Underground films see the light through fest

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'Ellie Lumme'

Allison Torem in "Ellie Lumme." (Chicago Underground / April 3, 2014)

The gradual narrative unspooling of "Who Took Johnny," the true-crime documentary about a 12-year-old Iowa boy who has been missing since 1982, is extremely canny. The film doesn't deviate from the standard format — a collage of archival footage and talking heads — but it does refine it.

"Who Took Johnny" is an excellent piece of storytelling, and it screens Sunday as part of the Chicago Underground Film Festival. Now in its 21st year, the fest's lineup is eclectic as always, with a focus on "defiantly independent" feature-length films, shorts and documentaries.

I got a look at four films slated for this weekend.

'Ellie Lumme'

(2 p.m. Saturday)

Screening on a bill with several other shorts, this 40-minute meditation on power dynamics comes from Chicago-based film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (who writes for the A.V. Club, among other sites). The premise starts simply enough: A young woman meets a guy at a party. Things evolve — and devolve — from there.

She might be a little too reckless with her attentions; he might be a little too intense with his. It's a combination that rarely ends well, though I wasn't convinced of their mutual interest or the story's sour turn. I'm not sure the film even works. I liked it all the same.

What stands out is the incredible attention to color, which you don't often see in microbudget films. Bright yellow fingernails. An orange translucent plastic cup. A purple lighter. A brown-and-white polka-dot window curtain.

Allison Torem stars opposite Stephen Cone (the pair last worked together on "The Wise Kids," Cone's trenchant 2011 coming-of-ager about sexuality and religion), and their lurching conversational rhythms have a deliberately mannered feel to them, as if the pair was acting out some kind of demented, latter-day version of Noel Coward.

"This isn't my life — it's somebody else's," Cone's dead-eyed creeper says, assessing his circumstances. "I just got tricked into living it." (Cone has a way of giving his dialogue an unnerving sharpness.)

'La Ultima Pelicula'

(7 p.m. Saturday)

Having not seen "The Last Movie," Dennis Hopper's notorious 1971 film that inspired this work from directors Mark Peranson and Raya Martin, I can't speak to how one comments on the another. But a little information about the former, I suspect, will help with your appreciation of the latter.

A movie about the movie business, "The Last Movie" tells the non-linear story of a Hollywood horse wrangler (Hopper, who also directed) shooting a Western in Peru. He quits the business, only to find the natives have begin shooting their own movie — with non-functioning cameras made from sticks and branches, and acting the violence for real. The film all but killed Hopper's career in Hollywood for a good 10 years, and like most artistic messes, it —and an accompanying documentary "The American Dreamer" — have acquired a curious romanticism.

Peranson and Martin are after something just as meta but perhaps more ruminative. A navel-gazing film director (Alex Ross Perry, a filmmaker in real life) travels to Mexico on the eve of the Mayan apocalypse, accompanied by his droll guide (Gabino Rodriguez) to ponder the demise of celluloid in our increasingly digitized era.

The film is a head-scratcher, intentionally I think, both tongue-in-cheek and earnest. Rodriguez plays a terrific low-key foil to Perry, who both looks and sounds like a shaggier version of Michael Cera. Even the images sometimes feel like contradictions within themselves, like that of the jail cell where Perry has been detained. The way that scene is framed, it's a gorgeous image. Sunlight from outside flickers on the baby blue stucco walls as if filtered through water, and for a moment it's as if Perry were being held in an aquarium.

'Who Took Johnny'

(6 p.m. Sunday)

In 1982, 12-year-old Johnny Gosch disappeared while on his early morning paper route in suburban Des Moines, Iowa. The case remains unsolved, but there are clues to what might have happened.

Filmmakers David Beilinson, Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky tackle the story from the point of view of the boy's mother, Noreen Gosch, who we first see in old news footage, distraught in heavy makeup and dark, fluffy feathered hair. Today, she wears the same big curls and makeup, but her gaunt, thin face has filled out. Then and now, it is a look that says pay attention. And she has the force of personality to back it up.

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