No Lifeguards In This Water

Hair-raising! Nerve-frying! Gut-wrenching! Open Water is a new film that makes you reach for all the obvious descriptive adjectives in an impossible attempt to describe its shock effects. It deserves them all. As vacation time nears and every New Yorker I know heads out of town to get as far away from Republican convention gridlock and mayhem as their E-ZPasses will carry them, this is the must-see movie event that will make August memorable. As low-budget surprise hits go, I predict that when it opens Aug. 6, it will cause the same kind of indie-prod excitement as The Blair Witch Project . There’s one big difference. Open Water is no fad, fluke or phenomenon that charges the nerves for the same amount of time as a roller coaster or a video game in a penny arcade. It has been made by real pros, has lasting shock value, and is miles above and beyond The Blair Witch Project -a movie it in no way resembles-in quality, artistry and lasting appeal. It is electrifying.

Water. If asked to name my most chilling fear, I would have to admit that right up there next to snakes, Nazis and bankruptcy, I have always had a mortal anxiety about water. Not the kind that comes in designer bottles or picture-postcard waterfalls. I’m talking oceans, seas, rivers and all the creepy stuff below that sucks, bites, stings and chews human torsos for hors d’oeuvres. I wouldn’t go deep-sea diving on a dare, and if you don’t think a simple scuba dive in a placid Caribbean coral reef is a pursuit for the insane, you will change your mind after Open Water . Based on true events, this is a movie about a vital, healthy, appealing and attractive couple, Daniel and Susan (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan), who escape the stress of urban chaos to spend some quality time together on holiday in a beach resort. They sign up for a diving excursion. What happens next left me paralyzed with the kind of terror I can only equate with coming face to face in the garden with a hungry crocodile.

The early-morning dive from a pilot boat looks enchanting to the 20 tourists in rubber diving suits onboard. Sixty feet below the surface, the angel fish are posing for marine calendars. The excursion is well organized. The deep-sea divers are divided into pairs. Nothing to worry about, says the guide. And there are wonders to behold that you don’t see in an aquarium. Now it is 10:25, the appointed hour when everyone meets for the trip back to the island hotel. To their disbelief, when Daniel and Susan reach the surface, the pilot boat with the other vacationers has gone without them. Accidentally, because of a mistaken head count, two people have been left behind, deserted and alone, cold and shaking, kept afloat by life jackets, miles from civilization in shark-infested waters. Disbelief turns to anger-directed first at the excursion company, then at each other. These are resourceful people, but as the stages of psychologicalhorror progress,calm resolve surrenders to panic, hysteria and eventually a kind of resignation that left me shaken long after the final shattering moments of this extraordinary film. To stave off starvation and mental exhaustion, they play word games.Daniel tries to summon his slowly fading manhood with words of encouragement: “This really sucks, but we’re going to get through this, O.K.?” But being left in the middle of the ocean is an ordeal for which nobody can prepare. Dehydrated, unable to drink the water, suffering from nausea caused by the drifting and rocking of the lapping waves, then tortured by both leg cramps and the venomous bites of passing jellyfish, they do everything possible to stay awake and alive. Alas, nature has other cruel plans. At the risk of spoiling the suspense, I will clam up here. Just take my word: Whatever you expect, you are in for much more.

Applause is richly deserved by the team of writer-director Chris Kentis and his producer wife Laura Lau. They shot this movie on weekends and holidays with the two accomplished, believable and completely mesmerizing actors plunged into the water without protective cages for over 120 hours, surrounded by real man-eating sharks that give the film most of its harrowing chills. There isn’t one computer-generated special effect in the entire film, which gives the viewer even more of a feeling of being isolated and abandoned in the middle of nowhere. The Kentis’ camera not only captures the vast backdrop against which man’s vulnerability is supremely tested, but acts as a third character-the ocean current, the nose of a shark, the enemy that sweeps away the couple’s camera, knife, food supplies and self-protection. As scary as it is in the sunlight, there is no way to evaluate the sheer horror of being in the water after dark, lit only by the moon or bolts of lightning. Which is worse? During the day, when the sky and the water are as white as an ultraviolet ray, you can see the churning of the sharks circling your head. In the pitch-black of night, you can only feel the things that are coming after you. Every aspect of this nightmare is captured as realistically as breathing by Mr. Kentis, while his screenplay miraculously finds the time to develop character and build rapport between the actors and the audience. You won’t know Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis going in, but you will crave much more of them both by the time this momentous movie ends. To all and sundry, a moment of genuflection, please-for one of the most galvanizing and unforgettable films of the year.

Cat-astrophic Turn for Halle

As a head-turning player in the world of red-carpet photo ops and P.R. sound bites, Halle Berry may be pure catnip, but as a hissing, whip-cracking Catwoman , she’s more like a rat buffet. In a desperate ploy to become the female competition for Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and any number of boring X-Men, this flashy, superficial, blinged-out comic-book superheroine comes crawling out of her cage on all fours in black leather panties and bra, like a self-respecting feminist’s worst nightmare. Come to think of it, with its smoke and strobe lights and trashy hip-hop score, Catwoman is an intelligent moviegoer’s worst nightmare, too.

