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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

In the vast catalogue of Woody Allen films, Café Society falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. While it’s definitely one of his better-looking movies, a slight casting mistake leads to the movie being a little underwhelming at times.

Kristen Stewart is often great (see her in this year’s Certain Women for an example of just how damned great she can be), but if you put her in the wrong role, you can really see her working and straining.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Woody Allen Jr.—uh, I mean Bobby, a young kid looking to find work in old-timey Hollywood under the tutelage of his studio big-shot uncle, Phil (Steve Carell, kicking mortal ass). Phil asks one of his assistants, Vonnie (Stewart), to show Bobby around—and, of course, they fall in love.

Café Society has all of the Allen tropes: a bumbling protagonist, a smart-but-not-that-smart love interest, old-timey jazz music and silly romantic situations. Stewart’s character is luminous at times, but seems bored in others, as if the actress is not sure how to play Vonnie’s wild personality shifts. She just plays it sort of dull.

Eisenberg does his best Woody Allen impersonation, while the costuming, set design and cinematography are all first-rate. Even when the movie gets a little stupid, it’s always fun to watch.

Café Society gets a mild recommendation. Just don’t look to it for a great Stewart performance, because she seems a little clueless. I’m not sure that’s even really her fault: When Allen writes lazily, some characters go by the wayside.

Café Society is available via online sources, and on DVD and Blu-ray.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Jesse Eisenberg is having himself a great summer with this and his career-best performance in The End of the Tour. Eisenberg spreads his wings a bit as a stoner with a secret in American Ultra, this sporadically fun film from director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and writer Max Landis (Chronicle).

While enjoying a fine cup of soup, convenience-store clerk Mike Howell (Eisenberg) notices some dudes monkeying with his car. Seconds later, he’s killing people with a spoon. Mike’s girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, kicking mortal ass), is concerned about her beau, who has suddenly attained the ability to wipe out people with robot precision. I will not tell you why. You have to see the movie to find out why.

The film has a great premise, and it could’ve been a classic dark comedy. Unfortunately, it leans a little too heavy toward the dark side in its second half, and goes light on the laughs.

Eisenberg and Stewart rise above any of the tonal problems and lags in the story to make the movie something worth seeing. Stewart is getting better with every movie in which she shows up. I think her Bella-lag is wearing off, for sure. Eisenberg plays his part like an ignorant, coiled rattlesnake, and he’s appropriately scary at times.

This is a fun film for most of its running time—but it could’ve been something really special. 

American Ultra is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease steals the mind of a very smart woman in Still Alice, a movie that is sure to garner Julianne Moore her first Academy Award.

In this film—which was one of the most talked-about features at this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival—Moore plays Alice, a professor at Columbia University who leads an organized life of lectures, dinner parties and runs in the park. After starting to forget words here and there, and losing her place in lectures, Alice gets lost during a routine jog and can’t find her way home. She begins to realize that these aren’t normal memory-loss problems for a 50-year-old woman.

At first, Alice thinks she has a brain tumor. But memory tests suggest to her neurologist (Stephen Kunken) that something else could be causing her difficulties. A series of brain scans reveals the ugly truth: Alice has Alzheimer’s.

Alice, husband John (Alec Baldwin) and her children are horrified to discover their matriarch, a brilliant woman, will rapidly lose her memory, her sense of self and her ability to recognize her own children. Making matters worse, she has a rare strain of Alzheimer’s that is familial, meaning there’s a good chance she has passed the possibility of the disease to her three children: Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart).

This is not a fun movie to watch, but it is a remarkable film: Moore and the entire cast take this way above your average disease-of-the-week movie. Moore is one of our very best actresses, and she makes Alice into a palpable representation of this horrible disease.

The script, based on a novel by Lisa Genova and written by co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, avoids most of the melodrama that tends to mar films about illness. They present a very real family going through total devastation—all while handling the process with dignity, class and love for Alice. It’s very moving.

The much-maligned and highly underrated Kristen Stewart may be the supporting cast standout as the youngest daughter, who is trying to make it as an actress. Alice wants her to attend college, but Lydia steadfastly refuses—and the argument becomes very awkward when Alice becomes ill. Stewart is spot-on in her portrayal of a young woman determined to follow her dreams, yet driven by the need to help her mother.

Baldwin takes a very quiet approach to the role of John, turning in a subtle performance that reminds us that he’s a great dramatic actor. John still feels the need to protect and provide for his family, even if that takes him away from Alice for a new opportunity. It creates one of the film’s central conflicts; John’s decisions create a subject for debate among those who see the movie. Moore and Baldwin have great scenes together, especially the one in which Alice reveals her illness to her children. Baldwin’s reactions to her wife’s progressive memory loss are painful to watch.

Moore gives us a deep, fully realized, multi-dimensional performance that never feels trite. Alice is a woman who prides herself on her encyclopedic knowledge base for teaching, and exhibits nothing but grace as that knowledge is rapidly stripped away. Credit Moore for making every step of Alice’s tribulations seem honest and credible.

Moore should get her first Academy Award with her fifth nomination, and she very much deserves it. There were some great performances this year (especially Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl and Reese Witherspoon for Wild), but Moore outshines the class. It’s Oscar time for Moore.

Still Aliceis now playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at The River (760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

In 2007, neuroscientist and writer Lisa Genova released her novel Still Alice; it would find a home on The New York Times best-seller list for more than 40 weeks.

That book has been adapted into a film starring Julianne Moore, and the Palm Springs International Film Festival honored her with the Desert Palm Achievement Award for her performance. I caught a screening of Still Alice as part of the PSIFF on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 7, at the Palm Springs Regal 9.

The film begins at a conference at UCLA, where Dr. Alice Howland (Moore), a Columbia University professor of linguistics, is due to give a speech. She takes the podium sounding confident and knowledgeable—until she stumbles on a word that she can’t seem to remember.

After she arrives home in New York, her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), is nowhere to be found. She later decides to take a run through the campus of Columbia University—when she discovers she doesn’t know where she is. When she’s at home cooking a holiday dinner, she struggles to remember a bread-pudding recipe.

Because of all these problems, she nervously meets with a neurologist (Stephen Kunken). Shortly after, it’s revealed to Alice and John that she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The news is a crushing blow to Alice, who struggles to maintain her position at Columbia. She attempts to retain her memory through the use of her iPhone; she also has bullet points typed out for her courses. However, these steps don’t necessarily work.

Alice isn’t the only one directly affected by the diagnosis: It’s explained that the disease is genetically passed on, and therefore, her children could be at risk for the disease. Her pregnant daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), and her son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), both get tested, while her daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) explains that she doesn’t care to know.

Alice later decides to pose as a woman who wants to put one of her elderly parents into a home for people with Alzheimer’s, and gets a glimpse of patients struggling with the disease.

While there have been films made about Alzheimer’s disease before, Still Alice is unique in that it’s told mostly from the perspective of the character with the disease. We see Alice struggling to maintain her composure while her husband and children watch her slip away; the audience gets a taste of what it feels like to lose one’s memory.

Moore is masterful; she’s rightfully earning Oscar buzz for her acting here. Stewart (Twilight) offers a surprisingly good performance as the outcast who fights her mother on going to college, because she’s determined to make it as an actor.

Still Alice is a compelling film that tells its story without any added drama or plot twists. The emotional hardships Alice and her family go through are real and heartbreaking enough.

The film opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday, Jan. 16, and will later open in a wider release.

Published in Reviews

A cavalcade of stars shows up for this pretty, if meandering, adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novel, On the Road.

Sam Riley (who was so damn good in Control) provides a decent center as Sal (essentially Kerouac). He finds himself on a long road trip that involves hand jobs from Kristen Stewart and him watching sex acts performed on Steve Buscemi. (Yikes!)

In short, this movie is a bit crazy, and its unpredictability keeps it interesting. Garrett Hedlund is solid as a character loosely based on Neal Cassady, and Stewart sheds her Bella image for a good, carefree performance. Others in the cast include Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst.

The movie is OK, but I was looking for a little more meat on the bone, considering the subject matter.

On the Road is now available On Demand.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing