Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Kristen Stewart proves she’s a badass movie star in Underwater, a long-delayed and surprisingly decent deep-sea horror/thriller from director William Eubank. While it stands to be the second big-budget box-office disaster in a row for Stewart after Charlie’s Angels, it deserves a better fate: The movie is actually pretty good.

The film doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel or work any miracles. It’s successful in a very basic way that engages from beginning to end, with an occasional effective scare, a constant sense of dread and high-pressure tension.

Stewart stars as Norah, an underwater engineer on a drilling rig in the middle of the Mariana Trench. We first see her brushing her teeth as the lights around her flicker, and then we hear some dull thuds. She glances around; she plays a little with a spider in the sink. She doesn’t seem too concerned.

Then, “Boom!” Her section of the rig implodes, blasting water all around her as she and another crew member narrowly escape into a temporary safe place … and by temporary, we mean for the next 30 seconds or so.

Norah makes her way through the quickly mounting disaster, meeting up with other crew members (including T.J. Miller, here for comic relief in a movie made well before his personal controversies made him a casting no-no). The vessel’s captain (a strong Vincent Cassel) hatches a plan involving big diving suits and walking on the ocean floor toward a safer zone. The group reluctantly goes along.

It’s not an earthquake or volcanic eruption that has caused their work home to be compromised: Instead, sea creatures of unexplained origin—some the size of the chest-burster in Alien, some of more Godzilla-type proportions—are menacing the rig and occasionally dining on humans. Jaws-style, the creatures are slowly but surely introduced, until a finale that is full of monsters.

Eubank stocks his cast with talent (including Jessica Henwick of Game of Thrones and John Gallagher Jr.), including a lot of actors who can say a lot in just the way they look, so long periods of exposition aren’t needed for the audience to immediately care about them. The movie never lets up, and while it doesn’t possess a remarkable screenplay or anything resembling emotional depth, the action is fierce, and the characters register.

In fact, had the screenplay provided one more solid, apocalyptic twist or shift, this film could’ve been very good. There were moments when I thought Eubank might offer up some sort of Twilight Zone shocker, but, alas, the movie is just about people running away from sea monsters. They run away in style, but that’s all that really happens.

The monsters themselves are mostly seen through dark, murky water. Normally, not allowing a full view of a monster would infuriate me, but it works here, much in the same way it did with the cave-dwellers in The Descent. Because we witness much of the action as if we were part of the escaping crew, we often see the monsters lit by flashlights or through suit visors. It works, for the most part. However, the studio (Fox, owned by Disney) erred in deciding to make this PG-13. It needed to be an R-rated film.

Stewart provides the film with a nice center of gravity, creating a character who is clearly scared shitless, yet realistically under control. She shaved her head for the role; Norah would have that haircut because it makes sense given the living conditions, rather than it being an attempt to look tough.

So, it’s January, when studios release films in which they have no faith (along with awards contenders getting their wide releases after limited runs, like 1917 and Just Mercy). Underwater definitely fits the bill as a long delayed, question mark of a movie. Fortunately, for genre fans, it doesn’t suck. It’s passably good, and I can safely say it has no moments I would categorize as bad. It’s a good, old-fashioned, please-monster-don’t-eat-me movie, and I will gladly take one of those every now and then.

Underwater is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Belko Experiment is a decent-enough yet schlocky horror offering that thinks it is deeper and cleverer than it actually is.

Penned by James Gunn, this silly movie pits a bunch of office workers against one another after a voice comes over their intercom telling them to start killing each other off—or everybody dies. The building is sealed; the “experiment” is put into motion; and the likes of Tony Goldwyn and John C. McGinley start acting like homicidal assholes.

Directed by Greg McLean, the film is fun on a very basic level. (If you like movies where lots of heads blow up, this one’s for you!) There’s a definite terror involved in not knowing whose head is going to blow up next, and the folks handling the gore factor do a pretty good job. However, when the big reveal comes at the end, there are no surprises, and the movie loses a few points.

John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) is good as the protagonist, a guy who does his darndest to not join in on the interoffice carnage.

You could look at The Belko Experiment as deep satire, or a resonating meditation on the current state of mind control when it comes to government and employers in an increasingly paranoid society. However, I like to look at it as a film where brains go flying in a fairly convincing and somewhat entertaining manner.

The Belko Experiment is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Just as he did with the first Cloverfield, producer J.J. Abrams has again managed to sneak a movie into multiplexes under a shroud of secrecy and mystery: With a little more than a couple of months’ notice, a film shot under the code name Valencia became 10 Cloverfield Lane.

What’s the significance of the word “Cloverfield” in that movie title? Abrams is calling this film a blood relative to the original found-footage monster movie. This new film is not a found footage film, thank god, but after seeing it, I can tell you the title is not misleading—although you shouldn’t go to this thinking you will see the monster from Cloverfield laying waste to middle America. It’s a much different kind of movie.

The film starts with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on an urgent phone call with somebody. She grabs her keys, hits the road and drives for what appears to be many miles out of the big city and into the cornfields. After stopping for some gas, her car crashes for mysterious reasons. She wakes up from said crash with an IV drip—and her leg cuffed to a bar.

Shortly thereafter, she meets Howard (John Goodman). Howard seems a little bit anxious and tells her that she needs to hydrate and practice using crutches. And, oh yeah, the end of the world is nigh. No one really knows why, but the air is now contaminated, and they must reside in his emergency bunker for what could be years.

There’s another inhabitant of the bunker: Howard’s soft-spoken neighbor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Emmett allegedly helped Howard put the bunker together, and he’s not really sure why the world is ending, either. All of this leads the beautiful Michelle, in the captive hands of two questionable strangers, to be suspicious. She wants to be outside, even if the world is dying.

Is the world really ending? Howard seems to think so, citing nuclear war and alien invasion as possibilities. Emmett, meanwhile, does not necessarily seem all that worried about it. He just seems happy to be around Michelle all day, putting puzzles together. Is it just a grand plan for two creepy guys to imprison a beautiful woman for their perverted means?

First-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg does a nice job of keeping the audience guessing. I went into 10 Cloverfield Lane with my own guesses, based on the trailers, regarding how everything would play out, and how the film would tie into the “Cloverfield Universe.” My guesses were, for the most part, confirmed—although there were a few deviations.

Winstead is an acting treasure who doesn’t get enough opportunities to shine; see her performance in Smashed (2012) for proof. She’s equally good here, playing a strong-minded hostage justifiably brimming with paranoia. She’s very easy to root for, even when the screenplay tries to tilt sympathies toward Howard and Emmett.

In his meatiest role in years, Goodman is golden as the “maybe he’s a monster; maybe he’s a savior” survivalist. There are nuances in his work that will keep you guessing every second he’s onscreen. As for Emmett … this is no knock on Gallagher, but his character seems tacked on.

The film is a slick thriller with a few plot holes that might nag you afterward. For me, it offered few major surprises—although that has much to do with me seeing so many movies, and being savvy to many directorial tricks. When the movie did “get” me on occasion, it did so competently.

Above all, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an impressive acting exhibition for Winstead and Goodman, who play really well off of each other. As more mysteries about Howard and the outside world are revealed, the tension ratchets up, and Trachtenberg proves himself a fine handler of all the elements.

I’m guessing 10 Cloverfield Lane is not the last movie we will see with “Cloverfield” in the title. Think of the Cloverfield movies as an anthology series with a few plot machinations tying things together. Two movies in, it’s proving to be a fine endeavor.

10 Cloverfield Laneis playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Brie Larson and Short Term 12 got some Oscar buzz (but were ultimately denied a nomination) for her role as Grace, a supervisor at a foster-care building full of angry and depressed teens. Larson is quite good, as is co-star John Gallagher Jr. as Mason, her boyfriend and fellow supervisor.

The film plays like a sort of juvenile One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, except that Grace is a helluva lot nicer than Nurse Ratched, and none of the teens really have the exuberance of Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy. In fact, Grace is compassionate to an extreme, which leads to some conflicts of interest when dealing with one particular girl (Kaitlyn Dever). The girl has similar problems to those suffered by Grace during her youth, so Grace gets a little too proactive—and jeopardizes her standing at the foster home.

Some of the kids are interesting, especially Keith Stanfield as Marcus, a suicidal teen slated to be released to his lousy mom. Overall, the cast is impressive, and the movie works on most levels. It’s certainly worth seeing for Larson and Gallagher, who are a mighty convincing couple.

Special Features: The film is based on a short film, which is included on the disc. You also get deleted scenes, a documentary on the film’s music, and some behind-the-scenes material. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing