Saturday, June 25, 2016

"The Shallows"

 3 / 5 

The Shallows ain't Jaws, but the good news is, it's not Jaws the Revenge, either.  It may not be fair to try to compare The Shallows with any Jaws movie, but that's what happens when you make a movie about a shark.  Sorry, them's the breaks.

So, call it Jaws Lite: It comes nowhere near the mastery, the complexity, the fullness of Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, but it's far superior to any of the sequels, even the one with the shark who seeks revenge even though it died two films ago.

The shark in The Shallows is almost as tenacious as the one that terrorized Mrs. Brody and Michael Caine, who made that movie instead of getting his Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters.  It is unlikely that Blake Lively, who stars in The Shallows, will need to clear her mantle for an Oscar, though if you measure the effectiveness of a performance by how much you believe the actor really is the person on screen, then she succeeds tremendously well.

She plays a surfer named Nancy (no, I didn't realize that parents were still naming their children Nancy in the early 1990s, either), who is on vacation in Mexico when she goes surfing by herself and gets attacked by a shark.

That is the setup, but the movie adds in some Lifetime Movie-level backstory about Nancy's mother dying of cancer and the way she loved this particular secret beach that can only be accessed by driving through miles of jungle.  Nancy spends a couple of minutes on the phone with her little sister and her widowed dad, who is disappointed that Nancy has dropped out of medical school.

Nancy makes her way out into the water and meets two other surfers, who lay out some additional rules that the movie has to follow, and in short order The Shallows gets all of the exposition out of the way so the shark can start its attack.

If Steven Spielberg had been born 30 years later, this is probably the kind of movie the studio would have forced him to make.  All that stuff in Jaws about Brody's fear of water, about the mayor and the townspeople, about Hooper and little Alex Kintner and Quint could have easily been truncated by about an hour so we could get straight into the stuff with the shark.  Why make audiences wade through story, for crying out loud?

So, here's Nancy on her surfboard, and the two other dudes say, "We're going home now," and she says, "Go on ahead, I'll stay here," even though it's clearly established she doesn't have a way to get back to her hotel.  And then it happens.

And The Shallows turns into a neat and effective little thriller that draws on another creepy movie about the ocean, Open Water, in the way it becomes about someone who's completely on her own with nothing but water and a shark.

The Shallows mixes it up a bit, by adding in other elements of danger, and some nicely just-out-of-reach potential fixes to Nancy's impossible situation, along with some additional roadblocks that leave her, and us, equally frightened and exasperated by the predicament.

It's a surprisingly restrained and well-crafted movie, mostly avoiding gore -- except for a scene that revels in Nancy's improvised self-suturing to try to close her gigantic wound -- and settling in to some terrific suspense, until a final third in which it succumbs to the same affliction that dragged down the Jaws sequels: It turns stupid.

After building impressive tension, The Shallows offers up a finale that belies everything this taut, smart thriller has been.  The CG visual effects that have been so sparingly and effectively used are suddenly exploited, and just when The Shallows should be most surprising and cathartic it turns, frankly, dumb. Director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski can't resist an action-style ending, but it turns out they don't quite have enough in common with their shark -- they've bitten off more than they can chew.

They should have been content with the girl, the shark and the shore that's just a little too far away.

Viewed June 25, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Catching Up: "Zootopia"

 4.5 / 5 

Ambitious, optimistic, naive Judy Hopps, newest recruit of the Zootopia Police Department, has been given 48 hours to crack the city's biggest mystery, and through a complicated series of events she's about to come face-to-face with Zootopia's notorious crime boss Mr. Big.

Judy's a rabbit, her unwilling partner in criminal detection is a fox named Nick, and Mr. Big, it turns out, is a tiny little rodent, a vole who looks and sounds an awful lot like Marlon Brando in The Godfather.  In fact, he's surprised his longtime rival Nick would intrude on such a day -- his daughter's wedding day.  Yet, he sighs, business must be done.

That one of the cleverest and most effective parodies ever attempted of The Godfather should be featured in a Disney movie starring bunnies, foxes, polar bears and voles is one of the many surprises in Zootopia, which blends equal parts Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Airplane! and 48 Hrs.

Young audiences, ostensibly the target for Zootopia, will know nothing of Nick Nolte, Eddie Murphy and Walter Hill, and quite likely next to nothing about Eddie Valiant and Toontown.  They'll just love the plucky bunny voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, who wants to fight crime and be heroic as the first (and smallest) rabbit member of the ZPD.  Kids will get a kick out of the way animals live and co-exist in Zootopia, and the movie uses a charming backstory to cleverly establish the idea that animals have evolved so much that predators and prey have inhabited the same city peacefully for many years.

That's where Zootopia gets most interesting, because what starts out as standard-issue authority-versus-rookie tension slowly becomes a dark and disturbing undercurrent to the movie, and as it does Zootopia becomes the first Disney animated film that really deserves its PG rating -- it ventures into some impressively dark territory.

It's got a story that's as well thought-out as, say, Roger Rabbit or even, I might dare say, that movie's inspiration, Robert Towne's script to Chinatown.  It may not be quite that good -- the Disney brand-management sheen gets in the way a bit too much -- but to say that Zootopia deserves comparison to Chinatown is not nearly as ludicrous as it may seem.

You doubt me?  I would have doubted me, too, before seeing it, but consider the scene in which the unexpected real villain of the piece reveals the motives behind the story -- which involves peaceful, law-abiding citizens being intentionally turned into violent criminals in an effort to build a climate of fear and distrust.  Sure, you've always been able to trust the dark-skinned jaguar who lives down the street, he's been a pal of yours for 20 years, but do you really know who he is and what he's capable of?  Wouldn't Zootopia be a better place if the minority predator population were simply removed, and everyone else could go back to living in harmony?

Even in a non-election year, that would be some pretty deep stuff for audiences of any age, but in the Year of the Donald, in the Year of the Muslim Terrorist, it takes on even greater resonance.  (And its ultimate happy-ending finding turns out not only to be one kids can get behind, but to be not all that far-fetched, really.)

Zootopia turns out to be about race relations, about minority rights, about racial and ethnic profiling, and about civil rights.  So, be thankful for one really important fact: It's funny.

It's charming, it's downright hilarious at some points (like in Mr. Big's scene), and it constantly engages the eye, the heart and the funny bone with its lightning-fast tours through the massive city of Zootopia, where virtually every street sign, shop sign, billboard and brand name hides a double meaning.  You could watch Zootopia for hours and hours simply to catch all of the jokes.

Then there are the endless references to other movies and TV shows -- from The Hunger Games to Frozen (multiple times), from the first Mission: Impossible to Lethal Weapon to Lost.  The latter is my favorite, using one of Zootopia composer Michael Giacchino's most unmistakable musical motifs in the middle of an action scene.

Zootopia is the rare movie that will satisfy everyone for the simple reason that it was designed by storytellers and pop-culture lovers who wanted to satisfy themselves, first.  There had to be immense glee every time someone brought forth an idea like Officer Hopps mobile phone, which has a logo of a carrot on it (with a bite taken out of it, of course) and notifies Judy that her mom and dad are requesting to "Muzzle Time" with her.  There's the scene in which sly fox Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman) sells popsicles to lemmings, who of course line up to do what the other ones are doing.

Zootopia is a movie to be savored -- it took me a little over two hours to watch its 1 hr. 48 min. running time because I kept pausing the image and looking around at the environments. (In one part of town, rodents shop Mousey's and Targoat.)  But I also found myself unexpectedly intrigued in the central mystery.  Crime mysteries are a rarity in movies, and Zootopia has created one that is genuinely compelling, with a solution that not only isn't easy to suss out, but that also involves a hilarious and lengthy reference to Breaking Bad.

Yes, Disney's latest animated feature for kids has, as one of its central plot points, the purification of plants into potent drugs by a criminal element (including two rams named, you guessed it, Walter and Jesse).

Zootopia is not afraid to go where the jokes take it.  Or the story.  While the timeliness of some of those jokes may make the shelf life of Zootopia considerably shorter than, say, Cinderella or The Lion King, its super-current pop-culture references at least ring true for now, and they are funny.  As a whole, the film itself rings just as true and is just as funny, which makes it a complete and utter surprise, a charming animated movie for kids that may work even better as an engrossing mystery for adults about kidnapping, racial tension, genetic experimentation, the link between the drug trade and government and -- well, let's just stop there before you get the wrong idea again.

