Cinema By Six

TLA presents a sex-filled sextet at the Quad.

By: GARY M. KRAMER

TLA RELEASING PRESENTS

Six films by various directors

TLA Releasing

Opens Aug. 8

Quad Cinema

Boasting the tagline “We Know You Like to Watch,” TLA Releasing presents six international films that showcase gay male sexuality. The ambitious program is a mixed bag, but there are some worthwhile titles.

One highlight in this sex-filled sextet is Damion Dietz's semi-autobiographical “Dog Tags.” (Full disclosure: Dietz endorsed my book “Independent Queer Cinema” back in 2006). This engrossing story chronicles the relationship that forms between Nate (Paul Preiss), a marine about to go off to training, and Andy (Bart Fletcher), a wayward youth. Dietz tackles heady issues of father/son relationships, gay male sexuality, the class divide, and courage versus cowardice with noticeable aplomb.

Nate and Andy have one of gay cinema's best “meet cutes” – they are both unknowingly asked to participate in a nude gay webcam sex film. Escaping from the pornographer, the guys develop an intense friendship in which Nate seeks Andy's help to find the father he never knew. Meanwhile, Andy sees Nate as a way to get over his ex-boyfriend, who was also a marine.

Dietz's characters are crafted to represent wanderlust and destiny and there are symbolic white screens in the film to reinforce the director's “clean slate” metaphor, but these sometimes-obvious metaphoric devices are never distracting, though a möbius-strip narrative is initially confusing. What emerges is a poignant, tender, and emotionally charged portrait of Nate – a young man who has never been able to think for himself – seizing the day and coming to terms with his life and desires. In contrast, Andy is a guy who has let everything go, and must face up to his responsibilities.

If the film has an Achilles' heel, it is that the romantic connection between the guys seems abrupt, even implausible when they finally kiss and fuck. Still, the power of their union resonates.

Another fabulous film in this six-pack is the documentary “Wrangler: An Anatomy of an Icon” about the porn star Jack Wrangler, born Jack Stillman. Throughout his career, Wrangler was an openly gay butch guy with a relaxed and healthy attitude about sex and his sexuality. Through interviews with the actor and deftly edited photos and film clips, the first gay adult star to “brand himself” is undressed and cleverly deconstructed.

Wrangler explains how he became aware of images of masculinity – he admits to stealing physique magazines – and how he worked at creating his own likable image, which he successfully maintained while working in straight adult films. But this enlightening film loses steam after an hour, when it segues into the actor's unconventional relationship with cabaret star Margaret Whiting. It is not that the relationship is in and of itself problematic, but rather that this part of Wrangler's story essentially boils down to yet another ex-porn star trying to live down his past. Any insights into the man are lost, and director Jeffrey Schwarz's odd effort to make the latter part of Wrangler's life seem more shocking and sensational than what he did on screen diminishes the actor's lifetime achievements.

A less successful film in the series is the affable “3-Day Weekend” from writer/director Rob Williams. This romantic drama assembles eight gay men in a cabin “in the middle of nowhere” for three days. The characters are all defined by who – and in one particular case, what – they do. As the octet of guys discuss queer cinema, open relationships, gay marriage, and aging, they couple up and fuck. “3-Day Weekend” is a passable time-filler. The drama is limited to one minor and one major outburst, and the mushy romantic talk is only mildly cringe-inducing.

Even if the sex scenes are mostly stripped of any real eroticism, there is plenty of nudity. The film's biggest drawback is not the timid script – Williams has his heart in the right place – but that his cast of handsome actors is rather stiff in their roles. Only Chris Carlisle as the introverted Mac stands out in the ensemble.

Perhaps the weakest film in the program is “Bangkok Love Story,” a sleek-looking tale of a hit man named Cloud (Rattanaballang Tohssawat) who becomes romantically involved with his target. This film is way too over-the-top for its own good. Cloud is wounded during a double-cross of sorts, and is nursed back to health by Stone (Chaiwat Thongsaeng), the hunk he kidnapped for money. Stone likes to wash Cloud, and one of their bathing sessions ends with a passionate kiss – followed by sex and a declaration of love.

But Cloud is wary about being with Stone; he has dedicated himself to caring for his HIV-positive mother and brother. While Stone tries to get his lover back – much to his gun-packing wife's irritation! – more unbelievable things happen, testing the lovers' bond and the viewer's patience. By the time the tragic ending arrives, audiences may well have headed up the aisle in disbelief.

Returning to cinemas after playing New York's NewFest is “Boystown,” a silly Spanish farce about a hunky real estate agent (Pablo Puyol) who kills old ladies for their apartments to create a beautiful gay community. While this film opens strongly with some promising comedic scenes, far weaker thriller elements soon overtake the film, and “Boystown” gets stupid and strained. Other than the energetic performances, and Puyol's penchant for nudity, there is not much else to recommend this mildly amusing, but mostly disappointing film.

The most polarizing title in the group is the fantastic, gritty French film “I Dreamt Under Water,” directed by Hormoz. Opening with a quote about finding “a new identity for a few hours,” this compelling drama concerns Antonin (Hubert Benhamdine), a shiftless young man who tries on various guises as he endeavors to find himself.

Antonin is depressed after Alex (Franck Victor), a man he loves but never fucked, overdoses. His mother, Fabienne (Christine Boisson), is moving away, leaving the unemployed Antonin homeless. He finds beds by working as a prostitute, and befriends Baptiste (Hicham Nazzi), a video store owner.

However, just as this new relationship seems viable, Hormoz makes a choice that will leave many in the audience disappointed — Antonin quits hustling because he has fallen in love with Juliette (Caroline Ducey). Next, “I Dreamt Under Water” takes another serious turn when Antonin discovers something about Juliette that will likely mess with his newfound happiness.

Hormoz establishes an incredible sensory atmosphere against which Antonin's reinventions play out. The moody visuals – from haunting video images of Alex and Fabienne to strobe lighting and fuzzy out-of-focus moments – are beautiful. The filmmaker also makes hypnotic use of silence, ambient sound, and pulsating music. The performances by Benhamdine and Ducey are striking, particularly during a confrontation.

Despite these strengths, a series of pretentious surreal dream sequences almost derail the film. And production choices regarding sex scenes are problematic: A scene of Antonin going down on Juliette is brightly lit and filmed in close-up, while a raunchy gay threesome is shot in almost complete darkness. Viewers may be left wondering why their eyes are straining to see the noisy cock-sucking that obviously is going on.

Still, “I Dreamt Under Water” is a rewarding film for those viewers who enjoy a stylish even if challenging cinematic experience.

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