Under shark attack in “The Shallows” and no Quint, Brody or Hooper around

Just in time for Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, “The Shallows” has hit the theaters and presents another ravenous Great White shark turning fun times into a nightmare.

Those sharks — they have been lurking in our collective fears ever since Chrissie Watkins took that fatal plunge into the ocean in the beginning of “Jaws” in 1975. That movie and its sequels paved  the way for seemingly hundreds of mostly cheesy ripoffs and eventually to the deliberately goofy “Sharknado” franchise. Luckily, the numerous documentaries on the mysteries of these magnificent fish help us to appreciate their beauty. Yeah, they, as Hooper said, “eat, swim and make little sharks, and that’s all.” But it’s Quint’s description of what they do when the dinner bell rings that is burned into our memory: “Swallow you whole. A little shakin;, a little tenderizin’, down you go.”

“The Shallows” has a lot going for it, including its stunning cinematography by Flavio Martinez Labiano — featuring some mind-blowing surfing scenes — a spare but tense screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski, excellent direction by Jaume Collet-Serra, and of course a grueling but winning performance by Blake Lively.

Collet-Serra directed the creepy “Orphan” (2009) and two Liam Neeson action films, “Non-Stop” (2014) and “Run All Night” (2015). So he knows how to keep things riveting.

But all the skills in the world can be wasted unless the person in front of the camera generates some interest. And that’s where Lively comes in.

As Nancy Adams, Lively (who is married to Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds) presents a character who is likable from the start — smart and engaging. Nancy is a med student who is at a crossroads. In the wake of the death of her mother, Nancy is haunted by the futility of it all — for all the advances in medicine, her mother could not be saved. She is now considering terminating her medical studies.

In order to clear her head, Nancy takes a trip to a remote beach in Mexico, a place her mother visited a couple of decades earlier when she learned she was pregnant with Nancy. When her traveling companion flakes out of going to the beach after a night of heavy-duty parting, Nancy elects to go to the beach alone. Having earned her surfing chops riding the waves off the beaches of Galveston, Texas, Nancy easily can entertain herself.

Given a ride to the beach by a friendly local, Carlos (Oscar Jaenada), Nancy finds the beach to be a real paradise, far more stunning than the old photos she has stored in her mobile device can depict.

Eventually she hits the water to catch some waves. There are two other surfers there, and they turn out to be a couple of cool dudes. By late afternoon, the two guys decide it is time to head in, but Nancy opts to ride one more wave before calling it a day.

Before she can challenge the next wave, she spots something floating nearby. Closing in to investigate, she discovers in horror it is a mortally wounded whale. Even before she can hightail it away, a Great White attacks her, gashing her left leg.

Nancy initially manages to climb upon the nearly dead whale, but that is no safe place to be. She manages to make it to a small rock formation that can provide some refuge until the tide rises.

Once on the rock, Nancy’s medical expertise helps her deal with the nasty wound on her leg. In a wince-inducing scene, she uses whatever is at hand to close the wound.

Nancy is unable to wave down the two surfers as they drive away. Her only company, other than the food-obsessed menace circling around the premise, is an injured seagull she names Steven, of course.

Now it becomes a matter of survival. Nancy does not know if anyone else will show up on the beach. She only knows the shark seems to have staked a claim, and why not, with a helpless whale nearby to snack on.

Jaswinski’s script adeptly keeps the tension high, as well as taking the viewers on the wild emotional Nancy endures as her hopes rise, only to be dashed.

But the biggest asset of “The Shallows” is Nancy’s resilience. She refuses to curl up on the rock. She observes, analyzes and plots. All while dealing with excruciating pain and the possible onset of gangrene.

The human-versus-beast adventure can always be a thriller and a chiller, and “The Shallows” never lets up. And thanks to a tough yet sensitive performance by Lively, this movie is a nicely packaged horror story.



The Warrens are drawn back into spirit wars for “The Conjuring 2”

As small businesses go, the one offered by Ed and Lorraine Warren was not structured around inventories and bookkeeping details like assets and liabilities / debits and credits. And face it, unlike a mom-and-pop business, their work as paranormal investigators was fraught with very scary things and even mortal danger.

We first met Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) in 2013 with “The Conjuring.” With their ability to break into the paranormal realm, this real-life couple portrayed by Wilson and Farmiga offered a valuable service to those whose lives were besieged by by restless or downright nasty spiritual elements.

In “The Conjuring,” the Warrens took their lumps but apparently emerged victorious over the evil post-death entity of Bathsheba, an accused witch who picked on the Perron family in Rhode Island in the early 1970s, hoping for some child sacrifices.

As “The Conjuring 2” begins, the Warrens are doing their own investigation of the famed Amityville haunting, and while they got nothing conclusive, Lorraine did experience a terrifying vision and premonition, frightening enough that Lorraine tells Ed they should dial back their efforts to confront and dispatch these ghostly entities.

But the Warrens are pressed back into action in 1977 when the Hodgson family living in an older house north of London begins experiencing unnerving things. Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) already has enough problems, with her husband leaving her and the four Hodgson children for another woman in the neighborhood.

Soon the usual haunted house incidents start occurring: loud thumps, furniture moving, battery-operated toys turning on by themselves. Before long, the second-oldest daughter, Janet (Madison Wolfe) becomes the victim of strange things, including finding herself awake in the middle of the night but not in her bed.

Meanwhile, back in the states, Lorraine finds Ed doing a sketching of a creepy looking nun, saying he’s been seeing this vision. Well, that startles Lorraine since she has seen the same deathly-enhanced nun in her visions.

The Warrens are asked to go to London to check out the Hodgson case — going there only to observe and make recommendations but otherwise no get too involved.

Their investigation points to a haunting by a former resident, an old man who died in the house. But there also is evidence that it all might be a hoax engineered by Janet. Even Lorraine admits she can feel nothing within her senses to indicate a true haunting or possession. Ed is frustrated, and still believes there might be some legitimate paranormal activity, although there is overwhelming documented evidence Janet is indeed making thing whole thing up. The Warrens have no choice but to go home.

Luckily, before they can do that, Ed realizes he has some hard documentation of a true haunting and/or possession. By the time the Warrens get back to the Hodgson residence, things have escalated and they learn that this is more than just some old man, embittered about dying alone, trying to scare the current residents.

“The Conjuring 2” is packed with jolts and scares, and enhanced by truly sympathetic characters. O’Connor is exceptional as Peggy, a loving, harassed single mother of four having to keep it together under circumstances she never could have imagined. Wolfe presents a restless innocence and vulnerability that makes her experiences staggeringly and unrelentingly horrifying.

Wilson and Farmiga do share a chemistry, conveying a unique bonding of two people with rare gifts and a formidable and unified force based on a solid foundation of love.

The real-life Lorraine Warren has said this case has haunted her more than any others, And in recalling this terrifying episode, director James Wan, working from a script on which he collaborated with David Leslie Johnson and Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes, continues to prove his mastery in the horror element, adding the “Conjuring” movies to his already established efforts with “Insidious” and “Saw.”

Women directors’ works showcased at Etheria Film Night

For those of us who appreciate the extensive effort it takes to make a feature-length movie, we also give a special nod to those talented and resourceful filmmakers who are not blessed with massive budgets yet through their creativity, diligence and often incredible support from friends and colleagues produce quality entertainment.

Most of these filmmakers do not allow a lack of resources to stand in their way. If the funds are not available for a full-length movie, they just make a shorter film. And sometimes these movie shorts are just the stepping stone to bigger projects.

On a festive Saturday night at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, nine movie shorts, all directed by women, were showcased at Etheria Film Night, an annual program specifically designed to provide women with a chance to screen their movies for an audience that can include producers, managers, show runners and distributors. But if you simply are a fan of films, well, you’re invited too.

Etheria specializes in science-fiction, horror and fantasy projects submitted by the directors, and it can add up to a fun night for fans of these genres.

The festival actually opened with a full-length feature, “The Love Witch,” directed by Anna Biller. A nod to the pulp novels and films of the 1960s, it features Samantha Robinson as Elaine, a modern-day witch who uses spells and potions in attempts, often with fatal results, to get men to fall in love with her. Beautifully photographed, it hit all the right marks with humor (sometimes guiltily silly) and horror. Audience reaction was enthusiastic.

Following an intermission, the short films part of the program commenced. But not before the Inspiration Award was presented to Jackie Kong, a writer, director and producer known for her irreverent comedy movies and horrifyingly funny horror films. She directed Martin Landau and Jose Ferrer in “The Being,” and followed up with “Night Patrol” featuring Linda Blair. But she is best remembered for the wicked comedy gore-fest, “Blood Diner.”

Kong has another comedy in the works, “Lost in Vietnam,” and also is in the planning stages for a TV series “City of Demons” to be based on the “Twilight Zone” format and in which she plans to hire women directors.

After honoring Kong, the program commenced with the screening of the following movie shorts:

“Genghis Khan Conquers the Moon”: Yeah, the title seems reminiscent of those old low-budget 1950s movies. But in this one contains the theme of “be careful for what you wish for.” Co-written with Steve Emmons and directed by Kerry Yang, the short focuses on Genghis Khan (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) in his final days. He has an encounter with a wizard (James Hong, yes THAT James Hong), who introduces him to the then seemingly magical device that is a telescope, enhancing a view of the moon, and old Genghis becomes obsessed with conquering the Sea of Tranquility on the lunar surface. Oh, he gets what he wants, but there is some fine print in the final deal.

