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Overall Rating

Awesome: 9.52%
Worth A Look71.43%
Average: 9.52%
Pretty Bad: 4.76%
Total Crap: 4.76%

2 reviews, 9 user ratings

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by Jay Seaver

"Pontypool doesn't change everything, but more than enough."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2009: "Pontypool" is adapted from a small part of the novel "Pontypool Changes Everything" - according to the producers taking part in the Q&A, a tiny part. Paragraphs, supposedly. That's actually a really nifty idea - zoom in a large-scale story to find one that is just as big to the people caught up in it.

This is the story from the perspective of Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a radio announcer who has the morning shift on a low-power station operating out of the basement of a church in Pontypool, Ontario. It's a stripped-down operation, with just producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and technician Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) in the studio with him, and Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) calling in with traffic updates. Mazzy's a pro but it's boring most of the time, so he jumps at the opportunity to talk about something more exciting when reports start trickling in at a riot in and around a local doctor's office - a riot that turns out to be something out of a George Romero movie.

Pontypool has two somewhat unique features, one executed very well and one more of a mixed bag. The excellent one is the way that, once Mazzy arrives at the station, the camera never looks outside. Everything we know about the situation out there comes from callers and news reports, and even those are often filtered in that they're Laurel Ann reading from the wire rather than first-hand. This gives writer Tony Burgess and director Bruce McDonald time to let us get to make the first half of the movie about Mazzy and his ego without the audience feeling either like we're waiting for something to happen or that he's a one-dimensional jerk for thinking of his career despite immediate danger. What's going on is real and scary but not yet immediately so, so we can wait a while for this to turn into a siege movie. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of giving us a personal stake in what's going on with Ken Loney, even though he never actually appears on screen.

Some what iffier is the means by which things go to hell (skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know things revealed roughly halfway through the movie, late enough to potentially be considered spoilers): The premise that the English language acts as the vector for infection is potentially a deliciously clever one; it sets things up that anything Mazzy and company do to try and help risks making things much, much worse. Watching a person lose their mind in the space of a couple minutes, especially as they try and fight the onrushing aphasia that is the first symptom, can be much more chilling than any physical transformation. The film doesn't really do much to explain how "the English language is infected" works - it's not like The Signal where there's some technological mechanism - and "it's scary because it's incomprehensible" only goes so far. It also seems like they miss out on a lot of rich thematic material, like an obvious potential parallel for hate speech and only hinting at how this could turn a multilingual country like Canada upside down.

According to the producers, there are plans to expand this movie into a trilogy, so maybe those ideas can wait for movies which are set outside this building's walls. As mentioned before, McDonald and Burgess (who also wrote the original novel) do a fine job of keeping things contained to a handful of rooms while still creating a sense of something larger - that sort of overcoming sensory constraint is, fittingly, like radio at its best. MacDonald finds good ways of presenting something akin to zombie attacks without as much in the way of blood and guts, and the somewhat understated approach makes it a bit more frightening. There's also a nice bit of misdirection in the script, setting up a direction that the movie swerves away from.

The cast is good, too. Stephen McHattie has an actor's dream of a role in Grant Mazzy, and does all he can with the character: McHattie fills the screen with Mazzy, making him somewhat theatrical both in his charm and his faults, playing the man as someone who can present himself as larger than life but is, often enough, not up to that standard. I kind of love the look on his face and the petty tone in his voice when he delivers a certain line over the air, as if he's the one blowing the BBC off. Lisa Houle is a great foil for him as the slightly younger but more adult producer who is exasperated by Mazzy even while recognizing his value, and Georgina Reilly is very nice as well. The weakest link is Hrant Alianak as a scientist who shows up later on with explanations and a little too much forced quirkiness.

"Pontypool" is being categorized as an unusual variant on the zombie movie in many places, which isn't really fair to it. It resembles Romero's "The Crazies" as much his "Dead" films, and though you can see the same basic idea at play, Burgess and McDonald have ventured far enough afield that it certainly feels like something else. It's not quite the audience-bowling-over brilliance that we'd generally like these sorts of variations on a theme to be, but it is, at its best, an exciting enough thriller to be a welcome break from the ordinary.

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originally posted: 04/30/09 04:52:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival of Boston 2009 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/20/13 brian Fascinating for 45 min or so, then the thing buckles under the weight of its own absurdity. 3 stars
1/07/13 Langano Ridiculous premise, waste of time. 2 stars
1/16/12 Flipsider It's very watchable despite a weak beginning and some big flaws. 3 stars
12/30/10 SteveO Flipside of the HG Wells broadcast hysteria. Plot a bit muddled, but creepy and effective 4 stars
10/28/10 Ryan J. Marshall A film that has the uncommon power to scare us one moment and humor us the next. 4 stars
6/08/10 Jo Pontypool is movie of the month on watch it there! 5 stars
2/07/10 art IF YOU HAVE SEEN one of these TRIBE OF FILM,you have seen them ALL! m 1 stars
2/05/10 GG Pan Fascinating & cerebral minimalist horror (Talk Radio meets Dawn of the Dead?) 5 stars
9/08/08 Mike Briant More of a psychological thriller than a zombie movie, it's both frightening and funny. 4 stars
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  DVD: 26-Jan-2010


  DVD: 26-Jul-2010

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