OUTFEST: The 24th Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, which runs today through July 17 at nine venues, is easily the strongest edition yet, judging from a selection of films available for preview. Highlighted by two remarkable lesbian dramas -- "Gypo" and "Looking for Cheyenne" -- most of them use sexual orientation as a point of departure for a larger view of society and the world in which we live.
Over the years, Outfest has increasingly attracted straight audiences seeking fresh, venturesome fare, and it would seem that this year's festival has even more to offer in this regard -- but with plenty of gay-specific films and events as well.
All told, Outfest will screen 207 narrative films, documentaries and shorts from 25 countries. It opens at 8 tonight at the Orpheum Theatre with Maria Maggenti's bisexual love triangle, "Puccini for Lovers," followed by the first of the festival's 45 parties.
Among the highlights, in the order they screen:
"The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" (7 p.m. Friday, Directors Guild of America). Working from an acutely perceptive script by Michiko Yamamoto, director Auraeus Solito has created one of the finest Filipino films ever, a picture that shimmers with folkloric charm without softening its view of the harshness and injustice of a life of poverty. Maxi (Nathan Lopez), a gay 12-year-old, couldn't have a more loving, accepting family. But the fact that his father and two older brothers are petty criminals proves a problem when Maxi develops a crush on his neighborhood's young but hard-nosed new cop (Soliman Cruz).
"Meth" (1:30 p.m. Saturday, DGA). Documentarian Todd Ahlberg interviews 12 men, both former and current users of crystal meth, a drug so addictive that only 6% of its users successfully kick the habit. They speak of its incredible rush, its jolt to the sexual drive and boost to self-confidence, all of which make meth so attractive to so many gay men. Inevitably the highs crash, leaving the men ravaged with disease, paranoid, broke -- and HIV-positive. Ahlberg strives to evoke a ray of hope, yet even some of the men themselves wonder whether they will be able to stay clear of the killer drug.
"Colma: The Musical" (6:30 p.m. Saturday, Regent Showcase). Directed by Richard Wong, with script, music and lyrics by H.P. Mendoza, this fresh, easy-flowing and irresistible musical charts a period of post-high school graduation limbo that afflicts three best friends: Rodel (Mendoza), a talented but troubled gay youth; Billy (Jake Moreno), an aspiring, self-absorbed actor; and Maribel (L.A. Renigen), a lush-looking girl with a big voice -- and a big secret crush on Billy. Wong takes an endearing poetic view of his seemingly unromantic setting: the multicultural suburb that has grown up around San Francisco's ancient cemeteries south of the city.
"Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner" (7:30 p.m. Tuesday, DGA). The closely intertwined life and career of the prodigious playwright, best known for the epic "Angels in America," receives the incisive and inclusive assessment one would expect from Oscar-winning documentarian Freida Lee Mock. She deftly intersperses scenes from Kushner's plays with his account of growing up Jewish and gay in Louisiana to become a theater artist of stunning daring and originality with an unyielding passion for social, political and economic justice. Unprepossessing-looking and unpretentious, Kushner emerges as a vital, engaging man of such far-ranging commitments one wonders how he makes time for his partner, Mark Harris.
"Broken Sky" (7:30 p.m. Wednesday, DGA). Writer-director Julian Hernandez, of "A Thousand Clouds of Peace," returns with a boldly romantic, soaringly visual and near-wordless account of the devastating effect of first love. Gerardo (Miguel Angel Hoppe) places his hand on the shoulder of Jonas (Ferdinand Arroyo), and they are instantly swept up in a grand passion -- until one night Jonas strays. A maelstrom of seesawing emotion engulfs them as they both discover through much pain that they want nothing more than to be together again -- if this could ever be possible. At 2 hours, 20 minutes, "Broken Sky" is as demanding as it is impressively all-encompassing.
"Pick Up the Mic" (8 p.m. July 14, Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, and noon July 16, DGA). Just as Mock spent three years filming Kushner, Alex Hinton spent three years investigating the queer hip-hop scene, a refreshing antidote to straight hip-hop with its strain of blatant homophobia. Indeed, Hinton reveals a spirit of inclusiveness among these artists rare in American society, with a performance venue open to all races and the entire spectrum of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The scene embraces those who ask only to be able to support themselves as artists to those eager for mainstream success. As a celebration of multicultural diversity, this documentary and its people are thoroughly engaging even for those not into hip-hop itself.
"Gypo" (8 p.m. July 14, DGA). The first British Dogme 95 feature, written and directed by Jan Dunn, honors the purist strictures of the Scandinavian manifesto and then some. Set on the austere Kentish isle of Thanet, it builds slowly with a familiar portrait of a disintegrating working-class marriage, with the wife (Pauline McLynn) refusing to allow her spirit to be crushed by a sour husband (Paul McGann) and a none-too-responsible daughter (Tamzin Dunstone), stuck with an unwanted baby. The daughter's radiant friend (Chloe Sirene) and her mother (Rula Lenska), Czech emigres awaiting their passports, propel McLynn into unexpected romance and danger.
"Looking for Cheyenne" (8:30 p.m. July 15, John Anson Ford Amphitheatre). While Dunn effectively embraces love and politics, writer-director Valerie Mineto manages with unstinting sardonic bravura to comment on the evils of globalization and the decline of opportunity and self-determination for modern youth -- and much else -- in a love story as tempestuous as that of "Broken Sky." Sonia (Aurelia Petit), a popular Paris high school teacher striving to make a contribution, and her lover Cheyenne (Mila Dekker), a long-unemployed journalist, have split when Cheyenne renounces society to live off the land. But their love and their effect upon each other may prove to be unending. A highly venturesome and effective film.
"20 Centimeters" (8 p.m. July 17, Orpheum Theatre). It's hardly on the artistic level of the eight films described above, but Ramon Salazar's below-par Almodovar extravaganza is a serviceable festival closer designed to send audiences home happy. Brassy Monica Cervera stars as a Madrid hooker, a pre-op transsexual thrown into a dilemma when a rugged, sexy market worker (Pablo Puyol) falls in love with her but has good reason to cherish her just as she is.
Outfest runs today through July 17 at nine venues, headquartered at the Directors Guild of America.
Directors Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood
Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood
Laemmle Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica
Orpheum Theatre, 842 S. Broadway, downtown L.A.
REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., downtown L.A.
Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood
The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, L.A.
Vista Theatre, 4473 Sunset Drive, Los Feliz
Price: $5, weekday matinees (before 6 p.m.) and midnights; $12, weekend and evening programs
Info: (213) 480-7065, www.outfest.org/fest2006