Sunday, November 4, 2012

In Theaters/On VOD: THE BAY (2012)

(US/UK - 2012)

Directed by Barry Levinson.  Written by Michael Wallach.  Cast: Will Rogers, Kristen Connolly, Kether Donohue, Christopher Denham, Stephen Kunken, Frank Deal, Nansi Aluka, Kenny Alfonso. (R, 83 mins)

Upon a cursory glance, the very notion of Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (DINER, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, RAIN MAN, BUGSY, DISCLOSURE, SLEEPERS, WAG THE DOG) helming a found footage faux-documentary horror film produced by Oren Peli (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY) and the Strause Brothers (SKYLINE) seems absurd and insulting beyond comprehension.  Sure, Levinson's not at the pinnacle of his career now but in the '80s and '90s, the guy was practically unstoppable, even with something like 1992's misbegotten TOYS sullying his resume.  There were all those hit movies (he also wrote 1979's AND JUSTICE FOR ALL), plus his contributions to television: writing for THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, and producing HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET and OZ.  Now here he is, 70 years old and trying to hitch a ride on the found footage bandwagon?  With all due respect, Mr. Levinson, there are other coping mechanisms for what you're going through.  You could've just bought a sports car and gotten your ear pierced.

But hold on a second.  THE BAY is actually good.  It's an unsettling and surprisingly solid addition to played-out subgenre that's admittedly on life support.  People turn out in droves for these movies whenever they open, but nobody seems to like them anymore.  It's too bad THE BAY arrived just in time for the backlash, because it's one of the better found footage flicks to come down the pike.  Levinson and screenwriter Michael Wallach approach it as a collage of confiscated footage acquired from a web site called govleaks.org, as part of a film being made by journalist Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), who was a student reporter and blogger covering the July 4th festivities in the fictional Claridge, MD in 2009.  A strange bacterial outbreak spreads throughout the small town of 6200, with residents breaking out on boils and blisters, almost like some sort of flesh-eating virus. What Thompson has pieced together from the assorted footage (from her cameraman, from others' home movies, security cameras, police dashboard cams, cell phones, etc) is that two oceanographers (Christopher Denham, Nansi Aluka) were aware of something odd happening in the Chesapeake Bay in Claridge at least six weeks before the 4th.  The mayor (Frank Deal), blew off the information that passed his desk about marine life in the bay being toxic and infested with rapidly-growing parasitic isopods, due in part to a local factory farm disposing steroid-loaded chicken excrement into the bay but also because of toxic materials dumped into the bay by the mayor's baby:  a cost-effective, privately-owned, corner-cutting desalination plant that provides Claridge's drinking water...from the bay.  Now the residents are infested with these parasites, which are growing at an alarming rate and eating their way out of their human hosts.

As the outbreak worsens and panic spreads over the course of the day, Levinson and Wallach show the paranoia and the frighteningly plausible levels of buck-passing bureaucracy that result.  Early townie speculation blames the situation on everything from Satanists to Al-Qaeda.  The FBI immediately shuts down Thompson's blog.  A frazzled ER doc (Stephen Kunken) Skypes with a CDC official who bluntly tells him "Just leave the hospital."  That same CDC official is later shown getting the run-around from a Homeland Security representative, telling him "This whole town has been wiped out in one day!" to which the Homeland Security guy coldly and matter-of-factly replies "It's a small town...let's keep it in perspective."

The cast is largely unknown--Denham can currently be seen in ARGO, and Kristen Connolly was in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS--which helps the sense of realism.  Most found footage films are more interested in quick, cheap scares, but Levinson makes THE BAY an eco-horror film with an environmental point to hammer home about everything from privatization to the food we eat to the endless red tape that puts people last if they're in the equation at all.  There's politics at play here (it takes place on the most American of holidays) and the filmmakers are unabashedly on the left, so how much you get out of the film or how plausible or serious you find it may depend somewhat on your leanings.  THE BAY is an effectively grim B-movie that never offers any outright jolts, but Levinson does a terrific job of establishing a dread-filled sense of conspiratorial doom that escalates throughout.  As sick and tired as a lot of us are the found footage fright flicks, THE BAY is one that actually has something to say, which is perhaps what attracted a filmmaker of Levinson's caliber to such an unusual project.

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