It’s that favorite time of the year for queer people and our allies in Los Angeles as Outfest kicks off another year with a stellar lineup of films, one which is more diverse than ever before. I would typically write longform reviews, but because I intend to watch so many features and shorts over the next ten days, I may find myself more often than not producing capsule reviews instead. Check out what I’ve seen so far:
Yes, folks, Grindr has its first ever web series, because…um…we all need something else to do when being flaked on by all of the sociopaths and narcissists you scroll by, tap, and never hear from again. Thank goodness for creator John Onieal along with co-writer Frank Spiro, director Julian Buchan, and a game cast led by national-treasure-to-be Jimmy Fowlie, who plays Terry, a ridiculous, oh-so-wrong guy who aims to disrupt his best friend’s wedding by stealing her groom. Fowlie has mastered the art of intentional bad acting to a level of genius, laughing, smiling and toasting a drink at the worst moments possible. It’s a silly romp, but one with 30 Rock level of JPMs (Jokes Per Minute), all of which deserve to be viral memes. Beneath the inanity, you’ll find smart social commentary about dating, relationships, and how to better treat your Uber driver. Special props for its look at a disabled character, expertly played by Shannon DeVido, who is just as much of an asshole as everyone else. No tinkly piano music here. This 6-episode (10 minutes each) series takes digs at everything that’s wrong with all of us. Tell us more!
Bridesman is one little swipe away on Grindr. Screens virtually at Outfest LA 2021 until August 17th.
This sweeping, based on a true story, epic looks at the love between two Soviet military men during the Cold War era of the late 70s and early 80s. At risk of imprisonment, Sergey (co-writer Tom Prior) and Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) start a clandestine relationship which gets further complicated when Sergey’s best friend Luisa (a very good Diana Pozharskaya) falls for Roman. Gorgeously shot and a rare look at the struggles of gay people in another era and country, Firebird may feel a tad too melodramatic at times, and Sergey wears a rather distracting wig in the film’s second half, yet I couldn’t help but feel moved by this movie-movie. Imagine An Officer And A Gentleman except with Richard Gere making out constantly with David Keith in front of a giant hammer and sickle and you’ll get what Firebird’s selling. This is passionate, formal filmmaking, the kind they don’t make anymore. While last year’s Moffie may have walked a similar path and with a much clearer cinematic vision, Firebird has the kind of glossy, commercial sheen which commands its own attention.
Firebird screens on Saturday August 21st at 1:30pm in DGA 1 at 1:30pm with writer-director Peeter Rebane and actor/writer/producer Tom Prior in attendance. Screens virtually at Outfest LA 2021 August 22nd-24th.
The Legend Of The Underground ★★★★1/2
So many narratives in the past have depicted the oppressed as cowering, suffering, faceless masses. Not so with Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey’s remarkable, essential documentary, The Legend Of The Underground, which focuses on the current, deeply personal plight of LGBTQ+ Nigerians. Told with high energy and style, the film introduces us to activists who flee their country and those who remain to fight for their right to be themselves. Nigeria has strict laws against homosexuality, imprisoning men known or perceived to be gay for 14 years and even going so far as to charge people for not reporting them to the authorities. We meet Michael, who sought asylum in New York City and returns to Nigeria to learn more about what’s happening on the ground. Most memorably, we get to know James Brown, a glorious, defiant dancer who risks everything to express his fabulous self. With a clear destiny to become a social media star in this forbidding country for anyone who doesn’t conform to societal norms, James makes the unforgettable statement, “I’m defending everyone.” THIS is what bravery looks like. A group of heroes who also know how to twerk their asses off and tell the world to change instead of expecting them to do so.
The Legend Of The Underground played Outfest on Saturday August 14th at a free in-person screening and is currently streaming on HBO Max.
The Extinction Of Fireflies ★★★
James (Drew Droege) has invited three of his friends to his Rhode Island retreat to read his new play, The Extinction Of Fireflies. Actor Jay (Michael Urie), his young rudderless partner Callisto (Kario Marcel) and television diva Charlotte (Tracie Bennett) gather to give James notes and to root out the dark underbelly in each others’ lives. Director James Andrew Walsh, adapting his own play, is filled with ideas about aging, the pursuit of a creative career, surviving unbearable loss, and learning how to lean on your friends and to let go of them when you finally figure out we’re all alone. While very much a filmed play, lacking any great cinematic opening up (it was filmed during COVID lockdown after all), I still enjoyed this lighter but still dark variation on Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. What starts out somewhat bitchy and comedic, with Bennett doing her best Bette Davis by way of Wayland Flowers’ Madame, eventually deepens, giving each actor an opportunity to find a certain rawness to this “Is that all there is?” premise. Urie finds the anger behind his camp facade and Marcel has the perfect flair for a guy who has coasted on his looks but wants more out of life. The real revelation here is Droege, who for years has excelled in comedic roles, getting to really stretch, giving us the deep wells of anger and hurt with his role of a puppet master who can no longer control his strings. There’s a sweet tenderness in this film despite its cinematic limitations.
The Extinction Of Fireflies screened in-person on Saturday August 14th and screens virtually at Outfest LA 2021 until August 17th.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
For more suggestions of what to see in-person or virtually at Outfest LA 2021 watch the festival trailer and James Kleinmann’s exclusive conversation with Outfest’s Director of Festival Programming Mike Dougherty below: