“The Shallows”offers intense, thoughtful thrills

There are some premisses in film that better films overtime make redundant. Just as most science fiction films will be compared with Star Wars, and Zombie flicks will draw comparison to the Romero classics, The Shallows was likely to be passed off as another movie trying to re-capture what made Jaws such a classic. And while it certainly doesn’t come close to dethroning Jaws, an unexpectedly slower pace and plenty of effort from the people behind the film help make The Shallows stand out as an unexpected gem in this summer of sequels and reboots.

The plot is fairly standard. Blake Lively plays a young woman named Nancy who returns to a beach her mother visited years ago, and sets to surf the ocean waves, until a shark attack leaves her stranded on a rock far off from shore. While there, she must use her own medical knowledge, survival instincts and intuition to outsmart the shark and ultimately survive. Nothing about the plot screams original, and the film knows this, spending only as much time on the pre-shark scenes as is necessary to make us empathize with our protagonist. Although this would be a flaw for other films, the simplicity of the plot keeps the audiences attention on the current situation, immersing them in Nancy’s struggle to survive.

While not a breakout role, much of the film is dependent on Blake Lively’s performance, and she’s thankfully up to the task. Though Nancy is not explored in major depth, Lively uses a lot of subtle cues to add dimensions to what could have been a stock horror film heroine. The film spends much of its time beating Nancy down, which Lively wears as much in her performance as it does though her make-up. You like her character, and are simultaneously rooting for her and worried for her safety, which is more then you can say for most films in this genre.

As for our other co-star, the shark itself, the word of the day is realism. The bites it takes out of people are displayed in gory detail, while managing to hold back on anything too over the top. The effects for the shark hold up well throughout the films runtime, including its first reveal outside of water. More important is how grounded the shark is handled during the film, with the creatures reason for being/staying in that area explained in a believable way. Likewise, while the shark is often threatening, it is shown as less of an unstoppable killing machine and more of a dangerous, but still mortal, predator, keeping the battle between it and Nancy an unpredictable one.

Most interestingly enough, the films advertisements show a completely different film then whats presented on screen, which actually works in the films benefit. While trailers showed a high body count and non-stop thrills, The Shallows finds its best moments when it slows down and takes its situation in. As the gorgeous cinematography explores this beautiful, harsh environment, the audience is shown more of the minute to minute threats that arise for Nancy, such as rising/falling tides, hypothermia, and the worsening condition of her initial shark bite. At the same time, we explore more of Nancy’s thoughts on both her life and current predicament, allowing us to grow to like her as a character more, causing the tension and drama to feel that much more heightened, and stick with you long after the film reaches its ending credits.

Unfortunately, the things holding the film back from greatness tend to come right during the films third act. While the back and fourth between Nancy and the shark stays realistic throughout most of the film, her final confrontation with the shark tends to lean more heavily on film tropes then the rest of the film had before, standing out for the worse. While nothing ever feels stupid bout this confrontation, and some genuinely thrilling moments occur throughout, what should be a climactic ending is likely to divide audiences, in terms of its effectiveness. Likewise, a final scene afterwards felt wholly unneeded, serving only to add a hollywood ending to a film in order to appease the casual movie-goer.

While comparisons to Jaws are likely to come up, The Shallows tends to have more in common with 2011’s The Grey, opting to offer audiences a slower, more thoughtful experience, instead of minute to minute action. Were it not for all the details coming together, like Lively’s performance, the spectacular cinematography, and the work clearly done on he shark, it might not have worked. But while there are certainly problems in the third act, the work done throughout the film offers something audiences are likely to enjoy, while simultaneously giving them something they might not expect, making The Shallows stand out as more then your typical summer movie chum.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 8 Steven Seagull’s out of 10

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“Election Year” Takes One Step Forward, But Two Back

The Purge franchise didn’t start off on the strongest note, with the original wasting a premise with a lot of potential on a typical home invasion flick. But, as many have stated, its sequel Anarchy breathed new life to the franchise, with a new lead in actor Frank Grillo and focusing on the ways the Purge could influence society in this film’s setting. This new direction was a smart place to take the series’s core concept, and exploring this more in Election Year was the right move on the directors part. But by focusing on the politics of the Purge, and less on the actual Purge itself, Election Year finds itself straying too far away from the elements that made the second film a hit.

The most notable flaw of Election Year is its failure to capture any amount of subtlety that that would help ground the films otherwise ludicrous scenario. Where previous films saw levels of brutality displayed through fairly simplistic ways, adding an eerie level of realism to the bloodshed, theres less of an attempt here at going for believability, with homemade booby traps, drones and even guillotines lining streets. While the outfits purgers wore in previous films seemed plausible, the ones in election year seem too extravagant and feel more like something a costume designer would think up, rather than a murdering psychopath. Even the villains are simplified for the worst where in previous films conveyed that there were different levels of bad people in the world of the purge, Election Year‘s villain’s Start their first scene by calling our female protagonist the c-word multiple times. The result ends up with what was subtext in previous films becoming text in this new installment, removing any potential depth to a film trying its hardest to sometimes say something meaningful.

This lack of plausibility and immersion also leads to a number of tonal shifts that tend to derail important scenes of the film. What should be a disturbing entrance for a pair of villains is undercut by the shockingly out of place sound of Miley Cyrus’s Party in the U.S.A., but then immediately expects its audience to be just as afraid as they were before. At several points, newcomer Mykelti Williamson (Bubba from Forest Gump) delivers a line that’s so out of left field, it almost derails the entire film, and delivers a caricature that barely avoids being somewhat racist towards African Americans. Even the action is subdued by the inconsistency at which it handles the horror elements, with shootouts trying to be both fun and scary seemingly at random intervals throughout the film. These flaws don’t add up to much on their own, but combined they hold back the elements of the film that do show the potential inherent within the idea of the Purge Universe.

For starters, returning lead Frank Grillo is as at home with the material as he was in the previous film, delivering a similar performance while still showing some growth to his character through subtle glimpses of hope towards the Senator he has to protect. Speaking of, actress Elizabeth Mitchell shows plenty of chemistry with Grillo, and the scenes where the two characters debate the ramifications of the purge on society tend to be the standout scenes in the film. In a world so full of insanity and pessimism as this, Mitchell’s character brings a refreshing level of optimism concerning the future, and reminds audiences of the inherent good that is still possible in people, despite how crazy and lost the world seems to have gotten. The Supporting cast mostly holds their own, minus Williamson’s Joe Dixon, but none of their performances ever go above being acceptable to get special recognition.

Also helping Election Year is the new approach the film takes in terms of structure. While the original was a sub-standard home invasion film, and Anarchy played out much like a Punisher film might, the new film is eerily reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, with Grillo’s character tasked with protecting a political target that’s targeted for assassination. As the pair explores more of the city, they discover how the Purge affects groups like the homeless, people needing government aid, and many others. This approach helps make the quiet moments in between the action feel more important, as it pulls back to reveal the potential for layers in the Purge Universe that a lesser film might not attempt to look into. Much of the action is enjoyable enough for a summer blockbuster, and smartly places its emphasis on the characters we have grown to enjoy, in a setting that hides enough depth to keep audiences interested.

The Purge: Election Year is not the sequel we should have gotten, at least not entirely. The potential for a truly great film is hidden behind the clutter, and enough talent and commitment has been brought by the actors and writers to suggest something great could be made out of this franchise. As it stands, however, the films’ oversimplification on key elements and lack of anything original to say hold back what could have been a smart horror sequel. While still certainly worth a watch, Election Year is, more often than not, politics as usual.

 

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 6 Creative Murder Masks out of 10