Every summer, I jump at the chance to review Outfest films because it’s a festival that still feels very local, which is a lovely thing, and also ’cause as a gay guy myself, I too want to see movies featuring half-naked men. Still, as much as I and my fellow L.A. Weekly reviewers root for Outfest, it’s time for me to state in print that the festival’s programmers often make me more than a little crazy. Year after year, they fail to trumpet the few truly interesting films that come their way, opting instead to promote the tried and true. It’s as if they have no faith in their audience, believing them to be as shallow minded as the rest of America thinks L.A. queers are. Time and again, the films highlighted by special boxes in the all-important festival catalog, as well as those selected for the heavily promoted Gala events, are movies that look sexy and outrageous on the outside but all too often turn out to be the same old same old. (See the documentary The Saint of 9/11, the neglected gem of last year’s fest, which is now available on DVD.) This tactic is defensible — like all film festivals, Outfest needs to attract corporate sponsors and fill seats — but after 25 years and great success, it’s time for Outfest’s leadership to work harder in guiding their loyal, movie-savvy audience toward challenging, thoughtful, grown-up films. For me, two films this year that deserve that loud banging of the drum are The Bubble, from Israel, and While You Are Here, from Germany. You’ll find reviews of both below, along with notes on other Outfest flicks that we’re recommending.
ANOTHER WOMAN (France) In a film originally produced for French television, actress Nathalie Mann is very good as Lea, who was once a man named Nicholas who abandoned his Parisian wife and children for a new, transsexual life in Geneva. Back in Paris after 10 years, Lea wants a relationship with her children, but the ex-wife isn’t exactly thrilled. Although director Jerome Foulon lets his film’s earnest and overly predictable third act drag on, this high-toned melodrama is elegantly produced, and kind of fun in the midsection, when secrets are revealed and faces are slapped. (Directors Guild of America, Sun., July 15, 8 p.m.) (CW)
THE BUBBLE (Israel) A film too relevant to be ghettoized as just another gay movie, this superb new drama from the American-born, Israeli-based director Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger, Walk on Water) begins with a young Palestinian named Ashraf (Yousef Sweid) showing up at the Tel Aviv apartment of Noam (Ohad Knoller), an Israeli reservist with whom he locked eyes at a military checkpoint. They hit it off immediately (“So that’s how Jews kiss,” Ashraf says), and soon Noam and his friends are disguising Ashraf as an Israeli so that the two men can stay together. The first half of The Bubble takes place in a Westernized, hipster district of Tel Aviv, where Noam and his friends protest for peace in the afternoon and go to raves at night. When Ashraf must rush home to Gaza, it becomes Noam’s turn to take on a disguise and cross into hostile territory. This split structure allows Fox to take us deep inside two worlds rarely seen on Western movie screens — places where a person’s attempt to resolve issues of family and sexuality and love don’t stand a chance against outside pressures that are ceaseless and dizzying in their complexity. As one young lover says to another, “If only we could make the politics disappear.” (Directors Guild of America, Sun., July 15, 6:30 p.m.) (CW)
CAT DANCERS (USA) In the 1950s and ’60s, Ron and Joy Holiday became world renowned as acrobatic ballet dancers, eventually adding lions and tigers to their act. In 1988, they took on a young protégé named Chuck Lizza, who became a lover to both Ron and Joy. Documentarian Harris Fishman lets Ron tell the trio’s respective life stories, up to the series of tragedies that destroyed everything. Fishman is reliant on Ron’s viewpoint to a fault — not one friend or co-worker appears to testify to this 14-year love triangle. That makes for a film with a nuance-free focus, but a story that can’t quite be resisted. (Directors Guild of America, Sat., July 14, 8:30 p.m.; Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, Fri., July 20, 7:15 p.m.) (CW)
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EAST SIDE STORY (USA) This vibrant romantic comedy from writer-director Carlos Portugal and co-writer Charo Toledo pokes fun at WeHo gays who move East to gentrify the barrio and drive up property values. But at heart, the film is a love story, and a charming one at that. After a long affair with Pablo (David Beron), a closeted real estate agent, 29-year-old restaurant manager Diego (Rene Alvarado) feels sparks with the unhappily partnered gay gringo (Steve Callahan) across the street, all of which has him on the verge of coming out to the world. Although Portugal overplays the notion of shallow white gays, he draws solid, grounding performances from all, particularly Alvarado, who’s a heartbreaker on every front. This movie deserves a theatrical release. (Regent Showcase, Sun., July 22, noon) (CW)
FINN’S GIRL (Canada) After a wobbly start, this well-acted drama about Finn (Brooke Johnson), a Toronto gynecologist trying to keep her late partner’s abortion clinic running while raising their teenage daughter, hits its stride. Credit the daughter, Zelly (Maya Ritter), who gradually becomes the film’s emotional center and catalyst. There’s still no shortage of over-the-top moments — Finn is stalked by an anti-abortion group that has only two members, and finds romance with the female cop sent to protect her — but this film from co-directors Dominique Cardona and Laurie Colbert (who wrote the script) is satisfyingly adult in its depiction of female sexuality. Amid the assassination attempts and clinic intrigue, it also raises resonant questions about moving forward after a loss. (Directors Guild of America, Fri., July 20, 9:45 p.m.) (CW)
SHELTER (USA) Zach (Trevor Wright) is a promising artist who turned down CalArts to stay in San Pedro and help his irresponsible older sister (played by the amazingly gifted L.A. actress Tina Holmes) care for her little boy. At the beach, Zach, who surfs as often as possible, reconnects with his best friend’s gay-novelist older brother, Shaun (Brad Rowe). The two start hanging out and eventually begin an affair, Zach’s first with a man. Like much of this impressive first film from writer-director Jonah Markowitz, Zach and Shawn’s relationship feels authentic and true; you can imagine them being together for a long time to come. Those seeking high drama may be frustrated with the low-key Shelter, but Markowitz has put his faith in small moments, like the little grin that suddenly plays across Zach’s face as he drives home from his first night with Shawn. Wright is a find, while Rowe may surprise those who dismissed him as a Brad Pitt look-alike when he first came to attention in the 1988 Outfest hit Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss. Here, Rowe displays new authority and confidence, as if lately he’s been looking in the mirror and seeing himself, rather than that other, more famous blond. (John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, Wed., July 18, 8:30 p.m.) (CW)
WHILE YOU ARE HERE (Germany) “He’s asleep downstairs. I’m so excited I just don’t know what to do.” That’s George (Michael Gempart), an elderly German pensioner, speaking into his tape-recorder diary, entries from which play on the soundtrack of this magnificent 80-minute film from 26-year-old writer-director Stefan Westerwelle, who made it as his senior project at Cologne’s Academy of Media Arts. George is excited because Sebastian (Leander Lichti), the young hustler he’s been hiring of late, has unexpectedly decided to stay the night. Both men need the company, and both gradually find resonance in the other’s haltingly told stories of the various men (fathers, lovers, et al.) who’ve shaped their lives. This exquisitely designed and photographed film has a disjointed and ultimately very moving time scheme, and a vividly physical sense of how a man such as George — like single people the world over — surrounds himself with the photos and objects whose nearness soothes his soul. In its affinity for the movement of light and shadow across a domestic space, While You Are Here calls to mind the films of British master Terence Davies (The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives), while its appreciation for the daily rhythms of solitude makes it the cinematic equivalent of Christopher Isherwood’s seminal novel of gay life, A Single Man. That’s surely too much hyperbole for such a modest film, but this is gorgeous work from an exciting new filmmaker. (REDCAT, Sat., July 21, 9:30 p.m.) (CW)