A Powerful Cautionary Tale

It’s truly astounding how we can sometimes blind ourselves to what should be obvious. Yet, if we let our imaginations run wild, we may fall prey to delusional notions that leave us oblivious and sitting in the middle of a mess that’s nearly impossible to rectify. It might not matter how intelligent or talented we are, either; when erroneous beliefs settle in and make themselves comfortable in our consciousness, there’s no telling what havoc they can unleash. As unlikely as such a prospect may seem, however, that’s exactly what happened to a prominent American literary icon, as detailed in the captivating and stunning new documentary, “The Capote Tapes” (web site, trailer).

Truman Capote (1924-1984) was one of the most noteworthy American authors of the 20th Century, even if he was not known for being overly prolific. Born in New Orleans as Truman Streckfus Persons, he was abandoned by his mother when she divorced his father. At age 2, he was sent to live with his mother’s relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, and, several years later, when his mother remarried, Truman moved to New York and took the last name of his Cuban stepfather, José Garcia Capote. But, by the time he moved north, many aspects of his future had already started to develop, particularly his love of writing and his fascination with the lives of others.

While still living in Alabama, Truman’s innate interest in writing received a boost from his relationship with friend, neighbor and budding wordsmith Harper Lee (1926-2016), who would later go on to become the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. Capote and Lee had many childhood adventures together and would remain lifelong friends and colleagues. What’s more, they were also sources of literary inspiration for one another. Lee provided the template for one of the characters in Capote’s debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, while Truman was the inspiration for Dill Harris, a talkative, precocious young lad who always seemed to be in the middle of everybody’s business in Mockingbird. One need only see actor John Megna’s portrayal of the character in the movie version of Lee’s book (as apparent in film clips included in this documentary) to see how Truman helped give birth to the fictional youngster’s pompous, busybody persona. In many ways, a young Capote would eventually grow up to become the adult, real life version of Dill Harris, and that’s important to recognize in light of what this film is all about.

When the scampish young storyteller from the South arrived in the Big Apple, the talents and traits that emerged in his formative years continued to grow. As he was wont to do in the land of his roots, he was known for being a gossip. His flamboyant personality flourished, too, unabashedly expressing himself as an openly gay man, a prohibitively uncommon practice at the time. These qualities helped to ingratiate Truman into New York’s high society; his exotic, eccentric and outlandish manners captivated a community of often-unhappy and terminally bored individuals. Nevertheless, Truman relished these interactions with the rich, famous and powerful, and, as he spent time with them, he listened to everything he heard, tucking away the information for as-yet-determined future use. This included not only the flattering details, but also “the dirt” that many of his high society friends were hoping to keep hidden. Unfortunately for them, they had no idea who they were really dealing with.

In essence, that’s what this film is all about. In 1997, author and journalist George Plimpton (1927-2003) penned Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, a biography for which he interviewed a wide array of Truman’s associates. Plimpton, who was well known as the ringmaster of many elite New York house parties (many of which Capote attended), used the tapes of those interviews to write the book, but the recordings themselves were never made public – until now. They paint a colorful, candid, no-holds-barred portrait of a man who was once the toast of Gotham but who became a pariah when he was seen as having turned his back on his onetime friends.

For much of his career, author Truman Capote was respected and successful. But, in penning his final novel, he crossed lines that cost him dearly, as seen in the captivating new documentary, “The Capote Tapes.” Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.

That material has been transformed into this film. Director Ebs Burnough presents an in-depth look at Capote’s life, particularly his relationships with others, especially late in the author’s life The filmmaker draws from Plimpton’s interviews, featuring archived audio segments with such luminaries as actresses Lauren Bacall and Candice Bergen; writers, editors and authors Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr., Barbara Lawrence, Babs Simpson, Bob Colacello, George Axelrod and Gavin Lambert; Truman’s longtime partner Jack Dunphy; and many of Capote’s acquaintances, mostly sophisticated and fashionable New York socialites (like Lee Radziwill, younger sister of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and Babe Paley, the supremely elegant wife of CBS Chairman Bill Paley), all of whom Truman collectively referred to as his “swans.” Intercut with these sound bites are contemporary conversations with those who knew or who have studied Capote’s works, including TV talk show host Dick Cavett; authors Jay McInerney, Dotson Rader and Colm Toíbín; journalist Sally Quinn; Vogue editor André Leon Talley; critic Sadie Stein; screenwriter Lewis Lapham; art historian John Richardson; and Truman’s adopted daughter Kate Harrington, a young woman whom he befriended when her closeted father, Jack O’Shea, left his family to begin an on-again/off-again affair with Capote. Also included are vintage television interviews with Capote, including appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Dick Cavett Show, along with narrated readings from a number of Capote’s works, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood, A Christmas Memory, and Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Despite the acclaim that Capote attained through many of his early writings (most notably Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, clips and trailers from the movie versions of which are included in this film), none of them achieved the degree of attention that was accorded to what was to be his final work. In the mid 1960s, Capote began work on a book titled Answered Prayers, a fictional tell-all based on his years of circulating in New York high society. The much-anticipated work, originally scheduled for publication in 1968, was the topic of considerable speculation, especially given the subject matter and the astronomical advance he received to write it.

