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Movie Review: 2014 Chicago Underground Film Festival: Selected Short Film Reviews

Mascara runs down the face of a crying teenage girl

The 21st annual Chicago Underground Film Festival programmed an amazing lineup of  wonderful short films over its five days, way too many to review them all. Below are just a few selected reviews of the short films that made the biggest impression on the Underground Film Journal. Also, the four incredibly strong films reviewed below were all also selected for awards at the fest by Journal editor Mike Everleth and his jury cohorts, Brian Chankin and Alison Cuddy.

A Million Miles Away, dir. Jennifer Reeder. A Million Miles Away was the first film projected at the festival on Opening Night and, still with several dozen other films following it throughout the fest, the jury awarded this Best Short. The film begins with several seemingly disconnected scenes of teenage girls discussing the deteriorating adult relationships in their lives — each one appears to be the child of a divorced, separated or cheating parent.

Then, about halfway through, we are introduced to our first adult on-screen, the female substitute teacher who is instructing these girls through choir practice. Like all the other adults we have been hearing about up to this point, the substitute, we learn, may be on the verge of breaking up with a man with whom she is having an affair. Eventually, the film hits its emotional crescendo when the girls, who have all seemed maturely jaded through their vignettes, project the role of level-headed advice givers to their romantically frazzled teacher.

Structured around character more than its loose plot, A Million Miles Away pierces straight to the emotional center of its all-female cast that is unerringly honest and touching. It is filmed almost entirely in close-ups and edited in a nice matter-of-fact way that really highlight the realistic performances of the large ensemble. The real centerpiece of the film, though, is when the girls sing an a capella version of Judas Priest’s “Another Thing Coming,” that elevates the film from an extremely well-constructed drama to being absolutely endearing.

Two MMA video game characters wrestle in a sexual position

RECKONING 3, dir. Kent Lambert. Like all great video game franchises, RECKONING 3 continues the excellent pop culture and gaming commentary series by Kent Lambert. But also, in this adventure, Lambert really blasts this entire project into another, richly more complex, artistic level that the CUFF jury quickly awarded it the Stan Brakhage Best Experimental award.

This time out, Lambert focuses his vision on the — sometimes confused — male bonding elements that fuel gaming culture, particularly in the age of real-time communication over the Internet. The film is structured, lightly, through a framing device of an atrocious indie film about a video game novice having to bond with hardcore gamers over their gaming network in order to save his wife. From there we are taken into various digital worlds where Lambert mixes up actual game footage, scenes from films involving video games or other video worlds, and audio from players communicating over the Internet.

All the footage is, on first appearance, strongly masculine and heterosexual — buff male video game characters intermix with rugged Hollywood leading men like Ben Affleck and Michael Douglas. Plus, the audio provides glimpses of “macho” monologues from players attempting to assert their masculine superiority.

However, Lambert inserts subversive commentary through certain suggestive gaming footage, such as one game where two adventurers lost in the jungle engage in what appears to be a courtship ritual while, in another, two MMA fighters get locked into a wrestling position that mimics the act of making love.

There are also several very nice classic experimental film flourishes interspersed throughout. One flickering sequence featuring Affleck recalls the 1979 Kurt Kren film Sentimental Punk.

So, there’s a lot to unpack in RECKONING 3, making for a film that begs for repeated viewings to pick out and analyze its nuances.

Close up portrait of a man with a mustache in red lighting

Red Luck, dir. Mike Olenick. The CUFF jury awarded Red Luck the Best Looking Film award, so equal credit goes to director Mike Olenick and his cinematographer/editor Barry Horschakt. (Olenick is a fantastic editor in his own right, too, as he edited Jennifer Reeder’s A Million Miles Away.) Red Luck is a dark and very mysterious film that begins with a series of what seems to be disconnected shots that build into seemingly disconnected scenes and ends with a series of horrifically brutal encounters.

While the film does look gorgeous from a cinematography standpoint, what really makes it fascinatingly beautiful is in how, particularly in the first half of the film, Olenick focuses the camera not on the main action, but on a sharply focused object in the foreground while the narrative unfolds in a blurry background. In that way, Olenick makes the audience do the majority of the work of piecing together the plot, which does become more obvious — although still in oblique ways — as the film moves along. But, perhaps, “work” is the wrong word to use. Ultimately, the film is not “work,” but a joy to behold.

Eventually there are characters that we get to know, but they are characters we probably wish we hadn’t. As the action really starts to build, we start to understand that Olenick has been building a world that is based partly in reality and in fantasy. However, in both worlds, there are evil villains lurking behind flowers and love songs to terrorize their unsuspecting victims.

In that regard, Red Luck is probably one of the most unsettling films that was so stunningly sumptuous to look at.

Young woman stands in the street crying

Ellie Lumme, dir. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. Made in Chicago. There’s the old adage that all film critics are just frustrated filmmakers who couldn’t hack it in production. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is probably most well-known as one half of the critic team on the late, revamped PBS version of At the Movies. And with his debut short film, Ellie Lumme, Vishnevetsky proves that he’s not a frustrated filmmaker at all. In fact, he’s quite the opposite: He is an extremely accomplished filmmaker.

The CUFF jury awarded Ellie Lumme the prestigious Made in Chicago award, but only because that seemed to be the most obvious category for it for the way that Vishnevetsky used his home city almost as a supporting character. While the film doesn’t scream “CHICAGO!” in every frame, the city does provide a gritty and colorful backdrop to this twisted relationship drama.

Ellie, the title character, is a cynical single urban gal whom, in light of her overly sarcastic and dismissive personality, a sympathetic audience wants to see her let her guard down, even just for a little bit. Well, she does just that when she meets an awkward guy, Ned, with an abrasive personality at a party. The pair seem perfect together.

But then, unfortunately for Ellie, all hell breaks out as Ned turns out to be a married, lecherous psychopath who does not take Ellie’s quick dismissal of him nicely. Far from “nicely,” indeed. Ned becomes a deranged stalker whom Ellie finds unable to shake off.

Ellie Lumme is, at turns, quite funny and, at other times, exceptionally dark. But, these two halves entwine each other in a deftly constructed way by Vishnevetsky and his two lead actors, Allison Torem as Ellie and Stephen Cone as Ned, both of whom give off incredibly strong screen presences. Torem imbues Ellie with a perfect mix of compassion and cynicism. Despite the character’s hard edge, we want to see her deserving of a happy, Ned-free life. And while Ned is quite an utterly repulsive as a human being, Cone makes him quite the realistic villain without descending into caricature or cartoon villainy.


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