Reeling: The 39th Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival will take place Friday, Sept. 23-Thursday, Oct. 7.
After a virtual edition in 2020, Reeling returns with in-person screenings this year, kicking off with the Estonian romantic drama Firebird at Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., on Friday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m. A pre-party with drinks and hors d'oeuvres (separate ticket required) takes place in the Music Box Lounge at 6 p.m.
Here are reviews of 11 films I was able to preview. None are perfect, but most are generally recommended. A couple others offer enough attraction that you can overlook their faults if they interest you. Only one is a serious disappointment. Hey, you can't love 'em all.
For complete festival information and to buy tickets, visit reelingfilmfestival.org/2021. Note that while most films are available for streaming anywhere in the U.S., a few stream only in Illinois and one is only having a theatrical showing. Besides Music Box Theatre, in-person screenings will also take place at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.
FIREBIRD (Music Box, Sept. 23, 7 p.m.; streaming Sept. 27-Oct. 3 in Illinois only)
In some ways we weren't so different from our Russian enemies during the Cold War. Firebird is a true story of forbidden gay love in the military, specifically an Air Force base in Soviet-occupied Estonia. Sergey (Tom Prior, who also co-wrote) is a private, weeks away from discharge in 1977, when he's assigned as aide to a newly-arrived lieutenant, Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), a fighter pilot. They bond over a mutual love of photography and the arts, and, time being limited, it isn't long before the lieutenant gets into the private's privates. A secretary, Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), seems destined to serve as a beard for gay airmen. Sergey's best friend, she becomes even more to Roman after he's threatened by a homophobic major. The story continues over five more years and many changes. It's beautifully filmed, with the international cast speaking Russian-accented English. The attitude toward gay people took me back to my days in the U.S. Army, but I never found my Roman there.
NO STRAIGHT LINES: THE RISE OF QUEER COMICS (Landmark, Sept. 25, 5:15 p.m.; streaming Sept. 28-Oct. 4)
It's wonderful when a film about our history includes the pioneers who made it happen. In Vivian Kleiman's documentary, a young lesbian cartoonist mentions having been inspired by Alison Bechdel, and we cut to Bechdel telling her own story. Ditto Howard Cruse (filmed before he died almost two years ago), Jennifer Camper and Chicago natives Mary Wings and Rupert Kinnard. All grew up in times when it was rare to see LGBTQ people represented in comicsor just about any other mainstream entertainment. Inspired by the growth of underground comics, they took pen in hand and filled the gap: Wings with Come Out Comix; Cruse, "the Godfather of Queer Comics," with Gay Comix and the strip "Wendel"; Camper with various cartoons and graphics; Bechdel with her "Dykes to Watch Out For" strip; and Kinnard representing Black gay men with his Brown Bomber character, inspired by Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. The growth of the queer press offered opportunities for syndication, and Cruse and Bechdel told their own stories in graphic novels, with Bechdel's eventually becoming the Broadway musical Fun Home. Sometimes it gets frustrating when montages of artwork don't give you time to read the text or even study the drawings, but I think Kleiman's goalbesides preserving our historyis to get you to explore the artists' work for yourself in more depth. There's plenty here to inform and inspire.
BOULEVARD: A HOLLYWOOD STORY (Landmark, Sept. 26, 2:30 p.m.; streaming Sept. 29-Oct. 5)
Those of us who have been showbiz queens forever are always surprised to hear new stories about old favorites, or a new twist on an old story. Leave it to Jeffrey Schwarz, whose documentaries about gay celebs and gay icons include I Am Divine and Tab Hunter Confidential. He reveals how a gay couple, Dick Hughes and Richard Stapley, hooked up with the iconic Gloria Swanson and almost beat Andrew Lloyd Webber to Broadway by 40+ years with a musical version of Swanson's Sunset Boulevard. (It gets a little confusing because Dick is often called Dickson and Richard changes his last name to Wyler.) Hughes was a singer-composer-pianist and Stapley a bisexual English actor coasting on his looks who could also write lyrics. By the mid-'50s, Stapley's MGM contract had run out; and Swanson, who hadn't made many films since the birth of talkies, had only made one since her signature role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. It was her idea to bring Norma to the stage in a musical, and she proposed it to the young men when they offered her a role in another show they'd written. Like Norma, Gloria couldn't have young men around without developing a crush. Stapley's failure to return her interest was one of two nails in the project's coffin. Schwarz lets us follow him as he plays detective in search of the details, including old interviews with the principals, who are all dead. Clips from Sunset Boulevard and other films are worked in cleverly to illustrate common points and Swanson's granddaughter is one of many who were glad to talk about the actress and the men she almost made famous.
SEE YOU THEN (Landmark, Sept. 26, 5 p.m.; streaming Sept. 29-Oct. 5)
The idea of eavesdropping for an hour on a conversation between two women I don't know is not a big selling point for me. But that hour is the heart of this first feature by director and co-writer Mari Walker, and her execution sold me. Kris (Pooya Mohseni) and Naomi (Lynn Chen) were lovers for three years in college, when Kris was a man. Knowing they wanted to transition, Kris left Naomi without a word 16 years ago and the two haven't seen each other since. Now Kris, in L.A. for a conference, invites Naomi, who's married with two kids, to get together and catch up. Of course their catching up catches us up on their story, their time together and their lives since. Chen indicates subtly that Naomi's holding something back, so we know the reunion won't remain so smooth to the end; but the actresses retain our attention even without conflict. Walker changes the background occasionally, from a restaurant to deserted streets, etc., but mostly leaves the focus on the characters. The drama, when it arrives, is less satisfying than the more casual moments, perhaps because we've become attached to the women and don't want unhappiness in their lives. Walker finds an arty way to wrap things up, but we've been warned that Naomi was a performance artist so we shouldn't be too surprised.
BEING BEBE (Landmark, Sept. 27, 9 p.m.; not streaming)
There's a lot of great material in this documentary, especially if you're interested in the art of drag and/or the problems of LGBTQ people in Cameroon. It would be better if it hadn't been edited in a Waring blender, but the moments are still there to appreciate. Marshall Ngwa is better known in America by his professional name, BeBe Zahara Benet, winner of Season One (2009) of RuPaul's Drag Race. He had moved from Cameroon to Minneapolis a few years earlier and began his career in a local bar. Filmmaker Emily Branham apparently started filming him early on, because she had tons of archival material by the time she did a formal interview with him for this feature in 2020. Marshall moved to New York and built a couple of shows around BeBe, highlighting her African culture. One had a successful summer then suddenly dried up, while the other failed to turn a profit at all. Marshall moved back to Minneapolis. These basics are mostly told sequentially but interrupted by several diversions, including horror stories of gay men in Cameroon and scenes of Marshall with his family, who learned about him rather belatedly. Because of his upbringing, he won't discuss his sexuality in an early interview and is still vague about it several years later, even though, as he says, "Being the star protects you." BeBe is quite a star, showing off some of the fiercest, most stunning "female illusion" I've ever seen.
POTATO DREAMS OF AMERICA (Landmark, Sept. 28, 7 p.m.; streaming Oct. 1-7)
For over half an hour, I kept wondering whether Potato Dreams of America would just be my favorite film of the festival or my favorite of the year. It's so bright, creative, satirical and full of surprises. Potato (Hersh Powers) is obviously gay as he approaches adolescence in Vladivostok in 1985, as the Soviet Union is beginning to crumble. Liberals like his mother, Lena (Sera Barbieri), exult at the possibilities of new freedoms, while conservatives like his grandmother (Lea DeLaria) prefer things the old way. Potato brings home Jesus Christ (Jonathan Bennett), who acts gay but doesn't act on it, as an imaginary friend. Lena signs up with a mail-order bride company and is eventually chosen by John (Dan Lauria). She (now Marya Sea Kaminski) and Potato (Tyler Bocock) move to America, the source of movies they've loved, even when they had to watch them in secret. Suddenly it seems as if writer-director Wes Hurley, who is telling his own life story, has been replaced by someone far more bland. The film descends into melodrama, eventually echoing the Gershwins' "more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee." Not terrible, just ordinary, it wouldn't be so bad if our expectations hadn't been raised so high. Fortunately Hurley #1 returns in time to salvage the ending, because we've been told from the outset that American films always have happy endings. The midsection may not be as disappointing now that you've been warned the initial exhilaration won't last, and the beginning and end are definitely worth seeing.
INVISIBLE: GAY WOMEN IN SOUTHERN MUSIC (Landmark, Sept. 29, 7 p.m.; streaming Oct. 1-7)
When I read that Invisible was about lesbians who had written hits for country music stars, I thought it would make an interesting article; but a film? No way. Was I wrong! Not only has gay filmmaker T.J. Parsell made the topic cinematic, but he's found enough interesting material to fill a book. Most of his subjects are little-known and he overwhelms us by introducing seven in the first few minutes, but they've become old friends by the time we've heard their stories in more detail later, and seen them interacting with each other and artists such as Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Omitted is any mention of Brandi Carlile, currently a top-selling out lesbian. This is about the old Nashville, mostly before Carlile was born, when it was hard for any woman to get work in country music, other than as a singer. A few lesbians managed to get their songs recorded, as long as they stayed closeted. The film notes that Nashville wasn't kind to k.d. lang, who quickly crossed over to pop after starting her career in country. More recently Chely Wright had some #1 hits until she hated the closet so much she almost shot herself. Instead she shot her career by coming out. Dianne Davidson ended a promising career at 21 when she wrote a love song to a woman, but she's restarted it decades later, thanks to independent record producers. Cidny Bullins was androgynous rocker Cindy Bullins when men could be androgynous but women couldn't. After raising a family, they transitioned at the age of 61. Their stories and many others make this a treasure trove of detail for country music fans and LGBTQ activists with an interest in the arts.
MY FIONA (Landmark, Sept. 30, 6:45 p.m.; streaming Oct. 1-7, Illinois only)
I don't like soap operas as a rule, but My Fiona is definitely an exception. It has all the melodramatic elements, but is so well-written and -directed by Kelly Walker, and performed by an excellent cast, my biases quickly fell by the wayside. There's no way to tell the story without a spoiler, because the title character commits suicide in the opening scene. The rest of the film explores why, and what happens to the women who were closest to her. Jane (Jeanette Maus, who passed away in January) had been Fiona's best friend forever and was her partner in a start-up business. Gemma (Corbin Reid) was Fiona's wife and co-mother of their seven-year-old son Bailey (Elohim Nycalove, giving an amazing performance). Jane is straight, although that could change as she and Gemma strive to fill the gaps Fiona left in their lives. So much is so good about Walker's first feature, it's a must-see for those who like this sort of thing and worth the risk for those, like me, who usually don't.
B) FLAWED BUT INTERESTING:
JUMP, DARLING (Landmark, Sept. 26, 4:30 p.m.; streaming Sept. 29-Oct. 5, Illinois only)
I'll never forget the day I told Cloris Leachman I had a crush on one of her sons and she responded by pulling out a picture of another son, telling me he was even hotter. I wouldn't have missed one of her last performances (she passed away in January), and she doesn't disappoint as the nonagenarian grandmother of Russell (Thomas Duplessie), who is 60 years younger but has no idea what to do with his life. The script stacks the deck against Russell, making him difficult to like. He walks out on his longtime lover, who's apparently been supporting him, to visit Grams and collect the car she's offered to give him. While there he forges a check on her account for spending money. But he's also sympathetic toward Grams, who can hardly take care of herself but refuses to go to the assisted living facility Russell's mother wants to put her in. Russell, who once hoped to be an actor, works occasional drag gigs as "Fishy Falters." The film is as ambiguous about drag as it is about Russell, featuring several numbers that are highlights, yet looking down on what Russell's lover trashes as "gay variety show shit" that someone does when they can't do anything worthwhile. Both lead actors rise above the material but make you wish it was better. It's not a challenge to play old when you're over 90, but few could do it as well as Leachman does here.
ISAAC (Landmark, Sept. 27, 7 p.m.; streaming Sept. 30-Oct. 6)
I'm surprised I liked this Spanish film as much as I did, considering the frustrations it offers. First of all, you may wonder if you're at the right festival for more than half of its length because nothing queer happens, except what your dirty mind reads into the high school flashbacks. Two decades later, conservative Nacho (Pepe Ocio) and free-spirited Denis (Ivan Sanchez) get together for the first time since school, where they were very close to each other and with a third boy, Isaac, until Denis disappeared suddenly. You'll have to wait a long time to find out what happened to Isaac. Pressured by her family to have a baby, Nacho's wife compromises by asking Nacho to father through a surrogate. They wind up hiring Denis' wife, offering enough money that Denis can afford his dream of opening his own restaurant. The script teases and sometimes confuses us by leaving too many questions unanswered for too long, but what I found most annoying was Nacho's beard (not his wife, but the one on his chin). Unattractive and poorly maintained, constantly changing length and color, it seems uncharacteristic for a man who's supposed to be a successful lawyer. Enough of the film's scenes work well enough that it's not a total loss, but it shouldn't be your first choice.
THE SIXTH REEL (Landmark, Sept. 30, 9:15 p.m.; streaming Oct. 1-7)
Cinephiles and bitchy queens may be drawn to this new film starring Charles Busch, who co-wrote and -directed with Carl Andress. They will leave disappointed. Jimmy (Busch) is "a small-time dealer in movie ephemera...more notorious than admired" who discovers the last reel of a "lost" Lon Chaney film amid the hoarded junk of a deceased author and film critic. The man's niece, Helen (Julie Halston), is with Jimmy when he finds it, and soon there's a fight to decide whether to preserve the film and show it to the world or sell it for a profit to a collector who might lock it away forever. Michael (Tim Daly) romances Jimmy and Helen for a shot at the film. A serious story could be written about this preservation vs. capitalism topic. Busch has decided to go for comedy instead, but for all the laughs he elicits he needn't have bothered. Many in the cast reveal Busch's stage background by playing to the balcony instead of the camera. He should have hired a more screen-savvy director. Best known for female impersonation, Busch dons drag for a couple of sequences that should please his fans; but I can't imagine them being pleased with the film overall.