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Reeling 30: First-week overview
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Reeling, the second oldest gay and lesbian film festival in the country ( after San Francisco ) turns 30 this year, and the anniversary is certainly a time for reflection. Festival creator and Artistic Director Brenda Webb took a moment out of her insanely busy schedule as opening night approached ( more on that below ) to recall just a few of the highlights for Windy City Times. They include:

—The 1986 appearance of queer activist/author Vito Russo, whose book on gays in the movies, The Celluloid Closet, is still considered the primer on queer cinema in classic Hollywood. Webb said, "The airlines shut down and—this was long before cellphones—we didn't know until Vito walked into the theater that he was coming. But somehow he made it and his appearance was tremendous. The Celluloid Closet had been published in 1981—the same year we started." ( The fest comes full circle with a screening of the documentary about Vito Monday, Nov. 7—see listing below. )

—"Another highlight for me," Webb continued, "was the screening of Apartment Zero in 1989. It was notable as an instance where we screened a film that had not been classified as a 'gay film.' I discovered it at the Berlin Film Festival and we were one of the few gay film festivals to show it. It sold out the Music Box and was a huge hit. Colin Firth was in it. It discovered an audience here and came back and had a big run at the Music Box."

—Before Stonewall, the documentary about the beginning of modern day gay rights, Webb recalled as "an exciting, important night." So, too, was the appearance at Reeling by queer activist/filmmaker Derek Jarman ( Edward II, Caravaggio ) . Webb said, "He made these super 8 films that are lesser-known, and showing them with him in person was really exciting for me. His films are beautiful. I remember that he was this very 'tweedy' gentleman—very kind, nice, and reserved. I remember a conversation with him that his true love was for these little super 8 movies."

—A recent highlight, as Webb recalled, was the 2007 screening of Quearborn & Perversion, Ron Pajak's documentary about the history of gay life in Chicago: "The premiere of that was very exciting—Ron literally was editing the film up to the day that we screened it. I remember standing in the library of the Chicago History Museum hoping that he would show up with the film. It was exciting to show a film knowing that so many of the people in the movie were in the audience."

This year's Reeling, which runs Nov. 3-12, is sure to provide Webb, her staff and festival goers plenty of opportunities for more memorable film presentations. The fest turns 30 this year and the anniversary is certainly a time for reflection. The line-up, to be sure, honors the festival's history but, as usual, doesn't skimp on films, focusing on every aspect of the diverse LGBTQ community experience. More than 60 programs are planned for this year.

Reeling's opening night kicks off Thursday, Nov. 3, with The Wise Kids, local writer-director Stephen Cone's coming-of-age drama ( see mini-synopsis/review below ) that is being screened at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, at 7:30 p.m. An opening-night celebration will follow the screening at Deleece Restaurant and the adjoining Mercury Theater ( just a few doors down from the Music Box Theatre ) . Hors d'oeuvres, performance art by The Catharsis Junkies, Blue Moon beer and a special Reeling 30th anniversary cocktail are included ( separate ticket required for post screening celebration ) .

The festival has three movies slotted as Documentary Centerpiece selections, including Wish Me Away, which follows country superstar Chely Wright through her journey toward coming out to family, friends and, eventually, her adoring public. That screening will be Saturday, Nov. 5, at 7 p.m. We Were Here—the searing AIDS documentary, as retold by five of the participants who witnessed its effect on the gay community in San Francisco—will screen on Sunday, Nov. 6 at 3 p.m., with Windy City Times co-sponsoring the screening. Vito, the documentary portrait of aforementioned author/activist Vito Russo will screen at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7. , with the Queer Film Society co-sponsoring this event. Each of the Centerpiece selections, Chicago premieres all, will be shown at the Landmark Century Centre Cinemas, 2828 N. Clark St., the primary screening location for the festival.

The festival's closing night will feature two movies: Cho Dependent, the latest concert film starring outlandish, hilarious comedian Margaret Cho ( at 6 p.m. ) and Going Down in La-La Land, the latest sex dramedy from queer culture auteur Caspar Andreas, who will attend the fest ( at 9:30 p.m. ) . Both films screen at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Complete festival information is available by calling 773-293-1447 or visiting . Highlights of Reeling's second-week schedule will run in next week's Windy City Times.

