Disappearance at Clifton Hill


Trying to pretend an alien isn’t eavesdropping on their conversation.

(2019) Suspense (IFC Midnight) Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Marie-Josée Croze, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Aaron Poole, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Mikayla Radan, Addison Tymec, Tim Beresford, Janet Porter, Clyde Witham, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Kris Hagen, Connor Lucas-Loan, Devon Hauth, Alanis Peart. Directed by Albert Shin

 

Coming home again is never easy. It’s even harder after a beloved parent dies and you’re there to dispose of her worldlies. How difficult must it be on top of all that when it is the scene of a traumatic act that has shaped your entire life?

Abby (Middleton) is in that latter situation. Her mother is gone and her mom’s one asset, the Rainbow Hotel in the seedy tourist trap area of Niagara Falls known as Clifton Hill, needs to be sold to pay off debts. Fortunately, there’s a taker; Charles Lake III (Johnson), the head of the Charles Lake Corporation (a.k.a. CLC) which owns most of the run-down tourist attractions in town – hell, he owns the town!

What has haunted Abby her entire life was the occasion of seeing a terrified one-eyed boy beaten and kidnapped before her very eyes. When she tells her sister Laure (Gross) what she saw, Laure doesn’t believe her. Laure probes to be justified as Abby embarks on what could charitably be called a checkered life.

But now the events of that Thanksgiving weekend have resurfaced to haunt her and Abby is determined to get to the bottom of it and prove once and for all that she wasn’t crazy. She identifies the boy as Albert Moulin, the son of a pair of second-rate magicians (Nunes, Croze) who at the time were the big dogs in the small pond.

She finds an unlikely ally in Walter Bell (Cronenberg), a local historian/conspiracy theorist/podcaster/line cook at a local themed restaurant called the Flying Saucer Café. Walter also worked with a group called the Diving Bells who recovered bodies from the Falls. “Ever seen someone who jumped into the gorge?” he inquires in a soft but intense voice, “It’s like they swallowed a live hand grenade.”

Bell leads her in the direction of Lake, who has a checkered past of his own and an apparent taste for small boys. Abby is sure that Charles had Albert killed and decides to go out to prove it, which isn’t a very good idea considering that he owns the hotel her mother built and he has the police force and City Hall in his pocket. Still, Abby feels compelled to vindicate herself after all those years in the eyes of her sister, but the cost of vindication could be unbearably high.

Shin is a talented young Canadian director who is very clearly influenced by the work of fellow Canadian director Cronenberg. Casting him here was a stroke of genius because Cronenberg is actually a pretty talented actor as well. He plays Walter as quirky but never a parody of the paranoid conspiracy theorist. His laconic delivery is on the low-key side but it actually adds to the character’s allure.

Middleton, who most know from the Downton Abbey series (I wonder if the character’s name was an intentional in-joke or just a coincidence) gives Abby just the right amount of edge to make the audience call into question her veracity as a narrator. That is really at the heart of the movie; can a congenital liar be believed? Obviously, the audience is rooting for yes, but the final twists of the movie call into question even that.

The score by Alex Sowinsky and Leland Whitty is the kind of dissonant jazz that William S. Burroughs would have loved and serves to keep the audience off-balance. Shin excels at that and it is the movie’s greatest strength. On the weakness end, there are too many extraneous bits of business and characters refer to what are apparently important events that aren’t explained until later. It’s maddening and makes it feel like the filmmakers were winging it ore than they actually did.

All in all, though, it’s a pretty decent thriller that utilizes its Niagara Falls location excellently, even if we get no cliché shots of the famous “horseshoe” falls. Middleton makes an appealing lead and Cronenberg makes a compelling addition. If you’re looking for a good thriller, you could certainly do much worse than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Shin takes his cues from David Cronenberg’s early work; it’s therefore fitting that he cast the legendary director in his film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little bit jumbled, particularly towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Clifton Hill when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but the name was changed when it was picked up by a distributor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes:69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deep End of the Ocean
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Maria by Callas

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Pixels


Game over.

Game over.

(2015) Family Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Dan Aykroyd, Affion Crockett, Lainie Kazan, Ashley Benson, Denis Akiyama, Tom McCarthy, Tim Herlihy, Serena Williams, Martha Stewart, Dan Patrick, Rose Rollins. Directed by Chris Columbus

It’s hard to believe, but the 1980s are now three decades in the rear view. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was hanging out in the local video arcade, losing quarters at a terrifying rate and listening to Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and Culture Club on the radio and, being me, looking like a reject from the 70s. My fashion sense has always been a decade out of whack.

But the sins of the 80s are catching up with us. The footage of a video game championship contest are among the clips that have been sent out by NASA in a probe into outer space, hoping to find intelligent life and re-assure them that we are peaceful and eager for friendship. Instead, the aliens (whom we never see) get the wrong idea; they believe these violent games to be a declaration of war and in their culture, they send out their warriors to face our warriors in a test of strength, only our warriors don’t have a clue what to do with these now-archaic video games.

It will be up to Brenner (Sandler), the runner-up in the contest and boyhood friend to President “Chewy” Cooper (James) to save the day, along with the winner of the contest, the arrogant Eddie (Dinklage) and  another childhood friend, Ludlow (Gad) who is a raging conspiracy theorist these days in tow. A fetching Marine Colonel, Violet Van Patton (Monaghan) serves as the military liaison with Brenner’s Arcaders team with Admiral Porter (Cox), the Pentagon Chief of Staff, who doesn’t think much of Brenner and his team. They ain’t much but they’re all we’ve got.

This is based on a short film which is far superior to the feature. There are no name actors in it and the special effects are much less detailed shall we say. Still, it’s far more entertaining than this flat and generally unfunny comedy which has been somewhat justifiably excoriated by the critics. However, I have to admit that the video game characters, the scenes in the arcade in the 80s and the general vibe induced a nice feeling of nostalgia in me, which I assume was the point. But unfortunately, I needed more and I assume, so did most of those who have been panning the film.

Certainly it helps to have had some connection to the 80s to enjoy the movie at all, but like a lot of Sandler films as of late, this just isn’t that funny. It’s almost all shtick, and that is the kind of humor that can be taken only in small doses, at least by me. Sandler, who had done some pretty funny movies early on, like Happy Gilmore for example, hasn’t really made me laugh for it feels like a decade or more. I don’t know why; he’s a genuinely funny guy, and he has a quick wit that comes out in talk shows. It just feels like he’s playing the same character over and over again, so much so that he has stopped caring about it. I can’t say for certain that it’s true but it sure feels that way watching him.

I like Kevin James too but he suffers from the same issues as Sandler; mostly, playing the same guy in generally unfunny comedies. There were some moments, like when he appears in front of a crowd that clearly hates him and he’s nothing but polite and almost ignorant of the hatred directed at him – now, that was funny. Some have said that he blends the girth of Christie, the timidity of McConnell, the ignorance of Perry, the reading issues of Dubya and the hair of Paul – essentially the perfect Republican presidential candidate. I don’t know if that was the filmmakers intention but the role certainly satirizes modern politics nicely – and subtly. I wish there was more going on like that.

Instead, we get the bombast of the space invaders, coming at us with Centipede, Pac-Man, Galaga and Donkey Kong. We get a life-size Q-Bert and gigantic Froggers hopping across traffic. I think it probably sounded impressive to the producers and the executives who greenlit this, but there really is no way to make the clunky graphics of the 80s come off as anything other than clunky graphics. And don’t get me started on the extraneous, completely unnecessary 3D.

Every summer there’s always one movie that just bites the big one, and this summer it appears to be this one. It gives me no joy to say this; I think Adam Sandler is a decent guy who really needs to make some different choices in movies. He needs to re-invent himself and I wish him luck at it; comebacks are notoriously hard in Hollywood but Sandler is still a talented guy. So are most of the people involved with this movie but this would have better been left a short.

REASONS TO GO: Video arcade nostalgia. Some of the more satirical stuff works.
REASONS TO STAY: Not very funny. Special effects are clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: Some slightly foul language and suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Akiyama plays Pac-Man inventor Toru Iwatami, the real Iwatami appears in the film. He didn’t want to play himself because he speaks no English.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super Mario Brothers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Primeval