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.

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It All Adds Up

In the movie The Accountant, there’s a telling exchange between a parent whose child’s been diagnosed with autism and a clinician. The parent asks, “Can our son lead a normal life?” The clinician comes back with, “Define normal.” Autism is an umbrella diagnosis rather than a specific. How it manifests itself differs widely. It can also bring with it gifts. Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine found children who have autism and average IQs may have math skills far superior to non-autistic children with similar IQs. It’s believed the condition allows the autistic child to reorganize their brain. Some people who would today likely be diagnosed with autism are Albert Einstein, Lewis Carroll, Isaac Newton, Amadeus Mozart, and Thomas Jefferson.

The Accountant is a quite effective thriller that plays off of this fact. Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is an accountant with a small practice in Illinois. In flashback we see him as a child at a center in New England for children with autism. While his parents discuss his case with the director and Christian’s brother waits in obvious boredom, Christian dumps out a puzzle and begins to quickly assemble it upside down. He gets to the end but finds a piece missing, which sends him into a frenzy. He has to finish the puzzle. Christian calms when another resident, a young girl, finds the piece and gives it to him. Other flashbacks show how his father, a Marine, taught both his children to be strong and fight for their place in the world.

Thirty years later, Christian is asked to do a forensic audit for a robotics firm that’s about to go public. A young bookkeeper, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), has discovered irregularities and has alerted the two people in charge of the firm (John Lithgow, Jean Smart). At the same time we see Brax (Jon Bernthal) threaten a European trader with death if he doesn’t stop shorting stocks on the company owned by Brax’s employer. Also concurrent, the head of financial crimes at the Treasury, Ray King (J.K. Simmons) calls one of his investigators in for a meeting. King starts by revealing he knows Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) lied about her background to get the job, omitting juvenile convictions. He offers her a chance expunged her history if she can track down a man King calls the Accountant. There are pictures of him consorting with drug cartel kingpins, organized crime bosses, and other criminal organizations, though none catch his face.

The plot of The Accountant flies along from the start like a jet plane doing an acrobatics routine with plenty of twists and turns. Writer Bill Dubuque only has two previous credits, including co-writing the screenplay for the Robert Downey Jr/Robert Duvall legal thriller The Judge, but with this original script he’s created a story that thrills but also humanizes and personalizes autism. Director Gavin O’Connor has worked as both a director and producer in film as well as TV. He directed Miracle in 2004, starring Kurt Russell, and Warrior with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, and he directed the pilot and executive produced “The Americans,” one of the best series currently on TV. He works the script with a firm and dexterous hand.

Affleck gives one of the better performances of his career as the withdrawn, honorable Wolff. He captures the oddities of the character without show or flair but with an interiorization of the person. Kendrick gives her own twist on awkward as she finds herself attracted to Wolff. She had some help preparing for the role. Her mother is an accountant and tutored her daughter in the financial aspect of the story.

The other cast members are effective in their roles, in particular Bernthal as the lethal Drax. The movie also has Jeffrey Tambor in a small but pivotal role as Wolff’s mentor and entre into the world of criminal accountancy.

You could think of The Accountant as Jason Bourne meets Rainman, with The Firm thrown in. Those aren’t bad movies to be compared to, but The Accountant actually stands strong on its own. In the future it could be the movie to which other films are compared.

High Water Mark

I do enjoy a well-done disaster flick, not to be confused with a flick that’s a disaster. Historically this genre is the province of Hollywood, with studios laying out big bucks for special effects, but the digital revolution has broken borders. Some of the premier SFX houses are spread around the globe, like Weta Workshop in New Zealand. A great example of disaster films breaking out of Hollywood is 2015’s The Wave, which is now available on Netflix.

Just as American films focus on possible disasters in the United States like the recent San Andreas (earthquakes) and Into the Storm (tornadoes), this Norwegian film deals with a disaster on the home front – in this case a massive landslide into a narrow fjord that sets off a mammoth tsunami. Indeed, the film opens by citing earlier instances of this taking place. It then focuses on the town of Geiranger, nestled at the end of a fjord, that will have ten minutes to evacuate if a cliff-face down the fjord lets go and crashes into the water. In this, the film is factually correct, and the director was guided by the actual geology of an event that will happen. The only question is when.

Geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) has been working at a station that monitors the mountainsides, but he’s now taken a job with an oil exploration company and his family is preparing to move. When he returns from a preparatory trip to their new apartment in Oslo, he finds his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) fixing the sink while their teenaged son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and younger daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) watching. Over dinner Kristian explains the technologically advanced apartment they’ll have when they move, though Idun says she will miss the soul of their older house.

The next day, Kristian goes in for a final time to the Early Warning Center, located over 100 meters above sea level. There’s a particularly unstable section that they are monitoring remotely with both sensors and video. While he’s there a warning goes off about a drop in ground water levels, but when they check the video and the other monitors everything seems fine. The next day Kristian is leaving town with Sondre and Julia, while Idun has a last day at the hotel she manages in Geiranger and will follow later. He suddenly makes a connection with what caused the change in levels and why the monitors didn’t register a problem, so he turns around and heads to the Early Warning Center.

Oftentimes Hollywood disaster films begin with a bang to get the adrenalin pumping and to foreshadow the larger thrills to come. For example, with the two movies cited above, San Andreas begins with a white-knuckle helicopter rescue while Into The Storm has a nearly invisible night-time tornado take out a car with four students in it. The Wave does a slower build, focusing on the family and people they know, so we become close to these characters. They’re completely real, not the larger than life heroic types that often populate this genre. The term “disaster flick” inherently gives away some of the plot – bad things will happen – but the films usually split into two sub-categories: 1) the focus is on the disaster, or 2) the movie is a drama that happens to include a disaster. The Wave is firmly in the second sub-category.

Director Roar Uthaug has worked only in his native Norway, though that will be changing. He’s been tapped to helm the new Tomb Raider film due in 2018 that will star Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. The Wave only had a limited release in the US, common for a non-English film, but in Norway it sold over 800,000 tickets. Considering Norway has a population of around 5 million, that’s the equivalent of 1 in 6 people in the country seeing the film. That’s akin to a US movie having a domestic box office of approximately $500 million – about the domestic gross of The Dark Knight, which is 6th on the all-time domestic box office list.

Where many disaster movies feel over-bloated and usually have a running time in excess of two hours, The Wave is a lean 105 minutes. In the midst of the destruction – and the effects are stunning – it doesn’t lose sight of the human level. If you like this genre and have Netflix (or find it on another streaming service) I highly recommend you check out this film. It is well worth the viewing.

Monstrous Stew, Right Size Serving

Money Monster wants to be a lot of things. Screenwriters Jim Kouf & Alan DiFore and Jamie Linden have thrown pieces of His Girl Friday, Wall Street, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and Meet John Doe into a stew to create a populist-fantasy-black-comedy-thriller. It could have been a gray, unappealing mush. It’s fortunate, though, to have Jodie Foster in the director’s chair. She keeps the movie racing along for its tight 98 minute running time so it’s only afterward that you wonder, “How the heck was that as entertaining as it was?”

It does help to have George Clooney and Julia Roberts as the main characters. Clooney plays Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer-style television investment guru who spices up the show with props, sound effects, and dancing girls. Roberts is Patty Fenn, his long-suffering producer who’s leaving to take a job at another network. In effect, they are Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, shooting their lines of banter at each other early on. The show’s about to begin with the main focus on an investment company headed by Walt Camby (Dominic West) that has lost millions of dollars overnight because of what Camby calls a glitch in the trading algorithm. Camby was to have been the guest on the show, but he’s been delayed on a flight from Switzerland so the company’s Chief Informational Officer, Diane Lester (Caltriona Balfe from “Outlander”), is subbing for him on a remote feed.

Soon after the show begins, Patty notices a deliveryman wandering around backstage. Then the man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken) takes Gates hostage at gunpoint and forces him to put on an explosive vest. Kyle had sunk $60,000 into Camby’s company based on Lee’s recommendation of the investment. Now it’s gone, and he doesn’t buy the story of it being a glitch in the algorithm. Pretty soon, neither does Lee.

