Frameline 2017: ‘God’s Own Country,’ ‘Beach Rats,’ ‘A Date for Mad Mary,’ ‘Becks’ and others that you need to see

Frameline — the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival — overflows with well-made and exciting features to mark its 41st year.

Here are seven standouts — in addition to the 10 previously mentioned — you need to  check out during the festival’s run, June 15-June 25. 

In the days ahead, I’ll be posting short reviews of others, including one that’s my favorite  in the lineup.

Stay tuned! 

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(Courtesy of Frameline) Harris Dickinson (center) makes a name for himself in “Beach Rats.”

“Beach Rats”:  Talented filmmaker Eliza Hittman’s so-real-it-aches Sundance winner is an insightful character study of a hunky, closeted Brooklyn guy and his sexual hookups and hangups. Featuring a breakthrough performance from Harris Dickinson, it fearlessly visits uncomfortable places and spaces. Watch Hittman’s feature-length debut, “It Felt Like Love” too. It’s a knockout. (7 p.m., June 22, Roxie)

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(Courtesy of Frameline) Christopher Schaap (left) directs and stars in “Prom King 2010.”

“Prom King 2010”: A college student tries to find his groove, not to mention a rock-solid relationship, while in New York. But alas sex and love in the big city is never easy. Christopher Schaap stars and directs, and his first feature is a sumptuously photographed find. (June 19, Castro)

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(Courtesy of Frameline) Josh O’Connor (right) and Alec Secareanu star in Francis Lee’s stirring “God’s Own Country”

 

“God’s Own Country”: Francis Lee’s award-winning, feature-length debut makes you feel not only like you’re a part of the rugged Northern England terra firma but that you’re rolling around in earthy passion. His rich drama about two men — a farmer (Josh O’Connor) and a Romanian ranchhand (Alec Secareanu) — and an undeniable attraction is not only wildy sexy but elemental and real. I love this film. (6:30 p.m. June 17, the Castro)

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(Courtesy of Frameline) “A Date for Mad Mary” is a definite find. Lead Seana Kerslake is a revelation.

 

“A Date for Mad Mary”: An anger-prone maid of honor who’s been freshly released from a prison stint makes a mess of things while finding a date in director Darren Thornton’s observant Ireland-set dramedy. This is beautifully played in every way; funny and touching, and best of all honest. Lead Seana Kerslake is a revelation. (June 18,  Victoria; June 24, Piedmont)

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(Courtesy of Frameline) It might follow a formula, but “Handsome Devil” with Nicholas Galitzine is bolstered by strong characters and performances.

“Handsome Devil”: In this formulaic but satisfying coming-out tale, a troubled rugby player (Nicholas Galitzine) rooms with his seemingly polar opposite, the much more demonstrative and picked-upon Conor (Fionn O’Shea, so good). What elevates John Butler’s Ireland-set dramedy from its adherence to a template are the characters and performances, including another standout turn from “Sherlock’s” Andrew Scott as a gay English teacher. (1:30 p.m., June 17, Victora; 9:15 p.m., June 20, the Victoria)

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(Courtesy of Frameline) Lena Hall plays a forlorn character who beelines to the Midwest and strikes up a friendship in “Becks”

“Becks”: After catching her L.A. girlfriend in the cheating act, a forlorn folk singer Becks (Lena Hall) sullenly shrugs her way back to her conservative Midwest roots. Once there she deals with a faith-centered mom (Christine Lahti, stealing every scene she’s in) who struggles to  balance a staunch religious convictions with her desire to support her daughter’s happiness.  Meanwhile, Becks strikes up a close friendship with the wife (Mena Suvari) of her former high school tormentor. Bolstered by a nifty soundtrack and good performances — particularly from Lahti — “Becks” is a treat. ( 6:30 p.m., June 21, the Castro)

To get tickets, visit frameline.org

Frameline Film Festival: Todrick Hall documentary, ‘Freak Show’ are must-sees

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(Courtesy of Frameline) Todrick Hall readies for the show in “Behind the Curtains: Todrick Hall. “

I’ve been covering Frameline for awhile and believe this year’s program is one of its strongest yet.

Below are 10 films I recommend you check out. The opening night selection — “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” — along with the closing-night one — the thought-provoking “After Louie” — are must-sees.

