Cinepocalypse arrived in Chicago last month (a festival which arose from the not quite cool ashes of suburban Chicago/Wizard World Con inhabiting Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival) and touched down in downtown Chicago at the historic and totally cool Music Box Theater. The fest featured the US and Midwest premieres of a number of films, including SATAN’S SLAVES which I quite liked and hope to see again at Fantastic Fest. Here are three other features that I caught during the fest.
SEVEN STAGES TO ACHIEVE ETERNAL BLISS BY PASSING THROUGH THE GATEWAY CHOSEN BY THE HOLY STORSH
Of course, the title alone had me long before I watched it, but this absurdist comedy charts the meteoric rise and fall of a hapless Midwest couple (Kate Micucci and Sam Huntington) who arrive in Los Angeles with little but dreams and end up living in the suicide headquarters of a strange cult. First frightened then fascinated by the Cult of Storsh (led by the always amusing Taika Waititi), they find applying the tenants of the guru’s teachings leads them closer, surprisingly, to personal fulfillment. Too bad it also involves assisting in near-nightly suicides. After an uneven first ten minutes where I thought I was going to be watching something as intentionally and cloyingly camp as THE GREASY STRANGLER, SEVEN STAGES settles into a charming comedy, first tricking you into liking these murderers, and then rooting for them achieve some form of enlightenment. Micucci’s Claire stumbles into success at the ad agency by virtue of following her most selfish impulses, a great message for modern America. Her boyfriend Paul decides to build eccentric birdhouses after an extended monologue to an animated cereal mascot. Holding the film together however is an inspired John-Candy-esque-clueless-cop performance from Dan Harmon, a wannabe screenwriter stuck on clean up duty after his initial investigation of the guru let him off on a technicality. A deep-dark black comedy, Vivieno Caldinelli’s feature debut doesn’t leave the audience much breathing room to question its irrationality. The pacing never lets up, with characters almost toppling over each other’s lines and scenes and moments cut so tight it is as if the editor worried they themselves might get bored. It seems to challenge the audience by getting more jolly and more whimsical just as the story gets darker. Even the score and the colors seem to assault the senses with a sort of maniac joy. The plotting may feel frenetic at times, like a runaway shopping on the streets of San Francisco, but with big characters and a generous portion of laughs, it is easy to enjoy the absurd ride.
THE RUSSIAN BRIDE
As much as I enjoy Corbin Bernsen chewing scenery, his turn as eccentric, reclusive billionaire Karl, in this run-of-the-mill horror dud is just one of endless banalities. From the opening seconds of the film, where the dark figure smoking a big cigar leers a little too long at the picture of young Russian girl, I relaxed into my seat, knowing exactly how trying and trite this film was going to become. Sure, the reason behind the leer turns out to be a surprise, but by that point the audience has been subjected to so many predictable plot points that it doesn’t really matter. The first third of the movie seems obsessed with telegraphing the various props and set pieces to be used in the last third (oh this chandelier is so heavy, look at this old shotgun, this ancient elevator, this portion of the house you are not to go in – and how about the laugh-out-loud-bad line “I forgot to mention we have frequent power outages”). So much of the film is spent drawing your eyes to various things to come later that one hardly notices the characters are about as interesting as the paintings on the wall. Just once in the film I would have like someone to do something unexpected, but alas, writer/director Michael S. Ojeda seems entranced by one cliché after another. At least his last film AVENGED featured a heroine in charge of her story. THE RUSSIAN BRIDE often feels like just the first half of an old lifetime movie, where the main character is manipulated, lied to, restrained and even hurt until she just can’t take it anymore. Its bland uni-directional plotting. And Benson is so purely evil that one would not fault a viewer from wondering if this is another installment of Russian propaganda warning potential Russian-Bride-refugees of the dangers of America.
THE SECRET POPPO
For pure success in making the most with what you have, the Chicago collective consisting of Sean Pierce, Zach Harris and Nevi Cline have to be applauded. Making its US Premiere at the festival, the largely improvised THE SECRET POPPO plays out like Poirot on a park bench. The team behind the brilliant MEATHEAD GOES HOGWILD took untrained actor and Hall of Fame Architect Nick Luzietti from that film and built a bargain mystery around him. Discovering he has a granddaughter, and then that she is missing, he goes on quest of diminutive proportions, eventually uncovering a conspiracy that’s either a cult or SciFI or a SciFi cult. Shot on location in Chicago, basically on the streets in what appears to be one stolen location after another, THE SECRET POPPO has that true second city work ethic. With a story so slight as to only be an excuse to follow Luzietti around what seems like his daily routine anyway, the team behind the film leaves space for tremendous flights of fancy inside our hero’s head. It makes one wonder just how much of this film existed on paper before the camera turned on or if even the day’s schedule was improvised. A charming comedy that wanders about in theme and rationality, the film always holds true to its heart. If MEATHEAD was a war-cry for the well-intention dispossessed, POPPO is peace offering to the cosmos. It doesn’t always make sense, but you sort of don’t want it to. With special effects that question the use of both the words special and effects, the film seems to be arguing that the idea is enough, that man can survive on hope alone. And right now, as mother’s have babies ripped from their arms for no reason, we sort of need that.