Thursday, July 23, 2015


So ends another Outfest Film festival and it was another impressive event that brought us LGBT films that inspired, enlightened and empowered. First, here are the big award winners from the fest with "Nasty Baby" by Sebastián Silva taking the top prize of Best Dramatic Feature:

Grand Jury Awards

U.S. Dramatic Feature Film: "Nasty Baby"

Documentary Feature Winner: "A Sinner in Mecca"

Documentary Feature (Special Recognition): "Tchindas"

Actor in a U.S. Dramatic Feature: Curtis Cook Jr and Kerwin Johnson Jr (tie), "Naz and Maalik"

Actress in a U.S. Dramatic Feature: Judy Greer, "Addicted to Fresno"

Screenwriting in a U.S. Dramatic Feature: "Sebastian", Written by Carlos Ciurlizza and Mauricio Hoyos

International Dramatic Feature: "Everlasting Love"

Documentary Short Film: "Brockington"

Experimental Short Film: "The Lamps"

Dramatic Short Film: "Tremulo"

Special Jury Mention:"We Can’t Live Without Cosmos"

Special Programming Awards

Emerging Talent: Hillevi Loven, "Deep Run"

Freedom: Jim Chuchu and the NEST Collective, "Stories Of Our Lives"

Artistic Achievement: Rigoberto Pérezcano, "Carmin Tropical"

Audience Awards:

Dramatic Feature: "Fourth Man Out"

First U.S. Dramatic Feature: "Those People"

Documentary Feature: "The Glamour and the Squalor"

Documentary Short: "A Place in the Middle"

Dramatic Short: "The Letter"

I had an opportunity to see a few of the films this year. "Nasty Baby", which also took the Teddy Award for Best LGBT film at this year's Berlin Film Festival, stars writer/director Sebastián Silva as a gay artist who is trying to have a baby with his single, best friend (Kristen Wiig).  When his low sperm count is discovered, they approach his reluctant partner (Tunde Adebimpe of the band, TV on the Radio) to fill in. I found the film delightfully charming and offbeat until the dark unexpected turn in the final act and the troublesome resolution which left me feeling less enamored.

Race, religion and sexuality is covered in "Naz and Maalik", the impressive first film by writer/director Jay Dockendorf. Kerwin Johnson Jr. (Naz) and Curtiss Cook Jr. (Maalik) both deserved their shared Best Actor win in this story of two Muslim teenagers in Brooklyn struggling to reconcile their religious beliefs with their blossoming romance. Though there isn't much to the story, it remains effective as we follow the boys spending the day together talking about life, their future college plans and how will they make their relationship work. The film adds the issue of the mistrust between law enforcement and African-Americans but it's handled clumsily and it's inclusion feels unnecessary. There was already plenty of drama to be found in the basic plot.

Mary Agnes Donoghue, the writer of the Bette Midler/Barbara Hershey camp classic, "Beaches", makes her directorial debut with "Jenny's Wedding". Katherine Heigl stars as the title character who wants to finally reveal to her blue-collar family that she's gay. Not only does she tell them but also plans to marry her long-time partner (Alexis Bledel) which causes some serious tension within her family. With a fine cast that includes Tom Wilkinson, stage vet, Linda Emond and Grace Gummer, Ms Donoghue has made a moving, well-written but unremarkable drama. But she shows great promise as a film maker and let's hope she gets another opportunity very soon.

In the documentary, "Best of Enemies", the low-ranked television network, ABC thought it might draw an audience if during the 1968 Presidential conventions they have two politically opposing figures debate the issues live in a series of ten episodes. With William Buckley, Jr., the conservative founder of the National Review and Gore Vidal, the gay, liberal writer of the scandalous novel, "Myra Breckinridge" going head to head in an intellectual battle of the minds, the network had no idea what it was actually getting and how this event would forever alter politics in the media. It was no secret the two men had strongly disliked each other prior to this televised meeting but once their final debate took an ugly, personal turn during the Democratic convention, it would haunt both men, in different ways, for the rest of their lives. This film, co-directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, is equally fascinating and disturbing as it displays the beginning of America's political parties using personal attacks to make their point and how compromise on ideology should never be an option.

Monday, July 13, 2015

AMY (2015)

Directed by Asif Kapadia

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. July 5, 2015 3:15PM

"Amy", a fascinating documentary by award-winning film maker, Asif Kapadia, examines the tragically short life of pop star, Amy Winehouse. It begins around 1998 with a fresh-faced and healthy-looking British teenager who loves jazz, knows she's got a great singing voice and looks to have a bright future ahead. By the time we reach the end of the film, thirteen years later, Winehouse has become a Grammy-winning, world famous vocalist but also deteriorated into a dead-eyed, gaunt and drug-addled figure before her untimely death due to alcohol poisoning at the age of twenty-seven. The director uses the extensive news footage that covers the singer's meteoric rise and just as rapid decline to shape this film but there are also words from Winehouse herself through previously unheard interviews. She was tough yet charming, witty, loved to have a laugh and wanted to have a singing career with integrity. But once fame entered the picture, Winehouse comes across far too vulnerable and unprepared for the unyielding pressures of the music business and the relentless media assault. It's understandable that she would want to find escape but her family support seemed blinded by her new-found success and the record company's motivation was simply keeping their product in motion. This left Winehouse with few options to help relieve herself of the constant stress.

Born in Southgate, North London, Winehouse was a working class girl and proud of it. With a mature, husky voice and a gift for songwriting, she performed with several jazz outfits before getting signed with 19 Management at nineteen. Her first album, "Frank" in 2003, a collection of jazz-pop tunes mostly co-written by Winehouse, brought her some attention and a small taste of fame in Britain. With the arrival of her follow-up, "Back To Black" four years later, Winehouse would reach international acclaim and also signs of serious trouble first began to surface.

Around the time of "Back To Black", Winehouse began appearing with the look most associated with the singer, which was actually a nod to one of her idols, Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes. Cleopatra-style, black-lined eyes, a messy, collapsed beehive and rail-thin arms covered in prison tattoos to complete her bad-girl image. It was also during this time she fell hard for Blake Fielder-Civil, a true bad boy. Their relationship was on and off (and he's credited with introducing her to hard drugs) but they married in 2007 and spent their brief union in a sometime violent, drug and alcohol-fueled haze. Winehouse soon reached the point where she couldn't perform at all, completely lost in substance abuse. There were several rehab interventions but none having a lasting impact.

Mr. Kapadia's decision to rely on archival footage and not show the faces of the people being interviewed does make the film feel static but what brings it to life is how the director uses the singer's music. When the songs are played, the heartfelt lyrics by Winehouse are displayed, clearly reflecting what she was feeling during some of the happy or more turbulent times in her life. Many of the important people in Winehouse's life including close childhood friends, parents, Mitch and Janis, record producers, Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson and the love of her life, Fielder-Civil all express their deep love for the singer but also their feeling of uncertainty and helplessness as they watched her unravel.

It could appear that Amy Winehouse might be just another rock & roll cliché, joining the list of talented but troubled artists whose lives came to an end at the exact same age. But we see that she was never interested in becoming rich or a household name, it was always about the music.

After seeing "Amy", I can understand why the family is now hostilely opposed to this documentary they once fully supported. For the director's vision brings in to sharp focus how they played a small yet striking role in the demise of this gifted, young artist. It would be unfair to let Winehouse off the hook for her own destructive behavior but as this troubled and unstable girl was continuously being shoved in to the spotlight, she was much too sensitive to handle the constant glare of stardom.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

DOPE (2015)

Written & Directed by Rick Famuyiwa

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. June 21, 2015 5:30PM

"Dope" may not seem like your average teen comedy for you will find hip-hop clubs, gangsters, drug-related shoot-outs and the frequent use of the N-word. Oh, and a cast made up mostly by people of color. The writer/directer Rick Famuyiwa has made a visionary film that wants to find a place between the popular urban dramas of the 90's like "Boyz In The Hood", "Juice" and "Dead Presidents" while offering something deeper than the broad humor of Tyler Perry movies. "Dope" succeeds, for the most part, in expanding our ideas of what African-American cinema can be and opens viewers eyes to a world that is rarely represented.

In his first film role, Shameik Moore plays Malcolm Adekanbi, a high school senior. He lives in Inglewood with his single mother (Kimberly Elise) and doesn't remember his father who went back to Africa when he was an infant. Malcolm is not what you would consider one of the cool kids, with his hair shaped in a flat-top fade and wearing 90's hip-hop clothing unironically. His two close friends are fellow outsiders; Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a butch lesbian whose family continues to try and pray away her condition along with the anxious, Jig (Tony Revolori, last seen in "The Grand Budapest Hotel") who is small and inconspicuous. Together, they play in a punk-rock band, Awreeoh (get it?) trying to express themselves in a way that only nerds can understand.

