Bob and Rose and friends try to figure out just who they are
Bob and Rose and friends try to figure out just who they are

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So the issue of identity as a theme in a gay and lesbian festival may seem redundant -- aren't all gay films by nature dealing with sexual identity? Well, here comes a surprise at this year's fest: Identity in a much broader sense is indeed the theme, including what should compose a gay festival itself -- if there is a gay character in a film, is it gay? Anyhow, the most obvious identity thread in this year's event seems to be gay men in heterosexual relationships, both platonic and otherwise. Three offerings reviewed here deal with such an issue on some level, the most intriguing of which is the British TV show Bob & Rose, from the people who brought you the splendid Queer as Folk (no, not the American version).

At first, as the gay (and "always been gay") Bob falls for Rose, the reaction's a collective groan -- we're revisiting that misguided era again. No way. But viewer, beware -- the clever scriptwriter Russell T. Davies beat you to it. He wants you to have that response, and much more. As the episodes unfold, you realize he's pushing your own prejudice buttons -- a gay man and straight woman, that's not modern-day right, that's not natural.

And indeed it is not natural for anyone in this truly sophisticated programming. It's not natural for Bob and Rose, who are continually torn about how long this relationship really can last. It's not for their friends -- Bob's all think he's fooling himself, at worst betraying himself. It's not for Bob's long-time straight woman friend, who wonders, why not her? When Bob sits his parents down and comes out to them, admitting he has a girlfriend, a fascinating exchange ensues. The father can't hide a hint of joy that his son may live a "normal" life after all. The mother, on the other hand, having completely embraced her son's homosexuality and joined a gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights group, is a little dismayed -- until she remembers, you can be part of the bisexual community! No, Bob says, I'm gay.


4th Annual Miami Gay episodes 4-6 at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 28, at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach.

And so it goes. After coming to terms with our own preconceived notions of what's normal, we can concentrate on what this program really is -- a story about the irrational and mysterious nature of love. In this Bob & Rose resembles another great non-normal love story, Harold and Maude, bringing us to a place we didn't quite think we could go.

Now viewer, beware of something else. While there are naughty and nicely erotic moments to behold in this year's film festival, they are not in Bob & Rose. The voyeuristic eye in search of some kinky possibilities of gay/hetero sex won't find it here. As the title suggests, Bob and Rose are pretty average people living pretty average lives, and the focus is on the emotional rather than the sexual journey that these two take. Davies has picked some average-looking -- and very likable -- actors to take on the parts; stand-up comedian Alan Davies and Lesley Sharp create for us characters so real we think we know them. The beauty of Davies's acting is in his ability to conjure an uncomplicated, low-key guy who is going through a complicated lifestyle change. He's not dull, not simple, but he's also not that interested in overanalyzing the whole thing. Sharp, aided by her great dialogue, is funny and smart and maybe a little more confused in her hetero relationship than her gay partner is.

Identity -- the good news and the bad news is that it's not so simple -- once you've picked one out, it still may not be enough. The world is more complicated than that, and we've got the films to prove it. -- Anne Tschida Jaime and Rosa Get Laid

The opening-night film of the festival -- Sagitario, a complex, character-driven drama from Spain -- begins with the colorful night lights of Madrid revealed within the crystal ball of a fortuneteller. The crystal image is an apt one for Vicente Molina Foix's directorial debut, which features a complicated, crystalline structure of interconnected relationships. An array of characters -- gay, straight, male, female, young, old, Spanish, and foreign -- meet, match, part and re-meet in an ever-shifting kaleidoscopic narrative.

The story centers on, or rather swirls around, the loves and losses of two fortyish friends, both born under the sign of Sagittarius. Sultry, lonely Rosa (Angela Molina) is a gifted artist but is unable to paint, still suffering the destruction of her marriage and the loss of her husband, a former businessman who has taken on a new life as an anthropologist in Africa. Her best friend is Jaime (Eusebio Poncela), a witty actor and stand-up comic who is ready to break up with his philandering older lover.

Rosa and Jaime love to commiserate, and both face new romantic opportunities when two young men come into their lives. Jaime hires hunky hustler Omar (Jacobo Martin) for some sweaty sex, then discovers he's falling in love with the young stud. But Omar's really named Raphael, and his tough-guy pose masks an insecure youth who's dogged by his past troubles with a domineering cult leader. Meanwhile Rosa passes through several romantic interludes before finding herself swept up by a younger man, Juan (Enrique Alcides), a delivery boy with no money but plenty of sex appeal.

Around these central relationships orbit an array of supporting characters, who also meet, match, and more often than not, part. Greta, a conservative Miami Cuban, argues constantly with her pro-communist actress daughter Ana before degenerating into insanity. Ana dallies with Gustavo, an expat Argentine architect who has parted from Rosa's bed. Roza's ex shows up and inadvertently revives her feelings for him before his African wife arrives soon after. All the while Rosa is harassed by a heavy-breathing phone caller who may or may not be a serial killer.

The film starts out very smartly, with a quick pace and considerable humor as the lives of each of these characters connect, or nearly connect, as they hurry through the streets of bustling Madrid. Foix gets a lot of mileage out of the variety of relationships. Friends turn into lovers and ex-lovers meet again in awkward moments. The narrative centers on human longing rather than fulfillment and seems to hold up that common longing as the glue that binds such disparate people together.

Foix is blessed in his cast. Molina, a veteran Spanish actress, is as gorgeous as a mature woman as she was decades before when she drew international acclaim in Luis Buñuel's That Obscure Object Of Desire. She's well matched by the gifted Poncela, who delivers a dynamic performance, funny, clever, sexy, and touching by turns. The supporting ensemble is solid, notably Alcides and Martin but also Daniel Freire as Gustavo, Maria Isasi as the troubled Ana, and Ana Torrent as Luisa, the tough-gal manager of the theater club who is Juan's employer and sometime bed partner. The sole misfire is Mirtha Ibarra's mugging as Greta, an over-the-top cheap shot at exile Cubans (a favorite Spanish target) that seems out of keeping with the film's overall style.

But as with similarly structured storylines, the multiplot narrative begins to stall in the later going and ultimately loses its way altogether in a simplistic, unsatisfying conclusion that looks as if it were hastily thrown together in post-production. Foix, an academic and critic, has experience as a novelist and script writer and his skill with characterization is readily apparent here. His characters feel lifelike and nuanced, despite some of the more obvious plot devices. But whatever point he is making about destiny and individual will gets lost in the episodic, free-flowing narrative.

Then there's the question of why Sagitario is the opening film. Sure it's Spanish and well performed, but is it a gay film? Jaime's storyline is, and its portrait of gay sexuality and romance is direct and open. But Sagitario has as much to do, if not more, with straight culture as with gay, and its focus ultimately more to do with ecumenical friendship than sexuality or sexual identity. As gay culture slowly moves in from the social margins, gay cinema certainly faces challenges of identity and direction. It will be interesting to watch how festival chief Robert Rosenberg and company will navigate these new trends in future programming. -- Ronald Mangravite You've Got Female

A good example of the breadth of this year's Gay & Lesbian Film Festival's programming is surely Desiree Lim's Sugar Sweet, a wild sex-comedy romp through lesbian Tokyo.

A lesbian filmmaker, Naomi faces a bleak life, at home and at work. Lonely Naomi has turned to chatrooms for companionship and is corresponding with another lesbian known only as "Sugar." Her directing career consists of shooting porn films for lowlife straight male producers who complain that her art, her sensual style, just won't sell. They want blunt, cartoonish moan-and-groan-style pics and demand that she come through with the goods. Naomi also struggles with her other project, a lesbian-lifestyle TV show. She wants to portray lesbians in a non-stereotypical light, but her dyke pals wonder if she'll succeed. Meanwhile her happy-go-lucky pal Asuza feels restless with her live-in lover Yuriko, a relationship that has turned distant and sexless.

Horny Asuza wants some action and figures a fling might get Yuriko's attention. Seeing an opportunity, Naomi hires Asuza to appear in her reality show and seeks out another woman to play Asuza's TV mate. In a dark dyke bar Naomi finds sultry Miki, a hard-driving marketing executive who happens to moonlight as an exotic dancer at a lesbian club. Naomi catches Miki's act, which involves bondage, dildos, and plastic wrap used in inventive ways. Soon Miki and Asuza's TV relationship turns into a hot off-screen affair. Meanwhile Naomi continues to pour out her feelings online to Sugar, who refuses to meet in person. The situation reaches a crisis when Miki begins to hit on Naomi as well, causing both Naomi and Asuza to become very confused about what or who they want.

The characters' confusions are enhanced by the film-within-a-film framework, a situation that director Lin manipulates effectively. Sometimes scenes that appear to be "real" are revealed to be sequences from Naomi's production. At other times the glimpses of crew members seem to be from Lim's project. Much of the dialogue, also, turns self-referential, as discussions about media images of lesbians and lesbian sexuality doubly apply to Naomi's plot problems and Sugar Sweet itself.

This postmodern take is nothing new, of course, and much of the film has a been-there done-that quality, a common result of much Japanese pop culture that continues to focus more on expropriated outside (read American) cultural influences than developing something indigenous. The "who's Sugar" subplot seems directly lifted from You've Got Mail and the onscreen, offscreen confusions echo any number of similar films from the past 30 years. Fortunately the saving grace here is the lesbian angle, which offers a fresh, revealing look at Japanese women rarely glimpsed on the screen. The story is short (under one hour) but manages to pack in a number of interesting ideas as well as some steamy, very suggestive sex that should please festivalgoers.

Lin's direction is effective, given her extremely limited resources. Her camera work is dynamic and expressive with several clever scene transitions. As Naomi, Saori Kitagawa makes for a weary, plausible heroine. The two performers with the lion's share of the sex scenes opt for jazzy onscreen monikers: Saki plays bubbly Asuza with an uninhibited enthusiasm while the singularly named C. Snatch Z. turns on the sizzle as Miki. M. Nakagawa delivers the best acting in a quiet, simple performance as Yuriko, and her reconciliation with Asuza is genuinely touching.

Shot on video, mostly hand held, with minimal production values and iffy sound quality, Sugar Sweet is a no-budget, run-and-gun production, but its shoot-from-the-hip style fits the fast-and-loose subject and assists the deliberate movie-within-a-movie confusion.

Sugar Sweet is paired with two related shorts: Dyke: Just Be It, which Lin made under her alter-ego name Dez (the short gets an in-joke visual plug in Sugar), and Watching Lesbian Porn by Dayna McLeod. -- Ronald Mangravite

Tootsie Does Madrid

Think you've got problems? Be glad you're not Daniel, the gay Spaniard in I Love You Baby. Seems Daniel's fallen truly, madly, deeply for Marcos, a country lad recently arrived in Madrid. After a whirlwind romance they are living together more or less happily, until Marcos receives a clunk on the head from a huge disco ball (the two are singing karaoke to Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," from which the title comes). Suddenly he's straight and takes up with a curvy Dominican woman, Marisol. Desperate Daniel naturally wants his boy back. When he happens to hear that gender-bending Boy George has suffered an identical accident, Daniel decides to do drag himself, posing as a woman hoping to lure Marcos home.

Daniel has big problems but the movie has more. If this situation were played as a frantic Almodovarian comedy, all might be well. But co-directors Alfonso Albacete and David Menkes have gone for a romantic, poignant style that's seriously at odds with their wacky concepts. The result is a film that pulls in different directions and gets nowhere.

As a gay romance the film starts out very nicely indeed. Daniel, played with great charm and dash by Santiago Magill, literally bumps into Marcos (Jorge Sanz) at a bar. Their rushed courtship amid colorful Madrid locations is charming and wildly romantic. Marcos, who has come to Madrid to investigate his gay feelings, is reticent but falls for Daniel's poetic, open ardor. Their relationship is warm and funny and very effective. So, too, is Marisol's unrequited longing for Marcos. But when the glitterball/drag elements fall into the story, the romance falls right out. Since the film has established a real world of palpable emotions, it's very hard to accept its jarring off-the-wall plot twists. Said disco ball is a pretty silly idea to accept in what up until then has been a sweet, affecting story. And Daniel's disguise wouldn't fool a dead blind man with his back turned.

Even if these cornball plot devices are overlooked, what I Love You Baby suggests about gay identity is hard to avoid. For starters the film manages to present Marcos's gay sexuality as an easily cured mistake. Marcos is conflicted from the start (maybe too conflicted; he's such a stick in the mud that it's pretty clear Daniel was headed for heartache). But the sudden smack in the head apparently knocks some sense into Marcos -- he's not magically changed into something he needs to switch back from, he's restored, as if his gay feelings were some kind of curse. Moreover Daniel's disguise as a woman doesn't result in comic complications, à la classical farce. Instead he strings out the pretense to the point that he's just hurting other people, effectively transforming him from a romantic hero into a lying sneak.

More's the pity since the characters are nicely drawn, acting is quite good all around, and the directors' visual style is very appealing. Add to this an enticing production design, filled with saturated reds, yellows, and blues, and a soulful musical score (with lots of merengue-driven moments when the Dominicans are onscreen), and I Love You Baby has most of the makings for a lovely romance. These alone speak for its worth as a festival entry. If only some of the story problems had been worked over more -- or more deeply; Dominican immigrant life in Madrid could be another source for probing issues of "identity" -- we might have something more meaningful here.

On to the next film. -- Ronald Mangravite


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