It’s a good week for independent, short-form and experimental filmmaking, with two significant annual events returning. There’s SF Short Film Festival, offering more than 140 films from around the globe in 20 themed programs that run a gamut from documentary, local, and sci-fi/horror spotlights to several trained on life during lockdown. Half of those programs will be shown in-theater at the Roxie this weekend, Fri/17-Sun/19; all of them will be available for streaming through Sept. 26 at www.sfindie.com. For program/ticket info, click here.
The other showcase is Crossroads, San Francisco Cinematheque’s “festival of artist-made film and video.” Its 12th edition will include livestreams with maker introductions (Fri/17-Thurs/23), theatrical screenings at the Roxie (October 16-17), and “online viewing galleries” open from this Friday through October 21. Further info is available at www.sfcinematheque.org.
In the realm of commercial-feature cinema, it should be noted that the former AMC Van Ness multiplex has recently re-opened—seemingly without any public announcement or press notice, but oh well. We haven’t been yet, but CGV Cinemas San Francisco, owned by South Korea’s ever-expanding largest theater chain, is “dedicated to showing Hollywood blockbusters as well as the best Asian films with subtitles.” Among movies playing there now are horror opus Malignant (see review below) and the S. Korean thriller Escape from Mogadishu.
While moviegoing is back, more or less (Alamo Drafthouse has returned as well), autumn still looks full of suspense re: the viability of major crowd-control public events. Last we looked, the Folsom Street Fair (this year being rebranded as MEGAHOOD2021) and Castro Street Fair were proceeding as planned on Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, respectively, allowing for various COVID-era regulations and precautions. Of course that may still be more togetherness with strangers than you’re willing to hazard during a pandemic that’s as yet nowhere near done. If you’d like to get your gay culture on safely at home, this week happens to bring a slew of relevant new film releases.
The highest-profile among them is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the film version of the British stage musical based on a 2011 TV documentary about a real-life youth in Sheffield, England. Or as opening text puts it, “This story really happened…then we added the singing and dancing.” 16-year-old Jamie (Max Harwood) is a very “flamboyant” youth fully accepted by his divorced mum (Sarah Lancashire), though not so much by his evasive, remarried father (Ralph Ineson), the school bully (Samuel Bottomley), or even a hitherto supportive teacher (Sharon Horgan). Those dynamics only heighten when he decides his life’s ambition is to be a drag queen, targeting the upcoming prom as his official “debut” with the encouragement of his BFF (Shobna Gulati) and one glittery old-school mentor (the always-welcome Richard E. Grant).
This is a slick, simple ode to Fabulousness, even if Jamie sometimes comes off as a self-centered brat—a born diva, indeed. Jonathan Butterell’s film version hits expected notes of inspirational uplift and speed-bumpage amidst a lot of voguing. Currently playing the Century 9 in a limited theatrical release, with streaming launch via Amazon Studios this Friday, it is energetically well-crafted enough to become an instant personal fave if it’s your sort of thing —though admittedly, it isn’t mine.
Also daring to be very different was the protagonist in The Capote Tapes, which opens at the Shattuck, Rafael and other theaters this Fri/17. This sympathetic overview of the late writer was occasioned by a trove of previously unavailable interviews amongst his inner circle conducted by George Plimpton, abetted by new on-camera ones with surviving acquaintances including Dick Cavett and Jay McInerney. Ebs Burnough’s documentary begins with a chorus of yea-ing and nay-ing commentators, my favorite opining “He was totally made out of drugs.”
While it weighs the totality of Truman Capote’s life, career and influence, with due attention paid Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, the primary emphasis is on this Southern sissy boy’s adoption as literary-celebrity pet by what he dubbed “the Swans”—those stylish socialites who sat atop the NYC spheres that were then the Olympus of American cultural life. He was “a fantastic gossip,” and it testified to the vanity and gullibility of these wealthy women that each apparently imagined he was their special confidante, and would never turn on them.
Yet they all turned on him when it emerged that the never-finished magnum opus he purportedly spent decades working on, Answered Prayers, was a vicious, all-too- thinly-veiled takedown of their own foibles and shared secrets. Abruptly exiled, this court jester spent later years in alcoholic self-loathing, when not coked-up be made to seem a talented but self-destructive gremlin, grotesque and venomous, this portrait grasps formative rejection and lifelong insecurity that fed his ultimate self-destruction.
Several other new releases offer snapshots of gay life further down the social-register totem pole—some waaaay down—than compulsive A-list aspirant Capote hazarded. Criterion Channel has just re-released “two lost classics of Black Queer American Cinema” by Stephen Winter, a frequent collaborator with Lee Daniels and other directors whose own films have regrettably flown under-radar.
The 1996 Chocolate Babies is a sort of revenge fantasy making superheroes out of the most marginalized: A “notorious drag queen gang” that’s actually diverse in racial, gender and HIV-status identity, and which runs around NYC committing acts of guerrilla AIDS activism. With scenes and performances often shrilly pitched, this rough-hewn artifact can feel a bit chaotic. But it’s still an indelible message from impacted communities that were largely excluded even from the agitations of ACT-UP.
It took Winter nearly two decades to make a second narrative directorial feature, the more accomplished Jason and Shirley. Co-written with the lead actors, it has celebrated author-activist Sarah Schulman (whose ACT- UP history Let the Record Show just got published) as filmmaker Shirley Clarke, and Jack Waters as aspiring actor, bon vivant, and self-designated “whore” Jason Holliday. Over the course of twelve hours in her 1966 Chelsea Hotel room, the real Clarke had “interviewed” the endlessly performative, increasingly drunk Holliday as a small crew filmed their interaction.
The result was the next year’s Portrait of Jason, a controversial documentary that stunned some and repelled others—few among even the most “sophisticated” filmgoers had ever walked on a wild side quite so wild as Holliday. But there were also accusations that Clarke exploited her subject, egging him on to make an eventually pathetic, weeping spectacle of himself. Confined to that hotel room, Winter’s complex imagining of the episode sees Portrait’s creation as a standoff between two sides of a race/class divide. There is showboating, condescension, manipulation, and complicity, both parties playing off—and with—the other. Winter’s features are getting their first- ever digital release via streaming access on The Criterion Channel.
Veteran transgressionist Bruce La Bruce, still Canadian cinema’s “bad boy” while pushing 60, is back with Saint-Narcisse, a typically outre endeavor. Though it’s the 1970s, handsome young Dominic (Felix-Antoine Duval) anticipates 21st-century selfie culture: He cannot get enough of his own image, whether in mirrors or sexual fantasies. Raised by Grandma, he discovers after her death that his mother (Tania Kontoyanni) still lives—she’s a sort of witch in the woods—and that his own identical twin Daniel is a monk cloistered in a weird order nearby. Leering, jealous Father Andrew (Andreas Apergis) thinks Daniel is the reincarnation of St. Sebastian, something you know cannot end well. Nonetheless, this cheerfully silly tale wends its way towards happily-ever-after, with incest all around.
La Bruce has refined his aesthetic over the years. While Saint-Narcisse could be tighter, it offers enough charms of style, nudity, and audacity to rate as one of his better joints. Duval gives off something of a male-model vibe, yet he’s also good enough an actor to carry off dual roles that the film doesn’t require him to take too seriously. Nor should you. But then it’s hard to imagine anyone taking serious offense at a movie whose notion of monastic life involves so much volleyball and skinny dipping. Film Movement launches the film in virtual cinemas this Friday, with streaming access TBA.
Likewise aiming right for the guilty-pleasure sweet spot is Death Drop Gorgeous, a slasher horror comedy set within Providence, Rhode Island’s apparently voluminous LGBTQ+ scene. Someone is killing off the stage divas and barstool denizens of a nightclub run by sleazy Tony Two Fingers (Brandon Perras, giving probably the funniest turn here), draining their bodies of blood amongst other indignities. As the ranks thin amongst performers with names like Gloria Hole (Michael McAdam), it is up to barkeep Dwayne (Wayne Gonsalves) to stop the death toll, or join it.
Mostly driven by bitch-quips in an environ of trad competitive cattiness, Death Drop is zesty in its devotion to elements both campy and gory. Like the very different Saint-Narcisse, its repetitive ideas would’ve benefitted from a shorter running time. Directed as well as written by the trio of Michael J. Ahern, Christopher Dalpe, and Perras, the film has the feeling of a community project in which including everybody took precedence over pruning the whole towards maximum impact. Still, this is a good-looking goof with beaucoup de energy—and, needless to say, more elaborate personal-grooming excesses than even the imminent Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Equally over-the-top in some respects is original Saw co-creator (with Leigh Whannell, who directed last year’s impressive The Invisible Man) James Wan’s Malignant, which opened in theaters last weekend. Perhaps best summarized by one character’s line “So are you saying that the killer… is your imaginary friend?!,” this preposterous thriller starts in mad-scientist territory. It then focuses on an innocuous heroine (Annabelle Wallis) who starts witnessing the gruesome deaths of people who are nowhere near her. She claims the culprit is a The Crow-looking, electricity-conducting, bwa-ha-ha evil-laughing entity called “Gabriel,” who is no angel.
Malignant is elaborately produced and handsomely shot, which somehow makes the grade-Z material seem even more absurd. Really, if your movies make enough money (Wan been involved in several hit franchises), can you get any POS script made?
After a certain point there’s a “twist” so daft one must somewhat appreciate its go-for-broke nuttiness. But not that the whole enterprise takes 111 minutes (on a $40 million budget), when really it should have been a Poverty Row studio exercise clocking an hour in 1948, with Bela Lugosi duly making an appearance. I’m not sure to what extent Wan is pulling our leg (the film’s conspicuously deliberate humor is pretty lame), but whether Malignant is a massive in-joke or just an extraordinarily dumb movie, it is sure to be claimed as a future camp classic.