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Knight at the Movies: Viva; Janis: Little Girl Blue
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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The urgent desire to transform, and the absolute need to become someone else and leave behind emotional abuse at home or school—often lived out on stage—that transcends an emotionally crushing reality are feelings that have long been familiar to Our People. They also apply, most palpably, to the central figures in a duo of new movies—the Cuban familial drama Viva, which is focused on a budding drag queen, and the searing documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, about rock legend Janis Joplin.

Irish director Paddy Breathnach's Viva focuses on Jesus ( Hector Medina ), a young gay hairdresser in Cuba who's scraping by doing the wigs for the performers at the local drag bar. He's recently left hustling behind and, more than anything, wants to join the other drag queens onstage, especially Mama ( Luis Alberto Garcia ), the club's star performer who nightly mesmerizes Jesus with his power to galvanize the crowd. At home, he practices to sultry Cuban singers' recordings his late mother left behind. His abusive father has long since gone, too—incarcerated years before for a violent crime.

Jesus pleads with Mama to perform and he is finally given his chance. But Jesus' debut number is less than the hoped-for A Star Is Born moment and is interrupted when he discovers his father, Angel ( Jorge Perugorria )—newly released from prison—in the audience. Angel promptly gives Jesus a bloody lip before being tossed out of the club. Upon returning home, Jesus finds dad snoring off a hangover. Worse: The following morning Angel tells Jesus he is back to stay and further lays down the law—no more drag numbers.

A familiar, dramatic father/son drama with many of the typical plot sidebars then plays out, as Jesus isn't about to give up his dream so easily. What saves Viva is its large heart and winning performances—the relationship between Jesus and Angel builds honestly to a mutual respect and understanding that is genuinely moving. When Jesus/Viva finally triumphs at the club, it's a tremendously affecting moment.

There are many such transformative moments in Amy Berg's documentary portrait of rock legend Janis Joplin in Janis: Little Girl Blue, which is screening all month on PBS as part of its American Masters series. Joplin onstage—the only place she seemed happy—was truly something to behold. The bisexual rock singer's meteoric rise to the top of the music world, kickstarted by her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, is traced through vintage footage and remembrance interviews. Barely three years later, Joplin was dead at 27 from a heroin overdose.

Joplin's propensity for the blues is easily traced back to her difficult childhood and teen years. Always an outsider in the blue-collar town of Port Arthur, Texas—taunted for her artistic leanings and less-than-glamourous looks and figure—Joplin fled to San Francisco as soon as possible. There, she found her first girlfriend ( who is briefly interviewed in the film ) and slowly but surely found her unique vocal stylings and the immense but fleeting comfort of the adulations of millions. Sadly, Joplin's transformation as a rock 'n' roll goddess didn't guarantee personal happiness, and her abuse of drugs and alcohol to salve her emotional pain is all too familiar. Peggy Caserta, identified as "former friend and lover," is just one interviewee heard in voiceover talking about Joplin's drug addiction, revealing the duo shot up heroin while they were together at Woodstock before Joplin's meandering performance.

Although Joplin wasn't able to find a permanent way to quell her inner demons, she was learning to take control of her singing voice, and her final recording revealed a maturity that hinted at a long musical future ahead. That's tragic enough—as is the thought that Joplin might never have found any personal solace. The version screening on PBS features deleted scenes that include interviews with Melissa Etheridge, Pink and Juliette Lewis talking about the importance of Joplin on them personally and for breaking down barriers for women in music. Check local listings for air dates.

Pool party

In Henry Gamble's Birthday Party, Chicagoan writer-director Stephen Cone again ponders faith and homosexuality—the same turf he explored in his critically acclaimed 2011 feature The Wise Kids.

It's 17-year-old Henry's birthday and it's pretty clear that the birthday boy ( winningly portrayed by the adorable Cole Doman ) is gay. However, whether he's ready to declare that to the world, let alone himself, is just one of the issues touched upon during the long afternoon and evening of the pool party attended by both friends and parents—many with their own woes.

Cone's critically acclaimed film is now available on DVD and online from Wolfe Releasing. The DVD includes a brief featurette with Doman, Cone's director commentary and a short film he made.

Upcoming movie calendar

Highlights from films ( alphabetized by date ) opening in Chicago, May 6 and May 13 ( some descriptions come from studio press materials ).

Captain America: Civil War ( May 6 )—The superheroes are back in this third ( or is it 10th? ) film in the ever-expanding Marvel universe which kicks off the summer blockbuster season.

Francofonia ( May 6 )—In this companion piece to his Hermitage-set Russian Ark, director Alexander Sokurov once again uses an iconic museum as the jumping-off point for a dense and digressive meditation on art and history. The site this time is the Louvre, with a special focus on its fortunes during the Nazi occupation.

Sworn Virgin ( May 6 )—An Albanian woman ( Alba Rohrwacher ) who—according to her region's custom—has lived as a man for most of her life now wants to reclaim her sexual identity. It's playing exclusively at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave. .

Viva ( May 6 )—See details above.

Mother's Day with Mamma Mia! ( May 8 only )—Meryl Streep, looking tanned and fit, sings up a storm in Mamma Mia!, the frothy 2008 big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical comedy sensation that utilizes the '70s hit songs of Abba as its score. Dick O'Day ( the alter ego of yours truly ) hosts a third annual Mother's Day sing-a-long screening at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., on Sunday, May 8, at 2 p.m. A '70s costume contest ( mother-daughter combos encouraged ), prizes and an interactive screening guide are included in the fun. .

My Big Night ( May 13 )—This is Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia's ( The Perfect Crime ) deliciously overstuffed showbiz satire. It's set at a TV studio where a gaudy New Year's Eve special is being shot under chaotic circumstances.

The Family Fang ( May 13 )—An actress ( Nicole Kidman ) and her brother ( Jason Bateman ) investigate the mysterious disappearance of their parents, two performance artists known for their elaborate hoaxes. Bateman directs this rather dark comedy.

High-Rise ( May 13 )—A doctor ( Tom Hiddleston ) moves into a London skyscraper where rising tensions and class warfare lead to anarchy. J.G. Ballard's "unfilmable" 1975 sci-fi novel of dystopian society comes to the screen at last. Gay actor Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, and Elizabeth Moss co-star.

Money Monster ( May 13 )—Out actor-director Jodie Foster ( Little Man Tate, Home for the Holidays, The Beaver ) helms her fourth film, a dramatic thriller with George Clooney as a TV finance guru taken hostage on-air by a disgruntled viewer ( Jack O'Connell ) after losing his family's money following a tip from Clooney. Julia Roberts plays Clooney's producer. Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe and Giancarlo Esposito co-star.

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