A Quick But Satisfying Bite

I missed The Shallows when it was in theaters last year. I’d wanted to see it since it received good word-of-mouth and a decent Rotten Tomatoes rating in the mid-seventies. Jaws has been a favorite movie of mine since I first saw it in 1975, at the same time I was reading the book. Another one I enjoyed was Open Water, a film that effectively mined the primal terror engendered by sharks, and raked in $30 million on a budget of $120,000. I figured The Shallows would be in a similar vein. Now it’s come to Starz so I was able to catch it (you could say).

Working from a script by Anthony Jaswinski, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has crafted a tight and focused movie. He’s done both horror and thrillers in the past, helming Orphan, Unknown, and Non-Stop. The Shallows has one main character and a handful of supporting roles, so the burden for making the film work is on Blake Lively. She’s on screen for almost every second of the film’s 86 minute running time. Think The Revenant in a warm climate.

Lively plays Nancy, a medical student who’s dealing with the loss of her mother. She’s gone in search of a special beach in Mexico that her mother had visited when she was Nancy’s age. With the help of Carlos (Oscar Jaenada) , Nancy finds the beach and then surfs the cove there with a couple of locals. She stays out when they leave to make a last run, but during it she’s attacked by a Great White that slashes open her thigh. Only 200 yards from shore, she finds herself in an ultimate fight for survival.

Collet-Serra follows the playbook that Spielberg accidentally wrote. Bruce, the mechanical shark of Jaws, malfunctioned so often it only makes brief appearances in the film, which increased the terror. With a CGI shark, there aren’t any of the problems that plagued Spielberg, but Collet-Serra still limits its appearances to a total of 4 minutes screen time. Instead the horror is communicated by a blossom of blood in the water, or Lively’s reaction to a would-be rescuer’s fate. (Collet-Serra does, though, give a short cut that rivals the dropping foot in Jaws.)

Lively demonstrated with Age of Adeline that she had the strength as an actor to hold a film. While she is a classic beauty who summons up memories of the classic Hollywood stars of the 1940s like Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake, she matches those looks with intelligence and determination. In 1999, the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough featured Denise Richards cast as a nuclear scientist. It was truly painful to watch. Here, though, it’s no stretch to believe Lively as a medical student. She took the role partly because of her husband Ryan Reynolds’ similar minimalist film, 2010’s Buried. With one exception she did her own stunts throughout the movie. At one point late in the film she winds up with a bloody nose; that actually happened and it’s her blood. The exception: Lively didn’t know how to surf, even though she was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, just over the hills from Malibu. A professional was brought in for the scenes when she was actually surfing.

Much of the filming was done in a tank with green screen. For anyone who’s studied the filming of Jaws, you know open water filming can be deadly for a budget. It came close to scuttling Spielberg’s career before it ever got going. Collet-Serra, though, did some location filming along the Gold Coast of Australia, substituting for Mexico, and included actual footage in every green screen scene.

This taut film did well in the theaters, grossing over three times its budget. If you’re an aficionado of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, or if you like thrillers that actually do thrill, make sure you check out this film.

As Time Goes By

Filming a romantic fantasy is like skipping a rope on a high wire: it’s not easy to do and most who try it fail, but when it works it’s impressive. An example of a failure in the genre, last year Winter’s Tale managed only a 13% rating from Rotten Tomatoes. The good news is that the new release The Age of Adaline pulls off the balancing act, despite a couple of wobbles.

We’re introduced to Adaline (Blake Lively) on New Year’s Eve 2014 as she takes a cab from San Francisco to Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge. An omnipresent narrator intones that it’s this day will be the last day of her past life, and the first day of her new one, which sounds pompous until we discover she’s buying a new identity from a teenage forger. Adaline demonstrates a Sherlock Holmesian gift for observation that makes the forger fear she’s with the police, but she explains she’s just using her experience to help him.

She returns to San Francisco and her job at a historical preservation society. While cataloguing newsreel footage of the 1906 earthquake, Adaline drifts back through moments in her life starting with her birth, the first baby born on New Year’s Day in San Francisco in the year of the quake.  Her husband was an engineer who helped build the Golden Gate Bridge until an accident claimed his life and left Adaline a widowed young mother. Then, when she was 29, a freak accident freezes the aging process in her body.  (The narrator intones a pseudo-scientific explanation, which is one of the wobbles.) As her daughter grows to college-age in the 1950s, Adaline remains the same. When she comes to the attention of the authorities during the days of Red Scare paranoia, Adaline goes into hiding, regularly changing her identity.

At a New Year’s Eve party that night, Adaline meets Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), and even from across the room there’s an immediate attraction. But then it appears he’s with someone, so Adaline walks away. Ellis follows her as she leaves the party and tries to get her number – he felt the attraction as well – but she refuses to give it and leaves. The next day she meets her daughter Flemming (Ellen Burstyn) for a birthday lunch. Adaline mentions Ellis, but she dismisses the idea of romance and love; there’s no future in it if they can’t grow old together. Flemming knows how much her mother has sacrificed in her long life and hopes she’ll have a chance to be happy. Then the fates conspire to bring Ellis back into Adaline’s life.

The film has an unusual combination for its creative team. Director Lee Toland Krieger has mostly worked with independent films, following in the footsteps of his mentor Neil LaBute. The original story and screenplay were written by Salvator Paskowitz and J Mills Goodloe, neither of which who were known for this type of film. But the trifecta of producers – Sidney Kimmel, Gary Lucchesi, and Tom Rosenburg – have together or on their own produced some excellent films, such as Million Dollar Baby, Moneyball, and The Lincoln Lawyer. Paskowitz and Goodloe manage to juggle the plot so all  the aspects of it stay airborne, while Krieger gives the film a bit of an edge that serves it well. Cinematographer David Lanzenberg captures San Francisco beautifully on the screen. With its blend of old and new, it’s the perfect setting for this story. The score by Rob Simonsen is exceptional, both in its romantic themes as well as the wise use of period music to match the ages of Adaline shown on the screen.

But it would have been a wasted effort without an actress who can project an old soul within a youthful body. Blake Lively is known mostly for the TV series “Gossip Girl” and as the spouse of Ryan Reynolds, with who she starred in the unsuccessful superhero movie The Green Lantern. She gave a surprisingly effective performance in Ben Affleck’s caper movie The Town as an addicted young mother. Here, though, she steps to the center of the stage and casts a spell as Adaline with a gracious and nuanced performance. The camera captures each subtle reaction or flash of memory that whispers across Lively’s face.

She’s assisted by a strong supporting cast. Dutch actor Michiel Huisman has become a major presence on TV recently, with roles in Game of Thrones, Orphan Black, Nashville and Treme, as well as in the movies Wild and World War Z. He’s handsome enough you don’t question Adaline’s attraction, though he also projects a depth that allows the relationship to grow into love. Along with the previously mentioned Ellen Burstyn, the movie also stars Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker as Ellis’ parents.

If you are a romantic, I suggest you bring a supply of tissues with you when you view this film. If you’re not a romantic, bring along someone who is so that you can experience the emotional power of the story.