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Column Fri Jan 30 2015

Black Sea, Black or White & Mommy

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

Black Sea

I love submarine-set movies and I love heist movies, so imagine if I dared to dream of a heist movie set on a submarine. Well now I don't have to any longer, because screenwriter Dennis Kelly (best known as a playwright, although he did write the British series "Utopia") and Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, Touching the Void, How I Live Now) have combined forces to make Black Sea, an ambitious if somewhat underdeveloped tale of rough and rugged men in a sub searching for lost Russian gold on a long-lost Nazi sub — something for everyone.

Between his roles in Dom Hemingway and now Black Sea, Jude Law has put aside his charm and looks and replaced them, in the case of Capt. Robinson, with a Scottish accent and sunken features. Robinson has recently been fired from his longtime job for a marine salvage company, a job that he was so devoted to that his wife left him and took their young son. Obsessed with making enough money to win his wife back (she has now remarried a rich man) or at least provide for his son, he gets wind of a scheme so hair-brained, it must be true.

Apparently during World War II, a Nazi submarine carrying tens of millions of dollars in Russian gold sunk to the bottom of the Black Sea. It was such a secret mission that almost nobody knew about it except a handful of Russian and German personnel. The salvage job is brought to Robinson, who is tasked with assembling a crew and leading the mission without the Russian military — or anyone else for that matter — finding out. After paying back their financiers, each crew member has been promised an equal share of the profits. Most of the crew sees dollar signs, but Robinson sees redemption.

With a crew of 12 (split evenly between Russian and English-speaking men, including one sneaky American), Robinson acquires a rust-bucket of a sub, fixes it up and off they go into certain fortune. What could go wrong? Scoot McNairy plays Daniels, the sole American, who happens to represent the investor. If I told you he was basically the Paul Reiser character from Aliens, I think you'd know about how trustworthy he is. But much like that sci-fi-action masterwork, Black Sea has an undercurrent of anti-establishment running through it. The bosses are as much the enemy as sharks or the Russian war boats floating by overhead. And there comes a point in the story where sticking it to "the Man" becomes as important to Robinson as getting the gold. These are all working-class tradesmen who have been forced to become grocery store clerks or newspaper delivery men because the fast-paced world doesn't have a place for them any longer. Desperation is the driving force that propels this sub.

Some of director Macdonald's finest works are his documentaries (most recently, he directed the epic Bob Marley biopic Marley), so authenticity is a key ingredient in many of his fiction films as well. You can almost smell the sweat, diesel and salt water that permeates every surface of the sub. The cramped spaces are so claustrophobic, you half expect the cameraman to trip over something or hit his head. But the crew members expertly glide through every narrow hatch and other small crevices as they would in real life.

My biggest issues with Black Sea are the portrayals of the crew members, most of whom are assigned a type early on, and they rarely stray from that or are given any additional depth as characters. Case in point is Ben Mendelsohn's Fraser, who we are told is a psychopath the first time we see him, and he pretty much does nothing but act like a mentally ill maniac for the rest of the film. Who would have guessed? Robinson is given a bit more backstory and motivation, which is key to the progression of the plot. Other standout performances come from Michael Smiley (A Field in England, The World's End) as one of the few level-headed crew members, and Bobby Schofield as the newbie 17-year-old, whose girlfriend is expecting his unexpected child.

Macdonald smartly hired some of Russia's finest actors to play that half of the crew, including rising star Grigoriy Dobrygin (recently seen in A Most Wanted Man), as the young translator. But since we don't get much of a backstory on those characters, their abilities as actors are largely wasted. They're still wildly entertaining, however, and that counts for something.

Because the make-up of the crew is so volatile (the non-Russians don't think the Russians deserve as much money as they do, for example), this is possibly the worst submarine crew ever assembled, and many of the misfortunes that happen in this film are manmade. But on those rare occasions when the crew actually pulls together, some really fantastic set pieces result, especially the exceedingly tense gold-recovery sequence. For a film that probably didn't cost much money, the underwater sequences are pretty impressive, and Macdonald doesn't insult us by simply making everything so murky, you can't tell what's going on.

