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Shorts, sharp and shocking, at the Chicago Underground Film Festival

Five days’ worth of features and short subjects screen in the festival’s 24th edition.

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Usually our coverage of the Chicago Underground Film Festival ends with a roundup of notable short works playing on various bills—but this year, the last shall be first. Some of the most inventive and exciting stuff at CUFF comes in small packages, so why not give them the attention they deserve? In a way, shorts are even more underground than features because they cost so much less to produce. The only way to be more underground would be not to make a film at all.

Deborah Stratman's head-spinning Xenoi (Sat 6/3, 2 PM) literally tries to spin your head: ominous music accompanies slow 360-degree pans that capture the beautiful Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea, and in the center of the frame, rotating with the pan but much faster, float various chrome-plated polyhedrons, each a cold rebuke to the landscape, with its deep blue sea and textured white cliffs. Stratman maintains this formal motif for the entire 15-minute running time, though she spices things up in the second half with an assortment of camera tricks, color play, and flicker effects.

With Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration (Sat 6/3, 3 PM), Lonnie Edwards presents a series of vignettes exploring the sweeping artistic impact of the Great Migration. Captions explain the history of black hoofing as a modern-day dancer clicks through a tap-dance routine in the echoing stairwell of a vintage office building; a reading of Langston Hughes's poem "One Way Ticket"—whose speaker will move anywhere to get away from Dixie—gives way to a rap on the same theme; and jazz players groove as an archival TV clip shows Martin Luther King Jr. defining the "new negro" as "a person with a new sense of dignity and destiny."

Kent Lambert's supercool Reckoning 4 (Fri 6/2, 8:30 PM) combines live action and video-game footage for a strange journey into the world of commercial gaming, described by one critic on the soundtrack as the locus of "a lot of money, a lot of power fantasy, a lot of violence, and a lot of privilege." Also, apparently, a lot of paranoia: Lambert opens with a guy thumbing his game controller and staring at animated role-playing characters on a TV, but on the other side of the looking glass, the role-playing characters coldly appraise the live-action ones on screens of their own. That simple shift in perspective, to a fantasy world that manipulates us, is more unsettling than any amount of video violence.

Back in 1999, Mark Borchardt became an unlikely hero to no-budget filmmakers everywhere when American Movie documented his quest to shoot a backwoods horror flick called Coven. Borchardt returns with The Dundee Project (Sat 6/3, 7 PM), reporting on the "UFO Daze" event in Dundee, Wisconsin. Now he's the one poking fun at lovable rubes, introducing UFO Bob, a well-oiled local and a fixture at the event, as "not just a stargazer but a star seeker, guiding the innocent to a greater transcendence." According to Bob, alien visitors have educated themselves about our culture by monitoring broadcasts of Packers games.

Jodie Mack's dazzling handmade animation Curses (Sun 6/4, 7 PM) uses cutouts from marbled paper, placed atop solid colors, to create a kaleidoscopic weave while a soft-pop tune by Roommate plays on the soundtrack. This kinetic imagery is arresting enough in the abstract, but around the midpoint Mack introduces two rotoscoped human silhouettes, cut from the same paper, that perform a ballroom dance number, the marble patterning a visual reminder of their infinite complexity as people. By the time the solid backgrounds give way to throbbing marble patterns as well, you may wonder if you're watching a movie or a flower bursting into bloom. J.R. Jones

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All the Rage Michael Galinsky abandoned this documentary about Dr. John Sarno in 2004 but revived it years later after debilitating back pain prompted him to reconnect with the acclaimed but controversial physician. As head of outpatient rehabilitation for New York University's Rusk Institute, Sarno practiced inside the mainstream for almost five decades, though his ideas were anything but conventional: he pioneered the diagnosis of TMS (tension myoneural syndrome), attributing some chronic muscle pain to repressed anger. The film serves as an introduction to Sarno's mind-body approach to wellness but underplays the importance of cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation. Galinsky, Suki Hawley, and David Beilinson directed; with testimonials from Howard Stern, Larry David, Jonathan Ames, and John Stossel, all of whom know something about rage. Andrea Gronvall Sat 6/3, 6 PM.

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Dim the Fluorescents In this Canadian comedy, an actress desperate for a break (Claire Armstrong) and a playwright (Naomi Skwarna) living off checks from her dad funnel all their untapped creative passion into writing and performing instructional skits for corporate seminars. As in Wes Anderson's Rushmore, there's something funny and charming about amateur artists investing a modest theatrical exercise with immodest creative ambitions, and director Daniel Warth, who cowrote the script with Miles Barstead, manages to score laughs off his hapless protagonists without ever sullying their dreams. Warth edited the movie too, though apparently he's unfamiliar with the concept of editing stuff out; the second half slows appreciably as the heroines gear up for a make-or-break gig, and a tense countdown to the performance is staged not once but twice, from different perspectives. J.R. Jones 126 min. Fri 6/2, 9 PM.