“Bionic Girl”: Written and directed by Stephanie Cabdevila, this off-beat little film is something of an operatic musical about a scientist (Clementine Poidatz), who, afraid to face the outside world, creates her own android clone replacement (Laurianne Mortureux) with an enlarged head that looks like a 3-D puzzle. As expected, the result of the scientist’s effort does not turn out quite like she expected, although she does achieve a bit of self-awareness. This film is French, thus has subtitles.

“Hoss”: Pretty much a one-set shot, this film, written and directed by Christine Boylan, stars Lyndsay Fonseca as Samantha Burke, a cowgirl roaming the hills of Malibu, California, after a tsunami destroys the west coast. She is on a quest and it literally rides into her life while she is enjoying a drink in a rundown bar, likely one of the few places still in business. This is a film that definitely has the potential to be expanded into a full-length movie.

“Restart”: A clever film from Spain, written and directed by Olga Osorio, is about a woman, Andrea (Marta Larralde), a kidnap victim trapped in a temporal loop and her efforts to break from it. This film is unnerving in its stark look and being caught in some inexplicable circumstances and the mounting frustrations and terror that no matter what you do, nothing changes.

“Boxer”: Toy Lei wrote, directed and stars in this thriller about a contract killer with a curious and loving son and how she tries to reconcile her violent life — in which she tells her son she is a boxer — with being a mother. Trouble is, the son wants to be a boxer also. How long can the woman keep up the facade?

“The Stylist”: Directed by Jill Gevargizian and co-written by her and Eric Havens, this film stars Najerra Townsend (“Contracted”) as Claire, a lonely hair stylist with what becomes a creepy way to escape her mundane reality. When her final customer of the day, Mandy (Jennifer Plas), comes in with a request to “look perfect,” Claire goes to work in a chilling way to turn this request to her own advantage. This film may do for hair styling what “Jaws” did for beach-going.

“Hard Broads”: This is a deliciously  funny and macabre story about three women, Mags (director and writer Mindy Bledsoe), Remy (Sylvia Grace Crim) and Brenda (Rachael Lee Magill) who have to transport the body of a celebrity, Constance Clementine (Susan Kirton, doing a corpse performance that rivals Terry Kiser’s in “Weekend at Bernie’s” and Richard Mulligan’s in “S.O.B.”) to her home, where by the way, there might be a lot of cash stashed for the ladies. Wacky and wild, this one was a fun ride.

“The Puppet Man”: Another look at the dangers of excessive partying. Written and directed by Jacqueline Castel and based on a character by Johnny Scuoto, it follows a group of young people who hit a seedy bar at closing time and talk the creepy bartender (Bradley Bailey) into keeping the bar open. But there is another presence in the bar, the Puppet Man (Scuoto), who is not exactly a cordial host. A nice throwback to the slashers films of the 1970s, enhanced by a cameo by, who else, John Carpenter.

“Nasty”: Is aptly titled. Co-written with Anthony Fletcher and directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, this story is about a 12-year-old boy, Doug (Albie Marber) who in 1982 has become obsessed with viewing horror movies on VHS as he tries to unravel the mysterious disappearance of his father. One cannot watch this without being reminded of “VHS” and “The Ring,” delving into the dark side of watching video tapes.

Following a Q&A featuring six of the directors — Boylan, Castel, Gevargizian, Yang, Bledsoe and Lei — and moderated by Rebekah McKendry, a producer and director who also served as director of marketing for Fangoria magazine, award presentations were made.

While the Q&A was taking place, the audience was asked to vote for their favorite film short of the night and those votes were tabulated.

Osorio’s “Restart” was presented the ISA Story Award for best narrative.

Lei was the recipient of the Artemis Award for Best Action, presented by Melanie Wise of Artemis Motion Pictures.

Then came the big prize — the Jury Award. In the audience were the Twisted Twins, Jen and Sylvia Soska, and they insisted that as directors themselves (“American Mary,” “See No Evil 2” among others and co-hosts of “Hellevator” on the Game Show Network), they should present the award.

And the Jury Award went to Gevargizian’s “The Stylist.”

Finishing second in the Jury Award voting was “Hard Broads.”

Finally, the Audience Award went to “The Stylist,” making it a big night for Gevargizian and the people who helped her bring this film to fruition.

Etheria Film Night was an entertaining and inspiring evening and once again a superb opportunity for women to show they are more than able to produce funny, gory, creepy and thought-provoking films.