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Ulterior Structuralist Motives — With Zombies

Ulterior Structuralist Motives — With Zombies (photo)

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Low-budget, Canadian and sneaky as hell, Bruce McDonald’s “Pontypool” is a movie that restores your faith in the ability of genre movies to rabbit-punch your limbic system and your frontal lobe at the same time. Just grabbing the ingenious premise with two hands is a moviehead thrill: the setting is the local radio station for a tiny Ontario town, so small that it occupies not its own building but the basement of a church. The protagonist is Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a grizzled, boozy, pretentious shock jock whose downward career spiral has landed him in the provincial wilderness, where his indulgent ramblings are largely unwelcome and where he’s only supposed to deliver weather and traffic news. His foils are the patient station manager (Lisa Houle) and a young intern (Georgina Reilly). Amidst the morning-drive drudgery, reports begin to trickle in, of crowds forming and riots beginning and people being chased and torn apart…

We know we’re never going to get out of that basement. The conceptual brilliance of novelist/screenwriter Tony Burgess’ set-up is irresistible, pitting a classic “Rio Bravo” trapped-by-a-siege scenario against the contingencies of talk radio (in which McHattie’s self-involved washout finds himself in the position of being the community’s, and the world’s, only source of information about what appears to be a zombie plague of some kind). The measures of discovery and disbelief are spot-on every step of the way; the fact that we hear but do not see the chaos is a genuine creep-out, in a Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds”-kind of way; and, it should be said, McHattie simply rocks here, so astutely painting this character’s ruinous history and self-entertaining attitude on his face and in his voice that you could see the actor landing a shock-jock radio gig for real if in fact he weren’t so ridiculously busy acting. (Too often relegated to episodic TV, McHattie has appeared in 20 different projects in the year since “Pontypool” began appearing at film festivals.)

01262010_Pontypool2.jpgBut all that’s not quite reason enough to love “Pontypool,” if that’s all it was — a radio-inflected, bell-jar zombie suspenser. The MacGuffins for such scenarios are most often just that — arbitrary and meaningless plot integers (space probes, bacterium) useful only for a little credibility and a big push forward. But here, it’s a different animal, so different I wouldn’t even call it a spoiler: eventually Mazzy and Co. (including the hilariously relaxed Hispanic doctor who may have started the crisis, tumbling in through a cellar window) figure out that, somehow, certain words or even language itself is communicating the virus.

On the surface, it’s a far-out idea echoing out of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” (a copy of which is glimpsed), and one that’s aptly focused on a radio station, but soon enough you realize that the premise is absurd enough to be Absurdist, soon after Roland Barthes is quoted, and the risible Dr. Mendez makes the Barthesian case that language, in general, can be defined as a virus, even as the cannibalistic-infected hordes hammer at the doors. Can the Post-Structuralists be far behind? “Stop understanding what you are saying!” Mazzy hollers at one point, evoking everyone from Kierkegaard to the Talking Heads in one impacted existentialist moment.

01262010_pontypool3.jpgNote, as British critic Jonathan Romney did, the small plastic rhinoceros on the soundboard, and suddenly you realize you’re in Eugene Ionesco Land, and witnessing a sidewise remake of “Rhinoceros” (filmed for real in 1973 with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, but also staged by Welles in 1960), in which the denizens of a small town (mostly unseen) begin to inexplicably turn into rhinos. For the French/Romanian Absurdist playwright, it was a parable of fascism, of course, but rhetoric is the totalitarian’s primary weapon, and in “Pontypool,” rhetoric itself is the poisoning agent, literally and irrationally transforming an orderly society into raving madness.

What’s a drunken, wiseass loudmouth with a microphone to do? (Bizarrely, “Pontypool” is in the pipeline for a Hollywood remake.) By its third act, “Pontypool” doesn’t even try to be a thriller any longer, but embraces its philosophical agenda and dares to suggest that, in a world of twisted meanings and public lies and empty verbiage, Surrealist poetry and its freedom from common sense may be our salvation.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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