Gags [Cinepocalypse 2018 Review]

Remember that news story about a clown prowling the streets in Wisconsin and freaking out residents — the one that made national news and launched copycats all across the country? That was a marketing stunt for a short film, directed by Adam Krause. And a very effective one at that. Now there’s a feature version of the short, Gags, which had its world premiere at Cinepocalypse 2018. Anyone with coulrophobia (including a certain film critic whose work you might be familiar with) is certain to get a shiver or five.

The movie follows several characters, all of whom are fascinated by a clown named Gags who has been trolling Green Bay, carrying black balloons filled with deadly powder. There’s TV news reporter Heather Duprey (played by genre favorite Lauren Ashley Carter) who wants to get a big scoop; a right-wing podcaster, Charles Wright (Aaron Christensen), determined to scare the clown away during a live broadcast; a couple of cops trying to find and arrest him; and a group of teenagers attempting to mimic his actions. All of them convene on one fateful night. Not everyone makes it out alive.

Gags is a horror-comedy, so there’s a mixture of scares and laughs. Of course, last year’s It set the gold standard for clown-based horror, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some effective scenes here. Krause makes excellent use of locations, having the villain pop up in darkened alleys, at a carnival, and in a parking garage, among other places. The biggest chill occurs in the final ten minutes, in which Gags’ lair is revealed. Conception and design of the place are wonderfully eerie. What happens there might make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Elsewhere, the film has fun taking some digs at story-hungry reporters and angry right-wing types. Sometimes the humor is overt, such as the way Heather carries out an ongoing rivalry with a reporter from another station. Other times, it’s more darkly satirical. One of the best scenes has Wright confronting Gags by whipping out his gun and engaging in macho, I’m only tough because I’m packing! posturing.

Gags could have used just a little more of its title character, who appears sparingly. The film is more about the reactions of everyone else to him than it is about his reign of terror. Nevertheless, there are some interesting insights into how people view bizarre, un-quantifiable threats — with fear, with aggression, as an amusement, etc. Carter and Christensen give very good performances that add significantly to the overall impact, and the story builds to a conclusion that is as ingenuous as it is creepy.

In the realm of clown-horror cinema, Gags is definitely a movie to pay attention to.

Clara’s Ghost [Cinepocalypse 2018 Review]

Writer/director Bridey Elliott comes from a very talented family. Her father is Chris Elliott, of Cabin Boy and Late Night with David Letterman fame. Her sister Abby is a former Saturday Night Live cast member with a lengthy resume of subsequent film and TV work. Bridey herself has appeared on hit shows like Silicon Valley and in movies such as Battle of the Sexes and Hello, My Name is Doris. Imagine these funny family members getting together to make a ghost story. That’s Clara’s Ghost, a comedic chiller that’s really quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It screened at Cinepocalypse 2018.

The family connections don’t stop. The film was shot in the Elliott home in Old Lyme, CT, and casts an additional family member — mom Paula Neidert Elliott — in the lead role. She plays Clara Reynolds, the only one in the Reynolds clan who’s not in show business. (Art is imitating life here.) Her husband Ted (Chris) is an actor whose career is in decline. Daughters Julie (Abby) and Riley (Bridey) are former child stars, now struggling to have successful careers as adults. Julie’s is going slightly better than Riley’s.

All of them convene at the family home, when something strange begins occurring. Clara starts seeing the ghost of a young woman, and is disturbed by the visions. Everyone else is busy drinking, cracking jokes, and getting high, thanks to visiting weed dealer pal Joe (Haley Joel Osment).

Clara’s Ghost is not the most narratively-conscious film – a choice made on purpose. The story plays out more like a series of individual moments allowing us to observe the dysfunctional family dynamics as Clara’s haunting occurs. There’s an emergency trip to the veterinarian, a search for a missing shoe, and a scene where Julie re-enacts a recent audition for her critical father.

Through all of these things, we realize that Clara is surrounded by narcissists. Ted, Julie, and Riley are caught up in their own careers, their own images, their own lives. None of them notice that she is troubled by something. The ghost is, ironically, the only one who truly sees Clara.

As you might expect given the comedic talent involved, Clara’s Ghost is often very funny. Julie and Riley engage in some hilariously vacuous conversations about everything from plastic surgery to pop music, while Ted seems to enjoy bickering with his family members because it gives him a chance to display his caustic wit. The heavy reliance on humor is used to make abrupt shifts into chiller territory more pronounced. Nowhere is this better utilized than a well-constructed scene in which Clara is approached by the ghost while the others dance like goofballs to the song “MacArthur Park” in another part of the house.

Again, the lack of a strong narrative might make Clara’s Ghost challenging for some viewers, and the film would have benefited from about ten minutes of tightening. That said, if you can get into its vibe, you’ll find a tonally-unique, surprisingly pointed examination of a woman struggling to stand out within her own family. All four of the Elliotts give strong performances, and because they’re related in real-life, the authentic chemistry gives the picture a major boost.

The Cop Baby [Cinepocalypse 2018 Review]

 

If The Cop Baby was an American film, it would be something we’d all probably mock, like Show Dogs or Nine Lives. Seeing how a high-concept comedy is executed in a foreign country adds a layer of amusement, though. That’s because, while the premise may seem like the kind of thing Hollywood routinely cranks out, the tone is culturally unique, and that’s fun to watch. This comedy — which is a cross between Lethal Weapon and The Boss Babyall filtered through a Russian sensibility — exemplifies that idea. The Cop Baby made its North American premiere at Cinepocalypse 2018.

A tough-as-nails police force major named Chromov (Sergey Garmash) has been trying to track down an international drug trafficker known as the Dragon. Just when it seems he’s about to nab the guy, his mission is botched by a meek environmental officer (Andrey Nazimov), leaving him shot and critically wounded. A vengeful fortune-teller has put a curse on Chromov, so his consciousness is transferred into the body of the officer’s newborn son. A year later, he decides to take up the case again, from the safety of a stroller. He enlists his “daddy” to help, but their styles are very different.

The comedy value of The Cop Baby comes from seeing a (not always convincing) CGI infant whack another child with a shovel, get behind the wheel during an automobile chase, and use a baby monitor to issue orders to his father, who’s inside a strip club. Perhaps the funniest scene finds Chromov fighting a capybara at a zoo over a piece of watermelon they’re both hungry for.

Some of the jokes poke fun at the idea of a toddler with an adult mentality, including a couple good ones about Chromov being humiliated over having to wear diapers. A scene where he expresses interest in watching his “parents” have sex, only to be rocked to sleep against his will, similarly elicits laughter. And, of course, the very sight of a baby giving an adult lessons in being badass is inherently humorous.

The Cop Baby‘s plot is nothing spectacular, and it hinges on a third-act twist that’s been done a million times in American police thrillers. That said, the movie has a delightfully bonkers quality to it. The script largely avoids obvious lowbrow jokes, and the actors play everything completely straight — whereas a domestic version would probably star someone like Adam Sandler and be filled with gags related to poop and breast feeding. The idea of a fearless police officer trapped inside the body of a one-year-old is taken seriously, then used to deliver a string of insane comedic moments.

Every so often, a picture comes along that’s so bizarre, you just have to see it for yourself. The Cop Baby is one of those pictures.

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man [Cinepocalypse 2018 Review]

You’ve heard the stories. He took engagement pictures with a couple whose photo shoot he stumbled across. He wandered past a kickball game in a park and invited himself to join in. He showed up at someone’s house party and washed all the dishes. These are just a few of the tales examined in the documentary The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man, which screened at Cinepocalypse 2018.

Director Tommy Avallone interviews some of the people who have had these unique encounters with the Ghostbusters star. We meet an Austin bartender who convinced Murray to serve drinks to patrons, a guy who sang karaoke with the actor, and a construction worker who was stunned to show up to a site one day and receive an impromptu poetry reading from Peter Venkman himself. Listening to these folks relate the incidents is fascinating because they clearly remain in awe of what happened and, as such, are more than happy to go into great, enthusiastic detail. In every case, they didn’t feel as though they met a celebrity, they had an experience with one. Cell phone footage of Murray in action is effectively used to compliment their recollections.

Several different journalists who have written about Murray also appear in the documentary, analyzing his penchant for impromptu stunts. Among the more intriguing suggestions is that he views life as his own personal improv sketch, giving him the chance to jump into the fray, ad lib, and see what happens. One interviewee even finds a thematic connection between several of the actor’s movies and his real-life actions.

Of course, he can get away with all this because he’s Bill Murray. No other celebrity could do it. There’s an inherently playful quality to his personality, and it makes all the difference. Behavior that could seem boorish or arrogant instead comes off as lovable. One of the most famous tales involves him stealing a french fry off someone’s plate in a restaurant. If a stranger did that to you, you’d probably be upset. But if Bill Murray did it…

Through the combination of personal anecdotes and informed speculation, Avallone’s film gets at a larger truth, which is that we can all learn something from Murray’s antics. Here’s a guy who lives in the moment. He participates in life. You won’t find him sitting in front of a computer screen, perusing Facebook. He’s out there, meeting people, doing things, and seemingly having the time of his life. We all need to embrace our inner Murray, Avallone seems to be saying.

The Bill Murray Stories is a cheerful, captivating movie that looks at celebrity through the eyes of a major star who marches to the beat of his own drummer — and might just pop up where you least expect him.