Anna and the ApocalypseReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/27/18 03:00:27
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Anna and the Apocalypse" at time plays like an actual high-school musical, which works better than you might expect. It could be done as a big production, but there's something that feels right about how it keeps things at a level that can revel in the silliness of its premise but still has room to treat its teens' concerns with respect rather than as overdone melodrama or metaphor.It's the day of the Christmas talent show in Little Haven, Scotland, but things get off a bit on the wrong foot for Anna Shephard (Ella Hunt) when her best-friend-with-a-massive-crush John (Malcolm Cumming) mistakenly blabs to her father (Mark Benton) that his daughter is not planning on going straight to University, but has purchased a ticket to Australia to start a gap travel year. For the other students, problems seem a bit more minor - Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye) is already throwing his weight around ahead of his promotion to headmaster, spiking a story on homelessness Steph (Sarah Swire) has been writing for the school blog, leading her to ask A/V maven Chris (Christopher Leveaux) to help her film at the soup kitchen, though that might make him late for the number his girlfriend Lisa (Marli Siu) - also Anna's best gal pal - is doing in the show. Of course, before all this has gone on, Anna has switched off a story on the car radio about a super-bad flu outbreak, so when she and John start making their way to school the next morning, they find that they've got bigger problems than her ex Nick (Ben Wiggins) being kind of a pest.
The "New Day"-type number that Anna and John have at this point is probably the movie's best and funniest; it gets to be cheery with zombie mayhem in the background, playing as a bit of a subversion of the form, but not in a sneering manner - it's sincere and standing behind Anna & John, not making the jokes at their expense. The songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly are kind of what you might expect from a modern movie musical - there's about five of them, front-loaded so that the latter half of the movie can be more action-based, and on first pass the impression is more that they fit their slot well enough rather than having their lyrics and melodies embedded into one's heads. They sound a little processed, although not so much that they don't sound like they're coming from the characters. Everybody sings for themselves, which is nice.
They make for a nifty cast beyond their pipes, although the ladies easily steal it. Ella Hunt's performance as Anna herself feels like they were going for Princess Diaries-age Anne Hathaway, and why wouldn't you; she does a good job of filling in a lot of the characterization the script sometimes seems to rush through (we're told she is clever and a good problem-solver, and even though the first half of the film has her kind of frustrated and moping, she certainly feels independent and capable). Steph became a quick favorite the moment it became clear that the idealistic lesbian who would be kind of snide and snarky in a lot of movies is just as awkward as the rest of the cast; Sarah Swire easily becomes the movie's dry-comedy MVP in addition to working on the choreography. Marli Siu doesn't get as much to do, but she's fun, playing the super-affectionate couple with Christopher Leveaux as well as getting one of the funniest musical numbers. Paul Kaye hits the spot as one of the most enjoyably campy expressions of how the real threat in zombie movies is generally megalomaniac humans.
It's a funny group, but earnest and charming enough to make one wish they could all make it to the finale. The script by Ryan McHenry (who made an earlier short version but died far too young in 2015) and Alan McDonald is charming in how little it messes around - it doesn't pretend its characters have never seen a zombie movie but also doesn't vanish into a tangle of self-referentiality. They and director John McPhail never play their characters' teenage concerns as foolish things that they make bigger than the very real dangers, and they are genuinely quite affectionate toward the group, tending to play off their optimism and desire to help rather than pettiness.
McPhail does a nice job of keeping the focus on them while working around what is not necessarily a huge budget; this is not a zombie movie with jaw-dropping makeup and elaborate kills. He gets good back-and-forth from his cast, though, and uses the sometimes limited space of his high-school sets to good effect even though musical numbers sometimes want to burst out of those constraints. This movie is a trickier thing to navigate than some might think, but he manages to work it so that only characters who truly deserve it get audience whoops when they're eaten while still getting big laughs from the black humor.Fans of the original "Zombie Musical" short might hope for this adaptation to be something bigger and more elaborate, but this one works, building up charm as it goes along and offering something for both the theater kids, the horror movie fans, and the increasingly-large intersection of the two.
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