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November 1, 2005

Reeling begin 24th year with strong lineup of gay sports films

For the past 23 years, Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival— has consistently proved that queer film isn’t just for Gender Studies majors. With its 24th season kicking off on Thursday, November 3, the second-oldest lesbian and gay film festival in the world, starts its week-long run with two films that address the issue of gay athletes.

The opening night feature is Summer Storm (Sommersturm), an astonishing German film about Tobi, a high school rower who has long harbored feelings for Achim, his best friend and fellow rower. Unfortunately, Achim is in a serious relationship with a girl rower from their school, and Tobi’'s struggle to accept the growing chasm between them is given a sense of immediacy when the rowing team goes to the countryside for a regatta. There, they meet an all-gay group of rowers, cleverly named the Queerstrokes. Their first encounter brings out the homophobic nature in some of the boys, and leaves Tobi with a sense of dread, as his sexuality now jeopardizes not only his friendship with Achim but also his relationship with the rest of the team.

Tobi is achingly real; most boys his age act on impulse (read: hormonal urges), but he has too much to lose, and his painfully visible struggle to contain his desire manifests itself in powerful, restrained acting from Robert Stadlober. Alicja Bachleda-Curus, who plays Anke, Tobi’'s unfortunate female devotee, also puts in a subtle yet alluring performance.

Aside from its excellent ensemble cast, Summer Storm’s biggest triumph is Daniel Gottschalk'’s gorgeous cinematography. The film takes place in an idyllic countryside, after all. He treats the natural surroundings with reverence, but never with a heavy hand, and thus the film strikes a delicate balance between image and content. It might have been tempting for director Marco Kreuzpaintner to sacrifice acting integrity and let the storm overwhelm the narrative, and indeed, there were times where even the audience might not have minded, but the young German director handles his solemn subject matter remarkably well.

The rest of the film is best left unrevealed, because it plays out so beautifully that I doubt I could do it justice here; go see the film for yourselves on Thursday night. Let’s just say: The title of the film is not ironic in the least. The climax is a veritable tempest, one even the Bard himself would have been impressed with, but despite the chaos, there is an underlying ingenuity about the way the film unfolds and lays everything bare. Tobi'’s journey might not be shared by all of us, but we are left with no choice but to appreciate and admire his struggle. Summer Storm plays at 7:30 p.m. at the Music Box Theatre, followed by an Opening Night gala.

In contrast to Summer Storm’'s lyrical flair, Guys and Balls (Männer Wie Wir), another German film, is formulaic but ultimately charming. Ecki, a small-town baker’s son who plays goalkeeper for the local football team, is outed by his teammates -- —and subsequently ousted from the team— -- after they fail to win promotion to a higher league. Incensed by their jeers, Ecki promises to return in a month’'s time with an all-gay team to settle old scores.

Our hero leaves for Dortmund to live with his sister, where he goes through all the emotional maneuvers and plot twists to form an unlikely team of leather daddies, a fey gyros carver with a David Beckham fixation, poncy Brazilian strikers (two of whom are named Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, which will be absolutely hilarious to anyone who knows anything about the world of soccer), and, of course, a love interest. They bond, train, exchange quips, suffer a breakdown, and then ultimately regroup for the big game.

It'’s absolutely, 100 percent a formulaic movie, and I’'m almost tempted to be film snob and say it’s not worth your time, but there are several redeeming qualities about this film. One of its strong points is its ability to show off the high energy of a soccer match. The sea of yellow and black at the Borussia Dortmund game was powerful and dizzying, and emphasizes the reason why people go mad for this sport. Likewise, the final match between Ecki’'s “Crossbar Bangers, -- as he cheekily christens the team -- and his hometown team, is a valiant effort at drawing the audience into this world, despite lacking some of the energy -- —and thus believability— -- of the real thing.

It would have been easy for Guys and Balls to take a precarious step and make a statement about the fact that it'’s still not acceptable for professional soccer players to be out (and it probably won’t be for a long time yet), but the world of soccer isn’'t ready to address the inevitable fallout from such a development, so maybe it’'s for the best that the film resigns itself to campy humor and a feel-good atmosphere instead of social commentary. Guys and Balls plays at the Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema on Saturday, November 5 at 7:30 p.m.