TFF 2019 Review: Circus of Books

It was a banner year for LGBT documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival, but even amidst a crowded field, Circus of Books was a standout.  It takes a compellingly quirky story and presents it with grace, humor, and heart. 

Barry and Rachel in the basement with porn inventory

Multi-hyphenate artist/director Rachel Mason grew up in a fairly typical Jewish family, with a twist.  The business her parents ran for decades was an infamous gay porn shop in West Hollywood, a reality hidden from Rachel and her two brothers until they were in their teens.  When Barry, who did special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Trek series and invented a medical device, was forced out of work by steep insurance costs, his enterprising wife took notice of a newspaper ad from the notorious Larry Flynt.  They bought the failing Book Circus, rearranged the sign, and started selling both the controversial Hustler and, later, the gay titles the enterprising Flynt bought out.  They also became involved with gay porn production, though Karen ads “we never watched any of these movies.”  A certain amount of cognitive dissonance was exercised by Karen—who “wore the pants in the family” according to one former employee—to juggle her conservative Jewish faith and the realities of selling dirty magazines and sex toys.  Son Josh agonized over coming out to his parents, and though Karen struggled at first, she and her husband are now active and proud PFLAG members.

Karen at a sex toy convention, making wholesale orders

Mason delivers an intimate, touching, warts-and-all-portrait of her family, especially Karen.  The oft cranky matriarch is refreshingly honest and candid throughout, whether stressing over laying off employees or lugging boxes of material out to the dumpster.  All of the participants are revealing and frequently funny.  Josh recalls how the porn tape he hid away until he had a chance to play it alone turned out to be a Beta.  Former employee Alaska Thunderfuck bemoans the fact that he never knew about the store’s cruise-y attic.  Even gay film legend Jeff Stryker turns up to share his memories.  Mason skillfully weaves together a personal narrative and the larger picture of gay history to make a significant and extremely entertaining documentary.

Take Your Daughter to Work Day

Netflix will distribute Circus of Books later this year.

TFF2019 Review: Pilot Season

Julia Lindon in Lady Liberty

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival Pilot Season features five different television pilots, and with one exception, they’re all terrific.  The first is particularly exciting for LGBT audiences: Lady Liberty, starring Julia Lindon as Shea, a young aspiring comedienne in New York City.  Shea works for an established comedian (Jason Sudeikis), but is afraid to tell him about her own ambitions; she’s also struggling to define her own sexuality after an intense affair with a longtime friend (Rebecca Henderson).  A chance encounter with a beautiful young lesbian (Karen Eilbacher) in an Uber pool leads to her first night out with “gay gals,” and it’s clear that Miller’s taking her first thrilling steps towards self-actualization.  Lindon, who created the series, is tremendously appealing and relatable, and the first episode is wonderfully real and authentic.  I think this could become the next Broad City.

Anastasia Leddick in Halfway

Another, distinctly different strong female is at the center of Halfway, about a woman’s struggle to re-enter society, and reconnect with the daughter she abandoned, after prison.  Anastasia Leddick is mesmerizing as Krystal: she’s got an incredible punk look, and is utterly convincing as a woman who’s been through the ringer.  The first episode is equal turns funny and dramatic, and left me wanting to binge.

Elizabeth De Razzo in Unimundo 45

The rest of the program is comprised of DC Noir, a strong, gritty slice of urban life; the goofy but promising Unimundo 45, about a plus-sized Latinx news producer (Elizabeth De Razzo) looking to inspire her family and friends in the wake of Trump’s election; and the faintly obnoxious Awokened.  The latter was the only entry I had no desire to see more of—it focuses on entitled, irritating millennials and lots of forced wackiness, and it retreads ground better explored by the critically underrated Enlightened.


Pilot Season screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more info.

TFF 2019 Review: For They Know Not What They Do

Rob & Linda Robertson

Any LGBT individual who grew up religiously—and that’s many of us—knows what it’s like when your faith seemingly conflicts with your identity.  That conflict is at the heart of Daniel Karslake (For the Bible Tells Me So)’s new documentary. Among the most powerful stories: Linda and Rob Robertson, who encouraged their son Ryan to undergo conversion therapy, with tragic results; Vico Baez Febo, who was thrown out of the house by his grandmother for being gay, and later survived the Pulse shooting; and Sarah McBride, the first openly transgender woman ever to speak at the Democratic National Convention.


The film is well executed and affecting, with some deeply emotional testimony from all of the participants, particularly the Robertsons.  The movie does a good job of making us understand their perspective, and the profound sorrow they feel for the loss of their son is balanced by an enlightened and ultimately hopeful view.  Vico’s vivid testimony, Snapchat video of his slain friend, and security footage of his rescue bring the Pulse tragedy to searing life.  But though every participant in the film endured unimaginable loss, the movie is ultimately neither depressing nor didactic.  It does a great job of outlining the current state of the LGBT struggle, explaining how, in the wake of marriage equality, trans folks became the new scapegoat for the religious right.  But if McBride is any indication, not to mention the other resilient and courageous figures depicted in the film, we’re not going down without a fight.


For They Know Not What They Do screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more info.

TFF 2019 Review: Gay Chorus Deep South

After an emotional performance in Charlotte, chorus members console each other

Early on in David Charles Rodrigues’ exquisite Gay Chorus Deep South, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus artistic director Dr. Tim Seelig is working in his office. He explains that he keeps himself surrounded by “queens,” Queen Elizabeth and San Francisco legend—and gay hero—Harvey Milk among them.  So it’s fitting that the Chorus takes inspiration from Milk, who famously used a lavender pen to sign groundbreaking gay rights legislation into law, in naming their post Trump Lavender Pen Tour.  The men travel from Tennessee to Alabama to the Carolinas, looking to spread hope and ignite dialogue.  Interestingly enough, assumptions are challenged on both sides.  A queer historian complains that the concept reeks of condescension.  A Southern Baptist church, meanwhile, welcomes the group with open arms. 

Ashlé, the first trans individual accepted into a Gay Men’s Chorus, stands their ground in America’s most discriminatory states

Rodrigues shoots the film beautifully, with sweeping overhead shots, intimate access to the performances, and skillful editing.  The music is beautiful and accomplished, naturally, and it weaves in and out of sequences seamlessly.  A sequence in Selma, where the men hold a triumphant concert and walk across the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, is particularly striking.  We get to know a few of the men particularly well.  Seelig reveals his painful history with the Southern Baptist Church and the havoc wreaked on his family when he came out.  Jimmy White is fighting cancer and hoping for reconciliation with his staunchly conservative father.  Perhaps most compelling is
Ashlé , who struggles to come to terms with their gender identity and finds unwavering acceptance in the men of the Chorus.  Thus this film is one of several notable examples of trans stories being told at Tribeca this year; Jeanie Finlay’s beautiful Seahorse and Changing the Game being two others.


Gay Chorus Deep South takes a story that is compelling and of the moment and delivers it with precision and heart.


Gay Chorus Deep South screens this week as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit tribecafilm.com for more.

TFF 2019: VR Arcade Review

Tribeca’s annual Virtual Arcade Featuring Storyscapes is back with another diverse assortment of VR experiences.  I got the chance to experience four, including the remarkable Another Dream, second in the transmedia series Queer In A Time of Forced Migration.  Readers should note that this year’s Arcade also includes Doctor Who: The Runaway, an animated tale featuring the new Doctor—and a full scale Tardis on site!

Another Dream

In Another Dream, directed by Tamara Shogaolu, viewers meet a lesbian couple forced to flee Egypt in search of safety in the Netherlands.  It’s an incredibly moving story, elegantly animated; watching it, I couldn’t help but be bowled over by the immense courage of its subjects.  While the interactivity left a bit to be desired—all you get to “do” is trace the Arabic characters for each chapter title—the immersive nature of the short makes you feel like you are living through the predicament with the women.  You also share in their newfound peace and hope. 


Kevin Cornish’s ambitious 2nd Civil War plays a bit like an augmented reality Purge installment.  Like that franchise, it’s ambitious and more than a little on-the-nose hammy.  The experience begins in the “real” world, where a tough-as-nails army officer begrudgingly approves your pass to report from the Conflict Zone of a war torn America.  (The actress was utterly real and made me distinctly uncomfortable.)  In the VR component, a prologue mixing real and recreated news footage leads into a series of encounters with dystopian Baltimore residents. You can speak dialogue from a range of options; unfortunately, I had to repeat some of the lines multiple times for the people to “hear” me.  Cheesy acting from some of the participants, like a one-armed journalist and a trashy tattooed mom, as well as the choppy integration of performers and background plates distracted from the intended effect.

Gymnasia

The Canadian Gymnasia, directed by Clyde Henry Productions, gets an A for physical environment: a decrepit classroom with hard plastic chairs, pages of music strewn across the floor, and two nightmare fuel baby dolls, one seated and the other roaming eerily on wheels.  The VR itself is cool and creepy: balls and butterflies skitter across the floor and the dolls start singing one of those “childlike” songs calculated to give goose bumps.  It’s all nifty to look at, but ultimately feels like just so much production design in search of a Conjuring spinoff.

For pure, adorable entertainment, you probably can’t beat Eric Darnell’s Bonfire made by Baobab Studios.  The director cut his teeth on the Madagascar movies and Antz, and it shows: the adventure plays like a particularly witty “kiddie” movie that you’d have no problem sitting through.  Ali Wong is pitch perfect hilarious as a neurotic robot who, following a crash landing on a potentially hostile alien planet, keeps nagging you to look out for danger.  It will come as no surprise that Pork Bun the alien is no threat but rather a cute new friend—you can even pet it!  Ultimately you choose how to proceed with regard to this potential colonization site, and the fate of Pork Bun.  Viewers receive a cool souvenir video of their experience afterwards.


The VR Arcade plays daily as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com/immersive for more.

TFF 2019 Review: Bliss

Dora Madison as Dezzy

I always consider it a point of pride when I see a film people walk out of.  At House of 1000 Corpses, a couple walked out as the woman loudly declared “let’s get the FUCK out of here!”; another pair fled Suspiria (2018) after a nasty bit of body contortion.  So it pleased me that a few folks just couldn’t sit through Bliss, writer/director Joe Begos’ hallucinogenic vampire flick playing the Midnight category at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Interestingly, they all left before any of the bloody mayhem even got started; the visceral intensity of the filmmaking seems to be what they couldn’t handle.


Bliss opens with a warning about strobe effects, which seems as much part of the exploitation tradition as a legitimate caveat.  After a day glo, rock and roll opening title sequence, we meet Dezzy (Dora Madison), a starving artist struggling to pay the bills while battling a pretty heavy drug problem.  She’s got a deadline looming for her latest piece, an appropriately eerie painting of souls writhing in fire, but she can’t seem to find the inspiration to finish it, despite the help of a well-meaning boyfriend Clive (Jeremy Gardner).  Maybe that’s because she’s too busy scoring drugs from her pal Hadrian (Graham Skipper) and partying with her girlfriend and sometime lover Courtney (Tru Collins, giving off trashy Lady Gaga vibes) and Courtney’s boyfriend Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield).  When Hadrian slips her a coke variant called Bliss, Dezzy’s instantly hooked, but the bad trip it sends her on is compounded by a simultaneous thirst for blood.  Dezzy’s life quickly spins out of control—to put it mildly.

Jeremy Gardner as Clive, Tru Collins as Courtney,and Rhys Wakefield as Ronnie

Bliss is an impressively crafted movie, with stunning cinematography and lighting and a hard driving metal soundtrack.  Madison is remarkable as Dezzy, a character that could easily come off as selfish and obnoxious, but who is vividly real and funny in the actress’ capable hands.  The screenplay is smart and pretty damn funny, and the intensity of the filmmaking makes Bliss a movie you experience more than watch.  There’s also outstanding use of locations—the various bars, Dezzy’s apartment, and Hadrian’s house are all vividly real places.  Where Bliss might be polarizing is with regards to the copious drug use and the extremely intense, bloody violence (thought to be fair, isn’t that exactly what a vampire movie should have in spades?).  The finale is so gruesomely over the top that I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it.  But this movie really goes for it, and Begos and his crew are undeniably talented.  However you feel about Bliss, you won’t soon forget it.


Bliss screens Wednesday at 9:45 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more info.

TFF 2019 Review: You Don’t Nomi

Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi in Showgirls

For camp movie fans, the existence of a documentary about the Showgirls cult is both remarkable and unsurprising.  It’s unlikely subject matter in some ways, but if you saw Paul Verhoeven’s notorious 1995 flop for the first time with a date who did all the dance moves while watching—and then, later, with an adoring crowd led by the inimitable Hedda Lettuce—it’s no wonder someone got a whole ninety minutes out of this.  It’s a testament to writer/director Jeffrey McHale and his exceedingly witty, literate commentators that You Don’t Nomi exceeds expectations—it’s not just diverting but intensely imaginative and thoughtful, and it becomes a film not just about Showgirls but about movies and our love for them, too.

Gina Gershon (Cristal) and Berkley compare nails

Showgirls arrived twenty four years ago amidst a swirl of controversy: it was the first ever mainstream NC-17 movie, and it starred Saved by the Bell good girl Elizabeth Berkley in a potentially star making role as stripper Nomi Malone.  Nomi is running from a mysterious past—when friend Molly asks her where she’s from, she memorably blurts “DIFFERENT PLACES!!!!”—and is seeking stardom in the tawdry world of Las Vegas.  Her big break comes via Cristal Connors (a delightful, scenery chewing Gina Gershon), the star of the revue Goddess, and her entertainment director boyfriend Zack (heartthrob Kyle MacLachlan), who’s willing to help Nomi replace Cristal in the lead in exchange for some spastic swimming pool action.  Before you can say All About Eve, Nomi’s headlining at the Stardust, but at what price?


McHale forgoes “talking head” interviews in favor of a continuous montage approach. He deftly weaves together footage from Showgirls as well as Verhoeven’s other films, like Robocop and Basic Instinct, and other notable film favorites like Mommie Dearest.  All the while, we hear ruminations from an engaging cast of characters: Adam Nayman, film writer and author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls; April Kidwell, a theater performer who played Nomi in the Off-Broadway Showgirls musical (pictured above) and who’s touring this summer with a new prequel show, I, Nomi; and Jeffery Conway, a poet who wrote a book of sestinas (!) based on the film.  They and others offer their perspectives on Showgirls: for some, it’s an endlessly watchable piece of trash; for others, it’s a surprisingly underrated satire that brilliantly skewers cultural attitudes towards sex, entertainment, and other issues.  Kidwell used her roles as Berkley’s caffeine pill addicted Jessie Spano (in Saved by the Bell: The Musical) and Nomi to overcome her PTSD following a rape; while some deride the scene in which Nomi avenges Molly’s rape, for Kidwell, it was an especially empowering and resonant moment.  Another commentator points out that Nomi, in seeking success in the big city, freely using her sexuality, and building her own chosen family, is reflective of many queer people’s experience (to say nothing of the unsubtle lesbian “subtext” that pervades her interplay with Cristal). 

Star Berkley and director Paul Verhoeven

The movie also examines why Berkeley became the scapegoat, in many ways, for the movie’s box office and critical failure.  While You Don’t Nomi’s participants revel in her outlandish performance, they also take pains to demonstrate that Verhoeven directed her specifically to behave in an outsize way.  They also hint at the sexism that played a part in her torpedoed career: a clip shows Gene Siskel bluntly criticizing her appearance, and Verhoeven’s misogyny is detailed at length.  When Berkley is shown introducing a packed Hollywood screening of the movie in 2015—and receiving a standing ovation—her emotion is palpable.


You Don’t Nomi is a must see for fans of Showgirls, but more broadly, this is a movie about the profound ways film can impact and inspire the lives of audiences, particularly queer moviegoers. 


You Don’t Nomi screens Tuesday at 8:30 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more.

Tribeca Film Festival Preview

The Tribeca Film Festival returns this week for its eighteenth edition.  Always inclusive, this year’s fest (running now through May 5) boasts films largely directed by women (40%), people of color (29%), and/or LGBTQIA folks (13%).  Here are some titles to look out for.

LGBT

Nick Borenstein in “Sweater”

            Queer-themed works this year include the documentary Seahorse, about a trans man who carries a baby to term; Gay Chorus Deep South, recounting the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ post-Trump tour; N.O.W. Digital Showcase, featuring the hilarious quasi-musical “Sweater,” by local filmmaker Nick Borenstein, and the intriguing sexual awakening tale Kiss of the Rabbit God; and the first Tribeca Pride Day (May 4), boasting talks with legendary ACT UP founder and playwright Larry Kramer, Neil Patrick Harris, trailblazing non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon (Billions, John Wick 3: Parabellum), Pose creator Steve Canals and costar Angelica Ross, and the premiere of the Wigstock documentary Wig.

MIDNIGHT & MORE

            The always reliable Midnights category includes Come to Daddy, a twisted family horror show starring Elijah Wood; the buzzy, balls-to-the-wall vampire flick Bliss; and You Don’t Nomi, a documentary about the phenomenon that is ShowgirlsCharlie Says reunites American Psycho writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) and director Mary Harron in a look at the troubled disciples of Charles Manson (Matt Smith).  There will also be a free, family friendly Star Wars: A New Hope screening on the morning of May the Fourth.

You Don’t Nomi

TELEVISION

            Oscar winner Rami Malek and Christian Slater appear live to give a Farewell to Mr. Robot; Pilot Season includes Lady Liberty, starring Shea Miller as a young queer comedian; Seth Rogen premieres his new comics adaptation The Boys; and Yeardley “Lisa” Smith leads a Simpsons thirtieth anniversary panel with Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Harry Shearer, and more. 

            TALKS

            Geeks OUT readers will be interested in a number of the Talks during Tribeca: Queen Latifah and director Dee Rees will discuss “gender and racial equality behind the camera”; Guillermo del Toro appears in conversation with Alec Baldwin; Questlove and filmmaker Boots Riley compare notes; and Michael J. Fox chats with pal Denis Leary.

            To learn more about Tribeca Film Festival, visit tribecafilm.com.  Watch this space for more coverage.