The 23rd edition of the Chicago Underground Film Festival kicked off Wednesday with a tribute to the late experimental filmmaker Tony Conrad and continues through Sunday at the Logan Theatre. Following are reviews of seven features making their Chicago premieres this year, plus a roundup of six short works screening in various programs. For more information and a complete schedule, visit cuff.org. —J.R. Jones
- The Alchemist Cookbook
The Alchemist Cookbook Out in the woods, a young bohemian (Ty Hickson) lives in a trailer and labors over what appears to be a bomb; having run out of his antipsychotic medication, he begins hearing voices and engaging in devil worship; and his only visitor, an old friend (Amari Cheatom), is being chased by some dudes over a drug deal gone bad. There are numerous causes for alarm, so why is this drama by underground hero Joel Potrykus (Buzzard) so painfully dull? Partly because the protagonist is a cipher—he plays with his cat, boogies around to a cassette of the Smoking Popes—and partly because the action functions less as a story than as a checklist of transgressions (eating cat food, killing a possum, self-extracting a tooth). The movie peaks at its midpoint with a chilling nocturnal encounter that blurs the line between hallucination and the genuinely supernatural; the rest of the movie pivots around it, but slowly. —J.R. Jones 84 min. Sun 6/5, 8 PM.
- Booger Red
Booger Red Inspired by a 2009 story in Texas Monthly, this fictionalized documentary (2015) takes place in the aftermath of the "Mineola Seven" case, in which residents of the title town were accused of operating a child-sex ring. A schlubby (and fictional) reporter attempts to interview the actual participants, but the mix of actors and real people reenacting horrible events never quite gels. Director Berndt Mader seems to sympathize with the defendants who claim they were railroaded by the justice system, but by splicing their accounts into an invented story about a reporter battling personal demons, he denies each narrative its proper focus. —Dmitry Samarov 96 min. Sun 6/5, 4 PM.
- Director's Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein
Director's Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein The forgotten British-Swedish coproduction Terror of Frankenstein (1977) gets a fictional commentary track featuring the director (played by Clu Gulager), the screenwriter (Zack Norman), and ultimately star Leon Vitali (playing himself). The conceit works pretty well at first: the source movie, a largely visual and remarkably faithful adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel, isn't bad, and the sour banter between the director and screenwriter adds a second layer of intrigue without obscuring the original movie. But the more writers Jay and Tim Kirk develop the commentary track into a dramatic story of its own, revealing a series of murders that took place during the shoot and after the movie's release, the more the commentary fights the movie and pales in comparison. The metamovie layer is rescued only by a rich irony: when the filmmakers record their comments, the killings have turned Terror of Frankenstein into a midnight-movie sensation. Tim Kirk directed. —J.R. Jones 92 min. Fri 6/3, 9 PM.
- The Love Witch
The Love Witch This spellbinding ode to exploitation films of the 1960s and '70s is impressive not only for its mock-Technicolor hues and period mise-en-scène but also for what lies beneath: a creepy and cunning examination of female fantasy. A widowed witch (Samantha Robinson), heartbroken by the neglect of her late husband, moves to a small town and seduces a string of men with love potions as a way to feel adored. Director Anna Biller—who also wrote, produced, and edited the film, and created by hand many of its vivid costumes and set decorations—embraces the melodrama and vampy camp of '60s horror while also considering the easy conflation of love, desire, and narcissism. Robert Frost once wrote that "love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired," and Biller's witch, both liberated in exploiting her sexuality and repressed by her white-knight fantasies, embodies the idea. —Leah Pickett 120 min. Thu 6/2, 9 PM.
- Luther Price: The Hermit
Luther Price: The Hermit Two raw, confrontational works by experimental filmmaker Luther Price, both shot on grainy Super-8 but screening in new digital transfers from Anthology Film Archives. Clown (2002, 30 min.) pushes one past comfort to a benumbed tedium and back again, as a demented harlequin pantomimes freakishness, loneliness, and disturbing insinuations of childhood trauma. A. (1995, 60 min.) is similarly discomfiting, a black-and-white portrait of a withered It Girl summoning her halcyon days with pills and booze; her derangement and despair are rendered in clear, kaleidoscope detail. —Leah Pickett Sat 6/4, 8 PM.
Pastor Paul Jules David Bartkowski directed this indie comedy, which gets a lot of mileage out of his performance as a bumbling math geek. Traveling to Ghana to study the rhythms of its traditional music, he gets cast in a ramshackle movie version of Hamlet (the filmmakers need a pale white guy to play the ghost), but the pressures of guerrilla filmmaking are too much for him and he seeks out local healers to restore his soul. As a student, Bartkowski worked for a touring theatrical revue in Ghana, and his affection for West Africa is evident here. His send-up of the region's makeshift cinema shares some of its energy, but the movie could have used a tighter script and less improvisation. —Andrea Gronvall 67 min. Sat 6/4, 9 PM.
- The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers
The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers Writer-director-cinematographer Ben Rivers credits Pere Portabella's Cuadecuc-Vampir (1971) as an inspiration for this stunning experimental film, which blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. The first half features behind-the-scenes footage of Spanish filmmaker Oliver Laxe shooting Mimosas in Morocco; in the second half, Laxe, playing a version of himself, becomes the protagonist in an adaptation of the Paul Bowles story "A Distant Episode." The images, captured with a 16-millimeter Bolex, are uncommonly beautiful, even for such famously photogenic locations as the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert, but the stark imagery is more than matched by the grim narrative, which subverts the notion of European superiority over a once-colonized Africa. In English and subtitled Arabic, French, and Spanish. —Andrea Gronvall 98 min. Thu 6/2, 7 PM.
- Chums From Across the Void
"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence but self preservation," declares the heroine of Jennifer Reeder's gentle girl-power drama Crystal Lake (Sun 6/5, 6 PM), "and that is an act of political warfare." The speaker, a Muslim girl whose father is dying, comes to stay with her second cousin in Hammond, Indiana, and contemplates trading the hijab for the pleasures of make-up, skateboarding, and a girl gang. —J.R. Jones
Jim Finn's Chums From Across the Void (Fri 6/3, 8:30 PM) is just the movie for old leftists in need of past life regression therapy. As a crystal bust of Leon Trotsky spins in front of an oscillating wall of electric colors, a voice-over narrator instructs us to give up our corporate capitalist beliefs. You may find all this amusing or annoying, depending on your tolerance for art-school wankery and romanticizing failed ideologies. —Dmitry Samarov
With Crippled Symmetries (Fri 6/3, 6:30 PM), Beatrice Gibson makes a valiant attempt to adapt William Gaddis's epic anticapitalist satire J R, though the short only illustrates the ultimate impossibility of turning any novel into a film. Made up entirely of dialogue, J R is especially unsuited to the screen, though if the short gets even one viewer to pick up Gaddis's book, it won't have been a wasted effort. —Dmitry Samarov
Michael Bell-Smith's whimsical Rabbit Season, Duck Season (Fri 6/3, 8:30 PM) uses the old Bugs Bunny-Daffy Duck cartoon Rabbit Fire (1951) as a study in opposing forces, turning the characters' reality- shifting argument with Elmer Fudd ("It's rabbit season!" "It's duck season!") into a waveform before ultimately settling on a Newton's cradle as the ideal image. If its steady clacking sound is familiar, that's because Bell-Smith uses it in the short's opening minute to cut from earth to sky to earth again. —J.R. Jones
Never underestimate the power of the cinema: in Jon Rafman and Daniel Lopatin's Sticky Drama (Sat 6/4, 10 PM), it transforms a live action role-playing game, enacted by a bunch of kids in a suburban backyard, into something genuinely disquieting. A jagged electronic-music piece by Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) accompanies the climactic battle, just as the other narrative thread, about a teen princess keeping a strange beast in her bedroom, erupts into geysers of brightly colored goo. —J.R. Jones
In Bernd Lützeler and Kolja Barbara Kunt's Traveling With Maxim Gorky (Sat 6/4, 5 PM), archival footage of tropical island cruises is accompanied by a voice-over narrator's humorless musings on colonialism, the clash of cultures, and the very meaning of existence. There's a static shot during the end credits that advertises travels with Gorky, but no other mention of the Russian writer. We're left with a seemingly random list of 11 world masterpieces before the screen goes black; what these have to do with the rest of the film is anyone's guess. —Dmitry Samarov v