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A Quarter Century of Queer Cinema

Chris Mason Johnson’s “Test,” the festival’s closing film, screens on September 11 at 7:15 p.m. | NEWFEST

Chris Mason Johnson’s “Test,” the festival’s closing film, screens on September 11 at 7:15 p.m. | NEWFEST

BY GARY M. KRAMER | New York City’s annual LGBT film festival, NewFest, celebrates 25 years this September, offering dozens of queer features, shorts, and documentaries.

This year’s program opens September 6 (7:15 p.m.) with Stacie Passon’s “Concussion,” about a suburban lesbian (Robin Weigert) re-thinking her sexual identity after being hit in the head. The festival closes September 11 (7:15 p.m.) with Chris Mason Johnson’s “Test.”

Set in 1985 San Francisco, the low-budget “Test” conveys the anxiety of the early days of AIDS among young gay men who simultaneously grappled with fear and desire. Frankie (Scott Marlowe) is a dancer uneasy about AIDS. His concerns are contrasted with Todd (the magnetic Matthew Risch), who has a more reckless attitude toward sex and life. Much of what happens in “Test” is unsurprising, but the film makes us care about its characters. Several long dance sequences — both rehearsals and performances — are well done, yet it’s hard to escape the feeling they are intended to stretch out a rather thin narrative.

NewFest unspools at Lincoln Center September 6-11

NewFest’s lineup offers moviegoers a diverse array of films. One of the best is Mark Thiedeman’s evocative, impressionistic drama “Last Summer” (Sep. 10 at 5 p.m.), about two teenage boys in Arkansas. Luke (Samuel Pettit) is in summer school, while his boyfriend, Jonah (Sean Rose), is about to head off to college. Thiedeman captures moments where tactile images mirror the boys’ emotions — their sneakers rubbing together, the way they grasp hands or even eat sandwiches. These delicate snapshots emphasize the fleeting nature of Jonah and Luke’s relationship as Jonah plans his departure and Luke struggles to hold onto his memories. Ambient sounds — birds, rain, and a train whistle — heighten the emotions between the boys, as do light, shadows, and reflections. Jonah and Luke express their sentiments about love and each other in ways that truly resonate in this extraordinary, beautifully realized film.

Another film about teenagers in love is Gary Entin’s “Geography Club” (Sep. 7 at 11 a.m.), a disappointing adaptation of Brent Hartinger’s young adult novel. The film may follow the book’s characters, but it plays like a not-so-special after-school special — one in which viewers are cudgeled by a “be yourself” message. Sure, Russell Middlebrook (the appealing, if too old Cameron Deane Stewart) is adorable, especially when he is kissing quarterback Kevin (Justin Deeley) in the rain. And the film reflects an appreciation for issues of peer pressure, taunting, and sexual self-expression. But it feels inauthentic in representing the characters’ painful struggles and awkward situations. Underdeveloped and haphazardly constructed, “Geography Club” is ultimately unsatisfying.

Corey Krueckeberg’s “Getting Go: The Go Doc Project” screens on September 8 at 9:30 p.m. | NEWFEST

Corey Krueckeberg’s “Getting Go: The Go Doc Project” screens on September 8 at 9:30 p.m. | NEWFEST

“Getting Go: The Go Doc Project” (Sep. 8 at 9:30 p.m.) concerns Doc (Tanner Cohen), an Iowa-bound college student, who becomes fixated on an online crush, a sexy go-go dancer (Matthew Camp), appropriately named Go. Doc asks Go if he can film him, and what transpires is a study in contrasts between an insecure interviewer and the charmingly uninhibited object of his desire. Director Corey Krueckeberg creates an arty vibe, full of Warhol references, as he explores gay identity issues, employs split screen shots, and uses handheld camerawork to tell the story. The action alternates between the mundane and the highly erotic, and though Doc and Go’s relationship may be contrived, the charismatic leads make their romance affecting. The film is at its best when Go turns the tables on Doc.

Travis Mathews and James Franco’s “Interior. Leather Bar.” screens on September 9 at 9:15 p.m. | NEWFEST

Travis Mathews and James Franco’s “Interior. Leather Bar.” screens on September 9 at 9:15 p.m. | NEWFEST

A hot ticket, no doubt, will be another sexually explicit film, “Interior. Leather Bar.” (Sep. 7 at 9:15 p.m.), which probes the blurry lines between straight and gay, reality and fiction. For many, though, this hour-long documentary that “re-imagines 40 lost minutes from ‘Cruising’” will likely be too inconsequential to be an effective investigation of what could be an interesting conceit. Co-directors Travis Mathews and James Franco attempt to shatter conditioned, heteronormative responses to sexuality by focusing on the confusion and anxiety of Franco’s straight friend Val Lauren, who “plays” the Pacino role. Explicit gay sex notwithstanding, “Interior. Leather Bar.” proves more exasperating than illuminating.

A much better film exploring sexuality and moviemaking is Doug Spearman’s “Hot Guys with Guns” (Sep. 10 at 10 p.m.), which opens with a pre-credit sequence in which drugged, naked rich guys are robbed at a Hollywood sex party. The crime is investigated by Danny Lohman (the charismatic Marc Anthony Samuel), an actor who is researching a detective role. Danny is assisted by his wealthy ex-boyfriend Pip (Brian McArdle, trying too hard). Spearman sets an appropriately arch tone for this feather-light comedy/ mystery, which does in fact deliver both hot guys and gunplay. To be sure, the comedy works better than the thriller elements, but this fun film is chock-full of stylish eye candy. Spearman also succeeds in making salient points about race, class, and sexuality in Hollywood.

Stephen Lacant’s “Free Fall” screens on September 8 at 1:30 p.m. | NEW FEST

Stephen Lacant’s “Free Fall” screens on September 8 at 1:30 p.m. | NEW FEST

Two of the sexiest men on screen at NewFest are Hanno Koffler and Max Riemelt) as Marc and Kay, cops and lovers in Stephen Lacant’s “Free Fall” (Sep. 8 at 1:30 p.m.), a romantic drama from Germany. During their academy training, Marc and Kay fight each other — and are reprimanded for it — but soon they find themselves giving in to their mutual attraction. However, these hot guys must keep their hot-and-heavy relationship to themselves. Besides the homophobia in their midst, there is the added complication of Marc’s girlfriend being pregnant. Alas, “Free Fall” adds nothing new to the familiar story of a conflicted man struggling with questions of bisexuality and coming out. It’s only a matter of time before the guys’ affair is discovered and they fess up, but at least the leads are attractive enough to make this passable time-filler go by painlessly.

“Pit Stop” (Sep. 7 at 7 p.m.) is Yen Tan’s tender romantic drama about several lonely people looking for love. What makes the film so absorbing is Tan’s organic style of storytelling that allows viewers to slowly learn about the main characters — Gabe (Bill Heck) and Ernesto (the miraculous Marcus DeAnda) — and understand the parallels in their lives. “Pit Stop” is less focused on these men getting together — though audiences will root for that — than on the ways they find themselves by gaining distance from former lovers. Artfully lit and shot and filmed with long, slow scenes accompanied by thoughtful music, this fine romance chronicles the pit stop in the lives to these two modest Texans.

Anna Margarita Albelo’s “Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf” screens September 9 at 7:15 p.m. | NEWFEST

Anna Margarita Albelo’s “Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf” screens September 9 at 7:15 p.m. | NEWFEST

Easily the best named film at NewFest is “Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf” (Sep. 9 at 7:15 p.m.). Forty-year-old Anna (director Anna Margarita Albelo) hopes to make a film, get a girlfriend, and lose 20 — no, 10 — pounds. Periodically dressing up in a vagina costume, one night Anna catches the eye of Katia (Janina Gavankar), a smart and beautiful woman. To impress Katia, she gives her a role in her all-female remake of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” During filming, however, Anna’s best friend Penelope (Guinevere Turner, feisty as ever) competes for Katia’s affections.

The romance plays out without much surprise, but the improvised black-and-white film-within-a-film scenes are great. And there is a sweet scene between Penelope and Anna, and some nice moments that Anna shares with Julia (Agnes Olech), the film’s cinematographer who has a crush on her. “Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf” may be slight, with one-liners serving as character development, but Albelo’s film is clearly a labor of love.

NEW FEST | Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. | Sep. 6-11 | filmlinc.com/films/series/2013-newfest

Home page story illustration by Michael Shirey.

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