Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: The Shallows

“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” and “Central Intelligence” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

Were it not for the fact that the bulk of the action in “The Shallows” takes place on and in the water, it would make for a great one-set stage play. Set two hundred yards off shore on a remote and secret beach in Mexico, ex-medical student Nancy (Blake Lively) is enjoying some fun in the sun, doing some surfing. She’s catching waves and sitting on top of the world until a shark attacks her and puts deep gashes in her leg. This traps her out in the middle of the water, with only a decaying whale corpse, some rocks that barely stick up out of the water, and a buoy to keep her safe.

These various set pieces divide the story into clear acts. Here we have a five act structure: the arrival and the surfing, the time on the whale, the time on the rocks, the time on the buoy, and finally the end, which I won’t spoil and only say that it is clever, resourceful, and exciting.

The story of “The Shallows” flows seamlessly from one act to the next. The location of each act provides its own unique set of challenges for Nancy. There is the constant dread of the shark in the water, but the story is kept fresh and exciting due to the different obstacles she faces. Her time in each place is different, based on the protection it does—or doesn’t—provide and the resources she can use for survival.

The fact that Nancy is an ex-medical student is not a throwaway either. There’s a deeply personal back story involving Nancy, her Dad (Brett Cullen), and her sister (Sedona Legge). Nancy’s mom (Chelsea Moody) shows up in old Polaroids. She surfed the same water her daughter is currently on. Lucky for Mom, she didn’t encounter a great white like Nancy did.

Nancy’s survival is largely dependent on her medical school knowledge. She recognizes gangrene, and knows the proper procedure for handling a wound of the magnitude that she received. Nancy does her best to disconnect herself from being the patient, and talks to herself the way a doctor would talk to someone they are operating on. It’s an interesting psychological trick. Given the lack of anesthesia or proper equipment, I can see how it’s necessary. Nancy makes the most of what she has to work with, which is basically a wet suit and some jewelry, and it’s very clever the way she treats her wounds with just those items.

“The Shallows” is one of the tautest, tightest, eighty-six minutes you will ever experience. The stage is simple, and the swim back to shore would be relatively short—if it wasn’t for the hungry shark and deep gashes in her leg preventing it. We care for Nancy and root for her to overcome the incredible odds and make it safely back to shore. Her struggle to survive becomes our struggle, as we’re right there with her, braving the elements and in constant suspense of what’s going to come next.

Much credit for the craftsmanship goes to screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski for a pulse-pounding, intense script, and to director Jaume Collet-Serra, whose movies I have admired in the past (his “Run All Night” was a pick of the week in June of last year), for bringing the story to a very vibrant life. Last but not least, Blake Lively captures the fear of someone who is in a very dangerous predicament, as well as the dread that she may not get out of it alive, and conveys it very convincingly. Buy it on Amazon: The Shallows [Blu-ray].

Also Out This Week

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

The title pretty much says it all with “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.” Mike and Dave Stangle (Adam Devine and Zac Efron) have a habit of turning large gatherings into total disasters. Their Dad (Stephen Root) decrees that in order to attend their sister’s (Sugar Lyn Beard) wedding, they must bring dates. The theory is that showing up with a woman on their arms will prevent them from getting riled up and making a mess of things.

The theory is sound, but much like communism, it is only good in theory. In practice, it has the opposite effect, especially since the dates in question, Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza), are every bit as rowdy and rambunctious as the Stangle brothers. They’re also con artists who trick the brothers into thinking they’re something they’re not in order to get a free trip to Hawaii. Tatiana claims to be a teacher and Alice says she’s a hedge fund manager when in reality they’re both waitresses, and bad ones at that.

The jokes in “Mike and Dave” are mostly situational and come from the four main characters acting and reacting based on who they are. This elevates the material from broader slapstick and/or juvenile toilet humor to something deeper and more meaningful. While not all of the jokes and gags are winners, there is a high enough percentage of them that do elicit a good laugh, and that makes this a comedy worth seeing. Rent it.

Central Intelligence

All movies are contrived to one degree or another. We as audiences expect this, which is why we suspend our disbelief. Problems arise when a movie takes advantage of that suspension of disbelief and goes way too far, pushing the contrivances way farther than they should be pushed and forcing them upon us. This is when the suspension of disbelief starts to break down in the audience and the movie becomes painful/boring/cringey to watch.

“Central Intelligence” is one such movie. In concept it’s a fine idea: Have Kevin Hart play the straight man and have Dwayne Johnson do the comedy. The switch up is unexpected, and the novelty of it is fresh. That’s all well and good, but a narrative movie needs believable characters and a good—or at least decent—plot in order to function. This movie has neither.

Johnson plays Bob Stone. We see a younger, overweight version of Bob (Sione Kelepi) getting picked on in high school. He’s rescued from an embarrassing situation by Calvin Joyner (Hart, playing the older and younger versions of Calvin), who is in the middle of giving a speech after accepting the award for Most Likely to Succeed.

Flash forward twenty years to present day. Calvin has a rocky marriage and a mundane job as an accountant. Bob, on the other hand, lost weight, bulked up, and is on the run as a rogue CIA operative. So far, so good, but once Calvin and Bob reconnect, this is where the cracks start appearing in “Central Intelligence,” and the movie never recovers. In fact, it doubles down the further it moves along. Bad move.

In spite of the years that passed, Bob is the same awkward, attention-seeking dweeb that he was back in high school. He’s desperate to be friends with Calvin, the coolest kid in school. The problem is that Bob is one of the most unbelievably delusional—or possibly just plain thick-headed—characters ever put on screen. And when I say unbelievable, I mean unbelievable. There is no way that this person went on to accomplish the things he did. His actions and motivations are so phony and so forced that it prevented me from staying invested in the movie and enjoying it at all. Not once does he listen to or recognize a thing that Calvin said to him. In a supposed buddy movie, it’s a huge issue if one character totally ignores the other one.

I place the failure of “Central Intelligence” solely on the writers: Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen, and Rawson Marshall Thurber (who also directed). The job of the actors is to bring their characters to life and give them a sense of purpose and vitality. Johnson and Hart did what they could with what they were given, and it’s clear that they both tried their best. The director’s job is to tell the story and stage the action in an interesting and engaging way that will hold the audience’s attention. In this, Thurber cannot be faulted—this movie is well directed. Where I do fault Thurber, and the other two writers, is in the screenplay. The writer is the architect of the story whose job it is to find the truth of the characters they create and the plot they develop, and tell it. There is no truth in Bob’s character—it is all way too forced—and because of that, any credibility the movie may have otherwise had completely crumbles. Skip it.

More New Releases: “Warcraft,” surprisingly entertaining and engaging movie based on the popular games, with the Orcs vs. Humans battle even ending as it should; “Barbarians Rising,” tales of Barbarians that confronted Rome through the ages; “Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom,” animated movie about a young boy who opens a portal to a frozen fantasy world full of strange creatures; and “Dekalog,” Criterion release of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s brilliant ten-part miniseries in which each part features a story based on one of the Ten Commandments.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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