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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Fallen (1998)

Denzel Washington:  John Hobbes
John Goodman:  Jonesy
Donald Sutherland:  Lt. Stanton
Embeth Davidtz:  Gretta Milano
Elias Koteas:  Edgar Reese

"I want to tell you about the time I almost died" is a great voiceover to get someone's attention. Play it over jittery POV camerawork and longer shots of Denzel Washington running and stumbling through snowy woods in the night while in a state of utter blind panic and you've neatly got my attention. The voiceover continues, making the usual cinematic promise that you get from beginnings like this--how did this all start? How did a character the viewer met fifteen seconds ago wind up desperate, alone and fleeing for his life?

I'm glad you asked, and so is the movie. Here goes:

On another night, some time prior to the panicky scramble in the woods, there's an execution taking place at a prison; there are sign-bearing chanters outside but they don't appear to be protesting the execution. Instead, it sounds like they're out there to approve of it. Detective John Hobbes, flipping a coin in his fingers as a nervous tic, goes inside the prison to talk to the condemned man. Edgar Reese turns out to be a shaven-headed white dude who shakes the police officer's hand prior to getting sent to the electric chair; after a one-sided conversation where he extols the virtues of the ACLU videotaping his execution as a way to stay famous he mutter-whispers something in what sounds like a melange of foreign languages. Then he asks Hobbes a riddle--"Why is there a space between Lyons and Spakowsky?", and you got me. I only two two characters' names in the movie so far and they're Hobbes and Reese.

The credits play over the Rolling Stones' version of "Time is On My Side", which is a strange musical choice to play over someone walking (or, in Reese's case, dancing as best he can in restraints) to a gas chamber. A few more tasteless jokes and a quick a capella rendition of the opening credits song follow, then the hydrogen cyanide gets released and Reese exits the film. Which is too bad, because Elias Koteas appeared to be having a whole lot of fun playing a weird creepy murderer that likes to mess with people's minds. The shots from Reese's point of view are off-balance, tinted yellow and in slow motion during this sequence. That probably means something. It probably means more that we get a crane shot filmed in the same manner, and that whatever it is that we're sharing the point of view of can pass through walls.

At a dingy bar (the only kind Movie Cops drink in), two of Hobbes' colleagues are working their way through every import beer the bar has to offer. Hobbes goes in for a proletarian American Budweiser instead. He also lays out his ethical code--he doesn't use his authority to scrape up a little extra money on the side, and he doesn't judge the police who do--which appears to be nearly all of them, I guess, from the way that Lou keeps needling him about being some kind of saint. Also, Lou's moustache has to be seen to be believed. And it looks to me like Hobbes is chewing gum and drinking beer at the same time in this scene. I guess that's a neat talent or something, but I can't imagine it tasting good at all.

Meanwhile, the prison guard who operated the death machinery at Reese's execution drives up to a greasy-spoon takeaway joint and bumps into someone that the camera follows. They brush up against someone else, who collides with another person, and so on. Each time the camera picks a new person to follow there's an ominous rumble on the soundtrack as well, so something's up. There doesn't seem to be any restriction to the effect when it happens--white, black and Asian men and women appear to be susceptible to it. The final person to have whatever it is happening to him quits his no doubt challenging and rewarding job fetching sandwiches for the owner of a mini golf course and the scene ends.

Back at Casa Hobbes, we get a little bit of information about our protagonist. He's got a brother who's living in his house along with his nephew. Art, his brother, blames himself for Hobbes' wife leaving him and Hobbes won't have any of it. He says that if his ex-wife really loved him she wouldn't have left even though he's got relatives underfoot in his house and that family is important enough to him that his relatives can stay even if they're a problem from time to time. It's nice to see that even though Hobbes is undoubtedly going to turn into a Cop On The Edge at some point in the film, he's got a loving family and a stable home. I think Michael Nouri in The Hidden was the only police officer in a movie in the entire decade of the 80s to be happily married.

And in a brief interjected scene, the last person in the body-touching scene earlier has breakfast and then brushes his teeth with a body about three feet away in the bathtub. He's also stalking Hobbes at the precinct house where he works. It's probably significant that whoever it is gets shown standing by a pay phone right before Hobbes gets a call telling him a clue is in a certain apartment. That clue is, of course, the body from one scene earlier. While Jonesy and Hobbes are walking around trying not to contaminate any evidence they find a handwritten message on the wall behind a door:


So we have the first appearance one of my favorite things in horror fiction. I hope there's a really cool French or German term for it, but I tend to call it "the impossible that is happening". Watch Them! some time, or Blacula, or any other horror movie with a hard-nosed and practical protagonist. That character sees things that cannot be true (according to a rational universe that does not have, say, vampires in it) that they are forced to accept even though they fly in the face of everything the hero has learned to expect about their existence. Any time you have someone slowly putting the pieces together and coming to face with the existence of something monstrous you've got me interested.

And, since Hobbes has no idea he's in a horror movie, his first thoughts on this make a lot of sense:  Reese had some kind of accomplice or copycat that's carrying on his work from beyond the grave. Since the only characters Hobbes has talked to so far are a killer on death row, some cops, his brother and the filmmakers from the ACLU he suspects the guys with the camera and boom mike first. While he's coming up with a plan to investigate, some more evidence comes in--fingerprints from the murder scene, and a toxicology report that shows the Russian immigrant dead in his bathtub was poisoned with something rare and that Reese had used for previous killings.

It turns out that Lou of the immense moustache knows something about Spakowsky and Lyons; there's an old police plaque commemorating an officer every year. Lyons is the one for 1964 and Spakowsky for 1966, but an empty place where a nameplate has been removed is in between them. The police HR department doesn't have any information, so Hobbes goes to the finest information source available in 1998:  WebCrawler for America Online. Stop chuckling. Okay, go ahead. You're right. Anyway, Hobbes is enough of a research badass to dig up old newspaper articles about the citations for valor every year. The newspaper is just called "The Chronicle", without a city mentioned, which is a pretty neat touch. I wonder if they'll mention where the movie takes place by the end of it.

Hobbes finds the 1965 officer of the year; it's someone named Robert Milano, who shot himself the year after he was awarded his citation. Hobbes, not one to mince words, believes Milano killed himself either over an affair that ended badly or because he was a dirty cop about to be exposed. His lieutenant tells him to keep a tight lid on whatever he turns up looking into Milano's past and openly tells Hobbes that he won't be any help in the investigation. When the fingerprints found at the murder scene don't show up in any of the police records, Hobbes gets a secondary theory--cops have access to all the files on Reese's killings, and it's at least possible that the copycat is a police officer.

Watching the documentary on Reese, Jonesy has a flash of insight--the killer spoke Dutch at one point, but neither he nor Hobbes knows what language he's mumbling in at the start of the tape. Hobbes thinks it's just word salad but his partner wants to be sure. Another avenue of investigation opens up when Hobbes tracks down Gretta Milano, the daughter of the Cop of the Year who killed himself in a deserted cabin two decades earlier. When he mentions who told him her father's name, she asks him if Reese liked to sing and tried to touch Hobbes before the execution; those are pretty specific questions to ask of someone you just met two minutes earlier. And Gretta's insistence that everything she says to Hobbes is to be kept secret and out of the case files makes the detective realize that something out of the ordinary is coming up.

And it's a doozy. Apparently Robert Milano was an exceptionally good cop, but after catching a serial killer he wound up committing copycat murders and was eventually tracked down. He killed himself before he could be arrested or tried and the authority figures of the day hushed everything up and tried to sweep the whole affair under the rug. Gretta says she knows her father was innocent, but is too scared of winding up on some lunatic's hit list if she gets involved in Hobbes' investigation. She asks Hobbes if he believes in God as he leaves; it turns out being a homicide detective in Undisclosed City isn't a really good way to retain faith in a divine force for good.

During one of those walk-around-while-the-voiceover-gets-metaphysical scenes, Hobbes walks right past the character that we the audience know as the copycat murderer and we get another shaky yellow tinted shot. Whatever's going on with that guy, it's not normal. And a scene or two later he's shown jostling an older, beefier white guy getting off a train and the significant noise shows up on the soundtrack. And the audience learns what's up with that (and that the man's name is Charles) when he calls the mini golf place claiming to have blacked out for a few days and wondering if he's scheduled for that night. His distress at finding out he was fired pales in comparison to his shock at answering the door and the beefy guy forcing his way into the apartment and stabbing him with a syringe. The new killer makes a series of late night calls to Hobbes and stages the murder scene to look identical to the previous one where Charles killed the Russian.

The next day, the linguist that Jonesy called in is there to drop some more exposition off. It turns out that the gibberish that Reese was spouting in his cell is a near-extinct Syrian dialect of Aramaic. The professor can recognize the language but doesn't have the slightest idea what Reese is saying, but offers to try and transcribe it if the detectives will give him a copy of the tape. In a cinematic world made up of scandal, secrets, fear, and death it's kinda neat to see a happy academic who's willing to help the police out.

Hobbes pays attention to the details, too--when Reese the maniacal killer was on his high school baseball team, he was right-handed but all of his killings were done with his left. Something changed at some point, or (to go with a less unlikely explanation) he was ambidextrous. And while Hobbes is mulling this over he gets another phone call out of nowhere with the location of another body, another staged crime scene with a bowl of cereal, and with  ? ? ? = LOOK IN MIRROR written on the wall behind a mirror. Both Hobbes and Jonesy confide in each other that they're out of their depth on this one, and it really doesn't make any rational sense. Even less so when Hobbes recognizes the murder victim as someone he'd seen a day or two before on the street.

And even less so when the fingerprints come back from processing the victim of scene number two and identify the body as the killer from scene number one. Hobbes thinks--sensibly, especially for a genre film--that there's a third person staging the murder scenes and planting fingerprints. The next thing he can think of is to visit the cabin where Milano shot himself (although it's been abandoned for at least a decade by the looks of things). Hobbes goes poking around and finds cobwebs, dirt, a couple old books in remarkably good condition and a pretty cheap jump scare. He also isn't wearing rubber gloves when he handles the books, so he'd better hope they aren't really important to his investigation. While he's in the basement he wipes years of grime off a mirror and sees the name AZAZEL written on it. He's lucky he didn't wind up with blank white eyeballs or Ted Raimi promising to consume his soul. Basements in deserted cabins in the woods with occult words written anywhere inside him are bad news.

That discovery sends him back to Gretta Milano, and drops the name Azazel on her as well as the circumstances under which he discovered it. He used a dictionary (I'm guessing it was actually Tobin's Spirit Guide) to look it up and says it's the evil spirit of the wilderness, and that it moves from person to person through physical contact. I knew it! He's gonna wind up a Deadite by the end of this. And Gretta refuses to give him any information at all, instead telling him to drop the matter if there's anyone at all that he cares about, then drives off. And Embeth Davidtz knows about dealing with demons, human or otherwise. At any rate, Hobbes refuses to drop things. It's his duty, and it's also his job, to see this through.

