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Queer Cinema’s Autumn Cornucopia

NewFest, in 31st year, returns with compelling comedies, dramas, documentaries

Jonathan Agassi in Tomer Heymann’s “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life,” which screens October 24.
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NewFest, New York’s leading LGBTQ film festival, returns October 23-29 for its 31st edition. The festival, which includes more than 150 shorts, features, and documentaries, opens with a whimper with “Sell By” (Oct. 23 at 7 p.m., SVA Theatre), a broad, undemanding comedy-drama written and directed by Mike Doyle. The film concerns an insecure group of gay and straight friends dealing with issues of intimacy, jealousy, and communication. Unfortunately, the film is largely one-note and the characters and their situations all feel underdeveloped.

But NewFest closes with a bang, with the New York premiere of out gay Bolivian filmmaker Rodrigo Bellot’s stunning and impactful “Tu Me Manques” (Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m., SVA Theatre). This multilayered drama, adapted from Bellot’s play, has a conservative father, Jorge (Oscar Martinez), grappling with the death — a possible suicide — of his gay son Gabriel (played by three actors: Jose Duran, Ben Lukovski, and Quim del Rio). Jorge contacts Gabriel’s lover, Sebastian (Fernando Barbosa), to learn about his late son. Sebastian, meanwhile, is channeling his grief by staging a play about Gabriel.

Bellot deftly weaves these and other narratives together to immerse the characters and viewers in Gabriel’s world and experiences. (Tommy Heleringer gives a scene stealing turn as Gabriel’s chatty friend TJ). “Tu Me Manques” becomes transcendent as it addresses how love and fear dictate our attitudes and behavior. The play created awareness in Bolivia about at-risk queer youth, and the film will likely amplify its important messages about love and acceptance.

Here is a rundown of other noteworthy films screening at this year’s NewFest:

“All We’ve Got” (Oct. 25 at 6 p.m., SVA Theatre; Oct. 27 at 4:15 p.m., LGBT Community Center) is an inspiring and affectionate documentary about the continuing need for social spaces for lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender folks — and their troubling erosion. Director Alexis Clements hooks viewers right from her pre-title sequence, emphasizing the shared experience and visibility afforded by queer women’s spaces. Her film investigates the WOW Café Theatre collective in Manhattan, the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, the lesbian bar Alibi’s in Oklahoma City, and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio to show how vital places like these are. These venues not only provide safe, inclusive places for queer women to meet, but help build an intergenerational community and create ways of nurturing a sense of belonging. Clements bemoans the closing of the Lexington Club, a San Francisco lesbian bar, and Portland’s feminist bookstore In Other Words, but her earnest film is upbeat because she focuses on the importance these places have not only for the women proud to run them but for the community and the people who benefit from them.

Brad Michael Elmore’s horror film “Bit” (Oct. 26 at 6:45 p.m., SVA Theatre) gets its gore on right away as lesbian vampire Duke (Diana Hopper) rips the heart out of a guy and burns it in the opening moments. Cut to Laurel (Nicole Maines), a trans teenager who leaves Oregon — and her gay best friend Andy (Matt Pierce) — to visit her brother Mark (James Paxton) in L.A. On her first night in town Laurel meets Izzy (Zolee Griggs) who kisses her on a rooftop — and then bites her in the neck. Transformed into a vampire, Laurel joins Duke’s “Bite Club,” but does suffer a crisis of conscience about having been turned. The low budget but highly stylized “Bit” is an antidote to “Twilight,” and it doubles as a lesbian/ feminist revenge film as Duke’s V-squad preys on sleazy men. There are some sweet moments, as when Duke teaches Laurel to fly. “Bit” is surely ambitious, but it also feels slight at times. Still, Maines and Hopper deliver performances that are commendable.

One of the highlights of NewFest is “Straight Up” (Oct. 26 at 4 p.m., SVA Theatre). In this terrific rom-com, Todd (writer and director James Sweeney) drops a bombshell on his friends Ryder (James Scully) and Meg (Dana Drori) when he tells them, “I think I’m not gay.” This nervous, hyper-verbose, OCD guy soon meets Rory (Katie Findlay), a budding actress who shares his chattiness, his love of “The Gilmore Girls,” and his desire not to have sex. (Among Todd’s many issues are anxieties about bodily fluids.) Todd and Rory couple up in comfortable domesticity — Todd’s job is house-sitting in fabulous abodes — figuring out how to manage a relationship that almost everyone around them questions. “Straight Up” wrings knowing laughs from gay stereotypes and pop culture references, but Sweeney also infuses his film with poignant moments as well as perceptive insights about love and relationships. The filmmaker employs inventive visuals that frame his characters to comment on the action and their emotions.

