(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.
(On TV, November 2015) Two or three things distinguish House of Wax from your usual run-of-the-mill teenagers-attacked-by-crazy-hillbillies thriller. Depending on your mood, they may be worth a look. The first is that one of the teenagers is played by none other than Paris Hilton, and her inevitably gruesome death sequence may be what you’re looking for. The second may be more important: Our psycho hillbillies here are big fans of wax sculptures, or more accurately spraying wax on living subjects until they live no more. The sequence in which they discover an eerily silent village, and then a house filled with waxy bodies, is a cut above the usual horror shlock. This was Jaume Collet-Serra’s first feature film as a director, and the visual sense he would demonstrate in latter film (as well as a penchant for crazy scripting) is already fully featured here. None of those positive points are enough to make House of Wax any better than an average horror film. The first act takes too long, the characters aren’t particularly likable; there’s an almost-complete lack of thematic depth to the proceedings and the end sequence doesn’t amount to much but a spectacular waxy melt-down. The visual atmosphere, I suppose, is enough to save the film from the memory oblivion that awaits most horror films. It could have been worse, of course.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Are we ever going to get enough of Liam Neeson as an action hero? Maybe not just yet, especially when he can elevate straight-up genre material with a good performance. In Run All Night, he plays a little bit more downtrodden than usual as a Mob enforcer far past his prime, reduced to playing Santa Claus for his boss’ family in order to pay his heating repair bills. He is being kept around out of loyalty by the Big Boss (Ed Harris), but when things heat up and his estranged son kills the Boss’ son, the usual rules don’t apply and what follows is a night-long chase through New York, as organized crime, hired assassins and the police all try to find our heroes. It gets a bit complex at times, but the point is seeing Liam Neeson’s character regain his dignity and (once again) save his family from harm. Director Jaume Collet-Serra seems a bit more restrained than usual here, although the frantic Google-Earth-inspired scene transitions give a taste of his trademark directorial insanity. There are no crazy plot twists, though, as Run All Night remains a straightforward crime thriller, all the way to a relatively conventional ending. It’s not quite as compelling as other Liamspoilation movies, but there’s undeniable satisfaction in seeing Neeson face off against Harris (even if mostly by phone) in a grim dark thriller with some thematic depth. It probably could have been a bit better – Joel Kinnaman is a charisma void in one of the film’s major roles and the script could have used a bit of tightening up. Neeson can do better, Collet-Serra can do better, we viewers can do better. But as far as such crime thrillers go, it’s a solid middle-of-the-road effort.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) Is it time for yet another Liam Neeson thriller? A better question would be: when isn’t it time for another Liam Neeson thriller? An action star at a time when most other actors his age are trying to get out of the strenuous business, Neeson reliably takes on another grizzled veteran able to intimidate grown men simply by stepping into frame. Here, he’s back in action as a federal Air Marshall who discovers an intricate conspiracy aboard his flight. Racing against time, will he be able to discover who’s goading him by text messages? It’s not a big plane, and there are only 150 suspects… Director Jaume Collet-Serra handled the ensuing madness with occasional flourishes of style (most notably with a shot floating throughout the airplane), never quite letting the insanity of the script run away from him. It’s a little bit demented, but just enough to keep the screws tightened during an exercise in a familiar “plane in peril” sub-genre. (It’s quite a bit better than Flight Plan, if anyone remembers that) While the specifics of the plot don’t always make sense, and the rationale behind the plot isn’t something that can really be explained while sober, there’s something interesting about an airplane thriller revolving around the very notion of inflight post-9/11 anti-terrorism security. (Also ingenious: The on-screen effects showing us the text messages read by the characters.) Lupita Nyong’o was cast in this film quite some time before winning an Oscar, so don’t be surprised to see that she has practically an extended cameo. While the result isn’t particularly good, it is good enough to be entertaining when it needs to be, and fully exploits the added gravitas that Neeson can bring to any role.
(In theaters, February 2011) I suspect that any overall appreciation of the film will hinge on the reaction to the shift from the Hitchcockian beginning of this B-grade thriller to its far stranger ending. The premise is solid suspense gold (an American traveler in Berlin has an accident, suffers from some amnesia, but isn’t recognized by his wife once he finds her again) but as the film progresses it shifts while adding assassins, car chases and characters curiously versed in espionage lore. It’s all nicely tied up, but more importantly it’s delivered with a solid regard for thriller conventions. While Unknown may not qualify as a top-quality suspense film, it’s quick and dirty enough to serve as a respectable typical genre exercise. In a solid performance, Liam Neeson reminds us of his turn in the seemingly-related Taken and carries much of the film on his shoulders. The cinematography is Berlin Winter-harsh and if Jaume Collet-Serra’s directing is a bit too jumpy to be more effective, the entire film feels like a straight-ahead delivery of expected thrills. Never mind the plot holes or the mid-film lulls: You want a thriller? Here’s a thriller. Curiously enough, this exploitative genre piece is adapted from a far more introspective 2003 French novel by Didier van Cauwelaert, Hors de moi, which delves into metaphysical possibilities before delivering pretty much the same twist as the film, without car chases. The movie, for once, is far more satisfying.