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

Murder Death Koreatown


Even the couches are out to get you in Koreatown.

(2020) Found Footage Thriller (Self-Released) Cast unknown. Directed by Unknown

Some movies come to critics with reams of information; pages of publicity notes, director’s quotes, actor and crew bios and so on. Others come to us with much less information to go on. This one came with almost none.

Found footage films are not always received kindly in the critical community and among horror fans in general. There was a time when the market became over-saturated with them and let’s face it, most of them were really bad. The best-known were the original, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, both of which would eventually see sequels made by major studios.

=The film centers around an unemployed man who is shocked to discover that a murder has taken place in a nearby apartment in which a young wife suddenly and without explanation brutally murdered her husband (it is implied although not directly stated that she stabbed her husband to death). The man is seriously shaken by the brutal event so close to home, but there are some things that are troubling him. For one thing, there are blood spatters on the sidewalk away from the crime scene. Also, the arrest of the suspect took place nearly a block away from the crime scene.

He takes out his cell phone and starts talking to people around the neighborhood, filming the interviews. At first, most of the subjects know less than he does. As he looks into it, there are a few people who admit to knowing the slain man and his wife and they are baffled by the event; all of them say that the suspect was a real sweet girl, although a co-worker of the husband noted that he hadn’t been sleeping and he thought that the couple were fighting which was uncharacteristic of them.

=The more that the filmmaker delves into the crime, the more dead ends arise. One theory gets squashed and another one arises, only to be squashed also. Leads don’t pan out; then things get creepy. People he talks to begin to disappear. Mysterious graffiti in Korean begin to appear all around him and the filmmaker begins to get unhinged. His girlfriend begs him to drop the investigation, concerned for his well-being at first and then angry when he ignores her. Strange things begin to happen; he hears voices. He sees things that can’t be real. Is the murder victim trying to contact him from the dead, or is he losing his mind? And who are the mysterious Pastors?

Like most critics, I have grown weary of found footage movies but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Put simply, it is the best in the genre to come out since the original Blair Witch Project way back in 1999. It’s taut and believable; the interview subjects don’t feel like they’re acting and even though the camera is very shaky (it IS supposed to be cell phone footage), there are some really good cinematic moments of bright blue L.A. skies and the palm trees of Paradise in SoCal.

I give the unknown filmmakers props for having the foresight to keep the story simple and stick with it. Even though the movie leads in unexpected directions, all of those shift changes are organically done and don’t feel forced. It does take a little while to get going and the coda is a bit anti-climactic but there is a powerful payoff in the film’s climax.

Sometimes the best movies come out of left field and this one certainly does. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here; they’re taking a straightforward story and telling it in a straightforward manner. That’s something Hollywood veterans sometimes have a hard time doing.

The best found footage films make you feel as if you might be watching something real, and this one does. You are left unbalanced; is there something weird happening here? Is there a conspiracy going on? Or is this guy losing his mind? There is a disclaimer in the closing credits (what little there are) that state that “No reasonable person would believe this film or its claims are real…Investigations into this project or its subject is strictly discouraged. There is nothing to find. It’s just a movie.” Even given that disclaimer, I was left wondering if it was real. That’s how the film messes with your head. It truly is creepy AF.

The movie at present has no distribution and has played but once. Hopefully a local film festival near you will find their way clear to show this; ask your local art house to look into it. In the meantime, be aware that this is out there and if it does manage to make its way to a film festival, movie theater that is willing to play indie fare, or a streaming service, for sure check it out. This one is solid gold.

REASONS TO SEE: Maybe the best found footage film since the first one. When clicking it feels very real.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: This is quite a bit of profanity, some gruesome and unsettling images and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere on Leap Day at the Unnamed Footage Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Disappearance at Clifton Hill

From Shock to Awe


In brotherhood there are battles.

(2018) Documentary (Self-Released) Mike Cooley, Matt Kahl, Chris Young, Ryan LeCompte, Brooke Cooley, Aimee Kahl.  Directed by Luc Côtė

 

Every day in America, 22 veterans take their own lives. That’s more than have been killed in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m pretty sure that’s not a statistic that recruiting officers feel free to share with potential recruits.

