Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
December 2012

The Bay

A bay of blood

Barry Levinson gives the found-footage format a try, with intriguing but lackluster results

The Bay
Roadside Attractions
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Michael Wallach
Starring: Kether Donohue, Kristen Connolly, Christopher Denham, Stephen Kunken, Andy Stahl and Frank Deal
Rated R / 1 hour, 24 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

The Bay deserves this much credit: It at least understands the limitations of the found-footage aesthetic, and adjusts its style accordingly. Unlike countless other examples that back themselves into a corner by forcing one or two characters to be holding a camera at all times, this one is put together with various kinds of footage - different formats, different pieces of information - that combine to create a piecemeal portrait of a devastating event.

For all intents and purposes, it's like a condensed, found-footage version of Contagion, its various testimonials and video splices detailing a mysterious environmental plague that afflicts a small Maryland town along the Chesapeake Bay.

The event is shown in a series of flashbacks, so we know that some modest sense of normalcy and/or recovery has been established in the aftermath of the plague. Telling the story via webcam is Donna (Kether Donohue), a twentysomething who was caught in the middle of the outbreak when it happened but who managed to survive. Back then, she was a cub reporter for a local TV station who quite accidentally stumbled upon the story of a lifetime.

The film smartly shows Donna (the young version) to be ill-prepared for such a story, and most of her cameraman's news footage shows her basically getting in the way while trying in earnest to do her job. The present-day Donna narrates the footage with self-deprecating comments about her youthful naivete.

For her, that's the central theme of her video (and thus the film itself) - that the outbreak (which disrupted a perfectly enjoyable Fourth of July celebration) is - or at least should be - a wake-up call for a society that let it happen through apathy and negligence. The unwitting perpetrators of the event are the usual suspects - megalomaniacal politicians, greedy corporations - and the consequences of their actions are captured in gory detail. Police videos, personal camcorders, surveillance cameras, and even footage from a team of activist researchers who were the first to discover something strange about the dead fish littering the bay.

The Fourth of July in question proceeds innocuously enough for a time. A few people notice a pesky rash. And then a few more. And then the rash is transforming into a bulbous, red boil covering most of the skin. And people are falling ill and vomiting blood. And bodies are found with their insides ripped out. Needless to say, it's only a brief matter of time before there's a full-fledged panic.

The most interesting footage comes from an emergency-room doctor (Stephen Kunken) whose corridors and operating rooms are quickly overrun with a host of people exhibiting the exact same symptoms. Dr. Abrams is the best-drawn character in the film, as he heroically treats as many people as he can, all while trying to figure the disease out and share information with the not-so-helpful CDC.

The Bay was directed by Barry Levinson, the veteran of Rain Man, The Natural and Wag the Dog fame. Curiously, for a director who's had such a strong history working with actors, the performances are among the weakest links this time, with Kunken's portrayal of the doctor being the only one that really reverberates. Donohue is the most persistent presence, but her character and performance are forgettable at best.

As much as I admire Levinson's attempt to craft something more multi-faceted than your run-of-the-mill found footage flick, he falls into traps of his own that prove to be the film's undoing. With all the different forms of footage and content he's got at his disposal, he chooses to edit them together in a way reminiscent of an overdramatic montage you might see on local TV, complete with slow-motion and silly musical cues. Now, I can argue this may be an intentional decision, given that Donna's only experience in video editing would have been at the local TV level. But that hardly seems like a good excuse. I mean, it's not as if Donna is so essential to the film's perspective that she needs to be driving the whole narrative. The fact remains, the resulting film feels too amateurish and monotonous for its own good.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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