Metro Weekly

Reel Affirmations XXIII: Your complete guide to this year’s festival

Reviews of every film at Washington, D.C.'s 2016 LGBT Film Festival

Reel Affirmations 2016

Reel Affirmations 23

RETAKE

Thursday, Oct. 13
7 p.m.
HRC Building
starstarstar

Opening this year’s Reel Affirmations festival is a movie that initially bursts with potential. Retake pulsates with mystery, danger and the sense that we’re getting a fresh take on typical LGBT cinema fare. Unfortunately, it peters out during its 90-minute runtime into something altogether more cliched.

Retake opens on Jonathan (Tuc Watkins, Desperate Housewives), as he lands in San Francisco and immediately proceeds to source a male prostitute. It’s here that Retake is at its strongest, as Jonathan demands the man wear a wig, a certain cologne, and roleplay as a specific person. It’s a tense opener — unaware of his ultimate motives for the roleplay, this has all the makings of murder, or something similarly sinister.

Jonathan fails to satisfy his needs, however, and returns to the prostitute hangout the following night for another shot. There, he picks Evan (Devon Graye, Dexter), and begins the scenario — wig, cologne, roleplay — once more. After spending the night together, Jonathan asks Evan to join him on a three-day road trip to the Grand Canyon, all expenses paid (and a hefty deposit up front). For any sane audience member, alarm bells will start to ring, but Evan willingly accepts.

Director Nick Corporon, who co-wrote Retake, maintains his strongest grasp on the film to this point. Unfortunately, it’s easy to suss out why Jonathan wants Evan to dress a certain way, act a certain way, stand a certain way for photos, which only makes the rest of the film feel overly long. It’s as though the first ten minutes and the big reveal were planned together, with the remaining 75 minutes stretched out into a road trip movie.

Thankfully, Watkins and Graye work well together, with the right amount of uncertain chemistry as they spend more time on the road. Watkins maintains one steely expression for most of the film, but he can convey changes in Jonathan’s mood with the flick of an eyebrow, the slightest of smirks, or the dart of an eye — it’s a subtle, reserved performance that makes the most of what we presume was the simple direction “be mysterious and ambiguous!” Graye has the harder task, forced to play dumb long after the audience has guessed the film’s big reveal, but his Evan is likeable, energetic, magnetic (particularly after a much-needed and plot-dependant haircut).

Both men are working with a script that seems to think it is far more complex and mysterious than it actually is. As Evan and Jonathan work their way into the desert and gradually grow closer, we’re asked to believe that at no point would Evan refuse the money and just go home — even as Jonathan throws out “I’m paying you, do what I want” with the frequency of a Kardashian social media post. It’s all the more disappointing that Retake‘s strong opening makes way for a slow slide into the sort of indie pap that LGBT cinema is overflowing with.

Corporon shows himself more than capable of containing his actors, controlling their scenes well, and making the most of the incredible vistas and tight interiors that comprise the various locales in the film. What he fails to do, however, is end the film ten minutes early. There’s the chance for a more daring, less obvious and explanatory resolution, one more befitting of Retake‘s promising opening, but it instead resorts for saccharine redemption. Retake is by no means a bad film — indeed, it has several strong moments — but it feels like a missed opportunity to craft something truly daring and different. —Rhuaridh Marr

AWOL

AWOL

AWOL

Friday, Oct. 14
7 p.m.
GALA’s Tivoli Theatre
starstarstarstar

A beautifully shot Rust Belt love story, Deb Shoval’s AWOL delivers on a notoriously hard-to-keep promise: the tender coming-of-age story wrapped in a gritty reality. Here, the young heart is Army recruit Joey, a quietly self-possessed but emotionally vulnerable young woman, falling hard for the older Rayna, a canny beauty who makes her home in a rusting double-wide. But as the pressures and complications of life in a dying American town mount, they must find their own truths in love and life.

If some of this feels familiar, Shoval keeps it fresh and original by telling it wholly from the perspective of the two women — and doing so quietly and convincingly with understatement. She offers a polished rhythm, pacing the drama at an engaging clip, knowing when to linger on a moment and how to build a subtle sense of foreboding. Shoval offers a particularly keen eye for the beautifully unforgiving northeastern landscape and the unmistakable signs and signals of soul-crushing poverty, all of which come and go like silent commentary.

As Rayna, Breeda Wool offers a convincing blend of swagger and survivor, her hard shell and inconsistencies intriguing and authentic — even if she is just too healthy and gorgeous to convince. But the real star here is the magnetic Lola Kirke as Joey. An extraordinary presence — a woman who is not girly and yet is in no way an imitation of a man — she offers a near-miraculous third way of being. With her quietly intelligent, searching eyes, Kirke makes Joey an open book — but only to us. If there are a few awkward edits here and a tiny bit of Hollywood posing there, overall this is a small but quietly powerful and touching drama.

A promising attempt at the cozy-Indie-comedy genre, Kev Cahill’s short, More Than God (starstarstar), is wide of the mark only for trying too hard. The good news is that it’s easy to see how this scenario of complicated relationships (including a lesbian love affair) that touch the modern Irish clergy and their kin would make for an engaging full-length feature. The characters are interesting and their dynamics offer comic subtleties, even in their nine minutes of screen time. But whether full-length or snippet-sized, this kind of film requires an understated hand, a witty edit, and a strong sense of rhythm. Cahill aims for it, but just doesn’t quite have the control. There is over-acting from some, awkward edits that interrupt the pace, and scenes that overstay their welcome. It’s enough to take the comedy off the boil. But it’s also so close, it begs for another chance. —Kate Wingfield

Loev

Loev

LOEV

Friday, Oct. 14
9 p.m.
GALA’s Tivoli Theatre
starstarstarstarstar

This is both a warning and a full-throated recommendation: Loev is probably not what you expect. Not least because we finally have a piece of cinema from India that doesn’t cater to foreign expectations — you won’t see overcrowded trains, extreme poverty, or caste systems here. This is modern India, these are modern characters, and Sudhansu Saria’s debut feature is an absolute must-see.

In Mumbai, Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh) bids goodbye to his boyfriend Alex (Siddharth Menon) and heads off to the airport to meet an old friend, Jai (Shiv Pandit). Currently in New York and wildly more successful than Sahil, Jai is in town for two days to close a business deal. The pair head off for 36 hours and, almost immediately, the tension of a romantic history can be felt in the air.

What’s remarkable here is how utterly unassuming Saria’s film is. With gentle direction, epic tracking shots that drink in the landscapes of India’s Sandhan Valley and Mahabaleshwar plateau, minimal editing (there’s one continuous shot early in the film that impresses), and a soft tone to proceedings, Saria — who also wrote the film — allows the audience to make their own assumptions about Sahil and Jai. Were they lovers? Friends who longed for more? Did Jai move away before either could test the extent of their emotions?

The men explore old haunts, hike together, bicker, tell jokes, share gifts, enjoy meals, drink in their lush surroundings and one another, and gradually ramp up the sexual tension. It burns in the background, maintained in lingering glances, extended touches, and playful banter — homosexuality is still illegal in India, and the film had to be made in secret, so the downplaying of their emotions in public is both a necessity and a reality. It builds to a heady, sensual crescendo at one point — which is beautifully shot and acted — but Sahil shuts things down, angering Jai.

As Sahil, Ganesh’s large, expressive eyes allow him to convey warmth, joy, guilt, excitement and countless other emotions with ease. He transforms from being a stick-in-the-mud with carefree Alex into a freer spirit with Jai. Shiv Pandit plays his Jai as someone not entirely comfortable with what they’re feeling — but desperate to find out what’s really there. Both men have chemistry to spare, and their strong performances anchor this film.

They also help it to deliver an absolute sucker punch in its third act. As the sexual frustration builds upon returning to Mumbai, hours before the pair are due to have dinner with Alex everything boils over in the most unexpected way imaginable (no spoilers, but be prepared to grip your armrests). It’s a brutal, uncomfortable moment, one which drags Loev from an occasionally tense film into one that will have your heart in your mouth as Sahil and Jai must sit in Alex’s company, each internally processing what has just happened. Is it gratuitous? Yes. Does it threaten to derail the careful, beautiful work Saria has created to that point? Yes. Does it work? Absolutely.

You’ll spend the last twenty minutes or so of Loev unsure of where the characters will go. The end result will undoubtedly divide audiences — and the mere fact that many will leave the theater not hating one of Saria’s characters speaks volumes to the groundwork laid in advance of that gut punch of a scene. Loev isn’t a perfect film, but you’ll get lost in its world, its quiet confidence, its lack of handholding as it weaves its delicate story. And then you’ll spend twenty minutes, like Sahil and Jai, wondering what just happened — and why this quiet little film has managed to rock your world. —RM

SPECTRUM SHORTS: GENDER, IDENTITY AND AGING

Saturday, Oct. 15
1 p.m.
GALA’s Tivoli Theatre
starstarstar

It seems a little heavy-handed to start with something called Dawn (starstarstar), but this British short is certainly intriguing. Two strangers meet on a bench in London in the early hours of the morning, each nervous of the other’s presence — one is blind, one is transgender, neither is sure of how the other will react. Trans writer-director Jake Graf’s film is interesting, if a little too ambiguous, and — as the pair enjoy the warmth of the sunrise and slowly open up to one another — more than a few will groan as actress Nicole Gibson looks out into the distance, feeling rejuvenated emotionally, and tells Will (Harry Rundle) that her name is Dawn.

This program focuses on gender and aging, and Partners (starstarstar) tackles both in lighthearted fashion. Kate Imbach’s wafer-thin documentary visits several gay square dancing clubs, discovering that what was once a safe space and respite from the bar scene has transformed into a place for older LGBT people to let loose — and straight couples to come and mix up traditional gender roles. Inevitably, the program was also going showcase the hardships of growing old, and Elvis León’s documentary is a harsh reminder of the reality many face. Cecil & Carl (starstarstarstar) follows Cecil Bethea and Carl Shepherd, a couple separated, emotionally and later physically, by the advancement of age. Cecil lives in the home the couple shared for 43 years, while Carl is in a care facility, slowly succumbing to dementia. Cecil — still deeply in love — acknowledges that his partner is struggling to recognize him. “I no longer know how to communicate with him,” he says, eyes filling with tears. A later shot of Cecil, alone in an oversized home filled with memories and no one to share them with, breaks the heart. As Cecil writes at the film’s close, in the end they “remain just two old men waiting for God.”

Terrible title sequence (with a slightly less terrible justification later in the film) aside, Kristin Adair’s malefemale (starstarstar) follows Frances Reed, who is gender non-conforming, as they navigate the realities of not fitting into society’s predetermined boxes. A snippet of insight into the mindset of someone who doesn’t identify with either gender, it’s bitesize, but compelling nonetheless.

Brazil has a problem with anti-LGBT violence and attitudes and Alexandre Nakahara wants everyone to know. Places of Fear and Hatred (starstarstarstar) Is a half-hour of contrasts, but above all else it proves that discrimination knows no boundaries. From a jailed trans sex worker to an abused trans college student, an assaulted middle class gay man to a wrongly arrested trans male, no one is free from violence, abuse and the threat of retribution in a country that lacks federal antidiscrimination laws (just like America, before you feel too high-and-mighty while watching Nakahara’s documentary).

Much like square dancing, community social groups offer a welcome lifeline to many elderly LGBT people. Aaron Koehler’s An Afternoon Knows (starstarstar) is another sliver of a documentary about two elders who participate in social groups in Denver, Colorado, and is a reminder that, regardless of age, LGBT people are always trying to find a sense of belonging.

Half of First Night Out‘s (starstar) two-minute runtime is credits. A tiny short about a trans woman having dinner out for the first time, it comes and goes before you’ll have time to get invested. It offers a breather before the wonderful These C*cksucking Tears (starstarstarstar). Not just an amusing title, it’s also the name of a song from Lavender Country, the first gay-themed album in country music history, released by Pat Haggerty and his bandmates in 1973. They were subsequently shut out of Nashville and he became an activist, fighting for equality. Dan Taberski’s fascinating documentary catches up with Haggerty as Lavender Country enjoys a resurgence in popularity, offering a compelling glimpse into the septuagenarian’s life as he heads out on tour for the first time in four decades. —RM

SHORTS: SO LONG, FAREWELL…

Saturday, Oct. 15
3 p.m.
GALA’s Tivoli Theatre
starstarstar

Things don’t end particularly well in any of the seven short films in this mixed program — which is also decidedly a mixed bag — as lesbians and gay men from around the world fall out of love or struggle with rejection from their lovers or others in their homophobic milieu. Dear John (or Jane): It doesn’t always get better.

It certainly doesn’t get much worse than Betrayed (star), Sandra Matrecitos’ drama, full of stilted dialogue and strained delivery. A U.S. war veteran is deserted while in the desert, her heart almost stopping as a result. Calling a suicide hotline and joining a support group doesn’t resolve her plight, and it certainly doesn’t help a viewer’s, betrayed by too little feeling for such a misbegotten saga.

Another maudlin, overdramatized tale, A Woman’s Gaze (starstar) initially seems to be a story of a lesbian and her relationship with a disapproving mother, whose melodramatic acting threatens to turn the drama into a comedy. Jianying Chen’s film is chiefly focused on love with a budding pop star, who’s too deep in the closet to show much more than a pouty look and sing a weak title tune for the show’s hero. A similar note is struck in Obligation (starstarstar), Rhiannon Collins’ wan look at two Hasidic girls secretly in love since childhood, neither of whom is strong enough to buck tradition and resist their families’ arranged heterosexual marriages for them.

In Made of Sugar (starstarstar), Kevin Rios repeatedly pans over moody black-and-white shots of a handsome, hairy, bearded boy, a third generation Cuban American. Based on his own biography, Rios’ film offers glimpses of a gay party boy’s life in New York, contrasted with old family portraits and the “everything’s fine” voicemails exchanged with his worried yet equally preoccupied mother. Cedric Desenfants’ Burning Soul (starstar) is based on a true story of two men who were banished from a God-fearing, shipwrecked colony centuries ago in the Far East. Amid lingering cinematic pans of its two barely clad heroes, we watch as they’re (figuratively) tortured at every turn. Desenfants paints with a broad brush, and the film suffers as a result.

Another international film with some finely composed cinematic flourishes, Left to Their Senses (starstarstarstar) is aided by two able lead actors. Cecilia Guichart’s drama benefits from her assured direction as it explores the complications a marriage proposal can arouse in an otherwise seemingly uncomplicated relationship.

Although far from hearing wedding bells, Evan (Brad Wergley) is nonetheless thrown for a loop when his lover Daniel breaks up with him in Rebounding (starstarstarstarstar). Wergley’s film is far and away the best of the bunch, with several amusing asides and even more unexpected twists and turns. We may not see Evan truly rebound, but, more so than with any other character we meet in this program, we have little doubt he will. —Doug Rule

Free CeCe

Free CeCe

FREE CECE!

Saturday, Oct. 15
5 p.m.
GALA’s Tivoli Theatre
starstarstarstar

While much progress remains to be made, trans issues finally seem to be seeping into the public consciousness. Enter Free CeCe!, which documents the story of Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, who was imprisoned in a men’s jail in 2011 on a second-degree manslaughter charge after defending herself from a transphobic attack. CeCe’s imprisonment quickly became a lightning rod for LGBT activism, with a grassroots movement springing up to demand her acquittal and release. Her plight caught the attention of actress Laverne Cox, who took up her cause and appears in a central role in the film, visiting CeCe in prison and conducting most of the film’s interviews.

A relatively small portion of the 90-minute running time is actually devoted to the events surrounding CeCe’s arrest and sentencing. This first act is by far the most powerful and engaging part of the film, depicting an investigation into the crime in the style of Making a Murderer. The film is careful not to take a position on the murky legal proceedings, although the producers do make their sympathies clear and we are left to doubt whether justice was really served.

The remaining two thirds of the film document CeCe’s life after her release from prison. It rightfully celebrates her life and newfound role as an activist, and is full of inspiring moments and important, sobering messages. Jac Gares’ documentary suffers, however, for raising more questions and topics than it can possibly cope with in an hour-and-a-half.

Despite its many tangents, Free CeCe! is deeply moving. Both Cox and CeCe make it clear that many trans women of color have not been lucky; they have to navigate a society that is in many ways still deeply hostile towards them. The film reinforces the urgency of trans activism through its explorations of the daily reality of catcalling and misgendering to the institutional transphobia that suffuses the criminal justice system. Free CeCe! makes it clear that complacency in this cultural climate is inexcusable, and all too often deadly. At a time when the life expectancy of a black trans woman is 35 years and public bathrooms have become a cultural battleground, Free CeCe! is an important and timely film. —Sean Maunier

Spunkle

Spunkle

SHORTS: SWIPE RIGHT

Saturday, Oct. 15
7 p.m.
GALA’s Tivoli Theatre
starstarstarstar

Things in this hodgepodge of shorts get off to an esoteric note with Intrinsic Moral Evil (starstarstar), a filmed modern dance piece performed by three handsome men who may or may not be manifestations of the same person. It’s never clear what’s fully being put forth here — as with any dance, everything is open to interpretation — but the piece seems to be about accepting one’s sexuality. Maybe. Harm Weistra’s 11-minute film, set to Beethoven, is luxuriant and dreamy, but needless over-editing keeps killing the mood. It’s followed by Kiff Scholl’s Surprise (starstarstarstar), in which an otter (John Halbach) and a bear (Bil Yoelin) meet at a party and, through a series of strange “flash-forwards,” break down their three-month relationship. Toying with convention, Scholl’s narrative is novel enough to keep us engaged, though the final minute is head-scratchingly abstract. (Also: For a 23-minute film, it has an ridiculously long end credits roll.)

Lisa Donato’s Spunkle (starstarstar) is a well-meaning comedy about a lesbian couple who use the stoner brother of one of the women as a sperm donor for their baby. The comedy never settles on a tone and confounds itself by the end, landing with a thud instead of a feather-light laugh. It’s cute but pointless. In the mostly black and white, stiffly-acted Bed Buddies (starstar), three friends wake up to find they’ve had sex with one another. From there, they walk around the room in their underwear and anguish over whether or not they’ve ruined their friendship, weigh the pros and cons of a possible thrupple (“I need you two as friends, not as exes!”), and marvel over one friend’s sizeable endowment. Writer-director Reid Waterer might have concocted a funnier, friskier film had he not fallen victim to the sin of starchy exposition.

Easily the best entry in this program, Sign (starstarstarstarstar) follows a relationship from beginning to end — with a twist. Nary a word is spoken, as one of the men is deaf. The cinematography is arresting and beautiful, the performances by Preston Sadleir and John P. McGinty expressive and potent, and the direction by Andrew Keenan-Bolger is the kind Hollywood looks for in shorts to see if there’s a spark of talent. In Keenan-Bolger’s case that spark is a sky full of fireworks.

Regrettably, Sign is followed by Where We Left Off (star), a textbook case of how not to make a short film. Better suited to a 10-minute play festival, Alyssa Carroll’s 13-minute drama, in which a lesbian comes out to her recently deceased father via an imaginary conversation, spends its first three minutes watching her boil a pot of tea. Make it your bathroom break.

Letargo (starstarstarstarstar) reminds us that Spanish men are among the most handsome, sexiest creatures on the planet. That aside, the drama, in which a failed relationship is rekindled over a sick dog, is intimate, involving and steeped in a melancholy that fully tugs at your heart. Writer-director Xavier Miralles marvelously captures feelings with an economy other filmmakers in this series should study. “Are you cold?” says Marc to Alex after an deeply sensual lovemaking session. “No,” comes the reply. “I’m still warm inside.” An magnificent film in every regard. The program concludes with Gabriella Moses’s Sticky Fingers (starstarstarstar), a lively rollercoaster of sexual self-discovery for a budding lesbian who realizes what she really needs from her BFF. Moses pushes her direction a bit too hard in spots, but the visuals are engaging and the emotions, natural and honest. A decent program capper. —RS

Theo and Hugo

Theo and Hugo

THEO AND HUGO

Saturday, Oct. 15
9 p.m.
GALA’s Tivoli Theatre
starstarstarstarstar

Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that drama was nothing more than everyday life with the dull bits cut out. Directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau seem to have taken that wry observation as a challenge. Theo and Hugo follows its titular characters from their meeting in a sex club and through the streets of Paris over the course of about 90 minutes, roughly matching the film’s run-time. In the hands of a novice, this could have been a disaster, but Ducastel and Martineau are skilled directors, and Theo and Hugo is an impressive work.

After leaving the club together, Theo (Geoffrey Couët) confesses to Hugo (François Nambot) that he had forgotten to wear a condom. This lapse in judgment quickly darkens the mood between the men as they head out into the city streets, albeit remaining together.

What’s striking about the world Theo and Hugo briefly inhabit together is how subdued and benign it all is. In 90 minutes, the two encounter no hostility as they lead each other by the hand through the streets, no sneering from the passengers on the Metro, nobody to shout “Faggot” aside from the pair themselves, at each other. The receptionists and doctors are somewhat aloof, but they are kind and polite all the same, which seems to calm Theo’s anxiety. Absent any external factors, the drama comes from Theo’s internal fears and the tension between himself and Hugo. The Paris depicted in this film is one rarely seen in the Anglosphere, a more intimate city known to locals not by its grand monuments and boulevards, but rather by its kebab shops, clinics and Metro stations.

Theo and Hugo ultimately hinges on the performances of Couët and Nambot, who imbue their characters with an intimacy that is entirely believable. It makes the lapses between lighthearted first date banter and accusatory bickering somehow feel completely organic. The dialogue is sometimes awkward and occasionally saccharine, but it can be forgiven in light of the directors’ commitment to realism. After all, few of us carry on conversations that would survive Hitchcock’s cutting room in a recognizable state. And the hour-and-a-half we are allowed to see of Theo and Hugo is as honest and stark and touching as any of our most vulnerable moments. —SM

SEDUCING MR. BLUEFROG: #NSFW

Saturday, Oct. 15
11 p.m.
GALA’s Tivoli Theatre
starstar

NSFW

NSFW

Once upon a time, Hendrik Schäfer, a thirtysomething Berlin filmmaker, started chatting online with a fit, fortysomething exhibitionist who goes by the name of Bluefrog. Hendrik somehow persuades Bluefrog, a socially awkward, shy Scottish man, to visit him in Berlin and take part in an experimental documentary which will culminate in Bluefrog directing a hardcore porn scene. For the first half of the movie, Henrik probes Bluefrog’s psyche in a way that feels clinical, dispassionate, even creepy. Asked why he’s obsessed with posting nude photos and videos of himself, Bluefrog responds, “Everybody has to have a hobby. It’s an area of art I like to explore.” Call it what you will, but we’re pretty sure posting videos of yourself ejaculating into your mouth on porn.tv does not qualify as art.

The tension between reluctant subject, who considers what he does private, and inquisitive filmmaker, who wants to apparently reveal the psychology behind exhibitionism, is the central theme behind the drowsy, flawed Seducing Mr. Bluefrog: #NSFW. At one point, a mildly flirtatious relationship develops between the two, but it remains inert. Maybe they slept together, maybe they didn’t — Schäfer is careful to remain detached and distant, while Bluefrog reveals a playful, flirty side. You get the sense that Bluefrog is a profoundly lonely man, and this is as close to an emotional connection he’s able to make.

The second half of the film preoccupies itself with Bluefrog’s porn scene. Given a multitude of options, from vanilla to extra kink, he chooses a scoop of extra vanilla with a cherry on top, directs his models, Luk and Jace, in a rote fuck and suck session. Schäfer films Bluefrog’s efforts, so we’re watching a film within a film, though the lines are often blurred. Bluefrog has even less personality on the porn set (“It’s time for the rimming,” he says, plainly, as if he were asking someone to sweep the floor), and Schäfer must have been aghast at the resulting footage. How else to explain, then, the overlay of video effects onto the hardcore shots, generating abstract smears and blurs in an attempt to obscure the action. It’s less erotic and illuminating than it is pretentious and annoying.

The film is an exercise in pointlessness. Schäfer hasn’t the skills — or maturity — to adequately explore his subject in other than the most perfunctory manner possible. The movie is deliberately weird and arty but, at only an hour, it’s relatively painless to get through. It feels like an affected film school project gone horribly wrong.

#NSFW is preceded by Peter Ahlén Lavrsen’s Perpetual (starstarstarstarstar), a stunning coming-of-age story about a teenager named Sebastian who becomes obsessed with a handsome, older gay man he’s met online. Much to Sebastian’s dismay, the pair’s intensely erotic sexual encounters are confined to a grimy, austere sex club. The budding young gay wants romance. Instead he gets manipulation and deceit, learning a harsh lesson about what often happens after a trophy is acquired.

The Danish film is bleak but compelling, with a 25-minute narrative that hits every note with brutal perfection. It’s anchored by a strong performance from Nicolas Wollesen as Sebastian, who, upon first entering the sex club, examines his seedy surrounding with a mix of bewilderment and trepidation. The scenes between the older man (Mads Hjulmand) and his teenage prey are progressively more explicit and intense, and while you can clearly see the wall the story is racing toward, it doesn’t make it any less devastating when the inevitable crash happens. —RS

Suicide Kale

Suicide Kale

SUICIDE KALE

Sunday, Oct. 16
1 p.m.
GALA’s Tivoli Theatre
starstarstarstar

Meeting a partner’s friends in the early days of a relationship is a daunting prospect at the best of times. Most of us, though, can take comfort that we’ve never had an experience like that of new couple Jasmine (Brittani Nichols) and Penny (Lindsay Hicks), who turn up to their friends’ home for lunch and stumble on a cryptic note that Jasmine believes to be a suicide letter. Complicating matters, their hosts Jordan (Brianna Baker) and Billie (Jasika Nicole) are going through problems of their own, despite the facade of married suburban bliss that they present to the world.

