The Shallows

**** (Great)

Jaume Collet-Serra operates in an entirely different style in his latest triumph, The Shallows. While his past movies largely worked either in horror or action, and situated themselves to either confined locations or maze-like cities, this film is in a sort of middle-ground, a thriller taking place entirely on a secret beach in Mexico. The setting does a significant amount to illustrate the underlying qualities that distinguish the movie so much: just big enough to allow for the Macgyver-esque tricks that Nancy must pull to survive the ordeal she faces, but secluded enough to ensure she is almost solely on her own, all mixed in with the at turns gorgeous and menacing ocean waves that her foe swims through.

More than a little bit of the genius that propels The Shallows must be accredited to Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay, which is thoroughly and fully no-frills and constructs the simple premise with care. After an partially extraneous in medias res prologue, the first act is almost fully idyllic, slowly putting the pieces into place while indulging in genuine pleasure. Some time is spent on the journey to the beach, and Collet-Serra expends equal focus on backstory—with some wonderful digital projections of iPhone pictures—and simple banter between Nancy and her driver Carlos, while the forest glides by the windows. And even more time is spent on Nancy after she arrives and surfs, including a scenic three-screen video-chat that furnishes the rest of the backstory in an economical, if not necessarily vital, manner. It is inaccurate to say that Collet-Serra is trying to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, as there are more than a few fake-outs; moreso that he establishes an almost dreamlike mood that extends to much of the movie after the attack. Even the surfing montage set to an electronic song is cut-up and eventually abandoned, favoring the moments when Nancy goes beneath the water, treating them as near ethereal.

Of course, it is in the water, where Nancy feels at home, that she is attacked, though only after she approaches a rotting whale carcass. The scene’s progression is presented in the terms that define the rest of the film. The whale is a roiling mass of blood and blubber that sends Nancy into a panic as she tries to get away, only to be pulled beneath the waves. No part of the actual attack is shown onscreen, instead presented in one prolonged shot of Nancy underwater as blood slowly tinges the water.

The rest of The Shallows is pure thriller, as Collet-Serra finally slips into his most comfortable mode. Despite the open water, and in some ways because of it, Nancy is confined to a rock that becomes an island during low tide, adding an additional time constraint to her already despairing situation. Blake Lively also seems to become even stronger in this spare setting; she delivers the exposition in an easy-going manner, which only makes her urgency even more striking. Whether it be improvising stitches with earrings or judging the amount of time she has while the shark is circling, Lively captures even the moments when she is laying on the rock in despair seem of utmost importance.

And it is these moments that Collet-Serra is interested in the most as well. Much of the film is spent in what could be considered a sort of downtime, the inevitable space between the thrilling moments when Lively must venture into the more open water and face the shark, stinging coral, and in one entirely unexpected, luminous scene, a mass of jellyfish. There are no shortage of close-ups, especially on Nancy’s face that registers weariness, fear, and pain in unmistakable detail, but there are also startling overhead shots and wide-spanning vistas that never fail to capture the looming presence just below the surface. The economical nature of the players and things involved is of utmost importance, as the various human presences (including surfers she had met before and a distant ship) all make little difference until the end, and a seagull (hiliariously named Steven Seagull) provides for a consistent companion and a silent source of strength for Nancy.

Everything ultimately serves a purpose in this airtight film, but it never feels preordained, flowing as smoothly as the waves, and Collet-Serra rarely lets the film get out of hand as Nancy moves to the buoy that serves as the venue for the final encounter. It feels earned, not just because of the ideas introduced in the exposition or the astonishing Go-Pro message Nancy recorded before she moves, but because of the physicality of the film, how visceral each attack feels (regardless of whether it lands or not). And the final scene, another surfing scene set to Sia, is earned as well, for both Nancy and the viewer, who have both gone through a truly awe-inspiring thrill ride through life and death.

Kwaku Ananse

“Kwaku Ananse” perhaps demands to be seen in its specific cultural context. Its narrative is rather opaque, following a young woman (that the notes say is American, though this isn’t mentioned in the short proper) as she journeys into a rural area of Ghana for some sort of funeral. This is intertwined with the myth—explained by the woman—of a spider that gathered all of the world’s knowledge into a gourd, and at a funeral for what appears to be the spider the short collapses into itself, putting in almost surreal touches as the woman ventures further into the jungle. “Kwaku Ananse”‘s pleasures lie mostly in its cinematography, which is almost unnaturally vibrant. The way it weaves in and out of the funeral and brings out the liveliness of the jungle and natural organisms seems nothing less than hypnotic.

MUBI’s New York Film Festival Projections 2016 Selections

The first short of the selection, “Regal” achieves the feat of conforming exactly to the viewer’s idea of what it is and sneakily suggesting something more. It is in effect a showing of an immensely degraded print of a Regal Theaters preshow advertisement, and there is a certain thrill in watching these images broken down to their elemental colors, but Karissa Hahn complicates this by foregrounding how it is being shown—on a laptop screen. There is much buffering and playing/pausing, coupled with the amusing sounds of the space bar and a computer alert, though it is complicated further by having the play/pause icon that pops up look as degraded as the ad. The short is capped off by showing a download button, and though Hahn’s point doesn’t necessarily come across cleanly, her images are a delight nonetheless.

“Now: End of Season” also pulls off a similar mixture, though to slightly less successful results. Using footage of Syrian refugees in Turkey and overlaying it with an archival telephone call of former Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad trying to reach Ronald Reagan as the latter is horseback riding, Ayman Nahle mixes the present and past in a somewhat oblique way. This juxtaposition is further displayed by the focus on things of the present that act as extensions of the various figures: cell phones, suitcases, clothing, and other such items. If Nahle is attempting to imply some sort of political message related to modern day Syria (e.g. on American intervention), it is mostly lost under the just-too-long running time and the inexplicably ominous thrum of the electronic score, but the short remains engaging throughout its run.

On the other hand, “Cilaos” goes for extreme artifice, combining a ’70s blaxploitation aesthetic, a capella musical numbers, and a rigorous style to tell the story of a woman searching for her father. The moody celluloid look is matched by the soulful singing of the three actors, especially Christine Salem, and Restrepo frames them often against empty backgrounds as they look directly at the camera. Throughout, a spirit of experimentation is as present as the narrative, using the same actor to play two different roles in the same shot and framing. In the final third, Restrepo abandons the narrative in favor of pure celebration, as the woman seems to assume her father’s role and the short breaks down. It is a wonderful, mystifying short all around.

Almost certainly the most exciting of the entire program (from both parts) is “Foyer”, by Ismaïl Bahri. The setup is simple enough—a blank piece of white paper is placed in front of a camera filming a street in Tunis—and even if the sole content of the film was to capture the way the light and wind subtly change the color and texture of the shot, it would remain thoroughly absorbing for at least a good portion of the runtime. But Bahrain uses the sound to an astonishing extent, using what appears to be unscripted conversations with random passersby as they ask the purpose of his filming the paper and, especially in the earlier parts, about how it relates to the traditional conception of cinema. Consequently, the short remains more than lively throughout, with only a few lulls in between certain conversations. The second half takes an unexpected but even more delightful turn, as police officers ask Bahri to take his camera to the station to be examined. The tension is quickly dissipated after the officers quickly realize the contents of the recording (the sound continues even as the filming is ostensibly stopped, which leads to some question over whether everything is as is) and gradually the short turns into a study of the mindset of Tunisia in the current decade. At once a study of the image and a unexpectedly expansive piece of ethnography, “Foyer” is even more rewarding than initially meets the eye.

In stark contrast, “Indefinite Pitch” seems to almost provoke the viewer with its confrontational approach. Beginning as a pitch for a film set in Berlin (originally unspecified), the short quickly devolves into an extended reflection on the Northeast, the town of Berlin, New Hampshire, and even the culture of today, all using the pitch that has been reconfigured from a 1927 silent movie filmed in Berlin. The monologue itself is surprisingly dense, and perhaps takes on too many topics in such a short timespan, but the deftness with which Wilkins returns to certain points seems almost too clever. Unfortunately, as a result of a possibly jaundiced worldview on the part of the narrator (whether or not Wilkins fully shares the views he is espousing is unclear), there is a strong tinge of nastiness that is only amplified by the continual escalation then deescalation of the pitch modulation that, at the halfway mark, turns into an alarm-like whine which does dissipate after less than a minute. The still images are visually pleasing enough, occasionally echoing the narration, but their purpose only becomes clear towards the end, as Wilkins continues his game of metaphorical cat-and-mouse with the viewer.

De Palma

***1/2 (Excellent)

Brian De Palma is perhaps best known for his extravagant visual sensibilities—his split-diopters, his long takes, his split screens—so much so that his remarkable acuity for the emotions vital to his films is usually neglected. So it is perhaps wise that Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow chose to go with a straight-forward, unadorned style for their documentary on the legendary director, De Palma in order to put the spotlight on the subject rather than the director.

Formed from many interviews over a period of several years, De Palma reveals its first two tricks from the beginning. First, Baumbach’s and Paltrow’s voices are never heard, and for most of the documentary De Palma seems not responding to any specific question, simply recounting his experience on every single film over his almost fifty year career. Whether this increases a sense of connection with De Palma is hard to gauge, especially since the three directors are all friends, but it provides a greater sense of directness, in line with De Palma’s often confrontational oeuvre. The second trick is in the actual filming of the interviews. De Palma’s appearance doesn’t seem to change at all, continually wearing the same blue outfit and sitting in the exact framing used for the rest of the shots; the viewer could reasonably conclude that it was all shot in one afternoon and edited later. Through this, the filmmakers seem to be putting the emphasis on the films of De Palma and how he progressed through them rather than on the man himself, reinforced by the one break with this style at the end, where De Palma walks on the streets of New York, almost passing the torch as he nears the end of his career (however long it may continue after this documentary).

The choice of archival footage and photographs that for the most part takes precedence over the new footage is surprisingly eclectic. Beginning with the opening of Vertigo, one of De Palma’s earliest and most lasting influences, the documentary largely uses a mix of footage from the director’s films and various behind-the-scenes photographs, though some more intriguing footage, such as the Hitchcock or the original ending of Snake Eyes, is included. The most memorable images are shown (“Say hello to my little friend”, the prom, the climax of Blow Out) but they’re never shown in isolation, as De Palma frequently talks about the difficulties surrounding them rather than letting them sit as totems.

This, perhaps, is the most important function of De Palma. It is not necessarily a work of demythologizing, but it is a tribute and a view from the other side, a chance for De Palma to speak his thoughts freely on the controversial legacy, in terms of both the ardent defenders and vociferous detractors, that his work has created. He is candid about his failures and pleased with his successes, and the viewer never gets the sense that he is being insincere or trying to hide any dissatisfaction. De Palma is the view of a legendary director, but more importantly, it is a view of his work, all twenty-nine films to date in a neat chronological order, through perhaps the most important lens of all.


**** (Great)

Heroism is at once one of the easiest and the most difficult character trait to portray on the silver screen. It is practically the fundamental basis for the concept of the protagonist, but to convey it in a way that resists valorizing and empty praise is something else entirely. In Sully, the retelling of one of the most uniformly positive events in recent memory, the successful water landing of an Airbus A320 with no fatalities, Clint Eastwood achieves this and more, creating a profoundly mixed experience. It deals not only with the hero, but the world around him, never villifying but always probing to reveal the human nature of almost every figure, including the character of New York City. Through this series of portraits, Sully’s heroism becomes all the more satisfying and true to life—as in all legends, only through many trials can one become truly great, and in this manner the film mirrors its subject.

As the film opens, it unexpectedly displays without explanation what could have been, as Eastwood smash cuts between the opening credits and Sully’s nightmare of a disastrous attempt of an alternate attempt to land US Airways Flight 1549. It is only the first of many events that display what eventually becomes the driving conflict of the film: Sully’s relationship with his sudden fame, especially in light of the stressful circumstances. The first half of the film or so is a constant barrage of outside pressure, running the gamut from lighthearted media appearances to paparazzi to the source of conflict, an official investigation into whether the water landing and inevitable destruction of the aircraft was unnecessarily dangerous (stranding him in New York, across the country from his home in San Francisco). He is forced both by trauma and by habit—a handful of flashbacks back to Sully’s youth show both his consistent interest in flight and his continually quiet and serious temperament—to adopt a certain interiority, where his emotions are continually kept in check, and even the mostly reassuring presences of his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney, who manages to wrangle a full-fledged character despite never appearing without a phone) and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (a solid and at times hilarious Aaron Eckhart) do little to bring him out of his shell.

But under the uniquely determined and noble gaze of Tom Hanks, Sully never appears anything less than achingly human. One of the most successful gambits by Eastwood is his willingness to show Sully’s weaknesses and doubts, and Hanks responds in kind. The most remarkable aspect of his performance is his eyes, which convey a disconcerting mix of care, worry, fear, and even a hint of paranoia. Sully has good reason to be paranoid, of course, illustrated most starkly when he goes on a run in New York and stops in a bar where not only his face is plastered on the TV screen, but the owner has made a drink named after him (hilariously concocted from Grey Goose and water). But there is a great deal of nobility to him, a resolute manner that shines through and defines him, that unifies the film even more than the inciting incident that forms the centerpieces.

The other gambit that Eastwood undertakes is to play the already iconic moment three times, each roughly focusing on a different set of important people with Sully and Skiles forming the center in the cockpit. Though there is undoubtedly a cumulative power that builds on each, I found the first version the most viscerally impactful. All three are nevertheless hair-raising in their immediacy, primarily using tight close-ups mixed with expansive CGI shots of the airplane, and relies heavily on an expansive cast of air control operators, first responders, flight attendants, and passengers (some of whom are fleshed out in a beautifully simple manner just before the flight) to convey the urgency of the situation. Much of the second half—the first version occurs at around the midpoint, after the viewer has been submerged in Sully’s tenuous mindset—is taken up by these replays (to use Bordwell’s term), but none of them feel extraneous, developing the idea that Sully voices in the final scene, that he wouldn’t have been able to land the plane without every single person involved.

And the most important aspect of this statement is that Sully believes in this idea, and that the fundamental humanity that proves Sully’s correct judgment in front of the official investigation radiates out to every person. It is a profoundly honest film, willing to show for instance how some people panicked and nearly lost their lives trying to swim away from the airplane, or how the specter of 9/11 still hangs over the public consciousness. Eastwood’s use of footage of a reunion of the Captain and the lives he saved is an extension of this idea, showing that, as the landing showed, there is a fundamental heroism in humanity, whether it be in one figure or in all.


Nicolás Pereda adopts two seemingly opposing approaches and elegantly meshes them together to form Minotaur, a strange film that only grows as it progresses. One approach is a studiously formal, almost clinically realistic style of shooting, using almost exclusively static medium shots (there are only two pans, both close to the end) and what appears to be natural light throughout. The other is what may be loosely described as surreal, as the film centers on three nebulously defined people, though it is unclear how long they have known each other—the woman says she hasn’t seen the main man before—and their languid existence over what might be a few days. Various people come and go, but the bulk of the interactions is taken up by the three characters’ slow, almost arbitrary movements throughout the apartment, and they seem to communicate almost entirely by reading books aloud, broken up by long fits of narcolepsy. The final third perhaps delves too deeply in this, as they seem to be confined to one bed as even more people come and go, but Minotaur is nevertheless invigorating, making the two styles blend (most notably by frequently placing the characters in shadow, obscuring their expressions) in an immensely satisfying manner.

The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers

Throughout the course of The Sky Trembles…, Ben Rivers seems far more interested in constructing the film as a series of discrete events than in making them work as a cohesive whole. The overall structure does work, following the descent of a filmmaker (Oliver Laxe, playing himself) in two neat halves, but from scene to scene it becomes monotonous, as Rivers never quite repeats himself but doesn’t establish a clear sense of progression. Even as the film gets truly bizarre in the second half, where Oliver is forced to dance while wearing a suit covered in cans and lids, only the subtly off-kilter shots and the occasional entry of the droning electronic score offer a strong stimulus to the viewer. The rest of The Sky Trembles… is stuck in observational mode, distancing the viewer from the subjects, especially the native people, though of course this is not necessarily a bad thing, and Rivers uses it to a strong degree.

Hell or High Water

***1/2 (Excellent)

One of the more nebulous aspects of a film definitively set in a real city, state, and/or country is how it captures its spirit. It doesn’t necessarily have to be representative of the actual location, but for whatever reason the movie tends to feel more authentic, more grounded in a mood than if it focuses too much on other aspects. Hell or High Water is a prime example of this importance, drawing on it as definition for practically every relationship and interaction. The narrative, following two brothers that rob small banks to pay off the debt on their family ranch and the one-month-from-retirement sheriff that aims to stop them, is simple enough, but what attracts the viewer is the attention paid to the times in between the heists, as the nature of the Wild West is explored and reinforced in modern times.

This is not to say, of course, that the film loses interest when it comes to the heists. As directed by David Mackenzie, there is a great deal of tension brought forth by Giles Nuttgens’ slow camera moves, zeroing in on a hapless clerk as she is about to fall into the robbers’ trap. But until the unexpectedly violent final heist, there is hardly any violence, and the tension is occasionally defused by the brothers’ amateurish efforts and Tanner’s (Ben Foster, magnetic in his volatility) occasional temper, in ways that are both hilarious and worrying.

The brothers, Tanner and Toby (Chris Pine, enormously sensitive and stolid), and their relationship form the heart of the film, both in a narrative and an emotional sense. Despite their noticeable differences, from their emotional state to their backgrounds (Tanner is an ex-convict while Toby is robbing solely for the farm and his sons), there is a true tenderness, as the importance of family is emphasized from scene to scene. This is mirrored, most notably in a cross-cutting where the two pairs both stay in (vastly different) hotels for the night, by the playfully antagonistic behavior between the two Texas Rangers on their heels, Hamilton (an appropriately gruff Jeff Bridges) and Parker (Gil Birmingham, admirably understated). Hamilton is repeatedly mentioned as being on his last legs, but there is a burning drive that he shows in pursuing the robbers, while Parker offers support and receives frequent stereotypical jokes. Though this doubling certainly isn’t meant to be taken literally, it does ensure that the main through line, that of Texan thinking, is sustained.

And that, ultimately, is what sets Hell or High Water apart. It is not necessarily a deconstruction so much as an examination of the ideal of the cowboy. The three main characters (with all due respect to Parker, who is set apart in some ways by his race despite being a Ranger) all exhibit traits of this mythic figure to some degree, especially Bridges, and much is made of the masculinity that it invokes. But it is the one that least embodies the cowboy, Toby, who makes it out the richest—he has the roots to something outside of the lawlessness of the Wild West, whereas the other two do not. None of this is made transparent, but Taylor Sheridan’s magnificent screenplay teases these ideas out slowly, and marries them to a sharp, witty portrait of modern Texas, adding flavor with various small female parts, especially two truculent waitresses, that almost overshadow the central male figures at times. Hell or High Water may be too intently focused on the genre elements at times to stand out especially, but it embodies its location so successfully. It is tender, profane, and resolute, and in the words of one of the minor characters, “if that isn’t Texan, I don’t know what is.”

Mad Ladders

Robinson is clever in his approach, never allowing either strand that forms his remarkable short to take precedence over the other. One is the evangelical, surreal dreams of an impassioned “prophet”, who waxes rhapsodic on gold triangles and wide landscapes, and the other is formed of distorted, abstracted visions of ’80s pop stage performances. The former is set to footage of rapidly moving clouds, and the latter uses electronic versions of what may be the original music. Robinson sequences these in ebbs and flows, refusing to let his short succumb to pure euphoria, and while this might make for a slightly less pleasurable experience than expected, there is a genuine sense of wonder, especially as the two through-lines begin to dovetail. “Mad Ladders” is a wondrous, near-transcendent short that takes as its topic the quest for light, and supplies it in spades.


There is definitely a subtle rigor to Everson’s short, which acts as an elliptical, boundary-pushing documentary that nevertheless gets to and anchors in the heart of the subjects. His intent is not to deeply familiarize the viewer with his subjects, two black men in the Cleveland East Side who make money by stealing scrap metal from their neighborhoods, but to sketch their surroundings. He does so in less than seven minutes by adopting a two-pronged approach. The first is relatively objective, filming them as they quickly pull off their little heists. But the second is altogether more exciting, using quick montages of them in more relaxed and yet more heightened settings set to overdubbed conversations which clearly aren’t from the same scene and yet feel applicable to what is being shown. The narration/conversation does form a clearer picture of the men’s approach to their job and how they got there, but it also elides the specifics. “Fe26” is a work of documenting, but it is also a work of experimentation that provokes in exactly the right way.