Movie reviews

Best thing you’ll see all month: Raw

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Writer/director Julia Ducournau’s spectacular debut movie, Raw, will get lumped in with a genre known as body horror, which is where gross stuff happens to someone’s body. That’s too bad, because it’s a genre rife with cheap gore, shock value for shock value’s sake, and godawful movies that seem awfully proud of the point they’re trying to make, much like a toddler would be proud of a bowel movement. And there’s really not a lot of room for subtlety in body horror. No one ever accused David Cronenberg of subtlety.

But Raw’s body horror is not its priority. It is only its vehicle. Raw is less interetsed in the grossness of biology than the urges that drive it. Like Prevenge, an upcoming (and unfortunately not very good) movie about pregnancy, Raw considers the unique dilemma of women besieged by the primal force of, well, biology. Although it doesn’t shy away from explicit gore, it skips past what would have been its goriest scenes. Not just because imagination is more powerful. An unforgettable and thunderously scored epiphany scene doesn’t leave much to the imagination. But because a fundamental facet of sexuality, over and above any act, is identity. Not what you’ve done, but what you feel. What you want.

I both have and haven’t said enough. The average review of Raw will ruin at least two of its reveals. Every trailer I’ve seen will ruin about a half dozen. Finding out what Raw is about is best left to Ducournau’s confident, stylish, and unnerving filmmaking, and actress Garance Merillier with her Rose Byrne doe eyes.

Although Raw isn’t ultimately body horror, it does earn a place in French extremism, which is just a fancy way of saying, “Damn, there are some people from France who really get horror!” Like Martyrs, still a bleeding edge of French extremism, Raw is about three or four things by the time it’s over, each building on the other in unexpected ways. But unlike Martyrs — or anything else in French extremism — Raw is curiously poignant, even tender. Heh, tender. Now I’ve said too much.

Raw is currently in limited release, hopefully at an arthouse theater near you.

Best worst thing you’ll see all week: Catfight

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The titular fight in Fist Fight, a dopey Charlie Day vehicle, is a classic example of the barroom brawl as a rite of masculinity. It’s played as a redemptive act by which two men come together and earn mutual respect. It even saves all the teachers’ jobs at a beleaguered public school. Spoiler. But there’s no reason to see Fist Fight (the delightful Jillian Bell excepted).

The titular fight in Catfight is an outrageous, loudly foleyed, and drawn-out slapstick routine that would make Roddy Piper and Keith David proud. It’s dumb. Sloppy. Overblown. Director Onur Tukel shoves your face in it. It does not redeem anyone. No jobs are saved. It’s pointless. It’s not even funny, although I’m not sure it’s supposed to be.

What is funny is watching Anne Heche and Sandra Oh play their singularly unpleasant characters with a two-fisted doggedness, especially when they’re not throwing punches, taking falls, and setting up work for their stunt doubles. Both actresses come roaring out of their comfort zones, swinging wildly, and often connecting. These are two reprehensible characters, the likes of which women rarely get to play in the forefront (see also, The Bronze). Move over, bad moms, teachers, and santas. Heche and Oh have something to show you.

The real conflicts here are the conversations and social interaction. Tukel’s script is less about the catfight and more about reversals of fortune, told in the context of satire with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It doesn’t entirely work but it sure is timely. I can’t tell if the joke about trees named Bernie, Hillary, and Donald is pre-election or post-election, but I think Tukel meant for me to wince. He makes political hay with the issues of war and healthcare, the yin and yang of government: fighting and nurturing, killing and saving, masculine and feminine. But with fart jokes. Like I said, it has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

“Cute isn’t truthful,” Anne Heche sneers. Catfight is not cute.

Catfight is currently in limited release as is available for VOD on Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.

Worst thing you’ll see all week: The Monster

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The best horror movies have the quality of an allegory. But being an allegory doesn’t excuse you from the task of telling a good story. The Monster sets up its allegory and then morphs into exactly the horror movie you’re expecting. So far, so good. But it keeps going. And going. And going. Eventually, you’re watching a bog-standard creature feature that has lost its allegory. It’s as if writer/director Bryan Bertino forgot what he was doing. The Monster has the quality of someone wandering into the kitchen, forgetting what he was there for, downing a beer at the sink real quick, and then belching. Roll credits.