However, Capote’s progress on this new book came slowly. It was the first work he attempted to write after penning In Cold Blood, a nonfiction crime novel about the brutal killing of a Kansas farm family and the subsequent trial and execution of its perpetrators. That project wore heavily on him, especially in light of the highly personal, clandestinely quasi-romantic relationship he developed with one of the convicted murderers, Perry Smith. The rigorous, emotionally draining work involved in this undertaking, as well as the story’s eventual outcome, left Capote “a basket case,” according to one of his colleagues. He had difficulty getting back to writing after that.

In addition, Capote began a downward spiral of substance abuse. His drinking and addiction to prescription painkillers took a toll on him, landing him in and out of rehab. He also experienced emotional distancing in his relationship with his partner. It was indeed a hard time to stay focused on writing a new book, one that Capote himself had heavily banked on as being the crowning achievement of his career.

Given the crushing weight of these issues, Capote appeared to be losing interest in writing. When asked about his slow progress on Answered Prayers, he described the book as “my posthumous novel … either I will kill it, or it will kill me.” Instead, Truman seemed more preoccupied with cultivating celebrity, both for himself and in his relationships. In 1966, for example, he staged his legendary Black and White Ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel, a spectacle of celebrities that drew approximately 540 guests. He also made many appearances on TV talk shows and even took a stab at screen acting in the Neil Simon comedy “Murder by Death” (1976).

Eventually, however, Capote managed to resume work on the book, several advance chapters of which were published in Esquire magazine in 1975 and 1976. Much to his surprise, however, the reception was not what was expected. While he often insisted that Answered Prayers was merely a work of fiction, he also openly admitted during a talk show interview that it wasn’t. The detailed descriptions of incidents involving his friends were too thinly veiled to not be identified for what they really were. He naïvely thought he could simply change the names of the characters and nobody would recognize who he was talking about.

In the published excerpts, Capote revealed unspeakably horrible and shocking details about the deepest, darkest secrets of very high-profile individuals through the supposedly fictional adventures of characters who were obviously based on his friends. For instance, he wrote a segment about a woman who was apparently patterned after New York socialite Ann Woodward, contending that the character had had her wealthy, old money husband killed, a fate not unlike what befell Woodward herself. Similarly, he wrote about a philandering character allegedly based on CBS Chairman Bill Paley, who had an affair during which he experienced an embarrassing incident of attempting to have sex with a woman while she was on her period.

In 1966, at the height of his popularity, author Truman Capote (right) staged the Black and White Ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel, a grand celebration of high society life, as depicted in director Ebs Burnough’s debut feature, “The Capote Tapes.” Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.

Because of such accounts, Capote’s friends walked away in droves. According to Kate Harrington, Truman shocked and hurt his friends in two ways – first by revealing the precise nature of their dirty little secrets and then by betraying the confidences he supposedly placed in those friendships. For his part, Capote had difficulty believing that his familiars would react as they did. In fact, prior to the excerpts’ publication, he even boastfully proclaimed that “No one’s going to be upset with me [about the book] unless they’re left out.” So much for underestimating one’s friends.

This failed effort cost Capote a lot. He lost many of his friends. His relationship was severely strained. His health began failing quickly. And he never wrote another book. In fact, it’s unclear whether he even completed Answered Prayers (or had any intention to do so). Consequently, a full novel was never available for publication, despite the project’s many, many years of development. It’s a project that author Jay McInerney speculated could qualify it as one of the all-time greatest literary hoaxes.

Capote died in 1984. But, considering what he lost prior to that time, one could say he died well before that. A series of poor choices led to his downfall, and, as they unfolded, they spawned many problems that he sadly didn’t anticipate.

One of my favorite Old World expressions offers up a simple but important piece of advice: “Don’t shit where you eat.” As this axiom maintains, we can set ourselves up for real trouble when we chart a perilous course, especially one that’s foolishly embarked upon intentionally. Our intentions are powerful tools in materializing what shows up in our existence, and, when we wield them recklessly, problems often await us, which is what happened to Truman.

One need only look to Truman’s life experience to see where some of his problematic notions originated. For example, even though Truman had become famous as a prominent fixture in New York high society, he was never truly accepted in the way he thought he was or wanted to be, and, on some level, he may have suspected this, even if it wasn’t consciously acknowledged. As a number of the film’s archived and contemporary interviews reveal, he was treated like a court jester. According to his friend and swan Slim Keith, Truman was liked for being “a freak,” a curiosity, but not as someone New York high society sincerely embraced as one of its own. According to John Richardson, Capote was “expected to perform,” with Harrington characterizing him as being “the entertainment.” Capote also often played the role of “walker,” an escort for high society women when they attended events unaccompanied, a role frequently assumed by gay men. Truman willingly did this for the access it provided, despite the fact that it came to be seen as a role in which he essentially was “a servant” for the wealthy.

One could argue that Capote came to believe, at least subconsciously, that he was being used and that he felt the need to get back at those who took advantage of him. And this, in part, could have been his motivation for writing Answered Prayers. But one also can’t help but ask, “Is retribution a wise course?” Based on how events unfolded here, it’s obviously something that could have used some more reasoned assessment before acting, especially in light of the connection between actions and consequences.

As became apparent as far back as his childhood, Capote was fascinated with the lives of others. He playfully enjoyed swapping overheard stories, and, over time, he made a ritual of starting his days by trading juicy tidbits with gossip columnists. But there’s a big difference between impishly exchanging tasty little morsels with fellows and seeking to capitalize on that information for personal gain or vengeful payback. Indeed, as Truman boldly proclaims in an interview included in the film, “These people are my material.” And, considering how he used that material, he made himself a target for the same kind of retribution he was dishing out.

Capote’s plan to undertake Answered Prayers makes clear another intention-related issue – embracing delusional, unrealistic notions. There is a distinct difference between visionary ideas and wishful thinking, and, in many ways, Truman followed the latter when it came to this book. That’s apparent in his belief that the subjects who served as sources of inspiration for this novel would unquestionably see it as fiction, that any similarities between them and his characters would be dismissively overlooked or, even more outlandishly, that they’d be flattered to be included in the book. As friend Slim Keith succinctly put it, “He was a shit stirrer.” Indeed, how utterly naïve can one be?

What’s more, Capote had overly idealistic expectations for what this book would be. He saw it as a masterpiece in the making, a work that he placed on par with writings of the likes of French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Like playwright and satirist Oscar Wilde, Capote was full of himself in this regard, holding an obviously inflated opinion of the work in progress. And, when he premiered portions of the draft in readings to close friends, they often burst his bubble, calling the work “shallow.” But, when it comes to writing that amounts to little more than “fictionalized” accounts of gossip, should he have really been surprised by so honest an assessment?

Clearly there was a need for better discernment here. However, given the circles that Capote traveled in, that capability may have very well become lost, making it difficult to employ it objectively or judiciously. That green-lighted his unrealistic beliefs, actions and expectations, and, sadly, they didn’t pan out as hoped for, falling prey to a host of unexpected, unintended and unwanted side effects that cost Truman virtually everything. So much for prayers being answered.

“The Capote Tapes” presents a captivating look at a talented, troubled and towering figure. It incorporates a wealth of insightful observations and captivating archive material, providing us with a compelling look at a different world and a different time. It also delivers a potent caution that we should all heed when it comes to the projects we undertake and the implications they can carry. After all, given that none of us wants to be a source of shadowy whispering for our failings (especially our most embarrassing ones), it shouldn’t take much to see where the protagonist here went wrong if we’re to avoid a similar fate. Keeping our own noses clean is always advisable, but that doesn’t give us license to point out the shortcomings of others, either. The film is playing in limited theatrical release and is available for streaming online.

It should be noted that this offering is not to be confused with “Truman & Tennessee,” another film about Capote released earlier this year. That documentary examines the life and work of the author, as well as his long-term friendship with fellow writer Tennessee Williams. “Truman & Tennessee” does not delve into the Answered Prayers story to any great length, thus providing a wholly different, and considerably more flattering, look at this iconic artist.

Ideally, we’d all like to hope that we should be able to walk away from a cautionary tale like this fully aware of the kinds of mistakes to avoid. But will such a lesson truly sink in? That ultimately depends on the beliefs we each hold. If we recognize the wayward example set here and embrace notions designed to counteract such misguided pursuits, we should be fine. However, if we stubbornly cling to ideas that stem from wishful thinking or clouded judgment, we could saddle ourselves with burdens not unlike those Capote experienced, and no amount of prayer would likely be sufficient enough to extricate ourselves from such circumstances. Relying on a rosary to get ourselves out of a jam may not be nearly as effective as simply learning how to prevent such fiascos in the first place.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

You’ll ‘Fall’ for These Movies 

With the fall movie season in full swing, we’re starting to get more glimpses of potential awards contenders, film festival favorites and what’s to come over the next few months. Find out what’s in store in theaters, online and at upcoming film festivals on the next edition of The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More video podcast with yours truly and special guest host Danielle Findlay. Tune in Thursday October 28 at 1 pm ET on Facebook Live by clicking here for a lively discussion of releases worth seeing. And, if you don’t see the show live, catch it later on demand!

Wrapping Up Three Film Festivals

Film festival season is in full swing, and I’ve had the pleasure to partake in three such programs recently, the 57th annual Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), Reeling 39, the Chicago International LGBTQ) Film Festival, and the premiere Brooklyn SciFi Film Festival. The 2021 editions of these festivals were presented in hybrid formats with theatrical and virtual presentations, as well as drive-in screenings at the CIFF. This flexible approach thus made it possible for viewers to screen a variety of films in the traditional manner, from the comfort of their own homes or stretched out in their cars. While some of the presentations were available in limited geographic locations, both theatrically and virtually, many others could be streamed nationwide, making it possible for movie fans to see some excellent films without being located in the festivals’ host cities, an increasingly popular viewing option for many film festivals (and one that I heartily applaud).

Thanks to these formats, I was able to screen a great number of films – 22 at CIFF, 17 at Reeling and 8 at the Brooklyn festival. Below are my summary reviews of the releases I particularly enjoyed. Links to movie web sites and/or trailers/film clips have been included, as well as award information for winning entries. Full reviews of select films have already been published or are to come soon, where noted.

I will also soon be attending the 30th annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, through which I will be streaming 23 movies. I’ll report on my findings at the conclusion of that event. In the meantime, enjoy my wrap-ups from the Windy City and the Big Apple!

Favorites from the 57th annual Chicago International Film Festival

“Amira” (Egypt/Jordan/UAE/Saudi Arabia) (5/5)

Web site, Film Clip

What makes us who we are – our personal character or our immutable DNA? That’s the central question raised in this domestic drama with a sociopolitical twist. When Amira (Tara Abboud), a 17-year-old Palestinian girl conceived with the smuggled semen of her imprisoned father (Ali Suliman) (an opposition political leader confined by the Israelis), discovers that the man she has always thought of as her dad is not her biological parent, the revelation creates chaos within her immediate and extended family, as well as among his unincarcerated political allies (Waleed Zuaiter, Ziad Bakri). This becomes most apparent in her search to uncover her true lineage, a process hampered by her uncooperative mother (Saba Mubarak), who thwarts Amira’s efforts at every turn. Writer-director Mohamed Diab’s latest has been unfairly labeled a soap opera and a manipulative melodrama, but these flimsy criticisms ignore the profound impact of this clandestine practice, one that has been playing out for nearly a decade and has implications extending beyond immediate family units. While it’s true that the somewhat overlong final act is at times a bit overdramatic and occasionally unduly dogmatic, the filmmaker’s sincerity in attempting to portray circumstances that go beyond mere private domestic matters is indeed commendable. All of this is made possible by the fine performances of Abboud, Suliman and Mubarak as the once-happy family members whose lives are suddenly and unexpectedly thrown into turmoil. Pay no attention to the cynical critics about this one; it’s a fine, engaging effort well worth the viewing time. Full review to come.

“Madeleine Collins” (France/Belgium/Switzerland) (5/5)

Web site, Trailer

Sustaining suspense and keeping viewers guessing for nearly two hours is quite a feat, but writer-director Antoine Barraud successfully manages to do just that in his latest release, a seamless blend of two genres – psychological thriller and romantic drama. With a number of homages to Hitchcock, as well as many mind-bending tricks of his own, Barraud’s tale of a woman (Virginie Efira) leading two lives – one in Paris and one in Switzerland – dangles an array of intriguing clues before his audience and always manages to confound even the most astute viewers with a parade of new revelations in seemingly every scene. However, despite the narrative’s many misdirections, the story never becomes so confusing or convoluted that it can’t be followed. Instead, the film breeds a succession of delicious “a ha!” moments, maintaining interest as the story slides into a satisfying home stretch. Credit Efira for shouldering the load here, delivering a riveting performance and making it look effortless. Indeed, if this movie were a book, it would be a real page-turner from start to finish. Don’t miss this one.

“The Worst Person in the World” (“Verdens verste menneske”) (Norway/France/Sweden/Denmark) (5/5)

Web site, Trailer

When we don’t know what we want out of life, we may appear to others as fickle, capricious or self-centered, especially if we’re not afraid to admit to such uncertainty. And that, needless to say, doesn’t always bode well for our reputation with others. But is this kind of self-acknowledged indecisiveness truly a character failing, perhaps even a symptom of unacknowledged narcissism? That’s what the protagonist (Renate Reinsve) of this insightful, superbly written Norwegian comedy/drama/character study is up against, a scenario in which the film’s principal could easily be characterized as the embodiment of the picture’s title. However, as this offering also shows, it’s possible to say that there just might be a little of the worst person in the world in all of us, an observation that should give us pause to consider how we not only see others but also ourselves. Writer-director Joachim Trier’s latest thus illustrates how the journey of self-discovery is not an easy one, a process that we should be careful to judge, especially when we realize that the bottom line in this is something to which we might all fall prey, mainly because we’re all ultimately only human. The sparklingly crisp screenplay, expertly blended palette of filming styles and stunning lead performance of Reinsve (winner of the best actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) combine to make a thoroughly enjoyable and thoughtful movie-going experience not to be missed. This definitely deserves a general release, and, should that happen, avid cinephiles should rush and go see it. Handily my favorite film of the festival. Silver Hugo Award winner, Best Cinematography. Full review to come.

“Exposure” (USA/Iceland/Oman/Saudi Arabia) (4/5)

Web site

Reaching the top of the world is far from an easy task, even under the best of conditions. But, in an era of climate change, in which the warming of the planet is causing the ice that must be traversed to reach the North Pole, that undertaking has become eminently more perilous. Director Holly Morris’s excellent, up-close documentary chronicles the 2018 adventures of an all-female expedition crew, detailing the challenges and dangers involved in such an inherently risky venture. This project, aimed at helping to draw attention to environmental issues and the possibilities afforded by women’s empowerment initiatives, is a historic one also in that it could well be the last of its kind due to the increasing dangers posed by such journeys. The film’s stunning cinematography and its highly personal treatment of the crew members’ individual stories makes this an intriguing and compelling watch about one of the planet’s last-remaining – and potentially fastest-disappearing – frontiers.

“The Gravedigger’s Wife” (“Guled and Nasra”) (France/Somalia/Germany/Finland/Qatar) (4/5)

Web site, Trailer

What lengths would you go to for the one you love? That’s the core question in this multinational production about a Djibouti gravedigger (Omar Abdi) who barely ekes out a living and is now faced with coming up with the money to pay for a life-saving operation for his dying wife (Yasmin Warsame). This heartrending and heartbreaking tale has its predictable moments and a few story threads that aren’t as fully developed as they could have been, but the superb chemistry between the protagonists, enlivened by the excellent performances of Abdi and Warsame, make this an engaging and compelling watch overall. Writer-director Khadar Ahmed’s debut feature is a fine showcase for a superb emerging talent, one who shows tremendous promise for future projects. Full review to come.

