Review: ‘Disappearance at Clifton Hill,’ starring Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, David Cronenberg, Eric Johnson and Marie-Josée Croze

March 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tuppence Middleton in “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Disappearance at Clifton Hill” 

Directed by Albert Shin

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Niagra Falls area in Canada and the U.S., this crime thriller has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Indian and black people) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with a history of being a pathological liar sets out to solve the mystery of a kidnapping that she says she witnessed as a child, even if it means that the city’s most powerful family could be involved in the crime.

Culture Audience: “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” will appeal primarily to people who like mystery stories that are structured like detective procedurals and will leave viewers guessing until the very end.

David Cronenberg and Tuppence Middleton in “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

What happens if you witness a serious crime as a child, you report the crime as an adult, but people don’t believe you because you’ve ruined your reputation by being an emotionally unstable pathological liar? The mystery thriller “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” takes this unconventional approach to crime-solving by having the protagonist not as a noble detective but as someone with serious credibility issues and a troubled past. This is not Nancy Drew.

The movie’s central character is Abby West (played by Tuppence Middleton), a woman in her early 30s who has returned to her hometown of Ajax, Ontario, whose economy is fueled primarily by tourism at nearby Niagra Falls. She’s back in town because her widowed mother has died, and the inheritance needs to be settled. Abby has a younger sister named Laure (played by Hannah Gross), and they’ve been estranged from each other for a number of years.

At the reading of the will in a lawyer’s office, Abby and Laure find out that they’ve inherited their mother’s run-down motel called the Rainbow Inn. It’s the family business and where they grew up as children. Abby wants to keep the motel and take over as the new owner/manager, but Laure wants to follow the lawyer’s advice and sell the business. “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” director Albert Shin (who co-wrote the screenplay with James Schultz) grew up in Niagra Falls and his family owned a motel. That background gives this engrossing story added realism.

Someone who’s interested in buying the Rainbow Inn is Charles Lake III, nicknamed Charlie (played by Eric Johnson), who’s a descendant of the most powerful and richest family in the area. He’s the heir of the family firm CLC, which is a diversified company that invests in property. Charlie, who has a charming exterior that masks a ruthless side to him, says that the company wants to turn the Rainbow Inn into an amusement funhouse for tourists, but Abby is dead-set against it.

Abby and Laure are very different from each other in almost every way. Abby, who’s single, has a reputation for being flaky and a pathological liar who moves around a lot. The movie goes into details about how bad Abby’s lies were before she came back to the Niagra Falls area. Her emotional problems reached a point where she spent time in a psychiatric institution.

By contrast, Laure (who’s stayed in her hometown for all of her life) has settled down in a happy marriage and stable life with her husband Marcus (played by Noah Reid). Laure and Marcus both work for the Niagra Police Department: She’s a surveillance supervisor, and he’s a police officer.

Abby’s reckless lies have considerably damaged her relationship with Laure, and it’s clear that there’s still a lot of lingering resentment. When Abby tells Laure that they can’t sell the motel because “We grew up there,” Laure’s withering response is, “One of us grew up.”

As the two sisters disagree over what will become of the Rainbow Inn, Abby settles into the motel and gets a reminder of a haunting experience from her past. In 1994, when she was 7 years old (a scene shown in the beginning of the movie), Abby, Laure and their parents were on a fishing trip near a wooded lake area. Abby wandered off into the woods and saw an older boy (about 12 or 13) with a bloodied bandage over his left eye, indicating a recent injury caused him to no longer have a left eye. When the boy saw Abby, he put his index finger to his mouth to signal that he wanted her to be quiet.

Suddenly, a man and a woman appeared in a car on a road above the embankment, kidnapped the boy, and put him in the trunk of the car. From the way it happened, it appeared that boy had escaped from his abductors into the woods and had the bad luck of been caught again.

Abby, who was nearly seen by the kidnappers, was in shock the entire time. When she went back to her parents and sister to take a family photo near the lake, she didn’t say a word about what she just witnessed. As the West family was taking the photo, Abby saw the car drive by again, and the man and the woman briefly exited and then re-entered the car. That family photo and other photos that her mother took on that trip would turn out to have crucial evidence about the identities of the kidnappers.

Fast forward 25 years later, and Abby comes across the photos from that family trip, which triggers her memories of the kidnapping. And perhaps because she has a guilty conscience about not reporting it to the police, she decides to do the right thing and finally report the crime that she says she witnessed.

From a conversation that Abby has with Laure at the police station, viewers find out that Abby did eventually tell Laure about the kidnapping when they were much younger. But by then, Abby had told so many lies that Laure didn’t believe her, and Abby didn’t go to the police until now. Abby’s brother-in-law Marcus accompanies Abby when she reports the kidnapping. Marcus is more likely than Laure to give Abby the benefit of the doubt.

There’s a big problem when Abby reports the kidnapping: She doesn’t have any evidence, except for a somewhat blurry photo of the two people she believes are the kidnappers. And her reputation for being a liar has already preceded her.

It also doesn’t help that a cop named Singh (played by Andy McQueen) who takes Abby’s report is someone who’s already had an unpleasant run-in with her. He was a guy whom Abby had picked up at a bar and took back to the motel shortly after she arrived back in town, not knowing that he was a cop. Abby and Singh had an awkward sexual encounter when, after kissing and starting to take off their clothes, Abby blurted out that she was a virgin and then denied it. Uncomfortable with what just happened and sensing that Abby might be unstable, Singh left the motel in a hurry.

After meeting Abby for the first time under these circumstances and later hearing about her habit of lying from her own family members, it’s no wonder that he’s skeptical of Abby’s story. Singh is so convinced that she’s lying that he doesn’t even take notes when she tells him about the kidnapping. Abby gets angry over Singh’s uninterested response, so he reluctantly checks to see if there are any open cases of kidnappings or missing persons in the area that fit what Abby has described. He returns after a few minutes and tells her that no such case exists.

This is where the amateur detective portion of the story kicks into gear, because Abby decides to investigate the kidnapping on her own. One of the first things she does is go to the local library, where she finds archived newspaper articles that report the suicide death of a 13-year-old named Alex Moulin (played by Colin McLeod), whose body was found in a gorge. He’s the same boy that Abby saw being kidnapped in 1994.

Alex’s parents are a French Canadian magician duo called the Magnificent Moulins, and part of their stage act includes a trained tiger that’s kept in a cage. The Magnificent Moulins—known as Mr. Moulin (played by Paulino Nunes) and Mrs. Moulin (played by Marie-Josée Croze)—are still active performers, but they moved out of the area years ago after the death of their son Alex, who was their only child.

Of course, Abby isn’t convinced that Alex really committed suicide. And soon, she finds someone who has the same opinion. While walking near the wooded lake where the kidnapping took place, Abby meets by chance a scuba diver named Walter Bell (played by David Cronenberg, the award-winning filmmaker), who tells her that he’s the unofficial town historian. Walter also hosts a podcast called “Over the Falls,” which discusses unusual items he’s found while scuba diving in Niagra Falls and how these items tie into the area’s mysteries and local folklore.

Walter and Abby meet up again later, and she tells him about the kidnapping that she witnessed, while he drops hints to her about what he really thinks happened to Alex Moulin. It’s a conspiracy theory that he says involves the wealth, power and corruption of the Lake family, and he suspects that Charles Lake III is definitely part of a cover-up. Walter encourages Abby to continue sleuthing. Her skill at being a liar comes in handy when she thinks of various schemes to get to the bottom of the mystery.

“Disappearance at Clifton Hill” will keep viewers riveted as Abby gets more and more wrapped up in the case. There are a few scenes that stretch credulity, but they can be explained away because Niagra Falls doesn’t have a large police force, thereby making it easier for Abby to act like a one-person detective agency and not get too much blowback about it from the local police. She’s also investigating something that the police don’t think is worth investigating, so she’s not competing with them to solve this mystery.

The movie was filmed entirely on location in the Niagra Falls area. That authenticity greatly benefits the look of “Disappearance at Clifton Hill,” which has a memorable Hitchcock-influenced chase sequence at night on the Clifton Hill promenade. It’s an area filled with funhouses, wax museums and carnival attractions that look much more sinister in the dark.

The movie’s cast also does a very good and credible job in portraying these realistic characters. Abby’s resourceful determination and her willingness to try to atone for her past mistakes will make viewers root for her. And her sleuthing skills will almost make people think that she’s should be a private investigator instead of a motel owner. If you like suspenseful mysteries with some unpredictable twists and intriguing characters, then “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” is definitely worth your time.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Disappearance at Clifton Hill” in select U.S. cinemas on February 28, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Buffaloed’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Zoey Deutch in "Buffaloed"
Zoey Deutch in “Buffaloed” (Photo by Guy Godfree)

“Buffaloed”

Directed by Tanya Wexler

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

What’s an ambitious girl to do when she needs money to go to an Ivy League university but she can’t afford it? Turn to a life of crime, of course. That’s pretty much the story of Peg Dahl (manically played by Zoey Deutch) in the over-the-top comedy “Buffaloed.” The movie gets its name from Peg’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, where she was raised by a working-class, single mother named Kathy (played by Judy Greer), who doesn’t think Peg needs an Ivy League education to be a success. From an early age, Peg has had an obsession about escaping from Buffalo by attending an Ivy League school and becoming a rich and successful businessperson.

