Back for a seventh year, the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival kicks off an early hot summer with ten days of movies, parties, and pride. Indies and majors from here and from abroad come together April 22 when Craig Lucas's highly anticipated The Dying Gaul opens the festival as the first of 84 international films in competition this year. Bea Arthur, the legendary icon of Mame and Maude fame, adds a touch of class to the opening gala with a version of her one-woman show. The rest is festive and culturally diverse, gay and lesbian, transgendered and transformational, just plain cool. Not everything was available for preview, and we can't help but be curious about Germany's two sports flicks, the soccer fantasy Guys and Balls and the teen swimming romp Summer Storm. France's Three Dancing Slaves and Garçon Stupide sound promising, as does the Hong Kong lesbian romance Butterfly. But the documentaries, from the stuff previewed by press time, emerge as the festival's strongest entries. Here's a sampling:
THAT MAN: PETER BERLIN (United States 2004; North American premiere): "His crotch," says John Waters, giggling on camera, "was like he had stuffed 50 socks in there." Never fear, though, it was all real. And there was even more to Berlin than his famous basket, more than his trademark Prince Valiant haircut and Sprockets attitude, than his influential photography and cinematography, his liberating post-Warhol insouciance, his in-your-face queerness. And he's still with us too -- and scheduled to attend the screening. Berlin's story is both inspirational and terrifically entertaining as brought to life in this extraordinarily beautiful documentary by Jim Tushinsky, produced by Lawrence Helman. Berlin himself narrates much of the movie and appears on camera in a melancholy dance between his lovely sixtysomething self and the irresistible young 1970s San Francisco gay icon who starred in Nights in Black Leather and That Boy. On the way, we hear from Waters, from Armistead Maupin and Jack Wrangler. That Man: Peter Berlin is a strange, irresistible picture.
GAY REPUBLICANS (United States 2004; Florida premiere): The year's scariest horror movie happens to be a documentary, and this is it. Gay Republicans is one of those concepts -- like, say, Jews for Hitler or the MLK chapter of the KKK -- that sound more than a little creepy. And it's worse than you thought. It's an oxymoron with a heavy emphasis on the moron part. "I would feel more comfortable in a room full of Republicans than in a room full of gays," says one of the self-loathing queers interviewed in Wash Westmoreland's fair and balanced film. Some of them include a Palm Beach hairdresser desperate to fit in with the crowd whose hair he does, an especially repugnant frosted-hair conventioneer, and others of that trash-with-money ilk. There are also some truly puzzled, honest folks like the brave politician Steve May, who's losing a struggle to be a conservative within a party that is diving conscience-first into the murky waters of fanaticism. The time is the last presidential election, and several Log Cabin Republicans find their blind faith shattered as they struggle to support a candidate who makes a fetish of kissing the ass of the Christian right even if that means writing bigotry into the Constitution and trampling on the civil rights of gay citizens. It is not a pretty picture. But it makes for one powerful, frightening movie.
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WHEN OCEAN MEETS SKY (United States 2004; Florida premiere): What do you see when you hear the words Fire Island? A gay Club Med? A New World Xanadu, a little like South Beach with cold water but with a lot more freedom of choice, a shadow of former glories, a mecca of fabulous parties, and a living memorial to a generation that is now lost? The birthplace of ACT UP and the Gay Men's Health Crisis? The prototype for every tea dance and circuit party you've ever danced through? A bit of history and a lot of love. Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Montgomery Clift, Sal Mineo, Frank O'Hara -- you name them, they were there. Jerry Herman tells you about this spectacular place sweetly in When Ocean Meets Sky, Crayton Robie's touching film that is one of the festival's must-see attractions. Mart Crowley, who finished his masterpiece The Boys in the Band in Fire Island, joins Pines denizen Larry Kramer and others in this mosaic of gay life, piece by piece, year after year through police raids, gay pride, the AIDS crisis, and beyond. It is a gorgeous film.
PROM QUEEN: THE MARC HALL STORY (Canada 2004; East Coast premiere): The feel-good gay fairy tale of the year, John L'Ecuyer's biopic tells of an unlikely gay-rights icon: Marc Hall, an Ontario high school kid who wanted to go to the prom with his boyfriend. It's a true story, but its happy ending sounds wistfully outlandish to audiences in Florida -- and makes us wish we could have Canada's Human Rights Charter to make things simple. Catholic homophobia, basic teen angst, peer pressure, and the usual anxieties of working-class youth are all here, and so are winning performances by Canadian hotties Aaron Ashmore and Trevor Blumas as well as by Kids in the Hall founders Scott Thompson and David Foley. It's an uplifting, deliciously entertaining comedy.
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29TH AND GAY (United States 2005; world premiere) and SLUTTY SUMMER (United States 2004; South Florida premiere): Okay, so they can't all be good. Just because a picture is gay doesn't mean you have to sit through it. Slutty Summer is appalling, self-satisfied amateur stuff that really has no place in a real festival. It's not just Casper Andreas's hackneyed plot about almost-hot waiters, fag hags, and sensitive waifs; it's the fact that the man doesn't have the rudiments of filmmaking down, minor things like pacing, cinematography, and acting. 29th and Gay is a tad better, but not much. A gay schlub faces his 29th birthday with the help of friends in what looks like a perfectly sweet film-student exercise, innocent of craft or polish but also, well, innocent. It's not enough.
FALSA CULPABLE (FALSE OFFENDER) (Spain 2003; Florida premiere): A somber thriller with a lesbian twist, Carles Vila's picture plays like a special episode of Law & Order SVU, with faint echoes of Claude Chabrol thrown in for good measure. A horrible crime happens in the prologue, a deadly late-night pickup that ends in murder. A married woman is railroaded, outed, condemned by the press and then by the courts, and eventually freed on a technicality to await a second trial as her life falls apart. The rest, and there is lots more, is told methodically with almost cruel clarity by this Catalan director who takes his time when he has a good yarn to tell.
ILLUSIVE TRACKS (Sweden 2004; Florida premiere): It is 1945 and the war has just ended. A train rushes to devastated Berlin, a veritable Grand Hotel on wheels carrying a dozen intertwined stories: a man about to murder his wife, his lover about to come out, a pair of old queens bickering, a pair of lesbians who just might make things work against all odds, a young idealist who hopes to do some good even as the world seems to have fallen apart. Here and there are bits of philosophical dialogue that bear Ingmar Bergman's beneficent influence -- though the master would have been appalled at considering Wittgenstein in a religious context. Peter Dalle's directorial touch is uncertain: Hitchcockian leads to soap opera and then to an ambitious comic coda in 1961, as the infamous Berlin Wall goes up.