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…

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…

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…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite

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.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …