The Wave (Bølgen) (2015)


New Wave in Norway.

New Wave in Norway.

(2015) Disaster Action (Magnolia) Kristoffer Joner, Thomas Bo Larsen, Ane Dahl Torp, Fridtjov Såheim, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Laila Goody, Arthur Berning, Eili Harboe, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Lado Hadzic, Tom Larsen, Herman Bernhoft, Mette Agnete Horn, Silje Breivik, Håkon Moe, Tyra Holmen. Directed by Roar Uthaug

America has essentially had the monopoly on disaster movies. That doesn’t mean that America has the monopoly on disasters – they happen everywhere, all the time. It has been a long time coming that a good disaster movie comes from somewhere not flying the stars and stripes.

Norway’s fjords are lovely, but they are also a ticking time bomb. They are in a mountainous region, and when the set up is just right – as in the tiny tourist village of Geiranger which sits at the mouth of the fjord bearing it’s name – that time bomb can tick rather loudly. As the movie notes in a kind of prelude, rock slides from Ȃkneset Mountain back in 1905 impacted the river below, causing a gigantic wave 240 feet tall moving between two tall cliffs like a bullet through the barrel of a gun, a gun pointed right at Geiranger. Scientists are wary that similar circumstances will happen again.

For that reason, a monitoring station is set up there, and geologist Kristian (Joner) has been a part of the team that has kept an eye on the mountain. However, the lure of corporate money has gotten him and he is leaving the government-run station for the deep pockets of an oil company. His last day has arrived and he and his family – wife Idun (Torp) who works as a desk clerk at the town’s luxury hotel, disaffected teen Sondre (Oftebro) and cute-as-a-button 7-year-old daughter Julia (Haagenrud-Sande).

While station chief Arvid (Såheim) is none-too-happy to be down such a valuable member of the team, he nonetheless gives Kristian a nice send-off. However, readings that show the ground water disappearing suddenly in two sensors on the mountain send Kristian scrambling to examine the evidence, which is disturbing but not enough to have Arvid evacuate the town, especially at the height of tourist season.

Still, something about it bothers Kristian so when he’s just about to drive aboard the ferry, he whips a quick U-turn and heads back. While his suspicions still aren’t enough to get Arvid pushing the panic button, he has succeeded in stranding his family (Idun had been set to finish out the month at the hotel anyway) in the town. With the mountain rumbling, disaster movie fans know that the worst is about to happen. As is true with most disaster movies, who lives, who dies – and what is left of the town – is all up in the air.

Given the film’s small budget, the special effects are pretty impressive. Something with a budget north of $100 million might have made a more realistic looking wave (and it appeared that the filmmakers used practical effects whenever possible) but not much more realistic. When it comes bearing down on the audience, one wishes that the movie had been shot in 3D. That might have been one of those rare instances where the format would have made sense rather than being a gimmick inserted into the movie for the sole purpose of allowing theaters to upcharge the public for the privilege.

Joner, who recently appeared in The Revenant, has a good deal of screen presence and makes a likable hero, even though his workaholic ways and detail-oriented personality drive his family and colleagues crazy. His fierce devotion to his family doesn’t particularly make him unusual among disaster movie heroes but it is unusual to see this kind of character in a European film. Then again, it is unusual to see this kind of subject in a European film.

I had to feel badly for Oftebro, who plays Sondre. He plays a character who is about as disagreeable as you can get and will even irritate Millennials. Apparently, the writer doesn’t think very highly about teens; Sondre is grouchy, disrespectful, self-centered and prone to doing the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. His actions get people killed and put his family in jeopardy; to be fair he does feel bad about it later but while he’s doing those things, you might be tempted to punch him right in the face.

Overall, I was a little bit disappointed in the movie; sure, the effects are better than I expected and the acting was solid, but there are so many disaster movie cliches and scenes that are literally ripped off from other movies such as The Abyss, Dante’s Peak, Jaws and The Impossible. Still, if you haven’t seen those movies and aren’t particularly familiar with the disaster genre, it will all be new to you.

So what this adds up to is a solidly entertaining European take on what has been up to now a genre dominated by American movies. Surprisingly, it is not essentially different than the American take on the genre. In a way, it is kind of comforting to know that some things are the same everywhere in the world – disaster movies apparently being one of them.

REASONS TO GO: Impressive but low-budget special effects. Joner is an effective and charismatic lead.
REASONS TO STAY: A lot of disaster movie cliches. You will want to punch Sondre in the throat.
FAMILY VALUES: Some graphic images of a tsunami disaster, and a few profanities.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Norway’s official entry for the 2016 Academy Awards Best Foreign Language film award; it didn’t make the final list of five however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Towering Inferno
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Zootopia

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Finders Keepers (2015)


An unusual confrontation.

An unusual confrontation.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) John Wood, Shannon Whisnant, Peg Wood, Lisa Whisnant. Directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. In this case, they’d be absolutely right. I can’t imagine anyone no matter how imaginative they are could make this story up.

Shannon Whisnant, a North Carolina junk dealer, had just purchased the contents of an auctioned storage unit. In that storage unit was a barbecue smoker, which was the prize item he had seen in the unit when he bought it. He put all his new items into his truck and drove it home, wheeled the smoker into his front yard and opened it – and just about had a heart attack.

In the smoker was the mummified remains of a human leg. Whisnant of course did the right thing – he notified the police who confiscated the leg as evidence and having nowhere to store it, left it with the local funeral home. Eventually they tracked down the owner of the storage unit who had defaulted on his monthly rental fee; John Wood.

Once the scion of a well-to-do family in Maiden, North Carolina, he’d fallen on hard times. But not hard enough to make him a killer – no, the leg was his. He’d lost it in a plane crash in which his father had lost his life. He’d asked for the leg back from the hospital once it had been amputated, intending to create a memorial to his father using the skeletal remains of his own leg but couldn’t find anyone to remove the flesh from the limb. He’d thrown it in the smoker and forgotten about it.

He wanted the leg back, however, still intending to eventually create that monument. However, Shannon wasn’t willing to give it back. After all, he’d bought and paid for the contents of the storage unit, including the smoker – and including the leg that was in the smoker. You wouldn’t ask for the grill back from the smoker after all; he’d paid for it fair and square.

So why would Whisnant want a human leg? Fame, pure and simple. He saw it as an opportunity to put his name on the map. At first he saw it as kind of a tourist attraction and being a fair man, he discussed going in with Wood on the deal Wood balked and the two geared up for a fight in the courtroom.

Some of you may remember the story when it hit all the tabloids a few years ago, but maybe you didn’t hear the whole story; how Wood had become addicted to painkillers while recuperating from his amputation, how he graduated to harder drugs, how he had been thrown out by his mother Peg recognizing that she was enabling his decline towards an overdose; how he had become homeless and alone.

Nor may you have heard how Whisnant had grown up with an emotionally and physically abusive father, how he had tried to gain his dad’s approval and never gotten it. How he was always a decent sort whose only aim was to make people happy around him.

This peculiar “only in the South” might induce giggles from some. They may look at these two men as ignorant hillbilly sorts that confirm the stereotype of Southern rednecks. And yeah, there are a few things here that head down that trail a bit, but as the movie unspools, you begin to see beyond the ridiculous and into the human story that is at the heart of the matter.

Both Wood and Whisnant are wounded human beings, and maybe they’re not likely to be employed by NASA anytime soon, but they are no less worthy of respect and empathy. These are both men who have gone through hard times; Wood, who was in attendance at the opening night screening at the Enzian, described Whisnant as “the yin to my yang.” They aren’t friends, not by any stretch of the imagination; Whisnant, who always saw Wood as uppity, described him as being “born with a silver crack pipe in his mouth.” They are inevitably linked by Wood’s leg and likely always will be. Maybe there is some comfort to be had in that.

One thing that is admirable is that as the movie goes on, we see Wood’s recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. An appearance on the Judge Mathis show (which resulted in Wood keeping the leg but having to pay Whisnant $5,000 for it) led to Wood receiving treatment at one of the nation’s premiere rehab centers. Since them, Wood has been sober and drug-free for nearly eight years and has also since gotten married. As important, Wood has gained wisdom; he has reconciled with his family and is slowly working to building back their trust after years of breaking their hearts. He recognizes that it is a slow and ongoing process but worth his effort. He understands what is important now and has put much of the sickness that led to his drug addiction behind him.

That’s a big deal; not all of us have the will to make that kind of turn-around and you have to respect the story of someone who has. Still, you will probably giggle fairly regularly, as Wood jokes about his leg, or Whisnant consistently mistakes “perspire” for “transpire.” But this is, as Peg Wood puts it in the movie, a funny story with its roots in tragedy. Fortunately, it’s a tragedy that looks like it will have a happy ending.

REASONS TO GO: Takes an unexpected turn. Oddball enough to keep your interest.
REASONS TO STAY: The pictures of the leg may be too stomach-turning for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some gruesome images, drug references and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whisnant once appeared on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your local cable/satellite provider), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Final Member
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

As Above, So Below


Perdita Weeks wonders if there isn't an easier way to make it into Hollywood.

Perdita Weeks wonders if there isn’t an easier way to make it into Hollywood.

(2014) Horror (Universal/Legendary) Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Cosme Castro, Hamid Djavadan, Theo Cholbi, Emy Levy, Roger Van Hool, Olivia Csiky Trnka, Hellyette Bess, Aryan Rahimian, Samuel Aouizerate, Kaya Blocksage. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

Below the streets of Paris there is another city, a city of the dead. The legendary catacombs are where the remains of some say as many as eight million Parisians rest. Bones stacked neatly in ghoulish patterns – this is a real place, an actual tourist attraction in the City of Light. How perfect a setting it would be for a horror movie.

Scarlett (Weeks) is going to oblige us on that score. She believes that the legendary Philosopher’s Stone which European alchemists of the 15th century famously believed could change base metals into gold and allow the possessor to live forever, also rests in a secret chamber off the catacombs. She is a bit nutty on the subject – her dad (Van Hool) searched his entire life for the Stone and was ridiculed by the scientific community for it. His suicide only drove her into further obsession to find the artifact.

After nearly getting buried alive in Iran to photograph an elaborate Rosetta’s stone-like thing that would allow her to translate a map that she believes will lead her to the stone, the determined young scientist – who has several PhDs to her credit despite her youth – heads to Paris to find George (Feldman) who can translate the Aramaic and allow the symbols to be properly read.

George, once abandoned in Turkey by Scarlett so that she could continue her quest, is less than enthusiastic about helping her and her omnipresent cameraman Benji (Hodge) who is documenting the search. However, he agrees to put her in contact with urban spelunkers Papillon (Civil), Souxie (Lambert) and Zed (Marhyar) who agree to lead her to the place on her map even though it appears on no credible maps of the catacombs.

Once they get down there beyond the paths where tourists tread, strange things begin to happen. George, who is forced to join them by circumstances beyond his control, is definitely uneasy and Benji who is a bit claustrophobic is downright ready to turn on his heels and head back to the world above, sense that there is something not quite right and Papillon, who knows the area better than anyone except for La Taupe (Castro), a mole-like spelunker who went down into a forbidden tunnel and never was seen again. Of course, you know which tunnel they’re going to head down into – and where it leads may be the last place anyone rational wants to go.

Right now is a really good time to be a horror film, with an abundance of talented young up-and-coming directors showing immense promise and delivering in some cases some extraordinary horror films. While Dowdle qualifies as the former, his latest effort doesn’t qualify as the latter but don’t be put off – this is a very solid and entertaining horror movie that takes full advantage of its setting.

The cast is largely unknown although Mad Men fans might recognize Feldman but do solid jobs in roles that are fairly rote horror characters. I have to say Marhyar has one of the best “oh, crap!” expressions I’ve seen ever. It does make for occasional comedy relief.

The film is presented in a found footage format, which to my mind was totally unnecessary. We spend large chunks of time wandering down tunnels lit by headlamps and flashlights. Sure, this can be creepy but over the course of an hour and a half it gets old, plus because much of the movie is shot with GoPro devices the image quality is murky in places.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an off-the-charts creepiness factor going on here and Dowdle knows what he’s doing when it comes to ratcheting up the tension to high levels. While there is a lot here that’s unremarkable, overall this is a much better than average movie when it comes to horror and in a year where the bar has been set fairly high for big studio horror pictures this one comes in right in the middle of the pack.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely creepy setting. Some terrific scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Found footage is definitely passé and in this case, unnecessary. Could have shaved about ten minutes off.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of terror and violence, some of it bloody. There’s also pretty much non-stop cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first movie to be released in Legendary’s new deal with Universal after years at Warner Brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Intermedio
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mood Indigo