Back at the station, phone company records show that the irritating late-night calls to Hobbes' apartment were made from the murder scenes, right around the time the victims were killed. Hobbes is thinking copycat (or copycats) at this point more than ever. His lieutenant points out that every time he changes his phone number and gets the calls anyway, it looks more and more like someone inside the police department is circulating information to the caller(s). The translation of the Aramaic arrives, and we get to hear John Goodman say--reading from it--"I'll fuck you up and down, left and right--that's in the Bible." Goodman, like Denzel Washington and Elias Koteas, work overtime to elevate the screenplay without apparent effort. It's a neat trick.

At a bar while the climax of Freaks plays on the TV (I usually just see sportsball on the television when I'm anywhere that serves booze myself) Hobbes is spending his evening reading up on demonology and sipping domestic beer. He's being followed by the yellow POV Dutch tilt camera. He seems to notice that he's being followed, but when he turns around there's nobody there. Turns out it's the beefy guy from earlier, and there's no way that dude could hide easily. During a research session back at his apartment, it looks like Azazel is possessing a cat to stalk him, which makes me wonder where the chunky dude is while the demon's out attending to business.

And Azazel's got something up his sleeve, because he transfers himself from the cat to a chain of people at the precinct house in a demonic game of Button, Button. While possessing Lou the friendly jerk cop he pumps Hobbes for information, and then hops from person to person singing "Time is On My Side" to let the detective know exactly what's going on. It's a pretty damned good suspense scene. Hobbes tips his hand by telling Azazel he knows who the demon is (in Syrian Aramaic, no less) and we get a scene where the fiend shows its power by hopping between a dozen or so hosts in under a minute.

Back at the station, Hobbes starts to figure out the rules of demonic possession--asking Lou why he decided to start singing gives him a clue when Lou says he remembers two other people doing it but he wasn't involved in the ominous singalong. So whatever people are doing when Azazel takes the wheel, they won't remember it (we know this because of previous scenes, but now Hobbes has that information as well). He goes back to Gretta Milano for information, and after a little bit of rigamarole she tells him flat-out that Azazel is a demon that exists without a body and that all the fiend's killings and possessions are attempts for it to strike back at a creation that it hates.

Hobbes isn't having any of it, claiming skepticism and facts hold sway over him more than superstition and nonsense. But everything that Milano tells him fits the evidence he's already seen with his own eyes, and the next information he gets makes him feel even worse. Azazel tried to possess him, but wasn't able to (I'm assuming at this point due to Hobbes' inherent goodness). So, robbed of the easy way to ruin Hobbes' life the demon will be trying for a more complicated scheme. And the person telling him this is on the way is one whose father shot himself as the final act in the demon's plan.

But Gretta has a powerful grudge, and she's been learning everything she can about demons for decades. And she might have figured out circumstances in which they could be killed. Unfortunately for her she's been observed, and Azazel thinks she looks a little familiar. Her attempt to flee could have been a fantastic scene but the shaky-yellow-camera shots intrude as a chain of people all reach forward to tap someone else in a massive line in an urban crowd. At this point, the audience should be trusted to understand what's going on, honestly. She hides out in a church and Hobbes finds her; they talk about the task ahead of them if they're going to try and actually destroy Azazel and the detective says that they shouldn't talk again if they're being monitored by a body-hopping evil spirit.

The lieutenant, back at the cop shop, lets Hobbes know that one of the coins he's been fidgeting with at various points in the narrative has been found at a murder scene, with plenty of his fingerprints on it. Hobbes points out that it's impossible for him to be at an apartment, kill someone, call his own phone and then pick up the phone in his own home at that point. He and the lieutenant know that it's a frame job but don't know what to do about it (and Hobbes knows that if he tells his superior officer about body-hopping demons that are connected to the Milano suicide from twenty years before he's looking at a psychiatric hearing at best).

Hobbes gets the afternoon off and through a chain of misdirections confronts his nephew's friend Toby, possessed by Azazel and leafing through his address book outside the apartment. The demon says he'll be going after Hobbes' friends, family and acquaintances in retaliation for the detective poking his nose into infernal business. During the foot chase, Toby smacks into someone else and this time Azazel lucks out--that guy has a gun in his car and opens fire on Hobbes in broad daylight. As an absolute last resort Hobbes shoots the possessed gunman, and finds out that the demon can leave a dying host and go to another person at will, even without touching them. The new possession victim says that the demon's having too much fun to just kill Hobbes at this point.

And the news gets worse for Hobbes when it turns out the guy he shot was firing blanks at him, and stole the gun before pointing it at the detective. Lieutenant Stanton is deeply concerned about how this will look for the department (and when he finds out the shooter was happily married and just got a raise at work, he rules out suicide by cop conclusively). He turns his gun in for the internal affairs team's examination and goes home after a brief existentialist conversation with Jonesy.

And at home he calls Gretta again; they share information. It turns out that Ms. Milano didn't know that Azazel or other demons could hop to another body when their current vehicle dies but consulting old texts gives them a limitation on Azazel's power. When his current victim dies he will fade into nothingness if he doesn't find someone else to possess within 500 cubits. Which is quite easy to do on a crowded urban street but up to this point neither Hobbes or Milano has spotted any flaws in Azazel's armor. It's better than nothing. And besides, all the best monsters have some kind of weakness.

And Hobbes is going to need that knowledge. Azazel causes his brother Art to be poisoned somehow or other (the detective finds the syringe in his brother's bed along with his body). At the same time, the morning news reports feature "witnesses" to the shooting that report seeing Hobbes shoot the teacher first and often; forensics would clear his name eventually but the court of public opinion would want him buried under the jail. Hobbes and his nephew escape out a back (second-floor) window while Lou comes to bring him back to the police station at the front door.

While trying to make some kind of a poorly thought out break for it, Hobbes gets made by a beat cop, punches the dude out and runs. While hiding in a homeless encampment Hobbes has to break the news to his nephew that his father is dead and the kid takes it pretty well, all things considered. They wind up at Gretta's as the snow falls outside, for lack of any other alternatives. Hobbes does some research and there's some pans across Bible pages and notepads. He comes up with a plan based on what he knows about Azazel's powers and weaknesses, and even some of the demon's strengths. He knows that for whatever reason he couldn't be possessed when Reese shook his hand way the hell back in the first act, but whenever Azazel leaves a dying host he can possess anyone.

Which makes it really significant that he says goodbye to Gretta and his nephew before he goes off to do whatever his plan is. Which involves going to the deserted cabin with a pack of cigarettes, and throwing his car keys into the snow. Later that night another car shows up; it's going to have Azazel's latest victim in it. Hobbes doesn't know who it is, so he throws a little trash talk out in Aramaic and sees Lieutenant Stanton walk away from the newly arrived car. A brief conversation between the superior officer and the detective reveal that Stanton has absolutely no idea what Hobbes is alluding to when he's asking what the fun is in just shooting him at this point. And then Jonesy walks up as well, and Hobbes realizes he doesn't know which man is the possessed one, or if either of them is.

He figures it out when his partner shoots his shift commander in the temple, and the audience is treated to some vintage John Goodman yelling and eventually Jonesy's got a bullet in his gut and bleeding out while the demon hears the full plan--Hobbes is smoking a poisoned cigarette so that he'll die after he gets possessed. And with nobody else around for 500 cubits it looks like Azazel is well and truly fucked.

But, when all is said and done, this is a horror movie and not an action one. There's one more trick that the audience knows Azazel can do that Hobbes doesn't know anything about. It's a little bit of a cheat to use Denzel Washington as the narrator when he's not going to make it to the end credits, but the movie established exactly how the final situation was going to be set up and it plays fair with the resolution.

Which is really, really bad news for Gretta Milano when Azazel makes his way back to the city.

I've often joked that every actor needs a horror movie somewhere on their resume (you can see Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun, for example, although I wouldn't expect a review of that one on the Checkpoint any time soon if I were you). And by and large everyone acquits themselves quite well in this flick. It's about fifteen or twenty minutes too long, but it plays exceptionally fair with the characters as well as the audience. It could stand to play the "crazy tilted yellow camera" card a few less times and I'm not entirely sure what the deal was with Hobbes' brother Art and why he's always wearing a bathrobe in his scenes.

But there's something really cool about good actors giving a well-crafted script their all. Nobody phones it in during this one and it does have one really great chilling moment that hit me partway through the film. If people don't remember what they're doing when the demon is running the show inside their skull, Edgar Reese woke up after a five year long blackout and was in a gas chamber taking his last breath. No idea if the screenwriter thought of that or not but it sure did make my blood run cold.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fantastic Argoman (1967)

Written by Lewis E. Cianelli, Vincenzo Flamini, John Davis Hart and Dino Verde
Directed by "Terence Hathaway", or Sergio Grieco if you want the name on his drivers' license

Roger Browne:  Sir Reginald Hoover / Argoman
Dominique Boschero:  Regina Sullivan / Jenabelle
Eduardo Fajardo:  Shandra the Butler

This one drops the viewer in the middle of the action--in the shadow of a matte painting of the Great Wall of China, a white dude in yellow tights, a black mask, briefs and gloves, and a really unimpressive-looking short red cape gets marched out into a field by a small detachment of Chinese army troopers. They aim rifles at him but through the magic of a voiceover repeating "Kill each other" during a closeup on the visor in his mask, the soldiers all murder the shit out of each other and he steals their officer's staff car in order to drive away (apparently all the way to Russia, as the next scene implies) while his theme song plays on the soundtrack, apparently performed by a community college marching band.

In a big important room full of big important Soviets they're all telling each other how clever they were to hire Argoman--apparently some sort of mind-controlling jerkoff for hire--to destroy the Chinese nuclear weapons program. Even better, the Chinese killed him so they don't even have to pay his fee! Then Argoman parachutes onto the balcony and informs the Soviet officers and politicians that he'll be relieving them of Peter the Great's personal snuffbox as a memento of his adventure. Then we cut to the streets of London (and this sequence, at least at the beginning, looks like it was shot in Swinging London at some inconvenience and expense--though soon enough things might as well just be stock footage of the city). The credits also personally thank the personnel of a company called "HOVERCRAFT ENGLAND", so the thirteen-year-old boys of all ages immediately look forward to seeing a hovercraft.

So the next thing we see is a smashed and empty display case that does not contain the Crown of St. Edward (I think--the DVD I have of this movie was ripped from a VHS tape and the soundtrack is pretty mushy), in a room that probably was not shot on location at the Tower of London. Inspector Lawrence gripes that the Home Secretary keeps bothering him while he's getting stuck with bizarre crimes and that he's tired of getting yelled at by high-level politicians. His suggestion that England just gets a new crown whenever they need to have a coronation probably doesn't go over real well.

In a flat somewhere else, mastermind international criminal genius Jenabell, Queen of the World, talks to her hench about how relatively easy it was to swipe the crown and there's some discussion of Scotland Yard calling in Sir Reginald Hoover as a civilian advisor on the case. He's helped the Yard solve other high profile cases in the past and they'd like his help now. Jenabelle is mildly concerned that a decadent playboy interloper might be able to interfere with her scheme but thinks that she's much smarter than Hoover and that there isn't too much to worry about. Incidentally, I now know of a name just as ridiculous as "Renesmee". Her flamboyant outfits are a continual delight over the course of the film, and one of the few aspects of the the film I can enjoy on its own terms.

It appears that Hoover knows what he's doing, though; in his painfully mod swinging bachelor pad he's got the original Mona Lisa (a forgery is hanging in the Louvre, and since the art lovers of the world never noticed the switch he isn't going to put the real painting back any time soon). His butler engages him in a painful exposition dump barely disguised as a conversation; Hoover was raised in the American west and likes danger although he's really from England. His superpowers make his life of adventure a little too easy for his tastes, but he isn't a big enough fan of fair play to not use them when his life is at risk. He calls Inspector Lawrence to gossip about the case; Lawrence suspects that only Argoman would be capable of such a dastardly deed. Hoover mentions that the Chinese executed the adventurer and Lawrence says that would be great news if it was true. Until it's confirmed, Lawrence will be prudent and post a massive cash reward for Argoman's capture.

Hoover then holds his breath for 38 minutes at the bottom of his indoor pool to keep in practice. I don't know what he is practicing, but during the following conversation he tells his butler that he loses his superpowers for six hours every time he has sex. Hoover leafs through his little black book via TV remote control and calls up a woman named Samantha, who is taking a bath (and apparently has a closed-circuit camera aimed at her in the tub in case Hoover feels like making a booty call). She says she'll be right over for a drink.

Seconds after Samantha leaves the tub wrapped in a fur-lined Snuggie, Hoover stares off into the distance and psychically notices a hovercraft near his swank bachelor pad. He telekinetically takes control of the boat and steers it towards the beachfront that his sex bunker is located on, then lifts the woman no longer in control of the hovercraft out of the cabin and into his lap! It's a scene so jaw-droppingly misogynist that even the people making death threats against Anita Sarkeesian would find it creepy and off-putting. And that's before Hoover challenges his kidnap victim to an archery contest where she gets a Rolls Royce and jewelry for winning, and has to have sex with Hoover if she loses. Argoman is the living avatar of rape culture. Even worse than Hoover's reprehensible plan is the movie's insistence on treating him as a dashing hero rather than a kidnapper and sexual predator. The era of James Bond as stylish hero has ever so much to answer for. Even skeezier:  the room for Hoover's archery game has the car and jewelry behind one automatic door and his sex swing behind another--it's like the worst "The Price Is Right" game in history. Even the director must have thought this sequence went too far; Regina the kidnap victim takes another shot at the target and wins effortlessly, walking off with the emeralds.

Oh, and Hoover's also being played like a fiddle by the woman he abducted--she gives her name as Regina Sullivan but she's Jenabell, and is dressed in what I can only describe as Penelope Pitstop cosplay. And just to prove that she means business, she returns the stolen crown with a signed note demanding that she be given the Muradoff A-4 within six hours or she'll do...something. She also signs the note "Jenabell, Queen of the World". And the street cop with Inspector Lawrence naturally wants to know what the Muradoff A-4 is, but Lawrence isn't cleared to tell anyone what the Muradoff A-4 does. That includes the audience at this point, naturally.

Samantha shows up in the next scene, as does Inspector Lawrence, who tells Hoover that Jenabell stole the crown from the first act, brought it back, and wants the Muradoff A-4 (not that he tells Hoover what it is). Security camera photos in the Tower of London caught Jenabell next to the display case right before the crown was stolen; Lawrence is off to the Continent for a crimestoppers' meeting and Hoover follows with Samantha along as his unwitting alibi (and the song that plays over the establishing shots of Paris is played in three different time signatures. There's mod and there's just badly handled, and this is definitely the latter).

At the international consortium of detectives and scientists, we get to find out what a Muradoff A-4 is! Hooray! It is a big diamond that looks like it should have numbers etched on it as Donald Trump's personal d20, and a professor says it should be destroyed to prevent its misuse by some criminal mastermind or other. It's a gigantic gem formed at the center of a nuclear test, with a "two-way gamma stream". What's that do? I'm glad you asked. If someone focuses light through the diamond and it hits inorganic material, it destroys molecular bonds and makes whatever it was as firm as Silly Putty. The group of high ranking scientists and law enforcement personnel says they'll defend the diamond to the utmost, which guarantees that Jenabell will have it in about an hour or so.

Meanwhile, at what certainly appears to be an actual location shoot at the Eiffel Tower, Hoover, Shandra and Samantha are openly talking about his superpowers, weaknesses and ability to track Jenabell. Nice job keeping that identity secret, you bozos. It also turns out that Hoover has a Geiger counter in his ostentatious and gaudy ring; that's useful because Jenabell's post-coital cigarette was radioactive (!) so the goofy spinning compass in the ring's secret compartment should be able to track her down. Which is not at all how Geiger counters work, but I don't care at this point. That's not true--I stopped caring about this movie long, long ago.

Jenabell robs a bank with a bunch of leather-suited henchmen and a trick cigarette full of knockout gas; Hoover tracks her to the bank with 18 minutes left on the post-orgasm super power timer. Samantha distracts one of Jenabell's henchmen by stripping down to her underwear and walking slowly; Hoover jumps in the van that they've got full of stolen cash and hides. He gets spotted before the 18 minutes are up and a cramped fight full of judo chops ensues. Exactly one second after the time elapses, Argoman appears in his bright yellow spandexed glory and punches the hench through the walls and roof of the van (proving that he's just as much of an asshole with his super strength as he is with his mind control and telekinetic powers).

Incognito, Hoover chats up Lawrence outside the French Science Building, just in time for Jenabell to drop tens of millions of francs on the country from an airplane and blackmailing the country into doing what she wants or she'll drop the country's entire cash reserves out of a presumably larger plane and bankrupt the nation. Sir Reginald gets pressed into service as the dropoff agent for Jenabell's ransom plans, griping about how little he wants to wear a bowler hat with a tweed suit (the way that the mastermind will recognize France's official capitulator to her scheme). Jenabell's agent has a bomb on the bus that will go up if there's any funny stuff; Argoman mentally compels a driver to smash into the bus as a way to get everyone innocent off the bus before he gets kidnapped and taken to Jenabell.

Jenabell reveals to Hoover that she knows he's really Argoman; in accordance with the proper hero-supervillainess rules of engagement they fix a pair of drinks and Jenabell offers Argoman a position as her consort. He appears to think it over; when we cut back from the police talking about how dire things have gotten the pair of adventurers are making out on the sofa. Argoman turns her down, and Jenabell sulks off to threaten Argoman by destroying his free will with the diamond. If I were a mind-controlling douchebag like Argoman I'd be terrified of tasting my own medicine. As it turns out Samantha's already been kidnapped and Jenabell will have her murdered by a robot if Argoman tries to stop her. Honestly, I'm kind of rooting for Jenabell because she has a robot and because Argoman is such a gaping asshole. Though we do get to see him use his telekinetic powers to push the "open door" button on an elevator in this scene.

Argoman defeats the robot by distracting it with his belt (yes, really), and frees Samantha from the obligatory "strapped down to a table in lingerie" pose that the filmmakers included for salacious purposes. Jenabell's already gone with the Muradoff A-4 by the time Argoman gets his shit together and she commits an act of treachery on the buyers for the atomic superdiamond, then drives off in her hovercraft. Meanwhile, Hoover tells Inspector Lawrence that he won't be able to help any more because he's too tired (yes, really) and scoots off to chase Jenabell down.

Back at her evil headquarters, Jenabell has changed into the loopiest outfit she's worn in the film so far and uses the super diamond to somehow create an android slave (the first of many; she plans to build an army of synthetic humans created to be perfectly obedient to her and then take over the world). Argoman tries to warn the Minster of Something I Didn't Catch of Jenabell's plan, when the official pulls a gun on the tights-wearing jerkoff and gets it telekinetically stolen and pointed right back at him. The treacherous bastard jumps out the window and Argoman hauls him back up with his mind-over-matter powers until a pair of cops come into the room and distract him; the Minister drops to his death for realsies.

Before the big finish, Hoover has to show up at a big impressive party and investigate who has already been bought off by Jenabell using his Geiger counter ring and natural smarmy charisma. Mid-party the lights go out and Argoman shoots a pair of traitors, then pummels some gendarmes and switches back to his civilian identity in order to provide a shaky and transparently fake excuse for Argoman's disappearance. The commander of "nuclear forces in Europe" has been kidnapped by Jenabell, and if he gets mind-blanked by the diamond she stole earlier she can blackmail the entire world into doing what she wants.

Hoover sneaks onto a train traveling third class but gets spotted by an agent of Jenabell's using the Andy Dufresne radio-and-gun-in-a-Bible espionage kit. A baroque assassination attempt follows; the killer shoots the engineer and tries to set up a locomotive crash to take out Argoman. It fails thanks to the telekinetic manipulation of a railroad switching system (a sentence nobody has every written before in English). Jenabell is back in her lair with a crowd of hypnotized diplomats and Argoman is running to the rescue. flopping his arms around in a manner that I find funnier than any of the intentional gags in the movie. And Jenabell's silver satin Medusa costume means that her continually escalating crazy outfits end on a high note. The villainess counts on Argoman killing all of her henchmen as a distraction while she tries to sneak off; he tracks her down and murders two of her body doubles while trying to find the authentic Jenabell.

The police show up just in time to try and tell Argoman they don't trust him and Jenabell places a conveniently timed Skype call to taunt him. Everyone runs outside to watch Argoman take control of stock footage of a plane, which explodes in midair. The forces of law and order thank Argoman for murdering the right people in order to save the world and he thanks them by stealing Lawrence's motorcycle. In the final scene, we find that Argoman has swiped the crown of St. Edward so that his squeeze can prance around in the bedroom wearing it; it's his latest trophy, although in this case nobody ever hired him to take care of Jenabell so he's just a thieving asshole.

Great googly moogly. Looking back at this one with nearly half a century's distance it just makes my skin crawl. Even the barest glance at the subtext is jaw-droppingly misogynist and the smirking approval that the film has for Argoman's reprehensible behavior from start to finish makes me sorry that the film exists. It's hugely mockable, of course, but the idea that anything the titular shit golem does was meant to be awesome and cool and smooth hurts my feelings. Perhaps the only thing that could be done with this material is give it to Matt Stone and Trey Parker and let them mock it to death by exaggerating just how mean-spirited and hateful it really is.

Plus the theme song is stuck in my head now, and I hate everything.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Delta Force (1986)

Written by James Bruner & Menahem Golan
Directed by Menahem Golan

Lee Marvin:  Colonel Nick Alexander
Chuck Norris:  Major Scott McCoy
Martin Balsam:  Ben Kaplan
George Kennedy:  Father O'Malley
Robert Forster:  Abdul Rafai

Also appearing (in the film and / or those tiny little actor face boxes at the bottom of the poster):  Joey Bishop, Lainie Kazan, Susan Strasberg, Hannah Schygulla, Bo Svenson, Robert Vaughn, Shelley Winters, Steve James, Kim Delany and an uncredited Kevin Dillon and Liam Neeson.

Well, here we are--watching some political science fiction for a roundtable celebrating the career of the recently departed Menahem Golan. With his cousin and corporate partner Yoram Globus, Golan carved a career out in the Roger Corman model--occasional prestige foreign imports and actors' vanity projects supported by a neverending conveyor belt of the finest American mass-produced cheese, a process accelerated and perfected when the pair bought Cannon Studios in the late 1970s. I've already cast a jaundiced eye towards two other films from this production team:  One of them a deeply personal and incoherent religious disco musical in the prestige mode, and the other a bargain basement franchise sequel celebrating vigilante murder. For this roundtable, I picked a movie I'd never seen before rather than going for one of their fad-chasing breakdancing or ninja movies. I figured the nicest thing I could do in Golan's memory would be giving one of his movies a brand new viewing rather than rewatch something I already knew.

As always, watching one of these "torn from the headlines" movies teaches me how little I was paying attention to current events when I was eleven. Many specific plot points in this film are cribbed shamelessly from an actual airplane hijacking and hostage situation in 1985; in the real world, the hostages were eventually released in a swap for more than seven hundred Shia prisoners held by Israel (something I don't remember getting brought up during the media fart-in-an-elevator commentary when Bowe Bergdahl made it back from Afghanistan).

But here in the magic land of Cannon Films, America got a do-over and sent in Chuck Norris to kill the hell out of turban-wearing Arab terrorists. Which is also an example of the "just like some other movie that made a ton, but cheaper" ethic behind B movie production--the second Rambo movie delivered on the promise of a re-fought Vietnam war where America got to win thanks to a weightlifter with a machine gun. One year later, a similar plot structure is used by Golan and Globus. Hey, there's no point leaving a perfectly good idea out there unused. Clint Eastwood directed one of those "Vietnam do-over" movies in 1986 himself, and Chuck Norris and Cannon got an early jump on the genre--actually beating Rambo to the punch--with the Missing in Action films, the first of which came out the year Ronald Reagan was re-elected.

The film starts with a Cannon films re-imagining of Operation Eagle Claw (the botched attempt to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran that was one of the milestones on the creation of the Delta Force). Viewing the movie three decades on from the incidents it shows, I have to wonder how many viewers in 2014 would know what the "Iran, Desert One, 200 Miles Southeast of Tehran" and "April 25, 1980, 4:00 AM" captions would signify. I'm sure that people who caught the movie in theaters knew exactly what was being depicted on screen but the timeliness of the material in 1986 makes it pretty opaque in 2014.

As soon as we know the exact date and time of the events, a landed helicopter explodes in a ball of fire. Several massive transport planes are waiting with their props running while dozens of American soldiers run from a working transport helicopter to the planes; granted, the mission was a failure in real life but I'm pretty sure the actual soldiers weren't wearing forest camo fatigues in the Iranian desert. Perhaps someone in Movie Army logistics should consider looking into that. Captain McCoy runs back to the burning helicopter to pull a trapped comrade out--and everyone, including the trapped soldier, warns him that the fuel tanks are going to explode in the helicopter. So what the hell blew up at exactly 4 in the morning, then? Pete the trapped soldier has his leg stuck under a jeep; McCoy lifts the vehicle up the crucial couple of inches that let his friend scoot his limb out from where it was trapped. The pair make it back to the transport plane in a landbound remake of the flying motorcycle scene from MegaForce (which makes this the first and only time anyone unironically referenced MegaForce in anything).

On the plane, the demoralized soldiers sit in silence while McCoy asks his commanding officer Colonel Alexander why the politicians and civilian leadership didn't listen to the soldiers when planning the operation. Given the success rate of civilian-planned wars of choice in the Middle East over the last decade and change, I'd say McCoy's got a really valid point here. McCoy says he plans to resign from the military when he gets back to the States and the movie then switches to Greece, five years later. Athens, July 19, 1985 at 7:45 in the morning, to be absurdly specific. And at the Athens International Airport, which makes perfect sense considering this is a based-on-true-events film.

At the airport, we get some better than competently done scenes introducing two Jewish couples vacationing in Europe and the flight attendants making their way onto the ATW 707 intercut with TOTALLY SUSPICIOUS ARAB DUDES (one of whom is Robert Forster in a white suit and tie and red shirt, looking swank as hell) making coded signals to each other in the terminal and one guy carrying a toolbox that gets a closeup although he does not. It's a pleasure to see a bunch of character actors playing off each other, including Academy Award winner Martin Balsam. I'm guessing the check for Death Wish 3 cleared because he's working for Cannon again and in a movie with a budget that's orders of magnitude higher. I've said it multiple times in the reviews on this blog but it bears repeating:  filmmaking is a craft as well as an art, and I have grown to really appreciate the no-bullshit competence of solid craftsmanship in a lot of the Cannon and Corman output. They might not have had a lot of time and money to get the films made (and I remember reading that Chuck Norris had to pack his own lunch when making the Missing in Action movies because the budgets were so low) but everyone's doing the best job they can and it shows. Plus, Alan Silvestri's score is nice and creepy during the most suspenseful paper-towel-refilling scene ever filmed.

Someone who came in straight from Central Casting listed as a "sweaty, desperate, obvious terrorist" causes a ruckus at the ticket counter, which lets the two other hijackers we saw earlier get on the plane without incident. I don't know if the third man was a planned diversion or just ordered a standby ticket accidentally but either way his making a scene lets the other two conspirators get on board without arousing any suspicion. The plane takes off and there's more character actor bits as people converse (a Russian immigrant chit-chats with George Kennedy's priest; also, given his cinematic resume, if you are in a plane and George Kennedy gets on it, take a later flight).

Mere seconds after the "Fasten Seat Belts" sign is turned off Robert bin Forster's character retrieves a pair of guns and a grenade from where they were stashed in the plane's bathroom and takes control of the plane (pistol-whipping not one but two stewardesses in the process). He grabs a stewardess and tries to get the pilot to open the cockpit door--which, in a moment of pants-shitting terror, smacks him in the arm and face while he's holding a grenade, sans pin. It doesn't go off, which means the movie will be longer than fourteen minutes. The pilot and crew capitulate immediately, and the navigator helps stick the pin back in the grenade to avoid catastrophe.

Abdul dictates terms to the pilot:  They're going to fly to Beirut, which will be done without contacting any air traffic controllers. The navigator says they don't have enough fuel to get to Lebanon; the chief hijacker says they'll fly towards Beirut till they run out of fuel. During all the confusion, the pilot flipped a switch that silently alerted Athens ATC that they'd been hijacked and the two controllers on the ground contact the American embassy in Greece to start spreading panic up and down the chain of command, depicted in a budget-conscious manner by voiceovers played over stock footage of an embassy building, the White House, the Pentagon, and so forth. General Woodbridge (Robert Vaughn!) gets in touch with Colonel Alexander and tells him to get his men ready and fly to Lebanon; they don't know yet if the Delta Force will actually be needed in Lebanon or not but they're going to start moving people into place as soon as possible so they don't get stuck with an eleven-hour flight to wherever they are needed eventually.

Back on the plane, the hijackers clear out first class and pack everybody into coach, with the men in window seats and women and children in the aisle seats (and aisles); there's also a moment where the hijacker that looks like a strung-out Zach Galifianakis talks to a seven-year old girl gently to show that they're not animals, just people using asymmetrical warfare to leverage political concessions out of a superpower. Through a bit of a contrivance, Sweaty Galifianakis Terrorist Guy finds a woman's wedding ring with a Hebrew inscription on it; when Abdul finds out there's an Israeli on the plane (or at least someone Jewish) he asks one of the stewardesses to identify which passengers are from Israel. She says--reasonably enough--that they don't keep those records for every single flight so Abdul gets everyone to surrender their passports. Three of the passengers are Navy divers and have a different kind of identification; Abdul hauls them into first class to keep an eye on them.

Abdul demands that one of the stewardesses pick out the Jews based on the passports that are now in a big messy pile on a first class seat; she refuses in general because she won't be a party to the murder of civilians and specifically because she's German and won't relive the psychotic break her country went through in the 1940s. This was another plot point taken from the real hostage crisis, and a cheap joke doesn't feel right in this paragraph.

Back at the Special Forces hangar, Captain McCoy shows up right before they're going to take off for Lebanon and Col. Alexander hands him a Presidential decree forcing him out of retirement and promoting him to Major, because in Cannon World only Saint Ronald Reagan had the requisite power to force Chuck Norris back into the Army, sweet mullet and all, in order to destroy the concept of terrorism. And at last there's a jingoistic loopy plot point of the type I'd been hoping for since the opening credits. Things were a little too serious and well-crafted for me to enjoy kicking the movie around.

Whoa, if I thought things were serious before they're WAY too bleak now--the hijackers summon four passengers with Jewish sounding names to the first class cabin and park them in seats there. Plenty of tearful goodbyes from all the men's wives, children, etc. keep the scene going forever while the score goes for Drama Points. And George Kennedy gets a neat moment where he--in full Roman Catholic priest's clothing--goes to talk to Abdul and says he's Jewish as well. And the sweaty bearded terrorist uses the opportunity provided by the four emptied seats in coach to make a reclining couch for a pregnant woman.

When the plane gets to Beirut, the Lebanese government forbids them to land, and even has jeeps and other vehicles park on the runways so that the 707 cannot set down without killing everyone on board (and the shot of all the cars and trucks pulling onto the runway, filmed from the air, cannot have been an easy one to get). The foreign minister from Lebanon personally denies permission for the plane to land over the air traffic control system, even when told that Abdul will blow the plane up and kill everyone on board if they aren't allowed to land. The minister relents when the second-banana hijacker starts beating one of the Navy hostages to death loudly enough to be transmitted via the cockpit mikes. And we get an even neater aerial shot of the runway as the vehicles pull away, filmed from the POV of the landing jet.

The Delta commandos are getting a mission briefing on the way to the Beirut airport; they're going to raid the plane in three squads, each with a different objective. There are only two terrorists so they should be able to overpower them easily and get control of the plane. McCoy asks how they know there's only two terrorists right before his commanding officer asks if there are any questions, which probably isn't the right order to do that in.

Abdul demands a full tank of aviation fuel so the 707's pilot can take off and go wherever the next part of the plan leads--the hijacker in chief hasn't shared that information with anyone diegetically yet. And the foreign minister, weasel that he is, decides that it's easier to spring for a tank of petrol for the jet and let them leave his country than keep them there and deal with any of the inevitable consequences. While the jet is fueling up, a dozen or more AK-47 toting members of the New World Revolution get on and the Jewish men (and Father O'Malley) and two of the three Navy divers are herded off the plane, blindfolded, and brought to a building identifies as "Terrorist Headquarters" in the film's captioning. They get stuck in a couple of jail cells at Terrorist Headquarters, apparently to be used as human shields or bargaining chips later if things go badly.

The ATW plane leaves Beirut and makes its way to Algiers; fast diplomatic work gets the Delta team permission to land in Algiers as well. But when they disembark, load their guns and do some stretching exercises before storming the plane the colonel gets a picture phone call from General Woodbridge; they're on hold until diplomatic talks break down completely. If the US government can get the hostages freed without any military action taken they're willing to do that and call it a victory. Frankly, so would I. The Delta Force soldiers get into position and go into hurry up and wait mode.

The women and children are released in Algiers, just as Abdul promised. He also frees the stewardess who had to pick the Jewish sounding passport names out. As a final insult to the hostages, the hijackers take all the money and valuables they had on them (although Abdul returns the Hebrew-lettered ring to the woman who had it). It's honestly a bit more balanced view of the hijackers than I expected--a Team America style group of lunatics jabbering "Derka derka" was what I thought I was going to get.

General Woodbridge, back in the States, gives the go-ahead signal to Alexander, who tells McCoy the mission is on (hey, the chain of command! Nice to see you! Normally you aren't anywhere near when action movies kick off their big sequences!), and unfortunately Alexander gave the green light a minute or so before he talked to the German stewardess and found out there's a dozen more armed men on the plane than he thought there were going to be. All the commandos have their radios turned off to avoid any of the terrorists eavesdropping. They refuse to return fire and bug out to safety. The big storming-the-plane sequence turns out to feature a bunch of bullet holes in Jeeps and an exploding fuel tanker.

Abdul shoots the Navy diver still on the plane and throws his body out onto the tarmac before the ATW jet takes off for Beirut again. The Delta Force plane is ordered to Israel, which is twenty minutes away from Beirut by the air and now, about halfway through the movie, we get to the military fantasy sequence--the President wants those hostages returned safely to America, and the soldiers are gonna go do that REAL GOOD!

As opposed to the actual Reagan administration, which sold weapons to one group of terrorists to give money to another group of terrorists, and which went along with the release of Shia prisoners in order to get the abducted TWA passengers in the real world back (I'm not actually criticizing the real-world handling of the hostage situation here, incidentally; it's good to get your people back alive and using that metric, negotiating with terrorists and conceding to their demands was definitely the right course of action).

Back on Planet Cannon Pictures, the Delta Force group trains in a decommissioned passenger jet in order to learn how to quickly breach the doors, gain entry, shoot the right people and take control of the cabin. In Beirut, the American hostages are herded into cells, lightly beaten and given newspapers that show the death of the Navy diver executed in Algiers. The plane captain gives an interview to the world media by sticking his head out the cockpit window and answering questions while one of the secondary hijackers holds a gun to his head (another thing replicated by the movie that happened in the real hostage situation).

McCoy makes his way through the Beirut airport posing as a Canadian TV cameraman (ever wanted to see Chuck Norris speak French? Here's your chance!); one assumes the other Delta Force members are being snuck in under similar and equally false pretenses. They do some recon with their contact, a bearded priest that's shown up in a couple of scenes here and there, and who knows where the American hostages are being held at Terrorist Headquarters. Also, it makes a lot of sense that an Orthodox priest wouldn't be suspected of being an Israeli secret agent. Abdul figures out something's up with the priest and captures him in mid-radio-report. The priest warns McCoy and his driver away, and during the ensuing interminably long car chase / gunfight, you will be overjoyed to learn that two cars run into fruit carts.

The priest's van wrecked in the gunfight / chase / escape sequence, McCoy and his backup are stranded but signal the Delta Force transport boat with their flashlight once it gets dark; the commandos disembark from the boat, McCoy provides intel on the three locations the hostages are being held (the plane and two spots in Beirut) and everyone sticks American flag patches on their right shoulders as the final preparatory step for the mission.

The final half hour of the movie is the Delta Force raid, in which the valiant discliplined Americans kill the sloppy, complacent, distracted terrorists to death. As a length mid-80s action sequence, it's pretty good but if you've seen one of them you're pretty well set for all of 'em. It's the busiest section of the film but the least interesting. Although as a minor point of interest for cinema historians, the POV shot representing the view through night vision goggles is not done in the "shiny green light" style popularized by The Silence of the Lambs; it's just sorta washed-out color footage with a gobo stuck on it in the shape of the goggles lenses to let the audience know what the shot is supposed to be representing.

And the production values for the final-reel assault are huge, especially for a second-tier studio like Cannon. Dozens of stuntmen and extras if not actually hundreds, thousands of blank rounds fired and squibs set off against buildings or in the dirt, explosions, a full body burn gag, exploding Jeeps and cars, and a motorcycle that fires rockets from the front windscreen (which means this movie also has the second thing anyone ever ripped off from MegaForce in it as well).

During the assault, the hostages from the second site are bundled out of the Terrorist Headquarters by their abductors and are on the road from Lebanon to Iran; the Ayatollah has offered the New World Revolution sanctuary in Tehran so they're beating feet for another country before the Delta Force kills them all. And now we get to the point I was anticipating, where all the Arabic character run around yelling "Derka derka falabala!" and run away from an exploding building or get shot. Of course McCoy's friend and subordinate is the only Delta Force member to get shot, and of course Norris gets a hand-to-hand fight scene with one of the terrorists during this sequence. All the secondary hostages are recovered at this point.

And because Abdul is the head bastard in charge of all the terrorists, he winds up getting run over with a motorcycle (indoors!), being on the receiving end of a full-service beatdown at the hands of Chuck Norris and blown up with a motorcycle-fired mortar shell. The rest of the commandos kill the perimeter guards at the airport and steal the plane back. Everyone's ready to leave and just like at the beginning of the film, McCoy is late to the extraction and winds up making use of the fifty feet of rope every good adventurer has with him to get on the plane and out of Lebanon along with all of the rescued hostages.

One last "I totally went to film school" ironic counterpoint in the film; Pete the sidekick dies while the hostages are drinking warm domestic beer and singing "America the Beautiful" while the plane leaves Lebanese airspace. It's hokey as hell but sincere as the day is long. And then it's time for the hostages to be reunited with their families when the plane lands in Israel while the soldiers bear the body of their comrade off to a transport plane. At least they're all already wearing black, so that saves a little time. Music soars, roll credits.

I'm disappointed. This movie wasn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be. Everything I've seen from Cannon is from their cheaper and more embarrassing years, but this was a real movie with well-compensated movie stars in it and everything. I'm not sure at all how it played in 1985 (it's got a 20% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which leads me to suspect that critics at the time were not kindly disposed to its similarities to a real-life hijacking and murder) but if it got two sequels, it had to have made enough money for the bean-counters at Cannon to justify giving the "go" signal two more times.

All of the actors keep from getting too cartoonish; the hostages, terrorists and commandos all could be catchphrase-vomiting screaming overplayers but that doesn't happen at all. There's multiple attempts to ground the characters in emotional reality and that is what I expected least of all from this movie. It's more than two hours long and it's much more like a disaster movie or a variation on Stagecoach with all the character stuck together surrounded by peril for the first 70 percent of the film. I absolutely did not expect the "this time we win" Beirut hostage movie to be more subtle and considered than The Apple but it genuinely was.

This review is part of the Celluloid Zeroes' "Cannon Fodder" roundtable in memoriam of Menahem Golan, who departed this world on August 8, 2014. He leaves behind a body of work that ranks among the best B movies ever made, and perhaps some of the worst as well. The other reviews in this roundtable:

Cinemasochist Apocalypse:  Exterminator 2

Micro-Brewed Reviews:  10 Minutes to Midnight

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  LifeForce

Monday, August 25, 2014

Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976)

Story by Stephen Manes and Tom Mankiewicz; Screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz
Directed by Peter Yates

Bill Cosby:  Mother
Raquel Welch:  Jugs
Harvey Keitel:  Anthony "Speed" Malatesta
Allen Garfield:  Harry Fishbine
Bruce Davison:  Leroy Watkins
And Larry Hagman as Murdoch

Man, I don't think this one could have been made at any other point than the mid-Seventies. The American movie industry follows trends, and I'd say there were two specific movies one could peg as this film's fossil ancestors:  M*A*S*H (dark medical comedy about people trying to save lives in an uncaring world) and Easy Rider (in which the protagonist refuses to sell out and join square society). Right around the time this movie was made the youth audience and the counterculture were driving Hollywood's business decisions, and that would change pretty drastically over the next couple of years as Jaws and Star Wars showed just how much money could be made by throwing A budgets and talent at B movies. The ripple effect from those two blockbusters hasn't really faded away forty years later--this summer alone the big releases were based on comics (X-Men and some Marvel C-listers), a Godzilla movie, a Hercules flick, and two different Michael Bay-produced feature adaptations of toy lines from the late 1980s. Yes, there are still small independent original movies being made, but they don't play in theaters for very long and they don't tend to get released in smaller markets. Which makes Mother, Jugs and Speed an example of the kind of movie they just don't make any more. And that's a real shame.

The film starts with a paunchy, jowly middle-aged man directly addressing the camera. He talks about how horrible the economy is and how society views the sick and the old as worthless, but to the employees of the F + B Ambulance company they're worth cold hard American cash. A camera pan shows that he's also addressing the F + B drivers, shifting the viewer's attention from the man giving the speech to the men listening to it. The white-coated employees sitting on a ratty old couch in the cavernous garage are paying varying but low levels of attention to the boss's speech, which is interrupted by siren blasts from one ambulance. An object lesson in what PG could mean in 1976 shows up as Harry Fishbine yells "Goddamn it, Mother!" at the man working on the siren and the speech eventually wraps up. By the way, Fishbine has the worst pants I've seen outside of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things in this scene. I'm not sure if horizontal zigzag stripes were ever popular in the Decade that Taste Forgot or if Fishbine's supposed to look ridiculous even by the nearly nonexistent standards of the time. I'm guessing the filmmakers want him to look like a shmuck, though.

