A festival for fun, but with a message

Special to The Times

The 22nd edition of Outfest, the largest film festival in Southern California and among the biggest gay and lesbian film festivals in the world, will run July 8-19 at nine venues in Los Angeles. This year the festival, which has become a cornerstone of the city's summer cultural calendar, will be screening 218 features, documentaries and short films from 24 countries.

The opening night film will be Angela Robinson's "D.E.B.S.," which had its premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Starring Sara Foster, Jordana Brewster, Devon Aoki, Jill Ritchie and Meagan Good, the feature, based on Robinson's short film, follows the exploits of a group of sexy young schoolgirls recruited as undercover espionage agents from secret information embedded within the SATs. The festival will close with the Los Angeles premiere of "A Home at the End of the World." Starring Colin Farrell and Robin Wright Penn, the film is the feature debut of acclaimed theater director Michael Mayer, as well as the screenwriting debut of "The Hours" novelist Michael Cunningham.

Also on opening night, at the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, writer and director Todd Haynes will receive the eighth annual Outfest Achievement Award. Since his 1991 debut feature, "Poison" (not to mention his notorious 1987 short film, "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story"), Haynes has been at the forefront of pushing boundaries not only with regard to representations of gay culture on screen but also with the very form of narrative filmmaking.

His other features include "Safe," "Velvet Goldmine" (which will be screening at the festival) and the Academy Award-nominated "Far From Heaven." Previous recipients of the Outfest Achievement Award include actor Ian McKellan, stalwart indie producer Christine Vachon, filmmaker Gus Van Sant and distributors Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans.

This year's awards night film will be "Straight-Jacket," the latest from writer/director Richard Day, while the festival centerpiece is Rodney Evans' historical fiction "Brother to Brother." Other films screening at the festival include "Harry and Max," the latest from filmmaker Christopher Munch; "Beautiful Boxer," an unusual look at a legendary Thai kickboxer; "Hidden Fuhrer," a controversial film that makes a case that Hitler was secretly gay; "Superstar in a Housedress," a look at Warhol associate Jackie Curtis; the gay marriage documentaries "Tying the Knot" and "Freedom to Marry"; and Dutch musical "Yes Nurse! No Nurse!" as well as "Touch of Pink," which features Kyle MacLachlan as Cary Grant.

Among other events planned as part of Outfest are panel discussions that will touch on the increasing acceptance of what previously would have been derisively labeled "the gay aesthetic." One panel, titled "If They Only Knew," will explore the trend of gay directors hired onto mainstream (meaning "straight") teen films. Scheduled to take part on the panel are Brian Dannelly ("Saved!"), Todd Holland ("Malcolm in the Middle"), Jim Fall ("The Lizzie McGuire Movie"), Sara Sugarman ("Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen") and "D.E.B.S." director Robinson (hired for Disney's upcoming remake of "The Love Bug").

Other scheduled panels include "The Minds Behind Queer Eye," with the creators and cast of the popular TV show, and a panel focusing on "Queer Storytelling on 'Six Feet Under,' " also featuring that show's cast and creators.

Among other scheduled events are a sing-along screening of "Moulin Rouge" and a screening of the now notorious "Gigli" with comedian Georgia Ragsdale providing commentary. A "Homo Horror" sidebar will feature the recent films "Hellbent," filmed partly during the West Hollywood Halloween parade, "The Sisterhood" and "Make a Wish," alongside Tony Scott's 1983 new-wave/goth classic "The Hunger."

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