The awkward dinner party (well, lunch in this case) has been done many times before, but Suicide Kale brings a refreshing bit of humanity and realism to the trope. When the conversation turns to suicidal thoughts, Penny cheerfully goes along with it, despite her partner Jasmine’s obvious discomfort. Jasmine and Penny steer the conversation into their own relationship problems — a fear of self-absorption that is awkward enough for their hosts, and mortifying for an audience that just minutes ago saw the pair stumble on the suicide note.

Much of the film’s humor hinges on the natural unease inspired by watching two a couple bicker over their own relationship over petty differences while a far more consequential secret lurks in the background. Suicide Kale bets that we will recall a time when a couple we knew argued in front of us, and uncomfortably chuckle along. Of course, Jasmine and Penny are both aware that they may soon have to deliver devastating, even life-altering news to their friends, causing them both a great deal of stress. Their hosts, aware of their guests’ strange behaviour but totally unaware of its source, try with the best of intentions to defuse the tension, unprepared for the bombshell about to be dropped on them.

Brianna Baker’s deadpan performance of Jordan often steals the show, but all four deliver banter that feels highly improvisational, much of it there to simply fill time and be funny between the major plot points. Most of it is slice-of-life fluff that serves little narrative purpose, but this seems to be the point. Suicide Kale never pretends to be more than it is – a charming, lighthearted send-up of relationships and suburbanity.

When a young couple pays a visit to a fortune teller in the short film Golden Golden (}}), you might be forgiven for worrying for their safety — haven’t these two ever seen The Monkey’s Paw? Luckily, this fortune teller seems to be the benevolent kind, despite her sinister air (we never actually see her face). The pair are given visions of their future in the strange woman’s crystal ball. While their present reality is all greyscale, their visions are bright technicolor. The first vision, the more colorful of the two, sees the couple frolicking in a sunny forest. The second is little more than a mundane bus ride, but the two are together and appear happy. While the visions don’t seem to make much sense beyond the vague promise of future happiness together and there is almost no dialogue to clue the audience into their significance, the couple appears satisfied and leaves the fortune teller’s apartment smiling from ear-to-ear. It’s hard not to smile with them at the brief scene of young queer love. It would just be nice to know more of what was actually going on. —SM

Strike a Pose

Strike a Pose

STRIKE A POSE

Sunday, Oct. 16
3 p.m.
GALA’s Tivoli Theatre
starstarstarstarstar

One of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time, Madonna: Truth or Dare sealed the megastar’s pioneering pro-gay legacy by showing a kiss between two men. It was one of a number of positive yet provocative glimpses into the lives of the dancers on her legendary Blonde Ambition tour.

But not all of Madonna’s dancers were openly gay at the time — her “unofficial favorite child” Gabriel even sued her for outing him. It’s a detail you may have forgotten in the 25 years since Truth or Dare‘s release. And it’s those details that the insightful, touching Strike A Pose celebrates. Far more than a gossipy “Where Are They Now” of the six dancers still living — sadly, Gabriel died of AIDS complications a couple of years after Truth or Dare — Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s documentary offers a poignant portrait of a handful of men who indirectly, if even a little unwittingly, helped pave the way to a brighter, gayer future.

Revealing the personal and professional struggles each dancer suffered after the cameras stopped rolling, the well-crafted documentary culminates in a moving, on-camera reunion full of reminiscence and revelations. Salim “Slam” Gauwloos offers the most powerful moment when he finally reveals his secret to everyone: he has been HIV positive since 1987, meaning he stayed silent on the tour even while Madonna was compelling everyone to speak out to erase the shame and stigma of the disease. The relief he experiences as his fellow dancers comfort and praise him for having the courage to come forward is incredibly poignant.

The only thing missing is the “Express Yourself” queen herself, who we learn hasn’t kept in contact with any of the men she once referred to as her children. Surprisingly, none harbor ill will, and several thank her for all that she did for them and for society as a whole. Regardless of that bittersweet twist, it’s a treat to get to know them like this, through Strike A Pose‘s considerate, non-sensational lens. —DR

King Cobra

King Cobra

KING COBRA

Sunday, Oct. 16
5 p.m.
GALA’s Tivoli Theatre
starstarstar

Originally, this year’s festival was set to close with Check It, a new documentary about D.C. African-American gay and transgender youth who form their own gang to protect one another from bullying. For whatever reason, the film’s distributors yanked Check It at the last minute. Festival co-director Kimberley Bush scrambled to find a replacement, and boy, did she ever snag a hot item: King Cobra, the James Franco-produced dramatization of the rise of porn star Brent Corrigan and the 2007 murder of the man who launched his career, Cobra Video’s Bryan Kocis.

Justin Kelly’s biopic breaks no filmmaking ground, but it’s a deftly made, highly burnished Hollywood product, focusing mainly on Corrigan (real name Sean Paul Lockhart) and his business/sexual relationship with the Cobra owner, bizarrely rechristened as Stephen in the movie. Based on the book “Cobra Killer: Gay Porn, Murder, and the Manhunt to Bring the Killers to Justice,” the film plays fairly fast and loose with the facts in an effort to streamline the narrative, but Kelly exhibits himself to be a strong director who handles the subject matter with straightforward frankness. The sex scenes aren’t meant to titillate but to illuminate each character’s internal struggle with themselves, and the film dwells less on the mechanics behind making porn and more on the underlying greed that drives the business.

Kelly is fortunate to have an A-list cast at his disposal, including Christian Slater who, as Stephen, subtly reveals the turmoil of an aging gay man who came out too late and remains stunted in his attraction to younger men. (The real Kocis may have had pedophilic tendencies, but those are glossed over by Kelly, who rearranges timelines to suit his narrative needs.) It would have been easy to play Stephen as a garden-variety sleaze, but Slater brings a restless agony to the character — while not entirely omitting his seamier, prurient side. Last year, Slater reemerged as a knock-out force on the magnificent USA series Mr. Robot, so it’s great to see him back acting up a storm. He’s been missed.

Alicia Silverstone and Molly Ringwald make brief but effective appearances as Corrigan’s clueless mother and Stephen’s overbearing sister, who tries to match up her older bachelor brother with women and can’t understand why he refuses the bait. James Franco and Keegan Allen bring ferocious intensity to Joe and Harlow, romantically entangled escorts who produced low-end porn under the moniker Viper Boyz. Franco turns the cray-cray up to eleven, but it works well in context with his character, a jealousy prone, debt-riddled, emotionally stunted sociopath. “I used to get booked,” he bemoans to Harlow, whom he pimps out regularly. “Now they only want you.” Harlow is no less psychotic. “Baby, it is so cool that you would rather kill me than let someone else have me,” he purrs to beloved. This may also be the only film you’ll ever hear a bottoming Franco shout, “Fuck that ass! Fuck that ass!”

The key to King Cobra lies in the performance of Garrett Clayton as Corrigan. While one might not say it’s courageous to feign a blowjob in a movie about the porn industry, it’s a game changer for a former Disney Channel star. The boyish Clayton, sculpted and lean, not only looks the part physically, but brings gravity and depth to a character that could have easily descended into caricature. He plays Corrigan as a full human being, vulnerable yet calculating, driven yet self-delusional.

King Cobra feels as though it was made specifically for gay men — it’s hard to imagine the straight community being remotely interested in the subject matter — and therein lies its greatest weakness. For all his attempts at plumbing the depths and darknesses of what motivates people to create porn, Kelly merely treads the surface. Mind you, it’s a shimmery, glossy, pretty-boy surface, but when the movie goes into darker, potentially disturbing territory, he pulls away. It’s as if going too far might harm what is clearly an up and coming Hollywood directing career. King Cobra is just fine if you take it for what it is: extra-pulpy pulp. Much like porn, it draws you briefly into its world, only to become forgettable the instant it’s served its purpose. —RS

Reel Affirmations runs Thursday, Oct. 13 to Sunday, Oct. 16, with all screenings at GALA Hispanic’s Tivoli Theatre, 1333 14th St. NW. (The pre-launch film, Retake, screens at the HRC Building at 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Festival Passes range from $30 to $325 and are available, along with a full schedule of films, at reelaffirmations.org.

A VIP/Filmmaker Reception will be held Saturday, Oct. 15, from 7 to 10 p.m. on the The Rooftop of Lost Society, 2001 14th St. NW (corner of 14th and U). A closing night party is Sunday, October 16th from 7 to 9 p.m. at Miss Pixie’s, 1626 14th St. NW. For ticket information on both parties, visit reelaffirmations.org.

Find an archive of past Reel Affirmations reviews (2003-2015) online at metroweekly.com/reel-affirmations.

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