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NewFest 30 Opens Strong With “1985”

Queer film annual offers indie delights, hyped disappointments

Cory Michael Smith in Yen Tan’s “1985,” which opens NewFest on October 24 at 7 p.m. at SVA Theatre.
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NewFest, New York’s LGBT Film Festival screens at area venues October 24-30. This year’s edition features nearly 150 shorts, documentaries, and features from around the world. Most notable is the inclusion of “Rafiki,” from Kenya, about two teenagers in love that was banned there for “promoting lesbianism” — but unavailable for screening.

Here are a dozen highlights — and, unfortunately, low points — from this year’s program.

The festival opens with Yen Tan’s elegiac drama “1985” (Oct. 24, 7 p.m.; SVA Theatre, 333 W. 23rd St.) about Adrian (out gay actor Cory Michael Smith), a closeted gay man returning home to Texas for Christmas with his conservative family. This moving film is comprised of a series of conversations where Adrian alternately reveals or conceals his sexuality. His interactions with his parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis), younger brother (Aidan Langford), and best friend Carly (Jamie Chung) are all heartfelt and affecting.

The best film at NewFest previewed here is “Mario” (Oct. 26, 9 p.m.; SVA Theatre), a Swiss drama set in the world of soccer. Buoyed by a fantastic performance by Max Hubacher, in the title role as the team captain, this film shows the pressures queer athletes face and the compromises they sometimes make when it comes to personal and professional happiness. Mario is a striker who is looking to go pro. When a new player, Leon (Aaron Altaras), joins the team, the guys’ competitive nature soon turns to friendship as they become roommates and eventually lovers. But when rumors about their relationship get out to the team, Mario and Leon are each forced to decide if they want to be open or live a double life. “Mario” may cover familiar coming out territory but the film is incredibly poignant as the men consider the consequences of their decisions. Hubacher gives a remarkable performance that captures the anxiety and rush of first love and of coming to terms with one’s sexuality. Don’t miss it.

Closing night is the New York premiere of “Making Montgomery Clift” (Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m.; SVA Theatre), a tantalizing documentary by Robert Clift (Monty’s youngest nephew) and Hillary Demmon. The film showcases fabulous film clips and home movies, as well as both video and audio interviews that investigate the actor’s life, sexuality, and career. Jack Larson’s (Jimmy Olsen on TV’s “Superman”) story about a kiss is terrific, as are details about Clift’s insistence on working outside the studio system so he could play parts he wanted to — even if it meant turning down some juicy roles. This commitment to his craft, including rewriting his lines, is what comes across best, as a key sequence from “Judgment at Nuremberg” shows. But too much of “Making Montgomery Clift” gets lost in the weeds as the Clift family tries to correct various biographers’ errors. A bit about the actor’s arrest with a “boy” is carefully parsed, and other revisions, such as Clift’s trouble with John Huston, feel belabored. This documentary will certainly be of interest to fans of the actor, but it could have been far better.

NewFest also provides moviegoers with one of the first opportunities to see “Boy Erased” (Oct. 25, 8 p.m.; SVA Theatre), writer/ director Joel Edgerton’s highly anticipated film based on Garrard Conley’s memoir about his experiences in a so-called gay conversion therapy program. Unfortunately, this well-meaning drama may disappoint queer viewers. The film feels pitched less to the LGBTQ people than to their parents who need to hear its message of love and acceptance and understand the horrors of gay conversion therapy.

Another frustrating entry is Ondi Timoner’s ambitious but flawed biopic “Mapplethorpe” (Oct. 27, 8:30 p.m.; SVA Theatre). Opening in 1969, Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) meets Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón), and they move in together. The pair struggle as artists, and he soon starts exploring his sexuality with men. When Sam Wagstaff (out gay actor John Benjamin Hickey) praises Mapplethorpe’s images and helps him sell his erotic photographs, the film hits its stride. However, like Sam and Robert’s romantic relationship, this bliss is short lived. Too much of Timoner’s film is skin deep and didactic. “Mapplethorpe” never lets its subject fully come to life and Smith is unconvincing in the title role, despite his physical resemblance to the artist.

The festival offers some gems with its smaller, indie films.

Writer/ director H. P. Mendoza’s “Bitter Melon” (Oct. 28, 7 p.m.; Cinépolis Chelsea, 260 W. 23rd St.) efficiently introduces the members of a Filipino-American family as the gay Declan (Jon Norman Schneider) and ex-addict Moe (Brian Rivera) return home to San Francisco for what may be “the worst Christmas ever.” It is back home where Declan and Moe realize their brother Troy (Patrick Epino) is abusing his wife Shelly (Theresa Navarro) in the home of their mother, Prisa (Josephine de Jesus). While this plot sounds heavy — it is — Mendoza has a light touch, even if the film strains credulity as the family members consider a drastic solution. While addressing the roots of abuse in the family, Mendoza adroitly sneaks in other messages, such as thoughtful discussions of both racism and effeminacy in the gay community. The cast is uniformly strong with Schneider particularly appealing as Declan, the perhaps-not-so-moral center of the family.

Another Asian-themed film about family, “For Izzy” (Oct. 27, 9:45 p.m.; Cinépolis Chelsea) is a sweet romantic drama that revolves around Dede (Michelle Ang), a lesbian trying to recover from her drug addiction and her recent breakup with her girlfriend. She moves into a house in Los Angeles with her mother Anna (Elizabeth Sung). After Anna falls for their neighbor, Peter (Jim Lau), Dede befriends Peter’s daughter Laura (Jennifer Soo), who is on the autism spectrum. When an incident in Griffith Park drives a wedge between the two families, Dede escapes to San Francisco to regroup. It sounds soapy, but “For Izzy” is a rewarding feel-good outing, with the protagonists learning to care for one another, flaws and all.

Two New York-set films yield mixed results. The amateurish horror-comedy “Killer Unicorn” (Oct. 29, 9 p.m.; SVA Theatre) has Brooklynite Danny (Alejandro La Rosa) being targeted by the title character (Dennis Budesheim), who is murdering drag queens and Danny’s queer friends. The film is meant to be campy — with most characters too self-absorbed to heed the warning that they are in danger — but it comes off as shrill. Likewise, the gore, while hardly realistic — one character is choked by the severed arm of the man who was fisting him — is never as clever as it thinks it is or wants to be. Unfortunately, “Killer Unicorn” is a draining experience.

The documentary “I Hate New York” (Oct. 25, 9:30 p.m.; Cinépolis Chelsea), by director Gustavo Sánchez, profiles several transgender activists and artists who live life on their own terms. Amanda Lepore shows off her apartment and discusses her surgeries that helped her create who she wants to be. Sophia Lamar is a Cuban refugee trying to make it in New York. Chloe Dzubilo performs with the band the Transisters and dates Tara, a singer. There is considerable footage of the New York underground scene and discussions of gender issues, but the portraits are only intermittently engaging.

The low-budget and low-impact “Devil’s Path” (Oct. 27, 7 p.m., Oct. 28, 4:30 p.m.; Cinépolis Chelsea), by out gay director Matthew Montgomery, is uneven. This thriller takes place entirely in the California woods where men go to cruise — and some go missing. Noah (Stephen Twardokus, who co-wrote the film with Montgomery) is looking for his missing brother when he befriends Patrick (JD Scalzo), who is just looking for sex. The men end up being chased through the woods by two men after Noah suffers a head injury. As they flee, the guys bond but also fight with each other. Secrets and lies are told, a knife is drawn, and bodies eventually pile up. While the premise has promise, “Devil’s Path” unfolds far too slowly to generate much tension, and some of the plot twists are unsurprising. Montgomery, an actor making his feature directorial debut, has the ability to tell a story, but he needs to rely less on using the soundtrack to convey emotion.

It wouldn’t be a gay film festival without a hustler drama. In writer/ director Jonah Greenstein’s curious “Daddy” (Oct. 28, 9:30 p.m., Oct. 29, 9 p.m.; Cinépolis Chelsea), Joseph (Alexander Horner) is a homeless gay guy who tricks with older men for money and shelter. The film artfully depicts Joseph’s trysts with anxious men, and there is considerable nudity in the awkward, largely unsexy encounters. If there is also little in the way of character development, that somehow feels deliberate. Viewers can decide if Joseph is making an authentic emotional connection with William (Thomas Jay Ryan). If “Daddy” seems to be saying nothing new about hustling, Horner’s blank, affectless portrayal may be its too subtle point.

Another film with considerable nudity is “Hard Paint” (Oct. 28, 6:45 p.m.; Cinépolis Chelsea), an engrossing Brazilian import about Pedro (Shico Menegat) who makes webcam videos in which he paints his naked body for viewers. When another webcam boy, Leo (Bruno Fernandes), apes Pedro’s act, the pair team up and start appearing together. They also have a very intense, erotic relationship on and off camera. This, film written and directed by Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon, is sexy, but there’s also a deep melancholy to it as the guys’ romance plays out. As Leo, Fernandes is irresistible, while Menegat is appropriately fragile as Pedro.

NEWFEST NEW YORK’S LGBT FILM FESTIVAL | October 24-30 | Cinépolis Chelsea, 260 W. 23rd St.; SVA Theatre, 333 W. 23rd St.; other venues | newfest.org

Updated 7:17 pm, October 19, 2018
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