Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival opens tonight at Music Box with a screening of Matt Kugelman's drag comedy Hurricane Bianca, then moves to Chicago Filmmakers and Landmark's Century Centre for a week of screenings that concludes with Justin Kelly's true-crime drama King Cobra. This is the festival's 34th edition and the third since founder Brenda Webb announced it would go on hiatus in 2013 as the planners rethought their mission and considered such questions as "a change in the time of year that the festival takes place" and "how the festival might expand or evolve to better address the changing needs of LGBT filmmakers."
Webb—now heavily occupied with the renovation of an Edgewater firehouse that will become home to the festival and its sponsor, Chicago Filmmakers—took time out for an e-mail to assess Reeling's progress since the year off. Moving the festival from early November to mid-September, she says, has been a boon in terms of scheduling films. "When Reeling was in November, films that played the spring and summer LGBT film festivals often had been released prior to our festival, so we didn't have a chance to show them before they went to VOD or DVD or, in some cases, prior to a theatrical release. Meanwhile, newer films coming out in the fall would sometimes not commit to festival placement until they saw what happened in major festivals like Toronto and whether or not they got distribution."
The construction project has forced Reeling to curtail its panel discussions this year, but Webb is happy with the previous years' panels and filmmaker brunches, which were "oriented toward filmmaker peer-to-peer learning (as differentiated from audience-oriented panels)." Visiting filmmakers were able to interact more directly with local filmmakers, she says, to discuss such matters as how to create a webseries, how to exploit social media for promotion, and how to create a DCP (Digital Cinema Package). "It's a tough environment for independent filmmakers," Webb writes, "and our hope was that bringing filmmakers together might result in some brainstorming of innovative models for distribution and exhibition." She hopes to resume the panels next year when Reeling slides down the firepole into its new home. —J.R. Jones
Hurricane Bianca In the setup for this broad comedy, an ineffectual New York science teacher (Roy Haylock) transfers to a hick Texas high school, where he's promptly fired for being gay. He regains his confidence and his job after resurfacing in drag as Bianca Del Rio, a tart-tongued spitfire with bee-stung lips who aims to teach the locals a thing or two both inside and outside the classroom. Crowd-funded on a teensy budget, the movie is not without its charms, including Ryan Matthieu Smith's inventive production and costume design and a cast of unknowns who prove worthy straight men to Del Rio. Matt Kugelman wrote and directed, with an affinity for camp; there are cameos by Alan Cumming, Sandra Cho, and RuPaul. —Andrea Gronvall 82 min. Kugelman and Del Rio attend the screening, part of the opening-night program; tickets are $15. Thu 9/22, 7:30 PM, Music Box
- King Cobra
King Cobra IFC Films is distributing this lurid true-crime drama under its "IFC Midnight" brand, but the movie is more like something you'd stumble across on cable at 4 AM before giving up on the day. A gay-porn producer (Christian Slater) discovers the ultimate twink sensation (Garrett Clayton, cloned from Zac Efron) and exploits him mercilessly before the kid begins to get wise; meanwhile a controlling pimp (James Franco) and his number one rent boy (Keegan Allen) move in on the other couple, with ultimately bloody results. Director Justin Kelly keeps all this within the safe confines of commodified underground cinema: the sex scenes are supposed to be desperately raunchy but are all shot in a coy, TV-friendly manner. I mean, my goodness—Molly Ringwald and Alicia Silverstone are in this movie. —J.R. Jones 92 min. Kelly and Clayton attend the screening, part of the closing-night program; tickets are $15. Thu 9/29, 7 PM, Landmark's Century Centre
- The Landscape
The Landscape Within Filipino costume designer and body painter Eric "Nui" Cabales uses paint, ink, and other media to transform ordinary people into mythical beings. His photographs of these creations are stunning, but this documentary profile of him by Andrea Capranico is too elliptical and abstract. Capranico takes almost the entire running time to connect Cabales, who mourns his father's death and his uncle's dying, with the legendary Princess Nabingka, an emigre noble whose homesickness was cured only when her followers painted themselves with images of her beloved native flowers. Subtlety is often underrated, but a tad more exposition here would have been nice. In English and subtitled Tagalog. —Andrea Gronvall 79 min. Cabales attends the screening. Mon 9/26, 9 PM, Landmark's Century Centre
- Lazy Eye
Lazy Eye A successful graphic designer (Lucas Near- Verbrugghe) suffers from an eye condition that flares up with the return of an old flame (Aaron Costa Ganis) who broke his heart 15 years earlier. His diminished eyesight could be a metaphor for this indie drama by writer-director Tim Kirkman, who focuses myopically on the problems of wealthy white hipsters. Like Andrew Haigh's Weekend (2011), the movie transpires over about 48 hours and concentrates on gay lovers pondering whether they should continue their relationship or part ways. Yet Haigh's natural, unnervingly intimate dialogue scenes make the lovers' union thought-provoking, whereas Kirkman's duo, though attractive and capably acted, come across as scripted and superficial. —Leah Pickett 87 min. Kirkman attends the screening. Wed 9/28, 7 PM, Landmark's Century Centre
Slash The weird world of slash—same-sex, erotic online fan fiction—is the focus of this delightful feature from writer-director Clay Liford, which depicts sexual discovery through the vivid perspectives of serious young writers. A diffident high school freshman in a small Texas town (Michael Johnston) thinks he's alone in penning homoerotic vignettes that center on his favorite character from a sci-fi franchise, until he meets another, more confident classmate (Hannah Marks) who posts similar stories on adult Internet forums and encourages him to do the same. Aside from a hackneyed early scene in which other students find and read aloud from the boy's journal, the movie is refreshingly tender in how it deals with questions of identity, craft, and community. "I bet we're the only kids in this entire joint who know what we know about," the girl exclaims to her new friend, and their nerdy enthusiasm is infectious. With Michael Ian Black in a memorable cameo. —Leah Pickett 100 min. Sat 9/24, 5 PM, Landmark's Century Centre
- Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four Deborah Esquenazi's advocacy documentary traces the lives of four gay women—Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez—who were convicted in the late 1990s of having gang-raped Ramirez's two young nieces. As the title suggests, the women were portrayed in the press as witches during an era when being openly lesbian in Texas was tantamount to black magic. All four were paroled in 2013 and eventually granted new trials after one of the nieces—now a mother herself—recanted her testimony. Using more than two decades' worth of home movies and news interviews, Esquenazi makes palpable the loss of those 15-odd years of incarceration; one hopes that this moving account will help the women find some measure of justice. —Dmitry Samarov 91 min. Wed 9/28, 7:15 PM, Landmark's Century Centre
Tomcat Intense and sometimes shocking, this Austrian drama by writer-director Klaus Händl lives in the pockets of two gay lovers—when they're wearing pants, that is—and fosters such a sense of intimacy with them that you may not be able to pull back when the relationship is soiled and possibly doomed by an impulsive act of cruelty. The two men (Lukas Turtur, Philipp Hochmair) are both professional orchestra musicians, and Händl stages many agreeable scenes in which the men and their little circle of friends sing together and talk about music with taste and passion. Behind closed doors, however, the silence between the men is charged with rage, remorse, and uncertainty, leading to such elemental questions as "Who are you?" and "What's wrong with you?" In many respects this reminded me of Michael Haneke at his best, though it also rivals Ira Sachs's Keep the Lights On in capturing the private fever of mutual desire. In German with subtitles. —J.R. Jones119 min. Tue 9/27, 7 PM, Landmark's Century Centre
- Upstairs Inferno
Upstairs Inferno Documentary maker Robert L. Camina chronicles the 1972 arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, which claimed 32 lives and ranked as the largest mass murder of gay people in U.S. history until the Orlando nightclub shooting of June 2016. Using archival footage and photography, as well as extensive interviews with survivors, Camina creates an empathetic portrait (2015) of a tragic event during an era very different from our own—at the time, no civic or religious leader was willing even to eulogize the dead. The faded snapshots of the fallen, intercut with the tearful reminiscences of now-elderly survivors, effectively communicate the feeling of loss that still lingers, no matter how much progress this community and our larger society have made. —Dmitry Samarov 91 min. Sun 9/25, 7 PM, Landmark's Century Centre v