Black Sea


Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me!

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!

(2014) Adventure (Focus) Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Tobias Menzies, Ben Mendelsohn, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Karl Davies, Jodie Whittaker, Konstantin Khabenskiy, Bobby Schofield, Daniel Ryan, Branwell Donaghey, Sergey Puskepalis, Paul Terry, Sergey Kolesnikov, Sergey Veksler, Yuri Klimov, David Threlfall, Gus Barry, Paulina Boneva, June Smith. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

For ratcheting up the suspense, few venues rival that of a submarine. A handful of submariners, trapped in a metal tube below the sea where one tiny mistake, one critical bad break can quickly turn things into a bad day for those aboard.

Captain Robinson (Law) has been cashiered for the underwater salvage company he has worked for nearly 20 years, a victim of robotics. As it turns out, sending unmanned drone subs to the bottom is far less dangerous and far more practical – and economical – than sending humans to investigate wrecks. For his service, they give him a parting sum of 8,000 pounds. That’s just over $12,000 U.S. That isn’t a whole lot of gratitude.

Robinson has no family; they left him because he essentially was never home. His ex-wife Chrissy (Whittaker) and his son Martin (Barry) have lives much better than the one he could have provided them. He misses them both terribly.

So he does what any good red-blooded Scottish man would do; he finds the nearest pub and drags a couple of his fellow unemployed mates to drown their sorrows in a pint or six. And then, he hears something interesting from one of his fellow captains (Ryan): that shortly before being terminated, he located the wreck of a World War II Nazi U-Boat in the Black Sea in Georgian waters. That wreck is very likely the one that sank in 1940 carrying an enormous amount of Nazi gold that Hitler had been sending to Stalin to keep his then-ally in the fight. Because of certain geo-political realities, the salvage company hasn’t been given permission to bring the treasure up yet, but if it is what they think it is the prize is worth many millions of dollars.

So Robinson hits on the nutty scheme of salvaging the wreck himself with a crew of others. Daniels (McNairy), an accounting sort who was also let go from the salvage company, thinks that he can get financing from the mysterious Mr. Lewis (Menzies) so that they can rent and refit an old Soviet attack sub and go grab the treasure waiting on the bottom.

Aiding him are some of his mates as well as a few Russian submariners who know how to run the Russian sub; there’s also the son of a friend, Tobin (Schofield) who Robinson takes a fatherly interest in and the unstable Aussie diver Fraser (Mendelsohn) who is like a loaded gun in a crowded room but the best when it comes to salvage.

Taking the rickety boat down to the bottom is dangerous in and of itself but with the Russian fleet above due to the dubious legality of what they’re doing, things are a lot more dicey. What’s worse that as things start to get more real, some of the men begin to crack. They will have to work together just to make it back home, let alone get the gold which if they do find it, well, you can add greed to the equation that no matter how you write it means that not everyone is going to get out of this alive.

This is a reasonably taut and well-made thriller. Law makes for a pretty solid lead here, making Robinson a believable leader that would inspire most anyone to have confidence in him – when he’s not taking insane risks to get all the gold to the surface. Law has been making some interesting choices of late in the roles he’s been choosing, and this is a very good thing. He’s been challenging himself, playing a Cockney safe cracker, a manic Internet blogger, an ethically challenged doctor and an officious Russian military man along with this somewhat angry sub captain with a “Screw the Man” attitude and an access from deepest darkest Aberdeen.

Macdonald, who has directed such fine films as The Last King of Scotland shows he knows how to keep the tension nice and high. Once the sub sets sail, the movie really hits its stride although there are a few too many scenes of sailors sitting around and reminiscing about their lives. I don’t have a problem with character development which these sorts of scenes often provide but it needs to be more concise given the very tense atmosphere. Some of the information that you get about the background of the characters isn’t really germane to the plot and quite frankly, not all of it is all that interesting. We get that sailor A is lonely, or having financial difficulties, or loves the sea. We just don’t need to have a ten minute conversation about it.

There are a lot of twists and turns and while the plot twist isn’t necessarily innovative, it is nonetheless a big game changer and very welcome when it kicks in near the end of the movie. The script is well-written, giving very logical reasons to why certain things happen the way they do without having totally random events occur, or turn the captain into Superman. This is an example of a good sub thriller that is intelligent, well-written and still tense as all get out. This hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention or support but it is certainly worth checking out. It’s no Das Boot – then again, what is? – but it is a satisfactory new entry into the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice tension. Doesn’t always go the way you expect it will.
REASONS TO STAY: Should have trimmed about 20 minutes. Too many conversations about personal lives that add little value to the plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language, some fairly gruesome images and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sub used in the film is an authentic Soviet-era submarine which is normally moored in the river Medway in Kent.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: U-571
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Paddington

The Company Men


The Company Men

The future of our prosperity looks grim and grey when you're laid off.

(2010) Drama (Weinstein) Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelson, Patricia Kalember, Eamonn Walker, Anthony O’Leary, Angela Rezza. Directed by John Wells

Nowhere else like America do people identify themselves so closely by their careers. In many ways, our jobs are an extremely important element of our self-identity. When that part of ourselves is assaulted by a layoff, it weighs heavily on our psyche, sometimes threatening to destroy the essence of who we are.

