (and past Curve interviewees) as Melissa Etheridge, Jewelle Gomez and Lea DeLaria, Ahead earned both kudos and controversy by including trans, race, and disability issues in its coverage. But despite its high profile, the mag originally financed by Franco’s credit card advances and racetrack bets continued to struggle for “out” celebrities and mainstream advertisers willing to come onboard. Eventually Stevens’ health concerns (she developed mobility problems) forced her out of Curve’s day-to-day operations, but she remains urgently interested in its survival.

With plenty of fun behind-the-scenes anecdotes, plus an original score by Meshell Ndegeocello, Ahead of the Curve is itself a colorful artifact of a heady moment. It’s occasionally weakened by being too much an “authorized biography”—Rainin is Stevens’ wife, and she is sometimes gratuitously on-camera pitching softball questions she must already know the answers to. Still, the archival materials as well as latterday reminiscences make this an entertaining flashback. The doc is currently playing Roxie Virtual Cinema (more info here), and opens in-theater at the Balboa this Fri/18 (more info here).

Other new releases:

Holler
In a dead-end Ohio town where options are few, teenager Ruth (Jessica Barden) and older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) have nearly exhausted theirs. There’s an eviction notice on their home, drug-addicted mom (Pamela Adlon) is in county jail, dad long gone. Bright if prematurely hard-boiled, Ruth is at risk of failing to graduate high school thanks to the penny-scraping menial labor she and Blaze try to scrape by on, which makes her miss classes. They get a break of sorts when sketchy Hark (Austin Amelio) invites them to join his band of metal scrappers. It’s sometimes-dangerous, not-exactly-legal work. But it’s money, and they can stay under Hark’s roof—though that may not be entirely a good thing.

Writer-director Nicole Riegel’s first feature is not the most memorable among several recent features similarly depicting a blue-collar American heartland in freefall, rocked by the opioid epidemic and an ever-shrinking pool of living-wage jobs. But it’s got plenty of virtues, from a strong sense of industrial-midwest place to an incisive, nonpreachy grasp on the larger issues involved.

Most importantly, it has very strong performances, particularly from Amelio (of the two Walking Dead series) as a near-villain whose ruthlessness is understandable as the only means to success he’s got, and veteran actor Becky Ann Baker as a foreman who accepts the town’s last-remaining-factory closure as just the latest in a lifetime of institutional betrayals. Riegel hasn’t come up with the most original story here, or the most satisfying denouement. Yet Holler has a basic conviction and authenticity that makes it worthwhile. IFC Films is currently distributing the film to limited theaters and VOD/digital platforms

In the Crosswind

Pandemic streaming demands and the drastic slowdown in new production over recent months continue to tip movies off the shelves they’d been sitting on. This 2014 Estonian production is a particularly tardy beneficiary of such belated US release.

It’s certainly got a worthy subject: As opening text informs us, on the night of June 14, 1941 over 40,000 innocent citizens were forcibly deported from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on secret orders from Stalin to “ethnically cleanse the Baltic countries of their native people.” It was just one particularly busy day in the annals of what would later be termed that despot’s “Soviet Holocaust,” whose toll—also encompassing political prisoners, victims of avoidable famines etc.—would by some estimates run as high as twenty million lives.

This microcosm of an almost unfathomably large tragedy was inspired by a particular survivor’s letters to her husband—whom she had no idea was already dead. On the aforementioned night, soldiers rousted Erna Tamm (Laura Peterson), spouse Heldur, and offspring from their village home onto transport destined for distant prison camps. Almost immediately separated from Heldur, Laura and her children were put in train cattle cars, where one-fifth of their fellow travelers died en route to Siberia. Upon arrival, they were left to survive as they could as laborers in a harsh and unfamiliar land.

There’s no lack of heartrending drama in that story, or its equally bitter aftermath. But director Martti Helde’s artistic decisions in depicting it are the kind that make Crosswind a love-or-hate proposition. Aside from the beginning and end, which are handled in a conspicuously Terrence Malick-y mode of gauzy lyricism—wordless montages of beautiful actresses playing at period domesticity as if in a constant state of spiritual ecstacy—he stages the film entire as a series of tableaux vivants. That is, every shot is an elaborate camera choreography in which backgrounds move, but the actors remain still as mannequins, frozen in a moment of high melodramatic conflict/reaction. This may be aesthetically striking (and technically impressive), but it is also terribly mannered and artificial, like a Passion Play told with performers forever striking poses a la Last Supper paintings.

Shot in B&W, with suitably spare, ethereal piano music on the soundtrack, In the Crosswind is duly “beautiful.” But sometimes beauty is isn’t enough—indeed, sometimes it is exactly the wrong thing for a brutal subject, trivializing the ugliness we should be confronting. This movie might have made for a stunning gallery installation, with spectators admiring a few minutes at a time. But in narrative feature form, it reduces real-life horror to the empty, fussy aestheticism of a perfume commercial. That it is a perfume commercial which might have been directed by Bela Tarr only underlines the absurdity of Helde’s presumably well-meaning but very wrong-headed approach. Crosswind is available for streaming on Film Movement Plus (more info here).

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