Once more with Reeling (Part three)

Fri. September 12, 2014 12:00 AM
by Gregg Shapiro

Reeling: The Chicago International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival opens on Sept. 18 at the Music Box Theater on Southport, and runs for a week through Sept. 25. The majority of the Reeling screenings take place at the Landmark Century Cinema in the Century Mall on Clark Street, with others being held at Chicago Filmmakers on Clark St. in Andersonville. Once again, the organizers deserve kudos for selecting a stellar array of shorts and full-length features, comedies, dramas and documentaries. This week's Reel Advice column is the third in a series of reviews of selected titles being screened at Reeling. (Advance tickets for Reeling are available at

Sept. 19, 2014, 7:15 p.m., Landmark Century Cinema: Directed by Andrew Putschoegl, BFFs could have descended into "gay as punchline" territory. However, the performances of the lead actresses (and screenwriters) Andrea Grano and Tara Karsian save it from being offensive.

Best friends Kat (Karsian) and Sam (Grano) have a history of unsatisfactory relationships with men. "Closed off" Kat sabotages hers while "attention whore" Sam resists settling down with just one man. Not only are both women aware of their shortcomings, but so are their friends and family. That's why Kat's mother Joan (Pat Carroll) gives her a "Closer to Closeness Weekend" couples retreat gift certificate for her birthday. Joan hopes Kat can patch things up with her ex-boyfriend Ray.

Of course, Kat has no interest in getting back together with Ray or attending the weekend getaway. Nevertheless, once Kat and Sam check out the brochure and see the possibilities for a few days of escape from their dreary situations, they decide to attend as a "lesbian couple."

Once there, they meet Jacqueline (Sigrid Thornton) and Bob (Patrick O'Connor), the couple who run the couples' haven, along with participants Suzie (Jenny O'Hara) and Ken (Richard Moll), Scott (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) and Chloe (Larisa Oleynik), David (Dan Gauthier) and Rebecca (Molly Hagan), and gay couple Jonah (Russell Sams) and JK (Sean Maher), all of whom have their reasons for participating. Following the intro session and dinner, there is a rap session where Rebecca and David have such a nasty fight that they decide to leave.

The remaining sessions, including one regarding trust, another involving communicating like animals, sharing without editing and a sexual personality workshop. It's no surprise then that even though they aren't taking it all that seriously, such intimacy leads the BFFs to question if they feel something for each other, and if so, how it will affect their friendship. All of this occurs even before the first kiss.

The humor, which occasionally borders on TV sitcom, is often worthy of laughing out loud. All of this is to the credit of Karsian and Grano who have a knack for making us laugh at them and ourselves at the same time.

Sept. 21, 2014, 3:15 p.m., Landmark Century Cinema: Alex & Ali, straight filmmaker Malachi Leopold's tribute to his gay uncle Alex and the hardship he endured attempting to reunite with his Iranian lover Ali is as devastating as you might expect. The men, who met in late 1960s Iran when Alex was a young American Peace Corps volunteer and Ali was a young "determined, dedicated athlete," maintained a correspondence for more than 20 years, although they haven't seen each other since 1977, when they were separated in the early years of the revolution in Iran.

Alex, HIV+ since 1986, describes Ali as his soulmate. An openly gay man for much of his life, Alex is as sensitive as possible to Ali's situation. Being gay in Iran is practically a death sentence. Still, the men agree to meet for the first time in more than 30 years in Turkey, a country known for offering refuge for LGBT exiles.

Sadly, their May 2012 reunion in Istanbul is tainted by the fact that authorities in Iran confiscated incriminating photos and documents (including an application for asylum) from Ali as he was boarding the plane. With a month to resolve the situation before Ali must return home, he has decisions to make, including whether or not he will declare his homosexuality, to set the wheels in motion for his exit from Iran. Naturally, this casts a pall over everything impacting the men's interaction. Alex & Ali has all the elements of a suspenseful thriller, made even more difficult to observe due to the true components of the story.

Sept. 21, 2014, 3:30 p.m., Gateway: In Dutch with subtitles, Boys (M-Appeal) aka Jungens is an insightful exploration of the first blush of young gay love. Teen track team mates Sieger (Gijs Blom) and Marc (Ko Zandvliet) have an immediate attraction as they train for a relay meet with fellow runners Step (Stijn Taverne) and Tom (Myron Wouts). A visit to a swimming hole cements things when the two kiss. Of course, Sieger tells Marc he's not gay, in spite of not hesitating to kiss Marc back.

The boys' home lives couldn't be more different. Sieger and his older brother Eddy (Jonas Smulders), a former track star turned motorcycle-riding hoodlum, live with their widowed father. Eddy insists on riding a motorcycle, even though his father disapproves since the boys' mother was killed in, you guessed it, a motorcycle accident. Marc, on the other hand, is an adoring older brother to his kid sister, and has a good relationship with his folks.

As Sieger and Marc's relationship develops, and they can barely keep their hands off of each other, complications arise. There is Sieger's possible interest in Jessica (Lotte Razoux Schultz), for example, and his obvious confusion about his feelings for Marc. However, a victory at an important track meet is just the thing Sieger needs to face his demons.

Sept. 23, 2014, 7:00 p.m., Landmark Century Cinema: Gay, Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger, The Bubble) ventures into Almodovar's arena with the colorful, sugar-coated coated comedy Cupcakes (Strand). On the night of the UniverSong competition, a group of friends and neighbors – gay schoolteacher Ofer (Ofer Schechter), lesbian singer/songwriter Efrat (Efrat Dor), assistant to the Minister of Culture Dana (Dana Ivgy), blogger Keren (Keren Berger), former beauty queen Yael (Yael Bar-Zohar) and baker Anat (Anat Waxman) – gather together to watch the event on TV. That night, they also end up writing a song together which unexpectedly launches them into the running to represent Israel in the following year's UniverSong competition.

Looking for dramatic tension to balance the camp and comedy? Ofer's in a relationship with closeted Assif (Alon Levi), the spokesperson for his family's successful hummus biz. Socially awkward Keren's life revolves around her laptop. Anat's marriage is on the rocks. Dana, who has always followed her father's orders, is itching for a change. Efrat is growing weary of playing her music to small coffeehouse crowds. Yael's in a dead-end relationship with an offensive and sexist lawyer (Lior Ashkenazi). With their chance to make it big right before them, the sextet is determined not to let anything get in their way and get to Paris to compete.

Fox proves himself to be as adept at comedy as he is at drama. Cupcakes also features tunes by Scissor Sisters' Babydaddy (aka Scott Hoffman). Don't be surprised if you walk out singing. In Hebrew with subtitles.

Sept. 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m., Landmark Century Cinema: Farcical musical Waiting in the Wings: The Musical (JJ Spotlight/Nandar Entertainamen), is an old-fashioned throwback all gayed up for the 21st century, and better than you might think it would be. This is especially true since this is one of those cases where the screenwriter, Jeffrey A. Johns, is also the lead actor. There are also enough breathtaking bodies, cleverly written musical routines, cameos and brief star appearances, to make this mix-up mash-up entertaining.

Anthony Richardson (Johns) lives in Montana with his conservative boyfriend Trevor (Matt Wool) and sings (and grabs the spotlight) in the church choir under the direction of the handsome priest (Christopher Atkins). Anthony dreams of making it big on Broadway. With the help of Trevor and pal Ethel (Lee Meriwether!) he submits a video to an online Broadway musical competition and is selected to participate.

Across the country in New York, dancing stud Tony Richardson (Adam Huss) also enters an online competition, produced by the same production team behind the Broadway musical, to become a professional male stripper. Like Anthony, Tony, who is roommates with his social worker brother Aaron (Arie Gonzalez), is also selected to participate. However, when bumbling producer Bob (Mitch Poulos) drops the files containing all of the applicants' headshots and resumes, can you guess which ones go into the wrong files?

After that it's a series of song and dance numbers, madcap situations, opportunities to rise to the occasion, and finding love when and where you least expect it. Sally Struthers and Shirley Jones camp it up as a sperm bank receptionist and Broadway diva, respectively. Blake Peyrot, who plays Anthony's potential new love interest Lee, doesn't spend enough time shirtless on screen.

Sept. 25, 2014, 7:15 p.m., Landmark Century Cinema: One of the best comedies on the festival circuit, Appropriate Behavior (Parkville Pictures) begs the question, "Why can't all lesbian comedies be this witty, smart and sexy?" Writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan has made a queer film that, like Ira Sachs' Love Is Strange, will appeal to audiences from every demographic.

Appropriate Behavior begins with a break-up. Shirin (Akhavan) and Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), victims of lesbian bed-death, among other things, have called it quits and Shirin is moving out. High on the list of other things is Shirin's hesitance to come out to her Persian immigrant mother and father (Anh Duong and Hooman Majd, respectively). Making matters worse is that Shirin, who has a Masters Degree in journalism isn't making much of her professional life while competitive and overachieving older brother Ali (Adrian Moayed) and his fiancée Layli (Justine Cotsonas) are taking the medical world by storm.

A Brooklyn hipster in training, Shirin finds another living situation with roommates and is hired by druggy Ken (Scott Adsit) to run an after-school filmmaking class for kids. Adding insult to injury, the kids are much younger than the inexperienced Shirin expected.

At the (broken) heart of all of it is that Shirin is far from being over Maxine. Through flashbacks, we see their relationship from its clever and comedic commencement to its ugly and cruel end. Beginning with discovering that they have a "hatred of things in common," as well as being the "same kind of stoned person," the pair deals with the "dating an immigrant experience," "playing the Persian card," and the (unexpected) fluidity of both women's sexuality.

The writing is consistently hilarious and darkly sexy. The therapy session in the lingerie store and the post-break-up scene where the women run into each other (and their new lovers) owe a debt to Woody Allen. Coming off (and out) like an Iranian Sarah Silverman, Akhavan's feature length film debut is a triumph, despite an open-ended finale that feels like a cop-out. But that's really the only complaint.