Between the camerawork, production design and skillful acting (led by Law), Black Sea pulls off most of what it sets out to do. As a pure piece of entertainment, it's firing on all cylinders (unlike the sub, most of the time). But since this is a film that dares to dig a bit more into the inequity of the world, you do notice a few cracks in the hull, not enough to drown it but enough to make things a little damp.

To read my exclusive interview with Black Sea director Kevin Macdonald, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Black or White

There's a scene late in Black or White, the new film from actor-turned-writer-director Mike Binder that features one of the more genuinely honest and shocking monologues you'll likely see in a film this year, and it speaks far more to the current state of race relations in America than most will be willing to admit. The scene features Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) on the witness stand in a custody battle for his granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), and he's admitting that he's a prejudiced man, and that the first thing he notices about a person of color is, in fact, their color. And along with that, he assigns certain stereotypes. It's probably not the wisest course of testimony in this particular hearing.

But then, Anderson continues, saying that most of us — black or white — do the exact same thing, and that it's not our first thoughts about a person that matter, but our second and third and fourth thoughts, as we get to know somebody. He claims that those who are racist are the ones that never make it past that initial reaction, and that most people — or at least most Americans — do make an effort to development additional impressions of those we meet so that we don't linger too long in a world of stereotypes.

I'll admit, hearing those words come out of Kevin Costner's mouth give them additional power, and if I were a more cynical person, I might reject his theory of the prejudicial mind flat out, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a hopeful, helpful message aimed directly at the heart of fearful white America. More than anything, the text of his speech will likely spark a few lively conversations among audience members long after Black or White is over, and that is a worthy goal of any film.

Black or White begins with the death of Anderson's wife, Carol (Jennifer Ehle), leaving lawyer Elliot the sole caretaker of their granddaughter, who was left motherless when their daughter died in childbirth after being impregnated by a drug addicted Reggie (André Holland), who has been completely absent from Eloise's life as he attempted (and largely failed) to get his act together. Since his wife was more the parenting type, Elliot is left a little helpless and has to learn the routines of a little girl while he deals with his own demons, which include an alcohol problem that has become worse during his mourning.

Enter Eloise's paternal grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), who comes to Elliot with the sincere offer of raising Eloise in her home, where she already has an extended and loving family living under her mindful eye. But Elliot is hesitant to lose this last connection to his only child, and before long, the two are engaged in a nasty custody battle, spurred on by Rowena's attorney brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), who decides to use the race card against Elliot, claiming that his general dislike of black people would be detrimental to Eloise's growth as a mixed-race child.

There are a couple of choice sequences in Black or White that, had this movie been made in the studio system, I don't believe would have survived the "notes" process, and not surprisingly they are among the film's finest moments, including the previously mentioned testimony scene. Two sequences in particular involve one side of this battle visiting the home of the other. When Costner visits Rowena's South Central home, rather than treat the moment as a fish-out-of-water cliche, Costner is greeted with open arms by everyone in the house, and it becomes clear that at some point in the recent past (probably thanks to his late wife), Elliot was a much-welcome visitor in these parts.

Another scene involves all of Rowena's charges going to Elliot's house for an impromptu pool party. The moment is played mostly for laughs, but again, the fact that these embattled people can still find it in themselves to mingle and talk openly is a good sign for however these events play out. I never doubted for a second how this custody issue was going to play out, but that's not really what Black or White is about. Even Costner's startling use of the N-word in one exchange with Reggie is excused (sort of) when brought up against him during the hearing — a point that seems a little too convenient, but to dwell on it would have made the movie intolerably long.

Between the various addictions, deaths, claims of racism, and general bad vibes during the hearing, Black or White feels unnecessarily weighed down at times in its own seriousness and self-importance. Costner's performance is delivered with a conviction that he's perfected over the years, and it serves his character well. Elliot is a deeply flawed man, and knows deep down inside that having Rowena be more of presence in his granddaughter's life would be a good thing. But he's scared of being utterly alone and, above all else, he loves Eloise deeply, even if he hasn't quite figured out how to comb her hair.

Mackie is also quite good as mini-Johnnie Cochran, who has no issues using less-than-honorable tactics to win. He's just as quick to fire down upon his own family if he thinks they're acting foolishly, and his attack on his nephew Reggie is exquisite. "You have no idea of the damage you do," he says to the man who is clean but still struggling with drugs and commitment issues.

Black or White has a lot of problems, and some of its views on race are seem naïve, even if they are good intentioned. But it makes the wise decision to paint no one as the hero or villain in this story. Neither Elliot nor Rowena are the perfect guardian (she's too eager to turn a blind eye to bad behavior in her family members), a fact that makes the film's eventual outcome all the more predictable, which again, isn't a bad thing. This is a clearly a case where the journey is more important than the destination.

The film may make you uncomfortable in spots, as it's meant to, and filmmaker Binder takes a lot of chances in his storytelling that many, far more mainstream directors wouldn't dream of. Perhaps most importantly, Black or White never forgets that it isn't about Elliot or Rowena's best interests; it's about Eloise's chance to keep close ties to both sides of her family. The film ends on a bittersweet note, but it leans toward the hopeful for all involved. Even in it's most misguided and preachy moments, the movie manages to open a few unexplored doors, and that's it's most important achievement as a film. It's certainly a far better interpretation of the true face of America than anything else in theater. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Go to Ain't It Cool News read my exclusive interview with writer-director Mike Binder, and stars Kevin Costner and Anthony Mackie.

Mommy

In all likelihood, the deciding factor as to whether you enjoy and appreciated the latest from writer-director Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats) might boil down to your reaction to the single, potentially grating performance by Antoine-Olivier Pilon, playing the 15-year-old ADHD-afflicted Steve O'Connor Després in the French-Canadian production Mommy. Co-winner of the Special Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival and running just shy of two-and-a-half hours, the film tells the story of Diane (Anne Dorval), the widowed single mother of Steve — who was having trouble making ends meet even when her son is away at private school — finds her burdens exponentially increased when he is kicked out and forced to return to her care.

Steve has a cruel sense of humor, a foul mouth, and a destructive temper that can be set off by the slightest provocation, and within the first few hours of them living together again, Diane realizes she's out of her depth. She realizes quickly that sending him to another school is not an option and decides instead to home-school her son. To make matters worse from her perspective, she's still relatively young (early 50s), quite beautiful and still has a spark of passion (and some of Steven's unpredictable temper) left in her that makes quite appealing to men. Not surprisingly, she's fearful that the presence of Steve in her life will have all potential suitors running for the hills.

There's a weird introductory title card indicating that this is Quebec in the near future and that there is some new law in effect having to do with people not being able to care for their out-of-control children, making her struggle all the more urgent. But that fictional law never really comes into play in a serious way, so I'm not sure the point of its use is fully understood. For those familiar with Dolan's previous films, Mommy seems to be the more sympathetic counterpoint to I Killed My Mother.

As if sent from a slightly off-kilter heaven, into the picture enters Diane's neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a mousy teacher who is taking time off for reasons kept secret for much of the film. But something about the energy explosion going on across the street draws her to Diane and Steve, and she her calm demeanor does seem to have a soothing impact on Steve, which probably made me the most nervous when watching Mommy.

To add to the off-kilter story of Mommy, Dolan and cinematographer Andre Turpin have decided to shoot the film in a 1:1 aspect ratio, in other words, it's a tight square picture with black bars on either side of the screen. This is done for a very specific, quite moving reason (two reasons, actually), but it takes some getting used to.

Somehow this oddball triumvirate strikes a balance in each other, and things seem to proceed swimmingly... until they don't. Mommy does become a bit of a waiting game to see what exactly Steve will do to screw things up, or how exactly Kyla will show her true, fractured colors. There's no getting around the fact that Steve might be one of the most aggressively unlikeable characters ever put on the screen, and it takes quite awhile for him to earn his charm in our mind. If you can stand to be with him for this epic film, you'll likely find the experience a rewarding one.

You may find it impossible to believe that a film this understanding and sympathetic concerning the how much of a burden motherhood can sometimes be comes from a 25-year-old filmmaker, but based on his previous work, it's clear he's no ordinary artist. There's a flash-forward "fantasy" sequence in the film that so beautifully taps into Diane's desire for her son's future that you can't help but be moved and shaken to your core by this sophisticated cinematic moment. It should come as no surprise that Mommy was selected as Canada's official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, and I'm genuinely surprised it didn't make the cut. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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