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New Releases for Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Shallows

Genre: Thriller

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Run time: 87 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Format: Blu-Ray

The Lowdown: It’s always sad when summer ends.

No more drum circles on the beach. No more waking up face-planted in the sand. No more…sharks?

Of course there’s always sharks.

Those big teeth, that devil gaze and the relentless zeal to consume heartbroken surfers.

Why wouldn’t there be another predatory serial sea killer movie coming out on home video so soon after “Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre” and “In the Deep”?

But here’s the thing, friends, BVB: Blood Violence and Babes is here to tell you “The Shallows” is honestly, seriously good.

As in, it deserves to be up there with “Jaws,” “The Reef” and “Deep Blue Sea” good. (Come on, “Deep Blue Sea” was fun. Admit it.)

Unlike “Open Water,” which was basically two people then one person bobbing in the ocean for 81 minutes, “The Shallows” puts Blake Lively on a rock in the middle of a bay about 200 yards from a hidden, nameless beach that no one knows she went to by herself with only a 20-foot killing machine between her and shore.

Lively – Mrs. Ryan Reynolds to some, Gossip Girl to others – owns the movie. It’s her best work in a string of solid work, including “The Town” and “Savages.”

It’s also the best work yet from Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra following three sub-par action thrillers with Liam Neeson. Collet-Serra and writer Anthony Jaswinski get major kudos for taking their time introducing Nancy (Lively), an aspiring doctor and avid surfer still reeling from the death of her mother.

The nameless hidden beach somewhere in Mexico was her mother’s favorite spot on Earth, and Nancy has traveled there to consider dropping out of med school. After surfing the afternoon, she foolishly paddles over to a floating whale carcass and suddenly comes thigh to mouth acquainted with the big beast eating the dead whale. She survives the first attack but winds up stranded on a rock with only a wounded seagull that she nicknames Steven (get it?) for company.

Collet-Sera and Jaswinski put Nancy through hell for most of the 87-minute runtime.

They slowly ratchet the tension with each near-fatal encounter, as the shark devours several would-be helpers and Nancy quickly loses blood. The final 15 minutes are ridiculously intense and include one of the coolest, if not best, underwater shark versus blonde in a bikini face-offs ever put on film.

If you love shark movies and hate that most of them are terrible, it’s time to wade back into the water for “The Shallows.”

The Stuff You Care About: Hot chicks – Blake’s bikini wins the day.

Nudity – No. Gore – Bloody shark bites.

Drug use – No.

Bad Guys/Killers – Um, the shark, man!

Buy/Rent – Buy it.

The Neon Demon (Broad Green Pictures, 118 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): There are directors whose work you immediately want to see, regardless of the genre, because you trust in their vision.

And there are directors whose work you eventually grow skeptical of after one too many missed opportunities.

Nicolas Winding Refn is not such a director. He eschews conventional film tropes. He seems to favor style over substance, but the style on display in his movies is breathtaking to behold. And he literally defies categorization.

He’s made five films since 2008 and not one of them is anything like the other. And despite finding mainstream success and mass name recognition following his 2011 breakout, “Drive,” he has refused to play by Hollywood’s expectations. “Only God Forgives” in 2013 was a brutal, self-indulgent art-house-worthy action flick. And his latest, “The Neon Demon,” is essentially an over-the-top exploitation horror film – if that film was a broad homage to Dario Argento as envisioned by Terrence Malick.

Imagine “Showgirls,” if Nomi Malone had killed and eaten Cristal Connors.

Trying to discern whether The Neon Demon is any good, however, is completely subjective.

A lot of people will immediately hate it and label it as pretentious hooey.

But here’s the thing – The Neon Demon is pretentious.

It’s wildly ambitious. It’s ridiculously over-indulgent. It’s mind-numbingly impenetrable at times.

But it’s also one of the most hauntingly beautiful movies you’ve ever seen. It’s a gorgeous Grand Guignol with bursts of bloody, brilliant and breathtaking chutzpah.

Winding Refn isn’t content to merely savage the vanity of youth. He eviscerates the entire modeling industry – from photographers and designers to makeup artists and talent agents – who foster and encourage young women to forego their innocence in a desperate bid for adulation.

The Neon Demon opens with an extended, pull away dolly-cam shot of 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) draped over an ornate couch, her throat slashed. Fanning looks genuinely dead, but that’s the magic of her model super powers. Her natural talent is light years ahead of her seasoned competitors, which is why they all hate her – or, at least, Gigi and Sarah. Only their friend, makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), seems to appreciate and care for Jesse’s well-being.

Fueled by a propulsive retro-synth-heavy score by Cliff Martinez (who also composed “Drive” and “Only God Forgives”), Winding Refn bombards viewers with an accelerating array of visceral, deviant imagery:

  • Sleazy motel owner Hank (Keanu Reeves) sneaking into Jesse’s room for a fetishistic game of oral knife play.

  • Jesse masturbating while fantasizing about Ruby engaging in necrophilia with a cadaver.

  • Ruby languishing in a freshly-dug grave, smoking while completely nude, and later giving birth to a torrent of blood.

  • Gigi vomiting up an eyeball while hoarsely screaming, “I need to get her out of me!”

What does it all mean? Who knows. Who cares! Winding Refn seems intent only on making his audience as uncomfortable as possible – he deliberately holds some scenes a frame or two too long to ratchet up the voyeuristic awkwardness that he is trying to impart.

At one point, Jesse stops to sum up her existence: "I know what I look like. Women would kill to look like this."

The reality is they would do much worse.

And that about sums up The Neon Demon -- and our current morally depraved, fame-obsessed culture -- perfectly.

Central Intelligence (Warner Bros., 108 minutes, PG-13, Blu-Ray): Watching Central Intelligence, the new comedy starring Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson, I found myself thinking about the requirements and expectations we place on our favorite comedic actors.

Is it enough, for instance, to go into a Will Ferrell movie expecting him to play a buffoon who is subjected to repeated pratfalls that would maim a real person and humiliating circumstances that would doom anyone in the real world to years of expensive therapy?

Does that expectation allow for a lower standard, meaning if I watch a Will Ferrell movie and laugh sporadically, then it’s a funny movie worthy of my time?

Truth be told, I like Ferrell and consider some of his films, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Old School” and “Talladega Nights,” to be hysterical and worthy of repeat viewing. But many of his movies, especially recently, have failed to reach those same heights, including “Get Hard,” his team-up with Kevin Hart.

So what expectation should be placed on a Hart movie?

Is it enough to go into a Kevin Hart movie expecting him to play a perennial loser who’s trying to make good, a short-in-stature funny man who is constantly reminded of his vertical challenge or a good guy with a good heart who awkwardly finds himself in ridiculous situations?

Because that about sums up Hart’s cinematic oeuvre to date.

Central Intelligence doesn’t deviate much from Hart’s established winning formula. He plays a good-hearted guy who once was king of his high school who has found himself in a midlife rut. Along comes Johnson, who has morphed from the bullied fat kid into a man-mountain of muscles stuffed into a too-small unicorn shirt.

The big gag, of course, is that Johnson is a CIA agent, which means there’s lots of gunplay, which means Hart gets to make a lot of faces and run screaming a lot of the time.

The problem with Central Intelligence, which is surprising coming from director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who usually extracts comic gold from even the silliest set-ups (see “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” or “We’re the Millers”), is that it doesn’t treat its audience with enough respect.

People are smart. Hart and Johnson, judging by their very careers, are smart. Why then does Central Intelligence pander to the lowest common denominator at every turn?

What could have been a very funny, very intelligent riff on the awkward buddy comedy – think “Midnight Run” – instead insults viewer intelligence by mining unnecessary subplots (Hart’s character trying to mend fences with his wife) that rely on huge leaps of logic to take seriously. Even Johnson’s CIA agent appears to shoot and kill dozens of other U.S. operatives with little to no consequence, but I guess it’s OK because he’s trying to save the world and thwart a nuclear attack.

I like Kevin Hart, much like I like Will Ferrell. They’re both funny, funny men.

But they need to invest as much into the material they choose as they ask fans to invest money and time into watching the movies they make.

It’s no longer enough to just make a slap-dash, high-brow concept film and hope that fat jokes and sexual stereotype humor will help bridge the slow spots and cover up the fact that a much better movie could have been made.

Warcraft (Universal, 123 minutes, PG-13, Blu-Ray): Confession time – I have never played World of Warcraft, the online world-building, battle-heavy game that pits Orcs against humans. And maybe that’s why I felt so lost when I tried to watch Warcraft, the movie based on the game, by visionary director (and David Bowie’s son) Duncan Jones.

If we’re being completely honest, I didn’t make it all the way through Warcraft and I think that’s a big reason why. While the movie started impressively with an Orc and a human preparing to square off on a deserted stretch of craggy dirt, it quickly segued into a long stretch of CGI-heavy Orc story that made little sense. Before long, the Orcs had gathered in front of some strange Stargate-like portal and were being whisked through dimensions to a lush land.

Was it another world? Another timeline? I have no idea.

Just as quickly, the human element of Warcraft came into play as scenes zipped by in fast succession with barely enough time for a subtitle ticker to identify each different kingdom being introduced.

I went into Warcraft expecting it to be “The Lord of the Rings”-lite, but Jones clearly intended for it to be much more. People who have played the game and know the various characters might find it enthralling. But for a neophyte like me, Warcraft was but a blur of animation and angry battles punctuated with symbolism and stakes that failed to muster any urgency or engagement on my part.

New on Video-on-Demand:

The Caretaker (Level 33, 80 minutes, Unrated, VOD): The clown phenomenon continues with this unsettling thriller about an elderly clairvoyant, the demented circus clown she summons and her granddaughter who comes home to care for her grandmother before slowly discovering the horrible truth buried deep within her childhood home.

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