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39th annual Chicago International Film Festival

By Bill Stamets

The Chicago International Film Festival ends Thursday, but there's still time to catch a handful of outstanding titles that may not return for runs at the local art cinema. I highly recommend "Distant Lights" from Germany (4:30 p.m. today and 6:45 p.m. Thursday at the Landmark Century), "Barbarian Invasions" from Canada (7 tonight at the Landmark Century) and "Joy of Madness" from Iran (9:15 tonight at the Music Box). For the Mathew Barney set, there's Peter Greenaway's "Tulse Luper Suitcases -- Part 1. The Moab Story," which amounts to an audacious curiosity, at 9:30 tonight at the Landmark Century. And the first film funded by the State of Illinois' "Lights, Cameras, Illinois" program is the impressive "dark" (6:30 tonight, Landmark Century), by D.A. Bullock.


dark

A Cheeseburger Films production in association with Bronzeville Filmworks. Produced by Brad Wells, Gregory B. Cooke, Allison Hunter-Williams. Executive producers, H.L. Misch, David Atkins, Sue Wells, David Hoffa, Craig Volpe. Directed, written by D.A. Bullock.

With: Jason Bonner, Elizabeth Isibue, Vince Green, Eugene Long, Sonny Coleman.

By RONNIE SCHEIB 

Strange, moody pic limns the world according to "dark," an aptly named young man whose precarious hold on his life is slowly loosening. Debuting scripter-helmer D.A. Bullock maintains an uneasy tension quivering with the potential for everything to suddenly spin out of control. Winner of Best Feature award at Urbanworld, pic boasts an unusual mix of edgy macho posturing and collegiate angst that should score well with fest auds and prove a strong contender for indie cable.

Bullock, who has a background in music videos and made the shorts "12 Minutes" and "Rome," imaginatively mixes sub-genres: A street savvy, gritty tale from Chicago's South Side is crossed with a quasi-experimental slide-into-madness case study, producing a twilight zone in the hood that confounds ethnic stereotypes.

After the recent death of his grandmother, the last of his family, Dark (Jason Bonner) feels aimless and depressed, no longer capable of keeping the various parts of his life working congruently. His grades at the U. of Chicago are slipping, yet he cuts classes. Calls from corporate creditors clutter his answering machine while he subsists on insufficient sleep, instant noodles and health food supplements. He stops seeing his warm, caring girlfriend (Elizabeth Isibue) because he doesn't have the strength to confront her and discover whether his irrational jealousy is warranted.

Equally alienated from neighborhood parties and local drug doings, he tags along with his friends, Troy (Vince Green), a laid-back pimp and sometime dealer, and Dewey (Sonny Coleman), an ex-con who has acquired genuine wisdom but hasn't fully figured out what to do with it.

When he races a fellow courier on his bicycle messenger job, Dark stops his bike on an unexpected, nearly suicidal detour. Suddenly, the anger behind Dark's melancholia and the reason for its suppression start to surface. Fragmented flashbacks reveal deep-rooted trauma in Dark's childhood as he hits bottom with a violent act of rage that seemingly comes out of nowhere.

Far from disguising pic's hi-def roots, Bullock and cinematographer Jeffrey T. Brown use tiny flashes of video distortion (snow or digital intermittence) to signal Dark's sporadic hallucinations. Bullock also relies on traditionally filmic f/x -- slo-mo, out-of-focus dream-states, or sped-up movement surrounding an isolated, stationary figure -- to capture Dark's nebulous interactions with the outside world.

Tech credits are solid.

Camera (color, HDV), Jeffrey T. Brown; editor, Eric Lange; music, Patrick Yacono; production designer, Andy Mason; costumes, Dana Anderson; associate producers, Joseph A Turek, William Lewis. Reviewed at Urbanworld Film Festival, New York, Sept. 18, 2003. (Also at Toronto Film Festival --Planet Africa.) Running time: 102 MIN.


The 41st New York Film Festival / Urbanworld Film Festival

By Thessa Mooji
 
So where do you go to the Big Apple in search of real discoveries? In this city that thrives on ambition, there is always someone running a film festival somewhere, trying to reel in sponsorship money - especially hard these days - and creating their own platform. There is a Bicycle Film Festival, Roof Top Screenings and 'watch-a-film-during-hypnosis' sessions.

This year's fall season started with the more substantial Urbanworld festival (Sept 17-21) for black, Asian and Latino filmmakers, which is aimed at both the public and the filmmaking community through screenings, panels and screenplay readings. While the quality is wildly varied, Urbanworld does offer the pleasure of the odd discovery - such as the hilarious animated short The Bootyguard by Noel Rustia. In this 17 minute film, Gary Coleman (the diminutive actor from the TV series Diff'rent Strokes and recent candidate for California Governor) gets a job protecting J Lo's ass. He's doing just fine, but his bodyguard skills are severely tested by one B. Clinton.

My favourite feature film was Dark, a debut by Chicago-based Darryl Bullock that went on to pick up the festival's Mecca Award for best film. Dark Freeman (played by actor-to-watch Jason Bonner) is a college student and bike courier who needs to decide which road to take. He cycles like a madman through the canyons of Chicago's skyscrapers, but the adrenaline can't make the decision for him. Bullock shows life on the South Side through a surprisingly European lens, leaving room for introspection and interpretation, which is a rare thing in the world of American indie. Since winning Urbanworld, the filmmaker has picked up an L.A. agent and possibly a US distribution deal - putting the festival on the map as a NY event to watch.


Indie frenzy 
Don’t miss our top 10 picks at the Chicago International Film Festival


Once you've seen big-name features like "The Human Stain," starring Nicole Kidman, the film festival's list of nearly 100 films from 50 countries can be a little overwhelming. That's why we've done the hard work for you and highlighted our top 10 "must-see" movies--so you can spend less time picking flicks and more time watching them. All tickets are $8-$10.

"Dark" (U.S.)
University of Chicago student Dark Freeman is an outcast, unable to fit in among the privileged smart set on campus or the users and losers along gritty 79th Street. Directed by Chicagoan D.A. Bullock.


Festival Daily Diary - Day 14
By Brian Tallerico

"dark"
Starring: Jason H. Bonner, Elizabeth Isibue, Eugene Long,
Sonny Coleman and Vince Green
Produced by: Brad Wells
Directed and Written by: D.A. Bullock

QUOTE: "As dark unfolds, it becomes clear early on that Bullock is a filmmaker almost overflowing with ideas."

Note: This is the tenth chapter in a multi-part series covering the 39th Annual Chicago International Film Festival. Watch for regular columns highlighting the writers at the fest and examining the films that are flying through the Windy City.

Day Fourteen

On the day the 39th Annual Chicago International Film Festival's schedule was announced, D.A. Bullock's dark was one of the first films I put on my own personal schedule. I knew that my international quotient of the festival would be well fulfilled but that wasn't the reason I immediately singled out dark. It was because of the part of the title before "International", "Chicago". Bullock's film was produced and is set on the south side of Chicago. At an event like the CIFF with so many voices from different cultures, I decided it would be smart to hear at least one from right here at home. It's one of the smartest decisions I made.

Dark Freeman (Bonner) is a young man who seems to struggle through life without a definable home. He goes to the University of Chicago (which miraculously allowed the filmmakers to shoot on their campus, something they didn't even do for Legally Blonde). He works as a bike messenger. He finds it difficult to handle his own personal demons like jealousy and his own tragic history. And he just tries to get by with the often-harsh daily life on the south side of Chicago. dark tells the story of a young man trying to get a grip on his own life and what lays ahead of him. It's about that incredibly important time in life when decisions need to be made about your future and how you'll deal with your past.

The first strength immediately apparent in dark is the incredibly believable cast. Bullock found himself a very strong ensemble of newcomers led by the preternaturally talented Jason Bonner. Bonner's eyes exude the world-weariness necessary for Dark's character.

This is a young man who simply can't sleep. He's struggling from every side of his life - from school, from work, from love, from history, and from daily life on the block. Bonner brilliantly reflects that struggle in the details - in his half-closed eyelids or his seemingly defeated tone of voice.

But the key to dark is clearly Bullock. This is a voice of a screenwriter that practically screams through the movie screen. D.A. Bullock's first feature-length film will not be his last. (In fact, he's started work on a follow-up feature, Gonzo.) As dark unfolds, it becomes clear early on that Bullock is a filmmaker almost overflowing with ideas. He effortlessly floats between dream-like, almost lyrical imagery and harsh realism. Bullock knows how to use the weapons he has available to him on a small budget. Instead of expensive special effects, he'll speed up or slow down the imagery to achieve his goal. And his use of music, always the sign of a good filmmaker, is an incredibly effective tool. The film has the feel of memory and, while many filmmakers attempt that tone, very few succeed. Bullock does.

In fact it's Bullock's over-enthusiasm at throwing in all of his ideas that may be the film's only drawback. At times, dark feels a little cluttered and haphazard, like Bullock's own personal memories are merely flowing over the celluloid. With a few nips and tucks in the writing and editing process, I feel like dark could have been a tighter, stronger film. But, as Bullock continues as a filmmaker, he'll learn how to focus those memories into a more cohesive vision. In a medium marked by a lack of ideas, a writer/director who merely needs a little more experience to learn how to corral his thoughts is a rarity and, of course, a minor complaint.

There are clearly numerous reasons to hail dark but let me offer one final note. This is the first film partially funded by the state of Illinois' "Lights, Camera, Illinois!" program. Producer Brad Wells received a $250,000 loan from the state after the film had begun and used the funds to finish the product and get it ready for the festival circuit. His company, Cheeseburger Films is doing something that needs to be done far more often. They're bringing the unique voices of Chicago to life. Chicago is a city with a film industry on serious life support and the fact that this new program of loans for independent productions resulted in such a strong, promising filmmaker allowing his voice to sing gives me hope for the future. And, in the end, that's a lot of what dark is about - promise and hope. On the screen, it's about the hope needed to survive in this harsh world and off the screen it should give all young filmmakers hope to bring their voices to life.

At this point, your biggest question may be 'how can I see it?' Producer Brad Wells told me that the film probably will not screen again this year as it could effect their eligibility for the Sundance Film Festival. Hopefully, they'll get into that very important fest for independent films. I feel like dark is the kind of debut that merely needs to be seen by the right person to launch D.A. Bullock into the ranks of well-known independent filmmakers. And that could happen at Sundance. Wells also mentioned that since they debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, they've received one domestic theatrical and one video distribution offer, as well as a few international distribution offers. As I left dark I was worried that it was a film that not enough people would be able to see. It looks like I might be wrong. I sure hope so. Watch for it!


"Dark" 2-1/2
(D.A. Bullock; United States)

The scenario about troubled young Dark (Jason H. Bonner) torn between his University of Chicago student milieu and South Side mean streets, is over-familiar and unsurprising. But first time feature writer/director D. A. Bullock and his cast show lots of talent; Bullock has visual-dramatic flair and his actors get right into the Scorsese-Spike Lee mode he wants. Very promising. (9:30 p.m., CCC; 6:30 p.m., Wed., CCC; 4:45 p.m., Thu., CCC

Reviewed by Michael Wilmington


Film Festival Reviews
Toronto International Film Festival


by Emily Neill and Greg Jacobs

dark [Director: D.A. Bullock]

Greg - My second favorite film from the festival. A contemplative, raw, and moving piece, this is the debut from D.A. Bullock who could turn out to be a major underground American filmmaker. Reminiscent of Charles Burnett’s early work, Dark is the story of an African-American man living in Chicago with a bright future, going to university yet still somehow filled with anger and disaffection. He pushes people away from him, then in the climatic scene, randomly lashes out at a passerby on the street. This is a film of rare complexity, truth, and subtlety, and was a very brave film to make, yet it’s the hard-won hope and redemption of the character in the end that makes it a fulfilling film.

Emily - My favorite of the festival (whereas The Brown Bunny is my least favorite ... but we have to disagree about something!). This film about a young, orphaned African American man struggling with depression after his grandmother’s death is honest, compelling and beautiful. It was great to see a story about black struggle in less than ideal circumstances that deals seriously and deeply with issues of the psyche and the individual. If this film gets a release in North America I believe it will change black cinema for years to come.


"dark" (United States) 
Chicago bike messenger Jason H. Bonner makes an auspicious debut playing a bike messenger and University of Chicago undergrad burdened with the symbolic name "Dark Freeman" in this also auspicious feature debut by Chicago television commercial and music video director D.A. Bullock. An updated "invisible man," Dark drinks Guinness and wears a conceptual art T-shirt that distance him from his street friends as well as a Black Urban Professional pal. Tortured by childhood trauma sketched in flashbacks, Dark peddles a nuanced path to self-realization from his "demons." An inventively lensed character study, "dark" transcends exploitive stereotypes of the young African-American male. Dark's rite of passage to manhood pivots on a random act of racial violence that recalls the 1940 South side-set novel "Native Son" by Richard Wright, who was inspired by U. of C.'s urban sociologists. - BY BILL STAMETS

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