In previous years this has been billed as the Chicago United Film Festival; the new, inverted title more accurately reflects the fact that, instead of a homegrown event, this is really the local installment of a nationwide series programmed by the Los Angeles distributor United Films. The 23 programs screening range from new indie dramas and documentaries to shorts programs to late shows of studio releases (The Terminator, The Craft). Following are reviews of three genuinely local productions; for a full schedule see musicboxtheatre.com.
Chicago Farmer Singer-songwriter Cody Diekhoff was raised in downstate Delavan, Illinois, before moving to Wicker Park in the 90s and coming up with the stage name Chicago Farmer; the dichotomy between big city and small town is the theme of this concert video as well, though Diekhoff and filmmaker Cory Poplin don't have enough to say about it to ward off monotony. Diekhoff plies his reedy tenor, buzzing steel-string guitar, and wry observations in 17 songs at the Peoria Theater, his pleasant performance punctuated by modest and unrevealing interview sequences in a bar and a car (the two locations where folkies spend about 95 percent of their professional lives). The movie reminds me of that famous Leadbelly couplet "Sometimes I live in the country, sometimes I live in town / Sometimes I has a great notion to jump into the river an' drown," but without the drama of the second line. 94 min. Sun 9/23, 4:30 PM.
Fast Talk When you hear a congressman denouncing a policy he advocated six months earlier, what you're probably listening to is the product of a college debate society, whose young Turks learn to argue either side of a proposition in pursuit of victory. But these days even listening to college debaters is a challenge, because for the last 30 years or so, the discipline has been trending toward more content and faster delivery, to the point where debaters talk a mile a minute, gasping for air between sentences. Debra Tolchinsky, a faculty member of Northwestern University's School of Communications, spent the 2005-'06 school year following NU's formidable debate team and their lionized coach, Scott Deatherage (who died suddenly in 2010). Her video documents the students' intelligence, drive, and incredible work ethic, yet in the end it's pretty depressing: there's plenty of strategizing on view, but the ideas themselves are mostly omitted because they're irrelevant. Nothing matters to these people but winning. 56 min. A debate on the current state of college debate, featuring Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn and Chicago Debate League director Les Lynn, follows. Sat 9/22, 2:30 PM.
Sadermania: From Fanship to Friendship I groaned when I realized this documentary was yet another tale of superfandom; obsession may be the most reliable source of drama, but the recent deluge of movies about pop-culture maniacs exploits this principle at its most pedestrian level. Sadermania surprised me, though, because the fan and his love object improbably wind up as equals. Chicago native Chris Sader grew up worshipping Hulk Hogan, filling his basement with Hulkmania memorabilia, and following the wrestler around the country in search of autographs and face time. Eventually Hogan admitted Sader to his private life and the two became genuine friends, lending each other moral support when their respective fathers died. Video maker Adam Gacka interviews Hogan at length, and the movie is actually more revealing as a portrait of him than of Sader; the wrestler seems sincerely touched and humbled by the devotion of his number-one fan. 77 min. Sat 9/22, 7 PM.