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Your weekend guide to the 18th Annual Reel Affirmations Film Festival, by Amanda Hess and Tricia Olszewski.
This weekend: Catch The Secrets, Anyone and Everyone, and In Sickness and in Health. Skip The Sensei. And show up late for the Zombie Double Feature. Read the Washington City Paper‘s full Reel Affirmations coverage here.
FRIDAY, OCT. 17
The Sensei, directed by Diana Lee Inosanto 5 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre. Free.
Diana Lee Inosanto’s GLBT kung-fu flick may be the first of its kind (To Wong Fu… notwithstanding), but The Sensei doesn’t shy from treading some familiar ground—namely, the after-school special. The film begins with young gay martial-arts master McClain (Michael O’Laskey II) rescuing a black pastor and his sister from a carjacking at the hands of two neo-Nazi-type assailants. If the opening doesn’t provide the right clunky stereotype busting for your taste, The Sensei also traces the story of McClain’s martial-arts teacher—the beautiful Karen O’Neil (Inosanto), a woman who proves impressively melodramatic in the face of systemic discrimination. Set in small-town Colorado at the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic (early on, the camera pans to a newspaper scare headline telling you as much), The Sensei locates an intriguing intersection of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but Inosanto’s debut script (she’s spent most of her film career as a stuntperson) feeds on sweeping generalizations and doesn’t bother to fortify them with any realistic emotional base. The Sensei would have done better to bust a few genre conventions along with its stereotypes. —AH
Choose Connor, directed by Luke Eberl. 7 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre. $10.
Luke Eberl’s political-corruption drama, Choose Connor, employs its share of mavericks: Chief among them are Lawrence Connor, the boy-loving, party-drugging senatorial candidate, and Caleb, his unschooled foster kid who crafts gay Magic Eye collages in Connor’s image. Both turn their rogue eyes upon Owen, the precocious middle-school idealist (some call him “nerd”). When Connor takes fresh-faced Owen under his skeevy wing in the last leg of the campaign season, Owen’s yes-we-can idealism threatens to buckle under the Connor campaign’s just-say-no pressures. With all the kiddie-themed heebie-jeebies packed into the script (see: anonymously-mailed taped confessions, weird puppeteers), Choose Connor could have made for a surreal peek into a particularly fucked political machine. But Eberl, like Connor, errs in his characterization of the young protagonist: While Connor and Caleb stretch credulity with their instability, Owen is far too levelheaded in the face of political (and homosexual) seduction to pass as a real 15-year-old boy. —AH
—- SATURDAY, OCT. 18 The Birthday, directed by Negin Kianfar and Daisy Mohr 11 a.m. at Goethe-Institut. $10.“Iran is regarded as a paradise for transsexual patients,” a doctor says in Negin Kianfar and Daisy Mohr’s The Birthday. It’s a startling statement, if only partially true: The government issues a new birth certificate to anyone who undergoes a sex change much more quickly than other countries—-and without a telling asterisk. More shocking is that transsexuality is not expressly forbidden by the Koran and therefore considered A-OK in the Muslim world, even though homosexuality is still taboo. Of course, this documentary proves that the letter of the law is a different beast than the spirit of it as the directors follow three pre-op transgenders, two in a relationship with each other and the third, Mustafa/Mahtab, dating a man as she takes steps toward surgery. (“With God’s help,” the aforementioned doctor tells Mahtab, “you’ll be a beautiful, tall girl.”) Though God and certain medical professionals may be on their side, the rest of society isn’t always as accepting, especially when it’s a man becoming a woman: Mahtab’s mother, while open-minded, points out that she’s safer and has more rights as a man, while her father struggles to be loving but admits that he’s ashamed. The documentary, even at a mere 63 minutes, suffers from padding—-there’s lots of dancing, plus a seemingly staged scene in which the camera’s trained on Mahtab until tears flow—-when additional commentary from the subjects’ family and friends would have added depth. Still, the broad strokes of the story are compelling. TO Anyone and Everyone, directed by Susan Polis Schutz. 12:30 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre. $10.
When Robert Kerry Graves finally made the decision to tell his Mormon parents that he was homosexual, he’d already exhausted plenty of energy trying not to be what his religion said was pretty much the worse thing someone could be. So even if their response was bad, Graves said, he knew he wasn’t going to put himself through more counseling or prayers: “I’m gay. This is the way it is,” he says in Anyone and Everyone, a documentary about how families react when a child comes out of the closet. It’s a cheerable moment—-and there are several more still to come in Susan Polis Schutz’s deeply moving film. Parents of all ethnicities and faiths are profiled, including an Asian mother who thought her academic daughter was merely “reading too much” and an Oklahoma father who had spent most of his son’s life saying gay people were “abominations” in the eyes of God. And though not all of them move past their prejudice, many of them do—-and some so quickly after hearing their son’s or daughter’s news that your heart soars. Graves’ parents in particular are inspirations, immediately dismissing their church’s teaching and becoming advocates in the gay community. Graves’ mother reasons that religious beliefs and homosexuality can’t be mutually exclusive: “People are so hung up on the sex, they forget about the love.” -TO Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, directed by Jeffry Schwartz 9 p.m. at Goethe-Institut. $10.
Nowadays, anybody can be a porn star: All you’ve got to do is bag a D-list celebrity, fire up the cell-phone camera, and watch the blog hits roll in. Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon takes us back to the halcyon days of pornography, when the flicks had plots, mainstreamers were prudes, and getting sex on the screen was more difficult. Schwartz’s documentary tells the story of Jack Stillman, a closeted aspiring actor who in the ’70s shed his inhibitions—and his daddy issues—to become “Jack Wrangler,” Hollywood’s biggest gay porn star. Wrangler was a charismatic, Robert Redford–if–you–squint leading man, known as much for his macho persona as he was his sizable member (which Stillman once had set in plaster to reproduce as marketable dildos). The documentary shines when acting as a Wrangler highlight reel, but sometimes lingers too long on the real-life Stillman, whose inferiority complex to his onscreen persona seems, at times, justified. But stay tuned for the doc’s mid-feature turn—when Stillman turns straight, things really heat up.