Based on the least popular and most pointless comic-book character ever invented by Batman creator Bob Kane, Catwoman descends from the god-like cats of ancient Egypt, where cat mummies have been found in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. We know this from the elaborate credits, made up of vast historic, archival information about cats. By day she is Patience Phillips, a struggling graphic artist who slaves away drawing ads for a cosmetics conglomerate run by a sleazy opportunist (Lambert Wilson) and his lethal wife, a model for the company’s beauty products who is being replaced because of her age (played with frozen relish by Sharon Stone). This marble-faced monster is a chic, streamlined viper who will stop at nothing to destroy her philandering husband and keep her face in the flossy, overstuffed pages of Vogue . When the film begins, Patience is already having a bad day-a mysterious cat has invaded her apartment and seems to be stalking her, she falls from a window and is saved from death by a handsome cop (Benjamin Bratt) who thinks she’s a nut case, and she’s forced to work overtime or get fired-and it’s about to get worse. Delivering her new illustrations to the company’s cosmetics lab, she overhears the evil Ms. Stone’s plans for launching a new formula for anti-aging cream that contains addictive, life-threatening drugs that turn the skin beneath the collagen mask into cancerous sores. Holy Botox! Before she can escape and warn the women of the world about toxic beauty cream, Patience is drowned, resuscitated from her underwater grave by that creepy cat, and ready to start the next phase of her existence as … Catwoman!

If you’ve read this far without turning the page, maybe you also want to know that she crawls through the night robbing jewelry stores, scaling buildings and falling from great heights, always landing on her paws. There’s no telling what she could do with a hot tin roof! In the process of stretching out a nonexistent plot, Ms. Berry also befriends an urban witch (Frances Conroy, the funeral-parlor matriarch on HBO’s Six Feet Under , in the kind of supporting bit that used to be played by Gale Sondergaard), who diagnoses her condition and warns her that being a catwoman “can be both a blessing and a curse,” then ravenously devours pounds of canned tuna and purrrrrrs like Eartha Kitt. Sometimes she kids her own predicament with lines fresh from the word processors of not one but three deluded screenwriters who deserve to remain nameless. (Inserting her talons into a villain’s mouth, she hisses: “Cat got your tongue?”) She’s a pretty sloppy date in a trendy restaurant. Wait till you see what she does with sushi.

Catwoman is the kind of movie that almost guarantees the loss of a few I.Q. points. It has blinding strobe lights and a deafening New Age beat that consists of the worst rap music ever perpetrated on any member of the film going public over 14 years old, and culminates in a claw-and-fang fight to the death between Ms. Berry and Ms. Stone that really kicks butt. Violence and noise is about the extent of the talents of a director named simply “Pitof,” who cut his baby teeth on French commercials, music videos and software designs. Christ, don’t we have enough hacks right here at home already without importing new ones? Halle Berry slithers through most of this cinematic litterbox as scantily clad as possible in leather lingerie that is supposed to make her look empowered, but only makes her resemble a dominatrix in a low-budget porno flick. When she cracks her cat-o’-nine-tails in her skivvies, it’s not exciting, just déjà vu . Ignorant of American film history, “Pitof” obviously doesn’t even know that Ann-Margret did it all years ago in Kitten with a Whip . Lovely and lost, Halle Berry is capable of so much more. This kind of kitty litter no doubt earns the big bucks that generate high-fives for agents, managers, publicists and the I.R.S., but as a career move, Catwoman is a cat-astrophe.

Gangster Heaven

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is another of those sparse, restrained and suspensefully subdued gangster films by the celebrated British director Mike Hodges. Thirty years ago, he left an instant mark on the gangster genre with his stunning debut film, Get Carter , followed almost immediately by the zany, compelling Pulp (the last film I can remember that starred the alluring Lizabeth Scott). A few years ago, he garnered international critical attention once again with the offbeat Croupier . Now this idiosyncratic director returns with another stylized crime melodrama with faint echoes of Raymond Chandler, sex and thuggery unlimited. Smart, efficient and brutal, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is an avenging-angel film about a former kingpin of the London underworld named Will (Clive Owen, who starred in Mr. Hodges’ Croupier ), who comes out of retirement and returns to his old haunts to avenge the death of his young, energetic and attractive younger brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a punk drug dealer who has been raped and murdered by a depraved car dealer, played by Malcolm McDowell. Davey’s hero worship led him to follow in his older brother’s footsteps, and now Will feels guilty. Growing from the status of a hermit living out of a van in the woods to a furious crime lord reuniting with his old gang and reclaiming his old power, Mr. Owen acts with a ferocious vengeance that gives his character an unrelenting authority. Eschewing the clichés of shoot-outs and bloodshed, the director focuses more on illogical underworld fatalism and the nocturnal landscape in which it thrives. You visit a London that is rarely seen by tourists-dank alleys, underpasses and cobblestone walkways lit only by a distant neon bar light or simply the moon hovering above the rotted, soot-scarred trees. It can be argued that I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is more stylized than substantive, but I found it a tight, well-made, evocative piece of filmmaking for true connoisseurs of gangster movies that is unnerving, yet completely sure of every step it takes.