Here are my picks.

I’ll be posting more reviews as we inch closer to the festival’s June 15 launch.

Q&A with Steve James, director of “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” “Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters”

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Randy Myers and director Steve James at the Shattuck in Berkeley.

I gushed a bit. But, hey, filmmaker Steve James more than deserves it. His new documentary is the, compelling, prize-winning “Abacus: Small Enough to Fail.” On Saturday afternoon, I met Steve and moderated a Q&A after the film was shown in Berkeley.

James is one of America’s finest documentary filmmakers. “Hoop Dreams” is a hallmark,  and it remains one of my all-time favorite films.  (It makes for ideal viewing during the NBA finals).

Two of his other documentaries, “Life Itself” — on the life and legacy of  the iconic film critic Roger Ebert — and “The Interrupters” — about committed Chicago been-there-done-that advocates trying their damnedest to prevent violence — particularly moved me. His “Abacus: Small Enough to Fail” did too. It speaks softly yet effectively.

What an honor it was to moderate the Q&A.

 

 

 

Review: Bryan Cranston gives Oscar-caliber performance in complex ‘Wakefield’

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(IFC) Jennifer Garner and Bryan Cranston play an unhappy rich couple in “Wakefield.”

Scared off by the harsh reviews for “Baywatch” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”? Then seek out “Wakefield,” an indie drama that proves why Bryan Cranston is one of today’s best actors.

Here’s my review.

Anyone stuck in a nightmare commute on a daily basis understands the urge to want to run away from it all.

For most of us that’s temporary fantasy, a coping mechanism until the gridlock lightens up and we arrive at our doorstep.

Howard Wakefield sees his day-in/day-out routine leading to a dead-end street. The cruelly self-absorbed Howard (Bryan Cranston, nailing the part from start to finish) is the unlikeable but fascinating anti-hero dominating director/writer Robin Swicord’s intense character study, an incisive adaptation of an  E.L. Doctorow story. Her “Wakefield” gives a complex  portrait of a rich white middle-aged man taking drastic steps to upend a cushy life.  Howard is a miserable and insufferable man. His life overflows with the comforts the American Dream. He chooses to abandon it all: his high-paying job as a New York lawyer, his gorgeous, former dancer of a wife (Jennifer Garner, so good here), his two indifferent teenaged daughters and, even, his tony suburban home.

What triggers ditching a manicured New York life is a power blackout that interrupts his train commute ride home.

Through voice-over narration delivered with a thespian’s understanding of timing and modulation, Cranston taps into this affluent white guy’s unstable mindset as he holes himself up in the cluttered attic of the family’s garage and watches rather than participates in their life.

It’s incredibly creepy and unsettling as Howard grows a beard, pees in water bottles and scavenges and fights for food scraps and clothing that’s stuffed in overburdened garbage containers.  Life in the ‘burbs here is consumed and spit out.

Why is Howard making such a U-turn? He claims he wants to feel a part of something wild and elemental. But, he goes about it in a wretched way, thrusting his family into a crisis and then watching them like Jimmy Stewart as if they were specimens.

Well-placed flashbacks provide more context to who Howard is, particularly how his marriage was the result of a jealousy-fueled competition. One of the most telling exchanges comes in an argument between Howard and his wife Diana. She says to him: “All I want to is to get through the day.”

It’s a telling line that reverberates through the entire film. “Wakefield” provides a shattering portrait of a couple and family that has attained it all yet feels wholly unfulfilled.

While its message — money and privilege won’t buy happiness and fosters guilt — isn’t new, the execution by “The Jane Austen Book Club” filmmaker Swicord mostly is as she confines us into the interior musings of a man unhinged. Unfortunately, the ending is a letdown, and it’s a crucial — and frustrating — misstep given the buildup.   

Regardless, Cranston’s performance is masterful, a high mark in the “Breaking Bad” star’s brilliant career. Oscar voter must be reminded about it near year’s end.

 

 

WAKEFIELD

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo

Director and writer: Robin Swicord

Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Rating: R (for some sexual material and language)

Stars: 3 out of 4 stars

Where: Opens May 26 at the Shattuck in Berkeley, the Embarcadero in SF and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center

Review: Ghost sharks matter in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’

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“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES”..The villainous Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) pursues Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) as he searches for the trident used by Poseidon..Pictured L-R: Geoffrey Rush (Barbossa) and Johnny Depp (Captain Jack Sparrow)..Ph: Peter Mountain..© Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Bless you, ghost sharks.

Those demonic CGI creations bring urgently needed bite to “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” the fifth entry in a long-winded voyage that has been slowly  keeling over ever since we met swashbuckling scalawag Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp in his most famous role) in 2003. Too bad the spectacularly animated critters  — so weird and nasty — arrive late to the party and then retreat so quickly.

The rest of “Dead Men” could have benefitted from their gonzo style.

“Pirates” charts a familiar course even as it unites the search for Poseidon’s Trident with the deadly deeds of a band of dead pirate haters whose captain has a vendetta against the drunken Sparrow

Intermittently, it recalls the rousing spirit of the first “Pirates,”  but fails to do anything bold or unexpected. In fact, for 30 minutes after an eventful prologue, the film goes flat. It later rights itself enough as the pirate haters go beserk.

“Dead Men” mostly sticks to the tried and tired during what amounts to an unfunny first part cluttered with routine bank-robbing antics and screwball getaways. It all seems better suited for a reboot of the studio’s “The Apple Dumpling Gang.”

The plot is as tangled as sea kelp, too intent on further lengthening out a mythology than the story can handle. It all but positions itself for a sequel.

Part of the mayhem occurs when Sparrow trades his compass for a bottle of booze, unwittingly placing a big target on his back.  A dead crew of pirate exterminators commandeered by Captain Salazar (a game Javier Bardem and one of the film’s high notes) go after him. Salazar is hellbent on payback over a less-than-friendly first encounter (told effectively in flashback) with a younger Sparrow.

Meanwhile, Sparrow’s thorn-in-his-side Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his monkey join in on the search of Poseidon’s Trident, a treasure that could stop these dead sailors and help in other ways I’m just not going to reveal.

Who initiates all this talk about Poseidon and the Trident? The hunky Henry Turner  (Brenton Thwaites more than fulfilling his hunk duties) who happens to be the son of  cursed “Pirates” lovers Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) along with a brainiac astronomer type Carina (Kaya Scodelario, in a lively performance) who’s been branded a witch.

Along the way, Paul McCartney pops in as a Sparrow relative and Depp regains his unsteady comedic footing after being handed some terrible lines that sound cribbed from the last four installments. His character is too predictable, and Sparrow shouldn’t be predictable. That changes a bit in the second half as the humor starts to gel.

Incoming directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki”) do whatever they can with what they’ve been given, but the reality is the screenplay from Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio is rote and there’s not that much here.

There are a few clever surprises along the way and a showdown that’s an exciting and impressive, from a special effects angle.

But that’s not enough to prop up the sails of this franchise, even if a tasty morsel at the end of the film’s credits intrigues. The next “Pirates” needs to give “Sparrow” something more interesting to do, a  more risk-taking development that will force Depp to stretch and the story to steer toward a more original direction. 

But whatever they do, let’s hope they keep those killer ghost sharks and Bardem too.

 

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario

Running Time: 2:33

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of adventure violence and suggestive comments)

Stars: 2.5 out of 4

What to stream on Netflix? The drama ‘Loev’ and the comedy ‘Mindhorn’

David Michod’s eagerly awaited “War Machine” with Brad Pitt finally drops May 26 on Netflix. I have high hopes for it. After all, the talented Mr. Michod directed one of my all-time favorites, the grim Australian crime family saga “Animal Kingdom.” What a coup for the streaming service to release “War Machine.”

In the meantime, there are more than enough Netflix movies to keep us occupied. Here are reviews of three recent films available for streaming.

Shiv Pandit and Dhruv Ganesh in LOEV
Shiv Pandit and Dhruv Ganesh star in “Loev.”

“LOEV”: It’s somewhat of a miracle that this poignant, hard-hitting drama about a tumultuous, intimate weekend in which two reunited friends spend together in the countryside actually got made. Stealthily shot in India where homophobia is prevalent and the laws reflect it, writer/director Sudhanshu Saria’s film slowly peels back the layers of the uneasy relationship between Sahil (Shiv Pandit), a musician living in Mumbai, and Jai (Dhruv Ganesh), a successful Wall Street businessman. It’s a powerful indie film that deserves to be seen everywhere. Be ready though: It’s not always an easy watch. (3 out of 4 stars)

“MINDHORN”: If you’re in the mood for something silly yet sly, add this clueless detective story to your queue. Julian Barratt, who cowrote the script, is hilarious as Richard Thorncroft, a gone-to-seed ‘80s star who made a name for himself as kooky TV detective Mindhorn. When a real-life serial killer’s actions draw Richard into the fray of an investigation, Thorncroft is all too happy to return to the spotlight. The ensuing comedy results in being more chuckle-worthy than of the  laugh-till-it-hurts variety, but the cameos — especially Kenneth Branagh — and supporting players — in particular Steve Coogan as Thorncroft’s still-successful costar and Simon Farnaby as Richard’s ex-girlfriend and stunt stand-in, who has a serious aversion to clothing — pep up the British farce. (3 out of 4 stars)

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(Netflix) Jason Segel goes afterlife head-tripping  in “The Discovery”

“THE DISCOVERY”: With its intriguing premise, top-notch cast (Jason Segel, Robert Redford, Rooney Mara) and talented filmmaker Charlie (“The One I Love”)  McDowell, this cerebral afterlife thriller should have been great. Instead, it’s OK. Noted researcher Thomas Harbor (Redford) offers verifiable evidence there is a better tomorrow when we die. His discovery triggers numerous suicides since everyone’s unhappy in the here and now. That provocative set up gets somewhat squandered as the tale focuses on Harbor’s son (Segel) who joins his dad at his latest site for exploration — a mammoth Gothic-looking estate — where he then becomes even closer to a mysterious woman (Mara) with a haunted past. It’s a slow go, with a reveal at the end that doesn’t have the punch it should.  (2 out of 4 stars)

 

Netflix: Watch ‘Handsome,’ ‘Win It All,’ ‘In the Shadow of Iris’

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(Netflix) Natasha Lyonne and Jeff Garlin make a winning crime fighting team in “Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie.”

Don’t know what to watch on Netflix tonight? Here are three original films from the streaming service that are worth a look:

“Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie”: In this entirely agreeable and thoroughly undemanding comic venture from talented star/writer/director Jeff Garlin, a dimwitted murderer  — a cheesy actor type (Steven Weber) in a pool — fesses up to his grisly crime in the opening moments. That jarring reveal doesn’t diminish the pleasure of watching the ensuing blunder-prone investigation, which pairs lonely-heart Garlin with a horny partner (Natasha Lyonne, hilarious), as they ask inappropriate questions of “persons of interest.” Many of the costars — Lyonne, Weber and Amy Sedaris as Garlin’s wackadoodle boss — have their moments, but it’s the endearing, basset-hound-like Garlin who wins you over as lonely detective Gene Handsome. Here’s hoping we meet with him again on another silly investigation. (3 out of 4 stars)

“In the Shadow of Iris”: Back in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the sorta-kinky thriller whipped audiences — and the box office–  into a frenzy. But the lurid thriller soon wore out its welcome. This Netflix original from France pays satisfying homage to those teasing, steamy tales about duplicitous and impossibly beautiful people doing very bad things to each other. In this sexily shot back-stabber, a reported abduction thrusts a banker (Jalil Lespert) into a cat-and-mouse game with an ex-con mechanic (Romain Duris) and a beautiful woman (Charlotte Le Bon). U-turns and comeuppances ensue as the handsome drama set in Paris pushes us and its characters over to the dark side. Laspert directs with an understanding of the genre, and how to do right by it. (3 out of 4 stars)

“Win It All”: Eddie (Jake Johnson), a gambling addict, gets lured back to the tables when a bag stuffed with questionable cash lands in his safekeeping. But can he temper his habit so he can finally have an honest relationship with a hardworking nurse and single mom? Both Johnson — who co-wrote — and director and co-writer Joe Swanberg make us root for this anti-hero. All the performances hit the right notes, including from Keegan-Michael Key, as does the human and compassionate drama itself. What a find. (3 stars out of 4 stars)