Mike Cooley and Matt Kahl are both former soldiers living in the Colorado Springs area. Both are married with children (Cooley’s wife is also a combat veteran). Both are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Both have been prescribed an enormous number of pharmaceuticals (over 90, according to Kahl who shows a medicine cabinet stuffed to the gills with pills) and both have found their treatments ineffective. Both describe an endless list of seemingly innocuous triggers, from people talking on cell phones, to being tailgated while driving to school (Cooley is attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) to flashes of light in a dark room.

Both men have been severely crippled by their disease. Their family lives have suffered; their wives feel helpless to ease the suffering of their husbands, who often take their frustrations out on their families or worse yet, shut down completely around them. They’ve tried all sorts of different forms of psychotherapy; none of them have worked.

In desperation, they have flown to Orlando to meet Chris Young, founder of the Soul Quest organization. He proposes using an Amazonian concoction called ayahuasca which is a powerful psychotropic drug that is currently banned in the United States (Young gets around it by using the drug in religious ceremonies and is a shaman with the Ayahuasca Church of the Mother Earth. He prefaces the ceremony by telling the men (who are accompanied by their buddy Ryan LeCompte) that they will experience a deep connection with the natural world.

The change in the men, after several ceremonies both daylight and night time, is remarkable. They are smiling again, able to reconnect with their families. The change is so remarkable that Brooke Cooley, herself suffering from PTSD but unable to tend to her own needs because of the severity of her husband’s condition, undergoes therapy utilizing MDMA, the psychotropic found in Ecstasy. She also experiences remarkable change.

Most documentaries these days tend to favor an non-objective point of view and that is certainly the case here. Although there is a warning that ayahuasca can be dangerous and should only be administered by those experienced with the drug, for the most part we are told that it is a miracle cure based solely on anecdotal evidence. There have been very few serious scientific studies of the plant-based drug and while the website does have some experts discussing the drug, none of that appears in the final film and quite frankly it could have used some. Also, like any other drug, ayahuasca doesn’t work the same way for everybody and it isn’t always helpful.

In fact, there are almost no talking heads other then Cooley, Kahl and their wives. Military footage from the Middle East is often interspersed into the film, forming a cinematic equivalent to the flashbacks the vets often suffer through – thankfully, however, Côtė doesn’t use animation or CGI to mimic the psychedelic experience of the ayahuasca.

There certainly is enough anecdotal evidence to mount a serious medical study of the drug, but the United States is reluctant to look into any sort of psychoactive substance with any seriousness, perhaps due to the disastrous LSD studies of the 50s and 60s. Big Pharma is also unwilling to allow such studies to be taken; they earn far more in treating the symptoms than they would from finding a cure. This is why capitalism and medicine shouldn’t mix.

Still, the problem that vets face with PTSD, depression and suicide is very real and the current means of dealing with it are woefully inadequate. Our veterans do deserve better and this movie at least makes that salient point. I only wish they’d gone about it with a little more research and skepticism; our veterans also deserve to see every side to a potential life-changing cure. There is no vetting of a drug that can admittedly be dangerous, and that in and of itself is also dangerous.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark portrayal of how our system fails veterans. Shows the effects of PTSD not only on the returning soldiers but on their families as well.
REASONS TO AVOID: Shows little objectivity when it comes to alternative treatments.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty fair amount of salty language, depictions of drug use and some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly 20% of all combat veterans who have returned from service in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Shaman
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Bird Box


Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.

(2018) Horror (Netflix) Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Trevante Rhodes, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Vivien Lyra Blair, Julian Edwards, Parminder Nagra, Rebecca Pidgeon, Amy Gumenick, Taylor Handley, Happy Anderson, Kyle Beatty, Ashley A. Alvarado. Directed by Susanne Bier

 

The secret to a great horror movie is to never reveal the monster too early. What we can’t see is often the scariest creature of them all.

Civilization has collapsed but it’s not a plague of zombies that has done it; rather, an unseen monster that when it establishes eye contact causes the viewer to commit suicide. Essentially, nobody can go out of their house because once you see the monster, you’re toast within moments. In the early scenes of the movie we see precisely how quickly things devolve into chaos as people ram their cars into immovable objects, stab themselves to death and calmly open the door of a burning car and sitting down in the passenger scene, immolating themselves.

Malorie (Bullock) is a take-charge kind of woman who finds herself in this environment. Pregnant, she is on her way from a routine doctor appointment when things go to Hell in a handbasket. She takes refuge in the home of a curmudgeonly novelist who watches his wife kill herself after she beckons Malorie and other stranded motorists into her fortress-like home. Her husband Douglas (Malkovich) is none too pleased about the new guests but admits grudgingly that they bring special skills to the table, including ex-military construction crew chief (Rhodes) who develops a relationship with Malorie, grandmotherly Sheryl (Weaver), conspiracy theorist and grocery clerk Charlie (Howery) and a few others who come and go, some with less-than-noble intentions.

This culminates in a harrowing journey Malorie takes with her children (identified only as Boy (Edwards) and Girl (Blair) five years after the fact in which she rows a canoe down a river while blindfolded, hoping to make it to a rumored sanctuary in Northern California which is mostly shown in flash-forwards.

Bullock is brilliant here in a rare appearance in a horror film for the actress (she doesn’t like horror movies and generally doesn’t take roles in them – her last horror movie was more than 20 years previously). Malkovich chews the scenery here in typical fashion while Weaver is competent as is Paulson. Sadly, the two juveniles playing Boy and Girl are as bland as their names would suggest; they spend most of the film trying to act rather than trying to project themselves into their characters. This is a problem for many juvenile actors and actresses which tend to lead to stiff performances which we get here.

We never see the creatures responsible although we see the carnage they cause. It is a good thing that we don’t; they are far more terrifying that way. Bier is a respected director having done most of her work in her native Denmark; this is her first genre film and she attacks it as she would any drama, allowing the emotions of the characters set the tone, making the movie more interesting than the average creature feature.

This was one of the most popular films released by Netflix last year; it even inspired another stupid dangerous internet phenomenon known as “the bird box challenge” in which people try to navigate a distance (indoors and/or outside) while blindfolding leading to a raft of injuries, some of which required visits to the Emergency Room. While the tension Bier builds is unbelievable, the story is just the opposite. While this isn’t the kind of horror film that uses creature effects to set it’s gory tone, although there is some gore. This is the kind of horror movies that even those who aren’t fond of the genre can see.

REASONS TO SEE: The tension is unrelenting. Another great concept, even if it is a little bit derivative. Some very smart decisions made by the director.
REASONS TO AVOID: The juvenile actors are a liability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and gore, profanity, adult themes and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bullock is actually blindfolded during the scenes in which her character is (which makes up about half the film) and refused to allow eye holes to be cut, causing her to bump into the camera more than once during shooting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Quiet Place
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Spy Behind Home Plate

Aniara


A glimpse of a bleak future.

(2018) Science Fiction (Magnet) Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian, Anneli Martini, Jennie Silfverhjelm, Emma Broomė, Jamil Drissi, Leon Jiber, Peter Carlberg, Juan Rodríguez, David Nzinga, Dakota Treacher Williams, Otis Castillo Ǻlhed, Dante Westergårdh, Elin Lilleman Eriksson, Agnes Lundgren, Alexi Carpentieri, Unn Dahlman, Laila Ljunggren. Directed by Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja

 

We like to think we pretty much have a handle on our lives. We more or less know what we want, where we’re going and what we want to do along the way. We know we have a world of endless possibilities to explore. What happens though when we don’t?

In the future, climate change has made Earth unlivable and the human race is moving to Mars. Giant transport ships – essentially city-sized cruise ships – ferry passengers from the dying world to the new one. The Aniara is one such ship, loading up with passengers many of whom have family awaiting them on the Red Planet. The three-week journey is made easier by the presence of 21 restaurants, many more bars and nightclubs, a luxury spa, a massive mall – all the amenities of home.

Mimaroben (Jonsson) whose name is often abbreviated as “MR” runs the virtual reality room MIMA which essentially scans the brain waves of the users and picks out pleasant memories for them to relive. At the beginning of the journey she isn’t getting many customers. She shares a cabin with the Astronomer (Martini), a jaded science officer who doesn’t have much use for people.

But what is to be a routine voyage becomes something completely different in a heartbeat. A field of space junk debris penetrates the hull and forces the crew to jettison the fuel for their nuclear propulsion system. Without it, they are unable to steer or slow their momentum, leaving them to drift through space. Captain Chefone (Kananian) puts a brave face on things and tells the passengers and crew that there will be a delay in getting them to Mars – about two years instead of three weeks – but get there they will because they have a plan to use a celestial body as a slingshot to put the crippled ship back on course to Mars.

As it becomes clear that the Captain is lying through his teeth and that the Aniara is doomed to drift endlessly through space going nowhere, things change aboard the ship. The captain becomes paranoid and power-drunk; MR starts of a relationship with Isagel (Cruzeiro) and suicides become a big problem. Several cults are formed, some hedonistic, most fatalistic.

This is a beautiful film to look at with superb special effects and clean production design. I’ve seen the movie described as Passengers if it had been directed by Ingmar Bergman and it’s not that far from the truth. The tone is extremely fatalistic – it’s Scandinavian, after all – and bleak as all get out. There is some commentary on the excessive consumerism of modern society but in essence, the main theme seems to be that without a destination firmly in mind there is no point to life. I don’t know if I can agree with that.

The film isn’t helped by the bland personalities of the main characters. They are all somewhat one-dimensional, especially MR who is pushed and pulled by the eddies of life without apparently much care as to where they are taking her. She certainly doesn’t seem inclined to do any swimming of her own. While Kananian physically resembles Clive Owen, he’s no Clive Owen and gives the Captain again a fairly one-dimensional portrayal.

There is a lot of intellectual content to unpack here and those who are into cerebral sci-fi are going to find this a big win. Those who prefer their science fiction to be space operas may take some delight in the production design but are going to be bored silly – as many of the passengers are. This is the kind of movie that will appeal to a fairly narrow band of moviegoers but those that are inclined to like it are likely to like it a whole lot.

REASONS TO SEE: The special effects are stunning. The filmmakers get the herd instincts of the passengers right.
REASONS TO AVOID: The main characters are devoid of personality.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity, graphic sexual content, some drug use, a few disturbing images and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a poem by Swedish author Harry Martinson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Passengers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Nona

The Discovery


Robert Redford’s let his hair go.

(2017) Sci-Fi Drama (Netflix) Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Riley Keough, Jesse Plemmons, Mary Steenburgen, Ron Canada, Brian McCarthy, Connor Ratliff, MJ Karmi, Kimleigh Smith, Willie Carpenter, Wendy Makkena, Adam Morrison Khaykin, Paul Bellefeuille, Richard O’Rourke, Rosemary Howard, Lindsay Schnebly, Sigrid Lium, Ally Looney. Directed by Charlie McDowell

 

What lies beyond death has been a central mystery in human existence. Religions have been formed around what happens to our consciousness after our bodies die. It is something that both fascinates and terrifies us. Is there an afterlife? Or do we just stop existing, our consciousness switched off like a light bulb that’s burned out?

Dr. Thomas Harbor (Redford) has discovered the answer to that question – there is an afterlife. He’s proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Today, he’s granting his first interview since the discovery that has changed mankind profoundly. The interviewer (Steenburgen) has a difficult task on her hands; what do you ask someone who has essentially thrown the entire outlook on existence into disarray? Well, as it turns out, not much.

After the shocking turn of events that took place during that interview, Dr. Harbor has retreated to a remote island in New England where he is continuing his research, as well as taking in a sort of cult of people who have attempted suicide and loved ones of those who have successfully killed themselves. You see, in the wake of the discovery, the suicide rate has jumped dramatically; millions of people have taken their own lives and one would imagine Dr. Harbor feels some responsibility in this.

In the meantime, two people ride a deserted ferry headed for the island. One is Will (Segel), the neurologist son of Dr. Harbor who has been estranged from his father. The other is a platinum blonde named Isla (Mara). The two exchange acerbic japes and Isla seems to delight in taking Will down a peg or three. They get off the ferry, expecting never to see each other again. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen.

It turns out that Dr. Harbor has invented a machine that will allow us to go to the other side and then return – with video, no less. But what is the nature of the afterlife? Is it reincarnation, or a more Judeo-Christian version of heaven? Or is it something totally different? Whatever it is, the machine may hold the key to a lot of questions that are plaguing Will about Isla, whom he has fallen deeply in love with.

The premise is fascinating; what would happen to society if we knew that there was life after the body died. The filmmakers could have focused on how society reacts; would there be mass suicides? Would people be eager to move on to the next life, being dissatisfied with this one? Would society become more kindly if people realized their actions in this life affected their standing in the next? There are all sorts of ways this movie could have gone.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to look at a specific family – coincidentally that of the person who discovered the irrefutable evidence of life after death – and turn the movie into something of a romantic thriller. I can understand why the filmmakers would want to leave the nature of the afterlife vague but we’re left to explore Will’s daddy issues and Isla’s guilt rather than explore the bigger picture. In short, a great premise is used as a springboard into a fairly pedestrian thriller.

That doesn’t mean those in front of the camera are to blame. Redford remains one of the most magnetic screen personalities in the history of film. Even at his age, he owns the screen whenever he’s on it. This is a little different than the roles he’s played; Dr. Harbor is a bit vain, brilliant and arrogant but also possessed somewhat of tunnel vision regarding his discovery. Although he doesn’t admit to responsibility for the suicides, he certainly feels somewhat responsible for them.

Mara, an actress who is always interesting, shines in a role that plays to her strengths. The acid-tongued Isla is maybe the most fascinating character in the movie and one of the better-developed. The sad thing is that her chemistry with Segel, who has shown himself to be adept with dramatic roles, is virtually zero. Segel’s Will is so white bread and homogenous that it might lead you to want to munch on a ghost pepper just to get some taste.

I know that the filmmakers are going for a thinking person’s genre film and there have been a lot of good ones lately. Sadly, this doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to, sabotaging itself by taking safe roads when they would have benefited from riskier choices. The movie could have been an interesting jumping off point for discussion on the afterlife and philosophy, but loses momentum after the first five minutes which, to be fair, are about the best first five minutes of a movie I’ve seen in a long time.

REASONS TO GO: Redford remains a magnetic screen presence even now. Isla’s acerbic demeanor is perfect for Mara.
REASONS TO STAY: A very interesting concept is squandered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharp-eyed viewers might recognize the chateau-style mansion that is used as Dr. Harbor’s compound as the same house that was used for the exteriors of Collinwood, the mansion in the seminal horror soap opera Dark Shadows back in the 60s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brainstorm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hare Krishna!

The Happening (2008)


Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Ashlyn Sanchez find out that it's Taco Tuesday in the craft services truck.

Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Ashlyn Sanchez find out that it’s Taco Tuesday in the craft services truck.

(2008) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Spencer Breslin, Robert Bailey Jr., Alan Ruck, Frank Collison, Jeremy Strong, Victoria Clark, M. Night Shyamalan, Alison Folland, Kristen Connolly, Cornell Womack, Curtis McClarin, Robert Lenzi, Derege Harding, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

It’s just an ordinary day in Central Park. People are jogging, people are walking their dogs. Two friends are sitting on a bench and reading a book, talking to each other.. A cold wind blows. The chatter and noise of the park dies down to a whisper. It’s as if the whole world is holding its breath, waiting for something terrible to happen. Then, something terrible does.

In Philadelphia, the horrified teachers at Philadelphia High, including popular science teacher Elliott Moore (Wahlberg) and his friend and peer Julian (Leguizamo) are informed that there has been a new terrorist attack on New York. This time, it was an airborne gas that was fatal within seconds. To be on the safe side, the principal (Ruck) orders the kids sent home. Julian is nervous; big cities are targets and he thinks it’ll be safer to join his mother on her farm in Harrisburg. He invites Elliott and his wife Alma (Deschanel) to come with them. Disquieted, Elliott accepts.

