ALIVE AND KICKING
Britain's Channel 4 excels at engaging, literate gay dramas, and in this case also manages to avoid the maudlin air of most "AIDS movies." Tonio (Jason Flemyng from Hollow Reed), an ego-driven gay dancer, fights and makes up with his troupe, has a tortured affair with an overweight psychiatrist, and is just beginning to suffer from the disease. The dialogue is alternately snappy ("My face is leaving in five minutes -- be on it") and sober ("My body betrayed me"). One of the best scenes is a comic hetero flirtation between Tonio and a lesbian pal when both are sick of their mates. He suggests she go down on him. "Lick your willie? That's heinous!" she says. When he complains that her tits "get in the way," she rails at his lack of comprehension: "They're supposed to get in the way!"
-- Gary Morris
Plays Monday, June 23, 9:30 p.m. at the Castro
A BIT OF SCARLET
The black-and-white clip, circa 1960 or so, of a clueless but concerned interviewer asking a doctor "What do lesbians actually do?" is one of the funnier bits in A Bit of Scarlet, but as with all the other uncredited clips assembled here, where it came from is anyone's guess. American editor/director Andrea Weiss has spliced together moments from British cinema, grouped under themes like "A Family Affair," and silent movie-style text boxes delineate "rules" for cinematic treatment of gay characters, such as "Deviants should be confined to minor characters, like the husband's friend." Weiss evidently wanted to avoid cramming British film history down our throats, but this lackluster compilation of dramas and training films (coherent, it would seem, only to native Brits and film scholars) suffers from an exasperating lack of context, to the point that including some of these clips as gay-themed material seems like a stretch.
-- Heather Wisner
Plays Saturday, June 28, 2 p.m. at the Castro
The title refers to Singapore's legendary red-light district of the 1960s, a lost environment lovingly re-created by Hong Kong-based director Yon Fan. This coming-of-age story about a country girl who takes a job in a hotel for transvestite and transsexual hookers is a breakthrough -- Singapore's first gay feature. The sex is suitably discreet, but the operatic emotions of the queens are given full, florid range. Hiep Thi Le, from Oliver Stone's Heaven on Earth, brings the camp extravagances back to earth as the "real girl" whose path to womanhood is smoothed by the shrill but simpatico queens. A final shot cleanly captures the fleeting beauty of Bugis Street -- quaint, ramshackle buildings dwarfed by the impersonal skyscrapers of the modern city.
-- Gary Morris
Plays Sunday, June 22, 3 p.m. at the Castro
Stephen Winter's ragged, meandering tale of black, HIV-positive, drag queen junkie-terrorists tries hard to avoid the middlebrow cliches of To Wong Foo or The Birdcage. These screeching "babies" exist at the opposite end of those films' assimilationist bent. The characters spend their time assaulting congressmen and corporate executives, comparing addictions, performing bad lip-syncs, reading each other out, getting drunk and stoned, and lolling on a New York rooftop in fishnet dresses and no underwear. The endless self-dramatizing isn't surprising in a film about drag queens, but the level of insularity and self-absorption ultimately drains the drama of its impact. Winter took too great a gamble when he decided to make his characters "human" -- i.e., flawed. All we remember from this mostly aggravating group are the flaws.
-- Gary Morris
Plays Sunday, June 22, 8 p.m. at the Castro
Ira Sachs' first feature, shot in Memphis with a talented amateur cast, sketches the brief, troubled relationship between wealthy white boy Lincoln (Shayne Gray) and working-class mixed-race John (Thang Chan). Lincoln has a girlfriend but secretly cruises for gay sex. In a shrewd inversion of Huckleberry Finn, the two steal Lincoln's family boat for a leisurely river cruise. But this is no voyage of self-discovery, because Lincoln's repressions -- born of his class, as a strained family dinner makes clear -- render him incapable of self-analysis. John's attraction to Lincoln is erotically charged, almost groveling, and their interplay recalls master-slave relationships in the Old South. Sachs extrapolates a world of class and race inequities from this failed romance between two men.
-- Gary Morris
Plays Saturday, June 21, 7 p.m. at the Roxie
DIFFERENT FOR GIRLS
Kim (Steven Mackintosh) was once Karl, an effeminate, harassed Catholic boy whose only protector was straight Paul Prentice (Rupert Graves). The two accidentally reconnect years later; the film stolidly chronicles their complex relationship. This conventional story is lifted out of the pedestrian by several twists. Far from the shrieking, militant trannies of popular mythology, Kim is a prim, successful greeting-card writer who counsels her straight sister and brother-in-law on their marital problems. Prentice is a rowdy, post-punk motorcycle messenger who rejects the social strictures on his affair with Kim. Her tantalizing description of the physical effects of her sex change -- "my buttocks are rounder ... the nipples are darker ..." -- drives Prentice into a frenzy of lust. In one of the film's highlights, he runs into the street and delivers a monologue about "the penis," breaking mainstream cinema's last taboo by gleefully exposing himself, screaming: "Look everybody, there's a man with his penis out!"
-- Gary Morris
Plays closing party Sunday, June 29, 8:30 p.m. at the Castro
ELTON JOHN: TANTRUMS AND TIARAS
When Elton John tours, he hauls along more than a couple of suitcases. Besides drawers upon drawers of designer eyewear and racks of silk shirts, he also insists on bringing freezer packs of Marks and Spencer muffins, a bottle of HP steak sauce, and two tiaras -- as he points out, you never know when you'll be invited someplace formal. John's grueling 1996 world tour, in which he plays 108 shows to over a million people in 15 countries, underscores his yen for creature comforts, and the tour he leads through his lavish, well-loved English estate does much to explain his frequent bouts of homesickness. John's partner, David Furnish, directs what is in essence a home movie, and an entertaining one at that, despite its muddy sound and amateurish production. Some history, like John's relationship with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, is neglected and some hits, like "Bennie and the Jets," go unsung. But Furnish compensates with an otherwise very personal portrait of someone who's remained a fairly successful star for 25 years, a regular guy who suffers through poor self-esteem days and foul moods, and who, hours before winning an Oscar for the Lion King soundtrack, was providing gleeful commentary on the show's parade of stars, just like the rest of us.