Saturday, November 14, 2009

Obnoxious White People I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

One of the pitfalls of a rash of good films (or even one solid film) is that the ripoffs and remakes come fast and furious. Often we can simply avoid them because they go direct to DVD or the SyFy (née Sci-Fi) channel. As is most often the case with remakes, all you really need is a quarter of the budget and maybe a sixteenth of the subtlety but zombies are a special case because for so long they were the domain of thrift store auteurs and no one else. We didn’t have anything resembling a studio zombie film until 2003 and coincidentally or not when the budgets started increasing for the prestige zombie films, the budgets started disappearing from the low-rent ones. Weirdly, in the last few years budgetary lines were drawn where there weren’t any before. The difference between the money spent on relatively good zombie films like Shivers, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie or Orgy of the Dead and shitty ones like Zombie Lake, Demons or The Snake People wasn’t much. However, today it’s hard to find a truly good really low budget zombie film. Look at the difference between Fido and say Zombiez, Feeding the Masses or Dead Summer; staggering, no? Granted there are exceptions: Pontypool looks as though the most expensive thing in the budget was the film stock yet it’s quite exceptional and I Sell The Dead made up charmingly for its lack of funds. Two films that couldn’t quite get past their budgetary restrictions are today’s movies Carriers and Dead Air. Of course their problems stem from the fact that they are shameless cash-ins on the successes of 28 Days Later and Pontypool, which I'll review in the coming weeks, respectively. I find the latter strange because Pontypool wasn’t even a year old when Corbin Bernsen turned in the rather tactless Dead Air. I guess the spirit of the Italians is still alive and well because you don’t even need a rousing success in order to start producing ripoffs; the only thing that’s changed is the odds you’ll have fun watching any of today’s ripoffs.

by Àlex Pastor & David Pastor
Danny, Brian, Kate and Bobby are four privileged white kids who have survived an epidemic that appears to have claimed the lives of most other people in at least the Western United States. They are on a desert highway and have a set of rules that they use to survive (I’d say this was an echo of Zombieland but I doubt very much one could have influenced the other what with their completion dates being nearly simultaneous. Also, it has almost nothing to do with the plot so you'd do just as well to forget it) but they seem to be running low on a few things. The first is morale; this is due in large part to the fact that Brian (Chris Pine who probably made this before Star Trek, but who could say?) is a total douche bag. Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci) is his younger brother and Bobby (Piper Perabo) is his girlfriend so they tolerate him. He has a bit of a messiah complex because he appears to be immune to the disease. Kate is the odd man out, as she seems to have brought along because Danny had a crush on her before people started dropping. Brian clearly doesn’t want her around, but forget that for a minute. The other problem is that they’re out of is gas and it would appear that the minivan that they come across driven by an anxious suburban dad called Frank is the answer to their prayers but there’s a problem with that. Frank’s daughter Jodie has the infection and he won’t let them take his van without agreeing to take him to a little town where there’s supposed to be a cure. Yeah, it sounds pretty stupid to Brian and the others too but they need the gas so they sequester Frank and Jodie in the trunk and take the van to town for vaccinations. What they find isn’t encouraging. The last doctor in town lives inside a clean tent inside the school gym and offers to kill Jodie if Frank doesn’t have the guts to do it; there’s no cure after all. While Kate, Brian and Danny check the place out, Bobby looks after Jodie but stupidly takes down the plastic barrier between them when the young girl succumbs to a coughing fit and stops moving. She gets it up in time to fool the others but we know what it means, just like we know what it means when the others leave Frank and Jodie behind and hit the road again.

The rest of the film consists of the group making pit stops as Bobby shows worsening signs of infection. The film should be a tautly constructed series of ethical dilemmas told through the framework of a horror/sci-fi road movie. But it’s not, for a few reasons. First of all, I don’t care about any of the characters. Brian is the most interesting of all of them and Chris Pine is easily the most capable of anyone else in the cast except Christopher Meloni but you stop caring about him after the incident at the gas station and then you have the two least interesting cast members left to root for. And seeing as you never actually get to know one of them, you really have one character and one cipher, which makes for a totally emotionless ending, not helped by the fact that the action of the film stops well before the credits roll. Having a film filled consciously with "soon to be big" stars is almost always a bad idea because your film feels like an investment more than a creative idea. The last real conflict is supposed to be generated by the bonds of family but I don’t buy Lou Taylor Pucci and Chris Pine as siblings for a minute. A film like this, no budget, limited effects, high-concept (The Crazies goes to California), needs to be driven by the performances and in theory it is, it’s just that as with Cloverfield they put the fate of humanity in the hands of a couple of vacuous dipshits who I personally would have liked to see get it worse than they did. Furthermore we don’t really know specifically what the disease is and yes I get that we aren’t supposed to and it’s more mysterious and haunting that way and that the disease is actually lack of trust in other people but I don’t see something hitting humanity this hard and the department of health being totally unprepared for it. We’ve avoided mad cow, swine and bird flu, SARS and everything else, I just think that the Pastors (and if I've said it once I've said it a thousand times, don't call yourselves the 'anything brothers' unless it starts with Coen) needed a few more symptoms for me to buy this as a global pandemic; Zombies I can buy because that’s my job. This appears to have plague-like symptoms and I just…can’t get worked up over that because we don’t get enough evidence about it’s destructive nature or what it does to the body. I don’t know I guess what I’m saying is that I wasn’t scared by it, which is ultimately the kiss of death for a film like this. Also whenever I see Christopher Meloni I can’t help but laugh and if you’ve seen that thing where he does Law & Order: SVU as a talk show then you’ll know why.

Finally, the reason I said this was a 28 Days Later cash-in is the look. The grainy over-and-underexposure is a perfect mimic of Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography for Danny Boyle’s film and Enrique Chediak’s for Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s sequel. The scenes in the dark school house look exactly like the scenes in the dark truck stop, the scene at the campfire are exactly like the scene at the stone lean-to, the scenes of the men arriving with guns exactly like any of the scenes of the soldiers in either film, and both Carriers and the 28 Days films share an affinity for plastic sheets flapping in the wind. Anything that tries to repeat the success of 28 Days Later is going to compare unfavourably (even the sequel, which had a good reason to look exactly like the original, cannot compare) and if the real change between this and the film it’s so inspired by is to tone the action down, amp up the bitching and moaning and pretty much eliminate the tension, guess what effect that has? You have a fairly boring slog through a fairly ordinary plot with a plagiarized look and characters you don’t care about. Granted they do try a bit more than your average cash-in but ambition isn’t everything. In fact sometimes it gets you into trouble.

Dead Air
by Corbin Bernsen

Say for example you saw Pontypool and wanted to make it bigger and have more carnage and swearing and you wanted to reunite two cast members from Night of the Living Dead, the remake. That sounds pretty ambitious, right? Well put it in the hands of Corbin Bernsen and Dead Air is what you get. I like Corbin Bernsen just fine as an actor though I don’t think I need to tell him he ought to pick his projects a touch more discerningly. Never mind that, though, his acting isn’t on trial. David Moscow’s is and so is Bill Moseley’s, but more importantly Corbin Bernsen’s direction is what really sank this movie. Ok, so some terrorists plant a chemical weapon at a basketball game and soon the streets are overrun with zombies. When I say soon I mean like half the fucking movie later. Before that can come we have to spend the evening with a shock jock called Logan (Moseley, who really should have known better) who is at worst totally wrong for the part of dickhead radio personality and at best a pale imitation of Stephen McHattie in Pontypool. He’s just annoying, he doesn’t sell any of the characteristics someone like that is supposed to have; his arrogance is put on, his meanness paper-thin, his diction absolutely wrong, nevermind that DJs like this get put on in the fucking morning whereas this guy’s shift starts in the evening and goes until the early morning. So we have enough cause to turn off the film as it is before the crisis proper starts. Then writer Kenny Yakkel wants us to believe that once zombies start trolling the streets that people are going to tune in to this fucking idiot instead of listening to the emergency broadcast system. Then, as if that weren't enough, he goes even further and suggests that some people would not only tune in but willingly risk dying just to call in and report what they’re seeing. I get the whole 15 minutes of fame thing but seriously? When the zombies are pulling people out of their cars it’s time to hang the fuck up and run. I don’t think people are that stupid....I hope they're not that stupid.

Here’s a sometimes helpful hint about the quality of a film; granted it doesn’t always work but anyway go to the IMDB and see how many people get credited in the cast on just the first screen before you have to click ‘more’. That’s a lot of fucking people. Coleman Francis used to do the same thing in his movies, he would credit every soul who makes an appearance because as the guys at MST3K observed he most likely didn’t have anything to pay them with. “Well, I can’t pay you but your name'll be in the credits!” was the logic that seemed to account for the staggering number of people who get credited. This has the look of a bunch of people doing Corbin Bernsen or the producers a favor, a quality that pervades the whole production. It’s terrible, it has no moral worthy of the name, no performance worth writing home about (though some are memorable in their wretchedness), it looks like shit, smells of cost-cutting in every department, doesn’t generate an ounce of tension, has no surprises, no fresh take on anything and can’t even convincingly pull of its simplest conceit. As strictly a Pontypool ripoff, we have the shock jock and his female producer who are supposed to generate sexual tension (they do no such thing) while things go awry outside. They fail at this entirely when they leave the studio and subtlety gets the ax. Nevermind that they blame the attacks on terrorists in the name of talking about hatred. I know you’re not supposed to hate people, let alone because of their race or religion, I’m not a motherfucking eight year old. The script feels like a senior thesis paper turned into a lazy, ninth rate Zombie film and is at times even dumber than that. I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to shithead morning DJs, my sister used to listen to them on the twenty minute drive to school each morning whenever I forgot to bring cds to listen to. I know their vein and rude and ought to be castrated; I also know they aren’t so painfully stiff and forced-sounding as Bill Moseley’s Logan and David Moscow’s Gil are. Patricia Tallman, who played Barbara in Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead remake, is ok but again not written as a real person, more like someone’s older sister from when they were teenagers who happens to talk about divorce instead of breaking up with her boyfriend.

Dead Air’s greatest crime is that it simply isn’t scary. At no point do we fear for any particular character (they’re in talk radio in LOS ANGELES for fuck’s sake, they deserve everything they get) or wonder what’s going to happen next. It looks like a made-for-tv movie and does nothing to rise above it’s shittiness. So as you can see it isn’t enough to add swear words, violence, nudity (in arguably the film’s most pointlessly vile scene), terrorism, racism, religion, TV news and whatever the fuck else they packed into the films already languorous hour and a half. If you’re going to try and make the same movie that someone else already has, you’d better improve the message if you don’t have the budget to at least make yours look better. The only thing I can say in Dead Air’s defense is it made me realize just how great Pontypool is. I knew it was good but to think that the same premis and probably the same budget in someone else’s hands produced this and I get that Bruce McDonald really did something special. So did Danny Boyle and even Juan Carlos Fresnadillo for that matter. Money isn’t everything, but I guess it helps. In fact I’d wager that 28 Weeks Later cost more than 28 Days Later (I could be 100% wrong, for the record) but doesn’t match it’s tension, realism (...) or character development. It’s still a lot of fun and very dark and very harrowing and quite frightening at times but really you need to mind every aspect of your production. The few things that ran unchecked in 28 Weeks Later do stick out because the film is quite good otherwise. When a film is all unchecked shoddiness, however, it’s time to look elsewhere.

No comments: