Holiday grab bag

Fri. December 19, 2014 12:00 AM
by Gregg Shapiro

Based on the wildly popular memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Wild (Fox Searchlight) is as much a star vehicle for actress Reese Witherspoon (who portray Strayed) as it is for director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club and the gay-themed C.R.A.Z.Y.).

One of the more unlikable characters in recent memory, Cheryl (Witherspoon) hasn't had an easy time of it. Her childhood was dysfunctional to say the least, with an alcoholic and physically abusive father who regularly beat her free-spirited mother Bobbie (Laura Dern). After starting a new life without the father, Bobbie starts taking college courses at the same time and school where Cheryl is enrolled. Cheryl is alternately proud of and embarrassed by (she ignores Bobbie in the halls at school) her mother.

Cheryl also has issues around men (let's call her promiscuous) and later substance abuse (she goes from snorting to smoking to shooting heroin). By the time she meets and then marries Paul (Thomas Sadoski), her personality disorders are too far gone and she essentially sabotages her marriage with infidelity and drugs. The death of Bobbie, who is only in her mid-40s, and an unexpected pregnancy, finally pushes Cheryl over the edge.

How does Cheryl intend to her proverbial shit together? By hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, from California to Oregon, alone. While on her trek, she has an abundance of time to look back over her life, tally up the people she hurt, while also avoiding the potential for trouble that might come from being a woman alone hiking across mountains and through wilderness (such as rattlesnakes, weather, pervy hunters with crossbows, and so on).

Vallée does an effective job of bringing Strayed's patchwork quilt of a life to the big screen. The interwoven flashbacks give the audience a strong sense of how Strayed got to where she is. Witherspoon holds her own in what appears to be a physically and emotionally demanding role.

Stephan Haupt's film The Circle/Der Kreis (Wolfe/Contrast) takes an unusual approach to telling its story, combining dramatic narrative and documentary-style filmmaking. After seeing it, it's hard to imagine a better format for presenting both the history of the groundbreaking gay Swiss publication Der Kreis (from which the film gets its title), as well as chronicling the almost 50 year relationship of teacher Ernst Ostertag and drag performer Röbi Rapp.

The documentary interview segments allow Ostertag and Rapp to relate their tale in their own words. The duo, who were the first same-sex couple to marry in Switzerland in 2003, are still in love with each other, sitting close together on the sofa, occasionally finishing each other's sentences. It's an endearing and enduring portrait of gay love.

The narrative portion begins in 1956 with Ernst (Matthias Hungerbühler), a teacher at a girls' school in Zurich awaiting his certification, who in spite of being closeted at work, becomes involved with the gay social organization that publishes the magazine Der Kreis. Through this activity, he meets Röbi (Sven Schelker), a popular drag performer. At the time, Zurich was a liberal city (far more liberal than anywhere in the U.S. where the McCarthy era was in full swing) and gay men and lesbians were tolerated. Following a series of murders, committed by a psychotic gay hustler, the authorities began to crack down on the community in Zurich, leading to arrests, public shaming and even suicide. Even though it is set nearly 50 years in the past, The Circle/Der Kreis is a sad reminder that no matter how far the LGBT community has come (and what it has survived), there is still so far to go before our rights become universal. [Now playing at Laemmle's Music Hall in L.A.]

If you are a gay man in or approaching your 50s, Jeff London's too-talky and repetitious Best Day Ever (Wolfe) probably isn't the movie for you. You may already be aware of the pressures and stresses that come with the half-century mark (colonoscopy, anyone?) and Best Day Ever doesn't paint a pretty picture of that time of life.

Indie filmmaker David (Mel England) is in midlife crisis mode as he prepares to turn 50. His "complete dickhead" boyfriend Greg (Nate Moore), an appearance-obsessed personal trainer isn't helping the situation. Greg is critical of David and hasn't even made an effort to introduce David to his parents even though they have been together for a while.

David's best friend James (Peter Stickles) isn't especially fond of Greg. In fact, James encourages David to meet his cousin Shane (Tom Saporito) who will be visiting soon from Indiana. The timing of Shane's arrival couldn't be better as David and Greg are taking a break from their relationship. As it turns out, David and Shane have some things in common despite their 15 year age difference.

If all of this sounds like a relatively promising premise, it is. The problem is that the movie, via David, is so obsessed with age that it, pardon the pun, grows old quickly. Just as Best Day Ever reaches its depressing peak (about an hour in), it delivers a scene that is both sexy and humorous. This much-needed break in the mood occurs when Shane clarifies his sexuality and the movie advances forward at a less painful pace. In an earlier scene, David mentions being "ripped apart" by critics for making sappy movies. Filmmaker London should pay close attention to that. [Available on demand at]

Intended to be a sitcom parody, T.S. Slaughter's The Gays (BTB) is so offensive and tasteless you might think it was written and directed by Jim Bob Duggar. The Gays goes for John Waters shock but instead serves up Tyler Perry schlock.

Set in WeHo in 1997, where Alex (Mike Russnak) strikes up a conversation with a bar patron and proceeds to tell him about what it was like for him and his brother Tommy (Flip Jorgensen) to be raised by their gay father Rod Gay (Frank Holliday) and drag queen mother Bob Gay-Paris (Chris Tanner) in Pasadena.

Supposedly the product of Bob's "ectopic anal pregnancy" (don't ask!), the boys are raised in an entirely queer environment. For example, when young, they are taught how to take advantage of other boys who sleep over at the house. At Christmas, one of their carols is "O Little Towns of Sodom and Gomorrah" and one of the boys is given a rim-chair as a gift.

A series of lukewarm one-liners about sex in search of a script, there is not a single redeeming facet to be found. The Gays has the distinction of bumping Scrooge & Marley out of the number one slot as worst gay Christmas movie ever. If you have nothing better to do with your time or money, the DVD can be purchased at