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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

It’s been nine years since the last Bourne movie that mattered. (The Bourne Legacy, with Jeremy Renner, back in 2012 was a joke.) After saying he wouldn’t play the part again, Matt Damon is back as Jason Bourne, with director-buddy Paul Greengrass in tow.

The result: Jason Bourne, a tedious, desperate and sad extension of the Bourne storyline.

At the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon’s Bourne woke up after a bridge dive and swam off into an unknown and unpredictable future. It seemed to be a fitting and perfect end to the character, or perhaps that particular story arc. Bourne found out his real name, learned why he was an assassin with amnesia, and got himself a little revenge. Case closed, right?

Wrong. Money matters, and Universal wanted to keep the Bourne locomotive on track. An attempt to keep the franchise going with a new star (Renner’s awful Legacy) was stale. Then Universal saw an opportunity with Damon, who hadn’t had a major hit in many years. (Damon decided to go back to Bourne before the release of The Martian last year, a movie that garnered him an Oscar nomination and showed he was still bankable.)

Greengrass and his writers have come up with a way to further confuse Bourne about his identity. As it all turns out, there’s more to his amnesia: HE DOESN’T KNOW EVERTHING AFTER ALL! He’s also got some daddy issues.

The film starts with Bourne pulling a Rambo III, subjecting himself to public fights as a means of fueling his unquenched inner violent side. Former work associate Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) meets up with Bourne in Greece to tell him that she discovered some more stuff about his identity while doing some computer hacking. For Jason Bourne … it’s not over yet.

It’s embarrassing to watch Damon and Greengrass go through the motions of the tired scenario they have put into play. One year after perhaps his most enjoyable and fully dimensional performance in The Martian, Damon is forced to put the now-boring Bourne pants on again. His performance lacks dimension, emotion and humor. It’s not entirely his fault: The part is written that way. Ten years ago, Bourne was a cool role for Damon, one that allowed him to strip down and do something different. He’s grown as an actor since then, and has essentially outgrown Bourne. It feels like a step backward for him.

Greengrass tries to beef things up on the villainous end by employing Tommy Lee Jones as a CIA jerkface, which is a move as predictable and clichéd as casting Tommy Lee Jones as Tommy Lee Jones. Jones invests nothing new into his character, a type he has played many times before.

Oscar winner Alicia Vikander shows up as an ambitious CIA employee looking to make her mark. Her performance here is more robotic than her actual work as a robot in Ex Machina. Vincent Cassel is also onboard as a hired assassin called “The Asset.” Man, somebody had to work overtime to come up with that name.

There had to have been a better way to do this. How about giving Bourne a new career, one that he’s happy with—and then having him find out something is still wrong in his past? Or could they have simply made him a paid assassin who is truly screwed up thanks to his past? The new gimmick Greengrass and friends come up with to further extend Bourne’s identity crisis is not shocking, surprising or inventive. It feels drawn out.

Attempts to modernize Bourne with mumbo jumbo involving a tech mogul (Riz Ahmed) and a new social-media platform make parts of this movie feel like a jettisoned episode of Silicon Valley.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens stands as the best recent attempt to continue a franchise without making it feel forced, desperate and like a blatant attempt to cash some checks. Jason Bourne does nothing to better the franchise. This storyline needs to end here.

Jason Bourne is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Tale of Tales is one oddball movie. Imagine if David Lynch had made The Princess Bride instead of Rob Reiner.

Italian director Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah, Reality) adapts three fairy tales and sort of mixes them together, creating one semi-consistent and relatively cohesive narrative.

In one of the stories, John C. Reilly plays a king (he actually looks like the Burger King) who must stalk a sea monster and get its heart so that his queen (Salma Hayek) can devour it and become pregnant. In another, Toby Jones plays another king who becomes fascinated with a flea, feeding it blood and steak until it grows to the size of a large sow. In yet another, Vincent Cassel is a king who falls in love with the voice of what he thinks is a fair maiden, but it turns out to be an old lady.

All of these characters share the same universe. There are times when the film becomes a little lifeless, but the visuals are always remarkable, and some of the performances (especially those by Hayek and Jones) are great. Garrone knows how to put a film together on the visual side. He can use a little tightening up with the verbal part.

The overall experience is a good, albeit bizarre. Lovers of fantasy films should indulge.

Tale of Tales is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing