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

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…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

I didn't kill her. I just relocated her.

The Discovery (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Discovery assembles not wholly dissimilar science-goes-metaphysical themes and ideas to Douglas Trumbull's ill-fated 1983 Brainstorm, revolving around research into consciousness and the revelation of its continuance after death. Perhaps the biggest discovery, though, is that it’s directed and co-written by the spawn of Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen (the latter cameos) – Charlie McDowell – of hitherto negligible credits but now wading into deep philosophical waters and even, with collaborator Justin Lader, offering a twist of sorts.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…