Fishbine is the owner and boss of this tiny Los Angeles private ambulance company; I'm shaky on exactly how they collect fees but they charge $42.50 plus half a buck per mile to transport injured people to hospitals. Even four decades ago forty bucks wasn't all that much money, so part of Fishbine's speech stresses the need to be the first wagon to the scene of an accident once they get a call. Their rivals at the Unity Ambulance Company cover some of the same territory and are a similarly fly-by-night operation. And since they're on such a shoestring budget, F + B can't afford the best and the brightest as their employees; they're stuck with whoever has an EMT certification and can't find a job somewhere better.

The first time we see anyone from F + B on the job it's Murdoch, an incredibly creepy man who uses his job as a way to get his hands on women. He tries giving a pelvic exam to a professional wrestler with a broken leg in the back of the ambulance and immediately shows the general caliber of Fishbine's employees. Bill Cosby as "Mother", in a performance I genuinely did not expect him to have in him, is far and away the best driver and EMT that Fishbine could have hoped for. His first scene in action is carting away a dead heroin addict sprawled out in his jockey shorts in a dingy pit of an apartment. A character that I presume is his girlfriend just wants the body taken away and is prepared to pay the $42.50 up front, but Mother gently breaks the news to her that until a doctor or someone from the LA fire department officially declares the OD victim to be dead he can't legally move the body to his ambulance. The woman displays more regret over finding out that there's going to be consequences with the law than she is over the dead man less than ten feet from her. And it's apparent from the way Mother deals with her quickly and gently that he's seen this happen many, many, many times before.

But he's still got enough of his soul left uncorroded that he's treating the other addict as a human being rather than just an inconvenience in doing his job. He gets called away from that body removal to go to another one where an alcoholic woman died mid-bender at a tavern; he throws the policeman who called F + B a five dollar kickback for getting the job and grumbles that he's not used to paying more than three for this sort of thing. He and his assistant Leroy return to the first apartment and cart away the overdosed man, poaching the body back from the Unity drivers who got there while they were attending to the dead alcoholic (and showing that he outsmarted the heroin-addicted woman by hiding the case with the lethal needle and drugs in it after she tried stashing it somewhere else). Leroy has kept himself busy outside the apartment letting the air out of two of the Unity ambulance's tires while Mother's been talking to the cops, the Unity crew and the junkie so even if the police were likely to let the Unity crew take the body away and collect the fee they wouldn't be able to. The whole movie has that weird semi-tragic tone, with one-lung ambulance companies using dirty tricks and kickbacks in order to outmaneuver each other for jobs like carting away dead alcoholics.

The next vignette involves a middle-aged black woman who falls and breaks her hip at a card game; she has the bad luck to get Murdoch as the primary EMT. He's not strong enough to lift her onto the board (or her and the board onto the stretcher); he needs help from two of the other women at the card game just to get her on the stretcher and the stairway in the apartment building is so narrow that getting her down to the ground floor is a struggle. The second EMT breaks through the rotten stairs in the apartment building and poor Helen, strapped to a gurney with a broken hip, takes a ride down two and a half flights of stairs and a hill in San Francisco before smacking into a car headfirst and coming to a stop. (Her friend at the card game:  "I think you just blew that $42.50, baby." Yeah, that's a safer bet than anything that was likely to happen playing poker.) Just to put one more layer on the day's shitcake, the second EMT gets bitten by a rat while stuck waist-deep in the stairwell and Murdoch isn't strong enough to pull him out of there either. They wind up having to call a completely different ambulance to get themselves out of there.

We return to another F + B crew and Mother criticizing Leroy for smoking pot on duty because it's illegal and because it makes you look stupid. He tries to convince him that drinking (and driving) is much better, and sips from a beer while having a one-sided conversation with his co-pilot about the hazards of marijuana. Again, this movie was rated PG. I can't imagine that a movie made in the current decade would let even an antihero drive drunk while running an ambulance. In this same scene, Mother guns the engine, lights and sirens while charging a group of nuns trying to cross the street--Leroy warns him that the nuns have complained to Fishbine repeatedly and that he's going to go to Hell when he dies for teasing them every time he drives by and sees them. Mother replies--seriously, as far as I can tell--that they love it when he scares the hell out of them because they don't have any kind of sexual outlet and this is the closest they'll ever get.

The next morning at the F + B offices, Murdoch tries to get Jugs to go to a Cat Stevens concert with him and is just as successful as you'd think at that. She tells him that her name is actually Jennifer and when he switches to that she says the answer is still no. Mother comes in and calls her Jugs, but she doesn't mind--possibly because he's a weirdo to everyone and because his "harassment" is more a sign of mutual fondness than actually trying to get into her pants. Fishbine chews Mother out for bothering the nuns the previous night ("They eat it up, Harry, believe me.") and gives his boss and the ambulance-chasing lawyer in the office a great deal of shit before going out on his rounds. And outside waiting to see the boss is Anthony Malatesta, a young police officer who drove an ambulance in Vietnam for three years. Fishbine praises the fine young men who fought in the war and runs down the hippies who protested it back in the States while Malatesta says he hated being there and thought the war was stupid and immoral. The blowhard backs down--sort of--on the war conversation. Malatesta also says that he's on suspension from the LAPD because he's suspected of selling cocaine to children; of course he says he didn't do it because nobody would admit to that but Fishbine pretty transparently doesn't buy it. The boss man hires him on the spot and assigns Malatesta to Murdoch's ambulance, since the other EMT that would be working with him is in the hospital with a broken leg and rabies. One gets the feeling that all the other drivers for F + B were also the first warm bodies that walked in when a position was open.

Malatesta winds up going on a regular trip to bring an old sick man to a hospital--according to Murdoch's astonishingly callous and wrong-headed running commentary he's worth a great deal of money to F + B because of the dozen or so times every month that he needs emergency treatment for whatever it is that he's got. Mr. Klein dies in the back of the ambulance during Murdoch's speech, and during the rest of the shift the unfortunate new guy has to listen to Murdoch's casual misogyny and horrifically inflated sense of self worth. Malatesta also declines to join in on that night's betting pool; throwing in a fiver lets you pick a number, and if the F + B crews bring that many dead bodies in by midnight you get the pot.

Back at the station he goes for one of those walk-on-the-city-streets-at-night-while-a-ballad-plays scenes and tries to figure out just what the hell he's doing on this job; Mother sneaked a look at his paperwork earlier and told everyone that he sold speed to kids (resulting in his nickname; Malatesta is the third person in the titular trio). He happens to walk by a bar where Jennifer is drinking alone and goes in to strike up a conversation with her. There's actually something of a spark when they talk somewhere other than work and we learn that Speed took the job because he isn't getting paid while he's on suspension and isn't qualified to do anything else. Their conversation gets interrupted by Murdoch showing up and saying they have a Code Three at the university; I'm pretty sure that ambulance drivers and their friends get used to conversations getting cut off by the job.

The Code Three turns out to be a drug overdose at a dorm room; the young woman is fading quickly after taking a handful of Seconal. Murdoch lets Speed drive to the hospital after being a jerk about wanting to have the wheel on the way to the university. It turns out he really just wanted some quality time alone in the back of the ambulance with an attractive college student too zoned out to know what he's doing. Speed figures out what's up early enough to prevent a rape and Murdoch manages to act like he's the victim when Speed stops the ambulance and hauls him out.

Mother and Leroy stop for some street meat at Barney's burger shack (located next to a McDonalds; Mother's authenticity is shown by rejecting the mass-produced garbage food for a hand-prepared meal of garbage food). He bullshits Leroy into paying for his dinner and they have a heart-to-heart interrupted by a call to get a dope addict in for voluntary psychiatric committal. Leroy wonders if he's ever going to make anything for himself carting bodies for Harry Fishbine while Mother tells him that there's an unprecedented amount of freedom working for F + B that he considers a tradeoff for the low pay and series of microaggressions and degradations that comprise every working day. Fishbine calls them over the ambulance radio and screams at them to get moving to pick up the dope addict.

One of those aggressions shows up when Leroy knocks on the door--there's no doctor waiting with the addict, like they were told would be, but there is Toni Basil with a shotgun robbing the EMTs for either morphine or Demerol. She knows what she wants, at least. Leroy finds out that honesty isn't all that great a policy when he tells the addict that the ambulance doesn't have any of the stuff she wants because they can't legally have it in the rig and he takes both barrels to the chest. Mother pulls a revolver out of the ambulance and fires a warning shot at the jonesing addict, who reloads the shotgun, misses Mother and hears the police sirens closing in. She takes the direct way out of the film, which I again note with some amazement was rated PG.

The LA County sheriffs show up (including the officer that told Mother about the dead alcoholic from earlier in the film), and a young by-the-book deputy says that when the slug from the addict's door frame is matched to Mother's gun he'll lose his ambulance drivers' license. The older cop immediately says the bullet is the biggest piece of buckshot he's ever seen and shuts the investigation down; I'm sure he figured Mother is in a bad enough place as things are. Mother, for his part, takes Leroy's body to the morgue himself as a way to salve his conscience--he told the other man to talk to the "doctor" at the addict's house while he got the gurney out of the back of the rig. On his way back to the F + B garage, he passes by the nuns without scaring the heck out of them, and as they cross the road in front of his ambulance the viewer can tell they're actually worried about him because he's not acting like a lunatic. It's strangely touching.

Murdoch is scooping up the dead pool money when Mother comes back in; it's midnight and he picked 8 as his number. One of the drivers who plans to go on to med school points out that Leroy makes nine dead bodies and that nobody picked nine. Murdoch says that Leroy doesn't count, which is exactly the wrong thing to say in Mother's presence at that precise moment in time.

I didn't know I always needed to see a movie where Bill Cosby throws a two-fisted beatdown on Larry Hagman until I watched this movie. And now that you know that exists I bet you're going to watch it too. In the aftermath of the fight and Leroy's death, everyone gets shuffled around a bit. Speed gets assigned to Mother's rig (over Mother's protests, and it's the one time in the film Fishbine doesn't let him do what he wants to do). And at the same time Jennifer's come in with her own EMT certification and ambulance drivers' license--solving the mystery of what she did with her nights after work. None of the speculation from her coworkers was even remotely on target for that, naturally.

Fishbine is desperate for drivers and doesn't need any more stress; Jennifer has already proven herself to be an invaluable member of the F + B team answering the phones and running dispatch. So of course he refuses outright to upgrade her to EMT and driver--and the scenes where he gripes about women are some of the most contemporary-sounding dialogue in the film, I'm sad to say. Jennifer drives off in an ambulance in a fit of pique; it turns out Speed was in the back lying on the gurney reading up on the state requirements for the job. Jennifer turns on the lights and sirens in order to fully experience the ambulance driving lifestyle and gets an unwelcome offer of help from a pair of police officers who see her driving alone and want to help out. Unfortunately she didn't have a destination in mind and needs to find a person in need of medical attention very quickly or she's looking at the loss of her EMT certification and ambulance drivers' license at the very least. A call back to the office is no help (Mrs. Fishbine refuses to believe that there are any phony patients that F + B uses in order to scam money from Los Angeles county) and Jennifer continues to drive on in the hope that something will turn up. She manages to escape the police "helping" her long enough to pull into an alley and some quick thinking from Speed means that 1) she doesn't get arrested and 2) we see Harvey Keitel in his underwear before Raquel Welch. The start of a workplace romance blossoms (and we get to see the ambulance parked by the beach alongside all the other romantic couples' cars).

The next day, Mother and Speed are out doing their rounds when the ambulance radio picks up a Unity call--Mother's bone-deep deviousness is revealed once again as the F + B rig speeds to (and over) a golf course to pick up a concussed golfer. At least one of the golfers is a doctor, and his inexpert treatment of the man who got smacked in the head with a line drive sends him into shock. Mother berates the doctor and improvises a way to keep the accident victim's head immobilized on the stretcher, but the Unity ambulance shows up (and that company's drivers show just as much care for the greens as Mother did, of course). The doctors ("Christ, it's Wednesday. You must all be doctors.") are useless and need to be yelled at before they can help treat the stricken man as he goes into a seizure; Albert the Unity driver helps stabilize him--both the F + B and Unity crews know that they're there to help the guy, and besides, nobody gets paid if he dies on the scene. And while Albert, Mother and Speed are busy saving a life the second crewman from Unity is letting the air out of two of Mother's tires. Turnabout is fair play, but it's also irritating as hell when you have it happen to you.

Back at the office, Fishbine harangues Jennifer about when she plans to return to the switchboard since he has no plans to let her drive a rig. She says she talked to the crooked lawyer from the first act and that if Fishbine won't let her drive, she'll sue him and bankrupt the company--although it doesn't look like that would be much of a change for F + B. Mother thinks that she should be allowed to drive and recommends that Speed be partnered with her. Fishbine says she needs training and Mother is the best person in the county for that, though Mother doesn't want any women in his ambulance unless they're in the back on the gurney. The logistics are eventually worked out where all three of the title characters are in the ambulance so that Jennifer and Speed get a crash course in emergency medical care and Mother isn't driving alone, which is illegal. He's also pretty sulky about having to have three people in his ambulance, but he's got a good point about running out of room for the patient.

The trio's first emergency call is a doughy older man who caught his junk in his zipper. Mother takes great delight in telling Jennifer she's the one who has to get him unstuck, but also makes the extremely valid point that an EMT doesn't get to pick and choose which people they're going to treat. Then we get one more "how in the hell was this rated PG" moment where Mother visits a sleazy massage parlor to get a backrub with a pair of vibrators and give the working girls shots of vitamin B. The third act plot points all pile together here--while they're waiting outside the Institute for Sexual Awareness, Jennifer and Speed make small talk and Jennifer sees that Speed has a telegram in his shirt pocket. He's been reinstated by the LAPD and hasn't decided whether or not to go back. Then a call comes in that a woman at a supermarket is going into labor and the duo decides to let Mother continue getting his backrub and take care of it themselves.

Jennifer knows the closest hospital to the supermarket, but she doesn't know that they aren't equipped to deliver a child in their emergency room; they put her back in the ambulance and speed off to the county hospital. Before they can get there, the woman delivers her child. Something goes wrong and she hemorrhages to death in the back of the rig; she speaks Spanish so Speed and Jennifer can't even talk to her as they try to treat her and fail. And it's down to Mother to show why he's the best EMT in the county--he tells Jennifer, truthfully, that there's nothing anyone could have done with the equipment in the back of that ambulance to save the woman's life. If Speed drove an ambulance for the army for three years in a war zone he can't be a stranger to death (even if he isn't expecting it in the civilian world), but it's a completely new and devastating experience for Jennifer to deal with. And it's obviously a lesson that Mother had to learn on his own, but giving the benefit of his experience to the newest driver is the only gift he can give. And she decides to stick with the job, so it worked.

And finally we get to the big city council meeting that's been teased through the movie--where we find out whether Unity or F + B are going to get their contract renewed and be allowed to continue serving Los Angeles County. Plenty of trash talk and mutual disparagement of both firms takes place, and then the councilman lowers the boom--neither company is capable of serving the area so neither one will get the contract, which means both of them are going to go under. The head of Unity proposes a merger so that both companies can survive and the clearly unprepared city official says that should work after a probationary period to make sure that the new ambulance company can actually do the work. The meeting is interrupted when an emergency call comes in at a familiar-sounding address. It's the headquarters for F + B; Murdoch is there drunk out of his mind, marinating in self-pity and waving a revolver around. He threatens to kill Mrs. Fishbine and even takes a shot at her, but misses from less than five feet away.

The police who show up happen to be the sheriff and deputy that have been at the fringes of the story for the whole dang movie; either they're the bottom feeders of the LA County sheriff's department or they're just stationed near the F + B headquarters. Walker (the EMT who got a broken leg, rat bites and rabies) somehow manages to light the office on fire while attempting to enjoy a cigar. Everything gets confused and noisy, Speed gets shot in the shoulder and Murdoch winds up with Mother dead in his sights but out of bullets. And then the deputy shoots him in the back, just after the audience learns that he's no longer a threat. A dozen and a half SWAT officers surround the perimeter just after they might have been needed. They trudge back to their deployment van sullenly and drive off.

Time--at least a little of it--passes. The Fishbine + Unity Ambulance Company is trying to make a go of it; Mother and Jennifer are in one rig. Speed is back as a detective and the head of Unity and Fishbine plow through the paperwork--and Harry's making a good-faith effort to be nice (even offering to make coffee for his new partner). And showing that he's got his groove back, Mother takes the opportunity to scare the crap out of some perfectly innocent nuns again. Roll credits over the same song that played over the opening. The beat goes on.

Hollywood films in the blockbuster era are all about winners. Rocky Balboa went from being someone proud just to go the distance in his first movie to singlehandedly winning the Cold War in the fourth one. With studios trying to make huge returns on huge expenses there isn't really room for stories about desperate blue-collar people just trying not to lose. The movie's also tonally all over the place, sometimes within a single scene. But I enjoy that aspect of the film. I think it reflects what an EMT's job would have to be like. Some times you're cleaning up after a traffic accident and some times you're helping someone get unglued from a vase. The film's a little slice-of-bottom-feeding life drama, with all the characters shifting allegiance when trying to needle each other and with Mother acting as a sarcastic weirdo to everyone. They don't make 'em like this any more, even if there's an audience for films that don't fit into a neat little category (and this film was successful enough that a pilot was shot; ABC showed it as a special but it never went to series). Despite the wall-to-wall sexism--the element that will make viewers in 2014 shake their heads sadly, over and over, it's got plenty of merit. You could do a lot worse, even if the employees of the ambulance companies probably can't.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pontypool (2008)

Written by Tony Burgess, adapted from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything
Directed by Bruce McDonald

Stephen McHattie:  Grant Mazzy
Lisa Houle:  Sydney Briar
Georgina Riley:  Laurel-Ann Drummond

I like being able to find connections between various pieces of art in the B movie world--it's fun to see the ways things are connected and to be able to tell if a director you like has read some of the same books you have (I strongly suspect that a young James Cameron read the Colossus novels as well as Harry Harrison's Deathworld books, and if you've read them you probably do too). So when I saw the oscilloscope wave in the middle of a black screen at the start of this movie I figured the filmmakers were tipping their hat to "The Outer Limits". Then the speaker began talking about someone denting their car on a bridge while swerving to avoid hitting a missing cat and I became certain in my own mind that the people behind "Welcome to Night Vale" have seen this movie. The tone of voice is quite similar, and the disparate facts being drawn together and explained, the irrational made rational for just a moment by describing it so flatly? That's Night Vale all over, with maybe just a touch of Professor Hess in the mix for a little variety.

Things get off to a disorienting start as a middle-aged white dude is driving at night through whiteout snow conditions in the middle of nowhere. The audience hears his half of the conversation as he fires his agent (he's a performer of some kind, then) and snaps his cell phone shut, muttering about of that makes two of them. He stops his car at a stoplight and a woman comes out of nowhere and slaps his window with her ungloved hand; the man startles, as you would, and can't quite make out what the woman is saying through the window glass. By the time he recovers his composure enough to roll down the window she's gone into the night. And the sound design in this scene is interesting--half a phone conversation, a droning DJ reading obituaries on the radio and the muffled voice from the woman followed by the echoing voice from the man all sound slightly different, layered and overlapping. It's always nice to watch something and instantly realize that some care and effort were spent on it in post-production.

The man pulls into a reserved parking space (revealing that his name is Grant Mazzy) and turns out to be the morning disc jockey on AM 660, a radio station out past the middle of nowhere. He pulls up and walks inside the church building that houses the studio as a pretaped segment with his voice rolls out onto the airwaves, ironically stating that he's on the air just as he should be. He greets his technician, Laurel-Ann, who looks to be at least a decade younger than he is and who has a thermos full of nice strong coffee for him. He adulterates it with liquor and says good morning to Pontypool, the community that the radio station services. And he's got a fantastic voice for radio storytelling, to be sure. His producer Sydney Briar joins him for some early morning radio talk and we get a fragment of Laurel-Ann's backstory--she served in the military in Afghanistan before returning to Pontypool and working at the radio station. There's some neat gliding camera movements in this scene, keeping things from getting too visually uninteresting with the three characters stuck in one location.

The heavy snowfall outside is predicted to last the entire day; there's some banter with the traffic helicopter pilot that Sydney Briar cuts short (and another layer of communication--Grant Mazzy can hear his producer through his headphones and the movie audience can as well, but the radio audience listening to Grant in the film's universe cannot). He's got an awful working relationship with Briar, using big city, big-market talk radio language for a sleepy town that just requires sports, news, weather and school closings over its airwaves. Mazzy claims that angry listeners don't touch their dials in the middle of the show, and he might even be right. But his methods probably aren't right for sleepy towns in northern Canada. It's like imagining Glenn Beck on a full tears-and-divine-revelation-that-only-he-can-save-America bender while cutting the ribbon at a mall opening. With more than a little justification, Sydney tells him that he's coming across as an asshole. He is chastened and proud in equal measure, but in his next segment he does tone it down quite a bit (and tells the story of his drive in and the mystery woman, asking his listeners if he should have called 911).

There's a weird call in that Laurel-Ann can't interpret during this segment, and then the police scanner in the studio starts squawking about a hostage situation; Sydney tells the engineer not to send the story to Grant without more information (the wire services aren't talking about it and there's no corroboration at this point); unfortunately it's already been sent to the broadcast booth. After some exaggerated talk at first, Mazzy talks the situation down (claiming inebriation on the part of the hostage takers, the hostages and the police at the scene); during a commercial break Sydney gently lets him know that the police are actually alcoholics and trying to keep their jobs, and he's not helping. Oh, and one of the police is her ex-husband's brother.

Another commercial break, another segment interrupted. This time Ken Loney (whose "Sunshine Chopper" is really just him in his car or occasionally sitting on a hill to get a better view of the greater Pontypool metropolitan area) is watching a crowd of hundreds of people outside the office of a disgraced doctor, all of them trying to get into the building--at least, that's what it looks like until the outside wall of the building breaks, spilling hundreds more out into the crowd. Ken barely hangs on to his composure (and there's a blackly funny moment where Mazzy tries not to spoil the illusion of the Sunshine Chopper for the listening audience), and the traffic reporter stays at his post, describing the arrival of military vehicles and the certain death of people trampled by and in the surging crowd. Inevitably, his report is cut off in mid-exclamation.

And as he tries to get information out of the air, Grant actually drops the shtick and tries to report only what is known, working with his producer to reiterate that nothing much is known at the time and that further information is needed. While the production staff tries to figure out what's going on (there's nothing on the news wire services about the riot, either, and based on their reaction it should be getting mentioned), the cast of a community theater adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia has shown up for an already-scheduled publicity interview, in full costume. Sydney, over Grant's protests, tells him to interview the actors (plenty of great reaction shots from them during this scene) while she and Laurel-Ann frantically work to assemble a story that can be broadcast about what they think is just a big riot at this point.

The song from the local performers is pretty much what you'd expect from an amateur dramatic adaptation of a widescreen epic film; while the children in the chorus sing about the Bedouin desert, Sydney and Laurel-Ann work to gather information one way or another--and again, they notice that there's nothing coming in on the wire services, which doesn't make any sense because this is certainly a story that journalists would be reporting on.

They get plenty to report on soon enough--right after the performance concludes, one of the children complains that she can't remember the end of the play and that for some reason she thinks it's called The Lawrence and the Table, which she knows can't be right. Then she starts repeating the nonsense syllable "prah" over and over while her face goes blank. The troupe leaves and it turns out that the show's producer was so busy gathering information for Grant to broadcast that she missed the weirdness completely. An attempt to get listeners to call in doesn't work out--either the calls get dropped or the people calling in aren't making any sense. Sydney starts to assume that it's some kind of inexplicable prank being played on the station.

A live call-in from Constable Roseland (one of the police mentioned earlier from the "hostage situation" that turned out to be nothing) doesn't impart much more information, but it's another official source declaring that things in Pontypool are getting weirder by the hour. More calls come in and the trio of station employees try to piece things together--among other things, there's a massive gathering of people surrounding a car between Pontypool and the nearest other Ontario map speck town; the crowd is so large that police report the car they're mobbing hasn't been visible for over an hour. Whatever's going on outside is big and getting bigger, and the film's tight focus on the three broadcasters in a church basement is a fantastic way to heighten suspense and keep the viewer off balance. It's a nice chilling moment when BBC World calls in to the Pontypool radio station to talk to Grant for "breaking the story". Plus you get to see the utterly baffled look on Mazzy's face as he realizes how serious things must be getting.

The BBC wants to know if French-Canadian troops have set up roadblocks to stop people from getting in and out of Pontypool and blames Quebecois separatists for the disturbances. And wonder of wonders, Grant Mazzy decides to keep from fueling the rumors; he tells the BBC that as far as he knows there's nothing political or organized about the mobs, and that police are responding but he's only heard rumors of military involvement. And when he tells Nigel Healing--and I just bet that name was "Nigel Knealing" in the book--that he just doesn't know what's going on in the absence of official commentary, the BBC runs with the story anyway, claiming that there are a series of violent mob attacks in rural Canada without any explanation. He also calls it an "insurgency" without a scrap of corroboration.

A terrified Ken Loney calls in next, crying and talking about what he's seen--the herds of people have been degenerating into savagery. He says they've been eating people and that the look in their eyes is no longer remotely human. As he continues his live report two people are attacked and consumed by the mob; one of the attackers hears him and crashes through the wall of the grain silo that Ken's hiding in. And, realistically enough, his assailant breaks enough bones that he can't get back up and go after the Sunshine Chopper reporter. Ken, more curious than sensible, edges closer to the injured attacker so that he can hear what it's whispering. And then the signal gets washed out, with a broadcast in French overwhelming the signal.

Laurel-Ann translates the message on the fly (Canada being a bilingual country, it's safe to assume she'd know French) while Grant and Sydney try to figure out what the heck just happened. Grant throws a stack of disclaimers out on the air before reading the message to his audience:  "For your safety, please avoid contact with close family members and restrain from the following:  all terms of endearment, such as hugging; avoid talking with young children and rhetorical discourse. For greater safety, please avoid the English language. Please do not translate this message." Nice job, guys. While that message is going out, Sydney gets a personal call from Constable Roseland; they've been ordered to stay indoors at the studio because Pontypool is under quarantine.

Ken Loney calls back in, and things get weirder. He recognizes the person who attacked him--it's a teenaged boy who is calling for his mommy to help him in a tiny babylike voice. Grant has some kind of breakdown shortly thereafter and Sydney goes to an unscheduled commercial break to try and talk him down. Grant wonders if this is all some kind of weird prank on him, but that seems more like a psychological defense mechanism than anything else at this point. He decides that he needs to take a look outside and see if anything is actually going on in the world; this is also the first time in about forty minutes that the film has gone out of the basement studio. He doesn't even make it a full step out the front door when Laurel-Ann yanks him back inside and several people start slapping at the church door, each one repeating something from the conversation Grant just had with the show's producer.

Grant rises to the occasion, distracting Sydney from the danger they're in by telling her that her children are with her ex-husband 100 kilometers away in another city and they have a radio show to do. There's a surreal interlude where Grant does the list of morning obituaries, the sheer number of names becoming frightening, and euphemisms for people killing their family members playing over black and white footage of the victims standing, staring at the camera. A conversation between Sydney and Laurel-Ann turns ominous when the sound board engineer starts repeating the word "missing" over and over, but before Sydney can follow up on that she notices someone crawling into the station through an open window on his hands and knees. The man introduces himself as Dr. John Mendez.

Mendez got there just in time to save Grant and Sydney's lives, apparently. He refers to the soundproofed booth in the studio as a life boat and hides in there with the broadcasters, leaving Laurel-Ann outside protesting that she's not missing any more and can't they let her in? Shortly after this she starts running at the booth, smashing her face into the thick soundproof glass. Another live call from Ken Loney deteriorates into rambling and he starts repeating the word "simple" endlessly. Stephen McHattie's performance during the final signoff makes this movie better; you can perceive the layers of meaning and regret and fear while he says his last goodbye to the field reporter in the Sunshine Chopper and hangs up on Loney.

Right after this, Dr. Mendez makes an intuitive leap and figures out that the syndrome overrunning Pontypool is some kind of communicable disease, but one that isn't spread through any normal vector. Instead, it appears that speaking the English language is the way to transmit the infection. During the conversation where Grant, Dr. Mendez and Sydney all put it together there's also a darkly funny moment where they all agree that broadcasting over the radio is probably very dangerous while doing just that. They go to canned instrumental music over the air just in time for Laurel-Ann to resume beating herself to death against the sound booth glass like a trapped bird.

It turns out that the syndrome burns the victim out if they can't transmit it to someone else (which we find out in the nastiest shot in the movie). The shuffling mob of infected that were outside the building make their way indoors, and start pressing against the glass of the sound booth as Mazzy turns off the lights and the three survivors huddle down against the wall silently, hoping the zombies--and it's fair to call them that, I think--will lose interest and go away. A hurried "conversation" written in marker on note pads (and kudos to the filmmakers for making sure the words all show up in bold black letters on white paper for this scene so the audience doesn't get pulled out of the film trying to figure out what's being "said") follows, with a clever plan being hatched:  They'll talk through the loudspeakers on the outside of the building and draw the infected away from the sound booth so they can try to escape. It does seem to work, though Mendez makes another deductive leap that only English is working as the disease vector as he starts to succumb.

Sydney and Grant make a slow and cautious break for it, agreeing to speak in French and ditching Dr. Mendez in the sound booth. And it works out pretty well, other than the "Bedouin" who's been sitting in the lobby by herself waiting to be a jump scare. And in keeping with the story so far, the two broadcasters stomp her to death out of frame, with just the sounds letting the viewer know what's happening. A whispered French conversation about whether or not they have to kill Dr. Mendez (and who will have to do it, specifically, since neither one particularly wants to be a murderer) gets interrupted by the station lights going out and coming back on, the reappearance of the infected zombies, and Mendez apparently fighting off the syndrome and rejoining the group before bailing out the window he used to gain entry to the studio and leading the infected away from Grant and Sydney.

Which doesn't help anything when it turns out that Sydney has been infected as well, and unless Grant can think of a way to deprogram the virus on the fly while it's eating through Sydney's brain there's a very good chance they're both going to die. He comes up with a way to stop her from understanding the word that's seized control of her mind and the pair of them go back on the air as an extremely budget-conscious military attack happens outside; while they're trying to cure their listeners (with the paradoxical idea that if you don't understand what you're hearing it will fix you, but without telling people that) bombs rain down and the military is apparently shooting the infected on sight. Grant makes his final signoff speech, defiant to the last, as a voice in French counts down from ten. He did everything he could do, and like the best efforts of beleaguered heroes in all good zombie apocalypses, it was too little and much too late, and the authority figures weren't listening anyway.

What a neat little flick! By narrowing the focus down to essentially three characters (note that when Dr. Mendez shows up, Laurel-Ann exits the story), none of whom really know what's going on outside the studio, the film manages to give the viewer an apocalyptic story on a tight budget and without expensive effects. I love the lived-in feel of the CLSY set (especially the clocks set to different times; they're all labeled with the names of other tiny towns in the region and set to the same time rather than London, Rome, Tokyo or Moscow). I really appreciate the way the three heroes rise to the occasion and the way that the weirdness creeps in from the first frame or so and doesn't let up till the ending. And the woman from the car window slapping sequence shows up again at the end, in the crowd of infected trying to get into the sound booth. It's a little thing, but it's always nice to see continuity in films like this. Any time you put thought into your project before you roll film, it saves so much effort later. Later.


Later. Later. Later.