"The Shallows" is not a complicated movie. A woman is bitten by a shark and left stranded on a rocky outcropping that will soon vanish under the rising tide. She plans her escape back to shore while her attacker lurks, waiting. It's a stripped down premise for a thrilling game of cat and mouse that is at its best when at its simplest and which feels less special the bigger it tries to go.

After a brief ride through the Mexican jungle, Blake Lively's med-student-turned-surfer-girl Nancy arrives on the silver sands of an isolated beach called Paradise. Her smiles and warmth mask pain from a terrible loss that has blown her life off course. Here, on the crashing waves of crystal blue water, she hopes to find relief.

Clocking in at a sleek 87 minutes, "The Shallows" wastes no time getting Nancy into the water, but neither is it in any hurry to get to her attack. From the first moment she steps into the surf, our hearts beat a little faster. Somewhere out there, unseen, we know what waits for her. Director Jaume Collet-Serra aggravates those nerves by plunging the camera in and out of the water as Nancy blissfully rides the waves; the upbeat party music that accompanies her above is suddenly and completely drowned by a deep, uneasy silence.

When the attack finally comes, it is sudden and violent. As Nancy is dragged under reddening water, we never see the shark. Instead, the camera is locked close on her face. The pain conveyed is visceral and cringe inducing. By preying on our imaginations, "The Shallows" allows us this horrifying experience without showing its gory detail. It's fantastically effective for a PG-13.

Throughout the film, its best moments are those where it allows our imaginations to run wild. When Nancy fashions makeshift stitches for her legs, the visuals are admittedly grotesque, but it's the choice to stay on Nancy's face that makes you lightheaded. We feel as she feels, thanks to Lively's phenomenal performance and the faith the filmmaker has in us to relate to her.

In fact, it's hard to overstate how important Blake Lively is to the making "The Shallows" work. Her performance evokes a bit of Tom Hanks' from "Cast Away" (even if these movies aren't in the same league): she is on screen for nearly the entire running time, sharing the majority of it not with other actors but with her very own Wilson, here in the form of an injured sea gull. A barebones script offers her few opportunities to establish Nancy and her relationships, and yet we feel we know her anyway.

All of this means that when later the film loses grip of its "less is more" philosophy, it stings of disappointment. As the stakes are raised, the shark transforms from faceless force of nature to a more generic jumpy, chompy, bitey, malevolent creature. As it's attacks on Nancy escalate, the tension slowly deflates. No CGI shark will ever be as scary as one you can't see, and nothing it does will ever be as scary as what you imagine it could do.

Still, "The Shallows" surprises, thrills, and delights more than most and is a more layered film than it's simplicity suggests. Thanks to this film, I'm sure I'll have a moment of reflection the next time I'm standing on a beach, just before shaking it off and running into the sea.

Score: 4 / 5

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to begin by stating that I have two conflicting biases that may affect my opinion of "Warcraft." On the one hand, I've been a fan of the Warcraft video game series for about fourteen years. Whatever this film's target audience is, I'm unquestionably in it. But on the other hand, I'm predisposed against video game movies because throughout cinematic history they have been, without exception, complete garbage. The safest bet you could make is that "Warcraft" would be too.

But it wasn't! I enjoyed "Warcraft" more than I didn't and while I wouldn't say this is a great film, it is a pretty fun one that comes nearer to breaking the game movie curse than any preceding adaptation. "Warcraft's" greatest flaw is an unevenness that pervades its every aspect, a flaw that becomes an asset in the context of the genre's low expectations. "Warcraft" suffers typical video game movie lows but is elevated above its station by highs that suggest a better movie beneath the schlock.

The war in "Warcraft" is fought between the orcs, a hulking warrior race from a distant dying world, and the humans of Azeroth whose lands they seek to claim as their new home. The orcs are led there through a portal created by the sorcerer Gul'dan, whose twisted magic is fueled by stolen life. Gul'dan seeks to subdue and sacrifice the humans beyond to power a second portal strong enough to transport the entire waiting orc horde to Azeroth.

But not all orcs follow blindly. Durotan, chieftain of one of the orc clans, is wary of Gul'dan's magic and rejects the fel that turns the warlock's followers into green-skinned juggernauts. And wisely too, as it turns out Gul'dan's gift is a sort of faustian bargain with a high price. Durotan comes to suspect that Gul'dan's magic is not a source of power, but corruption, and turns to the only ones on Azeroth who might help him save his people: the humans.

For their part, the human forces led by King Llane stage a meager defense against the surprise invasion. Returning bodies marked by the fel draw the attention of a young mage named Khadgar. Alarmed that something more sinister than orcs is at work, he implores the king and his warrior Lothar to summon the kingdom's guardian, his former master Medivh. Together, they seek to unravel the mysteries of the fel and repel the orc invaders before it's too late.

One of "Warcraft's" strengths is that it resists the temptation to take sides in the war between orcs and humans. The war may be fought between the races, but the orcs do not have a monopoly on evil, nor the humans on good. Even if character motivations in "Warcraft" are not terribly complex, the film achieves some depth by having characters on both sides struggle with the film's themes of loyalty, trust, sacrifice and fatherhood. "Warcraft" has a few poignant moments that hint at a beating heart hidden somewhere in the script.

Unfortunately, you can only hear a heartbeat about half the time. Surprisingly, the orc-centric scenes stand the tallest. Durotan is without question the most developed character in the movie, best-written and convincingly brought to life with outstanding visual effects and a terrific performance by Toby Kebbell. Durotan's character arc is complete and satisfying because we see every step as it unfolds. We see him as an expecting father playfully teasing his pregnant mate. We get a sense of his worry as the pair walk into Gul'dan's portal. In one of my favorite scenes, we see his harrowing first moments of fatherhood. It's not much, but these scenes help us get a sense of why Durotan makes the choices he does.

This is contrasted by entirely two-dimensional live action characters, who feel less real than any of the computer-generated orcs. There's no evidence of the care put into making Durotan relatable. Relationships are established by characters simply stating to each other how they are related to each other, then moving on with no elaboration. Without meaningful relationships, there is no reason to invest in the characters. With the exception of Khadgar, whose doughy boyish looks and clumsy nature are endearing, no one is really memorable. Well, I suppose there's Medivh, who is memorable because of terrible miscasting.

Generally speaking, if you split the orc and human scenes of "Warcraft" into separate films, I'd swear they were made by entirely different people. The two halves' tones are wildly different, with orc tending towards heft and the serious and the human scenes more lighthearted and comedy bordering on weightlessness. Nowhere is this more evident than the film's climax, which peaks early with orc drama then collapses into a relentlessly silly fight against a chorus of bad ideas and execution. Even the visual effects in human scenes are bafflingly terrible. They must have blown the budget on the orcs; it's the only way to explain human spell effects and glowing eyes so decidedly B-grade. And a special mention to the worst looking elves in movie history!

Still, I enjoyed "Warcraft." There's almost certainly more here for fans of the series than the uninitiated, but director Duncan Jones has done well enough in his telling of Durotan's story to make up for at least some of the bad choices in those of Lothar and Khagdar. I've never seen a video game movie that left me thinking that a sequel could be better, but here we are: I'm actually not repulsed by the idea of a "Warcraft 2." If they learn from what went well in this installment, it could be the first truly great video game movie.

"Assassin's Creed" is still going to be garbage, though.

Score: 3 / 5 

"Me Before You" is a competently-made film. Its leads are likable and have natural on-screen chemistry. You want things to work out for them. Its tearjerker moments largely avoid melodrama and thanks to well-placed Ed Sheeran songs, the soundtrack is sufficiently sappy. On it's surface, it's a somewhat above-average date movie. I even shed a tear. And yet, the more I think about "Me Before You" the more annoyed I become, because despite all that, there's something rotten at the center: tensions built on a foundation of a tone-deaf attitude towards disability.

Laid off and desperate to help support her parents, Louisa "Lou" Clark is between jobs, struggling to find work that matches with her bubbly personality. Things look bleak, but Lou scores an interview for a caregiving position at the sprawling, castle-like Traynor estate. The interview goes poorly, but despite (or because of?) nervous eccentricities and a torn skirt, Lou lands the job.

Her patient is Will Traynor, a thirty-something once successful in business and sport, now confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck-down after a motorcycle accident two years earlier. Will's condition is incurable and has deeply affected his personality. In stark contrast to Lou's smiling optimism, Will spends his days brooding, listening to angsty music and staring grimly out of a window. Lou's job is to simply keep him company, but wouldn't you know it, she starts to fall for him. She sets out to show Will that life is still waiting for him beyond the estate, unaware of the tragic path Will's outlook has set him on.

