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Go to Heel 

A look at some of the features at the 2016 Damn These Heels Film Festival.

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It's been a tough year for the Utah Film Center, after the fire that destroyed its offices, but the organization returns from a June hiatus with the annual Damn! These Heels LGBT-themed film festival. Here's a look at several of the features that will be screened July 15-17 at the Rose Wagner Center (138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City, 801-355-2787, UtahFilmCenter.org/DTH2016). Additional capsule reviews at CityWeekly.net.


A small-town tomboy with plans for the military (Lola Kirke) begins questioning her life decisions when she meets a married-with-kids free spirit (Breeda Wool) shortly before her date of enlistment. Director/co-writer Deb Shoval adapted her feature debut from an earlier short (also starring Wool), and the narrative doesn't always feel like it quite managed the leap, struggling occasionally to fill even the relatively brief running time. Still, meandering aside, the lead performers are both fantastic (and generate some real heat together during the early scenes), and are bolstered by a supporting cast that fits seamlessly into the blue-collar Pennsylvania backdrop. A special shout-out to Bill Sage, who underplays beautifully as a husband who may not be quite as oblivious as initially advertised. Capturing rural American life without condescending or beautification is no small feat. (AW)
July 16, 7:15 p.m.


Closet Monster
A teen obsessed with horror makeup (Connor Jessup) finds himself undergoing one heck of an identity crisis, with memories of long-buried childhood traumas and concerns about his future lurching into his everyday life. What's more, his growing interest in a handsome co-worker threatens to finally dynamite the rickety connection between him and his alpha-male father (Aaron Abrams). The fact that Isabella Rossellini voices an advice-giving hamster is probably reason enough to recommend this, but writer/director Stephen Dunn's witty, sincere feature debut has right notes to spare, effortlessly transitioning between pointed fantasy and harsh reality. A surreal coming-of-age story that manages to be quirky without ever drifting into twee affectation—yes, that somehow even includes the aforementioned hamster—and generous enough to grant complex personality facets to the smaller supporting roles. Abrams, pulling a 180 from his nebbishy character on the Hannibal series, is particularly terrific, with elements of affection and pride tinging his most boorish moments. All this, plus a few dashes of alarming Cronenbergian body horror, to boot. (AW)
July 16, 9:15 p.m.


From Afar
Winner of the Golden Lion at this past year's Venice Film Festival, From Afar is a sparse, laconic contemplation of the relationship between a middle-aged designer of dental prosthetics and a barely-out-of-his-teens quasi-criminal who initially bristles at the older man's attention but gradually comes to regard him as a friend and, eventually, lover. Alfredo Castro and Luis Silva compel in the two lead roles, often without the ability to lean on written text to convey dramatic conflict. Writer-director Lorenzo Vigas is in no rush whatsoever, nor does he feel any apparent need to overexplain, or explain at all. Frequently, action takes place outside the frame, and the film's protagonist is enigmatic to the point of being spectral. Definitely not a film for the short of attention span, and feels more like a filmic novella than a feature, but From Afar's vivid evocation of its Caracas, Venezuela, setting and avoidance of gay stereotypes make it an intriguing watch. (DB)
July 17, 3:15 p.m.


Hunky Dory
For a considerable amount of its running time—and for far too much of its first half—Hunky Dory is content to substitute an affected wan apathy for actual story or characters. Director Marc Edward Johnson and lead actor Tomas Pais' script is content for the most part to chronicle would-be glam rocker/actual cabaret drag performer Sidney's addled wanderings through various relationships while keeping half an eye on his son George, unceremoniously dumped by his mother on Sidney's doorstep. About midway through—once Sidney begins to face reality and responsibility with a more realistic eye—the film begins to pick up, and lands the ending in a satisfactorily smooth manner. And so Hunky Dory is a worthwhile watch, with a terrific, seamlessly naturalistic performance by Edouard Holdener as George, and a well-curated soundtrack. Its matter-of-fact sexual modernity is a pleasing touch, and ultimately a panacea that offsets its rough spots as technical cinema. (DB)
July 17, 1 p.m.


More than 25 years after Paris Is Burning introduced documentary audiences to New York's underground LGBT "balls," Jordenö Sara re-visits the world of vogueing and "house" competitions. And unfair though it might be to compare this movie to that ground-breaking work, it's hard not to wish for more of a sense of discovery. The individual character studies are often compelling and heartbreaking—Sara makes a powerful filmmaking choice by often holding sustained takes on faces as we hear their stories—capturing black and Latino kids trying to survive in a world where homelessness, sex work, family rejection and HIV conspire to crush their spirits. But with a relatively small amount of time spent on the vitality of the ball performances themselves, Kiki bounces between characters in a way that too rarely pulls them together into a narrative, and makes the stories more about individuals than about the sometimes life-saving relationships between them. There's important material here in the recognition that social changes like marriage equality don't instantly trickle down to better lives for all marginalized people; there's just a missing piece that doesn't quite capture how these houses become a home. (SR)
July 16, 7 p.m.


Two longtime friends—one an aspiring music producer (Dhruv Ganesh) based in Mumbai, the other a successful New York businessman (Shiv Pandet)—take a road trip to the beautiful Western Ghats of India. As they goof off and take in the sights, their long-repressed feelings and resentments begin roaring back. The story behind writer/director Sudhanshu Saria's character piece would most likely make a good movie in itself; the production was largely filmed in secret, as homosexuality is still considered a crime in India. To the credit of the filmmaker, though, little of that tension is evident on the screen, where the chemistry between the two leads is so natural and effortlessly lived-in that it feels doubly upsetting when the mood eventually darkens. Even at its most potentially melodramatic, however, things are saved from ever getting too heavy by the rapport between the actors, and the sporadic appearance of a scene-stealing Siddharth Menon, who is somehow simultaneously hilarious and annoying as a flighty boyfriend. This charming, insightful film is dedicated to Ganesh, who passed away shortly after filming. (AW)
July 16, 9:30 p.m.


Me, Myself & Her
As solid as the central idea is in co-writer/director Maria Sole Tognazzi's drama, it's hard not to feel like it's a short story stretched to the length of a feature. In Rome, previously married architect Federica (Margherita Buy) and retired actress Marina (Sabrina Ferilli) have been living together for five years, yet Federica still struggles to be fully open about the nature of their relationship—a dynamic which culminates in an affair with a man she once knew years earlier. There's a refreshing forthrightness here about the fluidity of attraction; Tognazzi never suggests that Federica is trying to "convince herself" that she's not really gay, and Buy plays the role with genuine confusion. Yet despite the number of characters and complications introduced into this relationship, it starts to feel that the narrative is running in circles to find new obstacles. There might be an honest messiness to the way this love affair struggles and backtracks, and a lightness to the tone that avoids tragic angst, but after a while, it just starts to feel like postponing the inevitable. (SR)
July 16, noon


Here's a perfectly watchable documentary that serves no apparent purpose other than to make media celebs out of its gay Millennial Palestinian subjects. Tidily edited into arcs like an MTV reality series, the film follows three Arab friends in Tel Aviv—sassy Muslim party boy Khader, Palestinian activist Fadi and closeted ex-Christian Naeem—as they, uh, hang around. (OK, they make a couple of LGBT-themed music videos to "raise awareness," or something.) Director Jake Witzenfeld captures choice emotional moments—like Naeem standing up to his parents and Khader being overwhelmed by Fadi's family's supportiveness—and the guys' personal dramas can be entertaining. But the fascinating complexities of being a gay Arab in Israel are only superficially addressed, and some sequences feel contrived, while others are clichéd. Moreover, the film never answers the basic question: Why are we following these specific people at this particular time? The film doesn't seem to realize that question even matters. When there's a glut of LGBT stories (a good problem to have, to be sure), we have to be selective about which ones we give our time to. (EDS)
July 16, 12:15 p.m.


Out Run
As the march for LGBT rights continues worldwide, documentaries from foreign lands are trickling in like newsreels from the battlefront. Out Run brings the latest word from the Philippines, and while it's a competent summary of the struggle to get LGBT representation in the Philippine legislature, its impact is hindered by the enemy of all documentarians: uncooperative facts. Directors S. Leo Chiang and Johnny Symons follow Ladlad, an LGBT political party that, in 2013, put up three candidates for Congress, including a transgender woman. Besides the obvious challenges in a strongly Catholic country, Ladlad has opposition from a homophobic preacher-turned-politician who thinks gays have enough rights as it is, and from LGBTs who think Ladlad should be campaigning not just for an anti-discrimination bill but for marriage equality. The colorful characters, the smug villain, the multi-pronged conflict—the raw materials are there—but the election results deflate the story, forcing an unsatisfying finish. The film would be better if the directors had waited for real life to provide a better ending. As it stands, it's more like a work in progress. (EDS)
July 17, 3 p.m.


Set the Thames on Fire
Well, I suppose this is one way to go about chronicling the apocalypse. Director Ben Charles Edwards and writer Al Joshua set their singularly weird story in a future London where the rise of the Thames has inundated much of the city, focusing on two somewhat accidental friends: a piano player named Art (Michael Winder) and an escaped mental patient named Sal (Max Bennett). Their somewhat episodic misadventures introduce them to several odd characters—a brutal city boss called the Impresario (Gerard Mc Dermott); a philosophical street magician (David Hoyle)—along their seemingly impossible quest to move to Egypt, and there's no question that Edwards and Joshua have a unique backdrop for their tale filled with convincingly decrepit set designs. Unique and weird, unfortunately, don't always add up to dramatically compelling, especially when it seems mostly like an allegorical fairy tale, and not one intended to create fully realized characters. Memorably strange though many of these individual encounters may be, the movie ends up saying little that's truly insightful about love, or survival, or friendship, or much of anything else. (SR)
July 15, 10:30 p.m.


The Slippers
Director Morgan White takes a jumbled but consistently fascinating look at the most celebrated piece of Hollywood movie memorabilia in history: Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Or, more to the point, pieces (plural) of movie memorabilia, as White follows the trail of ownership of several different pairs of shoes used in the making of the movie, all of them discovered—and rescued—during the proposed sell-off of MGM's assets in 1970 by costumer and film buff Kent Warner. It's hard to get a handle on White's organizational concept, as he bounces around both in time and from one pair to another, to the point where it's sometimes hard to know which pair we're talking about at any given time. But the individual stories are so intriguing—Theft! Double-crosses! Debbie Reynolds!—and the characters so distinctive that it's still hard to resist. And The Slippers ends up being about more than the appeal of this particular item, ultimately exploring the rise of the entire collectibles market, and the way that our emotional attachment to the movies we love compels us at times to want a piece of them. (SR)
July 17, 12:30 p.m.


Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
The title seems intended to evoke another well-documented case of a potentially wrongful conviction—that of the "West Memphis Three"—and the comparisons are certainly noteworthy. Deborah S. Esquenazi here tracks the story of four Texas women—Liz Ramirez, Anna Vasquez, Cassie Rivera and Kristine Mayhugh—who were accused in 1994 of sexually assaulting Ramirez's young nieces. Where hysteria over devil worship framed the "West Memphis Three" case, it's the fact that the four women were gay that appears to have tipped the scales of justice here, and Esquenazi diligently tracks the criminal trials and attempts by the Innocence Project of Texas to re-open their case. But she's much more interested in the consequences to these women as people, spending time addressing what they've lost during their incarceration, and Vasquez's adjustment to freedom after she's paroled. The result hits some effective emotional targets, even as it drifts from subject to subject, and works better at inspiring compassion for these women than outrage at the prejudice—and the specific people—responsible for their plight. (SR)
July 15, 8 p.m.


Strike A Pose
Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan catch up 25 years later with the six surviving male dancers who were part of Madonna's 1990 "Blond Ambition" tour and subsequent Truth or Dare documentary—and the result is a documentary that's intriguingly complex at exploring its impact on their lives. The filmmakers lay out the background of how Madonna pulled many of them from New York's underground gay dance culture, and the unique family that formed as part of that tour. But it's also a story of young men who weren't always ready for what that high-profile experience would bring them, from "outing" them to the public to leading them into substance abuse. There's an inevitably fragmented nature to the story as each subject only gets a limited amount of time, and it's hard not to wish there was more time for each story. But as Strike a Pose builds to a reunion dinner, there's a genuinely emotional anchor as these men realize, despite their individual struggles over the subsequent decades, they changed the lives of many other gay youth who watched them, and changed one another's lives as well. (SR)
July 17, 7:30 p.m.


Uncle Howard
Director Aaron Brookner is clearly passionate about re-discovering the legacy of his uncle, filmmaker Howard Brookner, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1989 at the age of 34. And that passion may be the one thing interfering in this fascinating portrait of a career cut short. Beginning with an attempt to recover Howard's archive of materials related to his 1983 documentary about William Burroughs, Uncle Howard explores its subjects other projects—the documentary Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, and the Madonna/Matt Dillon feature Bloodhounds of Broadway—while also offering a chronicle of New York in the 1980s, as the specter of AIDS came to hang over the lives of so many artists. The archival footage alone is terrific, capturing Howard's work with future directors Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo as part of his crew, and wonderful bits like Burroughs reciting "Howl" while Alan Ginsburg stands next to him correcting Burroughs' mistakes. Yet while it's understandable that Aaron Brookner wants to look at Howard not just as an artist, but as a person, the snippets from family members and Aaron's own intrusions as a character feel like burying the lead. It's still worth realizing that, as much as Aaron lost a beloved family member, we all lost years of work from a generation of gifted artists. (SR)
July 16, 2:30 p.m.


Women He's Undressed
The title—taken from Oscar-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly's long-unpublished memoir—is more ironic than naughty, considering it's about a gay man creating some of the most iconic dresses of vintage Hollywood. Director Gillian Anderson tracks Kelly's path from Australia to 1920s New York to 1930s Hollywood, using an effective mix of talking-head observations by colleagues and historians, and dramatizations of Kelly's own words (via actor Darren Gilshenan). It is in part a reflection on being openly gay at a time when even the movie industry was deeply closeted, juxtaposing Kelly's experience with that of his longtime friend and one-time lover Cary Grant, who had to keep up heterosexual playboy appearances. But more than that it's a celebration of Kelly's art, providing wonderful insight into his ability to work wonders with the unique bodies of the actresses he designed for, and how his designs worked with the mood not just of individual characters, but individual scenes, from Busby Berkeley musicals to Some Like It Hot. While only sporadically insightful as character study, it's more than effective at showing what Kelly contributed to the glamour of old Hollywood. (SR)
July 16, 10 a.m.

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