Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Andrew Watches: PONTYPOOL

(Eventually, there will be SPOILERS. If you want to see this film--and I'd recommend everyone who isn't Mum give it a watch--you'll likely enjoy it a lot more not having it spoiled. I saw it pretty much blind, thanks to a special screening pass supplied by the good folks at Happy Harbor, and while I'd have liked it regardless, I think I liked it more because I didn't know anything about it other than it was directed by the same guy who did HARDCORE LOGO, Bruce McDonald.)

As much as I dislike the idea of breaking stuff down into stereotypical Hollywood "this meets that" loglines, I've been doing it a lot recently. I suspet that because my Hollywood manages do tend to talk about ideas in those terms, and it makes some kind of sense as a shorthand way to converse about ideas without having to build them from the ground up. My friend Marc Bryant inadvertently got me into randomly picking this + that story formulations as a brainstorming/writers blockbusting technique (he did it by admitting that he'd done it on a single occasion himself, which I thought was amusing until the next time my own idea well went dry.) And it has spawned the occasional notion that I pursued beyond the initial 25 words. Well, one, anyway. Three that have potential if I had the time/inclination to write/research them.

In any event, as we were driving home from the screening for PONTYPOOL, Tiina asked me what the pitch for the film would be. And while the film is its own creature, the answer came quickly. "Talk Radio meets 28 Days Later", I said. Probably a more accurate take would be Talk Radio meeting Dawn of the Dead (Romero version), just because the semi-zombies (or "Conversationalists", as wikipedia tells me the director called them) are more of the shuffling than sprinting variety.

I thought Pontypool was an excellent low-budget horror film; Tiina thought it was a quintessentially Canadian horror film. On most levels, that means pretty much the same thing, I suppose, though looking at it now I'm starting to think her description's more accurate. The use of French is a pretty critical plot point, while the desolate, snow-covered terrain adds something I'm having a hard time defining to the movie. Geography's not my strong point, but I can't off the top of my head think of a place in small-town America where two languages and harsh winters are both reasonably common.

The story (apparently the first of a trilogy of films but, according to T, the second of a trilogy of novels--all written by the same guy, Tony Burgess) revolves around a handful of people in the basement of a church that's been converted into a radio studio. The story follows talk-jockey Grant Mazzy (played by Stephen McHattie, who McDonald described prior to the film as "the psychiatrist on Seinfeld", more recently seen as the Golden Age Nite-Owl in Watchmen) as reports start coming in of people in the surrounding area engaging in strange behaviour.

The first half of the film is practically a textbook for building suspense. Very little is shown onscreen--instead, the viewer gets to hear calls to the station about what's going on or get information secondhand from Mazzy's producers. When stuff starts happening in and around the church itself, the movie moves into more traditional territory, at least in terms of visuals.

But if the visuals seem familiar, the story's rationale for them is considerably less so. It's not something anyone familiar with the works of Grant Morrison or Alan Moore hasn't seen before, but it was nice to see something a bit more cerebral on the big screen than is usually the case.

That quality is one of the best things about the movie, but is also the root of my biggest problem with the story. The threat in Pontypool is cool, but I find it highly unlikely anyone would be able to piece its nature together as quickly as people do in the film, even those who deal with the spoken word for a living. But, you know, I could deal with that.

What I really had trouble with (and here comes the Big Spoiler) is Mazzy actually devising a method for neutralizing the infection. Doing so let the filmmakers hit a couple of popular Hollywood beats (one of which puts a really nice twist on the line "Kill me."), but I can't help feeling that the writer had a darling or two towards the end of the movie that should've been killed.

The end of the body of the film is pretty bleak, which is appropriate given the subject matter and obvious genre inspirations for the material. It may be that Mazzy's coming up with a solution was intended to hammer home the futility of trying to fight something like this, but I don't think that thematic thrust justifies the leaps made by the character.

There's a brief, entertaining scene after the credits that's a complete non-sequitur. If one tries to connect it to the body of the film--as some in the audience did--one's going to end up being frustrated--as some in the audience were. Even the director acknowledged the sequence as a deliberate thumbing of the nose to the notion of tying up every loose end from the writer.

The last forty-five seconds notwithstanding, this wasn't a story that should've left anyone older than 16 confused, provided they actually paid attention to what they were theoretically watching. But, during the regrettably brief Q&A session with McDonald after the movie, there were an infuriating number of questions along the lines of "Is there going to be stuff in the sequels that explain what happened in this one?" When T and I walked out of CLOVERFIELD, someone made a comment along the lines of "Everyone died and I don't know why." That's a valid statement for Cloverfield (for which there are a couple of equally valid answers). It just isn't for PONTYPOOL. Everything a viewer needs to grasp what's going on is there onscreen, and personally, I'd have liked it better if the nature of the threat wasn't as clearly explained as it was.

But not a lot better. I really liked HARDCORE LOGO, but PONTYPOOL's now my favourite Bruce McDonald film. Hopefully I'll get a chance to see the two sequels, but if I don't, I'm really glad I saw this.


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