Let's start positively. Most of the performances in "Me Before You" are good, but the clear star here is Emilia Clarke. Her portrayal of Lou is infinitely likable. Throughout the film, Lou sacrifices her own happiness for that of others, including her parents, her sister, her boyfriend, and Will himself. Some of these sacrifices are treated as no-brainers, while others weigh heavily on Lou. Emilia effortlessly sells her struggle with selflessness. You genuinely want things to turn out well for her, and despite his gruff and off-putting introduction, you come to root for Will because she does, too.

Sam Claflin plays Will, and while his performance isn't as good as his co-star, he eventually breaks out of his first act monotone to emote a bit, delivering a performance that helps build on the real chemistry the two actors share. As Will's parents, Charles Dance and Janet McTeer say much without speaking. It's clear Will's accident has deeply affected them, and while united in love for their son their disagreements in how best to care for him have clearly played out many times before.

In addition to avoiding too much cringe, the script is funnier than I expected. I found myself chuckling along while Lou bantered with her sister (played by "Doctor Who" alum Jenna Coleman) about dress appropriateness, and laughing at Lou's frustration with the utter uselessness of her boyfriend (Matthew Lewis). And while Will is profoundly unlikeable in his first scenes, his dry, bitter wit is an amusing foil to Lou's positivity.

In fact, most of the film is fine, if not good. The wheels start to come off in scenes dealing with the film's primary conceit: a man struggling to find value in life after becoming disabled.

When Will talks about the impact of disability on his life, he talks almost exclusively in terms of physical limitations. In scene after scene, he laments things he can no longer do. Other characters discuss his condition with tacit agreement, a sense of "tut, tut, what a shame to live that way." Lou, blind to his disability, seeks to inject life back into Will, but even her successes are book ended with his bleak attitude: Happiness is temporary, disability is forever, and who would want this life? These scenes are meant to inspire sympathy, but are troubling when set against the film's seeming rejection of a "handi-capable" mentality.

People who develop handicaps must surely face a range of physical, emotional, and mental challenges as they overcome their disability and adjust to life after. But struggle to overcome is not represented here. Will has given up. Why? Well, his condition is irreversible. We are told he is in constant excruciating pain. We never see that, but we do hear Will repeatedly talk about how he can't do the things he once could. This is a negative, one-dimensional portrayal of disability in a medium that rarely portrays it at all.

Perhaps this is also a fault of the source material. The novel by Jojo Moyes has been similarly criticized by disability advocates. The filmmakers were surely aware of this, yet appear to have done nothing to mitigate the implications of Will's outlook. A film adaption that embraces its source's flaws cannot be excused from repeating them. Despite otherwise enjoying the film, this failure has stayed with me the longest. That's a real shame.

Score: 3 / 5



After the trailer reel ended and the lights dimmed, my showing of "Alice Through the Looking Glass" opened with a screening of the full music video for Pink's "Just Like Fire." The song was produced specifically for the film's soundtrack and the video borrows heavily from its distinct visual style. But by beginning the film with a thinly-veiled advertisement for the album, Disney exposes a nakedly profit-driven opportunism that also explains this candy-coated fluff of a sequel.

That isn't to say I hated "Alice Through the Looking Glass," but it's far more shallow entertainment than its 2010 forerunner. Say what you will about that film, but it offered something new in its wildly weird take on a world almost tailor-made for then-director Tim Burton. "Alice Through the Looking Glass" offers more of the same in a sequel-prequel mashup that reminds me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World: a mechanical series of thinly-connected scenes that is mildly amusing and utterly free of impact.

Three years have passed since Alice Kingsleigh's last adventure in Wonderland. She's now an impossibly talented captain, leading expeditions all over the world aboard her late father's ship. She sails under the banner of a trading company which falls into the hands of her jilted ex-fiancé Hamish, who seeks to take her ship and humiliate her with a desk job. Distraught, Alice follows a familiar butterfly through a looking glass, returning to Wonderland.

But not all is well here, either. After finding a relic from his childhood, the Mad Hatter has come to believe his long-dead family is still alive. No one in Wonderland believes him, driving the once-colorful madman into a deadly seriousness. To save her friend, Alice must travel into the past to rescue the Hatter's family from their untimely deaths. Using an artifact stolen from Time himself, she sets off on an adventure across the oceans of Wonderland's past.

Borrowing its name but drawing no inspiration from the source material, "Alice Through the Looking Glass" plays out over backstory vignettes that seriously overestimate how much anyone cares about the lore of this particular Wonderland. In lieu of a compelling story, the film dwells on questions no one ever asked like "why is the Red Queen's head big," while dutifully reminding the audience of the first film's high points. This "Alice" is too indebted to its predecessor to feel original. Even its once-vaunted visual style fails to impress; we've seen it already.