Here's a brief overview of other first week Reeling highlights from Richard Knight, Jr. ( RKJ ) ; Andrew Davis ( AD ) ; and Steve Warren ( SW ) :

Thursday, Nov. 3

Wise Kids ( RKJ ) : Writer/director/actor Stephen Cone's beautifully nuanced drama focuses on three teenaged members all of a tightly knit Baptist community in South Carolina ( one of whom is quietly gay ) as they near high school graduation. As the trio prepares for college, deeper questions about the rigid boundaries of their religious beliefs begin to emerge, not just between the friends but amongst some of the adults surrounding them—especially the choir director, who clearly is struggling with his own sexual identity. The film doesn't offer pat answers to the complex questions it raises and refuses to point fingers at the usual villains in the process. It's a thought-provoking experience filled with tremendous performances from its spot-on cast.

Friday, Nov. 4

Mangus! ( RKJ ) : Out actress Heather Matarazzo produced and co-stars in this comedic Southern-fried bit of hokum that Sordid Lives clearly inspired. The title character wants more than anything to play Jesus in the school spectacular and realizes his dream—only to have it interrupted when he is crippled in a car accident after celebrating too hard. However, Mangus is nothing if not determined and, God willing, he's going to climb back up on that cross if it kills him. The expert supporting cast—a comedy dream team consisting of Leslie Jordan, Jennifer Coolidge, Deborah Theaker, Matarazzo and John Waters ( appearing as Jesus Christ, no less ) helps drag this black comedy across the finish line—just barely.

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same ( SW ) : Madeleine Olnek sweetly spoofs 1950s sci-fi flicks that were made on equally miniscule budgets. An absurd premise sends three bald females from the planet Zots to Earth to fall in love and have their hearts broken. Two of them date each other but Zoinx ( Susan Ziegler ) falls for shy, lovable Earthling Jane ( Lisa Haas ) . A sample of Olnek's sly, subtle humor: "I have no hair on my head but the pavement matches the concrete." ( This movie recently received a Gotham Independent Film nomination for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You. )

Saturday, Nov. 5

The Green ( RKJ ) : Openly gay Broadway heartthrob and 30 Rock/Glee guest star Cheyenne Jackson co-stars with Jason Butler Harner as, respectively, Daniel and Michael, a gay couple whose move to an idyllic town is shattered when one of Michael's high school drama students accuses him of inappropriate behavior. Acting fireworks ensue as the drama escalates following the student's accusation. A high-profile cast including Julia Ormond and Illeana Douglas co-star.

Tomboy ( SW ) : Young Zoé Héran gives an amazing performance as the 10-year-old "Tomboy" who introduces herself to kids in her new neighborhood as Mikael, "the new boy in the building," although her parents call her Laure. As summer fades and school approaches, surprises sweet and bitter await. Writer-director Céline Sciamma allows a child to find her/his place in the universe without getting hysterical about it in this wonderful French film.

Wish Me Away ( AD ) : This documentary centerpiece focuses on the coming out of country singer Chely Wright—and the title refers not only to the a song of hers but her feelings of self-loathing as she dealt with her homosexuality. Filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf not only talk with Wright, but with family members, townspeople, a minister/spiritual adviser and music-industry insiders. Many people will be able to relate to the sometimes-raw film, which has Wright shedding a lot of tears as she overcomes various emotional obstacles. Also, be on the lookout for Chicago, as Wright was the city's Pride Parade grand marshal in 2010.

August ( SW ) : Here's a "What Would J.C. Do?" movie, "J.C." being Joan Crawford. Except that the romantic triangle has three male sides, Mommie Dearest could have made August in the 1940s. Good acting glosses over some flaws in the careless script, but thanks to filmmaker Eldar Rapaport's trendily confusing narrative structure, you sometimes need a GPS to find where you are in the story.

Sunday, Nov. 6

We Were Here ( RKJ ) : David Weissman and Bill Weber's searing portrait of the horrific emotional and physical impact of the AIDS pandemic on the particularly hard-hit San Francisco gay community revolves around five individuals who survived. The deceptively simple—and somewhat risky approach of using only five interview subjects slowly pays off and the movie gains momentum as the powerful memories and emotions of the quintet of storytellers pour forth. These witnesses to what is, essentially, a gay Holocaust are unforgettable. Windy City Times co-sponsors the screening.

Eating Out: The Open Weekend ( RKJ ) : Queer writer/director Q. Alan Brocka's non-stop sexy gay comedies are now up to their fifth edition—this one finds a quartet of hunky lovebirds at a clothing- and monogamy-optional resort in Palm Springs, Calif. Although each edition of the Eating Out series has progressively lost traction in terms of originality ( as per just about every series of movie sequels, no matter the genre ) , the scale has decidedly tipped in favor of excessiveness with each outing. In this case, that just means a lot more prodigious male eye candy, making this a guilty pleasure just this side of out and out porn. Brocka will attend the screening.

