Hooray! It’s the middle of January!

And you know what that means. A heap of awful new releases, plus a smattering of awards contenders which are finally seeing a wide release.

Fortunately this week wasn’t too bad, at least considering what month it is. Only one of the movies I saw was agonizingly painful to watch. I count that as a win.

This time around there was a sci-fi horror film set deep below the surface of the ocean, a comedy starring Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne, a World War One film featuring the directing talents of Sam Mendes, and the tale of a falsely accused death row inmate and the lawyer who vowed to defend him.

Let’s get to the reviews.

***

Underwater

First up is “Underwater.”

After a disastrous earthquake devastates a mining station deep at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the surviving crew (Kristen Stewart, T.J. Miller, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie) must try to escape the crumbling rig.

To survive, they not only must deal with the crushing depths surrounding them, but also the mysterious creatures which unknowingly occupy the ocean’s depths.

You know, with all the numerous horror movies featuring haunted houses, vengeful spirits, or possessed children and the like, every once in a while it’s nice to see a scary movie that leans a bit more into science fiction.

I really liked the setting for this movie.

In a lot of ways being this far underwater it’s very similar to being isolated in depths of space. 

Except instead of facing a deadly vacuum which, if exposed to, would cause your blood to boil due to a lack of air pressure, here the weight of the water around you is so substantial it can crush you in an instant if caught without the proper protection.

It’s an incredibly inhospitable environment. Combine that with a lack of visibility due to some very cloudy water, and a general feeling of claustrophobia, and you have a pretty solid location for a survival horror movie.

The film basically throws you in the middle of this disaster.

No introduction to the characters, beyond a brief internal monologue from Kristen Stewart’s character while she’s brushing her teeth. No tour of the mining station. No explanation for why any of them are there, beyond the nebulous “mining resources.”

Most movies about disasters tend to try to establish a sense of normalcy before things go haywire. You know, give you a chance to know who’s who and maybe even develop some sympathy for these poor people, some of which will soon meet a grim fate.

Not this film though.

It’s an odd decision to be sure, though I don’t necessarily hate it. It makes the setting that much more mysterious, and I definitely prefer when a movie decides not to over explain every single detail, leaving some things up to the imagination.

Sadly, this comes at the expense of the film’s characters.

I didn’t really end up caring one way or the other about anyone in this movie.

At least beyond T.J. Miller’s character, who I found incredibly annoying due to his typical sardonic comic relief clashing with the movie’s otherwise serious tone. Frankly, I don’t think he should have been in the film in the first place.

Sure, I was rooting for Kristen Stewart, but only because we see everything unfold from her perspective.

It wasn’t her fault as an actress. Quite the opposite, I think she made a perfectly decent horror protagonist considering what she was given to work with. It’s just a symptom of limited characterization overall.

Story wise, this movie does feel incredibly similar to other monster movies featuring isolated settings. Some may even call it derivative.

Ridley Scott’s “Alien” from 1979 definitely came to mind multiple times while watching this, and not just because Kristen Stewart somehow found herself running around in her underpants like Sigourney Weaver.

For me though, the change of setting, plus the creative design of the monsters, helped set this film apart enough to make it enjoyable.

There’s definitely an element of Lovecraftian horror, the kind of cosmic terror which makes humanity seem insignificant. Which should please fans of H. P. Lovecraft, as movies based on his work seem to always wind-up canceled before they make it into production.

Overall, while this film may have not been firing on every cylinder, I still enjoyed it more than I expected I would. At the very least, it isn’t boring, which is more than I can say for the last horror movie I saw in theaters.

Honestly, if you’re looking for a scary film to watch in the middle of January, you can certainly do worse.

“Underwater” is rated PG-13

***

Like a Boss

Next is “Like a Boss.”

Best friends Mia and Mel (Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne) are living their best lives running their own cosmetics company they’ve built from the ground up.

Unfortunately, they’re in over their heads financially, and the prospect of a big buyout offer from a notorious titan of the cosmetics industry Claire Luna (Salma Hayek) proves too tempting to pass up, putting Mel and Mia’s lifelong friendship in jeopardy.

When you’re in my line of work, you know, watching and reviewing basically every new release in theaters, you tend to see a lot of trailers.

Most are fine, but unmemorable. A rare few are incredible, and even stick with me to this day, regardless of what I thought about the finished product.

But sadly, the previews that stick with me the most are always the ones that make my eyes roll in the back of my head, while sighing a deep cry of regret for ever becoming a film critic in the first place.

As you might have guessed, “Like a Boss” featured one of those kinds of trailers.

I hated seeing the previews for this movie.

Every single one of them did nothing but make this comedy look obnoxious, unfunny, and unoriginal, not to mention ridiculously stupid.

And low and behold, that’s exactly how the actual movie ended up being too.

The ‘comedy’ here is basically just Tiffany Haddish trying to be as obscene as possible. Which is fine, I’m far from opposed to raunchy humor. But there has to be an actual joke around it.

Casually talking about sex or drugs doesn’t automatically make dialogue funny. I wish the writers behind moronic comedies like this one would realize that.

It’s the equivalent of a five-year-old who just learned the proper names for reproductive organs, and thinks saying them out loud is the zenith of comedy. That’s the jokes here.

The story here is one you’ve seen a dozen times before.

Two best friends who’ve been through thick or thin, suddenly find themselves put at odds due to an outsider who stands to benefit if they squabble. 

Of course you all know how this story ends. Tensions between the friends rise, up until the point where they both do something they regret, and they finally break up for good.

That is until five minutes later, when they suddenly realize how important their friendship is, and they team up to outsmart the villain and serve them their just deserts.

It’s an overused plot to be sure, but depending on the writing it can be made into something fresh and entertaining. That isn’t the case here though.

Not only that, but the two women here already seemed pretty dysfunctional together in the first place. So when they did eventually come to their breaking point, in a scene that should be fairly heart wrenching, it just seemed like more of the status quo.

This is a bad comedy through and through.

The story is lazy, the jokes are nonexistent, and the characters are more obnoxious than endearing.

Interestingly, “Like a Boss” was substantially the shortest movie I watched all weekend, but somehow it ended up feeling like the longest.

For the love everything that’s good in this world, heed my advice and avoid this movie. It’s a complete waste of both time and money.

“Like a Boss” is rated R.

***

1917

Third this week is “1917.”

At the height of the First World War, two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a seemingly impossible mission.

In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers, Blake’s own brother among them.

From the first moment I heard about this film, I’ve heard nothing but two very distinct facts about it, beyond the general synopsis of course.

The first is that it was directed by acclaimed Oscar winning stage and film director Sam Mendes, best known for movies like “American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” and “Skyfall.”

The other is that “1917” was shot and edited to appear as if it was all filmed in one insanely long continuous take.

An impressive feat to be sure.

To do such a thing requires immense planning with setting up scenes, planning camera movement, and coordinating actors, not to mention a bit of patience for when someone on the crew inevitably screws something up and everyone has to start all over again from the top.

Of course, this is mitigated a bit by using clever editing techniques to make it appear as if a scene is one continuous unbroken take, but in reality is filled with many hidden cuts throughout.

For example, briefly moving the camera behind a static object like a tree or a building then cutting the scene, making sure to not move the camera at all, and then continuing the action once the next scene is ready to be shot.

This is something that happens a lot in this movie, and once you know what to look for, it becomes pretty obvious when it happens.

They also occasionally use whip pans, where two scenes are stitched together with a quick blurring motion, hiding any kind of awkward transition.

And sometimes, when going from outdoors to inside or vice versa, they just use the camera’s built-in adjustment time to new lighting to show the screen as completely black or white for a brief moment, and use that as a convenient place to hide a cut. 

It’s all very clever and impressive on a technical level. And indeed to some, the appearance of a movie taking place over one continuous scene might make the film that much more immersive.

It didn’t to me though. To me, this film felt like I was sitting down on a moving attraction at a theme park. Like Sam Mendes presents, World War One: The Ride.

Don’t get me wrong. I love long one-take scenes.

When used effectively, it can really add to the intensity of a moment or the immersion of a scene.

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” from 2006 immediately comes to mind when I think of a film which features excellent continuous shots. Not only are the scenes in that movie captivating in a way that only a one-take shot can be, they’re also used sparingly, and only during the film’s most intense moments.

And that’s where “1917’s” continuous one-take shots work the best.

I loved the scene towards the end of the movie, with what looks like dozens of soldiers charging a battlefield, with explosions and gunfire everywhere, all while one of our main characters charges towards the camera, desperately trying to deliver his urgent message.

Sadily, there’s only a handful of moments like that in the film.

Most of the first third of the movie is nothing but Schofield and Blake walking through trenches and an abandoned no man’s land. Sure, it’s still impressive on a technical level, but it just doesn’t make for the best visual storytelling.

Really, it made me appreciate movies with deliberate cuts and multiple camera angles all the more.

By the halfway point, I would have given anything for a classic shot reverse shot.

Just cut from one actor’s face to the other for goodness sake. Then throw in a few coverage shots to show off your fancy sets and locations, and call it good.

Heck, maybe even add in a sudden cut to a close up of someone’s face to show their reaction. That’d be fun. Enough of this hovering around the actors nonsense as they do nothing but walk and talk.

Save the time consuming and exhaustive one-take scenes for when they’ll have the most impact.

The long continuous unbreaking nature of the film did nothing but make the film feel like it was on rails. It’s a gimmick. A well done and impressive gimmick, but a gimmick all the same.

Personally, I found it incredibly distracting. Instead of becoming immersed in the setting, story, and characters featured in the film, I found myself doing nothing but looking for the hidden cuts.

And frankly, I think once you take out the gimmick of the one continuous take, this becomes a fairly unremarkable war film.

I didn’t find Schofield and Blake all that captivating as characters. They’re fine, they’re just nothing special is all. Think a discount Frodo and Sam from “Lord of the Rings.”

The story is fine, but again, not the most compelling. Especially with the focus being on these two fairly uninteresting men and their relationship together.

Remove the one-take gimmick, and you have an ordinary, if entirely competent war film.

That doesn’t make it bad, but I hardly think it’s the masterpiece I’ve seen some people claim it is. Nor do I think it’s anywhere close to the best drama of last year, despite what the Golden Globes might say.

Technically, this is a very impressive movie. But I don’t go to the theater just to watch awe-inspiring tech demos.

I go for stories and the characters within them, to see visual narratives crafted by talented filmmakers. Skilled men and women who know when to use a long uninterrupted shot, and also when it might be a good idea to sprinkle in a few cuts here and there.

Despite any of my misgivings though, I still would have a hard time not recommending this movie to anyone interested in war films. It’s far from anything resembling a bad movie. I just didn’t think it was nearly as incredible as some may claim.

“1917” is rated R.

Just Mercy

***

Finally, last this week is “Just Mercy.”

Based on a true story, this film follows Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young African-American lawyer who heads to Alabama after graduating from Harvard to defend those wrongly condemned or those not afforded proper representation.

One of his first cases is that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who is sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence. In the years that follow, Stevenson encounters racism and legal and political maneuverings as he tirelessly fights for McMillian’s life.

This is one of those movies where the story almost seems too unbelievable to be true.

An innocent black man who is sentenced to death for murder, based only on the unreliable testimony of a career criminal who was coerced into making a false testimony by law enforcement.

It seems preposterous. Yet that is the kind of real life “justice” Walter McMillian faced just over 30 years ago at the hands of the Alabama court.

Not in the 1800s. Not during the tumultuous civil rights era of the 1960s. This all took place in the late 80s and early 90s.

And this is far from just an isolated case. Since 1973, for every nine people on death row executed, one person there has been exonerated.

That’s an astonishing failure rate. There’s no telling how many innocent people over the years have been sentenced to death due to false evidence, inadequate legal council, or pure racial bias.

It makes you seriously question the morality of the death penalty all together.

So in that respect, this movie does a wonderful job shining a light on a very real issue. One that has thankfully seen much public scrutiny in large part thanks to people like Bryan Stevenson and his non-profit organization, the Equal Justice Initiative.

The story of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian is absolutely heartbreaking, and Jamie Foxx’s performance of him is perfect, not to mention incredibly moving at times.

Just when you think the evidence of Johnny D’s innocence is overwhelming, and the poor man will finally be freed from his false imprisonment, those in power continue to insist that an innocent man should rot on death row for a crime he clearly could not have committed.

It’s appalling. It’s enough to make you angry watching it all unfold. Not only for years of abuse that Johnny D received. But also for how Bryan Stevenson was harassed by law enforcement, and stonewalled by the local district attorney, all for simply wanting his clients to receive fair legal representation.

For his role, I thought Michael B. Jordan also did an excellent job portraying Stevenson. Frankly, Jordan has proven himself to be an incredibly charismatic and engaging actor regardless of the role. Even in bad movies, you can count on him to be the rare bright spot in the film.

Overall, I think this is a movie well worth watching. Though the narrative might seem a bit familiar to those who have watched their fair share of courtroom dramas, the story is one I found incredibly compelling from beginning to end.

Add in a heap of passion from the performances of our two lead actors, and you have a film that demands to be seen. Especially by those who still support the death penalty.

“Just Mercy” is rated PG-13.

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