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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…