Thursday, July 18, 2013

FILM REVIEW: Outfest 2013 Boys Shorts

Summer Vacation from Isreal was the stand-out short  film in this year's
collection of Boys Shorts at Oufest, Los Angeles' LGBT Film Festival

Here are my reviews of the Boys Shorts program that I saw this year at Outfest.

Directed ByWade Gasque.
USA, 2012, 15 min.
While starting anew and searching for an apartment, a hopeless romantic is thrown for a loop when he crashes with a long-term couple. Paul is the first character we see, an apparently gay guy who is moving to Los Angeles for a new opportunity, having recently broken up with his boyfriend. For some reason he is going to be staying at the apartment of an attractive straight couple named Danni and Dean who are friends with his ex-boyfriend. The couple is very friendly and curiously hostile to Paul's ex and one thing leads to another and all three end up in bed together. We start to realize that the title "housebroken" refers both to what happens to Paul and is also a play on the word "housebreaker" (i.e. a third person who complicates or breaks up  a committed relationship). As the story progresses it becomes clear that the straight couple (Danni and Dean) is not the victim in this scenario. In fact, by the end we realize that Danni and Dean make a habit of taking in "strays" of either gender and "housebreak" them (i.e. attempt to train them to fit into their household without making a mess). It's a clever concept and the filmmakers show various iterations of the boy-girl-boy interaction (in bed) which are titillating and amusing. The "B" word (bisexual) is never used and clearly a 15-minute short comedic film is not the forum to articulate a philosophical position on anything, but the assumption of the fluidity of the character's sexual orientation is somewhat jarring (and most definitely) politically incorrect. But very fun (and funny). Grade: A-.

Directed By: Tamer Ruggli.
Switzerland, 2012, 9 min.
A boy comes of age under the care of his eccentric mother and a dreadful child-psychiatrist. This is a gorgeously shot short which my film companion described as "creepy." It stars a very pretty, apparently pubescent boy on which the camera focuses in a manner that some could perceive as untowardly attentive and inappropriately sexualized. And that's just the beginning of the creepiness! The film is really about the boy's mother, as narrated from the perspective of her son. He tells the story of being sent to a psychiatrist, apparently to try to disrupt his nascent (homo)sexuality from developing. The main strength of the film is its use of bright colors and it's art direction, the latter of which is very stylized, very faux retro. We discover that the boy's father is gone by the mother's act of erasing his image from family portraits and by the end we see a family portrait in which both the father and the son have been erased, with only the mother remaining. Grade: B.

Directed By: Juanma Carrillo.
Spain, 2012, 14 min.
Two distant neighbors are brought together by their apartment building’s renovation. This film is one of those examples of a film maker who is trying to be too subtle and is trying to use atmosphere instead of script to tell a story. There are two guys in neighboring apartments who spend time on their adjoining balconies. Because a scaffolding is put up one day (at the beginning of the film) they are forced to commiserate the loss of their view and interact in a way which apparently they do not do in other ways or venues (like on the stairs or in the neighborhood they share). Time elapses and we see the two, usually in some states of various undress, becoming to interact in more intimate ways over time: drinking, playing cards, talking and laughing, all on the balcony. The film is in Spanish and clearly set in one of the large cities in Spain (though I couldn't tell which one). The guys are somewhat attractive, but not attractive enough to make up for the lack of action and the very modest plot. As one would expect, eventually the scaffolding comes down and we see the two talking. One of them is clearly happy about it coming down, and the other is not. The one that is not happy about it says that he liked it when the scaffolding was up because of how it gave them an opportunity to interact that they never had before. After some pauses and uncertainty (he disappears back into his apartment) the other guy says the last line of the film: "Would you like to come in?" However, whether the guys are gay is unclear, and it is left to the audience's imagination to complete the story. I think that was the film maker's job! Grade: C.

Alaska Is A Drag
Directed By: Shaz Bennett.
USA, 2013, 14 min.
While working in a fish cannery in Alaska, a young man dreams of being an international super star. I really wanted to like this film since it has the only black character in any of the six shorts (I guess none of the Fusion Shorts featuring LGBT people of color made the Outfest cut this year!) as well as featuring relatively cute, young (mid 20-something) actors in my three favorite flavors (vanilla, caramel and chocolate). The story is about a flamboyant black guy (Leo) who dreams of becoming a performing diva but whose gender expression and sexuality is threatening to a particularly hot and inexplicably violent Latino guy (Kyle). The setting is a fish cannery in Alaska and there are lots of shots of dead fish being sliced open and martial arts-style kickboxing. (For some reason, the black drag diva-in-waiting is a talented kickboxer.) My film companion thought this aspect was too unrealistic and brought him out of the film's context. I didn't mind it, but what disappointed me was the filmmaker's reluctance to be clear and straightforward with the character's intentions. Ambiguity in a short film is almost never a good thing. For example, a new white guy (who presents as straight) starts working at the cannery and he sees the daily fight between Leo the black queen and Kyle the Latino enforcer. Interestingly, Declan (the new guy) takes the side of Leo in the fight and they go off to a bar together where they drink heavily and talk about their lives and the future diva gets to perform for his new friend. The next day we see Leo and Declan sitting around watching the birds over the see. "We should just run away," says Declan. "How," says Leo, "There's nowhere to run to." Of course, there's another fight between Leo and Kyle and again Declan joins in to help out after Leo gets punched repeatedly and thrown to the ground (after knocking Kyle a few times). "I don't need your help!" Leo says. This doesn't remotely ring true because 1) Declan has revealed that his dad was a boxing coach and he was an amateur boxer and 2) Kyle is about a foot taller than either of them (and has a group of friends, who appear to just watch from the sidelines and not get involved, but if they did their sheer numbers would end the fight decisively in Kyle's favor). The film ends with Declan and Leo going off together into the sunset, with Declan putting his arm around Leo's shoulder. Does this mean that Declan's gay and the two are going to be a couple? Why does the film spend so much time showing violent confrontations between the characters and so little time showing peaceful and/or intimate interactions between these attractive guys? I don't know. Grade: B+.

