Skip to main content

Any man endangering this vessel goes out the fucking tubes!

Black Sea
(2014)

(SPOILERS) I like a good submarine movie. Black Sea has a few things going for it, chiefly Kevin McDonald getting diligently behind the inherent claustrophobia and tension of being cocooned in a great watery coffin, but it’s continually hamstrung by Dennis Kelly’s ridiculous script, which does its best to undermine any investment in the characters and their goal, a stash of Nazi gold in sunken U-boat beneath the Black Sea.


Kelly came up with Utopia, which, for its first series at any rate, was intriguing and different, so maybe he should be given some slack. Or maybe not, since he also contributed to Pulling. Laid off by his salvage firm, Jude Law’s Robinson (or McRobinson; you can tell he’s Scottish on account of his accent, which some have not unfairly compared to Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons) promptly has the prospect of rescuing $40m in gold from a U-boat sunk off Georgia thrown in his lap. Of course, it’s a dangerous exercise, requiring the salvagers to avoid the Russian navy. He picks a mixture of British and Russian crewmembers, having secured the backing of a mysterious financier (Tobias Menzies) and obtained a rusting hulk of a sub, and off he goes.


So at least the picture doesn’t waste any time sailing forth. Unfortunately, its shorthand also evidences just how rudimentary much of the motivation here will be. “He’s a psychopath” is the introductory comment on Ben Mendelsohn’s Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn, playing a nutter, whatever next?) “But a good diver” responds McRobinson. Which gives Kelly, clearly enamoured of psychos if Utopia is any indication, free licence to create any amount of mayhem that will be the death of most of the crew. If Fraser were as unstable as is shown here, it would surely have manifested before. But Kelly’s trying to do a The Treasure of the Sierra Madre thing, having gold fever gradually tip its crewmen over the edge (except the only ones who exhibit this are the dogged McRobinson and the crazy guy who’s crazy anyway).


Since there’s little in the way of externalised threat, the enemy must be from within, which means the only conflicts can come from hopelessly contrived scenarios. Along for the ride is Scoot McNairy’s duplicitous company man Daniels, who is basically Burke from Aliens right down to locking marines crewmen in with the aliens invading ocean (At one point McRobinson even paraphrases Ripley; “Men are dead!”). 


Except that, when it reaches the point where he is attempting to manipulate Fraser (who has already got them into a fine mess by murdering Konstantin Khabenskiy’s Blackie for no discernible or sensible reason other than that he’s a psycho and psychos always go round murdering people in confined spaces at the drop of a hat, especially when it puts their own lives in extreme peril; he also has a disconcerting habit of crying about the danger they’re in two minutes later, which he manufactured) into killing another crewman, he seems entirely clueless as to the potential consequences. This is writing designed to progress the plot, which it does, but it’s at the expense of the remotest suspension of disbelief.


Robinson’s entire venture comes across as hopelessly ill-equipped and planned as it is, but as it happens the expedition would have worked out fine and dandy (irrespective of what would happen when they got to the surface) if only he had taken the time not to bring that meddlesome psychopath aboard. Or brought two good divers along, so the insane one could be locked up when he starts his killing spree. Still, Macdonald has assembled a strong cast. McLaw’s appropriately bulky, McNairy and Mendelsohn sing from familiarly dependable song sheets and Michael Smiley and David Threlfall give it some salty old sea dog. There are effective individual sequences too; Macdonald knows how to ratchet up the tension.


But that makes it the greater pity that Black Sea isn’t just hackneyed, it’s frustratingly aggressive in its distaste for internal logic. A sub crew on a quest for lost Nazi treasure is the stuff of great potential (as recent news stories attest), but Macdonald’s picture depth charges it.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

The sooner we are seamen again, the better.

The Bounty (1984)
(SPOILERS) How different might David Lean’s late career have been if Ryan’s Daughter hadn’t been so eviscerated, and his confidence with it? Certainly, we know about his post-A Passage to India projects (Empire of the Sun, Nostromo), but there were fourteen intervening years during which he surely might have squeezed out two or three additional features. The notable one that got away was, like Empire of the Sun, actually made: The Bounty. But by Roger Donaldson, after Lean eventually dropped out. And the resulting picture is, as you might expect, merely okay, notable for a fine Anthony Hopkins performance as Bligh (Lean’s choice), but lacking any of the visual poetry that comes from a master of the craft.

We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound "fine"?

Evil Dead II (1987)
(SPOILERS) Evil Dead II (also known with the subtitle Dead by Dawn) is one of the funniest films ever made, as a result of which it remains a high-water mark Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell have yet to surpass. Understandably so, it will be no blemish against them if they are unable to again equal the sheer energy, inventiveness, exuberance, glee and craziness very throw into its every frame. It’s the movie that made both their careers, and the every definition of cult fare; one that was an extremely modest success on first release, but whose reputation has grown steadily. How large that currently is will likely be gauged by the current Ash vs The Evil Dead series but, provided the central ingredients comprising Ash are intact and the camerawork is sufficiently unhinged, the ingredients that arrived fully-formed in glorious cockeyed form here, it too could become at very least its own cult item.

If The Evil Dead is a horror movie that succeeds in being gruey but fails to…