Screen Savor: Reeling 2016

Wed. September 21, 2016 12:00 AM
by Gregg Shapiro

Comedies, dramas and docs, oh my!: Selected highlights of Reeling 2016

Reeling: The 34th Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival runs from Sept. 22 through 29 with screenings at The Music Box on Southport, Landmark's Century Cinema on Clark Street in Lakeview and Chicago Filmmakers on Clark Street in Andersonville. As in past years, the films represent the cinematic rainbow of our community and run the gamut from funny to serious to informative and, sometimes, all three at once. Below are selected highlights of Reeling 2016. Before you ask, no, Hurricane Bianca was not available to the press for advance screening.

In bwoy (Novo Novus), from writer/director John G. Young (Rivers Wash Over Me), middle-aged, closeted bisexual doctor Brad (out actor Anthony Rapp) was setting up his profile for an online sex site when his young son Benjamin (Austin Randle) drowned in the backyard swimming pool. Never the same since, Brad's marriage to Marcia (De'Adre Aziza) is barely holding together. He's taken a job as a delinquent accounts collector for a credit card company which is particularly ironic as Brad is having his own financial issues.

Back online after Benjamin's passing, Brad edits his rather dull profile, including changing his location from Schenectady, New York to Kingston, Jamaica, and gets lots of responses. The one from 23 year old Yenny (Jimmy Brooks) catches his eye and he begins chatting with him online. Soon they are texting and then sexting, with Yenny sending provocative pics to Brad. Brad, in turn, takes selfies and send them to Yenny. Their relationship moves to the video chatting stage and Yenny begins to tell Brad about how horrible it is to be gay in Jamaica. Of course, he breaks up the bad with the good, including dirty talk, posing and masturbation.

Before you know it, Yenny is asking for money. Brad cautiously obliges. Their online relationship grows and Brad is led to believe that Yenny lives with his homophobic uncle, but he's not sure how long that will last. Meanwhile, Brad's own home life continues to deteriorate. He's distracted at work, too. When Yenny's uncle walks in on a video chat with Brad, things take a turn for the worse.

In an effort to make something in his life go right, Brad books a flight to Jamaica. He writes Marcia a letter explaining everything. However, when Brad gets to Yenny's house, with the intention of saving him and taking him back to the States with him, he is in for the biggest shock yet. Rapp, who appears to be on a comeback path, gives one of the most spellbinding performances of his career. [Sept. 26, 7 p.m., Landmark's Century Cinema.]

When Oscar (Connor Jessup) was a little boy, instead of telling him a bedtime story, his father Peter (Aaron Abrams) would give him a "dream." As he made up the dream for Oscar's sleep, Peter would also blow up a balloon, hold the opening to Oscar's forehead and let the air escape. This is a wonderful image and not the most surreal one in Closet Monster (Fortissimo Films) by a long shot.

On the last of Oscar's birthdays, when his parents were still married, Peter and Oscar's mother Brin (Joanne Kelly) gave him a hamster, and then proceeded to break the news to the boy that Brin was moving out of the house. Oscar, whose vivid imagination got him through many childhood traumas, could hear Buffy the hamster speaking to him, and she sounded just like Isabella Rossellini (!). Oscar's parents' divorce began a string of events, including his witnessing some boys bullying a student and raping him with rebar, traumatizing Oscar into his teens.

Now in high school, Oscar and his BFF Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf) make plans to go to college in New York. Oscar wants to study make-up and effects for movies. He's also a good photographer and takes pictures of Gemma for her portfolio. It's clear from their interactions that Gemma has feelings for Oscar, but he doesn't feel the same way.

While working at his job at a big box home improvement store, Oscar meets the fittingly named Wilder (Aliocha Schneider of Ville-Marie). Soon they are hanging out together, which is a good thing for Oscar since his home-life with Peter, and occasional visits with Brin and her new family, aren't go so well. Wilder invites Oscar to a party where Oscar has a bad reaction to the drugs he took, followed by an unsuccessful sexual encounter with sizzling hot Andrew (James Hawksley).

As Oscar, who's never had it easy and maybe never will, navigates the choppy waters of his life, he alternates between his complex reality and a series of surreal and frightening fantasies, such as vomiting nuts and bolts. For the most part, Closet Monster is a fascinating story about that grey area between adolescence and adulthood. Jessup owns the role of Oscar from the first moment we see him onscreen. However, the graphic fantasy sequences (and less visceral ones including the talking hamster) have a way of interrupting the flow of the movie, and might make you wish that writer/director Stephen Dunn either made things either more or less surreal, not so in-between. [Sept. 23, 7 p.m., Landmark's Century Cinema.]

Wedding jitters movies are nothing new. However, with marriage equality now a government sanctioned right, be prepared to see more and more films dealing with same-sex wedding squeamishness.

Do You Take This Man (Modern Love/Kops / Tunick Productions) is one such movie. On the day before their wedding, Daniel (out actor Anthony Rapp) and Christopher (semi-outed Jonathan Bennett of Mean Girls fame), have different approaches towards how to prepare for the event. Christopher, for instance, is whisked off to brunch with besties Bradley (Thomas Dekker) and Summer (Hutchi Hancock), where they surprise him with Emma (Alona Tal), an old friend from his past that they paid to have flown to L.A.

Perfectionist Daniel, on the other hand, is obsessed with the details of the rehearsal dinner he has planned for guests including his sister Rachael (Alyson Hannigan), his mother Esther (Lee Garlington), his father Steve (Sam Anderson), his best friend Jacob (Mackenzie Astin), as well as Christopher, Summer and Bradley. Naturally, he's a little upset when he finds out that Emma will be joining them. But that's not the only upsetting thing taking place. It turns out that Emma is just one piece of Christopher's past that he hasn't shared with his soon-to-be husband.

There is also the complication involving Zoe (Marla Sokoloff), an actress friend and online-ordained minister who agreed to perform the ceremony. She got a part in a Martin Scorcese movie requiring her to leave town, thereby making her incapable of performing the scenery. But Christopher hasn't told Daniel. Yet.

Nothing is insurmountable, but you know how some people can get in the hours before a wedding. That's what Do You Take This Man plays on, emphasizing the drama of the little disasters, the sweet and heartbreaking moments. It's not a major accomplishment, but it does provide a good example of how alike we all are, gay, straight and whatever, when it comes to matters of the heart. [Sept. 26, 9:15 p.m., Landmark's Century Cinema.]

In the Vermont-set indie Fair Haven (The Little Film Company), James (Michael Grant), who has deferred his first year at Berklee College of Music, returns home to his widowed father Ricky (Broadway and TV star Tom Wopat) after being sent to a conversion therapy program. James, 19, tells his father he thinks he's "better now."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Initially James avoids Charlie (Josh Green), with whom he had been in a relationship. He even tries going out with Suzy (Lily Anne Harrison), the perky and virginal minister's daughter. But the flashbacks to his de-gaying sessions with Dr. Gallagher (Gregory Harrison) provide little help. When James finally admits that he's still in love with Charlie, who also feels the same for him, he must confront his father and his future. [Sept. 23, 9 p.m., Landmark's Century Cinema.]

You could consider Lazy Eye (Breaking Glass/T42) the gay comeback of writer/director Tim Kirkman (the acclaimed doc Dear Jesse and the fantastic Loggerheads), it's that good. The timing of the film, around the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, only makes it even more potent.

Bearded ginger graphic designer Dean (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) is having an eye exam. He's experienced a dramatic change in his vision problems, including amblyopia (aka "lazy eye"), as he approaches middle age. It's something he noticed recently when he was on laptop, especially after getting email from Alex (Aaron Costa Ganis), a "ghost from the past."

At Dean's office, where he's getting used to his new trifocals, he meets with his business partner Mel (the wonderful Michaela Watkins), whom he's known since college. While working on the design for a movie poster, Mel mentions that Dean's been in "weird, funky state." He agrees and tells her he's going to drive out to the desert, to his house near Joshua Tree, to clear his head.

It's obvious that Dean's unsettled state of mind is due to the email from Alex, which is causing him to flashback to his past with Alex, 15 years earlier New York, before Alex broke Dean's heart. Naturally, Dean responds to Alex's email and they begin corresponding. Alex lives in New Orleans. Dean extends an invitation to him to come to Joshua Tree. Wouldn't you know it? Alex accepts.

Alex arrives and they immediately have sex. Over course of the next couple of days they hash out a lot of stuff, some of it nice (reminiscing about seeing Harold & Maude together early in their relationship and stuff like that) and some not so nice (the way Alex disappeared on Dean 15 years earlier, shortly after 9/11). As the two fill in all the empty holes of the past, and a few other holes, you almost begin to root for them getting back together. That is until Dean drops his bombshell revelation.

Sexy, funny and dramatic, sometimes all at once, Lazy Eye manages to avoid being another standard gay indie. The credit is shared by Kirkman and his reliable cast who make the movie well worth seeing. [Sept. 28, 7 p.m., Landmark's Century Cinema.]

With Shared Rooms (Guest House Films), gay filmmaker/screenwriter Rob Williams returns to the season of his best movie, Make The Yuletide Gay, demonstrating that the holidays are his best subject matter. As the narrator who opens (and closes) the film reminds us, gay men have a history of choosing their own families. This is something especially true around the holidays, as "boyfriends – and increasingly husbands," create their own families and traditions.

Opening with an intimate dinner gathering hosted by Cal (Alex Manley Wilson) and Laslo (Christopher Grant Pearson), with guests Blake (Eric Allen Smith) and Ivan (Christopher Patrino), we see each couple's reaction to the idea of raising children. Blake and Ivan, who are "pregnant," may join other male couples who have been crossed off the social list as they became consumed with parenting obligations. Little do Cal and Laslo know that their own little bundle of joy is about to be delivered just before their annual New Year's Eve party.

Not far away, Dylan (Robert Werner) calls his roommate Julian (Daniel Lipshutz) to check in with him. Dylan, who travels a great deal for his job, has no idea that while he's away, Julian rents out his room via a gay Airbnb service. Frank (David Vaugh) is the current guest utilizing the business and renting Dylan's room. He's in L.A. on a private matter involving trying to find someone. Everything is disrupted when Dylan, who has been harboring a crush on Julian, arrives home early from his business trip and is forced to share Julian's bed with him.

Meanwhile, Dylan's hot ex, restaurateur Gray (Alexander Neil Miller) has a holiday hook-up with painter/photographer Sid (Justin Xavier Smith) that develops into something more, a la Andrew Haigh's Weekend. In fact, much of Shared Rooms feels like a gay version of the inexplicably popular straight Christmas classic Love Actually. Regardless, Gray and Sid discover that they have much in common, aside from sex, including interest an interest in the late writer David Foster Wallace.

The final piece of the puzzle, alluded to above, is the unexpected arrival of Cal's high school-aged nephew Zeke (Ryan Weldon). Zeke, whose homophobic parents kicked him out of the house after he was caught with his classmate boyfriend, becomes a part of the ever-expanding family. Additionally, there is a slightly calculated twist involving one of the characters who was abducted by a stranger as a child. That said, Shared Rooms is definitely one of Williams' better movies, funny and sexy -- the men are better looking and the bodies are hotter (and more naked) – and thoroughly entertaining. [Sept. 27, 9:15 p.m., Landmark's Century Cinema.]

The recent overturning of Brendan Dassey's (Netflix's Making A Murderer ) murder conviction is especially timely as Deborah Esquenazi's award-winning doc Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four (Motto/Naked Edge) makes the rounds at film festivals. Spanning a period of more than 20 years, the film touches on several hot button issues, with homophobia being at the top of the list.

Based in San Antonio, Texas, Anna, her girlfriend Cassie, Kristie and her sometime girlfriend Liz, are wrongfully accused of sexually molesting Liz's young nieces Stephanie and Vanessa while babysitting them for a week. Where did the story the girls came up with come from? There are several possibilities, including outside influence from their father Javier, the ex-husband of Liz's Rosemary, and his mother Serafina. Javier, who had been rebuffed by Liz, might have been motivated by revenge. Also, at the time of the supposed assault, the country was "convulsed" with the idea that there was an international satanic cult infiltrating day care centers and preschools in order to sexually abuse children and destroy their minds, which took hold in the early 1980s.

Combining video recordings from 2000, at the time that Anna, Cassie, Kristie and Liz began their incarceration, as well as footage from as recent as February 2016, Southwest of Salem effectively illustrates what life is like for some Latina lesbians in conservative regions of Texas. For example, Anna's mother Maria observes that Anna and Cassie "were totally devoted to each other, like a husband and wife," while Cassie's mother wasn't happy about the relationship and resorted to calling her daughter names.

The doc follows the trajectory of the gang-rape allegations made against the four women, the arrests, the unfortunate experiences with attorneys, homophobic jurors, the children's testimonies, the inconsistencies and accusations without concrete evidence, and ultimately the lengthy sentences that were handed down (Liz received 37.5 years and the other three women received 15 years apiece). By the time they reached out to the LGBT community (Maria, for example, spoke at a Pride rally), it was too late and they were destined to serve their sentences.

Everything changed for the four when Canadian research scientist Darrell Otto came across their story online and began to visit them every year while researching the case. Otto, who truly believed in their innocence, was joined by The Innocence Project of Texas in Lubbock, to work on having their conviction overturned. When Liz's niece Stephanie, now a mother herself, recants her testimony, there is an unexpectedly bright light at the end of what was a very dark tunnel. What follows is the slow and agonizing process of each woman's release, the exoneration hearings, the complicated results and the ongoing appeals. A powerful portrait of a troubled legal system and the effects of unending homophobia, Southwest of Salem, which recalls the Salem witch trials, is recommended viewing. [Sept. 28, 7:15 p.m., Landmark's Century Cinema.]

Remember when, in her act, Margaret Cho talked about her mother saying everyone is a little bit gay? Margaret Cho reference aside, there is nothing funny about the Korean-American drama Spa Night (Strand), but there is something gay about it.

David (Joe Seo), a directionless high school grad, is content to live at home with his church-going Korean immigrant parents Soyoung (Haerry Kim) and Jin (Youn Ho Cho), work in their restaurant and spend an evening with them at the spa. However, David's parents want more for him, including marriage and a college education.

Little do they know that David's personal fitness obsession – sit-ups, push-ups and running – are for the purpose of the nude selfies he's been taking of himself. Although he hasn't actually acted on his same-gender attraction, you can feel the tension building.

Things change quickly when Jin's restaurant is forced to close. Too ashamed to tell the truth about their situation, Soyoung makes up a story about selling the business, for church lady Mrs. Baek (Linda Han). She says she's too young to completely retire and is (secretly) grateful when Mrs. Baek offers her a job waitressing in her more successful dining establishment. Mrs. Baek also offers to have her son Eddie (Tae Song), a student at nearby USC, show David around the campus in the event that he's considering applying to school there.

Excited at the prospect of David going to school, they enroll him in an expensive and intensive SAT prep course. But David has other plans. He gets a job at a men's spa (different from the one he attends with his folks) where he's paid under the table, so that he can help his parents out financially. At the spa, he's also able to explore his attraction to men as it turns out to be a rather cruisey spot.

From that point on, not much goes right for David or his parents. Spa Night is not so much depressing as it is unsentimental. It's about shattered expectations, disappointment and regrets. It's also about family bonds and discovery, so in that way it feels like something of a balance is struck. Spa Night is an admirable full-length feature debut by writer/director Andrew Ahn, a filmmaker with promise. In Korean with subtitles. [Sept. 25, 9:15 p.m., Landmark's Century Cinema.]

Narrated by gay writer Christopher Rice, Upstairs Inferno (Camina Entertainment) is a doc about the tragic and devastating 1973 fire in the New Orleans gay bar the Up Stairs Lounge, which resulted in 32 deaths and multiple injuries. With anti-gay hate crimes and other such activities on the rise in the heated political climate leading up to the November 2016 Presidential election, this film is extremely timely.

Featuring interviews with survivors, historians, reporters, patrons, and an extremely emotional Reverend Troy Perry, Upstairs Inferno provides a detailed history of the "off the beaten path" bar, which opened on Halloween 1970, including descriptions of the décor. One of the few non-segregated bars, it was a "gathering place of friends." The bar was also known for its shows – "Nellydramas" – as well as being an early home for Rev. Perry's Metropolitan Community Church.

The January 1973 fire, said to be set by disgruntled patron Roger Dale Nunez, tore through the bar resulting in numerous casualties and the film includes graphic images from the disaster. The losses and the lack of appropriate response from politicians and law enforcement, as well as some members of the clergy, served to strengthen the now visible community and prepared them for the unforeseen fights that lay ahead. But more than 40 years later, the outcome of the tragedy is that it has had an irreversible effect on the survivors. [Sept. 25, 7 p.m., Landmark's Century Cinema.]