“Zombie Double Feature”: Otto, or Up With Dead People, directed by Bruce LaBruce; Zombie Prom, directed by Vince Marcello; Brian the Gnome Slayer (short), directed by Brian Tosko Bello. 11:30 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre. $10.
Considering that zombies have recently been tweaked with viruses and speed, another spin on the classic ghoul was perhaps inevitable. So in Bruce LaBruce’s Otto, or Up With Dead People, we get the Emo Undead. How Otto (Jay Crisfar), with his hoodie, loose tie, mussed bangs, and disaffected stare, is different from a Fall Out Boy fan-club member isn’t immediately clear, which is actually part of the plot: As Otto stumbles around Berlin and even answers a casting call to play a zombie in a pretentious pseudo-intellectual film, the director and crew just think he’s got some bad grooming habits and a screw loose. Otto’s story, however, isn’t really the focus of this mess—-nothing is, except maybe for LaBruce’s fondness for tiresome philosophizing, “edgy,” often discordant music, and hyperstylization, such as a character who’s always filmed as if she’s in a silent movie. (Interesting idea, but doesn’t quite work.) Also: In the movie-within-a-movie, a zombie fucks a corpse’s guts. In close up, wang and all. Otto is completely incoherent—-except for the thrusting, that’s pretty clear—-and so is Brian the Gnome Slayer, the opening short in this double bill, though at least it has enough DIY goofiness (death by toast, Miss Piggy as a Chucky-like killer) to never take itself seriously. In another league is Zombie Prom, a John Waters–esque musical starring RuPaul that boasts witty dialogue, catchy songs, and comic-strip panels punctuating the action. It’s more slick than original, but it beats its godawful companions rotted-hands down. -TO
—- SUNDAY, OCT. 19
11 a.m. at the Lincoln Theatre: In Sickness and in Health, directed by Pilar Prassas. Once upon a time, it was against the law for people of different races to marry. Legislators woke up to the fact that this long-accepted convention violated civil rights, and steps were taken to change—-gasp!—-that alleged bedrock of American society, marriage. How is that discrimination different than the one now being fought by same-sex couples, who are gradually being granted “civil unions” by state lawmakers but are still largely being told that no way, no how will those be considered marriages, lest the institution be tainted? That’s one minor but incisively eye-opening argument in Pilar Prassas’ In Sickness and in Health, a documentary that follows a New Jersey lawsuit filed by seven homosexual couples for the right to marry their partners. The focus of this fight is Marilyn Maneely, who left her husband and five grown children when she met and fell in love with Diane Marini. The new couple’s happiness was cut short, though, when Marilyn was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and quickly deteriorated. While New Jersey law allowed them to “DP,” or register as domestic partners to obtain some legal rights, Marini was still denied the full benefits—-and respect—-that a recognized marriage would bring. The stories of other couples profiled are not as tragic but are no less moving, and Prassas’ chronicle of their drawn-out case and its confusing, anticlimatic rulings captures the frustration of their fight. -TO The Secrets, directed by Avi Neshar. 6:30 p.m. at the Sixth & I Synagogue. $10.
Beneath the Jewish orthodox trappings of The Secrets is a standard romantic plot: In this Israeli film, an unlikely schoolyard romance blooms between the straight-laced, conservative student and the plucky, chain-smoking rebel. This time, though, the lovebirds are both girls, and the schoolyard is a female seminary in the Jewish holy city of Safed. Naomi (Ania Bukstein) escapes to seminary to fend off an imminent wedding and mourn her mother’s death; Michelle (Michal Shtamler) is sentenced there for bad behavior by her French parents. After an initial clash of personalities—Michelle smokes, Naomi has asthma; Naomi is studious, Michelle engineers whimsical soup-kitchen water fights—the girls reluctantly team up to help a dying French woman who begs them to help her find God (Fanny Ardant). The screenwriter, actress-comedian Hadar Galron, manages to inject a delicate cleverness into both the orthodox Jewish culture it critiques and the romantic arc it mimics—and in two languages, no less. French film veteran Ardant gets top-billing in this French and Hebrew film, but her star is eclipsed this time by the pair of Israeli ingénues, Bukstein and Shtamler. —AH
—- MONDAY, OCT. 20
Lokas, directed by Gonzalo Justiniano. 7 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre. $10.
In a film centered on a Chilean discoteca filled with flamboyant gay men, Lokas’ most pervasive stereotype is its Mexican protagonist’s machismo. Widower Charly (Rodrigo Bastidas) dreams about coquettish, moaning women, cribs girls’ phone numbers on his son’s homework, and calls gay guys “faggots.” But Charly’s red sports car, while macho, is less than legal. Following a stint in jail, Charly is kicked out of his mom’s Mexican home and sent to the doghouse—here, Chile. Once down south, Charly and 9-year-old son Pedro (Raimundo Bastidas, Rodrigo’s real-life kid) are reacquainted with Charly’s estranged papa—shockingly, now a homosexual theater director living Birdcage-style with partner Flavio. In a reversal from La Cage aux Folles, this family sexual-orientation adventure forces son to fake gay to fit in with father—implausibly, the only Chilean job Charly can hold down is one in the film’s titular gay club. But though Lokas turns its gay satire on Latin masculinity this go around, the jokes remain the same. If Mexican machismo really is 10 years behind the times, it can still rent The Birdcage on VHS. —AH