Films and Interviews Review -Two Directors and a Star Talk About Their New Movies

The 52nd Chicago International Film Festival recently screened 140 films in 12 different categories over a 2-week period. All the films were shown at the host venue, the AMC River East 21 Theater at 325 E. Illinois Street. The festival was a “feast of film”, with multiple red carpet events, Industry days, question and answer sessions and interview opportunities for the working press. The instant article covers 3 different films from 4 different categories and an interview with the writer/director of 2 of them, and one of the stars/participants in the 3rd.

Film Festival logo and poster; image courtesy of Ollie Boyd


From the categories, “U.S. Indies” and “Outlook”, from the U.S., “Pushing Dead”, written and directed by Tom E. Brown:

Starring Danny Glover, Robin Weigert, James Roday and Tom Riley, this is a gentle comedy about a San Francisco writer, Dan, who becomes ineligible for his health plan and cannot afford to purchase the $3000 worth of medication he needs to control his HIV.  He is also still in mourning for his deceased partner, whose wacky sister he lives with. The film is remarkable for it’s portrayal of a man in extraordinary circumstances who yet manages to live an ordinary life- if living surrounded by and infused with love, humor, friendship and good sense is ordinary. The minor characters in this film are just as lovingly portrayed as are the stars; there is the nightmarish little girl who shows up everywhere she’s not wanted, spouting platitudes; the philosophical mugger, who, when bested by Dan’s roommate, is attracted to her; the caseworker who is adamant about not bending the rules in Dan’s case. There are  personae who would be invisible in other films- like the individuals waiting in line at the drugstore which Dan repeatedly visits-who have strong visible personalities even without speaking.

From "Pushing Dead"

The humor is never forced or ham-handed.  Most interesting, perhaps, is the decidedly un-Hollywood treatment of the incipient love interest- without revealing everything, it doesn’t work out and Dan is rejected. Yet,instead of spiraling into a depressive funk or self-destructive behavior or other predictable strategies which would typically result in his “getting the guy”, he responds with the oh-so-healthy “I’ll have a monogamous relationship with myself; I’ll cheat every once in a while”.


Tom E. Brown wrote and directed the film, his first feature. He’s an affable man, laughs easily, and is very open about the processes involved in creating his work. This creator of three previous short films about Aids-related issues said, “The other films were leading up to this. Short films have to be exaggerated to tell the story in 5-10 minutes, a couple of fantastical moments; this was an opportunity to do something with a realistic pace”.


He wanted to create a film where the audience could sense “the characters behind the main characters”- each personality he created had “their own moments”. The actual writing and rewriting went very quickly after taking the project through the writer’s and filmmaker’s labs at Sundance, but then it took fifteen years to get it into pre-production! He credits producer Chris Martin  for “coming in and making it happen”.

Writer/Director Tom E. Brown

Brown noted he had “amazing actors”. He had “complete faith” in them. He stated “If you let everybody involved in the making of the film do what they do best, once they trust you as the director and feel free”, then “it” can happen. “It” is the thing that gets the audience engaged. He has found it very hard to leave after doing his “tech check” at the festivals where the film has screened; he has seen audience members “with tears running down their faces”. He hopes the film gets out to as many people as possible.


From the categories ”Documentary” and “Outlook”, from the Netherlands/Belgium, “Strike a Pose”, directed by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan:


The film features the surviving performers of the 1991 documentary film “Truth or Dare”, which itself followed Madonna’s 1990 “Blond Ambition” World Tour. The original documentary effectively and joyously reflected the camaraderie felt between the men and their affection for Madonna, and also was unabashedly expressive of Madonna’s refrain “Express Yourself”. In it, two men kiss for the first time on film. The new film, “Strike A Pose”, however, is much darker, and not just because it reveals how several of the dancers were secretly suffering with HIV-related illness during the original tour and some have since died. After the tour and the famous first film, several of the participants launched a largely inexplicable lawsuit against Madonna, predicated on the notion that these dancers didn’t know “Truth or Dare” was to be a “public” film. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount, although that result is not explained in the film.

From "Strike a Pose"

Although the penultimate scene shows us a glad reunion, it is doubtlessly engendered for this new flick; the former comrades express their affection for each other, but the truth is, it’s the first time they’ve gotten together in more than two decades. While the film spends time dwelling on the low points in their lives- health issues, drug problems, lack of success- it largely neglects to inform us about what it is these men have actually been doing for 25 years. Unfortunately, the sense this reviewer got was that this was an attempt- much like the lawsuit- to cash in on the star’s image and the former flash-in-the-pan fame of most of the participants. Having said that, the emotions that are captured appear to be honest and compelling. Starring/ featuring Kevin Shea, Salim Gauwloos, Carlton Wilborn, Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, and Gabriel Trupin as themselves in old and new footage.


