Like Ficarra and Requa’s 2011 comedy Crazy Stupid Love, Focus begins promisingly and bops along enjoyably for a while, only to run out of steam…
19th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival When: Through June 7 Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Admission: $11; $7 students; $6 for IFP/Chicago and Film Center members. Festival pass: $75. Phone: (312) 846-2600 For more detail visit: www.cuff.org and www.siskelfilmcenter.org
The Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF) continues to uncover curious work for adventurous viewers. Other-friendly is the watchword of this 19 year-old showcase presented by Independent Feature Project /Chicago.
Transgressors make good documentary subjects. One is Maurice Laroche, a Paris theater proprietor who projects 35mm porn films. Ditto for Joe Davis, a peg-legged pioneer of biogenetic art. Bryan Wendorf, programmer and artistic director, and filmmaker Lori Felker, the fest’s coordinator and co-programmer, found more features by artists who had previously made shorts, such as British filmmaker Ben Rivers.
Two Chicago filmmakers get reprise screenings of works that played here recently. Melika Bass offers a pre-industrial revery titled “Waking Things.” Xan Aranda’s documentary “Andrew Bird: Fever Year” chronicles a Chicago singer and musician who recently performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
After-screening parties are scheduled on four evenings. Some filmmakers will come for their screenings, despite the fest’s lack of airline or hotel sponsors. CUFF’s site invites locals to offer a spare room for out-of-towners to crash.
The fest's jury consists of Julia Gibbs, the assistant director of the Film Studies Center at the University of Chicago; Jonathan Marlow, co-founder and vice president of Acquisitions and Development at the online movie site Fandor; and Chicago music indie Dan Koretzky of Drag City, whose site sells a Brain Pulse Music Machine.
Reviews of selected films and videos appear below. All screenings are at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
6 p. m. “Shorts Program: They Live By Night”: Subjects include a Toronto church, illuminated manuscripts and Aristotle’s metaphysics. Best is “Secret Life,” the sixth short by Reynold Reynolds to appear in the fest. Lyrically calibrated time-lapse tracking shots frame a melancholy fruit-lover in an apartment animated with plant tendrils. A bell tolls and machines tick. This one-time physics student says this 2008 piece “defies the ultimate metaphysical taboos of temporality.”
8 p. m. “Heavy Girls”: Written and directed by Axel Ranisch, this German feature observes two nude overweight loners bond in the mud after a dementia-addled elder, played by Ranisch’s 89 year-old grandmother, expires. This loving look at “something like freedom” is as upbeat as offbeat. Screens with “The Night of the Moon Has Many Hours” from Colombia.
10 p. m. “Journey to Planet X”: Two filmmakers who studied film in college document two self-taught filmmakers who got their degrees in geology and civil engineering. Keeping their day jobs as hydrologists, Eric Swain and Troy Bernier make an awful sci-fi short set in the year 2177 titled “Planet X.” These Miami amateurs earlier submitted a short to the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, where fest founder Josh Koury and co-director Myles Kane got the idea of making this making-of film about Swain and Bernier. Less compelling than the similarly conceived documentaries “Audience of One” and “American Movie,” “Journey to Planet X” chronicles a folly with discreet condescension. Screens with “Chromatic Revelries,” Kerry Laitala’s diverting take on fireworks and a Ferris wheel. (Also, 6 p. m. Wednesday)
1 p. m. “Shorts Program: The Dead Talk Back”: Subjects include the late experimental filmmaker Adolfas Mekas and Catherine Deneuve’s characters. “Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise” is Kelly Sears’ spooky mock inquest into a 1974 high school yearbook, but this is weaker than her 2007 short “The Drift.” In eleven smart, stylized riffs on early film, Austrian artist Peter Tscherkassky’s 35mm “Coming Attractions” cites the idea of the “cinema of attractions” introduced by film historians Tom Gunning from the University of Chicago and Andre Gaudreault from the University of Montreal. (Also, 6 p. m. Tuesday.)
