The Shallows


Blake Lively hopes this film will buoy her career.

Blake Lively hopes this film will buoy her career.

(2016) Thriller (Columbia) Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Angelo Jose, Lozano Corzo, Jose Manual Trujillo Salas, Brett Cullen, Sedoria Legge, Pablo Calva, Diego Espejel, Janelle Bailey, Ava Dean, Chelsea Moody. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

 

If sharks had their own equivalent of the ACLU, there’d be picketing of Hollywood in general. No other animal has been demonized the way sharks have; perhaps Steven Spielberg would be Public Enemy Number One. Sharks are predators, yes, but they rarely attack humans and it is even more rare that they kill humans. More people die from interactions with horses than with sharks.

Nancy (Lively) has had some shit to deal with lately. Her mom (Bailey) recently passed away from cancer; this caused her to take a good hard look at her life and drop out of medical school, much to the consternation of her dad (Cullen) and her sister Chloe (Legge). Instead, Nancy has decided to take a vacation in Mexico with her party hearty friend but she’s not there for the tequila. No, Nancy wants to surf a beach that has personal meaning to her – it was a secluded beach that her mom used to take her to back in the day. It was a place where Nancy was truly happy.

When her friend is too hung over to go along for the ride, Nancy goes by herself and enlists the aid of a local (Jaenada) to drive her to the beach. It is just as secluded as it ever was; only a pair of surfer dudes (Jose, Corzo) is there. The day wanes and it has been a perfect afternoon. As the boys leave for home, Nancy decides to take one last ride. That proves to be a mistake.

You see, the surfer dudes weren’t the only ones out there; there’s also a great white shark who has been feasting on a whale out in the water. However, apparently having a whale that is ten times its size out there to dine on isn’t enough; the shark must have some human meat because, after all, variety is the spice of life. So the shark takes a bite out of Nancy who manages to make it to a rock 200 yards from shore. And there she will stay, and she will need all her ingenuity and the occasional help of a seagull named Steven (get it?) to fend off the most deadly of all predators.

Let’s get something straight; sharks rarely eat humans and when they do, it’s usually due to confusion. The fact of the matter is, sharks don’t much like the taste of human meat; they prefer more fishy sources of protein and frankly, if there’s a ginormous whale carcass ripe for the taking, they’re not going to bother with going out and killing something else. Sharks are not greedy by nature; they kill only what they can eat to survive. They don’t kill just for the sake of killing as they are depicted not only here but in popular imagination.

Mainly however this particular shark is there to menace Blake Lively and keep her in a bikini for the entire movie and admittedly she looks fantastic in a bikini. Although her character is ostensibly from Texas, Lively is the prototypical California surfer chick, so she is well-cast here. Lively needed to be solid here as she is basically the entire movie; she occasionally talks to her seagull buddy or records into a camera and/or cellphone but otherwise, it’s all her and all physical. This is the kind of demanding movie that pushed actors like Robert Redford and Matt Damon to their limits and this is also the case with Lively but she manages to keep our attention throughout and not just because of her bikini body. She does have a breezy personality that reminds me of Blythe Danner in the 70s and Kate Hudson more recently.

Jaume Collet-Serra is a Spanish director who has a knack for thrillers, particularly the action-based kind. This is more of a character thriller and he acquits himself well, considering that it is much more difficult to keep things interesting with a single character than it is when that character has other people and things to play off of. Lively doesn’t get that luxury; she has to interact with machines and an occasional bird, but has nothing else to work off of.

If you can forgive the egregious lapses in logic and biology here, this is a pretty good thriller. The conundrum of Nancy being so close yet so far from shore is tantalizing. There is a modicum of gore and of the CGI shark (which is much more realistic than Bruce in Jaws) which is a terrifying monster. As summer entertainment goes, you could do much worse – but also you can also do better. As it stands, this is a competently done edge-of-the-seat woman vs. shark film that certainly isn’t a waste of your time or money.

REASONS TO GO: Collet-Serra excels at keeping the tension high.
REASONS TO STAY: The basis of the plot is that the shark has some sort of grudge against Blake Lively.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a few bloody images, intense peril and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot under its original title, In the Deep. The title was changed because the movie takes place in shallow waters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jaws
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Purge: Election Year

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Non-Stop


Liam Neeson's contract includes the valuables and wallets of the extras.

Liam Neeson’s contract includes the valuables and wallets of the extras.

(2014) Thriller (Universal) Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Nate Parker, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Corey Stoll, Omar Metwally, Jason Butler Harner, Linus Roache, Shea Whigham, Anson Mount, Quinn McColgan, Corey Hawkins, Frank Deal, Bar Paly, Edoardo Costa, Jon Abrahams, Amanda Quaid. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Flying is a stressful endeavor. We are crammed like sardines into a tin can and hope that the pilot is sober enough to get us from point A to point B without bringing us down in a flaming Viking funeral. We are surrounded by strangers and we hope against hope that they won’t talk the entire five hour flight, or that the kids behind us won’t kick our chair non-stop. It’s no wonder that alcohol is served aboard air flights. The wonder is that they don’t make tranquilizers available as well.

Bill Marks (Neeson) hates flying. Just to get him on the plane he has to drink half a bottle of whiskey. Once on board, he disables the smoke alarms in the lavatory to smoke a long, calming cigarette. He doesn’t really want to talk to anybody, but he’s a kindly enough sort who takes the time to help a little girl travelling all by herself across the Atlantic ocean to visit her daddy in London conquer her fears and step aboard the big intimidating airplane. Bill sure hates flying but he does a lot of it. After all, he’s a Federal Air Marshal.

It should be a routine flight from New York to London. Next to him is a pleasant if inquisitive middle aged woman named Jen (Moore) who is happy to let him sleep through most of the flight. The pilot (Roache) is an old friend as is the head stewardess Nancy (Dockery). His partner aboard, Jack Hammond (Mount) is a little by-the-book for his tastes but he knows his stuff. However, Bill doesn’t want to be there. He needs to be in New York, taking care of…well, stuff. He gets into a shouting match with his supervisor over the phone about it. The supervisor tells him that he can’t grant Bill’s request for an immediate return flight home; “I have to do what I have to do,” says the supervisor. “Oh yeah?” growls Bill, “Well I’ll do what I’ve gotta do too!” Showed him.

Of course, since this is a movie, the flight is anything but routine. Midway over the Atlantic, Bill gets a text on his secure Blackberry telling him that someone aboard the flight will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a Swiss bank account. Hammond pooh-poohs the threat but Bill is unnerved. When a passenger turns up dead at the specified time, Bill is vindicated. He is also the suspect as the bank account turns out to be in his name. As the body count begins to pile up, Bill begins to believe that the killer has a whole other agenda that has nothing to do with the money. The race against time is to discover what that agenda is, who’s behind it and to save the plane from the previously described Viking funeral.

There are plenty of red herrings in the thriller, some involving drug trafficking and of course the identity of the killer. Nearly everyone comes under suspicion at one point excluding Bill who is only made to look guilty but something told me early on that Neeson wasn’t going to be the killer (although that might have made for an interesting twist). There are so many that it actually becomes a little annoying.

Neeson has become quite a dependable action hero which is a far cry from his days as one of the better serious actors on the planet (Schindler’s List, Michael Collins sniff sniff). He is a large, physically intimidating man and his gruff demeanor makes him a perfect fit for these kinds of roles and again, like Kevin Costner in 3 Days to Kill is the biggest reason to plunk down your hard-earned cash to see this film.

Moore is likewise an actress who has delivered Oscar-caliber performances in the past. She makes an excellent foil for Neeson, bandying back and forth with him not necessarily in a flirtatious manner. Their chemistry is so strong I wouldn’t mind seeing them as partners in future movies.

The rest of the cast is unusually able for this type of film. Collet-Serra was very fortunate to cast actors who were on the cusp of their big break so he has an Oscar winner (Nyong’o) in an essentially throwaway role, Dockery just now breaking big for Downton Abbey and Stoll getting raves in House of Cards.

Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously teamed with Neeson in Unknown, knows what he’s doing when it comes to action films. Considering nearly all of the action takes place in a commercial airline cabin (excepting the opening and closing scenes), the action is pretty decent when it occurs. Most of the rest of the time, Collet-Serra is content to let the tension and the suspense rule the day. I would have preferred less misdirection – a little bit of that can go a long way – but that’s more of a personal preference. Your mileage may vary.

This is one of those movies that is exactly what you expect it to be – no more, no less. If you’re looking for mindless entertainment it will deliver. If you’re looking for a strong leading man, it delivers that too. If you’re looking for innovation within the genre, keep looking. But a WYSIWYG movie isn’t necessarily a bad thing – sometimes it’s exactly what you need.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson is always entertaining and this time gets a fine foil in Moore. Some fairly decent white knuckle moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Plot a bit too far up the ludicrous scale. Too many action film clichés.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some action film violence, at times fairly intense. There’s also a fair amount of foul language, a subplot involving drugs and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Bill Marks, like Neeson himself, was born in Northern Ireland and later emigrated to the United States.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Passenger 47

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Great Beauty

Unknown


Unknown

Diane Krueger has the unpleasant task of informing Liam Neeson that the grunge look is dead.

(2011) Suspense (Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Diane Krueger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider, Stipe Erceg, Mido Hamada, Clint Dyer, Karl Markovics, Eva Lobau, Rainer Bock. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Who are we really? Are we who we are because we say who we are? And what if we are told that is not who we are, that someone else is who we thought we were? Would the sales of Excedrin go through the roof if that were true?

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is a mild-mannered botanist speaking at a biotechnology conference in Berlin, accompanied by his beautiful, icy blonde wife Liz (Jones). It is snowing and the weather is awful when they arrive. In the haste to get into a warm cab, Martin leaves his briefcase behind at the airport. This briefcase contains his passport and all his other important documents, so he turns around at the posh Hotel Adlon and boards another cab to get back to the airport to retrieve it.

Unfortunately, as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men…a dreadful accident sends the taxi plunging off a bridge and into the icy waters of the river. Gina (Krueger), the plucky driver, rescues an unconscious Martin (who had hit his head against the window) from the sinking car and while the paramedics work on the stricken man, slips quietly away.

Four days later, Martin wakes up in the hospital with fractured memories of not only what happened to him but his entire wife. The sympathetic doctor (Markovics) tells him he has a head injury which can be tricky when it comes to memory, but the more Martin remembers the more frantic he gets regarding his wife, who has no idea what happened to him and must be going out of her mind by now. However, when he finally checks himself out of the hospital (against doctor’s orders) and heads back to the Adlon, Liz doesn’t remember him. Not only that, she is with another man (Quinn) whom she calls her husband and who seems to be…him.

This is awfully distressing to Martin. He is desperate to prove that he is him, but has no documentation, and very little cash. He visits a colleague, Dr. Bressler (Koch) who invited him to the conference only to find the other Dr. Harris there, who not only has proper documents but also family photographs. This so disturbs Martin that he faints.

The next thing he knows he is getting an MRI but when he comes out of it, an assassin (Schneider) has murdered his doctor and an even more sympathetic nurse (Lobau) and to Martin, that means that maybe he isn’t crazy. He goes to see Jurgen (Ganz), an ex-Stasi agent who the lately murdered nurse had recommended he sees. This sets into a chain of events involving the reluctantly recruited Gina, a Saudi prince (Hamada) and a covert team of murderers for hire.

Collet-Serra is better known for horror films and indeed, the movie is produced by Dark Castle, which specializes in horror but this is more Hitchcock than horror. It has a lot of the elements of a Hitchcock film – an ordinary man drawn into international intrigue that he doesn’t understand; a beautiful, icy-cold blonde, and an unlikely ally – also blonde.

Neeson has assumed the mantle, in his mid-50s, of an everyman action hero, one which Harrison Ford wore in the late 80s and 90s. Neeson’s perpetually gentle puppy dog aura can change into a ferocious fighter at a moment’s notice, and does so upon occasion here. He is so likable that he immediately resonates with the audience, and that’s half the battle in a movie like this.

Jones, who made her reputation in “Mad Men,” is given little more to do than look beautiful and, occasionally, sexy. Having seen her in a number of different roles, I believe she is one good part from being a major leading lady in Hollywood, but that hasn’t happened yet and this film doesn’t really provide her one. Still, she is very good at what she does.

Part of the problem here is that the movie relies on implausibility – considering the importance of what was in the original briefcase (which is more than the passports and is a critical plot point that I won’t reveal here) it’s hard to believe that Martin would leave it on the curb in a luggage cart, no matter how bad the weather. From the way his character is developed in flashback, it seems unlikely that he would let that particular bag leave his grasp but its disappearance is the fulcrum around which the plot is driven.

While based on a novel written by a French writer named Didier Van Caulweleart in 2003, there is a Cold War feel to the movie that would have been better served to be set in the same city but in 1963, with the Wall up and tensions high. As thrillers go, it’s a little bit on the old-fashioned side and some of the twists and turns are a bit predictable.

Still, there is a marvelous car chase, even though it seems a bit ludicrous that a botanist can drive a car like Remy Julienne, the famous French stunt driver although that is explained more or less by proxy by the film’s denouement. There are also some marvelous German actors in the film, not the least of which is Krueger (Inglourious Basterds) and Ganz (one of Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s mainstays and best known here for his work in Wings of Desire, as well as Bock, an unctuous security chief here but better as the schoolteacher in The White Ribbon.

What we have here is a moderately serviceable thriller that owes much of its appeal to its rather heavy-handed nods to the master, Alfred Hitchcock and much of the rest of it to its star, Liam Neeson. This isn’t going to re-write the book on the genre by any stretch of the imagination, but if you liked Neeson in Taken and loved basically anything the Master of Suspense directed with Jimmy Stewart in it, you’re going to enjoy Unknown very much.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson elevates the material. The car chase scene is nifty and the tension is elevated nicely throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the plot relies on implausibility and one gets the feel that this film would have been better served being set in the Cold War era.

FAMILY VALUES: As you probably figured out from the trailer, there is plenty of violence here but there’s also a little bit of sex as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bridge that the taxi takes its plunge from is the Oberbaumbrucke in Berlin.  

HOME OR THEATER: Not a lot of really big screen-type of cinematography here; it will work just as well on your own home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stolen