Carlton Wilborn of Chicago is the award-winning author of “I am Empowered” and “Front and Center”, as well as an actor, a life coach and an accomplished dancer who participated in both Madonna’s 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour as well as her subsequent 1993 tour, “The Girlie Show”. Formerly of Hubbard Street Dance, Wilborn appeared extensively in both films. This reviewer had the opportunity to interview him about his experiences with Madonna, the films, and his outlook on life today. He is an intensely focused person with a strong spiritual bent to whom “words are extremely important”. He told me that “there is an underbelly of healing that lives through the film as it’s own intellectual organism which will find it’s way to those whom it was meant for”.


Wilborn pointed out that his “journey is different than the others”- in point of fact, he advised me that “Strike A Pose” was "really 7 different stories”- each cast member having their own unique perspective. At the time he auditioned for “Blond Ambition”, he’d already been accepted to star in a tour with Whitney Houston, later postponed. He described his role with Madonna on tour as “the main guy there to support the brand”.  When I asked him if the tour had been a “blast”, he replied “No, because I had a secret”. He, like several of the others, was HIV positive and kept this to himself; the illness as well as the secrecy took a toll.

Dancer/Actor/Life Coach Carlton Wilborn

Wilborn did not participate in the lawsuit, and he has no hostile feelings toward Madonna- after all, he points out, he “went back and did the second tour”; he also lived at her home at one time for several months.


“Strike A Pose” is significant in it’s depiction of the fear, dread and stigma that can surround the lives of those infected and in it’s unflinching portrayal of how those affected can indeed live long and full lives, supported by the camaraderie of community. Wilborn likes the new film, “Especially because it offered those involved the opportunity to have their own voices be heard. The film felt like a way of bringing it all together”. He expressed the hope that “The (gay) Millenials who see the film will realize that they have shoulders (of those who went before them) to lean on”. He is a man who sees any cup as half full, not half empty. He mused “People can thrive despite whatever craziness they are in the middle of, or are about to go into- they can thrive no matter what is going down”. Thriving, for Wilborn, is the same as triumphing.


From the category “World Cinema”, from the U.K., “Kaleidoscope”, written and directed by Rupert Jones:

Starring Anne Reid, Sinead Matthews and Toby Jones, this is at once a mystery and a brilliant psychological study of the human response to early trauma, practically an artistic depiction of an individual in the throes of a fugue state of dissociation. It keeps the viewer on tenterhooks of anxiety while fixated on the screen. The scenes flash swiftly before the eye as the mind's own eye seeks to ascertain what is “really” happening. The beauty of the filmmaking art used so successfully here is that one is able to follow the permutations with intellectual certainty but then can be filled with misgivings about what actually transpired. In other words, the filmmaker’s hand is sure; doubts creep into the viewer’s mind and then are resolved based on one’s own interpretations- much as they do when trying to resolve the events of life as recorded in  memory and memorabilia.


“Kaleidoscope” was this reviewer’s favorite film of the festival, an incredibly intelligent and intriguing provocative experience. From the cinematography, to the setting, from the camera angles to the acting, this movie will pull you in, get you involved, and keep you thinking long after the last credits have left the screen- and it’s also brutally, subtly funny. The actors are uniformly excellent. Toby Jones, the director’s brother (another brother, Casper, is also an actor) portrayed the struggling and bewildered protagonist, Carl Byrne, with enormous subtlety. He’s an ex-con trying to start a new life, but his past keeps haunting him. Sinead Matthews gave a mesmerizing performance as Abbie, the vivacious girl who came to “call”, and Anne Reid was stunning as a really loathsome mother.

From "Kaleidoscope"

This reviewer had the opportunity to interview screenwriter and director Rupert Jones during the week the film previewed at the Chicago International Film Festival.


He was a charming, funny-clever and obviously extremely perceptive man who allowed me to exult over the film, encouraging me as I vented my conclusions, murmuring, “Yes, you’ve found all the clues”. When I struggled with one important conclusion, he egged me gently on, until I myself voiced “Ah, yes of course…”


Jones noted that as screenwriter as well as director he was involved in “every single aspect of the production”, from choosing camera angles to spending many hours in a shop in Brixton choosing just the right African kaleidoscope-patterned shirt. He added that his real job is “to keep it clean and to nourish it”. He believes many modern films “can be patronizing”. “People are interested in people”, he said, and should be allowed to exercise their intelligence as an audience. Further, he stated, “A certain type of cinema is dominant- in America, it’s about sensation”. He described the filming as “A short shoot and hard work”.


 He's directed 10 movies to date. When I asked him about his hopes for this film, he laughed and replied, “World domination”.

Writer/Director Rupert Jones


The Chicago International Film Festival has become known the world over for showing many different categories of films; from shorts to features, from new directors to independent films, from documentaries to musicals and special subjects. Additionally, it’s year-round efforts as Cinema/Chicago provide educational opportunities for film lovers of all ages throughout Chicago-land.

For information on this great organization, go to the Chicago Film Festival website


All photos courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival-Cinema/Chicago



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