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Reeling 2018 reviews
by Steve Warren
2018-09-19

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For complete festival information including locations, and to buy tickets, visit reelingfilmfestival.org .

Canary ( HHH ) ( Sept. 21, 7 p.m. )

In South Africa in the mid-'80s, a smalltown boy ( cue Bronski Beat ) is drafted into the ( white ) army. Because of his musical talent, Johan ( Schalk Bezuidenhout ) gets into a special military/religious chorus, the Canaries. Enough of the members are gay that most of the others don't care, but Boy George-idolizing Johan isn't sure what he is. The army makes a man of him—a self-loathing homosexual man—in this fine musical drama with elements of comedy and romance. You may get whiplash from the plot's sharp turns, but it's worth it.

Snapshots ( HH1/2 ) ( Sept. 22, 5:15 p.m. )

Just because I'm not woman enough to appreciate a movie like Snapshots, doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it. A lesbian love story that begins in 1960 unfolds in flashbacks as the memories, triggered by a batch of old photos, of one of the women in the present.

Rose ( Piper Laurie in one of her career-best performances ) is hosting her daughter Patty ( Brooke Adams ) and granddaughter Allison ( Emily Baldoni ) at her lake house for a weekend. As happens whenever families get together—at least in the movies—secrets come spilling out. Not all of them can be revealed here.

Unknown to her family and maybe her late husband, young Rose ( Shannon Collis ) was wooed and eventually won by "free spirit" Louise ( Emily Goss ) while both were married to men and the couples hung out together. ( They even danced to "The Twist," and it's too bad the budget didn't allow for Chubby Checker's version, or at least Hank Ballard's. )

Allison has her own problems. Her husband has a new job in Chicago so she'll have to leave St. Louis or him. And she's pregnant and doesn't know if she wants to have a child, though her conservative mom won't hear of the alternative. Patty has a story too. Her husband died of natural causes a few years ago, shortly after she found out he'd been cheating on her.

The flashbacks can be confusing for old movie buffs, because the red-haired Goss looks more like Piper Laurie did when she was romancing Rock Hudson onscreen back in the day, than Collis, who plays Laurie's younger self here.

"Based on a true story," Snapshots comes off as soapy, and seems long and repetitious for its 95-minute running time.

Riot ( HHH ) ( Sept. 22, 7:15 p.m. )

We've had two films titled Stonewall and others that referred to the event. It's time our Aussie kinfolk got a taste of their own LGBT history, even if it gets down under the skin of conservatives; so this movie throws it on the barbie.

Similar in tone to last year's BPM, Riot combines personal dramas within the larger context of a political movement. Set between 1972 and 1978, it's nostalgia for some and a history lesson for others.

The opening is a spoiler, scenes from the first Gay Mardi Gras in Sydney that the rest of the film is building toward. The main characters are real people who were involved in creating the event, which has continued annually ever since.

Lance Gowland ( Damon Herriman, currently playing Charles Manson for Quentin Tarantino ) is one of the more active activists in CAMP ( Campaign Against Moral Persecution ), one of the groups fighting for our rights. He falls in love at first sight with the more conservative Dr. Jim Walker ( Xavier Samuel ). Leading the lesbians is outspoken Marg McMann ( Kate Box ), who will have to fight to keep her daughter.

The meetings are more gender-inclusive than I remember ours being in the early '70s, where women either fought to have their issues recognized or left and formed their own groups. There's just a hint of this early on. Otherwise things are the same, including squabbling over every point and an inability to prioritize the laundry list of demands.

The problems are familiar: the need for decriminalization of homosexuality in the midst of gay bashing, bullying, suicide, job loss upon exposure, expulsion from a "Christian" college, family rejection, custody battles, raids on gay establishments and police brutality, the last turning a party into the riot of the title.

Over the years, the demonstrations for gay rights lose their steam as they often produce negative results. In 1978, someone comes up with the idea of having a Mardi Gras, an "International Celebration of Gay Solidarity"; while the first one doesn't all go smoothly, it sets the tone for the future.

I have mixed feelings about reliving those good old bad old days, even from this safe distance; but we should all know about them, and this film does a good job of recreating them.

Just Friends ( HHH ) ( Sept. 22, 9:15 p.m. )

Being gay is no longer an issue in much of the world, so potential fictional lovers need other obstacles to overcome. The mother of Dutch Jew Joris ( Josha Stradowski ) wants to build a wall to keep Syrian immigrant Yad ( Majd Mardo ) away from her son, even though her own mother ( Jenny Arean ) played Cupid to bring the guys together. An extraneous scene of real-world problems suggests an area of incompatibility that's shrugged off as something else for love to conquer for a happy ending.

Call Her Ganda ( HHH ) ( Sept. 23, 1:15 p.m. )

If you're searching for reasons to feel proud of being an American, this is not the film for you. Artfully assembled by director P.J. Raval, it's a documentary about the 2014 murder of a Filipina trans woman, Jennifer Laude, and its aftermath.

The accused killer is U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, who met Jennifer in a bar and took her to a nearby hotel, where the discovery of her male genitalia sent the 19-year-old into a rage. He admits to choking her but says she was alive when he left.

Things are complicated in the Philippines, where a large U.S. military presence compromises Filipino authorities in matters of jurisdiction. A Visiting Forces Agreement shifts the odds in favor of the U.S. and prior to Pemberton, no American had been convicted of crimes, including rape and murder, against natives on local soil.

A "Justice for Jennifer" movement snowballs, with some demonstrators using the occasion to call for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Philippines. The latter demand is a promise in the 2016 campaign of President Rodrigo Duterte, who is later praised by Donald Trump despite ( because of? ) his human rights violations.

The film focuses on Jennifer's mother, known as Nanay, who had depended on her daughter for financial support; her attorney, Virginia Suarez; and journalist Meredith Talusan, a Filipina trans woman who had emigrated to the U.S. but went back to cover the case.

Jennifer, called "Jeffrey" in court and many press reports, has a sister with a gay son. Pemberton is said to be close to his own lesbian sister. Marc, Jennifer's German fiancé, expresses no problem with how she made money. Apparently he's a satisfied customer who decided to marry her.

There are a lot of facts to absorb if you're not familiar with the story, and a lot of opinions—including some disgusting social media posts in support of Pemberton. Raval gives you time to process it all by slowing down periodically to focus on people or scenery while soothing music plays.

Lest fans of Gandhi or Gandalf misread the title, "Ganda" is the Tagalog word for pretty, which is how Nanay describes Jennifer. Footage of the victim in happier days proves she's right.

Devil's Path ( HHH ) ( Sept. 23, 7:15 p.m. )

For quite a while, Devil's Path is a can't look at it/can't look away kind of movie. You keep wondering whether it's going to get good; then it does and—wow! It surprised me so many times I'd feel like a hypocrite if I didn't recommend it.

Noah ( Stephen Twardokus ) tells us he has always felt safe in the woods, but not around people. He looks like he's afraid of everything. But the part of the woods he hangs out in ( filmed in California's Russian River area ) has a lot of people because it's a notorious gay cruising spot. "Sometimes I like to watch," he admits.

One day Noah sees a good-looking guy, "Patrick" ( J.D. Scalzo ), and sets out to meet him. Patrick pegs Noah as a "midwestern small town guy who believes in love," while he's just there for a quickie with no strings, so no thank you: "Love is a chemical reaction of the brain. It's not real."

After Noah's attacked by one guy and he and Patrick are chased by two others, they wind up lost in an area where two young men recently disappeared. Their pursuers are still after them so they go deeper into the woods until they don't know the way out. Noah's content to spend the night there, but Patrick wants to get out before dark.

Got the picture? Good. Now forget it, because most of it isn't true. It's a setup that sets you up for the twists to come.

Twardokus, who wrote the screenplay with director Matthew Montgomery, gives a terrific performance, although he looks a bit older than I imagine Noah is supposed to be. Scalzo makes a fine foil for his partner's histrionic gymnastics.

Devil's Path is a little indie that could...and does.

Wild Nights with Emily ( HH1/2 ) ( Sept. 23, 3 p.m. )

Molly Shannon plays the older version of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson in somber, ghostlike fashion, leaving the real acting to Susan Ziegler as Susan, Emily's sister-in-law and lover. Adapting her own play, Madeleine Olnek incorporates wonderful bits of subtle humor while the main plot wanders in time, taking too long to explain how the narrator, Mabel ( Amy Seimetz ), fits in. It's not as dull as I found Terence Davies' Dickinson-centric A Quiet Passion, but not as original as Olnek's marvelous Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.

My Big Gay Italian Wedding ( HHH ) ( Sept. 24, 7 p.m. )

Remember when movies used to be fun? This one still is. Even with some seriousness just below the surface—well, on the surface actually—it qualifies as a screwball comedy because there's enough silliness to turn the balance in the direction of fun.

Italians Antonio ( Cristiano Caccamo, who reminds me of the young John Leguizamo ) and Paolo ( Salvatore Esposito ) are actors living in Berlin. They're in love. With each other. Antonio proposes to Paolo and invites him home for Easter to meet his parents.

The wacky characters who are mostly there for comic relief are introduced early on. The guys share their Berlin flat with Benedetta ( Diana Del Bufalo ) and a new flatmate, Donato ( Dino Abbrescia ). Then there's "creepy" Camilla ( Beatrice Arnera ), who used to be Antonio's girlfriend and won't take "gay" for an answer, even though he dumped her three years ago.

Donato was caught by his wife and daughter the first time he dressed in drag, and in middle-age he's having an identity crisis. He's afraid to be left alone so he accompanies the others to scenic Civita di Bagnoregio, where Antonio's father, Roberto ( Diego Abatantuono ), is the mayor.

Roberto is considered a liberal on immigration, being desperate to populate the dying town any way he can; but he proves homophobic when Antonio officially comes out. Anna ( Monica Guerritore ), the mother, knew all along. She immediately starts planning the wedding, insisting: a ) It will be there in Civita; b ) Paolo's mother will attend ( a problem since she hasn't spoken to him since he came out three years ago ); and c ) her husband will conduct the ceremony. When he refuses, she throws him out of the house and lines up a monk to do it.

It's not mentioned that Italy only approved same-sex "civil unions" two years ago and still outlaws same-sex marriage. Perhaps it was thought that would change by the time the movie came out, or that it would make Italians more receptive to the idea.

It's all light and breezy, and Benedetta turns out to have vocal skills, leading to a big climactic musical number ( in English, so you can sing along ).

Festivals can get too serious, so a treat like My Big Gay Italian Wedding is especially welcome.

A Moment in the Reeds ( HHH ) ( Sept. 25, 9:30 p.m. )

There are worse ways to pass a couple of hours than watching two hot young men fall in love. If you don't fall in love with both of them, as I did, they're different enough types that you're almost certain to at least fall for one or the other.

Leevi ( Janne Puustinen ) is a Finnish blond who takes a break from working on his thesis in Paris to visit Jouko ( Mika Melender ), his widowed father, who is preparing to sell the family's summer cottage in the Finland countryside. Jouko represents the worst aspects of many gay men's fathers. It's not clear whether he knows or just fears that Leevi is gay, but he encourages his son to date women and join the army. When he mentions that he's hired a handyman to help get the house in shape, anyone who saw God's Own Country in last year's Chicago International Film Festival will know exactly where we're going.

Tareq ( Boodi Kabbani ) is a recently-arrived Syrian refugee, an architect who's content to have found work renovating houses. Jouko hardly tries to hide his prejudice, and we see the warning light go off in his head when Tareq mentions he's more into arts than sports.

Still Jouko soon has to go off to work and stay away overnight ( an underexplained and somewhat incredible aspect of the script, but who doesn't want him to leave? ), setting the stage for the inevitable to happen. There are a few lengthy sex scenes, mostly shot well above the waist with just an occasional glimpse of what's going on below. A location neither man has been happy in suddenly becomes a romantic paradise.

Between the "action" scenes there's a lot of talk as the guys get to know each other and we get to know them. Tareq's description of the immigrant experience and his dilemma about what he can do for his family back in Syria should resonate with Europeans and Americans alike as each country debates how/if to help refugees.

Debuting writer-director Mikko Makela doesn't play favorites but treats both fine actors to countless screen-filling closeups and allows them to improvise some of their dialogue, which is in English except when Leevi talks to his father and helps him communicate with Tareq.

Despite the fine acting and a story that's relatable, even in a foreign setting, not everyone will be able to adjust to the film's languid pace. It's art, not sports.

Adonis ( HH ) ( Sept. 25, 7 p.m. )

Sometimes even a professional critic has to admit he doesn't know what he's watching. I haven't seen writer-producer-director Scud's first six features, so he may be an acquired taste.

I will say Adonis is good to look at, and not only because of the more than 30 naked men who appear in much of it, giving the impression Hong Kong is a clothing optional country.

The story spans the 30 years of Yang Ke ( played as an adult by Adonis He Fei ), but in random order. There's a recurring scene where he's naked in the woods, surrounded by 30 men who are also naked except for face paint and masks. There are flashbacks to Ke's early life with his mother.

The actual story begins when, after his theater troupe goes bust owing him six months' wages, Ke is ripped off in a job as a naked street model but finds a friend in Wang Qiang ( Justin Lim ), who becomes his agent.

Pimp is more like it. He gets Ke gigs at what looks like a Cirque du Soleil gay whorehouse that gives their clients what they want, often involving S/M. The job we see the most of ( another recurring scene ) involves Ke tied to a cross ( naked ) and being gang-raped by, yes, 30 men.

Unless I misheard, Ke describes two different sexual experiences as his "first," and both occur after he's starred in a porn film. He also finds true love, but we don't know about this until he tells Wang; we only catch a couple of brief glimpses of his beloved. Adonis is not a romantic movie.

A stronger through line would help connect all the scattered bits and major set pieces, and a familiarity with Buddhist philosophy might clarify some aspects of the film involving Ke's morbid curiosity about death and fate.

Scud is scheduled to appear at the festival screening. I'd like to be a fly on the wall at the Q&A. I'd have at least 30 questions for him.


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