Malcolm is a straight-A student and wants to get in to Harvard. But his school counselor Mr. Bailey (Bruce Beatty) informs him that his college essay on Ice Cube's "Today was a Good Day" is not going to get him there. After being advised to write something about himself, Malcolm is at a loss.

Like many of us at the time, Malcolm and his friends are just trying to get out of high school in one piece but being considered weird makes you an easy target. Not long after barely escaping a school thug trying to steal his shoes, Malcolm nearly loses his bike to the local drug dealers but catches the attention of their leader, Dom (hip-hop artist, A$AP Rocky) because of his unusual style. The two soon bond over music and ideas before Dom has Malcolm go relay a message to a girl to attend his birthday party. Taking one look at this attractive young lady, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz),  Malcolm wants to make his own private plans with her but feels far too uncool to make a move. Nakia is also curious about this odd kid in front of her. She agrees to go only if Malcolm will be there.

Being underage poses an obstacle but Malcolm is determined and drags Diggy and Jig along with him. Once inside the nightclub, the trio party hard and Malcolm even gets a dance with Nakia. Gun-fire breaks up the festivities and the next day, Malcolm discovers his backpack filled with a gun and thousands of dollars worth of Dom's drugs.

With a phone call from a locked-up Dom informing him what to do with the stash, the rest of the film has Malcolm trying to get rid of it before a rival gang catches up to him first. While there's much that happens in between this treacherous race, (and at times overwhelms the film), Mr. Famuyiwa keeps the action moving smoothly with sharp insight and imaginative direction. In between the myriad of high-speed chases, dangerous shoot-outs and wildly deranged characters, there are sweet, touching moments and dark but very funny humor. The cast in uniformly excellent with Famuyiwa also utilizing fascinating non-actors like model, Chanel Iman and rapper, Tyga which helps add to the unconventional nature of the film.

The director had some high-profile talent to help him put this together with Sean Combs, Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker (who also provided narration) serving as producers. Like Mr. Famuyiwa's feature debut, "The Wood", "Dope" examines life on the streets of Inglewood where the director grew-up with people just trying to get through each day in their tough surroundings. Despite the difficulties, there is still a sense of community and honor to be found in the neighborhood.

Far from perfect but I think "Dope" ranks up there with other classic teen comedies like "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". While there is much more perilous menace and edginess here than those films, it's the film's heart and intelligence that makes it truly fit comfortably beside them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


The 2015 Outfest Film festival is set to begin on July 9th and conclude on July 19th. This annual celebration of LGBT cinema in Los Angeles will kick off with "Tig", a documentary on comedian Tig Notaro. The film by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York deals with Notaro coping with a cancer diagnosis while somehow finding humor in her situation while performing her stand-up routine. "Tig", which received rapturous acclaim at this year's Sundance Film Festival, will clearly be a strange mixture of anguish and hilarity.

The international centerpieces will be "Eisenstein In Guanajuato" and "The Summer of Sangaile". Filmmaker Peter Greenway ("The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover") examines Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein during a transformative trip to Mexico in the 1930's where he meets a handsome tour guide and begins a wild and passionate romance. "Summer", a Sundance winner of the World Cinema Directing Award for writer/director, Alanté Kavaïté, is a love story set in Lithuania between two very different young women. This is a surreal and visually breath-taking experience.

One of the documentary centerpieces is "Best of Enemies" by Morgan Neville ("20 Feet From Stardom") and Robert Gordon ("Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story"). It looks at two great minds with two very opposing points of views; Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley as they intellectually sparred on live television in 1968. Their verbal matches were combative, vicious and endlessly fascinating.

"54", a fictionalized story set at Studio 54, the notorious disco in the 1970's, was released in 1998 and became a critical and box-office failure. It turns out that writer/director Mark Christopher was forced to alter the film considerably which included removing a gay subplot. Now seventeen years later, Christopher has reconstructed "54" to reflect his original vision. This new cut will be screened at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on July 16th.

To celebrate the twenty years that Christine Vachon and her production company, Killer Films have been bringing queer independent cinema to audiences, Outfest will screen Todd Haynes' ode to gender-bending, glam-rock, "Velvet Goldmine" on July 11th. This amazing 1998 classic stars Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor. If you've never this on the big screen, you must check it out.

This is the tenth year of the Legacy Project which has been protecting and restoring essential LGBT cinema. Five important films will be presented; "Parting Glances" (1986), the first film to be restored, Greg Araki's "Totally F*cked Up" (1993), "Born In Flames" (1983), "Madonna: Truth or Dare" (1991) and the latest restoration, "Funeral Parade of Roses" (1969) about transgendered women in the 1960's Tokyo underground.

Finally, the closing night gala will be held at a new location, the theatre at Ace Hotel and the selection is the latest from one of my favorite filmmakers, François Ozon ("8 Women", "Swimming Pool"). "Une nouvelle amie (The New Girlfriend)" stars Romain Duris as a man who tragically loses his young wife and left alone to care for their infant. When Claire (Anais Demoustier), his wife's best friend, arrives to help him out, she discovers his secret life as a transvestite and they develop an unusual relationship.

For the complete list of films, venues and to purchase tickets, please go to:


Sunday, June 21, 2015

SPY (2015)

Written & Directed by Paul Feig

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. June 9, 2015 5:20PM

Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig together have altered the long-held perception of women in comedy. Mr. Feig has proven that if it's well-written and capable talent is brought on board, people will happily pay to see comedies with female leads while the very funny Ms McCarthy shows that she can be a major box-office draw even if she's not a size two.

They first came together in the bridal nightmare comedy, "Bridesmaids", with the actress in an Oscar-nominated supporting role and the film became a surprise break-out hit. In their next outing, McCarthy was given a bigger part and teamed-up with movie-star, Sandra Bullock in the female-buddy cop caper, "The Heat" and scored another home run. Their latest winning collaboration is "Spy", a spoof of the James Bond action-thrillers with McCarthy, front and center, becoming an unlikely secret agent. The film successfully merges together those common espionage staples involving fancy gadgets, exotic locations, thrilling car chases and bone-shattering brawls with suburban cat-lady disguises, wacky antics and insanely funny gags.

Susan Cooper (McCarthy) sits behind a desk at CIA headquarters as the eyes and ears for agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) when he's out fighting the bad guys. Holding a secret crush on the handsome and debonair Fine, the plain and unremarkable Susan can only dream that he would ever notice her as a woman or that she would have a chance to work by his side as an agent.

After his attempt to track down a nuclear bomb that will be sold to Italian gangster, Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale) ended with the accidental death of his target, Boyanov (Raad Rawi), Agent Fine sets out to find his daughter, Rayna (Rose Byrne) who may know of it's location. But she's on to him, as well as the identities of other CIA agents, and takes Fine out for revenge.

Since the cover is blown for the field agents, Susan volunteers to go on the mission to follow Rayna and locate the bomb. Her boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) is opposed to the idea but with few options and time running out, she agrees so long as Susan doesn't make contact.

It should be no shocker that Susan Cooper doesn't follow those instructions once she reaches her Paris destination and gets herself thrown in the mix. The inexperienced spy cons her way in to the inner circle of the deadly, big-haired, Rayna and travels to Rome and Budapest with her as she makes final arrangements to sell the bomb. Susan must find it's whereabouts before her identity is discovered and receives help from her friend, Nancy (Miranda Hart) back at the CIA headquarters, a contact in Italy, Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) who is your standard stereotypical Italian and the abrasive fellow agent, Rick Ford (Jason Statham), disgruntled and going rogue because he wasn't given this assignment, stalks her throughout the mission.

Feig's script follows a faithful blueprint of your average spy adventure but the brief bursts of graphic gore feel out of place for a zany comedy (even the 007 films keep the bloodshed at PG-13 levels). But what the director is really after is to flip the script on expectations and take us on a humorously thrilling ride from a female point-of-view and not from one that looks like Angelina Jolie. After the misstep of "Tammy", the jumbled mess of a comedy created by McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone (who pops up here in a cameo), Feig guides the actress back on to solid ground as he's able to rein her manic energy in to coherent focus. McCarthy, with her sweet cherub face and the foul mouth of a demented sailor, doesn't fail to deliver the laughs but also brings warmth and quirky charm to help flesh out her character.

There are plenty of Brits filling out the roles here (and our Aussie, Ms Byrne, hilarious as our Bulgarian villainess) with the towering, Ms Hart, who is a comic sensation back home in England, perfectly giving Americans a taste of what they're missing. But it's Mr. Statham that surprises with sharp comedic skills. The no-nonsense action star hasn't had too many chances to show that he's actually quite funny and hopefully he'll get more opportunities to show that off.

"Spy" brings us plenty of thrills, danger but mostly giddy fun and that's exactly what you want in your summer popcorn fare. The good news is that Ms McCarthy and Mr. Feig are joining forces once again with an all-female reboot of "Ghostbusters". If it's anything like "Spy", I think it's likely we're in for another hilarious treat

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


The premiere showcase for independent cinema in Los Angeles, The LA Film Fest marks it's twenty-first year beginning June 10th with the festival running through June 18th. For the first time, the fest will present competitive awards that will be presented on closing night to help bring additional awareness to exceptional works.

The great Lily Tomlin has been chosen to be honored with The Spirit of Independence Award and her latest film, "Grandma" (which received plenty of buzz at Sundance) will be the Opening Night Film.

The fest has also added this year Nightfall, a line-up of indie-genre films making their world premiere and Launch, which will feature new talent creating fiction in digital spaces such as web-series, music videos and gaming. This is in addition to other programs including Master Classes (which brings prominent artists to give invaluable talks about their trade), Coffee Talks (that focuses on all aspects in the craft of film making), Diversity Speaks (a day-long convention of filmmakers and storytellers of color) and Music in Film Nights at The GRAMMY Museum that has live performances by some of the world’s most acclaimed musicians.

There will be free outdoor screenings available which includes "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" on June 12th and "Love & Basketball" on June 13th.

For the complete list of films, activities and venues, please click below:

2015 LA Film Fest

Sunday, May 31, 2015


Written by David Nicholls

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Where & When: E Street Cinema, Washington D.C.  May 18, 2015  7:45PM

I have never read the classic novel "Far From The Madding Crowd" by Thomas Hardy but I'm sure it's no where near as lifeless and uninspired as this latest film adaptation. The director Thomas Vinterberg began his career as a co-founder of Dogme 95 (along with the notorious, Lars von Trier), a radical Danish movement that brought attention to getting back to the basics of story-telling by not using modern visual effects. Since his terrific Dogme debut, "Festen (The Celebration)" (which won a well-deserved jury prize at the 1998 Cannes festival), Vinterberg has pretty much abandoned this adventurous concept and has settled into more conventional film making. His last film was the understated but powerful "Jagten (The Hunt)" which earned the director a 2012 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.  "Far" has a much larger budget and delivers a grand, sweeping style but lacks a more imaginative approach in telling this enduring love story.

The film looks ravishing thanks to cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, production designer, Kave Quinn and the exquisite costumes by Janet Patterson. We also have on hand strong performances by the quite talented, Carey Mulligan taking on the fiercely independent, Bathsheba Everdene and the Belgium hunk, Matthias Schoenaerts as one of her suitors along with a fine supporting cast. But none of these wonderful elements come together to create the passionate romantic epic that was clearly intended. The result is more tepid at best with the colorless script by David Nicholls leaves the film feeling truncated and rushed.

Set in Victorian England, Bathsheba has a strong desire to remain unmarried, particularly strange for a young woman of this era. She is quite content working on her aunt's modest farm but catches the eye of Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), a handsome shepherd. They become friendly and soon Gabriel asks her to become his bride. Despite her hasty rejection, this decision seems to quietly inflame his desire even more for this odd beauty.

Their lives take an unexpected turn as Gabriel loses his entire herd in a tragic accident, forcing him to sell what little he has left and leave in search of work. Bathsheba inherits an uncle's farm in a nearby village and becomes quite wealthy. Circumstances bring these two together once again but now Gabriel is hired to work for Bathsheba.

Bathsheba inadvertently attracts the attention of her neighbor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), an affluent bachelor after playfully sending him a valentine. Taking this quite seriously, the lonely Boldwood's heart is awakened after years of dormancy.  He asks for her hand in marriage, which Bathsheba regrettably declines, but he's patient and willing to wait for her to come around.

Another admirer enters Bathsheba's orbit, a charming young sergeant named Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). With an act of seduction involving his sword, Bathsheba surprisingly falls under his spell and for the first time feels actual yearning. Fearful of losing the solider, she agrees to marry Frank. After the glow of matrimony dims, Bathsheba is soon introduced to the true man and with that, a dark secret surfaces.

As we witness Bathsheba's efforts to maneuver through as a steadfast woman, not wanting to lose herself in a decidedly man's world, we are shown how much our society has evolved and how much has stubbornly remained the same. Throughout all of Bathsheba's lapse of judgement, difficult adversity and tragic misfortune, Gabriel remained by her side, offering advice (whether solicited or not), guidance and friendship. She is the last to know what becomes obvious, that what you might be searching for has been with you all the time.

"Far From The Madding Crowd" is far from a bad film. It just doesn't feel necessary at least in the way it's been assembled. The film hits all of major points of the novel but it's cinematic structure is strictly by-the-numbers. With a lead character who was all about taking risks and facing challenges, it's surprising so little was taken here.