“My Brothers Dream Awake” (“Mis hermanos sueñan despiertos”) (Chile) (4/5)

Web site

When two teenage brothers (Claudio Arredondo, Sebastián Ayala) are confined in a Chilean provincial juvenile detention center, they dream of life outside their prison walls, although they have no idea when they’ll have the opportunity to experience it. Despite being charged with only petty offenses, they have no legal guardian to claim them, their mother having abandoned them upon lockup. With the days passing, the tedium growing ever-more exasperating and the stress mounting (particularly for the younger, more sensitive sibling), the brothers become progressively more frustrated – and desperate – to find a way to rejoin the world of the living. So, when an opportunity opens up to make that happen with their cell mates, they avail themselves of the chance, despite the risky nature of the plan. Based on conditions that once existed at one such facility, as well director Claudia Huaiquimilla’s experience working with at-risk youth, this sensitive, affecting drama puts viewers into the shoes of these troubled young men and women, many of whom didn’t catch any breaks before incarceration let alone once in confinement. Because the film touches on so many different aspects of juvenile detention life, it occasionally suffers from bouts of meandering and underdevelopment. But this is made up for by a fine ensemble cast, beautiful cinematography and a riveting concluding sequence that will leave viewers glued to their seats. The filmmaker’s sophomore effort isn’t always an easy watch, but it nevertheless makes a powerful and profound statement that bears heeding, no matter where one calls home.

“Nobody Has to Know” (France/Belgium/UK) (4/5)

Web site

What if you were to lose your memory and then have an apparent stranger come up to you and say that the two of you were once lovers? Would you believe it? And what would you do? That’s the challenge for a stroke survivor (Bouli Lanners) who learns that his caregiver (Michelle Fairley) was once supposedly a love interest. It’s not as if he’s opposed to the idea of picking up where they supposedly left off, but he nevertheless remembers nothing of his involvement with her. Thus begins the start of an unusual relationship that he clearly enjoys despite the seemingly omnipresent nervousness she appears to exude. Is everything above board here? Or is something else going on, and how will that bode for their future? Writer-actor-director Lanners has concocted quite an engaging story in this film, successfully brought to life by his fine performance and that of co-star Fairley, both of whom captured CIFF Silver Hugo Awards for their portrayals. Admittedly, a few story elements don’t integrate into the overall narrative as well as they could have, but the picture’s gorgeous cinematography provides an excellent distraction to these modest drawbacks. As one of the most unusual love stories I have ever seen, this offering generally lives up to its potential and gives the heartstrings a good tug in the process. Silver Hugo Award winner, Best Actor (Bouli Lanners); Silver Hugo Award winner, Best Actress (Michelle Fairley).

Skál” (“Cheers”) (Faroe Islands/Denmark) (4/5)

Web site, Trailer

Though billed as a documentary, this captivating release plays more like a docu-drama or even a big screen version of reality TV. The film tells a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story of sorts about Dania, a young, idea-filled poet from a conservative Christian community who falls for an outspoken, outlandish rap artist, Trygvi, whose shock-provoking lyrics are the antithesis of the values his long-sheltered girlfriend was raised with. Despite their differences and the pressure inflicted upon them through less-than-subtle parental misgivings, the couple steadily grows ever closer, especially as Dania becomes more comfortable in poetically expressing her conflicted feelings about genuine faith and the pitfalls of needlessly restrictive religious conventions. Directors Cecilie Debell and Maria Tórgarð thus present an honest love story with deep spiritual implications, narrative elements often lacking in similar offerings. The film’s truly breathtaking cinematography is a sight to behold, showing off the beauty of the Faroe Islands in ways seldom seen, combined with heartfelt, intimate depictions of personal moments, making for an unusual blend seldom seen in many movies, let alone those in the documentary genre. My only problem with this release is that so many of the most significant moments seem so perfectly captured that it almost makes me wonder about the validity of their authenticity, that they play more like scripted material than spontaneously caught events. That aside, though, this thoughtful, insightful release provides viewers with much to ponder, backed by gorgeous images and presented through a bevy of touching moments. What more could audiences ask for? Gold Hugo Award winner, International Documentary Competition. Full review to come.

