Review: ‘Lakewood,’ starring Naomi Watts

September 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Naomi Watts in “The Desperate Hour” (formerly titled “Lakewood”) (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment/Roadside Attractions)

[Editor’s Note: After this movie premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions acquired the movie and changed the movie’s title from “Lakewood” to “The Desperate Hour.”]

“Lakewood”

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional U.S. city called Lakewood, the dramatic film “Lakewood” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American and one Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widowed mother races against time to get to the high school where her teenage son is at during a school shooting. 

Culture Audience: “Lakewood” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Naomi Watts, but this movie is an erratic mix of realistic suspense and unrealistic melodrama.

Naomi Watts in “The Desperate Hour” (formerly titled “Lakewood”) (Photo by Sabrina Lantos/Vertical Entertainment/ Roadside Attractions)

“Lakewood” is intriguing but infuriating in how it depicts a mother’s frantic attempts to “rescue” her teenage son during a deadly shooting spree at his high school. Thanks to star Naomi Watts’ talent, the movie authentically shows how parents would panic in this situation and would want to do whatever it takes to get their children to safety. However, “Lakewood” becomes a tacky melodrama and demolishes a lot of the movie’s credibility with a few manipulative plot twists, including the heroic mother suddenly acting as if she’s a member of law enforcement.

Directed by Phillip Noyce and written by Chris Sparling, “Lakewood” takes place in a fictional suburban U.S. city called Lakewood, but the movie was actually filmed in North Bay, Ontario. “Lakewood” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Watts portrays central character Amy Carr, a widow who is grieving over the loss of her beloved husband Peter (played by Chris Marren in brief flashbacks), who died in a car accident nearly a year before this story takes place. Amy and Peter’s two children are Noah (played by Colton Gobbo), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, and Emily (played by Sierra Maltby), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. They live in a middle-class area on a quiet, tree-lined street.

The movie begins on what the Carr family thinks will be a typical and uneventful day. It’s a Friday in September. Amy is shown signs of being depressed because she’s lying in bed, looking mournful, and listening to a self-help motivational recording on her phone. She decides she’s going to take a personal day off from work (she works as an auditor for the fictional Marion County Division of Taxation), so she texts her supervisor and says that she will be back at work on Monday.

Not long after a school bus picks up Emily to take her to Lakewood Elementary School, Amy goes into Noah’s room to see if he’s awake. Noah attends Lakewood High School. The door to Noah’s bedroom is barricaded with furniture, but Amy manages to get inside. To her dismay, she sees that Noah is still in bed.

Noah says he’s feeling sick and won’t be going to school. Amy makes an attempt to convince him to get out of bed, but he refuses. Amy then leaves him alone and says that they’ll talk about it later after she comes back from a morning jog. Viewers find out a little later that Amy doesn’t plan to be gone for long because she has an appointment later that morning with a repairman who is coming to the home to fix a hole in a wall that Noah punched out of anger.

It’s explained later in the story that Amy’s relationship with Noah has become very strained, ever since Peter died. Noah was very close to Peter and took his tragic death very hard. Noah has become emotionally distant but also shows flashes of anger, as evidenced by the hole he punched in the wall. During her morning jog, Amy finds out something else about Noah through a phone conversation with one of her friends who has a child at the same high school as Noah: Noah is being bullied at school.

Amy goes for her morning jog in a nearby wooded area that’s fairly deserted. Because most of this movie chronicles Amy’s frantic race through the woods, she spends a lot of her time communicating with other people by phone. Before all hell breaks loose, she speaks to a co-worker named Greg Minor (voiced by Jason Clarke); the wall repairman (voiced by Juan Pope); her mother (voiced by Edie Mirman); and Amy’s close friend Heather (voiced by Michelle Johnston). While Amy is having these conversations, she notices some police squad cars speeding by on a nearby road.

And then, the frantic calls to Amy start. It starts with an emergency text alert that the local police have sent to announce that all of the schools in Lakewood are in lockdown and that parents and other loved ones must stay away from the schools. The police have set up a shelter at a local community center where students and their loved ones can gather, and more information will be given later. Through a series of calls and looking up information on the Internet, it isn’t long before Amy finds out that there’s an active shooter at Lakewood High School and that Noah did end up going to school that day.

Amy does a map search and finds out that she’s four miles from the community center, and it would take about one hour to get there by foot. She’s unable to reach Noah on his phone, but she finds out that Emily and the people at Emily’s school are safe and sound at the shelter. There are very few people Amy can call to pick her up in the woods to give her a ride on such short notice. The ones she calls are either not answering their phones, or they are parents who are already at the shelter and don’t want to leave.

In desperate need of transportation, Amy books a ride with a Lyft driver (played by Paul Pape) to pick her up, while she continues to run in a panic through the woods. But then, the driver calls to tell her that he’s stuck in traffic and won’t get there for at least another 40 minutes. Amy doesn’t want to wait that long, so she keeps running. There’s a point in the story where she changes her plans to go to the community center and decides to go to Lakewood High School instead.

And in a melodramatic movie like this, Amy predictably stumbles and injures herself in the woods. Twice. The first injury happens early on in her race to get out of the woods. Amy sprains one of her ankles, so for the most of the movie, she runs around with a limp. In the other injury, she falls down and hits her head.

These injuries don’t stop Amy, of course. She wades through a creek, runs through the woods like a marathoner, and becomes a one-woman detective agency through a series of phone calls, text messages and Internet searches. The movie also reveals if Noah is a victim or if he’s the shooter.

Amy’s tripping in the woods isn’t the only thing that stumbles about “Lakewood.” The movie takes a steep nosedive into ridiculousness when Amy starts acting like she’s a law enforcement juggernaut. She takes certain matters into her own hands and breaks a law or two to do it. It’s not too far-fetched that a panic-stricken parent would want to act this way.

What’s far-fetched and too hard to take about this movie is that the law enforcement officers ultimately approve of what Amy does and go along with it. And that’s why “Lakewood” becomes just a crass and borderline offensive way to depict what parents would be allowed to do in an active shooter situation. This movie takes the real-life turmoil that parents and other loved ones feel in similar situations and warps the reality of how law enforcement handles these tragedies, just for the sake of making a movie more dramatic.

“Lakewood” star Watts—who is in almost every scene of “Lakewood” and is one of the movie’s producers—brings a lot of believable anguish to the role, so her performance is definitely this movie’s biggest asset. And “Lakewood” certainly has effective technical elements (such as cinematography, music, editing) in building a lot of suspense. But when the movie concocts a ridiculous fantasy of Amy being able to do certain things faster and better than trained law enforcement, it’s just so wrong, distasteful and ultimately insulting to people who have endured these school shooting traumas in real life.

UPDATE: Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions will release “The Desperate Hour” (formerly titled “Lakewood”) in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on February 25, 2022.

Review: ‘After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News,’ starring James Alefantis, Jerome Corsi, Kara Swisher, Jack Burkman, Paul Pape, Keith Alexander and Elizabeth Williamson

March 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Infowars founder Alex Jones in “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News”

Directed by Andrew Rossi

Culture Representation: This politically oriented documentary, which examines the effects of “fake news” in the United States, interviews a predominantly white group of people, including mainstream media journalists, government officials, university professors, right-wing conspiracy theorists and victims of “fake news” stories.

Culture Clash: While the documentary mentions that false news reports can come from anywhere, the movie focuses primarily on “fake news'” spread by right-wing, anti-establishment conspiracy theorists, and the movie shows how this “fake news” affects the targeted people and journalists.

Culture Audience: This documentary will appeal mostly to people who are comfortable with mainstream media outlets as their main source of news, since these outlets are portrayed in the movie as the best watchdogs for “fake news.”

Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis in “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

What is “fake news”? It depends on who you ask. In the documentary “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News,” what’s defined as “fake news” are false reports and lies that go viral and reach the mainstream. The movie, directed by Andrew Rossi, takes particular aim at right-wing conspiracy theorists as the purveyors of fake news that do the most damage. The documentary takes the position that mainstream media outlets, although flawed, are the still the best ways to combat fake news since they have the resources to fact-check stories. Meanwhile, the conspiracy theorists firmly believe that mainstream media outlets are the enemies and the real spreaders of fake news.

Tabloids have been publishing fake news for decades, but a more recent type of fake news has arisen through people in the general public using social media to spread their messages. “After Truth” takes an even narrower scope of this new type of fake news, by zooming in on politically motivated “fake news” stories (instead of tabloid staples such as celebrity gossip) that have occurred in the U.S. since 2015.

Why the year 2015? According to  Georgetown University disinformation expert Molly McKew, who’s interviewed in “After Truth,” the summer of 2015 was the start of this current “fake news” era. And most of the experts interviewed think that it’s not a coincidence that this era started soon after Donald Trump began his campaign to become president of the United States. Although the documentary focuses mostly on Americans involved in the war of spreading and debunking fake news, there is some mention of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“After Truth” puts a spotlight on some of the biggest “fake news” scandals in recent years, starting with the hysteria created in the summer of 2015 from Jade Helm 15, an eight-week military exercise in Bastrop County, Texas. The exercise was intended to train military personnel on what do in wartime, including re-enactments. Somehow, false stories began spreading on the Internet that the military was really there to detain people who were known to speak out against then-President Barack Obama, and that the military was really there to enforce “martial law.”

The documentary shows angry citizens at a crowded town hall meeting expressing disbelief and fear when a military official at the meeting assured them that the stories were fake and that no one was going to be arrested for their political beliefs. Paul Pape, a judge in Bastrop County, was one of the people who had to deal with the flood of backlash from misinformed people who were panicking over the military presence. In the documentary, Pape made it clear in saying what he learned from the experience: “Social media is the devil.”

Perhaps the most extreme case that’s spotlighted in the documentary is Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that began in 2016 about Comet Ping Pong, a family-oriented pizza parlor/ping-pong facility in Washington, D.C., that’s frequented by many people who work in politics. One of the customers was John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff and chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

After several of Podesta’s personal email messages were hacked and leaked on WikiLeaks, the email showed that he was a customer of Comet Ping Pong. Conspiracy theorists (the documentary names Infowars founder Alex Jones as a chief culprit) took the information in the email and twisted it into the Pizzagate theory that Comet Ping Pong was a secret meeting place for a pedophile ring. Podesta, Clinton and billionaire George Soros (a high-profile supporter of Clinton and other liberal Democrats) were all named by the Pizzagate conspiracy theorists as being perverted participants in the ring.

In December 2016, one of the conspiracy theorists (a then-28-year-old armed gunman) was so agitated by this belief that he drove about 350 miles from North Carolina, burst into Comet Ping Pong, and started shooting. Luckily, no one was injured or killed, thanks to employees who quickly evacuated customers from danger. The gunman was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison in 2017. In 2019, another man, also identified as another right-wing conspiracy theorist, tried to set fire to Comet Ping Pong. He was also arrested.

In the documentary, Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis (who says the Pizzagate theories are all lies) and some of his employees give emotionally compelling accounts of the terror they felt the day of the shootout and the underlying threat of violence that they still feel, since they know that Comet Ping Pong is still a target for conspiracy theorists’ hatred. Alefantis says that he and Comet Ping Pong associates frequently get death threats and hate mail.

Alefantis, who is openly gay and has a LGBTQ-inclusive policy for customers and employees, also believes that homophobia is probably fueling some of the violent threats against his business. And he also talks about how he thought about closing the business many times, but because of the loyal support of his customers and employees, he’s vowed not to cave in to the bullying and death threats. “It’s a simple recipe,” he says of why Comet Ping Pong is still in business. “Family, community, truth. That’s why we’re here.”

“After Truth” also interviews several right-wing conspiracy theorists to show that they seem to care more about money and fame than reporting facts. They include political operative Jerome Corsi (who’s described in the documentary as the godfather of the current “fake news” era), Republican lobbyist Jack Burkman, Derrick Broze of the Conscience Resistance Network, and Jason Goodman of Crowdsource the Truth. None of them has a background in journalism—and they’re proud of it. As Goodman says in the documentary, “Whatever you think is journalism, I think of as fucked up.”

Burkman freely admits that fake news is “a political weapon,” yet he and others just like him don’t think they bear any responsibility for firing the weapon. “Yeah, there are terrible, negative consequences, but so what?” He adds with a smirk, “Let the people judge, despite the dangers. There is no reality, only perception.”

In the midst of the documentary’s very heavy subject matter comes some comic relief about how fake news can be bungled. Toward the end of the film, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at a debacle that was spearheaded by Burkman and fellow right-wing conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl. In October 2019, the two men claimed that a woman had come forward with a sexual-assault accusation against United States Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller, who at the time was heading the investigation into Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Burkman and Wohl promised that they and the woman would be at a press conference to give more details.

Although Burkman and Wohl went through with the press conference, the “mystery woman” never came forward. The press conference and the alleged sexual-assault claim were largely exposed as hoaxes. The documentary shows how, even after being confronted by angry and skeptical reporters, Burkman and Wohl tried to talk their way out of their inconsistent and contradictory statements. And after the press conference, Wohl seemed mostly concerned about whether or not they were “trending” on social media.

That “fake news” fiasco fortunately did not end in violence. But the effects of fake news on threatening people’s safety, as well as how it often crosses the line into hate speech, have led to growing backlash against conspiracy theorists. The documentary mentions that people like Infowars founder Jones (who’s now been banned from all major social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) have no qualms about spreading false/questionable information about others, but are very thin-skinned if they think the same thing is being done to them. There’s footage of Jones, after he lost much of his income due to being banned by these social-media platforms, angrily confronting CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy and accusing CNN of spreading lies about him.

“After Truth” doesn’t let all mainstream media off the hook. Many of the people interviewed in this documentary say that social-media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are corporate enablers of fake news and only try to stop to fake news when there’s widespread public backlash or a government investigation. Smaller social-media platforms such as Reddit and 4Chan are also mentioned as places that spread a lot of fake news and thrive on it. However, Facebook is singled out in the documentary as the worst corporate enabler of fake news.

Recode co-founder Kara Swisher says of Facebook’s relationship with fake news: “They created the platform where it gets spread and then they’re like, ‘Oh, what can we do?’ They hide behind the First Amendment, and they are not the government. They can make choices. They just don’t want to.”

Although many conspiracy theorists and spreaders of fake news who’ve been kicked off mainstream social media say that they are being “censored,” the documentary points out, for people who are ignorant about censorship, that censorship is when the government, not a business, stops or prevents free speech.

Also covered in “After Truth” is the conspiracy theory (which has been widely debunked) that Clinton had something to do with the 2016 murder of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee employee. Police have reported the case as a murder that happened during an attempted robbery. Seth Rich’s older brother Aaron is interviewed in the documentary to reveal how much damage (death threats and other harassment) that conspiracy theorists have caused to his family.

And although the documentary shows extreme right-wingers as being the worst offenders in spreading fake news, the movie gives just one example of a liberal who freely admitted to spreading fake news to get a Democrat elected in the 2017 contentious and controversial race for U.S. Senator in Alabama. The opponents were Roy Moore (a conservative Republican) and Doug Jones (a liberal Democrat). LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman said he created fake accounts on social media, pretending to be right-wing supporters of Moore, so that they would alienate moderate Republicans and spur the moderates to vote for Jones. (Jones won the election.)

Hoffman says he has no regrets about spreading fake news: “I felt empowered to give Republicans a taste of their own medicine.” However, Jones (who’s interviewed in the documentary) expresses disgust that anyone used fake news to help his campaign, and he condemns these tactics. Jones says, “Two wrongs don’t make a right. That’s crazy.”

There are several journalists (all from mainstream media) who are interviewed in the documentary, including CNN’s Darcy; BuzzFeed media editor Craig Silverman; Washington Post reporter Keith Alexander; and The New York Times reporters Adam Goldman and Elizabeth Williamson. University professors interviewed include Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Yokai Benkler of Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center, who has this to say about fake news: “It’s very clear what you have is a propagandist effort trying to achieve a result.”

On the one hand, this documentary does an excellent job of showing the real and very human collateral damage that can result in “fake news.” On the other hand, in its zeal in singling out conspiracy theorists as the worst of the worst, “After Truth” could have been a little more balanced in showing that mainstream media outlets can report false stories too.

The executive producers of “After Truth” include CNN’s Brian Stelter, and so that’s perhaps why the documentary turns a blind eye to all the political “fake news” that mainstream media outlets like CNN and The New York Times have ended up having to retract or correct since 2015. However, the difference between these mainstream media outlets and the conspiracy theorists is that when mainstream media outlets have been exposed as reporting false information, they usually admit their mistakes and make the necessary corrections or retractions. Conspiracy theorists almost never correct or retract statements that have been proven to be false, even if they’ve been sued over these false statements.

Whether people are politically liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, the main takeaway from “After Truth” is that in this digital technology age where it’s easier than ever before for people to have false online identities, manipulate photos and videos, and create “fake news,” it’s up to news audiences to be more pro-active in finding out the truth instead of believing stories at face value.

HBO premiered “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” on March 19, 2020.

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