Kink Crusaders ( AD ) : Chicago stars in this documentary that focuses on the 2008 International Mr. Leather ( IML ) contest as well as the evolution of the gathering and the people who attend them. Refreshingly, one of the themes in this quick film—which includes interviews with various people, including IML creator Chuck Renslow—is that IML is all about variety and inclusivity. ( Note: There will be a Q&A with Renslow and IML's Joey McDonald—who makes quite an impression in one scene—following the movie. Then, there'll be an after-party at the bar Touche. )

Hit So Hard ( AD ) : When one mentions the band Hole, others may think of lead singer Courtney Love—but out drummer Patty Schemel put her own indelible stamp on it. P. David Ebersole's sometimes-intimate documentary blends tour footage with personal home videos and interviews with other musicians ( including other female drummers and members of Hole, including the redoubtable Love ) . This film discusses Schemel's coming-out—but deals with a lot of other issues, including addiction; band dynamics; and the deaths of Hole member Kristen Pfaff and Nirvana frontman ( and Love's husband ) Kurt Cobain. At 104 minutes, this might go on too long for some; however, I found myself wanting more.

( A ) Sexual ( SW ) : Everyone talks about sex but asexuals don't do anything about it. They're not discriminated against—just ignored, if not disbelieved. Angela Tucker's documentary lets such asex symbols as David Jay, Swank Ivy and celebs Morrissey and Janeane Garafolo talk about their lack of sexual attraction ( to either gender ) . Slightly overlong, the film raises all the questions you might have about asexuality and answers most of them.

Monday, Nov. 7

Vito ( RKJ ) : The career and life of the late AIDS activist Vito Russo—whose passion for ferreting out the queer in movies led to the publication of his seminal classic, The Celluloid Closet—is examined in this documentary portrait by Jeffrey Schwarz ( Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon ) . Russo's book, which has never been out of print since its 1981 publication ( and subsequent revised version in 1986 ) remains a starting point for anyone wishing to discover the study the impact of gays in the movies. However, that's only the starting point for a man who co-created the activist group ACT UP ( along with Larry Kramer ) and was on the forefront of a lot of other queer-centric endeavors before his untimely death. The Queer Film Society is co-sponsoring the screening and will conduct a post-screening Q&A with Schwarz.

Judas Kiss ( AD ) : In a movie that blends drama, a little comedy and what appears to be science fiction, Charlie David ( of Dante's Cove and several gay-themed films ) portrays Zach, a judge of a student film festival. He meets a student while in town and has a one-night stand—but said student might be a past version of Zach. Then, Zach meets the school custodian, who might be a future version of him—and then it really gets complicated. Wooden acting and a too-complicated plot make this movie a mess, albeit an ambitious one.

Blackmail Boys ( SW ) : While there's not unanimous agreement on the correctness of outing public figures who preach and legislate against us from their closets, Blackmail Boys takes a big step further and says it's okay to blackmail one such hypocrite, as long as the money's used to help a young gay couple get married and complete their education. The casting's as dubious as the morality, but it's nice to see the boys being romantic against familiar Chicago landmarks.

Tuesday, Nov. 8:

Into the Lion's Den ( AD ) : Former Chicagoan ( and Windy City Times 30 Under 30 honoree ) Ronnie Kroell follows his skin-baring escapades in Playgirl and the film Eating Out: Drama Camp with a thriller that centers around three best friends who stumble upon a backwoods bar. Unfortunately, a screener was not available for review, but a trailer features blood and ( implied ) nudity—so it has my attention.

Gigola ( SW ) : Laure Charpentier debuts as a director and screenwriter with this adaptation of her own, nearly 40-year-old novel. While she's done a fine job in some respects the story eventually dissolves into incomprehensibility ... at least from a man's perspective. Gigola ( Lou Doillon ) pimps for herself and other women in Paris in the early '60s, and things are fine until she gets involved with a male gangster ( Eduardo Noriega ) .

Wed., Nov. 9:

Hollywood to Dollywood ( RKJ ) : Taking a page from My Date with Drew, gay twin brothers Gary and Larry Lane decide that their movie script is just perfect for Dolly Parton, the queen of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., herself and after consulting with a raft of celebrity friends—Leslie Jordan, Chad Allen, Dustin Lance Black and others, the duo head in an RV to Dollywood intending to place their prized possession in the manicured hands of their idol in person. A lengthy and not-always-eventful road trip that takes up the middle section of the film somewhat mars the winning set-up before the duo arrives at the destination.

Three Veils ( AD ) : Three Veils is a film that focuses on three Muslim women: Leila, who is arranged to be married; Nikki, who acts out her promiscuity because of a death in her family; and the devout Amira, who deals her own feelings toward women. This is a movie about battles—against tradition, one's own demons and repression, among other things—and the leads effectively convey those conflicts.

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