Despite the inevitable winds of change, the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival rolls into town this week looking very much like the festival we've grown to know and love over the past 18 years.
Longtime festival watchers were wary when former festival programmer Joseph Cook tendered his resignation last year amid rumblings that board members were considering taking the festival in a more commercial (read: subtitle-free) direction. But from the looks of this year's schedule, TIGLFF 2007 is as committed as ever to the word "international" in its title. Even more crucially, the all-around quality control continues to be high.
Films — many of them really good films — from France, Italy, Israel, Germany, Japan and other ports of call fill this year's weekday slots, while the coveted weekend slots, as in year's past, are understandably reserved for mostly upbeat, English-language crowd-pleasers, many of them just as predictable as any hetero-centric Hollywood product. But that's not always such a problem. It might be a stretch calling some of these same-sex riffs on boy-meets-girl "subversive," but more than a few of this year's gay and lesbian films have enormous fun rooting around in romantic formulas while coloring them in entertaining new ways.
In all, this is a surprisingly good year for TIGLFF. No less than 20 filmmakers will be in attendance; the parties are as elaborate as ever; and my only serious complaint is that the panel discussions so integral to past years have dwindled to a solitary event this time. But film-wise, which is where it counts, things are basically copacetic. Granted, there's nothing here as electrifying as Shortbus, Claire, Hustler White or numerous other highlights of TIGLFF's past — but even if the highs aren't quite as high, neither are the lows as low, making this one of the most consistently solid festivals in some time.
The 18th annual Tampa Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival kicks off on Thursday, Oct. 4 with Kiss the Bride, one of those aforementioned crowd-pleasers that at least has the good sense to poke fun at its own clichés. A screwball comedy loosely modeled after My Best Friend's Wedding (a fact the movie itself happily brings to our attention), Kiss the Bride's tale of a guy dumbfounded by his ex-boyfriend's impending marriage (to a woman!) features enough appealing characters and witty dialogue to almost make us forget the film's narrative shortcomings — but not quite enough to let us get past Tori Spelling's cosmetically tweaked train wreck of a mug. Starting time is 7:30 p.m. at Tampa Theatre, the venue for all of this year's Tampa screenings. (The festival will also be holding screenings in St Pete, and those will take place at Muvico Baywalk.)
Things get rolling in earnest on Fri., Oct. 5 with a 7:30 p.m. screening of Love and Other Disasters, another big, fat romantic comedy (this one, according to the festival notes, supposedly recalls Four Weddings and a Funeral). Following at 9:45 is Fat Girls, a quirky little offering that's being granted a second life since its screening at last year's festival was cut short by a technical malfunction. Writer-director-star Ash Christian's gleefully crude comedy about a group of teen misfits in a small Texas town owes a bit too much to early John Waters, and the movie over-dabbles in caricatures who sit around breathing through their mouths like rejects from Napoleon Dynamite.
Still, there are lots of moments that ring true in Christian's enjoyably amateurish effort, all but ensuring our leaving the theater with large grins. Incidentally, the festival's black-tie gala also takes place this evening, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. at the Tampa Firefighters Museum.
On Sat., Oct. 6, an extremely eclectic mix of movies kicks off with a 1 p.m. program of short films (see this week's Outtakes section for reviews of the festival's shorts programs). The award-winning Italian drama Riparo follows at 3:15, and at 5 p.m. there's DL Chronicles, a look at nominally straight black men secretly hooking up with other guys on the "down low."
Saturday's 7 p.m. primetime slot is filled by Out at the Wedding, another supposed crowd-pleaser, but this one turns out to be pretty tough going. A comedy of mistaken identity that plays like a thoroughly disposable TV sitcom, Out at the Wedding is one of those movies where supposedly smart people do very stupid things simply to move the plot along. The heroine — a straight woman with an obligatory gay best friend and an even more de rigueur dysfunctional family — feels compelled, for reasons that make absolutely no sense, to pretend she's a lesbian (don't ask, please).
One lame thing leads to another as the film skates through an assortment of breezy stereotypes, managing a hysterical outburst every 15 minutes or so and culminating in an entirely unsurprising plot twist in which various straighter-than-straight characters turn out to be gayer-than-gay (a phenomenon many of the films at this year's fest can't seem to get enough of).