Zootopia works quite well -- better than it should -- as a crime drama.  But you've come for the fluffy bunnies, the talking foxes, the sweetly scratchy-voiced sheep, the hilariously time-challenged sloths, and the inventive visual design.  Zootopia doesn't disappoint in any of that ... or in everything else it offers.  It's an intriguing evolution in the form and style of animated films, a step forward for Disney into a more robust, more relevant sort of animation than maybe has ever been tried in the company's history.  Zootopia is the extraordinarily rare Disney movie that tries to be different and better than any of its predecessors, and for that you can, at the very, very least -- and with a high degree of certainty, say: It would have made Walt happy.

Viewed June 18, 2016 -- VOD

Sunday, June 12, 2016

"De Palma"

 3.5 / 5 

Scorcese, everyone knows.  Coppola, too.  Spielberg, naturally.  And of course, Lucas, even if you think of him more as the creator of the Star Wars machine than an auteur.  They're the household names.

Then there's Brian De Palma, whose name doesn't quite have the same recognition to the average moviegoer, and who's the subject of a new documentary by directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.

There was a brief and extraordinary period of time, De Palma recalls in the long, fascinating interview that forms the spine of De Palma, in which Marty and Steven and Francis and George and, yes, Brian somehow managed to take over Hollywood, not simply to become favored by its inner power circle but to become its inner power circle.

They were the auteurs, the movie directors influenced by the French New Wave of the 1960s, who wanted to experiment with the form and substance of film while making movies that were still recognizably mainstream, to push the boundaries of what audiences would accept by paying attention to what the audiences were saying they wanted.

While the studios were still making bloated musicals and big-budget disaster movies and lighthearted rom-coms starring Doris Day, these guys were blending traditional narrative film with bold and daring experiments, and their films were becoming blockbusters.  And best of all for the studios, they were cheap.

Yes, Lucas had his style.  And Coppola.  Scorsese had his style and the themes that he wanted to explore, and Spielberg had his uncanny eye, but what of De Palma?

His films were arguably, even more visually daring, even more thematically off-the-wall, even more challenging to audiences accustomed to the studio style of filmmaking.  De Palma experimented less with narrative structure than with visual style, to the point of audacity, utilizing techniques like split screen, deep focus and remarkably physical camera work.

De Palma takes a close look at the body of De Palma's work, and the movie is mostly a fascinating and grin-inducing trip down memory lane for film buffs who came of age in the 1970s or 1980s.  For cinephiles, De Palma comes about as close as you're likely to get to sitting down with such a talented filmmaker and getting him to tell stories -- why he almost didn't select Sissy Spacek to star in Carrie, how Sean Penn treated Michael J. Fox on the set of Casualties of War, how Cliff Robertson nearly ruined Obsession, why studio executives couldn't believe what they were seeing when they first screened Blow Out.

His stories are mesmerizing, and De Palma turns out to be a most affable and charming host, though he seems more interested in recalling the making-of stories (mostly, but not always, he veers away from gossip) and, in the documentary's major disappointment, less about discussing the impact and legacy of his work, or casting a critical eye on his own creations.

In that way, De Palma tends to uphold the mild insult many critics lobbed at him when he was making mostly thrillers: that he was "Hitchcock light."  De Palma doesn't provide the sort of psychological insight or technical field study of his films as Hitchcock so famously used to do.  He doesn't seem interested in examining them at all, in fact, merely recalling a story or two and then moving on.

The stories are fascinating, but not endlessly so.  Learning about his use of split-screen in Carrie's climactic prom scene is great, but hearing an equal number of stories about The Fury is unnecessary.  De Palma doesn't even like that movie.  And De Palma glosses over the most significant misstep in De Palma's career, the 1990 adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities, then gives as much time to De Palma's lesser and more recent work -- like Femme Fatale and Redacted, two movies I didn't even know had ever been made -- which seems needlessly completist.

The opportunity for insight into the work of a truly dazzling and fascinating filmmaker isn't exactly squandered here, but few who have interest in De Palma are going to be grateful for Baumbach and Paltrow's decision to delve into the different versions of the ending to Snake Eyes.  Baumbach and Paltrow want to cover every film De Palma has made, which leaves too little time to delve into the really significant ones.

For real film buffs, though, De Palma is still a treasure, not the least for the shot of Steven Spielberg wearing a protective helmet while watching De Palma shoot a gunfight for Scarface.  To see those directors together is a treat that can't be missed.  De Palma puts them together in the same shot, but never entirely makes the cogent argument it should: that De Palma is in the same league as Spielberg and the other great directors of the 1970s.

Viewed June 12, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood