UNDERWATER (2020)

January 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits have an “X-Files” look and feel. Newspaper headlines and redacted reports zip by … in fact, the rapid cuts are so quick that very few viewers will be able to keep up. Even if you haven’t finished your Evelyn Woods speed-reading course, the gist is clear: there is a (very) deep-water drilling lab located 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Yep, that’s almost 7 miles deep for the crew of 316, and some mysterious bad things may or may not be lurking. That’s really our only set-up … unless you want to count Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth.

It’s literally less than 5 minutes in when the rig is rocked by an explosion of some kind. We are told the structure is 70% damaged. The survivors are quickly identified. Nora (Ms. Stewart) and Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) are together in the immediate aftermath. Nora is a mechanical engineer and computer whiz. They soon come across a co-worker buried in rubble. It’s wise-cracking TJ Miller and his (actual) stuffed bunny. Next up are the Captain (Vincent Cassel) and lovebirds Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr). With no time for early character development, we learn tidbits as their perilous journey hopefully leads them towards rescue. Of course anyone who has ever watched a movie can tell you, they won’t all make it. Maybe the 8 year old girl sitting in the row behind me wouldn’t know that … but no parent should take their 8 year old to a PG-13 movie that has “terror” in the parental warnings.

Director William Eubank and co-writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad create plenty of tension, danger and suspense. The movie is at its best when they let the moment speak. It’s the dialogue that is mostly cringe-worthy, as well as the predictable and unnecessary jump-scares. These people are stranded miles deep in the ocean and are running out of oxygen and options … and are being chased by something they can’t identify. The visual effects are successful in generating the environment of danger and claustrophobia.

It’s in the little things where the film falters. When we first see the Captain, he has his arm in a sling. He’s obviously injured. Once the bulky underwater suits are donned, his bad arm seems just fine … he’s even pulling one of the others with a rope! Nora makes a big deal about being the “smallest” of the group and volunteers to explore a narrow passage. The problem is that they are all wearing the same suits – a fact that should negate any advantage of Ms., Stewart’s slim, toned body. Lastly, the film has borrowed heavily from James Cameron’s classic ALIEN. In fact, it has been referred to as “Underwater Alien”. Of course, this film isn’t nearly as well-rounded or complete as that one … but then few are.

Mr. Eubank’s film is a sci-fi/horror mash-up, but it’s really more a survival thriller than science fiction or creature feature, although the sea creatures have their moments. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli does a nice job in keeping with the ‘play it straight’ approach, and his camera work is complemented by the electronic score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts. Ms. Stewart and her buzzed blond hair hold their own amidst the danger. A blatant lecture about how we are going places (deep sea) we shouldn’t go and doing things (drilling) we shouldn’t do is included for those who might not figure it out on their own, but mostly we spend our time trying to figure out how to survive the deep sea pressure with little oxygen and no escape pods. Just leave the 8-year olds at home.

watch the trailer:


PATTI CAKE$ (2017)

August 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A gritty, New Jersey based story of a blue-collar white girl trying to make it in hip-hop sounds like the makings of a film festival favorite – especially since it’s the first feature from its director and features a star-making turn from an unusual leading lady. After being warmly received at Sundance and Cannes (and other festivals), the only remaining question is, will mainstream audiences show the love?

The obvious comparison here is Eminem’s 8 MILE, but there is also a touch of ROCKY, THE COMMITMENTS, and most all other sports and music movies featuring the dreams of those from ‘the other side of the tracks’. Writer/director Geremy Jasper has a nice feel for setting and actors, and it’s only the (at times) formulaic nature of the script that keeps this one in the crowd-pleasing category rather reaching a level of greatness.

Australian native Danielle Macdonald plays Patti Dombrowski, also known as Killa P, and most every other cruel nickname (Dumbo, White Precious) one might pin on a plus-sized Anglo girl found street rapping. As you would expect, her tough outer visage masks an all-too-familiar inner insecurity borne from a larger than life mother who blames her daughter for every misery in life. Bridget Everett plays the mother Barb, a hard-drinking, hard-singing, hard-blaming type who gives such sterling mother advice as ‘lose the top button’ for that job interview. Mother Barb, providing proof of her distance from reality, refers to herself and daughter Patti as “the Dombrowski sisters”, whom she claims are “setting the world on fire”.

The tenuous mother-daughter relationship is at the core of the film, and these two actresses (and the movie) are at their best in their scenes together. On the music side, Siddarth Dhananjay plays Jhen, Patti’s eternal optimist-pharmacist-music partner, while Mamoudou Athie is Basterd, a self-proclaimed anti-Christ anarchist. The three form a band called PB&J (Patti, Basterd, Jhen) which provides friendship, a creative release, and, mostly, a reason for existence. Their band, and especially Patti, gets a boost from Nana (a remarkable Cathy Moriarty) on vocals and the CD cover. Ms. Moriarty is now 56 years old (playing older here), and was only 19 when she made her stunning screen debut in RAGING BULL. Other supporting work is provided by MC Lyte, Wass Stevens and Sahr Ngaujah.

The neighborhood is Bayonne New Jersey (see CHUCK), an area where lines such as “blood is thicker than Jager” actually make sense. A 23 year old would-be rapper can work as a bartender and caterer, and still find time to hone her musical skills. It’s the land of misfits and music that only sounds sweet to a few ears – where dreams don’t consist of owning yacht, but rather “making it across the bridge”. Crowd-pleasing movies are quite welcome these days, and filmmaker Jasper has joined with dynamite actresses Macdonald and Everett in delivering just that. Expect all to reach greater heights over the next few years.

watch the trailer: