Chicago Underground Film Festival 

Thursday, June 24, through Thursday, July 1, at the Gene Siskel Film Center

Some Days Are Better Than Others

Some Days Are Better Than Others

The 17th Chicago Underground Film Festival runs Thursday, June 24, through Thursday, July 1, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846-2800. Tickets are $10, $7 for students, and $5 for Film Center members. Following are selected programs; for a full schedule see siskelfilmcenter.org.

Americatown Bordered by the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, and Niagara Falls, Americatown is a little community where everyone speaks in non sequiturs and the population always numbers exactly 1,000. An affable stranger named Plymouth Rayban arrives in town and gets the grand tour from prominent local citizen Roosevelt Microsoft; the newcomer learns that life is good there but that every spilled cup of coffee triggers an epidemic of "crazy legs." Sustained zaniness of this kind is best left to advanced adepts like the Firesign Theatre and even then works best in small doses, but there are enough decent bits here to repay devotees of unapologetic silliness. Written and directed by Jonathan Guggenheim, Cory Howard, Chad Keith, and Kenneth Price. 75 min. Also on the program: Clayton Brown's 17-minute short The Tennessee Waltz. Price and Brown will attend the Saturday screening.  Sat 6/26, 9:15 PM, and Wed 6/30, 6 PM. —Cliff Doerksen

Life Is Unpredictable: Films by Jonas Mekas Seven short works from the guiding light of the American avant-garde. The playful Award Presentation to Andy Warhol (1964) shows the pop-art genius and his Factory coterie eating fruit and vegetables while posing formally as the Supremes blare on the soundtrack. Notes on the Circus (1966) uses fast motion, double exposures, and the skiffle song "Storybook Ball" to create an elegy for the vanishing performance art. The most personal are Cassis (1966), a time-lapse experiment Mekas filmed while visiting the Provencal bay where Seurat lived, and the video essay Letter to Penny Arcade (2001), in which the octogenarian bon vivant drinks and dances while extolling New York. Cup/Saucer/Two Dancers/Radio (1983) is a buzz-kill, a strident dance film that hasn't held up over time. 90 min. Mekas has canceled his previously announced personal appearance.  Sat 6/26, 4:45 PM. —Andrea Gronvall

Modus Operandi In this meandering, bargain-basement spoof of '70s grindhouse cinema (2009), a booze-sodden secret agent is ordered to track down two stolen briefcases containing highly embarrassing personal material that belongs to the U.S. president. Writer-director Frankie Latina casts fellow filmmaker Mark Borchardt of American Movie as a bad guy, and pockmarked heavy Danny Trejo ("Machete" from Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse installment "Planet Terror") puts in three or four minutes as an improbable intelligence chief. To Latina's credit, he's kept this mess mercifully brief (76 minutes), but like all intentionally bad movies, it isn't as much fun as the sort of thing Borchardt is known for: an inept film charged with sincerity. Latina will attend the Friday screening.  Fri 6/25, 10:30 PM, and Wed 6/30, 8 PM. —Cliff Doerksen

Scrappers This superior verite doc opens a wide window onto the world of scrap-metal scavengers, thousands of whom comb Chicago's back alleys in battered pickups looking for recyclable metals. Theirs was a hard buck to earn even before metal prices plummeted in 2008 from $230 to $60 a ton, and directors Ben Kolak, Brian Ashby, and Courtney Prokopas make the most of their subjects' humble heroism while resisting the temptation to sentimentalize them. Along the way they painlessly impart a whole lot of insight into the travails of undocumented immigrants, the persistence of segregation, and the workings of the globalized economy. Miraculously, the whole thing plays more like a gritty valentine to the City in a Garden than an earnest left-wing guilt trip. 92 min. The directors will attend the Sunday screening.  Sun 6/27, 4:45 PM, and Thu 7/1, 8 PM. —Cliff Doerksen

Some Days Are Better Than Others Quirkiness is a bit like Tourette's syndrome: once everybody has it, nobody does. Indie cinema officially reaches that saturation point with this hushed, slow-dripping drama by writer-director Matt McCormick. It centers on three sensitive mopes in Portland, Oregon: a timid wannabe actor (James Mercer), a clerk in a thrift store (Renee Roman Nose) who's obsessed with returning the cremated remains she's found in a donated urn to someone who'll care, and a staffer in a dog rescue shelter (Carrie Brownstein) who dreams of getting on a reality TV show and does creative stuff like make hats from giant teddy bear heads. Matthew Cooper's woozy, intrusive score shakes you down for empathy like a passive-aggressive panhandler. 93 min. Also on the program: Lisa Barcy's five-minute animation Anonanimal, a music video for Andrew Bird. McCormick will attend the screening.  Sat 6/26, 7 PM. —Cliff Doerksen

Stay the Same Never Change While earning an MFA at Yale, video artist Laurel Nakadate would tape studies of older men from town who tried to pick her up, and her work inspired this 2009 drama about a restless voyeur who cruises Kansas City looking for teenage girls. For the most part, his targets also pine—for love, death, God, or consolation in the wake of disaster. Shooting amateur actors in their own homes, Nakadate tries to combine the quotidian rhythms of a midwestern community with the artifice of her gallery installations, straining for the impact of William Eggleston or David Lynch. Only the title and a penultimate fireworks sequence point to her real subject: the sad impossibility of fixing a moment in time. 93 min. Nakadate will attend the screening. Mon 6/28, 8 PM. —Andrea Gronvall

Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Chuck Workman (best known for his montages at the Academy Awards ceremonies) delivers a crash course in experimental and underground film, ideal for anyone who's been curious and/or wary about walking on the wilder side of cinema. Mekas, a Lithuanian survivor of Nazi labor camps, arrived in the U.S. in 1949 and gravitated from the documentary tradition to experimental work that was personal and sometimes transgressive; he also championed the avant-garde in the pages of Film Culture and the Village Voice and founded Anthology Film Archives in New York. Interspersed with his story are old and new interviews with other prominent figures in the movement, including Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Peter Kubelka, David Lynch, and Andy Warhol, as well as film critics Fred Camper and Amy Taubin. A superlative editor, Workman distills a heady brew of clips that covers decades of groundbreaking work. 90 min. Mekas has canceled his previously announced personal appearance, but Workman and Reader contributor Fred Camper will appear at the Friday screening as scheduled.  Fri 6/25, 8:15 PM, and Thu 7/1, 6 PM. —Andrea Gronvall

Wasteland Utopias As flaky as a croissant, and nearly as enjoyable, this meandering experimental doc draws myriad discursive connections between the lives and legacies of two forgotten figures from the Cold War era: real-estate mogul Del Webb, whose Sun City development in Arizona initiated the unsustainable urbanization of the Sonoran desert, and Wilhelm Reich, the ex-Freudian heretic who preached sexual freedom and imagined he could reclaim the Sonoran for mankind by bombarding the sky with invisible life-force quanta he called "orgone radiation." I have no idea whether director David Sherman really believes in Roswell UFOs and an Eisenhower-era "Weather Control Act," but he sure knows how to have fun messing around with stock footage, old newsreels, lo-fi video reconstructions, and crank ideologies. 90 min. Sherman will attend the screening.  Sat 6/26, 6 PM. —Cliff Doerksen

The Wild Hunt The phenomenon of live-action medieval role-playing games has already generated two documentaries—Darkon (2006) and Monster Camp (2007)—which definitely blunts the sword-edge of this Canadian drama. The hero lives in a crappy high-rise where he tends to his alcoholic, Icelandic father; his numbskull older brother larks about with a Viking-themed game, and when the hero's disgruntled girlfriend ditches him to join in the fun, our man ventures into the forest to reclaim her. Like the documentaries, this is supposed to be striking a blow for reality, though director Alexandre Franchi has cast relatively thin and sinewy guys as the costumed gamers, as opposed to the couch potatos who usually take part. 98 min. Franchi will attend the screening.  Thu 6/24, 8 PM. —J.R. Jones

World's Largest This ironic documentary about the outsize statues erected by small towns to draw tourists is about as stimulating as a drive along the interstate. Directors Amy C. Elliott and Elizabeth Donius present an array of giant plants, animals, birds, fish, and even insects (Hidalgo, Texas, hosts the world's largest killer bee), but the documentary sounds only two bland thematic notes: celebration of Americana and lament over a passing way of life (many of the towns are dying economically). If siphoning motor traffic is what these people are all after, a ten-story beer bottle might be a better lure. 76 min. Elliott and Donius will attend the Friday screening. Fri 6/25, 6 PM, and Tue 6/29, 8 PM. —Andrea Gronvall

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