Skip to main content

The ship beneath you is not a toy. And sailing's not a game.

White Squall
(1996)

(SPOILERS) What made Sir Ridders want to embark on White Squall? He’ll probably say the screenplay, since he received it on the same day Crisis in the Hot Zone, his Ebola movie starring Jodie Foster that found itself competing with Outbreak (and she with Robert Redford for screen time), was cancelled; he took a mere 90 minutes to decide it was for him. Which is about right, since he wouldn’t know a decent script if it came with an Oscar attached as a paperweight.


But, beyond simple frustration and desperation, did he fancy more seafaring after 1492: Conquest of Paradise? Or the challenging of realising a perfect storm on screen? Or… the characters? Nah, couldn’t be the latter. There ended up being four years between 1492 and this, leaving the ‘90s as a rather fallow period for the director. One rather gets the sense Scott didn’t know which way was up at the time, hence the subsequent G.I. Jane (which at least, in its own crude way, is moderately entertaining). White Squall is a long-winded bust, possibly intended as an open-ocean answer to Dead Poets Society but failing to imbue any of the empathy and character-building of Peter Weir’s Oscar-winner.


It’s certainly a contender for the least-seen Scott picture, a period piece set in 1961 charting the demise of the sailing vessel Albatross when it was struck by the titular windstorm – which some claim is the stuff of myth. The Dead Poets Society vibe comes via Jeff Bridges’ maverick “Skipper” Christopher Sheldon, an eccentric disciplinarian who inevitably earns the respect of his just-joined crew of immaculately clean-cut school lads. And the ire of a few too (which plays into the concluding trial passage).


Bridges, a couple of years shy of “Dude” status, has now effectively and seamlessly progressed to mentor roles. He’s good as far as it goes, but this isn’t a picture where you really get an insight into the motives of the man, concentrating as it does more on the lacklustre ensemble of lads. There are other adult players along for the voyage; John Savage is memorable as English tutor McCrea, seemingly channelling Richard Dreyfus’ ‘70s persona, while Caroline Goodall makes much of a limited role as Sheldon’s wife Alice. David Selby is suitably hiss-able as the father of one of the boys (who is expelled from the boat) and Zeljko Ivanek is effective cross-examining Sheldon during the final hearing sequence.


There are several problems fundamental problems, however. One is that Scott simply hasn’t assembled an engaging cast of youngsters. A couple of them (Ryan Philippe, Balthazar Getty) have managed a reasonable movie footprint since, but Party of Five star Scott Wolf is entirely insipid as the lead and narrator. Worse, the picture spends interminable amounts of time on their minor obstacles, impediments and rites of passage, all fuel for their team-building and fostering mutual respect.


Tanned and white t-shirted, they’re shot by Scott like he’s under contract with Persil, and the results are just as anodyne (some of have suggested the picture is unintentionally homoerotic, but it's too bland for there to be even a hint of sexual tension). He includes various pop hits of the period, has sequences with the shipboard rebel, and a dance with some girls, and bouts of emotional upheaval (the tough guy can’t spell!), even a contretemps with some dastardly Cubans (the director evidently gearing up for Black Hawk Down’s loathsome foreign enemy there), but the characters never develop beyond standard-issue teen types (they aren’t even sufficiently well-defined to be labelled archetypes).


We’re subjected to more than 90 minutes of this before the main attraction, which is why we’re all watching, the few of us who are, and that entire time really does feel like laborious prelude. Todd Robinson’s screenplay (from The Last Voyage of the Albatross by Charles Gieg) is numbingly literal, shuffling through each pre-appointed marker with deliberate lack of nimbleness and dexterity.


In his favour, Scott is still in the zone of feigning to build inhabitable worlds, however fallow, prior to his post-Gladiator descent into vacuum-formed production line assemblies. The problem is, as fine as the vistas are, and welcome as the luxury of actually holding a shot for a spell is, there’s no negligible content to support it. If Black Rain failed by trying to overlay his technique on crass thriller plotting, White Squall flounders through showing he has no aptitude for teenage dilemmas. When the kids are granted shore leave to explore an island for a spot of Lord of the Flies bonding, you’re left mulling that this would all have been much more impressive had Scott drafted in David Attenborough to discuss the flora and fauna of the area over the soundtrack instead. That’s the real difference between why this failed and another doomed crew disaster movie – The Perfect Storm – succeeded. For all the latter’s deficiencies, it had a couple of leads you could invest in.


The main event then, and Scott handles it with the expected proficiency. It even gives Bridges, who has been stuck with a stock firm-but-fair type until this point, a couple of moments where he can lift the proceedings; the look in his eyes when he sees the squall, and recognises just how bad it is, is worth a thousand establishing shots in convincingly stricken water tanks. Later, he must look down on his wife, trapped within the sinking vessel, with no recourse but to leave her to a watery tomb.


The trial that follows seems curiously perfunctory, but then Scott’s whole movie has that prevailing sense of uncertainty over just where its focus lies, even though that’s obviously the eye of the storm; its director isn’t looking to his characters, understandably, as they’re bereft. When the kids press around Bridges for a “Skipper, my skipper” moment of solidarity, completely with a ringing bell from his betrayer, its supposed to be a pride-swelling, emotive moment akin to the standing on desks in Dead Poets, but it elicits no response at all.


Scott went through this before, of course. After his attempt at a character piece in Someone to Watch Over Me, he made the sort of film expected of his brother with Black Rain. After this, he would do it again, with G.I. Jane. I recently read a contemporary review of Someone to Watch Over Me, one that one couldn’t imagine being lavished on the director now. Harlan Kennedy waxed lyrical about Scott’s flair for mythmaking, buying into the idea that his visual sense overlaid an entire storytelling design upon any material he chose to tackle. Such a spin was understandable back then, since his subject matter had entirely lent itself to such readings. Less than a decade later, no one would be giving him the benefit of the doubt. One might read the mythic into this picture, but it’s unmoved by such concerns. At least, unlike some of his later efforts, in terms of his own well-honed technique, White Squall isn’t a pedestrian piece of filmmaking, but it is entirely unremarkable otherwise.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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…

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…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

If this is not a place for a priest, Miles, then this is exactly where the Lord wants me.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes a movie comes along where you instantly know you’re safe in the hands of a master of the craft, someone who knows exactly the story they want to tell and precisely how to achieve it. All you have to do is sit back and exult in the joyful dexterity on display. Bad Times at the El Royale is such a movie, and Drew Goddard has outdone himself. From the first scene, set ten years prior to the main action, he has constructed a dizzyingly deft piece of work, stuffed with indelible characters portrayed by perfectly chosen performers, delirious twists and game-changing flashbacks, the package sealed by an accompanying frequently diegetic soundtrack, playing in as it does to the essential plot beats of the whole. If there's a better movie this year, it will be a pretty damn good one.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

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.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…