Amidst a sea of colorful CGI confusion, Mia Wasikowska remains perfectly watchable as Alice, even if the story fumbles her treatment. In the opening scenes, her aptitude as a sea captain is shown with a stunt so unbelievable I thought it would end up a dream sequence. Alice's headstrong refrain aside, her ability to do literally impossible things in the real world utterly diminishes any threat she could possibly face in Wonderland.

Mishandling of characters isn't limited to Alice. Sasha Baron Cohen's Time is a welcome addition, but the script lacks the self-control required to avoid a deluge of temporally-themed puns. In one particularly gag-laden scene, he remarks "You think I haven't heard these before?" I felt he spoke for me. Johnny Depp returns as the obnoxious Hatter and begins to outstay his welcome before the credits roll. Anne Hathaway alternates between uncharacteristically somber and a scene-chewing warble with nonstop spirit fingers. At least the Red Queen is still fun.

"Alice in Wonderland" was a film that told girls they could do anything; that simple but empowering message was coherent and constant. Beneath the surface, this is a film barely about anything. There's some nice sentiment about the importance of family but it's tacked on and artificial. Without heart or aspiration to do more, "Alice Through the Looking Glass" coasts on the appeal of the first movie; not a terrible film, but the unmistakable shadow of a better one.

Score: 2.5/5

Welcome to my monthly movie preview, where this month we're celebrating Sequel Month! Five of June's eleven nationwide releases are sequels for franchises of varying degrees of deservedness. Sharks, aliens, and Kevin Hart - these are just a few of the threats waiting to thrill audiences this month.


In Theaters June 3

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

At a Glance: Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island star in this mockumentary about Conner4Real, a pop superstar whose career is on the verge of ruin when his latest album flops. "Popstar" parodies the string of biographical films (of questionable necessity) released in the last few years by artists like Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and One Direction.


Why I'm Excited: Following last year's "What We Do In The Shadows," I'm ready for another hilarious mockumentary and The Lonely Island seems ready to deliver. The trio have proven comedy chops and not only star, but wrote and co-produced the film. In one way or another, their work has become a part of my daily life. I'm looking forward to seeing what they've come up with here.


Me Before You

At a Glance: Based on the best-selling romance novel by English author JoJo Moyes, "Me Before You" stars Emilia Clarke as Lou, a vibrant woman hired to care for a man struggling to find meaning in life after being paralyzed in an accident. Unshakably optimistic, Lou sets out to help him once again find happiness.



Why I'm (Maritally Obligated To Be) Excited: This is the first time I've seen my wife get excited about the prospect of seeing a romantic movie in theaters. When she learned I hadn't yet seen the trailer, it was a showstopper. She immediately consulted YouTube and we watched together. "Tear. Jerker," she exclaimed after. "We are totally going to see it."

Why My Wife Is Excited: "Me Before You" stars celebrities from some of her favorite worlds. Her favorites from "Game of Thrones," "Hunger Games," and "Doctor Who" all in one movie? Sign her up! Also I think she wants to see me cry in the theater because she's wicked.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

At a Glance: Everyone's favorite lean green fighting machines return in this Michael Bay-produced sequel to the critically despised 2014 money-maker. This picture sees the turtles take on a who's-who of fan favorites from the original cartoon including Shredder, Bebop, Rocksteady, and the alien Kraang.



Why (The Kid In Me) Is Excited: Growing up, there were three cartoons I really remember watching: X-Men, Spider-Man, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My obsession with the turtles was next level though. I wanted all of their toys. I played all of their games (including the one with that damned water level). My dad, a man always on the edge of technology, bought episodes of the show on ill-fated laser-disc.

Why (The Cynic In Me) Is Not Excited: I mean, come on. This is the definition of a "head-says-no, heart-says-yes" situation. Hopes for some nostalgia-fueled fun aside, there is almost no way this movie is anything more than terrible.


In Theaters June 10

Warcraft

At a Glance: The international hit video game franchise makes its big screen debut! As the orc homeworld crumbles, the sorcerer Gul'dan opens a portal to the distant world of Azeroth and launches a war of conquest for the human lands beyond. As the orcish horde ravages the world and the human kingdoms band together to repel them, heroes on both sides begin to question whether conflict between the two peoples is necessary.


Why I'm (Secretly) Excited: When I see this, I'll likely wear a disguise to avoid dying in shame if I'm spotted leaving the theater. Confession: I'm no stranger to the Warcraft universe. I've spent more than decade playing games in the franchise, including the juggernaut MMO World of Warcraft. Am I excited to see a movie translation of the iconic locations and characters? Sure. Just don't tell anyone.

But No Really, Why I'm (Not) Excited: I live by a set of rules. Rule number one is "Never get excited about video game movies." They're all garbage.


The Conjuring 2

At a Glance: Hot on the heels of their work in Rhode Island, Lorraine and Ed Warren to London to investigate another house with a bad case of the ghoulies.



Why I'm Excited: It's rare that a horror film does well both with critics and audiences, but the filmmakers behind the 2013's "The Conjuring" managed just that with critics giving the film a 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and CinemaScore audiences awarding it an A-. As this sequel boasts the same writing and directing team in addition to the same leads, I think it's chances are better than even.


Now You See Me 2

At a Glance: The Four Horseman are back for a second round of magic-meets-"Oceans 11" adventure. Threatened into pulling off their biggest heist yet by God and an evil Harry Potter, the team must do the impossible to expose the truth.



Why I'm Indifferent: The first film looked interesting but I never got around to seeing it. Nothing against this movie, it's just hard to get excited for a sequel to film I've never seen. I'll be sure to catch it on DVD before seeing this in theaters.


In Theaters June 17

Finding Dory

At a Glance: Perhaps the most anticipated Disney sequel since "Toy Story 3," "Finding Dory" follows the ever-forgetful Dory and her friends on a trans-oceanic adventure to reunite with her family. Ellen Degeneres and Albert Brooks reprise their roles as Dory and Marlin.



Why I'm Excited: Let's face it - Pixar doesn't make bad movies (let's just forget about that nasty "Cars 2" business). Audiences and critics alike have adored 15 of the 16 major films released by the studio since "Toy Story." While normally I'd be nervous about the tendency of sequels to over-reference the originals, or retread too much of the same ground, Pixar has earned trust with their phenomenal track record.


Central Intelligence

At a Glance: Kevin Hart is the high school hot stuff who grew up to be a boring accountant. Dwayne Johnson is the overweight loser who became a CIA killing machine. Together the unlikely (and accidental) partners embark on a mission vital to national security.


Why I'm Conflicted: The resumes of everyone involved with this (cast and production team) are a mixture of a few bright spots and a whole lot of bad choices. Dwayne Johnson is irresistibly charming and it would be great to see Kevin Hart star in a feature that isn't comic poison. File this under "Wishing for the Best, Prepared for the Worst."


In Theaters June 24

Independence Day: Resurgence 

At a Glance: Twenty years after their defeat at the hands of Earth's unified forces, the aliens return to launch a massive and devastating war of revenge. Humanity once again finds itself on the brink of extinction as faces new and familiar scramble to find a path to victory.


Why I'm Stoked: This is the dumbest movie that I'm super excited to see. While the first trailer delighted, each successive preview has looked more and more generic. Still, nostalgia is a hell of a drug and the 1996 original is an annual July tradition in my home. I'm looking forward to revisiting this world with eyes wide shut.


Free State of Jones

At a Glance: "Free State of Jones" tells the story of local legend Newton Knight. In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Newton Knight led a group of fellow Confederate deserters to seize control of the area around Jones County, Mississippi. For the remainder of the war, Knight and his followers harassed Confederate forces in the area, effectively disrupting their control of the territory.


Why I'm Excited: This film presents a lesser known story from one of the most fascinating periods of American history and stars Matthew McConaughey, who has rapidly graduated from mere rom-com heartthrob to one of my favorite leading men. Despite the Oscar-bait feel to the trailers, I'm excited to see McConaughey once again take on a role unlike his previous work.


In Theaters June 29

The Shallows

At a Glance: Nancy, a pro surfer, is left stranded 200 yards from shore when a great white shark attacks her. Determined to survive, she plans her escape to safety while the shark lurks in shallows, waiting.


Why I'm Excited: As ever, we end on an optimistic note. I'm always ready for a good thriller. The premise is rock solid and could produce a tight, tense film if handled correctly. We haven't had a reason to be afraid to go into the water since 1975. I hope "The Shallows" gives us a new one.


Thank you for reading! Now tell me what you think. What are you most excited to see? Sound off in the comments!
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