Tag Archives: B

BLACK SEA

Director Kevin Macdonald, who’s toyed with faction—fact-based stories liberally sprinkled with fictional elements—in “Touching the Void” and “The Last King of Scotland,” while happily embracing pure fantasy in “The Eagle,” veers toward the latter rather than the former with his latest, a good but not great contribution to the suspenseful submarine genre. “Black Sea” tells a story that’s almost contemporary, but its scenario of men at odds in a confined underwater space is as old as “Run Silent, Run Deep” and “Das Boot.”

The time of the narrative, however, is nearly now. The Russian takeover of Crimea apparently hasn’t yet occurred, but the Black Sea is nonetheless dominated by Putin’s fleet, stationed at Sevastopol. And, according to the script by Dennis Kelly, one of the wrecks on its floor is a World War II German sub, which when it sunk was carrying a cargo of gold ingots sent in 1941 to Hitler by his then-ally Stalin in hopes of staving off a feared Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

News of the forgotten treasure is brought to Robinson (Jude Law), a Scottish seaman with sub experience, just as he’s been canned by the salvage company for which he’s worked after leaving the Navy. Another fired colleague tells him about the wealth waiting to be found, and introduces him to Daniels (Scoot McNairy), a sneaky American looking to put together a crew to undertake a mission to get it, with financing provided by an effete businessman (Tobias Menzies). Robinson, desperate both to secure some cash and to win back his estranged family (a few flashbacks provide evidence of what he’s lost) , jumps at the chance and puts together a group of skilled roughnecks—half of them English and half Russian—who are all as financially challenged as he is, though at the last minute the friend who proposed the job to him commits suicide, leaving his spot to be filled by a callow, untested young fellow named Tobin (Bobby Schofield), for whom Robinson will become a sort of surrogate father-figure during the voyage. After securing a surplus Soviet sub, Robinson and his crew—including nervous Daniels, forced by his bosses to join the mission—are on their way.

Part of the tension results from the condition of the sub, which is hardly in pristine shape and needs close tending-to. An additional cause of concern arises from the need to avoid being noticed by the Russian ships constantly patrolling the area. But most of the simmering edginess comes from the uneasy relationships among the men in their claustrophobic environment. There’s a generally condescending attitude toward newbie Tobin, of course, but also a rift between the English and Russian crewmen, exacerbated by Robinson’s peremptory announcement that all will share equally in the mission’s profits—a decision that naturally leads some to reckon that the amount they’ll receive will depend on how few of them are left by voyage’s end. Robinson tries to keep a lid on the friction, helped by his camaraderie of long standing with most of his British mates, and he eventually finds a Russian ally in Morosov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), whose facility in English makes him a natural go-between. But Daniels proves a troublemaker, and he finds someone to manipulate in volatile loose cannon Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn).

Kelly contrives a succession of crises for Robinson to deal with, including a dangerous attempt to navigate through a narrow gorge and a tricky mission by divers from one submarine to another on the ocean floor. Frankly the buildup to the grand finale—which finds water pouring into the vessel, most of the crew gone and no possibility of reaching land—piles implausibility upon implausibility, and it brings a conclusion that invites a bit of a snicker in its combination of heroic self-sacrifice and hair’s-breadth escape for the characters who, by the close, have become the focus of audience sympathy. The script also pointedly and persistently plays up the grumbling among the men—especially Robinson—about the way in which proles like themselves are constantly taken advantage of by the rich and powerful (a message that’s re-emphasized near the close, in a twist involving Daniels and his bosses that turns out not only to be gratuitous but undermines the picture’s initial set-up).

But while it’s unquestionably true that “Black Sea” has enough logical holes to make it sink, the movie proves seaworthy as a macho tale of men being tested in a grueling underwater venture. Law, sporting a thick Scottish brogue, successfully continues his effort—begun in earnest with “Dom Hemingway”—to jettison a handsome leading-man image in favor of character roles, and the rest of the cast contribute stalwart turns as the increasingly sweaty, grimy crew—though Mendelsohn can certainly be accused of chewing the scenery with a surfeit of relish. Macdonald, cinematographer Christopher Ross and editor Justine Wright prove adept at manipulating the sub’s claustrophobic environment, though it must be added that visual effects in sequences on the sea floor outside the vessel aren’t top-flight.

In the final analysis “Black Sea” is an old-fashioned sort of submarine suspenser, one that suffers somewhat from its plot holes and heavy-handed socio-economic subtext; but overall it’s a mostly enjoyable throwback to macho melodramas of an earlier age.

THE HUMBLING

Like the much-lauded “Birdman,” Barry Levinson’s adaptation of a Philip Roth novel—dismissed by most critics when it appeared in 2009 as one of the author’s lesser works—is about an over-the-hill actor who tries to revive his career, but there the comparison stops. While Alejandro Inarritu’s film is all cinematic flash and speed, Levinson’s lopes along on an energy level as low as that of its exhausted protagonist. And though it plays with the idea that Al Pacino’s Simon Axler, like Michael Keaton’s Riggon Thomson, might well be hallucinating at least some of his experiences, it’s far less surrealistic in tone.

Still, one has to be thankful that while distinctly less successful overall than “Birdman,” “The Humbling” offers Pacino an opportunity to escape the near self-parody of much of his recent work (a quality that reached a crescendo in the awful “Jack and Jill”) in favor of a character operating at a far lower volume. The script introduces Axler in his Broadway dressing room as he prepares to go onstage as Jacques in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Reading lines as he watches himself in a mirror, he keeps inquiring of his image whether the delivery is believable. Then, as he walks to the stage he gets disoriented and finds himself locked out of the theatre and unable to get backstage for his entrance because the staff don’t recognize him. It all turns out to be a horrible dream, of course, but when Simon does make it to the boards he dives headlong into the orchestra pit.

That earns him a stay in a psychiatric clinic, where he talks to his fellow patients about how he’s lost his mojo as an actor. But one gets the feeling that admission is itself a performance, just as he’d asked the emergency room nurse whether she was convinced by his moans of pain. In a way it’s a testimony to how convincing Simon can be that one of his fellow patients, Sybil (Nina Arianda), approaches him with the request that he kill her husband, whom she accuses of molesting their daughter: after all, he’d once persuasively played a serial killer in a movie.

Sybil will continue to press her case when the two of them are released from the facility, coming to his wooded New England estate from time to time as he refuses her again and again. But she’s not his only visitor: there’s his agent Jerry (Charles Grodin), who arrives to offer either a hair-restoring commercial or a starring role in a Broadway production of “King Lear.” (One of the better jokes, even though it’s dated even now, has to do with people coming to see him expecting another fall, just as they patronized “Spider-Man: Turn on the Dark” for a similar reason. Of course, that show’s already closed.)

But all that is secondary to the surprise appearance of Pageen Stapleford (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of old theatre friends (Dan Hedaya and Dianne Wiest), who shows up to admit that as a girl she had a terrible crush on him. A teacher at a nearby college, she’s been in a lesbian relationship for years with Dean Trenner (Kyra Sedgwick), but they’ve had a rift, and now she’s looking for something a bit different. Simon is not difficult to seduce, despite Pageen’s domineering attitude and occasional visits not only from an extremely agitated Trenner but from Pageen’s horror-stricken parents and her one-time girlfriend, now a transgendered male (Billy Porter). The relationship is clearly not without its problems, and they come to a head when Simon fantasizes about their having a child just as he’s making his return to the stage as Lear. Let’s just say his pratfall-expecting audience get even more than they bargained for—maybe.

Pacino appears to be channeling a good deal of his own professional experience to pay the haggard, psychologically fragile Axler, and the result is certainly a courageous performance, with some inspired moments—like the sequence in a vet’s office when he’s given a horse tranquilizer for his wrenched back. And the Skype conversations he regularly has with Simon’s therapist Dr. Farr (played with amusing understatement by Dylan Baker) give him the opportunity for some wryly deadpan humor, too. Yet ultimately even his herculean effort can’t entirely sell the essential absurdity of Roth’s story (as adapted by veteran funnyman Buck Henry and Michal Zebede), even as he’s garnering laughs. The Simon-Pageen relationship feels more like a literary contrivance—which it is—than a plausible reality, and the same can be said of Sybil’s approach to Axler, which at one point is implied to be a hallucination but in the end seems actually to have happened. By the close one can’t help but conclude that the film hasn’t played fair, despite the obvious commitment of the game cast down the line and the work of Levinson and his crew (including cameraman Adam Jandrup), who were clearly working under severe time and budget constraints.

“The Humbling” is an uneven, hit-and-miss affair, but it represents a comeback for Pacino and, to some extent, for Levinson, whose last feature, the virtually unwatchable found-footage horror flick “The Bay,” suggested that he might have simply lost it. This small, strange little picture indicates that the work of both is still worth watching.