Before it starts shotgunning its horror movie trope beer, The Monster is fairly riveting. Partial credit to Bertino’s experience with slow creepy set-ups, as he demonstrated in The Stranger, a movie about how home invasions can really rekindle a romance. But most of the credit goes to the achingly effective performances from Zoe Kazan and especially the young Ella Ballentine. The actresses connect unflinchingly, spinning out the sort of relationship you almost never see in movies, and certainly not in horror movies: an abusive parent choking on her own shame and a terrified child who has no idea what to do. These aren’t the usual villain and precocious victim. This is a real horror movie.

But once The Monster forgets where it was going and literally careens into creature feature territory, it unravels under the weight of bad decision after bad decision. On the part of the filmmaker and the characters. It goes from suggesting to brightly lighting, almost never a good idea in a horror movie. It leans heavily on characters doing stupid things like, oh, not leaving when there’s a monster in the woods. And it creates a Cujo-like situation without understanding what made Cujo work. If a mother and child are trapped in a car by a rabid Saint Bernard, they’re just going to wait until they’re rescued. Boring. But if a mother and a diabetic child without his insulin are trapped in a car by a rabid Saint Bernard, you’ve got a real horror show. But The Monster forgets about the diabetic child without his insulin part, which means it’s ultimately about a couple of people who didn’t have the sense to wait in the car. But at least you get some good backstory about them, and at least you get to appreciate a child actor who hopefully has a long career ahead of her.

Best thing you’ll see all week: Kill Command

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Kill Command director Steve Gomez has a background in visual effects and it shows. Here is a great example of how to use CG to make a low budget movie look like a big budget movie. Gomez presents a narrow but sharply focused view of near-future tech, follwing a squad of soldiers on a training mission. Their uniforms, their weapons, their hardware, their corporate liason with her cybernetic implants. It’s all so deliciously Deus Exxy even if it doesn’t have fancy cityscapes. You don’t need the sprawl of Blade Runner to do smart cyberpunk.

The cast is as solid as the production values. They look great, and they move through and between the action sequences as gracefully as Gomez shoots them. Vanessa Kirby in particular stands out as a cross between Lara Croft, Adam Jensen, Ripley in Aliens, and Burke in Aliens. Gomez isn’t shy about channeling his influences. Kill Command leans easily on classics like Aliens, Predator, Terminator, and even Westworld. In fact, if you watched HBO’s series to see robots run amok killing people, you were probably disappointed the season ended just as that was going to happen. Kill Command has got you covered.

Support Qt3 and watch it here on Amazon.com.

Best thing you’ll see all month: Loving

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Not so long ago, the term for interracial marriage was miscegeny. Today the term for interracial marriage is marriage. An important step in that process was the Supreme Court in 1967 telling Virginia, “Okay, look, you can’t make laws to stop certain people from getting married.” It would take another 48 years for the Supreme Court to really follow through, but they got there eventually.

On one level, Loving is about our country recognizing that falling love and marrying is part of the human condition. But mostly, it’s about two people who love each other and decide to start a family. The man happens to be white and the woman happens to be black. But the social ramifications, the political issues, the march of the Civil Rights Movement, and all that stuff is relegated to the background. Not because it’s less important. But because that’s not the story writer/director Jeff Nichols wants to tell. A through-line in Nichols’ movies is simple characters bearing up under the crushing responsibility that comes with caring for a family. That’s what this is. For its power, intimacy, and optimism, Loving is his masterwork.

This is easily the performance of Joel Edgerton’s career. It will hopefully be the richly deserved breakout for Ruth Negga’s. The movie opens on her face. It lingers there. Her wide-eyed openness is nothing short of angelic. Her smile is beatific. How else could I have watched so much of that dreadful Preacher series? Their relationship is a fascinating conjunction of a woman before her time and a man out of place. She is the driving force when it comes to introducing their case to the legal system and presenting it to the newly media-fed public. He’s a white man born and raised in a black community, who has learned to keep his head down. Edgerton plays him with a whupped and laconic doggedness. They’ve found their time and place in each other’s arms, and that’s where Loving finds a fiercely quiet and gently powerful portrait of everything that’s right, wrong, and then ultimately right with our country.

Loving is currently in limited release. It will open in additional cities throughout the month.

Worst thing you’ll see all week: Phantasm: Ravager

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I met Phantasm directer Don Coscarelli once. It was an outdoor screening of the movie. While everyone was waiting for it to get dark enough to start the movie, Coscarelli got up and said a few words. Then he stood off to one side while a few people hit him up for, I dunno, autographs or whatever. I thought up what I would say and then I waited for everyone to leave. I marched up and said this:

“Mr Coscarelli, I just want to tell you how much Phantasm meant to me when I first saw it. You were an important part of my childhood.”

I don’t know if he actually gave me a funny look or if I just imagined it. Then he said, “Must have been a strange childhood.” I didn’t really have a response for that. I still don’t.

On one hand, it’s kind of depressing that the ensuing Phantasm movies have been so awful. This one is the fifth. It’s awful. But on the other hand, I kind of admire that Coscarelli and the original cast are still plugging away with what must be the same enthusiasm you’d find in any kids running around in the backyard with a camera, a bottle of ketchup for fake blood, and an affection for horror movies. To the average viewer, it will look like a bunch of bad CG and middle-aged dudes who stepped away from their desk jobs for the weekend. But there’s a simultaneous poetry and tragedy to Coscarelli and crew basically filming fan-fic cosplay of their own 1979 movie.

Phantasm: Ravager is available here on Amazon.com.

Best thing you’ll see all week: Deepwater Horizon

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You know that part in a disaster movie when you meet all the characters? The movie spends an hour introducing everyone, establishing their relationships, supposedly making us care about them before the plane is imperiled, or the skyscraper catches fire, or the volcano erupts, or the tsunami comes rushing down the fjord. The problem is that these are so often soap operas of the mundane. Who cares. I’m here to see a plane crash, a towering inferno, a flood of lava, or a tidal wave. But Deepwater Horizon replaces that soap opera of the mundane with a fascinating look at what it’s like to work on an oil rig. How do you get there? Who do you work with? What do you talk about? What do you talk like (in the PG-13 version of your life)? Where do you stay? What do you wear? What do all those people actually do?

The easy jingoism felt awkward in Lone Survivor, which was director Peter Berg’s last movie. Lone Survivor couldn’t reconcile its procedural about soldiers on a recon mission with its Wahlberg action movie. But his footing is rock steady at sea with this assortment of roughnecks. The oil rig procedural and the disaster movie mesh with industrial efficiency. Compare this to Disney’s Finest Hours, which is structurally similar to Deepwater Horizon. The Finest Hours lost any blue-collar sensibilities to its cast of celebrities and its mushy heartfelt Hollywood schmaltz. It preened when it should have rolled up its sleeves. But Deepwater Horizon, which is surprisingly brutal, is willing to cover its actors with mud, blood, sweat, safety goggles, and hardhats. It doesn’t end with Mark Wahlberg defeating the oil spill in a fistfight. Spoiler, I guess. You can’t begrudge Berg a couple of gratuitous shots of an American flag. He earns it with hard work.

Mark Wahlberg, John Malkovich, and Kurt Russell wear their characters as comfortably as a pair of weathered jeans. Also notable are Dylan O’Brien, previously just a pretty face in the Maze Runner movies, and especially Gina Rodriguez, an actress from the TV show Jane the Virgin who belongs in more movies. She’s got a great combination of star power and authenticity.

Previously, Deepwater Horizon’s name evoked the millions of gallons of oil that spilled unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico for over three months. Months of news stories about the fouled Gulf Coast have a way of standing out in your memory more than an industrial accident. So I hadn’t remembered how catastrophic the event was that precipitated the spill. Suffice to say, this is a movie you should see in the theater. Preferably with a really big screen and a fancy sound system.

Best thing you’ll see all week: Hidden

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My takeaway from Stranger Things, which nearly sprains its back bending over backwards to homage the 80s, is that it had enough character, content, and dark charm for a cool 90-minute movie. Unfortunately, it’s an eight-hour series. So the creative team of Matt and Ross Duffer dilutes their cool movie with six plus hours of filler. Isn’t it just like TV to assume more is more?

But consider what the Duffer Brothers, as they call themselves, can do when they don’t have to stretch a script into a season. Consider the aptly named Hidden. If I hadn’t been rooting around to see where the Duffer Brothers came from, I never would have found this. So one of my favorite things about Stranger Things is that it lead me to this movie they wrote and directed.

Hidden is their only feature, and it’s unfortunately going to invite comparison to 10 Cloverfield Lane, which it preceded by six months. Both movies are about the dynamics of people in a bunker when the world above them may or may not have ended. But Hidden isn’t a pressure cooker story about a damsel in distress locked up with a psychopath. It’s a story about a family, told with three very capable actors. Alexander Skarsgaard as fun dad, Andrea Riseborough as no-nonsense mom, and an expressive and capable child actor named Emily Alyn Lind as the daughter they have to protect and sustain. The Road, minus the road.

Since it’s set in a zombie apocalypse, it has to turn into a siege at some point. But how it handles this is what makes the movie special, and here’s where you discover the Duffer Brothers can do more than fondly homage King, Spielberg, and Carpenter. Hidden shows how much heart and creativity they have, and it only takes ninety minutes to reveal.

Hidden is available for VOD. Support Qt3 and watch it on Amazon.com.

Worst thing you’ll see in a long, long time: 31

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For about five minutes, 31 might have you believing it won’t be awful. Richard Brake, an actor with a great face, walks up to the camera. He looks straight at you and delivers a “hey, I’m totally a psycho killer!” monologue. He’s wearing ragged clown make-up. It’s shot as if director Rob Zombie has been watching Fellini. It’s even black-and-white. But then the rest of the movie happens.

Some travelling people get kidnapped and forced to play a game called 31. The game consists of them wandering around in a poorly lit basement. They’re supposed to survive for 12 hours while killers in clown make-up supposedly hunt them. It’s like The Purge, but without the budget to shoot outdoors. The killers have names like Sickhead, Psychohead, Doomhead, and Sexhead. I didn’t make any of those up. Rob Zombie did. One of them is a midget with a knife. Do you know how risible it is to have full-sized people armed with baseball bats fleeing in terror from a midget with a knife? Because Rob Zombie doesn’t.

The cast includes no one with the necessary sense of humor or appreciation for absurdity to deliver Rob Zombie dialogue (i.e. Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, William Forsythe, and Ken Forree, all of whom elevated Devil’s Rejects from trash to camp). However, it’s really cool to see Meg Foster perfectly willing to wear her years in an industry that all but forces women of a certain age into plastic surgery, botox, and soft lighting. She deserves far better than this artless attempt at horror.

Of course, this being a Rob Zombie movie, his wife Sheri Moon Zombie is given a prominent role that she handles as unconvincingly as ever. When she emerges from the movie’s chintzy hell, she screams. It’s pretty half-hearted. It’s got slightly more feeling than opening your mouth and saying “aah” for the doctor. Slightly. In fact, it might have been a yawn. Then the movie loses interest in itself and just ends. That’s the point when I realized that the definition of insanity is someone who keeps watching Rob Zombie movies and thinking they won’t be awful.

31 is available for VOD at Amazon.com. But so is Devil’s Rejects. Only one of them is worth watching to support Qt3.

Best thing you’ll see all week: Morgan

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Morgan is why I don’t watch trailers or even read cast lists if I can help it. All I knew going in was that Morgan was some kind of thriller directed by Ridley Scott’s son. The title is written in a vaguely sci-fi font. The poster has someone in a hoodie just standing there. Is that Morgan? He’s gotta be a hacker, wearing a hoodie like that, right? Is Morgan a good guy? Does he have superpowers? Is Morgan even a dude or a chick?

The price I pay for this sort of ignorance is occasionally stumbling into junk like Bad Moms, Don’t Breathe, and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. But the reward is an occasional gem like Morgan, a broadly derivative thriller and a cavalcade of wonderful actors. A cast like this probably happens when you’re Ridley Scott’s son. From beginning to end, Morgan is all, “And guess who else is in this!” Then it opens a door. “Ta-daa!” It’s like a 90-minute advent calendar for people who enjoy watching good actors. So I’m not going to tell you who’s in this. In case you don’t know the cast yet, I don’t want to spoil the fun.

The script is nothing if not familiar, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with formula. Formula is formula because it works. So Morgan merrily draws from slasher movies, rogue AI yarns, Frankenstein stories, little girl assassin tropes, and even a touch of CITOKSA when Kate Mara falls into a lake during a fight scene and her smart pants suit gets titillatingly clingy. But director Luke Scott keeps things moving so you’re not dwelling on the obvious similarities to better movies. Okay, here are the characters. Now here is a terrible thing that could happen. Now here is the terrible thing happening. Now here is the ensuing chaos. Now here is the resolution, with the twist that you could see coming a mile away, so it’s not so much a twist as an acknowledgement that, hey, you sure did figure it out. Snappy, satisfying, stylish, and littered with capable celebrities. It turns out Luke Scott is more Tony than Ridley.

Not quite the worst thing you’ll see all week: Blood Father

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Blood Father is at its best if you think of it as Mel “Sugar Tits” Gibson’s extension of his character from Lethal Weapon. Riggs gone to seed, still living in a trailer, but now in the high desert instead of on the coast, slightly racist but not too racist to be the lead character in a movie about an ex-con biker tattoo artist reconciling with his estranged daughter. Gibson is weathered and surprisingly beefy. There’s a lot of real estate on his arms for the fake tattoos. He’s a recovering alcoholic whose sponsor is William H. Macy. Macy’s character is a “trailer park poet” who has a trenchant analogy about sticking his thumb up his buddy’s ass. Then an action movie happens and Gisbon’s trailer gets shot up again. Oh, it’s on.

At one point the wildly bearded Gibson reconnects with his erstwhile biker pals who are still too racist to be anything but villains. The wonderful Michael Parks is the leader of the still racist bikers. Parks has a great monologue about culture co-opting subversive movements. “It happened to Hell’s Angels, it’s happening to rap,” he explains. It’s a pretty shrewd insight for a neo-Nazi biker. Who is this guy?

Then Gibson and Parks yell at each other, each wild-eyed and weathered in their own way. It should have been a golden spike between Donner and Tarantino. But Blood Father’s director, whose main claim to fame is a stylish remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, doesn’t quite appreciate what he’s got. Shortly thereafter, Gibson will shave, put on a suit, and reprise the role he sanitized when he seized Brian Helgeland’s Payback and recut it to assidiously scrub out the antihero. “Give me back my daughter,” he screams into the phone. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty much where Blood Father goes. Exactly where you’d expect a Mel Gibson movie to go.

Blood Father is available for VOD. Support Qt3 and watch it on Amazon.com.

Best thing you’ll see all week: Lake Nowhere

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It can be difficult to go back and watch horror from the 70s and 80s. So much of that Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper stuff, so many of those Italian movies, so many of the myriad forgettable slasher films were mean-spirited and cruel. There was no creative intent behind the cruelty other than shock. It was as pointless as it was effective. Lake Nowhere is a grisly morsel that remembers this. It very nearly keeps a straight face, but it can’t help but crack its goofy Raimi smile. Not a wink, mind you. But definitely a smile.

Of course, it tips its hand early. Since Lake Nowhere barely clocks in at 40 minutes, co-directors Christopher Phelps and Maxim Von Scoy have front-loaded it with a fake commercial and trailers. The conceit is an old VHS copy taped over…well, I don’t know what it’s taped over, but it bleeds through a couple of times. My guess is the overarching story isn’t about people who go into the woods and fall prey to a masked killer. The overarching story is some kids who shot their own horror movie on a VHS camera and then years later used the tape to make a copy of a horror movie called Lake Nowhere. You’re not watching Lake Nowhere. You’re watching a physical slice of 1982.

And not the anodyne 1982 of Netflix’s Stranger Things with its running time of eight hours and its body count of one. These are the aesthetics of 70s and 80s sex and gore, these breasts, that balding forehead, this fake blood, this sickly green cinematography and grainy film stock and questionable lighting, the tracking glitches and distorted sound and popping audio. Lake Nowhere’s low-budget texture is slick filmmaking shrewdly disguised as trash. And at its heart, it is the can-do “hey, let’s go out in the woods and make a horror movie!” enthusiasm and audacity of Cunningham, Carpenter, Coscorelli, Romero, and Raimi.

Lake Nowhere is currently available on VOD. Support Qt3 and watch it on Amazon.com.

Best thing you’ll see all week: The Bronze

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The Bronze, about a woman who was an Olympic gymnast as a child, tanked critically and commercially. Not because women aren’t funny, although that’s always an argument always worth revisiting so you can watch some really funny movies (Bridesmaids, Sisters, Election, The Heat, Afternoon Delight, Enough Said, Muriel’s Wedding, Opposite of Sex, Pitch Perfect, Sightseers, Your Sister’s Sister, Death Proof, etc.). The Bronze tanked because women aren’t supposed to be a certain kind of funny. They’re not allowed to be as vulgar or unlikeable as men. It’s as if there’s a crassness threshold that women can’t cross. Call it a crass ceiling. Not even the shrewdly subversive Amy Schumer could break through it. Her Trainwreck script and performance carefully implied drunkenness, promiscuity, and assholishness without getting too far outside the confines of a traditional studio romcom.

Melissa Rauch will have none of that nonsense. Her character in The Bronze, which she wrote, is the character Danny McBride has made a career playing (Foot Fist Way) and replaying (Eastbound and Down) and replaying again (Vice Principals): a vulgar, self-centered, bitter, unpleasant idiot running roughshod over decent people. Rauch and The Bronze wallow gleefully, unrepentantly, profanely, comfortably in the same gutter. When her father — another meticulously underplayed Gary Cole performance — threatens to cut off her allowance, she barks, “If you cut off my allowance, I’m going to have to suck dicks in the CostCo bathroom for money.” But she’s not done. Where Danny McBride might lapse into inarticulate mumblecore, The Bronze’s athletic vulgarity sticks the landing. “Is that what you want, dad? You want me to suck on dirty dicks in a discount warehouse toilet?” If it wasn’t so raunchy, it would be poetic. Rauch twists her face into a mask of appalled rage to sell it. I hold up a little card that says 8.7. But she’s just getting warmed up.

Support Qt3 and watch The Bronze on Amazon.com.

Worst thing you’ll see all week: The Shallows

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Sony’s marketing for The Shallows calls it a taut thriller. Taut is a nice way of saying “low budget”. The production consisted almost entirely of filming someone waiting on a rock in the ocean. Before that, you get some heavy-handed character development. After that, you get about ten minutes of action with a CG shark. The most interesting character is a seagull. No lie. A seagull. Taut thriller. Pfft. The only thing taut is Blake Lively’s amazing body. You’d never guess from this movie, which uses her about as well as any calendar shoot uses its model, that Lively is so good in Age of Adeline. Why don’t you just watch that instead? If you want cheesecake in your shark movie, Saffron Burrows in Deep Blue Sea is plenty taut and the movie itself is a real hoot.

The Shallows has no appreciation for the eerieness of the sea, much less the terrible majesty of its shark. It must be difficult to make a 90-minute movie out of something that should be over in nine seconds (for another example, see (i.e. don’t see) Andrew Traucki’s The Reef). I don’t envy any filmmaker who has to make a thriller, taut or otherwise, about a woman not getting eaten by a shark for 90 minutes. But director Jaume Collet-Serra, so deft with Orphan and so confident with Run All Night, has nothing but the expected jump scares and some godawful found footage gimmicks. Thanks, GoPro. And what an utterly ludicrous finale. You know how in movies a bear or dragon or dog jumps at the hero, and the hero holds up a spear so the bear or dragon or dog impales itself? The Shallows is one of the most absurd variations on that theme I’ve ever seen. It wouldn’t be out of place in a Road Runner cartoon.

Hopefully, Sony will release an extended edition that has more scenes with the seagull.