4 p. m. “Girl Model”: Co-directors Ashley Sabin and David Redmon (“Kamp Katrina”) observe thirteen year-old Nadya, an aspiring model from Siberia, and Ashley, a conflicted American on commission who recruits this willowy child for the Japanese fashion market. Nadya lands in Tokyo and is lost. Ashley, who never got the final cut she first sought, lends the filmmakers a video diary she shot in 1999 when working as a model in Japan. Mainstream in style, this understated indictment will later appear on PBS. Screens with “Strong is Beautiful,” a silly fashion shoot with the Women's Tennis Association. Dewey Nicks turns a 600-frames-per-second camera at athletes in make-up as they swat at tennis balls.
5 p. m. “Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis”: In this conventional documentary, Peter Sasowsky admires an unconventional experimental artist. Upset at Carl Sagan for omitting female genitalia on 1972’s Pioneer plaque, and how that mislead other beings about earthling anatomy, Joe Davis recorded vaginal contractions and beamed their signal into space. Now better informed alien abductors ought to stop probing our sex organs. He is hilarious and usually unemployed. Screens with “SpaceTimeDog.” Nikolaus Eckhard shoots 150-frame-per-second video of an Alpine Dachsbracke after trotting on a treadmill. Cubist tricks re-choreograph his gait.
6 p. m. “OK, Good”: This clinical look at a Los Angeles actor feels like a documentary at first. Daniel Martinico directs, shoots and edits this austere, searing character study in which Hugo Armstrong, Martinico’s co-producer and co-writer, effectively plays an ineffectual actor. He auditions for a TV spot where his line is: “I loved my cable provider. I didn’t see any reason to go to dish.” For an acting workshop, students scream “You stink!” in each other’s faces. Venting rage over chronic failure is all he learns to act out. Screens with “The Ghost of Fatty Arbuckle,” a lackluster tour of a Brooklyn studio where that silent star once worked and CBS taped “As The World Turns.”
8 p. m. “Hollywood Burn”: This stupid mash-up of hijacked movie clips TV shows, pop songs and video games pits Elvis Presley against Charlton Heston to fight over copyright. The self-styled “fair use” freedom-fighter duo called Soda Jerk describes itself as “a two-person art collective based in Berlin” dedicated to “competing counter-mythologies.” The remix design and diatribe are neither imaginative nor transgressive. Screens with “Why is the No Video Signal Blue?” Andrew Norman Wilson here wonders why video screens and projectors default to the color blue when there is no input signal.
10 p. m. “Shorts Program: Wild Rebels”: Chicago filmmaker Daniele Wilmouth offers the delightful “Fanfare for Marching Band. ” She and choreographer Peter Carpenter stage numbers by Mucca Pazza, a “circus punk marching band” and “ragtag musical militia.” Locations include a CTA bus, City Hall, Illinois Department of Revenue, a Whole Foods Market, Union Station, Lincoln Park and Humboldt Park. Wilmouth poses extras and bystanders as if frozen in time as Mucca Pazza bestows its spell of pep. Other shorts in this program cut up footage from The Bullwinkle Show, re-edit “Taxi Driver” to make Travis Bickle a big fan of Disney characters, and cast Uncle Luke from 2 Live Crew in remake of Chris Marker’s 1962 sci-fi film “La Jetee.”
1 p. m. “Zero Killed”: In 2007 Michal Kosakowski created a video installation in Munich titled “Fortynine” that contained that number of staged killings, based on the filmed fantasies of people he interviewed since 1996. For his documentary “Zero Killed," he re-interviews most of them, with scenes from the murders they acted out with movie-like realism. Despite a provocative concept, this disquieting project yields fewer insights than you’d expect into screen violence and moral imagination. Screens with Alexander Yan’s “Elko,” a slight drama about a “kill-me” post on the internet. (Also, 8 p. m. Wednesday.)
2 p. m. “As Above, So Below”: Sarah J Christman meditates on the alchemy of metals. Framed with mystical quotes from Hermes Trismegistus, Parcelus, Maria Prophetissa and Mircea Eliade, this allusive essay film ranges from rare metals recycled from discarded electronics, to a memorial diamond generated from the carbon extracted from crematory ashes. Screens with two shorts by Mike Gibisser and Sheri Wills.
4 p. m. “Shorts Program: Attack of the Eye Creatures”: The program that looks like it has the most abstract work was unavailable for preview. One short is synopsized: “Six hundred seventy-three fingernails glued to destroyed film.” Filmmakers include Ben Russell, Alexander Stewart, Scott Stark and Scott Wolniak.
6 p. m. “Palaces of Pity” (Palacios de Pena): Portugese filmmaker Gabriel Abrantes and American filmmaker Daniel Schmidt co-direct the best film in the fest. Beautifully shot, this poetic narrative observes two privileged cousins, ages 13 and 14 (Catarina Gaspar and Andreia Martins), who vie to inherit the estate of their aged grandmother. Before her death, she dreams she is at the inquisition and sentences two gay Moors, played by Brazilians, to burn at the stake. The filmmakers say “The Last Generation of Portugal,” as they initially titled their collaboration, is all about “a culturally inherited fear in Portugal.” This 58-minute short feature previously screened at festivals in Venice, San Francisco, London, Buenos Aires and Ann Arbor. Screens with two shorts.
8 p. m. “I Have Always Been A Dreamer”: Sabine Gruffat visits Dubai and Detroit for a study in the vagaries of urban identity. Interviews and cityscapes reveal slippages between intent and output, past and present. This ironic documentary offers an ambiguous geography. Screens with “Century,” Kevin Jerome Everson’s one-liner about three machines: an immobile camera stares at a compactor turn a Buick into scrap. (Also, 8 p. m. Tuesday.)
8 p. m. “Video Diary of A Lost Girl”: Billed as world premiere, Lindsay Denniberg’s splashy lo-fi love story matches a resurrected one-night stand with an ageless succubus. The title riffs on the 1929 film starring silent-era siren Louise Brooks. Denniberg’s title character works in a video store. She is a Lilin who hails from a lineage of lethal lovers descended from Lilith, the ex-wife of Adam, as folklore claims. Can a bloodsucker keep her heart throb? Screens with Hyun-Suk Seo’s “Derivation,” described by the Minimalen Short Film Festival in Norway as “A collage of sensually charged moments from Korean horror films of the 2000s.” (Also, 6 p. m. Thursday.)
6 p. m. “Two Years At Sea”: Ben Rivers blows up his hand-processed 16mm CinemaScope footage to 35mm for a misty flickering study of a loner in a landscape. Somewhere in Scotland, elderly Jake Williams lives in sylvan solitude. Rivers chronicles his routines and amusements, including playing the tune “The Sexton and the Carpenter” from a scratchy 1971 folk record “The Raven and the Crow." Expanded from Rivers’ 2006 short “This Is My Land,” this tactile portrait captures a mute companionship. Screens with “Tear it Up, Son!," Ross Nugent’s black-and-white slice of Ohio ethnography shot at Yankee Lake Truck Night Ohio. Big-wheeled vehicles cavort in the mud.
8 p. m. “Headlock”: German director Johan Carlsen enlists Cornelia Kwanka and her son Christopher to play working-class single mom Susanne and her son Johnny. His script draws from their earlier family life as well as his own past. Johnny is failing in his new school and finding no friends. He may have inherited from his mother a knack for magically realizing visions to cope with a tough life. Carlsen gets strong naturalist performances that may prove cathartic for all concerned. Screens with “And I Will Rise if Only to Hold You Down” by Jennifer Reeder, an incisive drama about a family in fission.
8 p. m. “Andrew Bird: Fever Year”: Chicago filmmaker Xan Aranda documents Chicago performer/ composer Andrew Bird on a concert tour and in his recording sessions for an enthralling portrait of creative flow under the influence of a prolonged, anomalous fever. This exceptional documentary screened earlier at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Talking Pictures Festival in Evanston. Two years ago, CUFF screened “Anonanimal,” his music video by Lisa Barcy.
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