Favorites from Reeling 39, the Chicago International LGBTQ+ Film Festival

“At the End of Evin” (a.k.a. “Amen”) (Iran) (8/10)

Web site, Trailer

When Amen (Mehri Kazemi), a transitioning young Iranian male seeking to surgically complete the gender reassignment process, is introduced to a wealthy, powerful, well-connected sponsor (Mahdi Pakdel), there is much hope for a new start in life. However, as soon becomes apparent, there are strings attached to this promised arrangement, the answers to which aren’t readily forthcoming and grow ever more cryptic and troubling with the passage of time. What exactly is going on? That’s what this creepy but mesmerizing tale slowly discloses, growing progressively more unnerving with each passing frame, thanks in large part to the film’s inventive cinematography, which tells the story from the perspective of camera as unseen protagonist. In their debut feature, directors Medhi and Mohammad Torab-Beigi present a chilling story whose treatment echoes the chilling treatment that the Iranian transgender community is subjected to on an ongoing basis, leaving viewers with an incensed yet unsettling feeling by film’s end. While the course of some of the dialogue may seem meandering and hard to follow, it’s all part of the well-concealed mystery that’s unfolding before the audience’s eyes, something that becomes more apparent the further viewers get into the story. An auspicious start for a talented emerging directorial duo. Full review to follow.

 

“Down in Paris” (France) (8/10)

Web site, Trailer

Finding ourselves is something we all must do, including members of the LGBTQ+ community, who must ultimately discover themselves in areas of their lives other than their sexual orientation. Such is the case in writer-actor-director Antony Hickling’s introspective character study about a frustrated filmmaker (Hickling) who walks off the set of his latest picture and spends the night wandering the streets of Paris. During this colorful and sometimes-surreal odyssey, he engages in a series of planned and chance encounters with an array of others, including friends, a former partner (Raphaël Bouvet), a Tarot card reader (Dominique Frot) and a host of strangers, all of whom nudge the protagonist into taking an honest look at himself, his life, his past and his future, a revelatory and rejuvenating experience in many regards. I applaud this release for taking a wider view of life in which a gay lead character is pushed into focusing his energies on addressing issues other than his orientation and lifestyle. While the pacing lags a bit in a few sequences, the film does an otherwise-fine job of keeping the narrative moving and engaging without lapsing into dry, protracted talky scenes that weigh down the work. An impressive offering that does much to expand the scope and perspective of what constitutes gay cinema. Sensitive viewers should be aware the picture contains some sexually explicit content. Jury Prize Winner, Best Narrative Feature. Full review available here and here.

“Jump, Darling” (Canada) (8/10)

Web site, Trailer

When an aspiring actor (Thomas Duplessie) who has trouble landing roles starts settling into a new routine as a drag queen, the decision does not set well with his button-down control freak boyfriend (Andrew Bushell), prompting him to leave behind life in Toronto and take off for a visit to his aging and increasingly feeble grandmother (Cloris Leachman) in rural Ontario. Getting some distance thus provides him with an opportunity to shuffle his priorities and to draw from the no-nonsense wisdom of “grams.” It also enables him to explore new artistic options and love interests, as well as to confront longstanding issues with his loving but overbearing mother (Linda Kash). Director Phil Connell’s debut feature may meander a bit at times, but its heartfelt sentiments and sage advice about being willing to take a leap of faith, no matter what the endeavor, will resonate with viewers who have taken – or who need to take – steps aimed at pushing the reset button in their lives. The film is particularly noteworthy as the final screen performance of Cloris Leachman, who is positively superb in the role of the insightful matriarch, capping off a storied career in an auspiciously fitting way, a portrayal sure to tug at the heart strings without being manipulative in doing so. This delightful offering holds universal appeal for anyone who has ever had to go through a difficult transition in search of a way to start over and come out looking like a queen. Full review to follow.

“Potato Dreams of America” (USA) (8/10)

Web site, Trailer

Imagine an episode of the original iteration of “The Wonder Years” (including one of its legacy cast members) with a gay, Russian, Perestroika Era twist directed by flamboyant, colorfully whimsical filmmaker Wes Anderson, and you’ve got an idea what this autobiographical dark comedy is all about. Director Wes Hurley’s second feature playfully chronicles his often-challenging upbringing in the twilight of the Soviet Union and the hopes that his on-screen alter-ego, “Potato” (Hersh Powers), and his mother (Sera Barbieri) shared of immigrating to America to enjoy its many freedoms. That dream comes true when mom signs up to become a mail-order bride, enabling the duo to relocate to Seattle and begin a new life. Those hopes get put to the test, however, as the now-older pair (Tyler Bocock, Marya Sea Kaminski) deals with an overbearing husband and stepfather (Dan Lauria) who threatens to send them back to Russia if they disobey his rigid, reactionary wishes. That becomes an especially menacing threat as Potato tentatively wrestles with his emerging gay sexuality, a prospect his new dad sees as wholly unacceptable, an attitude that the young man left Russia to escape. Told with an inventive mix of fantasy, realism, and an array of twists and turns, as well as the presence of a hip but often-clueless Jesus (Jonathan Bennett) as Potato’s personal muse, this delightful offering is full of laughs and heartwarming moments but without becoming cheesy, overly sentimental, or, above all, predictable. The transitions in storytelling styles can be a bit jarring at times, but the overall mix blends well, serving up a funny, endearing and enjoyable time at the movies.

“Lola” (“Lola vers la mer”) (Belgium/France) (7/10)

Web site, Trailer

Significant and dramatic life events often make for strange affiliations. So it is in this intensely moving, often-outrageous road trip tale of a pre-op transsexual (Mya Bollaers) and her estranged father (Benoît Magimel) when it comes time for them to travel to the seaside childhood home of their deceased wife and mother to scatter her ashes. Their stormy journey is replete with a series of arguments, revelations, flashbacks and reconciliations, along with a touch of the surreal and subtle but undeniable hints of otherworldly intervention to facilitate peace between the quarreling parties. Some elements of the story are admittedly predictable, and portions of the second act tend to lag a bit at times, but director Laurent Micheli’s offering also takes some unexpected and deliciously intriguing twists and turns in getting viewers to the film’s destination, punctuated by a crisp screenplay loaded with biting, no-holds-barred dialogue, incisive insights, and more than a few genuinely heartfelt moments. This touching Belgian/French co-production is a delightful, affecting watch that, while not entirely wholly original, nevertheless comes across as a warm, feel-good story without ever becoming schmaltzy, manipulative or saccharinely sentimental. Bravo, “Lola”! Full review to follow. 

Favorites from the Brooklyn SciFi Film Festival

“Lightships” (UK) (8/10)

Web site, Trailer

Handily one of the best offerings from this year’s festival, “Lightships” is one of the most captivating and unusual releases I have seen in quite some time. Director John Harrigan’s film about a woman who wakes up in a mysterious, unattended mental health facility follows her journey to learn how she ended up there and what may have prompted her institutionalization. In the process of working through the mystery, however, she discovers more than she likely bargained for, including insights into the nature of existence, her true self, the essence of death and dreams, humanity’s interaction with extraterrestrials, and a wealth of metaphysical concepts that shed new light on what constitutes reality and where we as a species are headed. Based on the book Remembrance by Maryann Rada, the film shows more than it tells, images that depict its material metaphorically, some of which are intrinsically poetic and others of which are excessively abstract and cryptic. There are also some sequences that could have used some judicious editing given their length and sometimes-frustrating character. On balance, however, this ambitious work is to be commended for its audacious experimentation and its willingness to take chances in addressing an array of esoteric notions in insightful, resonant and readily comprehensible ways, something more films and filmmakers should be courageous to try. Runner Up, Best Live Action Feature. Full review available here and here.

“Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin” (USA) (8/10)

Web site, Trailer

Director Arwen Curry’s superbly crafted documentary about science fiction/fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin provides an excellent overview of her life, writing and visionary outlook and how they all integrated to create an impressively prolific and inventive body of work. Through numerous insightful interviews with the author prior to her death, as well as incisive commentary from her family and an array of noteworthy fellow authors, viewers are given a comprehensive look at her groundbreaking repertoire. The film chronicles her evolution both as a writer and as a thought leader, one who ultimately had subtle but considerable impact in helping to shape public opinion on a variety of topics while simultaneously enabling aspiring authors to experiment in an art form often restricted by convention and a publishing industry obsessed with profit motives. The narrative is also beautifully enhanced by a wealth of gorgeous animation, enlivening Le Guin’s material in ways that mere words cannot. This is must-see viewing for devotees of the author and an excellent introduction to the works of an author whose substantial following could always use more followers of her thoughtful poetry and prose. Full review to come.

For reviews of all of the films that I screened at CIFF, click here. For reviews of all the films that I screened at Reeling 39, click here.

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