I started re-watching The Office recently. I’m always amazed, when I go away from the show for a little while, how I seem to forget its all-around brilliance—but that’s a different discussion. Anyway, ‘round about the middle of Season 5, there’s a gag where Andy Bernard pirates a new Oscar bait movie and gets Jim and Pam to watch it with him at work. The film is supposed to be a super-serious drama wherein Jack Black falls in love with an old woman. In the film’s emotional crescendo, he tries to convince her of the depth and truth of his love, as she slowly backs away up a set of stairs by way of electronic lift chair. Watching this film-within-a-show, I realized I could imagine an alternate reality, where this film was a real film—just slap a “Directed by Wes Anderson” on the poster—and becomes the darling of Sundance. Pontypool, a Canadian horror-drama-comedy critical darling, could almost as easily be the fake film in that episode of The Office: Depending on the context, it can be seen as a parody of an “important” film, just as easily as it can unselfconsciously present itself as something truly deep and meaningful. Pontypool is an interesting idea for a movie that simply isn’t able to live up to its lofty, high-minded premise. To wit: an over-the-hill radio DJ (think Don Imus without the racism) reports to his morning show on a snowy Valentine’s Day. Along with his producer, Sydney, and assistant Laurel-Ann, he starts going through the sleepy small town’s news of the day—school closures and obituaries—but disturbing reports of mobs and drunken cannibals begin coming over the wire (seriously). Eventually, (My reviewer tendency was to say “Before long…”, but it is a very, very long time before anything really happens.) we learn the people of the town have contracted a virus of some sort, spread through the English language. It turns them into murderous zombie-like creatures; and, in what is, granted, an interesting twist on the genre, they’re not trying to eat brains or anything, but are simply trying to pass on the virus to others before it kills them—we see the results of one character unable to pass on the virus, as her attempts to get to her hidden victims become more and more frantic and frenzied, before her head practically explodes in a volcano of blood and she dies. It’s one of the movie’s few special effects, and it’s a very chilling, affecting scene. We’re right there with the other human characters as they watch the zombie’s death spiral, as clueless as they are and wondering, Okay, what happens if she doesn’t get a victim? But this scene, well done as it is, is part of a disjointed and fractured whole where the pieces never quite all come together. I should offer here my standard caveat, whenever I dislike a film that, overall, has received positive reviews. And that caveat is this: I hated—no, loathed passionately, almost personally, as if the film were a real person who slashed my car tires and got me fired from my job—Birdman. I hated it in a way I’ve hated few things in this life. With every passing moment of the movie I found myself growing angrier and angrier. I found myself deciding to never like Edward Norton ever again, just because he had the audacity to attach himself to the movie. I hated every little film/stage industry inside joke, every weird, quirky character tic, every scene where Michael Keaton’s character displays actual superhuman powers and we, the viewers, are supposed to be all “Wow. He obviously doesn’t have the power of levitation, but there he is levitating in his dressing room. This is powerful commentary on important things.” I hated it all. And then it won Best Picture. And so: My point is I’m not trying to be contrarian simply for the sake of being contrarian. I just honestly saw little of redeeming value here. Things start interestingly enough, with a long shot of pictorialized sound waves, with the camera slowly drawing nearer as our protagonist tells a story about a woman’s missing cat and the other woman who found it in the town of Pontypool, Pontypool, Pontypool, and it’s all nice and creepy and the music builds and builds and then… nothing. The story of the missing cat doesn’t take on any narrative significance later on, and aside from general ideas of “language is complicated and funny sometimes” it holds no thematic weight, either. And there are several nice little oddities throughout the film that appear interesting, even compelling, at first, but which ultimately go nowhere of any consequence. At one point early on, Grant Mazzy, our DJ, is interviewing the cast of a local production of Lawrence of Arabia, and a young cast member begins showing the first signs of the virus. She begins losing the meaning of simple words, and the panic on her face is intense and real—the young actress in this scene does as good of a job as anyone in the film, as she conveys the very real terror of literally forgetting what normal language means. And then she turns to Grant, as the virus really takes hold, and begins saying, “Pra! Pra! Pra!” It’s nonsense, but it’s strangely effective, too. But what at first seems almost like a symbolic representation of what it may be like to suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s loses its connection to the rest of the story—the other people affected by the disease don’t start making nonsense sounds—and it becomes clear that this “Pra! Pra! Pra!” is only included because it is scary. And it is, but still…. Other bits miss the mark, too, chiefly in regards to the baffling attempts to inject out-of-context humor into the story. Comedy in horror can work, and work quite well, as Evil Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and other classics prove. But here, the jokes—and I really don’t even like calling them that, but such are the limitations of language (hardy har har)—are disconnected and jarring, and not in a good way. After one character, a field reporter who has been delivering off and on accounts of the zombie uprising to our protagonist, finally himself is killed, Sydney, Grant’s producer, begins crying. And then Grant, in one of those only-in-movies joke setups, remarks that the reporter must have been a really good friend to Sydney. Her response is that, no, he was actually a pedophile. Then she stops and remarks that that sounds like a horrible obituary notice. And elsewhere, when one of Grant’s friends dies, a side character who has been studying the virus remarks that it’s “wonderful,” because he’s seeing a new side of the virus—then he quickly looks at Grant and clarifies “Bad for your friend, but wonderful!” They are the kinds of lines, of jokes, that can only work in a film firmly established as comedy-horror. But both jokes occur with twenty minutes of zero humor before, followed by zero humor for just as long after, and the end result is just a queasy, uncomfortable feeling. Like so much else in this film, the humor could work, in a vacuum, but as a part of a larger whole it all falls flat. Throughout all of this, though—through the misplaced comedy, the scenes disjointed from the larger whole—I was with the film to a point. Overall, the performances are good, especially Stephen McHattie as Grant, who made me truly believe in him as a self-important radio DJ. And though I have since learned that the film’s claustrophobic setting—the vast majority of the action takes places inside a tiny radio station sound room—was done out of necessity to keep the budget small, the enclosed space works wonderfully for setting the film’s ambiance, and makes us feel just as trapped as the characters do. But then a brand new character literally just crawls in through a window, having traveled, presumably, several miles through zombie-infested streets unscathed, explains the particulars of the plot, and then crawls out again. This character—a doctor at whose office the virus outbreak seems to begin—knows no more about the virus than our protagonists, though he is somehow able to divine that language spreads the virus—and not just language, but the English language in particular. Somehow, he realizes that speaking in English, especially “Terms of Endearment,” can spread “infected” words, and that if you stay silent, or speak in languages other than English, you can keep yourself from getting “sick.” How does he discover this? Through the magic of the screenplay, presumably, and through no other avenues that make any sense. If it appears I’m being hypercritical, it’s for a purpose. I believe a film should be judged on the heights to which is aspires—or, more specifically, to the esteem in which it holds itself. I will never judge a Saw movie based on anything other than how gorily gruesome the traps are. A Kevin Hart/The Rock buddy comedy just needs to be funny, and if some of the particulars of its world-espionage-hacker-blah-blah-blah plot fall apart under close scrutiny, eh, at least I laughed. But a film like Pontypool believes it is saying something important, and so must be evaluated with a higher threshold of what is considered quality. And Pontypool is never quite clear on what, exactly, it is saying. Is it an indictment on mass journalism? Is it the dangers of a constantly connected society? Something about English-speaking/American culture generally? The point is never made clear. And it all leads up to a finale that doesn’t carry half the oomph the characters on screen—and the filmmakers behind the camera—so obviously believe it does. Grant discovers, somehow—again, the reasoning isn’t made clear, and he himself says repeatedly that it makes no sense—that by saying a word has a meaning different than its actual meaning, you can somehow cure the virus. This leads to him grabbing a newly infected Sydney, whose infected word is “Kill,” by the shoulders and telling her to forget what “kill” means. Thinking quickly, he says, “Kiss is kill. Kiss is kill,” over and over again. When eventually she is cured, she is so happy for his help that she puts her hands on his cheeks and says, “Kill me.” In the interests of total transparency, I have to admit that, at this point, I seriously wondered if this single sequence, devoid of any context or zombie-ism to accompany it, was the genesis from which the rest of the film came. I don’t believe for a moment, in other words, that these two characters, in the situation they’re in, would take a moment to make out before trying to escape the zombie horde; but I do fully believe that the filmmakers wanted them to do it, before a story was even written. I love heady, high-minded horror. It Follows has a very striking message about sexual empowerment at one level, and an even deeper, almost-subliminal message about sexual assault. The Babadook is an often-heartbreaking allegory of being a single parent and suffering from survivor’s guilt. Pontypool, I believe, has something to say, too. It’s just that the message, ironically, isn’t very clear, and the surface-level story itself isn’t strong enough to carry us to the subtext. See larger image Pontypool Shut up or die…Shock jock Grant Mazzy (McHattie) has been kicked-off the airwaves and now works at a small-town morning show. Another mundane day on the job quickly turns deadly when reports pile in of people developing strange speech patterns and evoking brutal acts of violence. Before long, Mazzy discovers that the behavior is actually a deadly virus being spread through language. Does he stay on the air in hopes of being rescued or, is he providing the virus with its ultimate leap over the airwaves and into the world? 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