Summer Vacation
Directed BySharon Maymon,Tal Granit.
Israel, 2012, 22 min.
A married man’s family vacation abruptly takes a turn when he bumps into his ex-lover. This is the longest of the shorts in this year's collection and also the most emotionally involving. We see Yuval interacting with his wife (Michaela), his son (Einav) and his daughter (Gaya) on the beach. He is literally buried up to his neck in sand. He is literally and metaphorically stuck in a situation that he can not get out of without help. There's a brief scary moment in which we realize the tide is coming in faster than we think and it looks like Einav could drown in barely a foot of water. Einav and Michaela frantically start digging relatively ineffectively to save Yuval but eventually it is a handsome stranger and his cute young boyfriend who appear and are strong enough to rescue him from a dangerous situation. We then see Yuval and Michaela finishing dinner when Iftach  (the handsome stranger) and the nameless blond guy appear. Yuval seems very uncomfortable and we think he is either embarrassed at the situation he was in or he's homophobic. He does say thank you to Iftach for saving his life. Suddenly Iftach's cellphone rings and his ring tone, which happens to be a beautiful, haunting ballad sung by a male voice. "Oh, that's our song!" Michaela squeals. "Don't answer it!" Iftach complies and Michaela grabs the phone and tries unsuccessfully to convince her husband to dance with her. The song ends and Michaela grabs her husband's phone and asks Iftach for his number so she can call him again in order to hear the song. He complies again and she calls him and the song starts up and Michaela and Iftach start dancing slowly to the music. The young blonde guy (Iftach's date at this vacation spot) notices that the number is not showing on Iftach's phone but there is a name instead. (I presume it's the name Yuval, but since the film is in Hebrew it uses Hebrew letters that I can't read and the subtitles don't spell it out). But the implication is clear, somehow Iftach has had Yuval's number before, and he saved it in his phone. Therefor this is not just a chance meeting. The kid may be cute but he's not dumb and he immediately gets up and says he is going back to their cabin to sleep, giving Yuval and Iftach funny looks (which I interpreted as disapproving) and didn't seem to be noticed by Michaela. Later on we discover that, yes it is true that Iftach and Yuval were lovers a long time ago. It is implied that the two of them may have vacationed at this spot together before, but Yuval's son appears to be close to 13 so a reasonable conclusion is that happened quite a long time ago. Clearly, Iftach is still in love with Yuval (he saved his number) but Yuval's feelings are more complex since he has a wife and two kids. That doesn't stop him from sleeping with his wife one day and his former lover the next! After that things come to a head when Iftach gives Yuval an ultimatum. "Either you tell her or I will." The two are together at an island a decent swim from the beach at the time and Iftach jumps into the water to swim back to shore, presumably to tell Michaela who is sitting on the beach. One of the ironies of Yuval nearly drowning in the beginning is that he is (or was) a champion swimmer and so he catches up with Iftach and holds him underwater, presumably to stop him from telling his wife at all costs. A struggle ensues and the scene cuts to Yuval getting out of the water alone, sitting next to Michaela with bloody scratches on his neck and shoulders. After a short (but quite suspenseful) period of time Iftach shows up, sits down silently on the other side of Michaela. She looks very thoughtfully at her husband and then looks at Iftach and then all three continue looking at the sunset as the mournful ballad from the ringtone starts up and the credits roll. Grade: A.

Ronny and I
Directed By: Guy Shalem
USA, 2013, 20 min.
A young man comes to terms with his sexuality and feelings for his best friend during an impromptu trip. The central conceit of this film is that it was shot on a smart phone. (Another one is that openly gay director Bryan SingerI (X-men, The Usual Suspects) and lesbian celebrity Jane Lynch (Glee).) I'm sure for a significant fraction of the viewing audience, the story of two teenage white boys hanging out and frolicking together, sometimes unclothed together in a hotel room was very compelling, as is the premise of showing what could happen when one comes out to one's male best friend who you're in love with. To me it looked like most of the film was shot by phone, handled by one of the two actors at all times but I wasn't completely convinced at the time. However, apparently the conceit is true and the film was entirely filmed on a smartphone. This gives the film an impressive sense of verisimilitude that makes one think one is watching a day in the life of two guys who love each other. One of them has a non-platonic love for the other, while what Ronny feels is not completely clear. In this context, I appreciate the ambiguity and feel like it works, to an extent. Also it helps that both the actors are relatively cute. The story unfolds in jerky, uneven chunks (similar to the ways in which the film is shot). When Ronny learns that his best friend is gay (and in love with him) he doesn't run away and they continue their road trip along the coast, and even spend the night together, where Ronny even offers to give his friend "everything he wants" (which includes physical, sexual intimacy). That is a very touching scene, although thanks to the use of the phone as the recording device of the moment leaves more to the imagination than it reveals. (This is not a bad thing.) In the end it is we don't know whether Ronny and his friend will be boyfriends or just remain best friends but it is clear that they and the audience have spent an enjoyable time together. Grade: A-.

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