The movie is in effect a juggling act as the story flips between Lee in the studio, Patty in the control room, Lester at the company office, and the police who secure and evacuate the building and prepare to take Kyle down. Foster uses the camera so you’re constantly seeing the scene from multiple angles. She also brings in the reactions of people watching the hostage drama play out on television screens across the city. For some it’s compelling while others are jaded and treat it like another episode of reality TV.

Clooney and Roberts have a well-established rapport. Even when she’s a voice in his ear during the show, you feel the connection between them. Brit O’Connell works a bit hard at his Brooklynese, but you do care about Kyle, who stands in for all those who’ve been hurt by Wall Street machinations. (If you want a moral for the story, it’s that greed isn’t good.)

There were two delightful surprises in the cast. I hadn’t seen any episodes of “Outlander” but it’s now on my to-be-watched list, based on Caltriona Balfe’s performance here. She’s one of those actors that the camera embraces – everything going on in her mind communicates on her face effortlessly. Much of the show, though, is stolen by Lenny the cameraman, played by Lenny Venito. Like many in this country, he concentrates on doing his job, but in the end he goes so much past that to become a part of the story.

Money Monster is contrived and has to use several quick leaps to get to its desired conclusion, including a deus ex machina of hackers finding hidden evidence within a matter of minutes. That’s become a hackney cliché that should be eliminated from all writing. The movie also suffers in comparison to The Big Short which laid out a real story of the financial industry’s cupidity with an even darker level of humor – and was one of the best movies of 2015. But it does mix in a few twists on the formula that make it fun. There are worse ways to spend 98 minutes.

Surprise!

Usually a movie is tied to the studio publicity machine. A teaser trailer may come out a year before the film is released, followed by two or three more trailers to build up expectations. However, producer J.J. Abrams turned that around by releasing a first trailer two months before a movie’s release and having it serve as the announcement of the production. He attached the trailer to the Michael Bay film 13 Hours, but not many saw that movie. The next trailer came out two weeks later and was shown on the Super Bowl 50 broadcast, so millions saw it. That opened a floodgate of curiosity about 10 Cloverfield Lane.

The movie was filmed under the script’s original title, “The Shelter,” and also had the name “Valencia” attached to it during production in Louisiana. The script was by first-time screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matthew Steucken, whose previous work in the film industry was as, respectively, an assistant editor and an assistant producer. Abrams brought in Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of Whiplash, to polish the script. He gave the directing duty to Dan Trachtenberg, who’d done a 7 minute short based on the game Portal that had caught Abrams’ eye. 10 Cloverfield Lane was filmed with a miniscule $5 million budget. The secrecy around the movie was such that two of the stars thought the movie had been shelved because they heard nothing about its release.

The movie is essentially a three-person play. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her boyfriend and drives off into the Louisiana night, just as a report on the radio talks about a large power outage on the coast. After a stop for gas, she continues on her way only to get into an accident. She wakes up on a thin mattress in a cinderblock room with a saline I.V. in her arm, a brace on her knee – and a handcuff securing the brace to the wall. She eventually discovers that she’s in an underground shelter that was constructed by Howard (John Goodman), a former Navy man who’s a doomsday prepper. Also in the shelter is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a local guy who’d helped build Howard’s shelter and then talked his way into it when a strange thing happened.

What follows is a taut meditation on paranoia and suspicion that keeps on twisting the audience’s perceptions. I’d call it Hitchcockian, except Alfred had a much more sedate way of filming, even with Psycho. Here, Trachtenberg creates a claustrophobic mystery that also makes you feel like you’re riding on a roller coaster on which the brakes have gone out. He also manages to pay off the story in an amazing climax.

Goodman is top-notch as Howard. You don’t know whether he’s a psycho or a prophet, innocent or malevolent, until a moment that will shock even the most jaded member of the audience. The mystery of his nature keeps the tension ratcheted up throughout the film, even when things seem to be going well. Gallagher effectively portrays the wild-card in the hand. The key role, though, is Winstead’s performance as Michelle. The audience experiences the movie through her perceptions, so it can be a hostage drama, an action story of survival, or a cat-and-mouse thriller depending upon the moment, and she shifts between the iterations smoothly. One fun note: Michelle’s boyfriend, who shows up only as a voice on the phone, was performed by Bradley Cooper, whose first big role was on JJ Abrams’ “Alias.”

The movie is more of a second cousin than a direct relative of 2008’s Cloverfield. Abrams had marketed that found-footage film was also kept under wraps until just before its release as well (also attached to another Michael Bay film, the first Transformers). Cloverfield grossed almost twice its $25 million budget in its first week and ended up taking in $170 million worldwide. It was directed by Matt Reeves, who went on to direct Let Me In and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it was written by Drew Goddard who recently did The Martian as well as executive produced the Netflix adaptation of “Daredevil.” (Both Reeves and Goddard have executive producer credit on 10 Cloverfield Lane.)

In a sense the movie harks back to Cold War thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate and Fail Safe, but it keeps the focus much tighter than those earlier films. It also outshines the original Cloverfield. While it may be a cousin, it definitely lives in a much higher-class neighborhood.

Sharp as a Knife

“Sicario” is a word that goes back to Biblical times. During the Roman occupation of Judea, there was a splinter group of zealots who engaged in a terrorist war against the legions by killing individual soldiers. They used a dagger called a sicae, easily concealed and wickedly sharp, that they wielded with speed when they were close to the soldiers, defeating the Roman’s leather armor. As a group, these zealots were known as the Sicarii. The name means “dagger man” in Latin, though it’s usually defined by a word it predates by almost a millennium – assassin. The word moved from Latin into Spanish, where it now is used for a hit-man, particularly one working for the drug cartels.

Sicario is French-Canadian director Dennis Villenueve’s follow-up to his excellent 2013 movie Prisoners. Where the earlier film was more of a mystery, Sicario is a thriller that’s sharp as a knife, but what they both share is a meditation on the corrosive effect of violence within a tense, twisted plot. Rookie screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is more known as an actor – he had recurring roles on “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy” – but he’s fashioned a white-knuckle ride for the movie audience that displays the confident storytelling of a seasoned pro.

Sicario begins with an assault on a house at the edge of the desert outside Chandler, Arizona. The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team – their version of SWAT – deploys on a tip that hostages are being held inside by gunmen loyal to Mexican drug lord Manuel Diaz. Team Leader Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads her men inside and subdues the gunmen, but instead of hostages they find a house of horrors.

Through her superior (Victor Garber), Kate is brought onto a special task force that’s being led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Graver and his right-hand man Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) are aiming to bring down Diaz by stirring up trouble on both sides of the border. Macer wants to get Diaz, but following Graver and Alejandro sends her down a dark tunnel. As Nietzsche said, “When you look into an abyss, the abyss looks into you.”

Blunt showed in Edge of Tomorrow that she could upstage Tom Cruise during action sequences, and there’s plenty of action in Sicario. But rather than the mindless violence you get in one of the Die Hard series or others of that ilk, her reaction to the violence is even more important. Macer questions what she’s doing, and through Blunt the audience is forced to face the central question of whether it’s worth it to win when to do so you must become as much of a monster as the one you’re fighting.

Alejandro is del Toro’s best performance since Traffic, and in some ways it’s the flip side of that earlier role. He rarely speaks, but his silences are filled with meaning. He plays in counterpoint to Brolin, whose Graver is outwardly facile, though that covers a dark heart. On the other side of the teeter-totter is Macer’s partner Reggie, played by Daniel Kaluuya, who tries to keep Kate from falling into the abyss.

Villenueve is ably assisted by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins (Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption, A Beautiful Mind). The two had collaborated on the bleak winterscapes of Prisoners, while here you can almost taste the grit of the desert sand in your teeth. For one sequence near the climax of the movie, Deakins shot night scenes with actual thermal imaging cameras, rather than manipulating the film with special effects in post-production. Villenueve and Deakins show the border in a way it’s rarely if ever been seen in a film.

illenueve managed to make the film on a tight budget of thirty million, though the movie looks like they spent five times that amount. You don’t usually have a thriller debut on the festival circuit, but Sicario premiered at the Cannes festival and was also shown at the Toronto Film Festival, to the acclaim of critics and viewers alike. Where most thrillers are popcorn movies – fun but with little nutritional value – watching Sicario is more like consuming a steak dinner.

After all, you need a knife to cut the meat.

Wondering About It

I first saw Jurassic Park seated between my wife and 10-year-old son shortly after it was released in 1993. They each grabbed hold of my hand during scary scenes and held them so tightly it hurt. But along with the scares, Jurassic Park also filled the audience with wonder. It was the first movie to use extensive CGI effects created by the geniuses at ILM. (It was also the first movie to “paint” the face of an actor onto another body, for the scene where Ariana Richards is dangling from ductwork with a raptor below her; a stuntwoman did the actual hanging.) The first sequel ignored the wonder factor for a more straight-forward action flick, and the less said about the third movie the better. The good news is that Jurassic World rekindles the wonder while keeping the excitement level high.

The script throws away the previous sequels. Two decades after John Hammond’s original park failed, an entrepreneur (and 6th richest man in the world) to whom Hammond had given the rights for his work has brought the idea to fruition. Jurassic World has been operating safely for several years under the guidance of park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). There are references to the original park, with a John Hammond Imagination exhibit, the original park doors now used as a ceremonial entrance for the visitor monorail from the shore, and even a cameo by Mr. DNA. On the other hand, one of the technicians in the control room is wearing a “vintage” Jurassic Park t-shirt, to which Claire says, “Don’t you think that’s in bad taste?” The movie also gives a poke at how amusement parks are a corporate business, with Verizon sponsoring a dinosaur and the main street of the park featuring a Pandora Jewelry store and a Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville restaurant.

Our introduction to Jurassic World comes through the eyes of 16-year-old Zach Mitchell (Nick Robinson) and his younger brother Gray (Ty Simpkins). They’re sent there by their parents (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) to spend the Christmas vacation with their aunt Claire. The tightly-wound Claire is preparing for the opening of a new exhibit featuring a genetically-modified dinosaur they call Indominous Rex, and she passes off showing the kids around the park to her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath), whom the boys soon ditch. The park’s owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan, who played the adult Pi in Life of Pi) has concerns about the new exhibit and wants velociraptor expert Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to consult on the containment of the new beast. Grady is having his own problems with InGen, Hammond’s old company that engineered the dinosaurs and is now owned by Masrani. The company’s head of security, Hoskins (Vincent D’Orofrio), wants to weaponized the raptors. But then they discover that InGen’s R&D department (presided over by BD Wong in another nod at the first movie) has secretly bred an alpha predator extraordinaire.

Producer Frank Marshall and Executive Producer Steven Spielberg brought in Colin Trevorrow as director and co-writer for the movie. He’d only made one previous feature film, the indy time-travel themed film Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012. Jurassic World had been in development hell for a decade – production was originally announced in 2004 – but with the addition of Trevorrow and the casting of Pratt (who was actually picked before last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy made him a hot action hero) as well as Howard, the production got moving. Trevorrow manages an impressive balancing act to blend the CGI action with well-defined characters. He also builds the action at a good pace until the satisfying final confrontation that’s on par with the original movie’s finale.

Pratt shows that Guardians wasn’t a fluke. He is one of the very few actors today that would make me interested in seeing a reboot of Indiana Jones. Another wise casting choice was Howard. Her performance as Claire both balances and at times mirrors Pratt’s, and they have a good chemistry together. Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson are excellent as Zach and Gray. There’s none of the annoying nature of Hammond’s grandkids in Jurassic Park, and the writers have given them resourcefulness and smarts that they embody believably. D’Orofrio is wonderfully effective as the human villain of the piece.

The first movie was a watershed moment in film history that changed the way films have been made ever since. It has also held up so it’s just as effective today when someone sees it for the first time as it was in 1993. With Jurassic World, you have a worthy successor to the first film, one that delivers the thrills, but also captures the wonder of it all. That is a major accomplishment.