Nearly 20 years after it was founded, the Chicago Underground Film Fest remains (perhaps appropriately) a relatively underground event. Two decades is a milestone, though, especially if you're talking about a fest that brands itself as the home of "defiantly independent" filmmakers. I give a lot of credit to artistic director Bryan Wendorf, who hasn't really had to compromise his initial vision. A quick glance at this year's lineup (starting Wednesday and running through March 10) shows that CUFF once again brings the perplexing, the wonderfully offbeat and strange to our city's movie screens.
After bouncing around several venues over the years, the 2013 fest is based out of the newly refurbished Logan Theatre, which is a nice melding of sensibilities; the Logan primarily screens current Hollywood fare (it's a decent place to catch up with the top Oscar contenders if you missed them) but the venue also has begun exploring ways to spotlight films that are anything but mainstream, as well. That's a good match for Wendorf and Co. (who made a wonderfully laid-back fundraising video for Indiegogo this year that slyly leveraged the Internet's obsession with cats; those are some great cats, CUFF).
Here's a quick look at some of the films I previewed on this year's scheduled:
"Ape" (8:30 p.m. Thursday)
Actor Joshua Burge stars as young slacker dude with ambitions of being a comic and an obsession with all things flammable and explosive. This weird little comedy is loosely inspired by the maddening life of a struggling stand-up as experience by writer-director Joel Potrykus. How off-putting can a main character be without souring the movie altogether? It's a worthy question, and the performance is carried primarily by Burge's impossibly long eyelashes and a loose-limbed commitment to his character's most idiotic, shambling personality tics. (The movie actually has a lot in common with "Somebody Up There Likes Me," which I'll be writing about when it opens at the Music Box next week.)
Potrykus is a director who comes to the fest with the right kind of credibility, once telling an interviewer that he would "love to get into an on-set fist fight with Vincent Gallo." If that doesn't embody the underground spirit, I don't know what does.
"The Day of Two Noons" (9 p.m. March 9)
Did I understand this abstract film? No. Did it draw me in with its soothing pace and unhurried preoccupation with small, quiet details? Yes. Yes!
Combining grainy home movies with footage of placid landscapes (a salt plane, with a road far off in the distance defining the horizon line) and steam locomotives chugging away, filmmaker Mike Gibisser has made something impenetrable but charming nonetheless. He tends to focus his camera away from faces. A shot of someone (his grandmother, presumably) lying on the couch catches her legs crossed at the ankles, a stretch of pale white skin where her pants end and socks begin.
The camera then lands on a handwritten note detailing her medications that need to be taken that day. "I'm sorry I'm so deficient as a grandmother and a mother," you hear her disembodied voice say over these images. "I should be more ambitious and more energetic and creative and all that stuff. But I'm not. I'm lazy, I'm bored," she continues, and then begins quoting from the Dr. Seuss story "Horton Hatches the Egg": "I've got kinks in my legs from sitting, just sitting here, day after day. It's work. How I hate it, I'd much rather play." She sounds like a grandmotherly version of Larry David.
The film's title refers to an actual event that prompted a major shift in our lives — a shift to our obsession with speed and time and technology, something the film quietly rebukes. In 1883, at the behest of the railroads, the U.S. adopted standard time zones; the "day of two noons" refers to that Sunday when the nation reset its clocks to the new system (beginning at 12 p.m.) which, for some, resulted in the two-noon scenario.
"See You Next Tuesday" (8 p.m. March 10)
A comedy of splintered sanity from Drew Tobia, it boasts one of the better title sequences I've seen in a long time: The opening credits scroll across the screen underneath the image of a young grocery store cashier staring off into the distance, slack-jawed. That would be Mona (Eleanore Pienta), a likable if unstable woman who never seems to brush her hair or realize just how cut off from reality she is. Pregnant with her first child, she craves support from her spiky comrade-in-arms mother and party-girl sister.
The Chicago Underground Film Festival begins Wednesday and runs through March 10 at the Logan Theater. For a complete lineup of films go to cuff.org.
Rowdy road drama
The Cinema Q film series returns to the Chicago Cultural Center with weekly screenings each Wednesday in March. This week, Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker star as a longtime couple who hit the road to Canada to gain a legal marriage in "Cloudburst." Go to QueerFilmSociety.org.
The Chicago Cinema Society is teaming up with the newly restored Patio Theater to bring hard-to-find indies to the Northwest Side, starting with the low-key murder mystery "The Other Side of Sleep," a fever dream of a film that played at Cannes in 2011. Go to chicagocinemasociety.org or patiotheater.net.
Cinema Minima presents "Animals Projected," a series of films that take a "candid approach to the true condition of the animal kingdom in today's world," including "Catnip: Egress to Oblivion" (a spoof of scared-straight educational drug films that played at Sundance earlier this year) and "Human Meat Factory" (a stop-animation short about the slaughter industry filmed from an animal's perspective). 8 p.m. Sunday at Cole's Bar, where you can grab a drink or two, because with this lineup, you're going to need it. Go to cinema-minima.com.
Dublin's Rockabilly moms
The Chicago Irish Film Festival, formerly based on the South Side, moves downtown this year to the AMC River East. The lineup includes the documentary "When Ali Came to Ireland" (about the famed prize fighter), the heist film "Derelict" plus a "short, non-depressing Irish movie" called "The Blow-Ins." Per writer-director CJ Scuffins' charming description: "It may be of interested to Chicago Tribune readers who are one or all of the following: a) Irish-Americans b) Comedy movie lovers c) Rockabilly moms with fast cars and dad issues." The fest runs Friday through Wednesday. Go to chicagoirishfilmfestival.com.