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

1408


John Cusack waits for housekeeping to take care of his room.

John Cusack waits for housekeeping to take care of his room.

(2007) Horror (Dimension/MGM) John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Tony Shalhoub, Mary McCormack, Len Cariou, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jasmine Jessica Anthony, Kevin Dobson, Paul Kasey, Benny Urquidez, Gil Cohen-Alloro, Drew Powell, Noah Lee Margetts, Jules de Jongh (voice), William Armstrong, Emily Harvey, Alexandra Silber, Kim Thomson. Directed by Mikael Håfström

Our Film Library 2015

There are places that have a presence in them, a kind of echo from the past. There are other places that have a feeling in them, one that tells of contented lives – or contorted ones. Then there are places that are just effin’ evil.

If Mike Enslin (Cusack) seems bitter it is with good reason. His career as an author has all but faded into oblivion and the death of his daughter Katie (Anthony) has split he and his wife Lily (McCormack) even further apart. He is intent on doing a sequel to one of his most successful books, Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Houses with a new conceit, Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Hotel Rooms. However, the cynical Mike doesn’t believe in the paranormal. He really doesn’t believe in anything.

He gets a mysterious postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan with the cryptic message “Don’t Go in 1408.” He takes this as a personal challenge and heads promptly for the Dolphin. He demands to be given room 1408 to stay in but Olin (Jackson), the manager of the hotel, is reluctant. Mike invokes a New York state law that requires the hotel to rent the room to him so long as it is up to standards. Olin responds that 56 people have died in that room in 95 years and nobody has lasted more than an hour. Mike thinks that Olin is trying to create a mystique that will attract people to the hotel and dismisses his claims. Reluctantly, Olin allows Mike to rent the room.

At first, the room seems like any other room in any other hotel. Then, little things start to happen; the clock radio begins playing “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters for no reason. Strange calls from the front desk about food Mike hasn’t ordered. Then, he begins to see spectral visions of past inhabitants of the room and the clock radio begins a countdown from 60:00.

The visions begin to grow more terrifying and his dead daughter appears on the hotel TV set. Mike’s attempts to leave the room are fruitless, the door knob breaking off in his hand. An attempt to leave through the air conditioning ducts gets him attacked by a mummified former guest.

Soon it becomes apparent to Mike that the room isn’t just interested in him; it wants his estranged wife to come to the hotel and enter room 1408. Knowing that he was wrong about the room, that it is indeed an evil place, he must somehow prevent the room from claiming the last vestige of his family.

This adaptation of a Stephen King short story is one of the finest adaptations of his works ever, right up there with The Mist and the first Carrie. Some have compared it (favorably and not) to King’s other haunted hotel story, The Shining although like King himself, I never warmed to Kubrick’s version of the novel and never found it particularly scary. Not so for this one.

Cusack was at his best here, playing an embittered man and failed novelist (a favored protagonist of King’s) who still deep down has love in his heart, particularly when he is forced to confront his deepest pain. Cusack has a knack of making guys like Mike Enslin relatable and even admirable, despite being not the easiest guys to get along with in the world. While you can clearly see why Lily would have given up on their marriage, you still end up rooting for Enslin to survive.

This isn’t as effects-driven as other movies based on King’s works nor does it use as much CGI as popular horror movies. Much of the effects here are psychological and Håfström goes out of his way to implant seeds of doubt that everything happening is occurring in Mike’s head, which leaves you with a sense of not being able to trust what you see which is deliciously disorienting to the viewer.

There are false endings here – scenes that make it appear as if Mike’s ordeal is over but then something else happens and horror movies have had a tendency lately to go to that particular well a bit too often. It works okay here but it did make me grumble a bit, curmudgeonly critic that I am. You may not find it quite as annoying as I did depending on how many horror movies you watch.

Once this gets rolling it is quite a ride, although it takes a good long time to get going as Olin attempts to dissuade Mike from entering the room. Hey, if Samuel L. Jackson is scared of a room, I would certainly think twice about going inside. Of course, if Mike didn’t, we wouldn’t have had much of a movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Leaves us questioning reality throughout. One of Cusack’s best performances ever.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might have gone to the false ending too often.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very disturbing images of violence and terror as well as some adult themes and horror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The axe wielded by the fireman late in the film is the same one Jack Nicholson used in The Shining.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an extended director’s cut with an ending different than the theatrical version (which is also included here). There are a couple of brief webisodes here as well.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $132.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/Streaming), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Amityville Horror (1979)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Our Film Library continues