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Phase 7
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by Jay Seaver

"Dry as a bone, and thrilling to boot."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: In most zombie/contagion movies, the point where the tension really cranks up is when, after braving the various horrors to get to what should be a safe place, the characters discover that the greatest danger isn't out there; but in here. "Phase 7" cuts out a lot of the time used in getting to that point, making for a thrilling siege picture.

Coco (Daniel Hendler) and his pregnant wife Pipi (Jazmin Stuart) don't know anything is up as they're doing the grocery shopping, just buying the usual while the people around them are stocking up. It's not until they get home that they find out that there have been outbreaks of a nasty disease around the world. When one of their neighbors is taken away for displaying symptoms, the Argentine equivalent of the CDC places the entire building under quarantine. As time passes with no news of the restrictions being lifted, tensions begin to form - Coco's neighbor Horacio (Yayo Guridi) seems disturbingly prepared for this situation, and a number of others are already making plans on how to consolidate and distribute assets, starting with elderly neighbor Zanutto (Federico Luppi).

Phase 7 is being presented in some circles as more black comedy than thriller, and I think that characterization does the movie a bit of a disservice. That's not to say that it's not frequently funny - it is - just that its sense of humor is often bone-dry, to the point where it can easily be confused with bad plotting. For instance, the opening scene, where Coco and Pipi are too wrapped up in their own minor concerns to notice that everybody around them is hurriedly buying in bulk - that's smart, satiric, and just gets funnier as the scene continues to play out. As things play out, though, with indications that a fair amount of time is passing, Pipi's continuing obliviousness and Coco's often head-scratching behavior become less amusing than frustrating to watch.

That's more than balanced out by how well it works as a thriller. Writer/director Nicolas Goldbart keeps the situations simple enough that it's hard for plot holes to arise, but always moving the situation into a worse place small step by small step. When it comes time for bigger steps, Goldbart doesn't mess around - turning points are fast, harsh, and bloody, upending the status quo without the movie stopping and restarting; things just plow on toward the next bad situation. He also directs a pretty nice action scene or two as well, making even tricky scenes with unseen shooters play out with terrific tension that's as much the result of clarity as confusion.

And give a little credit to the sound guys, who give Goldbart some great support in a late scene with the lights out. The sound mix can make or break a sequence like that, and this is a pretty good one. The music by Guillermo Guareschi is top-notch, too, a loud, bombastic throwback to seventies/eighties synth soundtracks that sometimes hits cues hard and shamelessly, especially in the second half, but that's what the situation calls for.

The cast is also on their game. Hendler and Stuart are playing characters who are kind of self-absorbed and not prepared for a crisis, so it's sometimes a little difficult to get an easy handle on them. Still, they handle the deadpan humor with skill, and strike a nice balance between being in way over their heads and still being somewhat proactive. Yayo Guridi has an interesting part, in that he's got the screen time of a sidekick but could easily be a more likely protagonist if the perspective shifted just a little bit; he hits a nice balance between capability and instability. And Federico Luppi steals almost every scene he's in as Zanutto, reminding the audience not to underestimate or mess with the old guys - they're the ones natural selection doesn't have an answer for.

To a certain extent, how well the satiric elements play will determine how well "Phase 7" works for a given audience. When they're on, the movie is really something exceptional. Even when they aren't, it's still a nail-biter of a movie, as taut and suspenseful as many that are trying to do much less.

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originally posted: 04/13/11 13:53:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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