GTX is a Boston-based company that started out as shipbuilders before diversifying into other transportation-based industries and at last into non-related industries like health care. However, given the recent economic meltdown and the accompanying downturn in jobs, things are changing for the company’s bottom line and in order to avoid a hostile takeover, the executives of the company – led by CEO James Salinger (Nelson) decide on massive layoffs to try and bring the stock price up.

Bobby Walker (Affleck) is one of the better salesmen for the company but as the shipbuilding division is being gutted he is one of the first to go. At first, he’s pretty breezy about it. Even though he’s driving a Porsche and has a huge mortgage on a house that’s way too big without his salary coming in, he figures it’ll only be a few days and he’ll be working again. He acts as if there is nothing wrong and in fact tells nobody but his wife about his situation, figuring that by the time they suspect anything has changed he’ll have a new business card in his pocket.

His wife Maggie (DeWitt) isn’t so sure. She sees the bills, she knows the score and begs Bobby to economize but he refuses at every turn. His pride won’t allow him to admit that they’re in financial trouble. As days become months, the word gets out that Bobby was laid off (GTX’s layoffs were big news in Boston and most people are aware that the company Bobby worked for had undergone massive cutbacks). When his pragmatic brother-in-law Jack (Costner) offers him work in his home refurbishing business, Bobby turns it down scornfully, which prompts Jack to label him a…well, a part of the male reproductive system.

Phil Woodward (Cooper) is in a whole different predicament. He’s pushing 60 and has worked at GTX essentially his entire life. Now he’s close to retirement and nobody will hire him. He has no future and only an alcoholic wife for comfort. He faces an uncertain future; not able to retire comfortably and no way to resume the high salary he had been pulling, competing with much younger men willing to work for less for the jobs that are available.

Gene McClary (Jones) helped build GTX along with Salinger, his best friend. He has been content to be in charge of the shipping division while Salinger ran the whole she-bang. However, Gene is becoming more and more distressed with what he perceives to be a focus on profit over people. He’s more or less old school, all about building things that are tangible and standing behind the people who build them. He is horrified that the layoffs have nothing to do with production or performance but profit.

This doesn’t prevent him from having an affair with Sally Wilcox (Bello), the human resources executive who has been tasked with giving the bad news to the affected employees. Gene’s wife (Kalember) is distant and all about the perks, like having a company jet fly her out to a spa vacation.

That disappears, particularly when Gene gets the axe himself after failing to support Salinger in the board room. The lives of all these men suddenly need re-evaluation and all of them go at it in different ways; some constructive, others less so. One thing’s for sure – when one is faced with the loss of a significant amount of their identity, it changes the game entirely.

Wells has crafted a simple but timely story that focuses mostly on Affleck’s Bobby Walker character but also gives a goodly amount of time to Cooper and Jones. It’s an impressive cast; even those in smaller roles pull off some pretty impressive work.

In particular I was impressed with Chris Cooper’s performance. If the movie had been released last year when it was originally scheduled to be, he might have merited serious consideration for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Unfortunately, the suits at Weinstein inexplicably decided to push the movie into a kiss-of-death January release, insuring that this would get no Oscar consideration whatsoever next year or any other year for that matter. That’s a shame, because the movie could have used some given the dearth of publicity the movie got.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins helps the picture in a big way, making the corporate offices look faceless and sterile, while taking wide vistas of grey, cold shipyards and blue, sunny suburbs; his work is subtle but goes a long way to setting the emotional tone of the movie throughout.

This isn’t what you’d call the feel-good movie of the year, nor is it the feel-bad movie of the year either – it is simply a rational and sensitive treatment of our own tendencies to be a job-driven society, and how the effects of corporate profiteering further erode American confidence. Perhaps that’s why the executives at Weinstein chose to bounce it around the schedule for over a year before finally giving it a limited release in one of the worst movie-going periods of the year – they may have thought the film hits too close to home for most. 

It’s easy to pat yourself on the back when there are plenty of jobs and lots of opportunities, but as companies streamline and downsize, America doesn’t look quite so number one anymore. While I found the ending to be a bit pat and Hollywood-esque, I don’t mind the concept of the real toll of the economic downturn, the one that they don’t talk about on Fox News. The human cost is what I’m talking about, and that’s a payment that while it can’t be measured quantitatively, will nonetheless be the measure of our nations’ worth when all is said and done.

REASONS TO GO: Very timely subject matter that explores the topic in a sensitive and intelligent way. Terrific acting, particularly from Jones and Cooper.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat too close to home for a lot of people. Ending not terribly realistic.  

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be rough and there’s a scene of brief nudity.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is director John Wells’ first feature film. Previously he is best known for his work as in television as a writer/director and creator of shows like “E.R.,” “China Beach” and “The West Wing.”

HOME OR THEATER: Although I think it deserves to be seen, it works just as well on home video as it does in a big theater.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: The Eagle