However, all is not perfectly well between Elliott and Alma. A distance has grown between them, built wider by all the things said and unsaid. Alma has been getting calls from Joey (Shyamalan), a co-worker who she went out for a meal with once but who almost certainly wants to take things farther. Alma is confused and adrift, not sure what she wants. However, she knows one thing; she doesn’t want to stay in Philadelphia with terrorists shooting lethal gasses in major metropolitan centers.

Elliott and Alma meet Julian and his daughter Jess (Sanchez) in the train station. Julian’s wife will be late arriving and will take the next train. Julian can’t help but notice the tension between Alma and Elliott and stumbles into it somewhat. Still, the train leaves the station and for the moment, there are larger concerns. Then, as the train travels through the Pennsylvania countryside, those passengers with cell phones begin to get horrifying news. There have been more attacks, in Boston and in Philadelphia. Alarmed, Julian calls his wife, and is relieved to hear she’s caught a bus to Princeton, NJ and will try to meet them in Harrisburg as soon as she can arrange transportation.

Not too long afterwards, the train chugs to a halt and all the passengers are told to disembark. Why is the train stopping, Elliott asks a conductor. We’ve lost contact he replies. With who, says Elliott. Everyone says the conductor in a low voice. As the passengers gather in a small town diner, the true horror of the situation begins to unfold. Not only are big cities being targeted but small towns are starting to see outbreaks of the contagion as well. So many, in fact, that it looks increasingly that this is less the work of terrorists but some other force at work, something even more unsettling. Now, with the countryside becoming increasingly lethal, Elliott must find a way to get his group to safety before the toxins do their deadly work on them.

Wahlberg by this point in his career had settled into a niche, playing much the same character in movie after movie. However, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing since I happened to like the character he played. Heck, a lot of movie stars – Cary Grant, John Wayne, Gregory Peck – all could get busted for the same crime when it comes right down to it. Wahlberg is more than adequate as the lead. Deschanel, who was at the time becoming one of my favorite actresses which she remains to this day, is given a somewhat fragile character to work with. At times, she does a real good job with it, but at others I think some of the nuances are just missed a bit. It is Buckley, as a somewhat curmudgeonly hermit of teetering mental stability, who steals the show in the few scenes that she has. This is not the Betty Buckley of Cats or even less so, Eight is Enough in any way shape or form.

Some of the best scares in the movie come as a result of the sound crew. As bodies fall from a high rise and hit the ground, the sickening thuds make the scene all the more eerie. Composer James Newton Howard uses his music to ratchet up the tension nicely. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto beautifully photographs the Pennsylvania countryside, even as something sinister is at work.

The middle third drags a bit and the last third completely loses cohesion, including an ending which is simply facepalm-worthy that has such a flat tone that the viewer leaves feeling curiously unfulfilled, like he needs to watch another movie to get their movie fix. The nature of the Happening is revealed far too early on. Some of the characters do incomprehensible things, which jar the viewer out of the world the filmmakers have created.

The first third of this movie is as excellent as anything Shyamalan has done, which may not be saying much for some, given how at this point in the game his reputation was rapidly eroding. At the time, I found that given the state of world events, the concept of The Happening was extremely timely. There are some genuine scares here, and some scenes that are genuinely disturbing. Think of this as An Inconvenient Truth done in Shyamalan style. Better still best not think of Shyamalan at all. This is very much a formulaic movie for Shyamalan, with lead characters struggling with personal issues while confronting a menace very much bigger than they are able to imagine. I had to this point been a fan of his work, but like many others left the theater disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: The tech crew helps create some impressive scares. The first third of the movie is some of Shyamalan’s best work ever.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle third loses momentum and drags along. The final third is an absolute train wreck.
FAMILY MATTERS: There are some very graphic scenes of violence, and most youngsters are going to be on a one-way trip to Nightmare City after seeing this.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first R-rated film by Shyamalan and was shot completely in sequence.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: An interview with Betty Buckley, a featurette on the porch sequence and a gag reel highlight the DVD edition. The Blu-Ray edition allows you to view the film in BonusView mode which flashes trivia factoids onscreen and incorporates the deleted footage into the finished film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $163.4M on a $48M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outbreak
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Shallows