Sunday, February 8, 2015

Black Sea

Alternate Title:  Nope Nope Nope Nope Nope...

One sentence synopsis:    A group of jobless submarine engineers try to recover a cache of Nazi gold from a wrecked submarine at the bottom of the Black Sea.

Things Havoc liked:  By now, if you've spent any time following this project of mine at all, you know that I tend to have pretty solid opinions on many of the actors that cross our list. Idris Elba is a pimp. Vincent D'onofrio can't act. Liam Neeson kills people in a growling monotone way too much. While I have not yet had much of an opportunity to opine on the subject of Jude Law, this seems to be as good an opportunity as any to remedy that fact. By and large, and with one or two notable exceptions (Gattaca, Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law sucks. He sucks for the same reasons that a lot of actors suck, not that he has a lack of talent, but that his talent is often misplaced, in Law's case in a series of unwatchable leading-men roles (Cold Mountain, A.I., Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) where his instructions from the directors seem to have been "be as bland as humanly possible". However, I've seen actors suffering from Leading-Man-Disease (Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck for instance) recover with the application of time, eventually no longer young enough to play bad roles and forced, by process of elimination, to play good ones. Usually this changeover is accompanied by the actor in question spontaneously playing roles filled with grit and dirt and lots of stubble, and so it was that while I didn't see 2013's Dom Hemmingway, the trailers for it alerted me that it was probably time to take a look at Mr. Law once again.

Captain Robinson (Law) is a Scottish (I think) deep-sea salvage expert, veteran of many years' employment, now found redundant and sent home with an impressive resume for a skill that nobody is demanding any longer. Fuming angry at having been cast aside, Robinson contracts with a number of other middle-aged-and-older engineers and experts in the field to go after a semi-mythical treasure nestled in the Black Sea, a German U-boat sunk carrying millions of dollars in gold bullion from the Soviet Union back to the Reich. In the time-honored tradition of caper/heist films like this, a crew of misfits and colorful characters must be assembled to accomplish this task, played in this case by a horde of character actors, including one of my favorites, Ben Mendelsohn (Place Beyond the Pines, Animal Kingdom), and the best thing from last year's Most Wanted Man, newcomer Grigoriy Dobrygin, he of the intense, fiery stare, and terse, laconic dialogue. Law, Mendelsohn, and Dobrygin (as well as a host of actors I don't know) all do a fine job with the material, snarling at one another through thick Scottish, Irish, Yorkshire, or Russian accents, exuding both shady behavior and cool professionalism, even as the film goes through its obligatory course, the natural one in this case for hard men trapped in a submarine under any conditions.

And indeed, the best quality this film has is professionalism. Kevin MacDonald, of One Day in September and The Last King of Scotland (and of my first-ever bad review, The Eagle, though we'll forgive him for that) handles this movie with a sure and competent hand, ensuring that the audience knows enough at any given moment as to what's going on without the need to stop and exposit. Everything is well-grounded in enough realistic-sounding engineering and science-talk, true or not, to keep us on track, some of it seemingly thrown in just for atmospheric purposes. Paradoxically, a movie that plays its material this straight can actually wind up being very hard to predict, as the iron-handed foreshadowing of most films that opt to let the audience understand just enough to catch onto the important plot beats, and thereby wind up highlighting exactly what's about to happen (Star Trek Into Darkness had a particularly bad example of this). In this film, a character will mention in a throwaway line that the air inside a wrecked submarine has long-since turned into chlorine gas, or that a cargo sledge being hauled in by a winch has to keep moving or the suction of the bottom sediment will fix it in place, and we simply don't know if these things are going to be important or not. And yet at the same time, unlike films such as Interstellar, the movie doesn't grind to a halt just so the filmmakers can impress us with their homework assignments, be they relevant or not. All the information we receive seems like something these men in this situation might say to one another. This is not as minor an achievement as it might seem.

Finally, submarining is simply one of those professions I will never do under any circumstances, and like the great sub films of yesteryear (Das Boot for instance), this film gets across very, very well why this is so. A nice twist on the old stories told in these films is that there are no depth charges raining down on our heroes from hungry destroyers up above, but all that means is that some of the other 9,816 things that can go fatally wrong when one is in a submarine are finally given some time to shine. Things go badly (it's a suspense movie, did you think everything was going to go smooth?) in the blink of an eye, generally with horrible consequences for all involved, and the crew must deal successively with everything from undersea cliffs and canyons to fire, electrical explosions, and of course, the omnipresent crush of the sea around them. Most thrillers like to pretend that they are keeping the audience in some suspense as to how things are going to turn out, while simultaneously doing all but screaming at them with megaphones that this character or that one is going to make it or die. This film takes the time to build up a character as important only to axe them in a nearly random fashion, simply to show you that it's willing to do so. You kind of have to respect a filmmaker whose approach to making a thriller is that of a hostage-taker trying to prove his willingness to kill to the police. Joss Whedon would be proud.

Things Havoc disliked:  Straight technical drama like this is fine, only someone churlish would ask for more than a good movie about an interesting topic, and yet filmmakers can get greedy sometimes, and this time I'm afraid to report that's just what happened. It's not good enough, you see, for the men to be trapped on a submarine where things start to go wrong. We also have to have conspiracies and psychotics to tide ourselves over.

I mentioned Ben Mendelsohn a moment ago, who is one of my favorite character actors, and like many such character actors, often gets typecast into specific kinds of roles. In Mendelsohn's case, it's usually someone on the edge of a psychotic break, or who perhaps has already had one, but is not letting it show. So it is here, as Mendelsohn's character, Frasier, is a violent maniac, who picks fights with the Russians for what seems to be no reason whatsoever, and is willing to murder people at the drop of a hat. That such people exist is not the point. The plot does not revolve around Mendelsohn being a killer or a psychotic, he simply is established as such, and then we go on our merry way as though nothing happened. I recognize that psychos do not need good reasons to kill people, that's a staple of film if not reality, but unlike every other element of the film this one is telegraphed waaaaay too directly, as Mendelsohn practically paints a message on his shirt in earlier scenes stating "I am an unstable element on this crew who will balkanize everyone by committing wholly unnecessary violent acts." A little setup isn't so bad, but the problem here is that the audience is made aware of this trait quite a long while before anyone on the crew is, meaning we have to spend a good portion of the film simply waiting for the characters to catch up with us.

And then there's Scoot McNairy, of Argo and Gone Girl, who here plays a character I can't even fathom the reason for. A "company man" sent by the organization setting up this little shindig, McNairy's role in the film is to be the obligatory stick-in-the-mud saboteur who complains at every opportunity that everyone is going to die and insists on doing the one thing that the main characters (and the audience) do not want them to do, preparatory to initiating hammer-weighted conspiracies with the rest of the disgruntled crew so as to force the main cast to play along. These sorts of characters (Burke in Aliens being the ur-example) usually serve as walking-comeuppance machines, designed to make the audience feel good whenever something bad happens to them. Fair enough, but in a crew of dedicated hard-asses already established as being willing to kill for their share of the gold in question, all of whom are inside a submarine beneath the ocean where nobody can tell what they are doing, why does anybody put up with this douchebag? Because the plot requires it? Because if they simply off him in the first hour (as I was hoping they would), then the further disasters he will be responsible for cannot occur? Filmmakers take note: you''re not going to lose the audience if the film allows the hard-assed killers to kill in a hard-assed fashion when the circumstances are appropriate. Their very ability to do this without losing the audience is the whole reason you cast hard-assed killers.

Final thoughts:   Like many films on this project, Black Sea is a movie of limited horizons, simple story about men attempting to perform a complex task, no complications, no Gordian plot-knots. I always feel bad not giving these sorts of films better grades, but I'm required here to tell you all what I actually think, and not what I wish I had thought so as to earn more credibility. Ultimately though, I did like Black Sea considerably more than I expected to, despite manifest issues with characterization and over-complicating the plot. Solid submarine films that do not involve World War II or deep-sea monsters are hard to come by, and good ones harder still. If that's your thing, I'd suggest giving it a look.

And even if it's not, trust me, in Doldrums season, it's best to take what you can get.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  The chickens from my favorite movie of this project come home to roost.

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