Peg’s dream starts to come true when she’s accepted into an Ivy League school, but she panics after her mother is turned down for financial aid. (Her mother supposedly makes too much money to qualify.) Peg presumably doesn’t have outstanding-enough grades to qualify for an academic scholarship either. And, of course, there would be no “Buffaloed” movie if Peg did what most people do when they can’t afford college tuition—take out a loan. So with no way to afford the tuition and with the deadline approaching to pay the tuition, Peg uses desperate measures and begins selling counterfeit tickets at Buffalo Bills games. Most movies at this point would have had Peg get away with the crime, head off to school, and continue to cook up schemes to pay for her tuition. But this is not that film.

Instead, Peg gets busted early on in the film, and she gets sentenced to 40 months in prison. Goodbye, Ivy League. One of the scenes that shows that “Buffaloed” is taking the campy, not-to-be-taken-seriously route is the chaotic environment of Peg’s trial, where the judge is eating sauce-covered Buffalo wings on the bench. When Peg gets out of prison, she is bitter, disillusioned and in debt. Her legal bills total $50,000, and being a criminal convicted of fraud has greatly reduced her chances of getting a decent job.

So let’s get this straight: Before she went to prison, Peg supposedly wasn’t able to afford an expensive Ivy League education, but she didn’t want to take out a student loan. Now she’s got $50,000 in legal bills because apparently she didn’t want to use a public defender, which is what you’re supposed to do if you can’t afford an expensive attorney. Right. Let’s move on.

Enter a character who opens a window of opportunity for Peg: Sal Scarpetta (played by “Buffaloed” screenwriter Brian Sacca, one of the film’s producers), who works for the town’s top debt-collection agency, which is hounding Peg to pay her debts. Peg and Sal first communicate over the phone when he calls her about her debt. Since the collection agency already knows about her ex-con background, and Peg finds out how much money she could be making if she worked there, it’s not long before she shows up at the agency and asks for a job.

Sal’s boss is Josh “Wizz” Wisnewski (played by Jai Courtney, hamming it up in the villain role), who runs the sleazy agency. Wizz is a sexist bully who’s reluctant to hire Peg in his aggressive, male-dominated environment. But through persistence, Peg convinces Wizz to hire her, and she makes a deal with him to erase all of her debt if she can become the company’s top debt-collector in one month.

Peg soon finds out that Wizz’s operation engages in many illegal practices, including “double-dipping,” a term used to keep billing someone for debt that has already been paid. Peg is so determined to become the top employee that she drives to Ohio to visit an elderly woman with a 20-year-debt (and Peg even brings cupcakes as part of her manipulation), because she figures that the old lady is a prime target for Peg to pull a double-dipping scam on her.

The rest of the movie veers off into a number of twists and turns, including Peg going to war with Wizz for reasons that won’t be spoiled in this review. It’s enough to say that Wizz’s “mob boss” mentality and use of extreme intimidation tactics are examples of the caricature-like silliness in this movie. Somehow, Peg’s mother Kathy, Peg’s brother JJ (played by Noah Reid) and Wizz’s brother Mitch (played by Nicholas Carella) get pulled into these shenanigans. There’s also a subplot where Peg gets romantically involved with the assistant district attorney who prosecuted her: Graham Feany (played by Jermaine Fowler), who knows she’s involved in illegal money-making schemes, but he looks the other way as long as she doesn’t tell him all the details.

“Buffaloed” director Tanya Wexler keeps a madcap pace throughout the movie that works in some areas and doesn’t work in others. Deutch (who is one of the film’s producers) takes on the role of Peg with admirable gusto. However, since Peg can’t seem to get out of Buffalo (something that’s she’s been wanting to do her whole life), and she gets caught early on for a felony crime, Peg is not as smart as the movie wants you to think she is. Unfortunately, the third act is such a mess that only a major rewrite could save the film.

The tone of “Buffaloed” is very uneven: It starts off as a dark comedy, and then turns giddy and almost sentimental in the end. “Buffaloed” could have had much better social commentary on the stresses of paying for college tuition and the extreme lengths people might go to get money for it. Instead, it devolves into an inconsistent whirling mix of under-developed characters and ill-conceived plotlines, just like an electric blender that turns a hodgepodge of ingredients into mush.

 UPDATE: Magnolia Pictures will release “Buffaloed” in select U.S. theaters and VOD on February 14, 2020.

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