(On Cable TV, January 2017) There is a welcome high-concept simplicity to The Shallows that sets it apart from so many other humdrum efforts. Here, a surfer is injured and stranded on a small island in an isolated bay, with an unusually tenacious shark circling her for food. It sounds like a thin premise even for a 90-minute movie, but the script does have enough in the tank to sustain the film to the end with a minimal amount of flashbacks outside the claustrophobic situation. Blake Lively stars in a film that features her (and only her) for most of its running time—a demanding physical role in which she’s battered, bled, driven to madness and showing a fairly wide range of emotion for a single-location film. Still, the most valued player here is director Jaume Collet-Serra, bringing his usual madness to a script that benefits from his kind of excessive showboating. On-screen text messages are familiar by now, but it’s when Lively is stuck on the rocks that Collet-Serra gets at his best, cleverly establishing a good sense of place before letting loose with a surprising variety of action sequences. The Shallows earns a special place as a minimalist premise maximally executed: It’s quite a bit of fun to watch, and there is seldom a dull moment. The shark makes for an implausible antagonist, but every great movie can use a great villain, so that’s the role it plays. Lively is quite good in a tough role (no wonder she’s emerging as one of the most capable actresses of her cohort—also see what she could manage in The Age of Adaline) and the film’s conclusion is suitably grandiose. The Shallows is a nice surprise find, especially for those who assumed this would be just another shark movie.
(Video on Demand, September 2015) As a Science Fiction film fan with annoying analytical tendencies, I’m often fascinated by those romantic movies that hinge on a clearly science-fictional device (usually time travel or a variant thereof) but otherwise don’t really belong to the SF genre. The Time Traveller’s Wife, About Time, Premonition, The Lake House… take your pick, and add The Age of Adaline to the list, given how a thin (but definitive) scientific rationale is provided to explain how a woman in her twenties stops aging in 1938 and makes it to 2015 by avoiding permanent relationships. Much of the film is about what happens when she finally dares to face love, and what happens when the past comes back to haunt her. Blake Lively is very good in the lead role, while Harrison Ford finally gets to act for the first time in years. San Francisco is used to lovely effect (although it strains credulity to imagine that an immortal would spend most of her time in such a small city) and Lee Toland Krieger’s direction is quite good. From a genre Science Fiction perspective, it seems provocative that the comet metaphor doesn’t make any sense, but particularly that the SF intrusion would be perceived as stifling, the heroine only reaching personal growth when it is removed from the world. (The word “flexibility” is used toward the end of the film in a most telling context.) That’s the kind of detail that illuminates why while The Age of Adaline may be a film with a Science Fiction element, it’s not really a Science Fiction film… although that shouldn’t be seen as a problem for what is, after all, a reasonably entertaining take on romantic drama musings.
(On-demand Video, November 2012) Oliver Stone certainly knows how to handle criminal mayhem, and if Savages isn’t as good overall as some of its strongest individual moments may suggest, it’s a fairly strong entry in the “California noir” thriller sub-genre. Strikingly contemporary with references to legal marijuana, omnipresent technology (including criminal IT teams) and America’s latest two wars, this efficient adaptation of Don Winslow’s hard-hitting novel is a colorful blend of upstanding criminals of all stripes. Central to the tale is the happy ménage-à-trois between two dedicated drug entrepreneurs and the woman who loves them both, but Savages’ best moments come from the peripheral players: A completely corrupt DEA agent played by John Travolta, a merciless enforcer incarnated by Benicio del Toro and a powerful drug baron handled with icy grace by Salma Hayek. All of them seem to be enjoying their turn to the dark side, so much so that the nominal protagonists of the film seem to fade away. What doesn’t fade, fortunately, is Stone’s attempt to translate the energy of the novel onto film, with self-assured choices, a colorful palette and plenty of narrative forward rhythm despite Savages’ 140-minutes running time. Alas, he also chooses to end on a double-triggered ending that gives unfortunate credence to the stereotype that every ending is happier in Hollywood, ruining a perfectly adequate conclusion with one that may unsettle even happy-ending fans. (Yes, it’s sort-of-prefigured with some narrative warnings at the very beginning of the film. No, it’s still not all that effective –a more powerful film may have been produced by flipping the endings.) Also unfortunate: Blake Lively’s inert voiceovers that seem to be taken from laborious readings of trite material, and the way some subplots seem abandoned mid-way through. Still, there’s a lot to like in the way those modern criminals try to gain advantage over each other, various methods and tricks all eventually leading to a desert confrontation. It’s a bit of a treat for thriller fans looking for something a bit more ambitious than the usual straight-to-video suspense film. Stone may have trouble focusing, but despite significant missteps, Savages frequently clicks when other thrillers chug along, and that’s enough of a distinction to warrant a look.