Out gay filmmaker Tomer Heymann’s revealing documentary “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” (Oct. 24 at 9:30 p.m., Cinépolis Chelsea) is a profile of the Israeli porn actor. Agassi has an infectious smile and is very engaging in the early scenes, performing erotic stage shows, chatting with his mother, even dressing up in heels and stockings — and little else. But Heymann’s portrait is more than just a showcase for the sexy performer. The film chronicles his troubles on Lucas Entertainment porn productions, his experiences escorting, and his drug use. In fascinating scenes of the porn star alone and preparing himself for his work, “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” probes his emotional life. There are depressing moments, as when he has a horrifying episode on drugs. And we learn that Agassi does not have or want a boyfriend and that interactions with his estranged father can send him on a downward spiral. “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” almost exposes too much about its subject, but it is hard not to appreciate the naked emotions on display.

Mak CK’s emotional documentary “One Taxi Ride” (Oct. 24 at 4:00 p.m. & 6:45 p.m., Cinépolis Chelsea) chronicles the journey of healing for Erick, a 20-something gay Mexican who suffered traumatic sexual abuse as a teenager. Erick says he is “tired of hiding and living a lie” and decides to tell his boyfriend Rodolfo about an incident from his past he has long kept secret. While Rodolfo responds compassionately, issues of truth and trust between the two later emerge. Erick is also able to recount his experiences to his family in a scene that is the highlight of “One Taxi Ride.” The film’s stirring coda shows that many others in Mexican society have been afraid to discuss rape and sexual abuse they suffered. Erick’s courage in telling his story is commendable, and this film offers hope for the bravery and support victims may find in telling their truths.

“Queer Genius” (Oct. 26 at 2 p.m., Cinépolis Chelsea) is director Chet Catherine Pancake’s galvanizing documentary that profiles five queer female artists. The film opens with a segment on the late Barbara Hammer, who talks about her life and career as a visual artist, her archive, and her legacy. Rasheedah Phillips and Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother) run the Black Quantum Futurism collective in North Philadelphia and pair soundscapes with spoken word to explore science fiction and futurism through queer voices. Their discussion of their lives, experiences, and theories makes for compelling interviews. Jibz Cameron, aka Dynasty Handbag, is seen in her closets, talking about her favorite outfits, as well as performing on stage. Rounding out the documentary is a portrait of lesbian poet Eileen Myles, who reads from her work and discusses her life, her sobriety, and her politics. What emerges is an inspiring portrait of provocative and legendary artists-activists.

“Monsters.” (Oct. 26 at 3:45 p.m., Cinépolis Chelsea) is a fantastic slow-burn drama from Romania. Told in three acts that encompass 24 hours, the film opens with the moody Dana (Judith State) returning from a trip, but not wanting to go home. She hires a taxi driver (Alexandru Potocean) for the night and contemplates her next move. The second sequence features her husband, Arthur (Cristian Popa), meeting Alex (Serban Pavlu) for a discreet tryst. Discussing the difficulties of gay relationships, the two men have an uncomfortable and unsatisfying encounter. These two episodes are both shot in a 1:1 square frame that emphasizes the claustrophobia each character feels. The last act has Dana and Arthur together, and the screen opens wide to show the couple together. As they attend a baptism and visit his shrewish grandmother (Dorina Lazar), Dana and Arthur reevaluate their relationship. “Monsters.” is simple but riveting. The long stretches of silence and the body language by the two excellent leads convey the weight of their emotions. Scenes of Dana sitting forlornly in the taxi or Arthur with his back to the camera on a bed after sex are extremely sad, but revealing moments. In his film debut, writer/ director Marius Olteanu has made a searing marital drama.

Writer/ director Ruth Caudeli’s stylish “Second Star on the Right” (Oct. 25 at 9 p.m., Cinépolis Chelsea) is the story of 30-something Emilia (Silvia Varón), a bisexual actress, whose free-spirited nature sets her apart from her more responsible friends —businesswo­man Angélica (Alejandra Lara), Clara (Tatiana Renteria), and Dana (Lorena Castellanos). Emilia’s girlfriend, Mariana (Diana Wiswell), is losing her patience with her endless drunken late-night booty calls. While coming to terms with who she is and what she wants, the impulsive Emilia sleeps with a student, Jorge (Andrés Jiménez), and manages to sabotage Angélica’s bachelorette party. Varón is magnetic and her sex scenes are quite explicit, but Emilia’s self-destructiveness can be difficult to watch at times.

NEWFEST | Oct. 23-29 | Cinépolis Chelsea, 260 W. 23rd St.; SVA Theatre, 333 W. 23rd St.; LGBT Community Center, 208 W. 13th St. | Full schedule, tickets at newfest.org

Posted 12:00 am, October 10, 2019
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