Friday, June 17, 2011

Fancy Footwork

How fast can you think on your feet?  Can you walk and chew gum at the same time? Can you turn on a dime? Change horses in midstream?

The ability to make informed decisions in crisis mode is a key tool for survival . And yet, for some people, their natural instinct is to do something monumentally self destructive, something that will only make the immediate crisis worse (just ask Anthony Weiner).

Three new films being screened at Frameline's 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival depict gay men and women who must not only learn how to think on their feet, but depend on their feet to run on auto pilot in an emergency. Each requires a substantial amount of fancy footwork to navigate a crisis.

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Anyone who enjoys watching So You Think You Can Dance will want to keep their eyes out for a new movie entitled Leading Ladies. Not only does it feature ballroom dancing stars/choreographers Benji Schwimmer and Melanie LaPatin (who often seems like she's channeling Patti Lupone's radioactive evil twin), it features one of the most godawful stage mothers since Ethel Merman first brought Rose Hovick to life in Gypsy! A Musical Fable.

Melanie LaPatin as the often hysterical Sheri Campari

LaPatin plays Sheri Campari, a former ballroom dancing star who has turned into an irrational harridan, the kind of monster who makes a normal woman's most hyperemotional menstrual cycle look like a joyride. Her oldest daughter, Toni (Laurel Vail), is as much a tomboy as Louise before her transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee. Quieter by nature, Toni has always disappeared into the background while Sheri focused her attention on grooming her youngest daughter, Tasi (Shannon Lea Smith), to become a ballroom dancing star.

And you thought JonBenét Ramsey had it tough?

The only male figure to enter this estrogen-laden household is Cedric (Benji Schwimmer), a gay dance partner who knows how to put up with Sheri's shit, Tasi's tantrums, and Toni's reluctance to do anything that could possibly draw attention to herself.

Benji Schwimmer as Cedric Michaels

As writer/director Erika Randall Beahm explains:
“I was watching Season 2 of So You Think You Can Dance with my best friend and assistant choreographer, Teena Marie, around the time that Jen and I were just starting the screenplay. I pointed to the screen and said, ‘That’s our Cedric.’ Having grown up in dance, much of my life has been shaped and supported by gay men. These men have been the fathers, brothers, and partners I have needed throughout the joyful and painful sagas of my life. Like the women in the Campari family, I don’t know what I would do without my ‘Cedrics.’ 
In writing, directing, and dressing Cedric, the goal was to create a central stable male character who ‘just happens to be’ gay. Veering away from the often one-dimensional representations of the 'gay sidekick,' we wanted to show Cedric’s range. By dancing both lead and follow (as only Benji Schwimmer can do), dressing impeccably but not self-consciously, and supporting his friends and 'family' with laughter through the tears, Cedric is the one constant male figure in the life of all the Campari women. With witty oneliners, Cedric infuriates Sheri, challenges Tasi’s tantrums, and draws Toni out into the limelight of her own life."
When Toni meets a pretty young lesbian named Mona Saunders (Nicole Dionne), for the first time in her life she wants something and/or someone for herself. Unaccustomed to thinking that she is entitled to any happiness in life, she is about to blurt out her secret when Tasi has an emotional meltdown after discovering that she is pregnant with twins.

There goes Tasi's dancing career -- at the very moment she was scheduled to compete. But how can the girls cope with their narcissistic mother (who thinks that Cedric must be the father of Tasi's twins, even if he's obviously gay)?

Part of the solution comes from Mona, who has been pressuring Toni to introduce her to the rest of the crazy Campari family. Although Sheri and Cedric are initially shocked at the idea of their mousey Toni (who works as a waitress in an Italian restaurant) getting done up in spangles and glitter, the contest judge who is foolish enough to cross the Campari tribe unleashes a fury of familial defiance.

As Beahm explains:
“The day I met my writing partner, Jennifer Bechtel, she randomly asked me what I knew about lesbian ballroom dance and said she wanted to make a queer/family-friendly dance movie that was PG-13 (she had been trying to host a film event for high school GLBT kids and there were no PG-13 films out there in that genre). I told her that I didn’t know anything about lesbian ballroom dance, but knew about the lesbian/same-sex swing scene (thanks to the Century Ballroom in Seattle) and would love to partner with her on the idea. We then took the meta narrative of my life (I’m bisexual, my sister got pregnant at 20, and we were raised by a larger-than-life single mother) and infused it with our creative juices."

Sheri (Melanie LaPatin), Cedric (Benji Schwimmer), Tasi (Shannon Lea Smith),
Toni (Laurel Vail), and Mona (Nicole Dionne) during rehearsals

Just like Gypsy Rose Lee looked in the mirror and said "Mama, I'm a pretty girl," Toni looks Sheri right in the face and says "Mama, I'm happy!" So is the audience, which witnesses Toni's lesbian Cinderella transformation while listening to Daniel Beahm's score and enjoying a witty, bitchy script. If there is an award for subtlety, you can rest assured it will not go to Melanie LaPatin, who could easily have the most ambitious ballroom dancer ducking for cover. Here's the trailer:

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Equally entertaining is a new drama written and directed by J. T. O'Neal entitled Au Pair, Kansas. Like Leading Ladies, it features a furious female head of household. But instead of two daughters, Helen Hazelton (Traci Lords) has two sons and a big problem on her hands.

Helen's late husband, Charlie (Stephen O'Mahoney), recently died of melanoma. Although her sons know that their father was gay, Helen has never dealt with her rage at him for marrying her just so he could have children. Now she's stuck with a very angry teenager, a confused young boy, and a herd of 50 bison in the middle of nowhere.

Well, not exactly nowhere. Lindsborg is a Swedish community located in the plains of Kansas. Although many of its residents have the blond hair and blue eyes one would expect of Swedes, there is also the art teacher who likes to dress in drag ( (Oscar Quintero, famous for his performances as Kay Sedilla on Chico's Angels), the butch lesbian cop (Cher Ferreyra) who is Helen's best friend, and Missy's former husband, a neanderthal of a gym teacher (Peter Murnik) who is attracted to and frequently rebuffed by Helen.

Oddmund Lindeflaten (Havard Lilleheie) meets the
flamboyant local art teacher, Mary Kay (Oscar Quintero)

Stewing in her bitterness, Helen has taken an odd approach to finding a man who can be a role model for her two sons Atticus (Spencer Daniels) and Beau (Kendall Ryan Sanders). When Oddmund Lindeflaten (Håvard Lilleheie) arrives from Norway as her newly-hired au pair, he is merrily entertaining himself with his beloved soccer ball -- which he kicks down the steps from the airplane and all the way through the terminal. Oddmund loves "futbol," even if it's not American football.

The fact that Oddmund loves soccer and Helen's boys so much has the locals wondering if he's gay or just "European." But as someone who can't wait to share his love for soccer, Oddmund quickly starts recruiting people to form a soccer team in Lindsborg. Just who does the Norwegian au pair ask to join his new team?
  • Beau Hazelton, Helen's sensitive nine-year-old son (who very well may be gay, like his late father).
  • Atticus Hazelton, Helen's sullen 15-year-old son.
  • Katie Wogan (Elsie Sanders), the pretty young girl Atticus has a crush on.
  • Birger (Ronald Stam), the 70-year-old man who plays chess with Atticus.
  • Mary Kay Sedia, the art teacher who likes to dress in drag.
  • Anna (Louise Rosager), the woman Oddmund has been seeing in his spare time.
  • Missy Johannsen, the dyke cop who is Helen's best friend.
In a moment of weakness, Helen tries to make out with Oddmund. When he doesn't respond to her advances, she is acutely embarrassed. Never imagining that her au pair could have any kind of relationship with a woman back in Norway, she assumes that Oddmund must be a pedophile. That leaves Helen deeply confused and conflicted.

Traci Lords as the extremely unhappy Helen Hazelton

On the night Atticus turns 16, Helen has a big and important gift for him waiting in their garage, something his late father had insisted on. But when she walks in on Oddmund and Atticus drinking beer, she assumes that Oddmund is plying her son with liquor (Atticus is the one who offered Oddmund a drink). After Helen insists that Oddmund leave her house and go back to Norway, he moves in with Anna until he can arrange for his flight home.

Several days later, at a church festival celebrating Swedish traditions, Atticus gets drunk with two girls from school. In a fatherly manner, Oddmund comes to the rescue (taking Atticus into the men's room where the teenager promptly pukes all over himself). As Oddmund is trying to help Atticus clean himself up and put on one of Oddmund's shirts, Helen and Missy enter the men's room and completely misinterpret what they see.

Part of the problem is that Helen never imagined Oddmund might be dating Anna, the attractive local woman he met when she was a nude model for one of Mary Kay's art classes. Nor does she understand how much Oddmund's presence has helped her boys to come out of their shells.

Helen (Traci Lords) gets some advice from her
late husband, Charlie (Stephen O'Mahoney)

In his director's note, J.T. O'Neal writes:
"The story is about finding love after loss. Each of the four main characters has their own way of coping. The amazing Traci Lords plays the mother, Helen, who has the hardest journey, and must overcome not only her husbandʼs death, but her anger at him. The movie is dedicated to my father, Charles OʼNeal. The character of the dead father, Charlie, represents both my father (who died of melanoma and had two sons) and me (who came close to marrying someone just to have kids.) The speeches Charlie gives to his sons on the tapes are basically stuff my father told me."
Oddmund (Havard Lilleheie) and Helen (Traci Lords)

J. T. O'Neal has directed Au Pair, Kansas with a remarkable sensitivity to each character's vulnerability.  In one particular scene, Beau watches a videotape made by his late father in which Charlie assures him that Beau has his father's unconditional love (unlike the relationship Charlie had with his own father). Traci Lords goes through tremendous mood swings as the grieving Helen, while Havard Lilleheie's dynamic performance as Oddmund is a constant tonic.

Au Pair, Kansas also benefits from some beautiful cinematography by Marco Fargnoli, who sees the barren Kansas landscape through a devoted and loving lens. The film will screen at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, June 25 at 9:30 p.m. Here's the trailer:

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How do you combine ballroom dancing with athletics? The answer is simple:  Make a delightful film like One On One, which you can watch in its entirety in the following video clip.

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