Sunday, June 30, 2019

CINEPOCALYPSE 2019 RECAP!!! (Part 2 of 4)

This summer in Chicago has been exceedingly damp, with thunderstorms nearly every single day. Saturday proved to be no exception and while the forecast stated that morning skies would be clear, I was not five minutes into my 15-minute bike ride to the Music Box Theatre before the clouds opened up and dumped about 9,000 gallons of water onto your humble narrator. While it was a soggy and chilly (the air conditioning was turned way up, although they managed to make things slightly less meat locker-ish for the remainder of the festival) day of viewing, spirits were high and the programming was tight.

Cinepocalypse launched into its weekend roster with a noontime screening of the world premiere of Deadcon (d. Caryn Waechter, 2019), a sadly generic “haunted space” flick set at a convention for “Internet Influencers” to meet their fans and celebrate their celebrity. (The fact that something like “Viewcon” probably exists in our real world is more terrifying than anything else.) Following a brief sequence set in 1984, where we see the introduction of online chat rooms only to be told there’s “no interest” (we all know how that turned out), we flash forward to the aforementioned Viewcon where we meet Ashley (Lauren Elizabeth), an insufferably self-obsessed YouTube star, checking into the convention hotel and ending up in the same room where some nasty business took place 35 years prior.

Supernatural what-not starts occurring to Ashley and her equally photogenic-but-ugly-on-the-inside cohorts, but strangely enough, outside of the pervasive live-streaming, Facetiming, and real-time texting between characters, very little is done with the tech-heavy setting or with the convention milieu. It’s just another ghost story, one where we don’t evenrreally learn why the haunting is taking place! I suppose Waechter and screenwriter Scotty Landes figured it would be satisfying enough to watch iPhone-wielding Millennials getting offed for our viewing pleasure. It’s not.

It’s worth noting that the latest short from indie fave Jill Gevargizian (“Call Girl,” “The Stylist”) also made its world premiere ahead of Deadcon. Starring Jake Martin (my friend and Dead Weight/Gags co-star) as a serial killer awaiting his final sentence, “One Last Meal” is a clever black comedy about the risks of maintaining tradition at the expense of literal life and limb.

Next up, gears switched from “famous for nothing” to the extreme showmanship of rock band GWAR who, with their extravagant costuming, sci-fi origin mythology, and splatterific stage shows, have been a multimedia presence since 1984, notably showcased in the films Mystery Date and Empire Records and on MTV’s Beavis and Butthead. Their 1992 Grammy-nominated long-form music video “Phallus in Wonderland,” which sees lead singer Oderus Urungus’ sexual organ separated from its master and serving as character witness in a courtroom drama against the band, concludes with a full-on war between the wheelchair-bound puppet Grambo’s legion of decency police and our intergalactic heroes.

As crazy as it sounds in concept, it’s even loopier in execution, with insane camera angles and flutter-cut editing assaulting the viewer’s frontal lobes for nearly an hour, showcasing a half-dozen songs from their third album, America Must Be Destroyed (“Crack in the Egg,” “Have You Seen Me?,” “The Road Behind,” “The Morality Squad,” “Gor-gor,” and “Ham on the Bone”).

Following the mind-blowing, crowd-pleasing “Phallus” screening, band members Sleazy P. Martini (aka Don Drakulich) and Balsac: the Jaws of Death (aka Mike Derks) shed their platform shoes, stilts, and trademark headgear to share the microphone for a surprisingly candid and emotionally open Q&A session dubbed "GWAR vs. Cinepocalypse," where they discussed the band’s origins, the challenges of working with (and without) founding member Dave Brockie (who died in 2014), Derks’ battle with cancer, and the creation of the GWAR-B-Q music festival in Richmond, VA. As someone who had very little firsthand exposure to these American icons of rock music, it was a decided treat to be able to experience the band in this up-close-and-personal setting.

In one of the wildest cases of whiplash programming in history, the next film in the Cinepocalypse line-up was the world premiere of writer/director Dean Kapsalis’ emotionally devastating The Swerve (2019), about as far as you could get from body-fluid-spraying intergalactic barbaric warriors. Anchored by a breathtaking central performance by Azura Skye (who walked away with the jury’s “Best Actress” award), Kapsalis’ drama centers around a wife and mother’s mid-life meltdown following a late-night car accident, although it’s merely the inciting incident within her unfriendly world of gaslighting husbands, spoiled children, overbearing family members, and infatuated students.

A decided downer with a twist-the-knife third act that will leave viewers scrambling for puppy videos, yet so brilliantly executed and emotionally charged that it’s impossible not to admire.

The evening’s fever pitch rose once again with a 70mm screening of Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi/action masterpiece Total Recall, transformed from a mind-bending Philip K. Dick short story into a blood-soaked, effects-driven freight train. Menial physical laborer Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) finds himself caught up in an interplanetary conspiracy and proceeds to shoot everybody, but not before they shoot everybody else while trying to shoot him. A fantastic supporting cast (that includes Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Rachel Ticotin, and Sharon Stone in her “Who the hell is THAT?” breakout role as Quaid’s doting but duplicitous wife) and Oscar-winning visual effects from Rob Bottin and Alex Funke keep the slippery script by Ron Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, and Jon Povill on the rails, and Verhoeven – hot off of Robocop – keeps the action flying.

The film was followed by a Lifetime Achievement Award presented to longtime screen heavy Michael Ironside (Scanners, Top Gun, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II), and while the audience was robust and enthusiastic in our reception and appreciation, none of us were prepared for the warmth, candor, and heart-on-sleeve emotion displayed by the veteran Canadian actor.

A burly grizzly bear of a man, Ironside grew misty on several occasions as he regaled the captive crowd with stories from the Recall set, including a hilarious recounting of his daughter Adrienne bursting into giggles during one of Verhoeven’s on-set tirades.

He also shared second-unit director Vic Armstrong’s telling him that it was unlikely that the actor was going to ever need to go back his day job of roofing, considering he was working on an enormous blockbuster opposite the biggest movie star in the world, and how thankful he was that the Cinepocalypse folks were willing to fly Adrienne out to Chicago so that he could be with her on Father’s Day. (AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW. Excuse me, we all have something in our eye.)

Next up, from Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, the writers/directors of Goodnight Mommy (which I first saw at the Music Box as part of their Chicago Critics Film Festival in 2015) was The Lodge, the latest effort from Hammer Films, the first I recall hearing about since The Woman in Black (2012), starring Daniel Radcliffe, and The Quiet Ones (2014). Riley Keough stars as Grace, a young woman stuck in a snowbound cabin with her stepchildren-to-be, and in addition to the inherent tensions of creating new familial bonds, it seems that some dark forces are at work, spiriting away all their belongings, food, and electricity in the night.

Trapped and frightened, unsure if they are still alive or dead, the three struggle against the elements (and each other) in search of the secret that will release them from their collective nightmare. Deeply atmospheric and psychologically chilling, with numerous incidents of cringe-worthy bodily damage in the final reel.

The evening wrapped up with a midnight showing of Joe Begos’ (Almost Human) new flick, Bliss, about a struggling visual artist, Dezzy (Dora Madison), hooked on a new blend of sniffable narcotics. A balls-to-the-wall rollercoaster hell-bent on making your eardrums bleed, peopled with fresh indie faces like Graham Skipper (Beyond the Gates) and Jeremy Gardner (The Battery) alongside TV veterans like George Wendt (Cheers) and Abraham Benrubi (Parker Lewis Can’t Lose), Bliss is an energetic, ferocious, and punishing assault on the senses, with numerous explosive scenes of violence and gore. I might have liked it better had it not been quite as in-your-face and had its main character not been *quite* so self-centered and unpleasant, but that was also kind of the point.

Begos, producer Josh Ethier, and Skipper were on hand for a post-show Q&A, and I was a little annoyed by Begos’ bragging about having shot the entire film “without any fucking permits,” as well as being deeply disturbed when he revealed that much of the script was written during alcohol-and-drug induced blackouts, i.e. he would wake up in the morning and see pages written on the computer that he had no idea how they got there. Um, that’s a problem, Joe.

Even worse, however, was watching Skipper and Ethier nodding approvingly, as if to say, “Yeah, that’s just his creative process.” That’s called enabling, gentlemen, and if/when Begos ends up dead someday as a result, I will be looking back on this day with deep chagrin that nobody in his “close circle of collaborators” said or did anything to help.



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