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Art-house films: ‘Phil Ochs,’ ‘The Grace Card’

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Opening the weekend of Feb. 25:

‘Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune’ ★★★

This well-made documentary profiles folk singer Phil Ochs (1940-1976) and also chronicles the counterculture of the ’60s. Director Kenneth Bowser’s writing and producing credits include documentaries about John Ford, John Wayne, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. He also directed “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” a look at a renegade generation of Hollywood directors in the ’70s.

Ochs partly fashioned himself after his Hollywood heroes: a patriot with a six-string guitar going against the grain. As a student at Ohio State University, he formed a duet called The Singing Socialists. After relocating in 1962 to the folk mecca of Greenwich Village, Ochs sang for civil rights in the South, organized absurdist street theater to protest the Vietnam War in 1967 and came to Chicago for the 1968 Democratic Convention. On a 1971 visit to Chile, he befriended activist/singer Victor Jara, later slain in the coup that toppled socialist President Salvador Allende.

Ochs reportedly earned a 400-page FBI file for his anti-establishment songs such as “Draft Dodger Rag” and “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” Departing from his topical style in 1970 cost him some fans. He recorded a concept album titled “Greatest Hits” and got booed for performing in a cheesy gold suit. He called this self-parodic persona “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara.”

Offstage, Ochs deteriorated due to manic depression and drinking and committed suicide at age 35. Unlike his contemporaries Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Ochs is less remembered today. Excerpts from three dozen songs, and thoughtful interviews with Joan Baez, Ed Sanders, Paul Krassner, Tom Hayden, Christopher Hitchens and Sean Penn add up to an indelible profile of creative critic and his era.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 98 minutes. Opening today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

‘On the Bowery’ and ‘A Perfect Team’ ★★★

In 1955, Lionel Rogosin quit his father’s rayon business to make a bravura account of down-and-outs. “On the Bowery,” originally advertised as the first American film to win the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival, has now been restored for re-release.

Rogosin spent months drinking with his subjects before his camera rolled. One inspiration was “Nanook of the North” (1922), the legendary film about Eskimos that Robert Flaherty shot in the far north and cast with inhabitants. Working from a two-page outline and shooting three months, Rogosin tells a story of two drunks over three days. The first-time director cast men playing their first and only roles on the screen.

The slight plot about the camaraderie of the bottle lets Rogosin eavesdrop on partly improvised dialogue while depicting a downbeat New York scene. The tragic faces powerfully framed in black-and-white 35mm by Richard Bagley, a former Chicago news photographer, tell the real story. You can imagine Studs Terkel relishing the argot and plight of these lost men.

Upon its 1956 release, the New York Times critic ripped the cinema-verite style film: “This is a dismal exposition to be charging people money to see.” More context comes in “A Perfect Team,” a fine 2009 documentary by Rogosin’s son Michael. He opens with a 1956 NBC-TV interviewer asking his father: “What made you want to make a movie that must leave most people depressed when they leave the theater?”

Unlike the late Lionel Rogosin, Michael Rogosin did go into his father’s business. This illuminating double-bill by two generations of filmmakers is anything but depressing.

No MPAA rating. Total running time: 112 minutes. Opening today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

‘The Grace Card’ ★★

Memphis optometrist Dr. David Evans makes his directing debut with “The Grace Card,” a preachy outreach drama about a white cop in spiritual pain who meets a black cop with a pastoral calling.

“The Grace Card,” which features Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. in a small role as a grandson and grandfather of ministers, is cast with “believing actors” from 50 Tennessee churches. Evans’ story, partly inspired by a local police officer, ends with a verse from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Blessed with a message about grace, the film boasts more scenes of sincere praying than usual.

Mac (Michael Joiner) is a white cop with race issues. Seventeen years ago, a black drug dealer, speeding from cops, killed his bike-riding son. Now Mac must ride with Sam (Michael Higgenbottom), a black officer who just got promoted. Mac figures color mattered more than qualifications. A preacher on the side, Sam will do more than pray for his new resentful partner.

“How much do you have to hate someone to let him die of hurt, when one kind word can make all the difference?” asks one character. “The Grace Card” offers role models who forgive those who wound and find the grace to heal. All of Mac’s challenges feel contrived, however. He resists his wife’s effort to go for family counseling. Their teenage son has graver problems than getting an incomplete in Trigonometry.

Shooting a masked suspect at a plasma TV heist leads to Mac’s big crisis and breakthrough. But a kidney donor and a Kenya missionary show Mac the light. It’s bright, if not believable.

Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements. Running time: 101 minutes. Opening today at Showplace Icon 16, Chatham 14 and selected outlying venues.

Peace on Earth Film Festival

Two documentaries on controversial science head up the locally produced Peace on Earth Film Festival. Launched in 2008, it’s a free, three-day showcase of shorts and features promoting “peace, non-violence, social justice and an eco-balanced world.”

“Loving Lampposts” ★★★ : Todd Drezner, who earlier profiled a schizophrenic in “My Name Is Alan, and I Paint Pictures,” explores autism in this revealing documentary with a personal touch: His autistic 4-year-old son is drawn to lampposts in a local park. As parents of autistic children share their experiences, the focus is less clinical than social: how to handle perceptions of the condition.

Instead of debunking various diagnoses and remedies, “Loving Lampposts” lets adults with autism define their own conditions. “Autism is a gift disguised as a dilemma,” suggests one, using her laptop to voice her thoughts. Another, who teaches piano, says, “Autism is a different way of being, not necessarily a disordered way of being.” In the end, Drezner embraces the doctrine of “neurodiversity,” a plea for accepting his son and others like him as a new minority, not just a medical anomaly.

“Scientists Under Attack” ★★ : German director Bertram Verhaag attempts to push back against corporate politics in this doc subtitled “Genetic Engineering in the Magnetic Field of Money.” He sympathizes with persecuted researchers Arpad Pusztai and Ignacio Chapela, skeptics of biotech.

“This is a story about knowledge, democracy and the freedom of choice,” claims an activist opposed to genetically modified foods created by multinational businesses. Verhaag charges that renegade data is suppressed. Siding with victims, though, is insufficient. The alarmist “Scientists Under Attack,” which suffers from scary music by Gert Wilden, is not scientific enough to prove a conspiracy or rebut the bad guys.

No MPAA rating. Running times: “Scientists Under Attack” (88 minutes) screens at 12:20 p.m. Saturday; “Loving Lampposts” (83 minutes) screens at 5:10 p.m. Sunday. Both at the Claudia Cassidy Theater in the Chicago Cultural Center.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago-based free-lance writer and critic.

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