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Review: “Fido” (2006)

“I’d say I’m a pretty darn good father. My father tried to eat me; I don’t remember trying to eat Timmy.” ~~Bill Robinson

How would 1950s America deal with zombies? How would humankind stave off a zombie apocalypse? Could zombie milkmen ever learn not to throw the milk bottles at doorsteps? Those are questions no self-respecting zombie film ever raised. Canadian director Andrew Currie remedies that with “Fido,” a curious, entertaining mix of ’50s nostalgia and satire, zombie gore and unabashedly morbid humor that sputters to an unfortunate finish.

In Currie’s mad, mad world, space radiation has reanimated the dead, resulting in the Zombie Wars, with humans emerging as the victors. Special burials are created to keep the dead from escaping their coffins. Conglomerate Zomcom has fenced in the remaining zombies, using some — domesticated with electric collars — to work in public service. Owning a zombie has become the ultimate status marker in the small suburb of Willard (a nod to “Night of the Living Dead,” no doubt). Worried about image, Helen Robinson (Carrie-Anne Moss) can’t resist buying a zombie (Billy Connolly) to act as the household’s undead Mr. Belvedere. Her uptight husband Bill (Dylan Baker) is horrified, but the couple’s lonely son Timmy (Kesun Loder) becomes attached to the walking corpse. He names him Fido, teaches him to play catch and even lets Fido off his leash — which leads to a small zombie outbreak Timmy tries unsuccessfully to cover up. This is where the comedy turns especially wicked; the image of a sweet-faced boy burying the severed head of his zombiefied neighbor in a flower bed, for example, is not for those who prefer light-hearted knock-knock jokes. Not to mention the matter of cheerful oddball Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson, underplaying marvelously), Timmy’s neighbor whose interest in his hot-bodied blonde zombie Tammy (Sonja Barrett) takes necrophilia to a whole new level. 

Black comedy aside, Timmy and Fido’s friendship is the real heart of “Fido,” thanks to Connolly’s funny and sometimes stirring performance. The Scottish comedian has no lines, only various grunts, snarls and groans, but his expressive face and good-natured (if gory) protectiveness of the Robinsons are terrific. Also spot-on is Connolly’s stumbling, stiff movements and posture. Still, despite being a literal zombie, Fido’s more affectionate toward Timmy and Helen than Bill, who’s sour-faced and believes emotions should be squashed. (Baker has a peculiar gift for communicating emotional constipation; see 1998’s “Happiness.”) Jonathan Bottoms (Henry Czerny) shares this philosophy and applies it to his work as Zomcom security chief and his family, mostly ignoring his sharp-shooter daughter (Alexia Fast). Much of Willard’s population, in fact, can be divided into people who appreciate the zombies’ humanity (what’s left of it) and those who treat them as chattel. That Currie even touches on this concept — the idea that zombies can relearn normal human behaviors and emotions, or tap into their former selves — is proof he’s not afraid to monkey with tradition. In “Fido,” zombies are not ravenous, emotionless moving targets. They have become the oppressed.

It’s unfortunate that “Fido” can’t quite sustain its early madcap momentum to the end. Or maybe there’s simply no way Currie could extend such a colorful, out-there premise into a 90-minute feature film. Either way, the final act of “Fido” is rather disappointing, though it does give Baker the chance to play action hero for a few frames. The less interesting characters, like the too-broadly-written Mr. Bottoms and the too-mean bullies that torment Timmy, eat up valuable screen time, while the more intriguing crackpots (Mr. Theopolis takes the cake) are left undeveloped. Baker, being the superb character actor that he is, makes the best of Bill, whose traumatic past is merely hinted at. But until its limping conclusion, “Fido” is full of cheek and energy and a few standout performances. Moss makes Helen more than a prototype of the bored ’50s housewife; she finds some earnest loneliness in there that we see mirrored in Timmy. Connolly, though, is the real treat. Who knew a zombie could carry an entire movie? Blame Canada.

Grade: B-

Review: “Snow Cake” (2006)

Snow_CakeLonely people tend to recognize their own kind — in life and especially in independent films. Perhaps there’s a certain scent they give off, the musk of desperation cooled by a trace of sad resignation, or the look in their eyes, a mix of unyielding wariness and palpable longing. Maybe there’s an inner pull, a kind of magnetic attraction. Whatever the reason, the lonely, they know each other.

This is how the lives of three solitary people — Alex (Alan Rickman), Linda (Sigourney Weaver) and Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss) — end up intersecting in icy, small-town Canada. Dynamic Vivienne (Emily Hampshire), an expert on lost-cause types, takes a liking to the tight-lipped Alex, newly released from prison. She interrupts his coffee at a diner, disarms him with her wit (her take on self-help books is hysterical) and begs a ride home to visit her mother Linda (Sigourney Weaver). But their friendship is not long for the world; there’s a car accident, and Vivienne’s death sends Alex in search of Linda. Alex, who’s cold but not heartless, feels guilty and wants to do the right thing … until he realizes Linda is a high-functioning autistic. Suddenly, being decent doesn’t seem quite so shiny.

Herein lies the emotional weight of “Snow Cake” lies, in the uncomfortable interactions between Alex and Linda, who aren’t all that different from one another. Linda is intelligent and functional but unable to process emotions like grief or anger; Alex, for reasons we discover later, tends to repress his feelings for fear if he lets one out they’ll all overwhelm him. Both Linda and Alex exist in their own isolated worlds, and it’s become comfortable not to need anyone else. So to call their acquaintanceship “odd” is a whopping understatement. There is no emotional bond; Linda informs this interloper she prefers “useful” people. Alex sees this as an opportunity: He can plan Vivienne’s funeral, take care of a few chores and move along. No messy emotions to sift through. No forced attempts to “connect” and “bond.” and share “quality time.” This becomes a workable and refreshingly unsappy relationship.  

It’s fair to say the same of “Snow Cake” itself, for this is a film that lacks sap. Angela Pell’s script deftly avoids melodrama at points where we expect it most; instead, Pell favors humor and fumbling awkwardness and flashes of real poignancy (Linda’s funeral dance is one of the best scenes). Linda and Alex are two of a kind, living in a kind of emotional quarantine, and Linda’s sexually confident neighbor Maggie seems like an outsider to them. For Maggie, though, sex is a way to avoid real intimacy, to experience physical closeness without emotions. She is the most mysterious character, and the one who seems the most unaffected by Alex’s arrival.

Notice how that word “seems” keeps popping up? There’s good reason for that — “Snow Cake” is the kind of minimalist indie character drama where not much at all happens and what does happen is very, very subtle. The film is a bit like “Come Early Morning” in that way, with the characters undergoing changes so gradual they threaten to slip past unnoticed. Rickman, in particular, is genius at playing men who are thoroughly damaged but not unredeemable. With his guarded eyes, he doesn’t give us much to explain why Alex is the way he is. But there are small moments — feeding Vivienne’s dog for Linda, opening up to Maggie — where Rickman shows us the man behind the wall. Moss and Weaver’s performances offer up no such explanation. We know nothing about Maggie and Moss is unwilling to let down her guard. But watch the change in her expressions; hard as she is, she’s learned to trust someone other than herself. As Linda, Weaver has the toughest part; she must be a woman living in her own head, but one we develop affection for. It’s a thankless part, but Weaver gives it a certain kind of grace. 

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what “Snow Cake” is all about: grace. These three lonely people find it in each other, and it gives them strength to keep going. That’s not much, maybe, but it feels like everything.

Grade: B