Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review: The Shallows (2016)

Blake Lively and Sully the seagull star in The Shallows

I finally got around to seeing The Shallows, which I mostly really enjoyed. The movie sometimes "jumps the shark" in a couple different senses. A few key events, shark behaviors, and moments of bad CGI stretch viewer credulity to the breaking point. Yet I had a fun time watching the movie and would -- will -- watch it again.

Blake Lively stars as surfer Nancy Adams, a Texan medical school dropout who goes to a remote, locals-only surfing beach in Mexico to make peace with her mother's recent death. Once there, she faces death herself when a huge, hungry great white shark attacks and terrorizes her. 

I appreciate The Shallows' well-executed homages to Jaws like the presence of the buoy and Nancy as the film's solo protagonist. Nancy's no-bullshit attitude and high degree of narrative agency makes The Shallows feel like a critical referendum on Jaws' brilliant yet rape-y opening sequence -- that is, The Shallows explores what it would be like if Jaws' Chrissie had been given a chance to fight back.

And sure, the Jaws buoy homage has been done before -- there are clanging buoys in Deep Blue Sea and Open Water -- but rarely as well. The Shallows makes its buoy a much more important screen element, distantly haunting the film's early scenes then serving as the third act's main set piece.

Nancy strikes back, astride her mighty buoy. Her use of the buoy to defeat the shark is surely a critique of Chrissie's fate in Jaws

That said, as I have similarly argued of Mad Max: Fury Road, The Shallows embraces the sexist cinematic convention of visually objectifying Nancy's body. Although she does not spend the entire running time clad in bikini only, Nancy's body is frequently put on display for the viewer's pleasure, in accordance with the pervasive Hollywood practice documented by feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey.*

The film's scenery is beautiful, and its central performances (by Lively and a seagull companion) are quite good. However, there is some over-use of slow motion in the first act. The slo-mo works well when the film shoots from a low angle at looming waves, suggesting imminent danger. But it grows tiresome during some of the surfing sequences, which would actually be more impressive if depicted in real time. As Peter DeBruge puts it in his generally negative review,
It’s a beautiful cove, and Collet-Serra and his camera crew (including surf d.p. Dwayne Fetch) lavish us with a gorgeous (if somewhat abstractly cut together) hang-10 montage featuring nice moves by Nancy and two unnamed Mexican surfers.**
Abstractly cut together indeed -- especially egregious is one shot which starts in slo-mo then suddenly switches to fast-motion mid-take. This feels needlessly corny and cheap-snowboarder-videoish to me, at odds with the suspense the film seems to want to build here. Nevertheless, despite its distractingly cheesedick surfing cinematography, The Shallows' "reality" remains fairly intact for its first half-hour. It breaks for me when Nancy does some home surgery on herself, stitching her extensive leg wounds together with a couple of earrings.    

This is PG-13?!

Then the film mostly gets back on track, though it deploys blatant ethnic stereotyping when a fat, drunk Mexican turns out to be unscrupulous and untrustworthy. Of course, this being a genre film with fairly well-established rules, the greedy, evil, corpulent Mexican swiftly meets a terribly gruesome death by shark attack. Voila!

The third-act underwater jellyfish sequence is brilliant, both in concept and in execution. It is the film's most visually interesting sequence. It may not be strictly realistic -- does a great white shark really have much sensitivity to jellyfish stings? -- but it feels close enough to plausible and it is a visually stunning and suspenseful scene.

I cannot say the same for a couple ridiculous things that happen near the film's climax. The Shallows obviously goes for a Jaws-like crescendo when the obviously CGI shark starts attacking the buoy, but given some of the grittier earlier aspects (e.g., the surgery, the quiet moments with the seagull), I think a more subdued ending a la The Reef would have better suited this film. I buy Nancy escaping from this surprisingly persistent shark, but killing it in the over-the top, action-heroine fashion in which she does? Not quite credible, though of course I applaud the intention.

I still don't understand how the fuck THIS happened. Spontaneous saltwater combustion?

I'm not sure the brief "One Year Later" epilogue is necessary either. Just end it with her and Steven exchanging looks as she lies on the beach -- we already know the rest.

All that said, The Shallows is an exciting, thoughtfully made thrill ride and it deserves a place of honor among shark attack films. It is way above such pleasurable dreck as Shark Lake and Sharktopus, yet doesn't quite reach the high benchmark set by The Reef. It sits below The Reef, somewhat near Open Water, in my shark movie rankings.

Sully the seagull sez: "Check out my Oscar-worthy performance in The Shallows -- I'm more believable than the shark!"

* See Mulvey's influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," originally published in Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975) pp. 6-18.
** Much as I enjoy The Shallows, I cannot really defend it against DeBruge's critiques, and I especially agree with him that the film's score is clunky and weak. Debruge describes it as "the relatively suspense-less, all-digital stylings of composer Marco Beltrami, whose background music sounds like broken sonar equipment."

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Top Five Blog Posts (times two)

I began last year's blogging in a slightly unusual way, with a book review. I want to start 2017 by doing something completely new: offering a brief retrospective about some of my favorite and most popular posts of the past.

In addition to functioning as a kind of "greatest hits" retrospective, I hope this post draws attention to some of the earlier entries in this blog's three-plus year archive more generally. In the process of compiling these two top five lists I've realized that there are some enjoyable gems among my earlier posts.*

First I will share a list of the blog's top five most popular posts, ranked by how many total pageviews each one has received as of 12/30/2016. That list, with comments, will be followed by a list of my personal top five favorite posts, also with comments.

Top Five Blog Posts by Pageviews

1. Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass. One always hopes that a post's high pageview count corresponds in some way with the quality of the writing and interest of the content of the post. However, I don't kid myself. Much as I wish that the number-one clicked-on post, "Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass," was well-viewed due to strong interest in Michael Mann and his great thriller Manhunter, I strongly suspect that its draw has more to do with the words "Kicks Stupid Ass" appearing in the title.

Nevertheless, "Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass" stands as one of the blog's finest examples of using close attention to cinematic aesthetics to defend a taste preference. I do genuinely think Manhunter is a vastly better film than Red Dragon in almost every way, but what I like best about this post is the deliberate way in which I make my case clear to the reader. It's a good example of close visual analysis (via the scene comparisons) used to support an argument, as well as a chance for me to champion the great Michael Mann.

(Due to its sharp visual analysis and overall written flow, I would have chosen "Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass" as a personal favorite post in any case. Yet I was spared having to use up one of my five picks since it was the top winner by number of pageviews -- a total of 1,438 on 12/30/2016.)

2. In Defense of the Jaws Sequels. I am so glad this post is statistically popular because I am quite fond of it. I genuinely love the Jaws sequels (especially Jaws 2 and Jaws: The Revenge) so am happy to think I might have persuaded other film lovers to take a chance on one or more of these hidden gems.

3. Five Directors to Watch Out For. This is an important post and the earliest-composed one (November 2013) to appear on either list here. It discusses the work of Nicole Holofcener, Steve McQueen, Lars von Trier, Steven Soderbergh, and Nicolas Winding Refn, all of whom I still revere. It also reveals this interesting truth about me:
at the end of the day, I would rather see a "noble failure" by filmmakers with something interesting or unique to show me rather than something formulaic and cliched that simply "plays it safe."
That is a key to understanding my cinematic tastes and aesthetic preferences.

Sidney Lumet, director of 12 Angry Men (1957) and several other truly great films. 

4. Alternate Top 100: 12 Angry Men (1957). An incisive piece about a truly great film in which I claim that 12 Angry Men is "the greatest fiction film about the American legal system of which I am aware" and "one of my favorite movies in any genre." I stand by those statements, and that is why I include 12 Angry Men in my "Alternative Top 100," a list of films meant to be added to or swapped into the Entertainment Weekly Top 100 Films list to correct its "oversights and errors." As I write of this project,
I am simply naming some films that I think should be on any legitimate list of this kind. See my second footnote here if you want an idea about which titles I would cut from EW's list to make room for my alternative selections.
I am proud and pleased to note that Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men, an essential watch for anyone, is the first film I selected for this distinction.

5. The Reef vs. Open Water. I love this post because it expresses my enduring love for fictional shark attack movies and because it contains this line:
Broadly speaking, Open Water is about how modern bureaucracy, white peoples' need for cheap tourism, and lack of personal connections between married people lead to mistakes that destroy us, then we get eaten by sharks, whereas The Reef is about bonding with friends and relatives, mending past relationships and discovering rekindled love, then we get eaten by sharks.
My Top Five Favorite Blog Posts

In making these selections I went with my gut instincts at first -- by which process I came up with eight or nine posts. In winnowing the list down I tried to choose for content but also for good writing and a satisfying overall unity to each piece. I hope I succeeded and that you'll check out some of these ones if you haven't before.

1. Review: Prometheus (2012). This post constitutes an excellent defense of an under-appreciated movie. It includes a well-balanced discussion of the film, including its weaknesses, and the piece as a whole flows well.

2. I Am A Feminist. A key manifesto and as much autobiography as I'm ever likely to write, this post acknowledges many key influences on my worldview and thinking, including my maternal grandmother, pop-cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, and most importantly, my intellectual mentor Kathleen Rowe Karlyn. Without Karlyn's guidance I would have neither my astute critical perspective on popular culture nor my beloved day job as a film studies professor. "I Am A Feminist" is must-read if you want to understand where I'm coming from as a person and movie critic.

3. Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).  Eviscerating reviews (like this one and this one) are the funniest. This is such a review and is therefore quite funny. Yet it also gives credit where credit is due (no shaky cam!) and marks a pivotal entry in my increased highlighting of racism and Orientalism in popular films.

4. EW #11: King Kong (1933). It is huge fun to write about films you love well, and I love the 1933 version of King Kong. I also despise Peter Jackson's bombastic 2005 remake, and this review both extols the virtues of a deserving classic and briefly runs down why the CGI remake is a colossal waste of time. Plus it includes a reference to mule piss, a sure sign of an excellent piece of film criticism.

5. Film Reviews Are Subjective. This is the famed "Fuck the Tomatometer" post with the picture of the kid flipping the bird -- an image that almost singlehandedly guarantees this post a spot among my favorites. Despite its seemingly confrontational stance, "Film Reviews Are Subjective" is a thoughtful, metadiscursive piece about the nature of film criticism. Like "I Am A Feminist," this post is a manifesto about one of my core stances as a person, a writer, and a cinephile.

I actually see "Film Reviews Are Subjective" as one of my better pieces of writing -- I like its discussion of film fandom and subjectivity as inextricable components of honest film criticism. I like the contrast that Sal's Marvel fandom allows me to create with my own eclectic tastes. Plus I get in a few great jabs at that useless, annoying tomatometer.

* At one point I tried to install one of those "featured post" widgets to help promote older blog entries, but the widget screwed up the look of the sidebar so I deleted it.