The Shallows

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The shark may well be the ultimate screen villain.

Deadly. Relentless. Without mercy. A killing machine with no pity, remorse, or shame. As someone said in the most famous shark movie of them all, “What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks.”

And when it kills–whoa!—it kills in spectacular fashion.

In time, The Shallows—the new thriller from Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra—will be remembered, if at all, as just another shark movie. But in the moment, The Shallows is a taught, suspenseful survival tale that pits a game Blake Lively against Mother Nature’s perfect engine.

Lively’s grief-stricken surfer girl, Nancy, has lost her mother to cancer, left medical school, and retreated to a secluded Mexican beach to forget her troubles and ride the spectacular southern swells. Had she headed back to town after lunch, it truly would have been the perfect day. But, alas, she stays out a bit longer than she should, and before you can say “girl in peril”, she finds herself laying on an isolated rock two hundred yards from shore, blood gushing from a savage shark bite in her leg, and the rising tide threatening to wash her off of her safe place and into the jaws (no pun intended) of the great white shark lurking in the dark water. Facing near-impossible odds, the determined and resourceful Nancy rediscovers her lost will to live and sets about trying to find a way to get herself to safety before it’s too late.

Like many shark movies that take themselves seriously (no, I’m not talking to you, Sharknado), The Shallows must be judged against Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece. That said, is it fair to say that The Shallows is better than one or more movies that has Jaws in its title followed by a number? Yes, absolutely. Does it even come close to the original Jaws? No way.

Then again, what does?

Jaws remains one of the most ground-breaking films of any genre in the history of film. Ranked number 48 on the American Film Institute’s roster of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, Jaws is not only an outstanding film on the merits, but it also single-handedly created the idea of the summer blockbuster. For all the amazing things about Jaws, however—the phenomenal performances, the terrific writing, the rich characters—what is often lost about this timeless classic is just how good a horror film it really is. Jaws actually scares you. And it doesn’t just scare you in the moment: it lingers with you, it haunts you, and it plays with your mind whenever you dip your toe into the deep blue sea. It is not hype to say that an entire generation of moviegoers learned to be afraid of the water from Jaws.

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On its own terms, The Shallows provides its fair share of scares, as well, though its killer shark occasionally seems to be a bit too obsessed with  Nancy when, as the saying goes, there are plenty of other fish (and mammals, for that matter) in the sea. The great white of The Shallows seems to have been inspired by the masked killers of the 80’s slasher cycle in its single-minded drive to kill this one specific victim, but considering the tasty way in which the film presents Blake Lively, perhaps it’s hard to blame the precocious fish.

Especially in the film’s early scenes, director Collet-Serra leers at Lively. His gaze lingers on her every curve, from front to back, like a creepy neighbor in an upstairs window with a pair of binoculars.  He cuts from the magnificence of the secluded beach to the gorgeous tree line to Lively peeling off her clothes like she’s just another part of the scenery.

Lively, though, rises above it and proves to be much more than a pretty face. As the movie’s sole actor for probably 90% of its running time, Lively anchors the film effectively and does well to create a real character out of what essentially is a one-line scenario:  What would happen if a girl got caught alone on a rock in the middle of nowhere and had to match wills against a great white shark? There isn’t much room there for character development, but Lively does her level best.

In the end, though, The Shallows has little to do with character, plot, story, or any other element of traditional narrative. It’s about tension, suspense, and a massive, angry, lunging shark. In retrospect, that’s probably not enough. But in the dark of the theater, it makes for good, engaging summer entertainment.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/4/15: Jaws

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: Jaws.

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Jaws, 1975

It is hard to believe that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws turned 40 years old this year. Four decades after its initial release and three sequels later—you would have guessed more than that, right?—Jaws remains one of the most ground-breaking films of any genre of all time.

Ranked number 48 on the American Film Institute’s roster of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, Jaws is not only an outstanding film on the merits, but it also single-handedly created the idea of the summer blockbuster, which had never before existed until Spielberg’s masterpiece came along. For all the amazing things about Jaws, however—the phenomenal performances, the terrific writing, and on and on—what is often lost about this timeless classic is just how good a horror film it really is.

Jaws actually scares you. And it doesn’t just scare you in the moment: it lingers with you, it haunts you, and it plays with your mind whenever you dip your toe into the deep blue sea. It is not hype to say that an entire generation of moviegoers learned to be afraid of the water from Jaws.

The real genius of Jaws was its ability to—really for the first time—come up with something as terrifying as the dark. For as long as long as humans have had the capacity for fear, they have been afraid of the dark. You can’t see in it, so there could be anything there. When you step into it, you are rendered all but helpless. And no matter what is in there, odds are that it would not be nearly as terrifying if you could actually see it. Jaws took everything that we’ve always feared about the dark and applied it to the sea.

The power of that approach was rendered even more potent by the happy accident of the malfunctioning mechanical shark. Spielberg’s difficulties with his malfunctioning monster have been well-documented, and the production’s inability to keep the shark prop functioning properly during the shoot forced Spielberg to adjust his style on the fly. So, rather than seeing the shark in all its glory early and often, Spielberg instead offers us subtle suggestions of the shark’s presence—the simple chords of the brilliant score, a swimmer’s reaction to the shark’s attack, a shadow in the water—and brief glimpses. By making the shark the thing behind the door, by the time we actually see it, we are already terrified of it.

Jaws may have been the first summer blockbuster, but it will always be a Halloween movie to me.

The Visit

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Think about all the great twist endings in film history.

Our introduction to mama Bates in Psycho. The legend of Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects. Darth Vader’s confession in The Empire Strikes Back. Taylor’s discovery in the final seconds of Planet of the Apes. The unmasking of Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart. The ghosts of The Others. The secret to the magician’s success in The Prestige.

There have been lots of great ones over the years, but no twist has ever matched the final big reveal of The Sixth Sense.

More than just a great surprise ending, though, the genius of The Sixth Sense was how writer/director M. Night Shyamalan teased viewers with so many bread crumbs and signposts throughout the film. The answer was right there in front of us all along, and yet—when the ending came—we were all knocked on our collective backside. In fact, the greatest pleasure of The Sixth Sense may not even be the ending, but rather the second viewing, when you get to go back and laugh at yourself for all the clues you missed.

Ever since The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has been chasing an impossible dream—trying repeatedly to recreate the formula—but has consistently fallen far short of the mark.

The Visit has been billed as Shyamalan’s return to form, but while the film offers plenty of creepy atmosphere and some legit jump-out-of-your-seat scares, its big (for lack of a better word) reveal is so telegraphed and predictable that the whole thing ends up feeling like a major letdown.

Becca and Tyler have never met their grandparents, who have been estranged from their mother, Paula, since long before the two kids were born. When the elderly couple reaches out to Paula through the Internet, however, she happily ships her kids off for an unchaperoned week long visit, pretty much no questions asked. You know, just like any mother would. It doesn’t take Becca and Tyler long to realize, though, that Nana and Pop Pop are just a bit strange—maybe more than just a bit, in fact—and as the week unfolds, their eccentricity quickly evolves into something far more sinister.

Despite its ultimate failings, The Visit succeeds in its slow burn and not-immediately-clear revelation of Nana’s and Pop Pop’s peculiar peculiarities. Is there something unstable and dangerous about them, or are they just, well, old?

Pop Pop disappears regularly into an old shed, but is he really hiding something back there or just doing his chores? Nana crawls around under the house chasing the kids, but is she just playing or are they really in danger? Shyamalan skillfully dances around those questions by lurching back and forth from moments of tension and suspense to frequent releases of the safety valve of humor. Over and over, he sets in motion the elements of full-blown horror and then backs off, letting the audience laugh off the tension and then immediately cranking it back up.

The best parts of The Visit are the unnerving little set pieces constructed around Nana’s instability. After bedtime, she stalks around the house like an animal, terrifying her visitors, who are essentially trapped in their room. During the day, she asks Becca to climb into the kitchen stove to clean it…and then menacingly encourages and prods the girl to go deeper—all the way—into it. And when Becca tries to ask her about what happened the day Paula left home for good, Nana becomes completely unhinged.

Tony Award-winning actress Deanna Dunagan plays Nana perfectly, shifting effortlessly between sweet-but-eccentric grandma and deranged murderess. Whether she’s laughing, screaming, grunting, growling, cooing, calming, soothing, or stone silent and motionless in moments of terrifying stillness: every note she hits is absolutely pitch perfect.

The worst part of The Visit—other than the letdown twist, that is—is the monumentally ill-conceived creative choice to present the film in first-person perspective, documentary style. Becca is a real film prodigy, you see, and so she has decided to film the entire visit and turn it into a family documentary. As a result, we are supposed to understand The Visit as the final assemblage of documentary footage that Becca and Tyler have shot over the course of the week.

That creative decision fails spectacularly.

In addition to it being a completely overused filmic device, Shyamalan never makes any effort to suggest that the scenes or even individual shots might actually have been shot “reality style” by the characters. Every single shot—indoor and outdoor—is perfectly lit, remains in sharp focus throughout the entire depth of field, and somehow keeps all the action of every scene perfectly within the frame. Even when a camera is dropped, the resulting “accidental” framing presents a perfect shot with the kind of mise en scene that would take Steven Spielberg a day and a crew of dozens to construct.

The difference between Shyamalan and Spielberg—to whom Shyamalan was frequently compared after The Sixth Sense—is that Spielberg made an early, landmark masterpiece (Jaws) and then followed it up by topping himself over and over and over and over again. Shyamalan has never even come close to matching, much less topping, his early success. And it is unlikely that he ever will.

That doesn’t make him a bad director, of course, any more than The Visit’s failings make it a bad film. It has its moments, just as Shyamalan does.

In the end, though, both film and filmmaker suffer from a serious case of the could-have-been’s.