Universal Pictures must have felt guilty about opening Bros, touted as "the first gay rom-com released by a major studio," i.e., aimed at a general audience (What about The Birdcage or In and Out?) opposite the final weekend of a key LGBTQ+ film festivalso it granted Reeling a preview screening on Sept. 26 to generate word of mouth among its primary niche audience.
That's cool, but remember that Bros will be around for a long time while many of the other films in the festival will be hard to find if you miss them here.
The 40th-anniversary Reeling Film Festival will run Sept. 22-Oct. 2 in person, and virtually Sept. 30-Oct. 6. After opening night at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., there will be a week of films at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St., before closing weekend; and Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at Chicago Filmmakers, 1326 W. Hollywood Ave.
Many of the films are available for streaminga few in Illinois onlyin the virtual version of the festival.
More information and ticket sales are available at www.reelingfilmfest.org . Lest you be overwhelmed by the 37 feature films, one web series and 13 programs of short films, from a total of 26 countries, some features and offer recommendations are below.
BEST OF FEST:
CHRISSY JUDY (Sept. 25, 6:30 p.m., Landmark's Century Centre Cinema; Sept. 30-Oct. 6 virtual in Illinois only)
It's rare, but occasionally you'll see something at Reeling that's so original and made with such skill by a hot new talent, you'll think you're at Sundance. That's the case with Chrissy Judy, the first feature by writer-director-producer-editor Todd Flaherty.
Did I mention he also stars as Judy, half of a pair of underappreciated New York drag queens? Judy and Chrissy (Wyatt Fenner) are the kind of besties who promised to marry each other if they were still single at 30. When the time comes they push the deadline back to 40, but Chrissy has a serious boyfriend who invites him to move to Philadelphia with him. This introduces Judy to a new kind of loneliness and he tries different ways of coping. The black-and-white cinematography and score of jazzy standards, many sung live, suggest early Woody Allen; and, like Allen, there's enough comedy that it may be a while before you take the story seriously. There's certainly more than one possibility for a line like "When did you start acting like all these people we used to make fun of?" If Flaherty doesn't have an Oscar by the time he's 40, I'll marry him! (I don't think my present husband has to worry.)
IN FROM THE SIDE (Sept. 23, 7 p.m., Landmark's Century Centre Cinema)
Although it's not technically a superhero movie, In from the Side is the work of an emerging superhero: Matt Carter. He's the writer, director, cinematographer, editor, a producer, composer, performer and a few miscellaneous creditsa possible record for multitasking.
Usually such an effort results in a small-scale, low-budget film, but this one has a broad scope and excellent production values. It also has a plot: a gay love story concerning rugby players. Knowing only that rugby is a sport, I soon learned it involves hot men in tight shorts and is much like the English version of U.S. football, as soccer is the U.S. version of English football.
The all-gay South London Stags have an A Squad and a B Squad. Mark (Alexander Lincoln) is the MVP of the latter. Warren (Alexander King) is returning to the A team after being sidelined with an injury. Each is in a long-term relationship, which complicates things when their initial hookup leads to more and more involvement and they have to hide it from their teammates and everyone else they know. Carter writes himself into such a corner I can't imagine an ending that would be completely satisfying, but most of what comes before is as good as anything you'll see in this or most other LGBTQ festivals.
JIMMY IN SAIGON (Sept. 28, 7 p.m., Landmark's Century Centre Cinema; Sept. 30-Oct. 6 virtual)
Filmmaker Peter McDowell plays detective to learn how his older brother Jimmy lived and died in Saigon in 1972 at age 24. I won't reveal his key discovery, but since the film's in this festival it wouldn't be much of a spoiler.
Peter himself comes out early in the film, so that could be enough justification. They were the oldest and youngest of six siblings in a Catholic (naturally) family who lived in Champaign. Despite claiming to be a conscientious objector, Jimmy was drafted in 1969 and sent to Vietnam at the height of the war. After being discharged he chose to go back to Saigon"for hedonistic pleasures," he wrote. He said he was close to a young woman and lived with her family. When he died, "heroin abuse" was blamed. The McDowells retrieved his body for burial but felt they lacked closure.
In 2010, Peter started working on this film to resolve unanswered questions. He went through Jimmy's letters and sought out people who had known him. In 2016 he went to Saigon in search of Jimmy's return address, the number of which had changed, and his "girlfriend," who had moved to America. But he didn't quit. Besides letters and photos, Peter has amassed an impressive number of clipsfrom old home movies to period news and scenic footage. He's also interviewed family and friends to paint a slowly evolving portrait of the brother he lost when he was 5. It's a moving story that's well told, with an executive-producer credit for gay personality Dan Savage.
MANSCAPING (Sept. 27, 9:15 p.m., Landmark's Century Centre Cinema; Sept. 30-Oct. 6 virtual)
Where in the world can you go for a haircut without worrying about encountering hypermasculinity, racism, homophobia or transphobia? Manscaping is an hourlong portrait of three LGBTQ+ people from Pittsburgh, Vancouver and Sydney who have provided different answers to that question.
Devan Shimoyama overcame his childhood fear of barbers by creating collages about haircuts, applying jewels, glitter and other objects and materials to his paintings, winding up with exhibitions in New York and DC. Trans man Jessie Anderson opened Big Bro's Barber Shop, where trans persons are especially welcome and understood, and can buy clothing otherwise available only online. While losing his own hair, Australian fetishist Richard Savvy started cutting other men's as the Naked Barber. He also produces porn but knows how to keep his professions separate. Director Broderick Fox smoothly juggles his three subjects as we find out more about each and the types they represent. I was surprised by how much I learned when I thought I knew everything. Florida politicians might be surprised to see what kind of "grooming" queers really do.
WHEN TIME GOT LOUDER (Sept. 24, 5 p.m., Landmark's Century Centre Cinema)
My early reaction to When Time Got Louder was that soap opera fans, which I am not, will find it "soaper-doaper." It didn't take me long to get caught up in the genuine drama of writer-director Connie Cocchia's debut feature. She's annoyingly trendy in shredding the timeline over a dozen years while concealing until the last few minutes the nature of the event that brought Kayden Peterson (Jonathan Simao) to the hospital today with head injuries.
His family is being interrogated by a woman who turns out to be a social worker. The Petersons haven't had an easy time raising 17-year-old Kayden, who has a severe case of autism and can't be left alone. His parents (Lochlyn Munro and Elizabeth Mitchell) have largely relied on his sister Abbie (Willow Shields), with whom Kayden shares a love of drawing, but she went away to college a few months ago and has just returned for the holidays. At college she started dating Karly (Ava Capri), who doesn't appreciate Abbie not being out to her overstressed family. Performances range from good to great, most notably Simao's. It turns out he has Asperger's syndrome in real life, giving him insight into Kayden's condition. Despite my issues with the continuity, I can't dispute the film's dramatic impact.
FLAWED BUT INTERESTING:
ALL MAN: THE INTERNATIONAL MALE STORY (Sept. 25, 2:30 p.m., Landmark's Century Centre Cinema; Sept. 30-Oct. 6 virtual in Illinois only)
Once upon a time, gay men who could afford it bought trendy clothes from the International Male catalog. The rest of us just looked at the pictures.
Directors Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed include plenty of those pictures as they take us back to those daysroughly the last three decades of the 20th century. Gene Burkard founded the magazine/catalog after leaving the Air Force, spending the '60s in Europe and finally settling in San Diego. He was interviewed extensively for this film before passing away in 2020.
Masculinity began to be sexualized (no one says "exploited") by Cosmopolitan and Playgirl in the early '70s. Burkard found he could sell sexy underwear to gay men through the mail, but when his inventory expanded he was surprised to find his clientele included more straight men who wanted to look like the models (and women who wanted their men to) than gay men who just wanted the models. After AIDS took many of his staff, models and customers, Burkard gave up and sold the business to Hanover Direct. Narrated by Matt Bomer, the film doesn't have the smoothest flow, but you're never far from some interesting comments because everyone had their own take on IM. And, of course, there are those photos.
LONESOME (Sept. 27, 9 p.m., Landmark's Century Centre Cinema)
I must have been married too long because the gay single life shown in Lonesome looked strange to meor maybe it's the Australian setting.
Casey (Josh Lavery) hitchhikes to Sydney from his rural town, hitting truck stops on the way for sex and scraps of food. He adjusts quickly to the big city and soon meets Tib (Daniel Gabriel) in bed. Tib invites him to move in, sleeping (sometimes) on the couch. Their budding friendship has ups and downs from there; however, even though Casey wears a cowboy hat, this is no Brokeback Mountain. I'm not sure what it is, actually. It's got more scenes of men in sexy underwear than All Man: The International Male Story and even more scenes of the men out of their underwear. There are more sex scenessoftcore; no penetration shownthan most porn. Writer-director Craig Boreham should succeed at arousing gay male viewers but not in making them care about the main characters. Lavery is fairly attractive (the cutest thing about him is the tattoo of a rose that seems to grow out of his butt) but has zero personality. And that haircutkeep the hat on! Gabriel is more my type but his Tib doesn't really connect with the audience, either. See it for the visuals, if you will, but not for the plot.
NELLY & NADINE (Sept. 25, 1 p.m., Landmark's Century Centre Cinema; Sept. 30-Oct. 6 virtual in Illinois only)
Elements of Nelly & Nadine could have made this true lesbian love story the best film in the festival; however, the way they've been assembledpresumably at the will of director and co-writer Magnus Gerttenthe film becomes most frustrating instead. The tale is presented like a jigsaw puzzlewith missing pieces.
The unidentified narrator, possibly Gertten, tells how he researched to learn the identity of women prisoners of Nazi concentration camps from photos taken after their release. Among his examples is Nadine Hwang, who he says he learned about on a French farm. Cut to that farm, where we meet Sylvie Bianchi, the granddaughter of another prisoner, opera singer Nelly Mousset-Vos. Sylvie explores Nelly's memorabilia, which she hasn't looked at since her death in 1987. We're 20 minutes into the film before the women are connected. Nelly and Nadine became lovers at Kreuzberg or Ravensbruckcamps where they were imprisoned in 1944; and except for a year or so after the war (we don't learn how they found each other again), they were together until Nadine's death in 1972, living mostly in Caracas.
Much of the story is told through Nelly's journals, which are beautifully written and read (in French, subtitled here), and illustrated with the trove of photos and film from her archive, as well as WWII stock footage. Those parts are so wonderful it's a shame to interrupt them with recent interviews with Sylvie and others. I'd rather hear more about Nadine's pre-war involvement in Natalie Barney's lesbian literary salon in Paris than watch Christian (presumably Sylvie's husband) plowing the fields of their farm. While Gertten omits or buries details, his attempts to be arty only damage a story that's already a work of art. However, the film you can piece together in your head while watching is worth the effort.
TWO EYES (Sept. 29, 7 p.m., Landmark's Century Centre Cinema; Sept. 30-Oct. 6 virtual)
Most of the character names in Two Eyes have odd spellings to obscure their genders, but unless you're watching a subtitled print you won't see the names until the closing credits (which no one watches). It's another sign that writer, director, co-producer and editor Travis Fine is more concerned with pleasuring himself than potential viewers with his cleverness.
The whole film is a puzzle that lets you piece together three stories spread over 152 years. Even more puzzling are the genders and sexualities of some characters, which may be revealed or change as the film sometimes flows, more often jumps from one tale to another.
In Montana in 1868, British artist Dihlon (Benjamin Rigby) leaves his wife and kids to follow a Native guide, Jacy (Kiowa Gordon), in search of his muse. In 1979 in Barstow, California, Gabryal (Uly Schlesinger) becomes a native guide of sorts for newly arrived foreign exchange student Alasen (Jessica Allain), until she takes the reins and guides him through life. In Wyoming in 2020, Jalin (Ryan Cassata) is depressed after a breakup and struggles to earn his male pronouns. A non-binary trans therapist (Kate Bornstein) tries to help him and eventually helps us tie the stories together.
The title comes from a variation on the idea of two-spirit Indigenous people, saying that some see the world through one eye as a male and the other as a female. Nakhane Toure, as a friend of Alase, provides the film's best music and some of its best acting. Much of Two Eyes is enjoyable but sometimes it seems to require more effort than it's worth.
8 YEARS (Sept. 24, 9:15 p.m., Landmark's Century Centre Cinema; Sept. 30-Oct. 6 virtual)
The film 8 Years is like a Spanish version of Uncoupled, but much more serious.
Jose (Miguel Diosdado) and David (Carlos Mestanza) split up 10 months ago after more than seven years together. They meet for a month's vacation on La Palma in the Canary Islands (great scenery!), where they first met, to celebrate what would have been their eighth anniversary and possibly get back together. They check into a hotel but spend more time in the home of a lesbian couple who are old friends and are arguing over whether to have a baby. The men have romantic moments but it's hard to imagine them having been together for more than seven years when they can't go seven minutes without a minor disagreement or seven hours without a major meltdown or tricking with a local stranger. David announces he has to leave for work after four days but doesn't. Then Jose is called back to Madrid for work but he doesn't go either. People go off in different directions but magically find each other again. There are fantasies, some drug-fueled, and flashbacks, but we can't always tell which is which. Jose is a screenwriterhopefully, a much better one than JD Alcazar, who wrote and directed this, his first feature.