Reeling, Chicago's gay and lesbian film festival, is back

Lineup includes a documentary about the drag queen made famous by John Waters and the latest seriodrama from Chicago's Stephen Cone

The timing feels serendipitous. After a hiatus in 2012 to regroup, Reeling, Chicago's long-running gay and lesbian film festival, is back — kicking off just days after Illinois lawmakers voted in favor of marriage equality. You can't plan that kind of synchronicity.

The lineup (through Thursday) includes a lovely documentary that happens to be particularly on-point. "Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro" is a video diary of the songwriter Desmond Child (whose extensive list of hits includes "Livin' on a Prayer") and his husband, who became parents of the twin boys of the title — Jon Bon Jovi is their godfather, because, of course — with the help of a close friend and surrogate. The fathers and their two sons (now preteens) will be at the screening. (3 p.m. Saturday)

The wide-ranging slate of films includes "I Am Divine," a look at the drag queen made famous by director John Waters (4:45 p.m. Sunday), and a concert film from transgendered standup Ian Harvie (booked in the festival's high profile closing night slot) spotlighting the comedian's sharply observant, self-deprecating sense of humor. "I thought my girl days were over," he deadpans in "Ian Harvie Superhero" as he applies powder to his face before stepping on stage. (9:30 p.m. Nov. 14)

Also on tap: James Franco's documentary (or rather, "documentary"), the half-scripted, half-improvised "Interior. Leather Bar." In it, Franco and fellow director Travis Mathews lead a film crew on a quest to reshoot gay sex scenes reportedly deleted from the original cut of William Friedkin's "Cruising" (1980).

The film debuted this year at Sundance, with deeming the experiment a "pointedly topical re-examination of how uncomfortable homosexual sex can be even for enlightened liberals like Franco." Reeling programmer Richard Knight Jr. (a Tribune contributor) anticipates the screening will likely sell out. (7 p.m. Tuesday)

Expect a large turn-out Monday as well, when Oscar joke writer (and former Tribune entertainment reporter) Bruce Vilanch brings his one-liners and running commentary to Sidetrack (6 p.m.) for a screening of 1982's gender-bending Julie Andrews vehicle "Victor/Victoria."

Here's a closer look at a couple of Chicago-made entries on the schedule.

"Black Box" (7:15 p.m. Monday at the Logan Theatre)

A wonderfully peculiar follow-up to his 2011 coming-of-ager "The Wise Kids," writer-director Stephen Cone once again captures the quietly awkward moments of floundering young adults. A low-key seriocomedy, it centers on a college theater production of a "Flowers in the Attic"-style paperback being somewhat dubiously adapted for the stage. "All three of you to the cleansing room!" goes a choice bit of dialogue from this fictitious book. "Prepare to be punished!"

The overheated rehearsals, the backstage hookups and meltdowns — Cone (a former theater actor himself) knows this territory well. I was entranced by the set-building scene; the cast spontaneously begins waltzing to an Enya song someone has pulled up on their iPhone, a moment simultaneously absurd (Enya?) and hypnotic (Enya!).

Cone tends to coax subtle, nuanced performances from his actors, including Alex Weisman (currently in "A Normal Heart" at TimeLine Theater) who brings a wonderfully dopey vulnerability to the film. Steppenwolf ensemble member Austin Pendleton plays the book's author who comes by to offer his two cents: "I really think some mistakes are being made here…."

The exteriors were shot at Illinois State University in Normal. The black box theater space at the Viaduct was used for interiors. Cone told me the 1987 movie adaptation of "Flowers in the Attic" was an obvious inspiration ("Even the schlockiest and campiest material can come from the most heartfelt place, and I love that.") but he also had "The Breakfast Club" in mind: "I wanted to make something entertaining in a John Hughes-y way." (Cone and the cast will be at Tuesday's screening.)

"Easy Abby" (6:15 p.m. Sunday at the Logan)

This sex comedy about a carefree 30-something lesbian who refuses to settle down with one woman began as a 14-part web series. Writer-director Wendy Jo Carlton ("Hannah Free") has since stitched the episodes together as a feature-length film. I've watched the material both ways (the episodes stream for free at, and I'm not convinced it fully works as a movie. Too choppy and episodic.

The low-stakes set pieces (shot in and around Lakeview) work better in 5-7 minute chunks, when you can dip in and out and aren't as conscious of how uncinematic it actually looks. Somehow it feels spunkier in webisode form. Star (and producer) Lisa Cordileone has a blase, lightly sardonic touch that I found hugely watchable. "Do you like our new table?" a friend asks. Abby's deadpan reply: "Yeah. It's a table."

The series has notched 12.5 million views on YouTube so far — a third of which, Cordileone told me, are international (including a hefty chunk from Saudi Arabia and Turkey). They start shooting Season 2 next month — expanded to 30-minute episodes — with the goal of getting the series on a major streaming platform such as Netflix or Hulu. (Cordileone and company will be at Sunday's screening.)

Reeling continues through Nov. 14 at various locations. For a full schedule of films go to

Ali outside the ring

The new documentary "The Trials of Muhammad Ali" (from Chicago director Bill Siegel) focuses on the fighter's career in the 1960s and '70s when he refused to serve in Vietnam and was subsequently banned from boxing. This was Ali's Chicago period, when he lived on the South Side with second wife Khalilah Camacho-Ali, who will be at Friday's Music Box screening for a post-show Q&A along with Siegel. Go to

Amazon originals

The new TV series "Alpha House" (a comedy loosely inspired by the real-life Washington, D.C., abode shared by U.S. senators including Illinois' Dick Durbin) premieres next Friday (Nov. 15) on Written by Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury") and starring John Goodman (with Second City alum Amy Sedaris), the first three episodes are free and viewable in a binge-friendly cluster. Subsequent episodes (which will be released weekly, adopting a more traditional TV schedule format) will then be available to Amazon Prime members only. "Betas," Amazon's next new series, follows a group of friends looking to start an app business in Silicon Valley; it debuts Nov. 22.

Polish Film Fest

Back for its 25th year, the Polish Film Festival in America (through Nov. 24) spotlights an extensive list of titles including "Life Feels Good" (a young man undergoes an experimental treatment for cerebral palsy, based on true events); the erotic 1940-set thriller "In Hiding"; and the romantic drama "Lasting" (about a young couple who fall in love during a trip to Spain). Go to

Development deal

Of the six groups of Chicago-based actors and producers who submitted TV pilots to the New York Television Festival last month, one has come back with a "seed digital development" deal from the CW Network. That would be "The Startup," from Kevin Walsh and John Thibodeaux, who perform under their Nerdologues banner. The Tribune's Steve Johnson reviewed the pilots ahead of their NY festival run, calling "The Startup" an "ambitious, well-imagined and well-played" workplace satire of tech culture.