Saturday, 19 October 2013

THE BATTERY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2013 - Slackers Vs. Zombies

The Battery (2013) **1/2
Dir. Jeremy Gardner
Starring: Jeremy Gardner, Adam Cronheim, Niels Bolle, Alana O'Brien

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Before the New England zombie apocalypse, Ben (Jeremy Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim) were pro baseball players, but these days they're moving surreptitiously through the woods and backroads, their only contact with anything resembling a human being, is the occasional zombie which, of course, will need to be dispatched. Predictably, the guys are polar opposites. Ben's no-nonsense "keep-moving-like-a-shark" attitude is what keeps them alive and his insistence they always make time for games of pitch and catch is what keeps them human. For Ben, baseball, or at least the vestiges of the once great unifying force of America is the only thing as important as staying alive - the sheer relaxing physicality of it offers a kind of Zen to their seemingly pointless lives.

Ben is also a killer - of zombies, that is. This contrasts wildly with Mickey. He can't bring himself to kill and constantly dons headphones to pipe dreadful angst-ridden contemporary indie rock into his oh-so sensitive consciousness. If Ben's goal is to keep moving to stay alive, Mickey's involves searching for all the things that once made life worth living - home, family, a woman - or, quite simply, stability. The two men are at odds (surprise, surprise), yet they develop a special bond (surprise, surprise) as they move ever-closer to each other (surprise, surprise) and, as they are slackers in a post apocalyptic world, they head ever-closer to nowhere.

Upon hearing a woman's voice over a walkie talkie, Mickey is determined to find her. Ben insists they heed the woman's dire warning about staying away - no use going where they're not wanted. Besides, Ben is concerned that if they were ever separated or if he needed Mickey's help, that his tender-footed companion will be too inexperienced and/or weak-willed to do what needs to be done. Like baseball, practise makes perfect, especially when one must kill or be killed.

There's much to admire in the picture - in theory, anyway. To my mind, artistic ambition is always to be welcomed and certainly The Battery has ambition to burn. Alas, it's just not always an engaging movie. For one, we know it's yet another no-budget horror movie - a zombie movie to boot - and that for damn sure we're going to spend plenty of time in the middle of nowhere having to listen to these guys arguing until they inevitably find their common ground. The movie veers far too dangerously into the dreaded mumblecore territory that far too many untalented indie directors use as an excuse (consciously or unconsciously) to mask their inherent ineptitude as filmmakers. Gardner is not in this category. Though I think the jury is still out, one feels he's going to eventually emerge supreme.

However, he needs to do more than tried and true variations of genre. For example, we are well aware that the woman's voice over the two-way signal is coming from a survivalist compound, but because the picture is so obviously made on the cheap, we know we're never going to get there because that's going to cost money that this movie simply doesn't have. I hate to say it, but when I think about the myriad of truly great no-to-low-budget cult films over the decades, the recent preponderance of shooting in one room or the middle of nowhere with story choices that are obviously rooted to budget issues is becoming increasingly and frustratingly boring and/or annoying.

The only thing that can battle this are elements this movie flirts with, but never goes the distance with. For example, the overall atmosphere of the picture is so bleak - capturing zombies to practice killing them, jerking off to hot zombie chicks in wet t-shirts, plenty of staring into space and the aforementioned indie soundtrack that drips ever-so horrifically with ennui - we know we're in for the de rigueur bleak ending. It's inevitable, really, and given that it is, there's so much arty wheel-spinning going on, that I wished the filmmaker might have found other instances to match the killing practice sessions and the masturbation scene. (I can imagine it now - a tagline that reads: "I pull my schwance to dead people." Where that movie?) The potential for Gardner's picture to have moved even deeper into a chasm of sickness and despair is the very thing that could have put it over the top and would have had audiences so charged they'd be clamouring for more. The movie could well have upped the ante on this front without losing its compellingly slow pace.

The predictable element that really disappoints in all this is that one of the two is going to get bitten by a zombie and will need to be dispatched before he "turns". Chances are that it's going to be the soulful young man who survives as he appears to have the surface elements of humanity. Or would that be too obvious and lazy? This is, after all, a movie with ambition, or, to put it another way, a whole lotta pretentiousness goin' on.

The screenplay by director and star Gardner isn't especially egregious - the familiar tale takes a few interesting turns, much of the dialogue has a feeling of authenticity and the occasionally perverse frissons add a bit of cache to the now-cliched tropes of the zero budgeted zombie movie. The real question, though, is - do we really need another one of these things?

Frankly, I think not - unless, like first-time filmmakers before them - burgeoning directors like Gardner tear a page from the likes of Maestro Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich, David Lynch, George Romero (of course), John Waters, Sam Raimi, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky - the list goes on: Debut and/or follow-up features that truly push envelopes. The Battery, merely nudges said envelopes. Movies, especially those with no money, need a lot more than mere nudging.

And now, allow me to veer into broken record territory - I've said this before and I'm going to say it again. I'm especially getting sick and bloody tired of no-budget zombie movies (and other no-budget genre pictures) that force us to watch 90 minutes of hairy, smelly guys. Even Lynch's Eraserhead gave us the hot hooker babe living across from Henry, Mary and their deformed baby and, lest we forget, the super-cute Lady in the Radiator with testicle cheeks and a winning smile as she squashed the huge, milky-pus-filled spermatozoa dropping from the ceiling. Have any of these filmmakers ever heard of writing roles to populate with babes?

Women are finally so much more interesting and challenging to write for - especially considering that nobody is much interested in more movies solely about slacker guys. Yes, The Battery delivers the previously mentioned sexy zombie chick in a wet T-shirt pressing her shapely boobies against the car window and I give Gardner mega-salutes for that, but the only living babe we get is over a walkie-talkie and when we finally do meet her, she becomes the very thing we suspect she'll become - not to mention that her presence is ultimately too little, too late.

Gardner clearly has talent, though, and I'm really looking forward to what he can do with either more money and/or if he really lets himself cut loose. He needs a good dose of creative Ex-Lax, because The Battery, for all it has going for it, has way too much material that's bunging him up.

Let 'er rip, dear boy, let 'er rip

"The Battery" screens at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2013. Visit the TADFF2013 website HERE.