Pandemic (2016)


“Zombie, zombie, zombie ei, ei, ei, oh do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do.” —The Cranberries
     It’s getting harder to tell the undead from the infected from the merely glum. If there’s a virus or a plague or an epidemic out there, there are zombies, shuffling out of the woodwork, blundering over obstacles, or racing hell for leather at your stalled vehicle as you struggle to close the doors that shouldn’t have been open in the first place.
     So what about a pan-demic? Same thing. Zombies.
     Ah, but here’s a novel twist. POV. Not POV zombies—now that would be interesting, experiencing a movie from the point-of-view of the flesh eaters themselves as they shuffle, blunder, race, and, well… flesh eat. But in Pandemic, we get POV of the military extraction unit that heads into downtown apocalyptic L.A. in an armored school bus to look for survivors. Like it says in the trailer: “Witness the apocalypse…  through their eyes.” Sigh. Aren’t we yet done with all this cheap ‘n’ cheesy hand-held, wobbly-all-over-the-place, found footage so-manic-you-can’t-tell-what’s-going-on movie stuff? With Missi Pyle.
     I know for a fact there are people out there—grown people—who truly believe there’s no such thing as a bad zombie movie. But if any movie can make a mockery of such intractable faith, it’s Pandemic. John Suits’ film doesn’t boast an A-list cast by any means. In fact, it’s chock full of TV talent: Rachel Nichols (Chicago Fire, Criminal Minds) plays the medic, looking for her daughter; E.R.‘s Mekhi Phifer’s the gunner; and Alfie (Game of Thrones) Allen is the “we’re Fritos, man!” driver (Missi navigates). And while the direction is surefooted enough, the writing manages to tap every military/zombie cliche known to man—man, is it awful.
     Lots of Level 5s (post-hibernation stage) wind up dead, screwed with screwdrivers and axed with hatchets and bludgeoned with baseball bats, so there’s plenty of bloody mayhem for the gorehounds (including a particularly nasty entrails-laden scene when a gaggle of zombies do lunch). But the rest of Pandemic just makes you want to scream.
     “Zombie, zombie, zombie ei, ei, ei, oh do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do” will do nicely.

(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth

Papagajka (2016)


Damir (Adnan Omerovic) works as a security guard in a Sarajevo housing complex with industrial green and yellow walls. He has a skinny, simian look about him, coupled with a British invasion haircut—think a Slavic Gareth from The Office (UK). He scribbles puzzles and ciphers and spider webs on the glass of his graffiti-ridden security booth when he’s bored, which is all day long, and he smokes to excess. Into his small, enclosed world comes Tasya (Susanna Cappellaro) in a soft coat, pulling a rolling suitcase behind her, her black hair curling coquettishly under her chin—think a Slavic Penelope Cruz. She makes some excuse about her friend not being around and asks if she can stay with Damir, as one wouldn’t. Damir lives in the same building where he works, which Tasya finds amusing. He goes up to the roof to smoke, and down to his booth to work, and has recurring nightmares of a magician’s assistant in a ruffled tutu and an octopus writhing in a bathtub (separate visions). Tasya does even less, but relentlessly subsumes his existence. She gets sick, Damir gets sick, their lives slowly intertwine. Emma Rozanski’s Papagajka (which translates as The Parrot; the film is mostly spoken in English) is bookended by scenes of surreal beauty—patchworks of pastel contrasted with straight lines and hard edges—and punctuated by a percussive score that echoes through this empty building, these empty lives. Snow falls, steam rises, the project drips with an uneasy atmosphere. While integral to the mood, the film’s pacing might be a challenge for some; Rozanski was mentored by the legendary Hungarian director Bela Tarr and he has been known to deliver an eight-minute take of cows trudging through the mud (see: Satantango, all seven-and-a-half hours of it). In Papagajka, Rozanski questions the value of identity, asking whether a life so insignificant can simply be erased. It’s a small yet satisfying psychological drama from this promising young filmmaker, an artistic endeavor that hints at bigger and better things to come.

(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth

Camino (2015)

TWO-STARS 200x50

“Sorry. I’m not that good at this kind of thing,” claims photojournalist Avery Taggert, accepting a prestigious plaque in the opening minutes of Camino. Giving speeches, she means, thrust under the spotlight. She’d much rather be scrabbling about in the undergrowth working her magic, snapping away.
     Critics bent on slamming Zoe Bell, who plays Avery, could easily argue that the stuntwoman-first, actress-second isn’t that good at this kind of thing either, that one doesn’t send a stuntwoman into the rainforest to do an actor’s job. But they’d be missing the fact that this kind of thing mostly amounts to Bell being slapped around in the wilds of Colombia; she’s certainly well versed at taking a punch in the ribs, or a boot to the face.
     In that regard, this Noah/Waller picture is neither taxing nor terribly potent.
     Bell, who hails from New Zealand, is perhaps best known for playing herself in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, in which she spent most of her screen time strapped to the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger as it careened through the Texas countryside. She actually has more credits for acting than stunt work, although she’s rather blasé with that umlaut.
     After accepting her Photojournalist of the Year award, Camino‘s wily protagonist is courted (by Kevin Pollak) to accompany a squad of shady missionaries led by a charismatic Spaniard known as El Guero (Nacho Vigalondo, a little hammy for my tastes) into the jungles of South America. There she captures an atrocity on film that puts her life in danger—cue running and jumping and bloody fisticuffs. While no Meryl Streep (and to be fair, Streep never doubled for Lucy Lawless in a Xena fight scene), Bell exudes a confident charisma. That scalene nose of hers certainly helps. The film is also assisted by a throbbing electronic score by Kreng, some deft and colorful transitions, and striking images courtesy still photographer Zoriah Miller that serve as Avery’s impressive portfolio.
     As for the Camino of the title, Avery drives a bright blue model in a delightful, wordless scene. She smiles wryly, the sun streaming in through the windows, highlighting her killer profile. I guess Camino sounded more romantically Latin than Vanagon.

(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth