Saturday, January 28, 2017

Swimming Into "The Shallows"

For most viewers of a certain age, Jaws is still the standard bearer for shark films. There have been many variations on the story since that Steven Spielberg classic defined the summer popcorn movie upon its release in 1975. They include several sequels & inferior knock offs like 1977’s Orca, as well as entertaining B-flicks like 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, featuring super-intelligent predators facing off against Samuel L. Jackson. There’s also the ongoing Sharknado series, which spoofs both shark & disaster films and adds increasingly outlandish situations to each new entry. On the other end of the spectrum is 2016’s The Shallows, a well-made thriller starring Blake Lively. The shark in this film just might give Bruce from Jaws a run for his money.

Lively plays Nancy Adams, a medical student grieving the loss of her mother. She travels to a secluded beach in Mexico once visited by her mom, with her surfboard in tow. Nancy spends some time surfing & chatting with a couple of local natives. After they leave, she notices the carcass of a whale floating nearby. While riding one last wave solo, she is knocked off her board by a great white shark, and her leg is seriously injured in the attack. Nancy ends up swimming to a nearby rock, and has to temporarily bind her wounds. Meanwhile the shark is still circling, and threatening to finish her off…and the tide is coming in quickly.

What follows is a suspenseful tale of resourceful human vs. crafty shark, as Nancy tries to figure out a way to get to shore, and/or contact someone for help. Director Jaume Collet-Serra ratchets up the tension in several exciting & truly terrifying sequences. He wisely uses the CGI shark effects sparingly, and truly communicates the sense of menace & threat offered by this monstrous creature. Serra clearly learned from Spielberg’s “show less is more” technique from the original Jaws, which was forced upon him by technical issues with the mechanical shark on that film, and ended up being very effective in the final product. The movie's visually striking cinematography is by Flavio Labiano. 

Blake Lively does fine work here in a tough & physically demanding role; she did several of her own stunts in the movie. Her character is essentially on screen for the film’s entire running time. She effectively conveys Nancy’s range of emotions during this challenging situation, from the initial fear & hopelessness right on through to her incredible strength & determination to survive. There are several other actors that show up in the film in brief supporting parts, the most recognizable being character actor Brett Cullen, who plays Nancy’s father. But this is Lively’s show all the way, and she’s excellent. The movie is an exciting, well-produced survival story, and if you enjoy the genre, The Shallows is recommended viewing. The film is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and also for digital download. Here’s a link to the trailer:

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Retro Movie: The Last of Sheila

In the intriguing mystery tale The Last of Sheila (1973) film producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) invites a group of friends aboard his yacht for a week-long cruise. The onboard activities include a special "Gossip Game" in which everyone is given a card containing a secret. The object of the game is to discover everyone else’s secret, but protect your own. As the contest continues, it quickly becomes clear that our host has a far more serious & challenging sort of game in mind. It turns out that everyone on the cruise was present on the night Clinton’s wife was killed by a hit & run driver a year ago. Is our host looking to unmask the killer & get revenge for her untimely death?

Is one of these people a murderer? Find out in The Last of Sheila
As the story unfolds, we get to know the other passengers (or are they suspects?) including a once powerful agent (Dyan Cannon), a director (James Mason) who’s fallen on hard times, and a starlet (Raquel Welch) who's too big for her britches. Everyone seems to have a hidden agenda, a real secret outside of the game, or both. The friends (and sometimes enemies) interact & toss icy barbs & bon mots at each other as the game continues. Did one of the guests kill Sheila on that terrible night a year ago? Or was it really an accident? Will even more deaths result from this tricky & revealing game of cat & mouse? If there is a killer in the group, how far will he or she go to protect their secrets? What may have started as only a game is going to turn out to be very real, and very deadly.....very quickly. The excellent cast also includes Ian McShane, Richard Benjamin & Joan Hackett. Everyone is at the top of their game and throws themselves into their roles; you can see they're all having a great time.

There’s a lot of witty dialogue, courtesy of the script by Stephen Sondheim & Anthony Perkins, which pokes knowing fun at the movie business & its stars. Many of the characters are thinly disguised versions of real-life personalities. For example, Dyan Cannon's role is patterned after Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers. The film's clever plot twists & turns are also a highlight for whodunit fans. Sondheim & Perkins were real life puzzle & mystery buffs. Both men used to host real-life event nights featuring intricate puzzles, murder mystery games & scavenger hunts. The Last of Sheila is an engrossing thriller that will keep you guessing throughout the story. I really enjoyed the movie when I first saw it on late night TV back in the 1970s, and its a title I tend to re-visit every so often. Even though I know the solution to the mystery, enjoy the rich performances & sharp writing. There was talk of a second collaboration between Sondheim & Perkins, but sadly, that project never materialized.

Director Herbert Ross is probably better known for movies like Funny GirlThe Sunshine BoysThe Goodbye Girl & Steel Magnolias, but he also directed the film version of the Nicholas Meyer Sherlock Holmes novel The Seven Percent Solution, which was released in 1976. That's the story where Holmes teams up with Sigmund Freud to solve a case. That movie is also worth a look for genre fans. But for now, sit back, relax, fix yourself a drink, and enjoy The Last of Sheila. You’ll have a lot of fun trying to figure out whodunit. The Last Of Sheila is available on DVD from the Warner Archive collection. The disc features an informative commentary track with stars Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon & Raquel Welch. The film also turns up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: And a note to music fans: yes, that is the one & only Bette Midler singing "Friends" over the movie's closing credits.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Should You Accept "The Invitation?"

There were several interesting & noteworthy horror films released in 2016, including the eerie, offbeat drama The Witch (see my review here:, the claustrophobic thriller Don’t Breathe, the creepy anthology Southbound, and the "end of the world is nigh" story 10 Cloverfield LaneOne of the more intriguing movies in the genre was a compact little suspense tale entitled The Invitation. The story concerns a couple, Will & Kira, who are invited to attend a gathering of friends hosted by Will’s ex-wife Eden & her new husband, David. Initially, it seems like this will be an evening of fun, food, wine & renewing old friendships. But there are darker things just under the surface of this seemingly innocent dinner party. Through flashbacks, we learn that Will & Eden lost a child, which eventually splintered & ended their marriage. Eden & David have decided to gather the group together to re-unite them & re-connect their relationships. Seems harmless enough, doesn't it?

Along with a couple of the other guests, Pruitt & Sadie, the hosts have joined a group called “The Invitation” which Eden says has helped her work through her grief over the loss of her son, and made a huge difference in her life. As the night goes on, David & Eden encourage the group to participate in some games including a confessional one called “I Want” where you can openly admit to something you want, with no repercussions. The couple wants everyone to understand how the "The Invitation" has helped bring clarity & peace to their lives. Will starts to notice that things are a little odd; it seems like David & Eden want to keep everyone at the house; the doors are locked, and there are bars on the windows. Their friend Pruitt casually admits to having “accidentally” killed his wife, but has dealt with his feelings about it via the help of “The Invitation” and its founder, Dr. Joseph. According to Pruitt, he longer feels any guilt for what happened.

A dinner party gone very wrong in The Invitation
Will keeps seeing David, Eden, Sadie & Pruitt act strangely, but none of their other friends believe him. Whenever he questions what’s going on, David or Eden assures him everything is fine, and that his own grief is influencing his anxiety. Another friend of theirs is missing and hasn’t shown up, and Will assumes their hosts know something about it. No one can get a good cell signal, because the house is way up in the Hollywood Hills. When the tension at the party ratchets up further, an incident occurs that indicates that Will could have been right all along. But just what is going on? Do David & Eden have another agenda? Just what is “The Invitation?” A cult? Or something far more deadly?

I’ve tried not to give too much away here, because part of the fun is watching the story unfold in Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi’s well-written script. It’s a slow burn type of story, but patient viewers will be rewarded with some terrifying revelations in the final section of the film. The excellent direction is by Karyn Kusama, who has also helmed Girlfight (2000), and episodes of TV series such as Halt & Catch Fire & The Man in the High Castle. She keeps the atmosphere unsettling throughout the movie, and makes us question what's happening during the evening. Like Will’s character, we’re never quite sure if we’re misinterpreting what we're seeing, or if there is something very wrong at this party. Maybe Will & Kira shouldn't have accepted this invite after all.

The cast is very effective, including Logan Marshall Green as Will, Tammy Blanchard as Eden, and the fine character actor John Carroll Lynch (The Walking Dead, many other series & movies) as Pruitt. The Invitation is an atmospheric, mutli-layered thriller that’s worth viewing for fans looking for something a little different in their horror film fare. I enjoyed the movie, and I recommend it to genre fans. It's an intense tale and an intriguing look at just what might be behind the mask of a different type of self help guru & his very offbeat philosophy. While the movie ultimately offers no tidy resolutions, the ending is all the more terrifying because there are no easy answers. The Invitation is now available on DVD & Blu-ray, and for streaming on Netflix. Here’s a link to the trailer: