Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The "Other" Discovery Channel

Some people sarcastically refer to California as "the land of fruits and nuts." With all due respect to the state's almond orchards, garlic fields, and avocado groves, a never-ending stream of aspiring talents (whose unrealistic expectations of making it big in the entertainment industry have been fueled by gossip rags, tabloid media, doting parents, and tenured college professors) arrives in Los Angeles throughout the year.

Unlike Peggy Sawyer (the heroine of Busby Berkeley's 1933 film, 42nd Street), few of these people carry a pair of tap shoes in their suitcase. Many come armed with toned torsos, newly-acquired film editing skills, emotional baggage, inflated egos, and a history of waiting tables or working in retail while racing from life coaches and yoga sessions to auditions and acting classes.

Keenly aware of the need to be fully prepared for the moment when their big break might come, these people are constantly trying to improve their craft. Occasionally, little bits of reality get in the way of their progress. In the trailer for his movie Callback: The Unmaking of Bloodstain, writer/director Eric M. Wolfson does a splendid job of hinting at what might possibly go wrong soon after an aspiring actor arrives in Hollywood.

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Recently screened at Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film FestivalGoing Down in La-La Land follows the path of a sweet young man who arrives on his best friend's doorstep and discovers that an earnest desire to be a legitimate actor is not what lands you a good job in Hollywood. Written and directed by Caspar Andreas, this film shows how easily a lack of income can lead to stardom in one of the San Fernando Valley's porn factories rather than a recurring role on television.

Based on the novel by Andy Zeffer, Going Down In La-La Land has the grittiness one would expect from any story about debt, dick, dirt, and disillusionment in Hollywood. Adam Zeller (Matthew Ludwinski) seems to have more skill at acquiring parking tickets than steady employment. Although his BFF, Candy (Allison Lane), has been trying to get hired as an actress (to no avail) -- and Adam's job as a talent agency's receptionist is a dead end -- it isn't until Adam makes eye contact with a sexy photographer named Nick (also played by Caspar Andreas) that things really start to happen.

With Nick's help, Adam lands a desk job with a small-time porn producer (John Schile) in the valley who assures him that if he's ever interested in working in front of the camera, plenty of opportunities await. With a little coaxing from Nick, Adam soon learns that he's got that certain something that a niche market wants: a twinkle in his eye combined with a great set of abs.

With Nick's help, Adam's first modeling session leads to an escorting gig with a Hollywood mogul which, a few parking tickets later, finds Adam being directed by Missy (Bruce Vilanch) in a porn shoot.

Adam (Matthew Ludwinski ) and Missy (Bruce Vilanch) on the set

Adam soon discovers that he can make much more money as a highly-paid escort to his boss's wealthy clients. When one of them turns out to be the closeted star of a popular sitcom, a most improbable kind of romance starts to blossom between the two men. John (Michael Medico) has a beautiful home, substantial wealth, and is more than willing to hire Adam as his "assistant" so they can spend more time together.

Adam (Matthew Ludwinski) and John (Michael Medico)

Meanwhile, Nick's growing drug habit frightens Adam, who yearns for a legitimate acting career and harbors some very old-fashioned concepts about how a date should stay with the person he invited to a Hollywood party (rather than using his dick as a networking tool). Hurt by Nick's utter lack of sensitivity, Adam flees the party, hoping to find comfort in John's loving arms.

Unfortunately, John's oldest and best female friend in the entertainment industry has acted as his "beard" at Hollywood events for many years. Although they started out together many years ago, Zinnea (Judy Tenuta), has become a hateful has been with the venomous sting of a cobra and the kind of contact list  which brings publicists to the brink of orgasm. When Adam loses patience with Zinnea's rudeness and reads her the riot act, she retaliates with surgical skill by outing John. Meanwhile, Candy is busily ordering around a new BDSM slave in order to earn rent money.

It doesn't take long for Adam's an emotional meltdown to lead to a suicide attempt when he comes across a rerun of John's sitcom on television. What follows is not the usual death of an innocent in Tinseltown, but rather a clinical assessment of who matters more to a recently closeted actor: his beard or his boyfriend.

Matt Ludwinski as Adam

Caspar Andreas has directed his cast with a knowing eye toward the grit that lies beneath Hollywood's glitz. Ludwinski combines his obvious physical appeal with a character that wants to retain his integrity as an openly gay man; a striking contrast to Jesse Archer's tightly wound portrayal of Adam's first boss (a bitter queen struggling to stay sober).  As the sexy photographer who becomes increasingly addicted to crystal methamphetamine, Andreas is starts off as smoothly seductive enabler and ends up a haggard, strung-out  shadow of his former self. Judy Tenuta scores some great reptilian moments as the evil Zinnea.

Well shot, nicely paced, and based on some of Zeller's real-life experiences, Going Down In La-La Land offers an insider's warts-and-all look at what really motivates people in Hollywood. Here's the trailer:

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Many a film has featured a character who gets a magical chance to travel back in time and correct a mistake that had tragic or, at the very least, unfortunate consequences. While scriptwriters often try to create such stories about conflicted people, it's rare to see a movie in which an older filmmaker gets a chance to go back and change his life at a moment when he naively made an incredibly selfish and stupid move.

That's the basic gimmick behind J.T. Tepnapa's Judas Kiss, which received its West Coast premiere at the recent Frameline festival. The protagonist is a cynical, washed up, middle-aged filmmaker named Zach Wells (Charlie David), who once won a contest for best student film by cheating. Having betrayed his closest friends, he then went to Hollywood expecting to get rich and famous on his own timetable.

Things didn't quite work out the way he had hoped they would. In fact, Zach's middle-aged friend, Topher Shadoe (Troy Fischnaller) is the student Zach beat by entering Judas Kiss in their school's film competition. Topher has also become a major Hollywood force as the producer and director of horror films.

Poster art for Judas Kiss

Does that sound complicated? Keep in mind that Zach Wells isn't Zach's real name. And when Topher is forced to cancel an appearance as a guest judge at a student film competition, he insists that Zach step in for him at the last minute.

Upon arriving at Keystone University's campus, Zach is greeted by Old Man Welds (Dale Bowers), a mysterious man with a white beard who keeps telling to use this opportunity to set things right. He is also greeted by Mrs. Blossom (Laura Kenny), the head of the school's film department who remembers him, perhaps a bit too well.

On his first night on campus Zach goes to the local gay bar, picks up a handsome young man and spends the night with him. When his sex partner from the previous night appears as one of the filmmakers who has entered the contest, Zach is visibly upset.

Upon learning that the young man's name is Danny Reyes, Zach starts to freak out. To make matters worse, Danny (Richard Harmon) is screening the same film (Judas Kiss) that Zach once entered into a film competition.

Danny is filled with ambition and willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead -- even if that means sucking up to Shane Lyons (Timo Descamps), the rich, spoiled, and predatory brat who has been promising him the world. Even when one of Danny's closest friends, young Chris Wachowsky (Brent Corrigan), explains how he had been Shane's "flavor of the month" during the previous school year, Danny's ambition knows no bounds.

If a gay airline existed, Judas Kiss would probably be its ideal inflight movie. It's a nice piece of melodrama suitable for a popcorn night with friends. Although there is nice supporting work from Genevieve Buechner (Samantha) and Julia Morizawa (Abbey) -- and sufficient eye candy to satisfy a gay audience -- the film's two big weaknesses are its awkward, over-earnest script and the inability to build any audience sympathy for Zach Wells. Here's the trailer:

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