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Drifting Towards the Crescent Documentary maker Laura Stewart delivers a pleasant, occasionally lyrical travelogue about two towns along the Mississippi River: Keokuk, Iowa, and Hannibal, Missouri. Both flourished during the 19th century, but today they're underpopulated and largely dilapidated; the local economies have dried up and the architecture has fallen into disrepair. Despite this sad state of affairs, Stewart offers affectionate portraits of the townspeople, among them an exotic dancer, a hunting enthusiast, and an underemployed man who likes to pick morels along the river. They seem to carry on the old-time spirit of the river towns, and historical vignettes reveal how rowdy and fascinating such towns were during the era of Hannibal's most famous son, Mark Twain. Ben Sachs 84 min. Screens as part of the opening-night program; tickets are $20. Wed 5/31, 8 PM.

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Kuro A Japanese woman in Paris, who nurses her paraplegic white boyfriend by day and works in a karaoke bar by night, is the unreliable narrator of this unnerving drama. Directors Tujiko Noriko and Joji Koyama tell their story largely through the woman's voice-over, whose frequent incongruity with the action onscreen creates an atmosphere of dreamlike uncertainty and suggests a kaleidoscopic state of mind: the woman (played by Noriko) speaks in first and third person, in Japanese and French, as she tells stories from her past, particularly her happier years with the man when he was able-bodied. Conversely, his interior life is left blank; he appears to be mute, and neither his physical nor his seeming mental paralysis is ever explained. The result is a creepy experiment in nonlinear storytelling that successfully blurs reality, memory, and fantasy. In Japanese and French with subtitles. Leah Pickett 84 min. Thu 6/1, 9 PM.

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Manlife: The Last of the Lawsonians If you haven't heard of Lawsonomy, a "philosophy of life" created by aircraft pioneer and professional baseball player Alfred Lawson in the late 1920s, that's because the government doesn't want you to know—according to Merle Hayden, the winsome 90-year-old subject of this documentary. A dedicated Lawsonian, Hayden recounts how his family latched on to the physical, moral, and economic ideas Lawson laid out in his many books (especially Direct Credits for Everybody, which proposes that the U.S. government abolish interest and eliminate taxes). One can easily see why Lawson gained a following during the Depression and why Hayden remained loyal to his populist message even after a series of IRS investigations and Lawson's death in 1954 began to drive members from the group. Director Ryan Sarnowski shows a similar respect for Hayden through the detailed documentation of Lawsonomy's history, merits, and flaws, as well as the little onscreen moments Hayden shares with the women who was his high school sweetheart. Leah Pickett 94 min. Sun 6/4, 8 PM.

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Neighborhood Food Drive Scalded by a negative review, the owners of a fine- dining restaurant in gentrifying Humboldt Park (Bruce Bundy, Lyra Hill) organize a series of food-drive parties to score points with the media. I came to this local production hoping for social satire, but any laughs inherent in the premise are smothered by the defensively smug tone, a natural reaction of inexperienced players wrestling with pallid dialogue and groping for their characters. "A group of awful idiots fail at throwing a party over and over," reads the movie's tagline, so perhaps writer-director Jerzy Rose was aiming for an off-wack ensemble comedy a la Christopher Guest; the movie throws its sharpest elbow when one character announces, "I believe Santa is love." More representative is the laborious running gag in which people keep choking on their meals. J.R. Jones 85 min. Sat 6/3, 8 PM.

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The Pink Egg Animator Jim Trainor makes his live-action feature debut with this macabre disquisition on insect hunting and mating rituals. Actors in unitards portray various arthropods, from honeybees to spiders and wasps, but there's no dialogue or narration, so it's hard to differentiate the bugs and harder still to figure out what they're doing. Props give some clues: mimosas and Sugar Pops stand in for nectar and pollen, while jars of white moisturizer represent sperm deposits. The title refers to one species placing its eggs in the nest of another so the guest larvae can munch on their bedfellows. Trainor conveyed animal freakishness more effectively in his short animation The Bats (1999), a hilariously graphic parody of nature documentaries; here he casts himself as a dung-eating beetle. Andrea Gronvall 71 min. Fri 6/2, 7 PM.

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Weather House This English-language German art movie is an absurdist drama in the Samuel Beckett tradition, featuring sparse dialogue and settings and a tone at once wry and apocalyptic. It takes place in a secluded woodland home where a group of scientists monitors the weather during a period of extreme climate change, the temperature fluctuating dramatically every few minutes. Somewhere far away, civilization is breaking down, and in this context the scientists' devotion to their work seems ridiculous but strangely noble. Directors Frauke Havemann and Eric Schefter create a visual style befitting Mark Johnson's minimalist script, employing slow zooms, somber line readings, and barren widescreen compositions. The atmosphere feels grave even when the onscreen behavior looks silly, which is much of the time. Ben Sachs 81 min. Sun 6/4, 4 PM.  v

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