Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pontypool (2009)

PP Title

Canada is not a country known for its filmmakers, and so it’s with a small amount of pride that I declare two of my favourite working directors to be Canadian. The first, David Cronenberg, is internationally renowned, so he hardly needs any extra word of mouth. The second, Bruce McDonald, is certainly less well-known. Cronenberg wears his influences on his sleeve; the effect of Marshall McLuhan and Philip K. Dick is relatively clear, especially on his earlier work, and the fact that he’s translated Burroughs to the screen gives some indication of his interests. However--and though taking a different tact--McDonald seems to have similar interests, and in his last few films has similarly tried to get across the idea that “the medium is the message.” This is evident in his use of the documentary form in Hard Core Logo and his deconstruction of the image (and linear time) in The Tracey Fragments. Now, in Pontypool, McDonald turns his focus to language itself. And he does so with zombies. Bravo.


OK, so perhaps that might give the indication that McDonald is an overly cerebral director. He isn’t (at least, not in any pejorative sense). HCL, The Tracey Fragments, and Pontypool are all very accessible films--perhaps more accessible than all but the latest of Cronenberg’s films--and one of the major detracting factors surrounding Pontypool is the fact that every reviewer feels the need to talk about how “smart” it is. Rather, the film is “clever”; you don’t actually learn anything about language, and names like Barthes are bandied about without any weight put behind them. The premise is far more interesting than most zombie films, though, and so sets the film apart.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Pontypool is the story of morning DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a grizzled veteran DJ who apparently lost his job in the big city for being too controversial (I think) and so has been banished to the sticks (in this case, the small, unincorporated Ontario village of Pontypool). Stuck with Mazzy in the bunker-like basement of the abandoned church--Pontypool’s makeshift radio station--are his producer, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and their technician, Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly), recently returned from Afghanistan. The film never leaves these three characters, and cameras remain--almost exclusively--within the radio station for the duration of the film.


On this particular cold morning, the denizens of Pontypool have begun, without warning, to turn upon each other. Moving with typically zombie-ish, shambling steps, and (typically) hungering for human flesh, the people of Pontypool have seemingly entered the realm of the undead. Not so, instructs McDonald. These are not zombies. These are “conversationalists.” We, the viewers, soon learn that everyone has been infected by a sort of virus, not unlike the unfortunate people in the 28 Days Later films. This virus is not airborne, however, nor is it an infection of the blood; no, in Pontypool, language itself has become infected.

The victim of the language-virus suffers a few short symptoms before going full-blown zombie. Primarily, the victim begins to stumble on, and repeat, a word, a specific word. Repeating it over and over again, the victim finally becomes enraged, and lashes out. Since the virus passes through language, Mazzy (and his radio show) are quite probably the Typhoid Marys of the village.


Pontypool is low-budget filmmaking the best sense of the word; that is to say, the film in no way looks cheap, and the acting (save for one actor--you’ll know who when you see it) is all pretty great, especially McHattie, who’s always on the ball. No, Pontypool is low-budget in that it has only a handful of a cast and only one real location. Rather than being strapped by these limitations, McDonald is able to ramp up the claustrophobia. Indeed, about half of the films 90-minute running time has passed before we even see one of the zombies. McDonald keeps our interest by giving us repeated radio-updates from people outside--in particular the weather man, Ken Loney, who is the first on the scene--and by letting us share in the unease of the radio station employees, rather than dazzling us with special effects or jump-type scares. In this way the viewer feels a building sense of dread--one that, sadly, begins to ebb as soon as the outside world finally does come into the radio station.

Pontypool is a great little film, and while it has its share of weaknesses, it stands as one of the better horror films of recent years, and a nice change from the recent zombie-fair we’ve been fed. It’s definitely worth a watch, for fans of the genre, and it’s enough to keep me interested in McDonald’s two upcoming sequels.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979)


It starts--like more than a few Japanese films--with images of a mushroom cloud, a sight which I can only imagine is even more terrifying in Japan.

Makato Kido (Kenji Sawada) wants the police to call him “Nine,” since he can now be added to the list of eight nations who own nuclear weapons. He becomes known as “Mr. A-bomb” instead, a figure who achieves folk-hero status by holding the government ransom, threatening to detonate his homemade a-bomb if they don’t submit to his demands. To the kids at school, he’s just “Bubblegum,” a science teacher who is barely more mature than them, and who spends most of his time sleeping in class.


Kido bores his students by teaching them about nuclear weaponry, rather than following the standard high school science text. Since they’ll never be tested on Kido’s lessons, the students tend to ignore him. And no wonder: Kido has almost no personality to speak of.

The teacher explains to his students that A-bombs are easy to make--you just need the plutonium. This is one of the strangest parts of the film: to get the plutonium necessary for his bomb, Kido breaks into a military installation (I think), which appears to be guarded by members of Devo. The action comes in a series of still frame images, portraying a suddenly James Bond-esque Kido getting his hands on the goods, all to some swell 70s music.


Once he constructs the bomb (which we get to see, at length, in a series of montages), Kido is free to make his demands. But what is it that this terrorist demands? For starters, Kido wants to watch baseball games until the end--the TV stations always cut out after the seventh inning for the news. After that … well, he hadn’t thought that far. Enter “Zero” (Kimiko Ikegami), a local DJ who starts taking Kido’s calls on her new show. She suggests that “Mr. A-bomb” demand a Rolling Stones concert. He agrees with her and makes the demand, all to the chagrin of Detective Yamashita (Bunta Sugawara), a determined and heroic cop.

At this point, The Man Who Stole the Sun begins to look like a more run-of-the-mill cops and robbers story, except that the “good guy” is a science nerd with a nuclear weapon. The movie begins to engage in cat-and-mouse stuff, with car chases and the lot, and Kido having to be one step faster than the police. He never seems entirely aware of the severity of what’s going on--does he really have the guts to detonate the bomb? Or is it all just bluff? Kido seems more interested in constructing the bomb just to prove that he can; the power it grants him is almost an afterthought.


Added to the cops and robbers plot is a budding romance between Kido and Zero. The disc jockey is obviously attracted to the mystique around Kido, and the element of danger involved in being with a criminal. Typical to the 70s (at least in North America), Zero has bought fully into the “us against them” attitude, considering those people who are over thirty, or in authority, as evil. Still, she’s a fairly shallow character, whose real motivation is never really felt by the audience.

Oddly enough, The Man Who Stole the Sun was written by Leonard Schrader, brother to writer/director Paul Schrader, with whom he wrote Taxi Driver. The Man Who Stole the Sun has more than a few similarities with that film--the outsider as protagonist, the dangerous loner lashing out against society in a random and homicidal fashion that still somehow encapsulates the irritation and rage of the everyday man.


More so than in Taxi Driver, it’s not always clear in The Man Who Stole the Sun that the audience should be taking everything they see at face value. How much is actually supposed to be the events as they happen, and how much is supposed to be in Kido’s head? Does Kido really dump plutonium into a full swimming pool, or is it just something that he dreams up? While Taxi Driver seems like the more cerebral film, The Man Who Stole the Sun leaves you questioning whether or not some bigger statement is being made.

Or perhaps its just uneven. The car chases and the final battle with Detective Yamashita seem more like something out of a 70s cop show than a challenging work of art. I’m tempted to assert that this is somehow a comment on film itself, that a cops and robbers movie will always devolve into cliché and convention. Or something.

Despite its uneven nature, and its longer-than-necessary running time (147 minutes), The Man Who Stole the Sun is an intriguing film, and well worth seeking out, if only for the oddness of seeing a Western plot and story told by Japanese filmmakers.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Black Fist (1975)


I'll admit it. I'm a sucker for revenge flicks. It's such a simple formula, and one difficult to perfect, but watching a sympathetic character get horribly wronged and then proceed to wreak bloody havoc is one of my greatest pleasures. This formula was taken to the limit in the 1970s with movies like Rolling Thunder, Last House on The Left and (especially) Death Wish, a film which is obviously a big influence on this rather minor blaxploitation effort. Black Fist is filled with muddled dialogue, murky photography, and iffy performances, but when it works it works because of a tried and true plot and some interesting stylistic choices by the director(s).

Richard Lawson, who has a voice sometimes eerily similar to Samuel L. Jackson, stars as Leroy Fisk, a young street-fighter who rises quickly through the ranks after hooking up with a gangster named Logan (Robert Burr). Soon he's making money hand over (black) fist, but has to deal with scummy racist cop Heineken (Dabney Coleman, who is terrifically sleazy) and constant put-downs from his honky employer. After making a big payday, Fisk decides to quit the business and buy himself a club, but Logan doesn't take kindly to this and decides to retaliate by blowing up Fisk's car, with him in it! Things don't go quite according to plan, however, and it's actually Fisk's (pregnant) wife and brother-in-law that go up in flames. As you can imagine, Fisk takes this somewhat badly and is soon taking bloody revenge on gangsters, pimps, and anyone else who wants to face his BLACK FIST.


From very early on you'll know you're in familiar territory with Black Fist. We're barely introduced to the character before he's dabbling in street-fighting, and his rise is predictable and fairly bland, improved only by the charismatic lead performance of Richard Lawson, and some fun character work by future Miami Vice star Phillip Michael Thomas. In fact, Thomas gets to play two fairly ridiculous characters in the film, though their similarities make an already muddled plot even more confusing. This gets particularly egregious in the film's second half, where the dark photography sometimes makes it difficult to tell exactly what is going on. This is worsened by some choppy editing, with scenes seemingly ending early and a near-incomprehensible ending. The two credited directors probably had a hand in the confusing nature of the plot, as the movie seems to be patched up like a Godfrey Ho film.

Though it's marketed as a martial arts film (at least, in this collection), the fighting in Black Fist is more Pro Wrestling than Kung Fu (in fact, several of the opponents are played by 70s Pro Wrestlers). It's easy to scoff at these fights in the days of UFC and regular MMA events, but the fighting is fast-paced and spirited, and one of the directors was even smart enough to put in some awfully gratuitous breasts being exposed to keep things from ever getting too repetitive. There's nothing here that you would likely want to revisit, and don't expect expert choreography, but it's fun.


Part of the Millcreek 50 Martial Arts movie pack, Black Fist is a full-screen, faded, scratchy mess. The photography is dark, and the sound is inconsistent from scene to scene. I'd like to say that this adds to the drive-in feel, but in this case it makes an already confusing plot almost impossible to follow. Chapter selections are included for those who are looking to skip to the revenge portion of the film.


An occasionally worthy and well-acted revenge film, Black Fist is too confusing and jerkily paced to be very entertaining. The lead performances are a lot of fun, and the last half hour includes some entertaining scenes of bloody revenge (including Heineken being put on ice, and some brutal beatings), but the meager pleasures are simply not worth the frustration of watching such a mess of a film.