Thursday, June 4, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: BLACK SEA (2015) and SPRING (2015)

(US/UK - 2015)

If you're a sucker for claustrophobic submarine white-knucklers, you're gonna love BLACK SEA, a riveting thriller more or less abandoned by Focus, who only rolled it out on 350 screens nationwide in the January dead zone. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (TOUCHING THE VOID, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND), BLACK SEA is anchored by an arguably career-best performance by a Scottish-brogued Jude Law as Robinson, an embittered ex-Naval sub commander just handed a paltry severance check after 11 years with a salvage company that's decided it no longer requires his services. Tired of soft guys in suits getting rich off the labor of hard men like himself, Robinson gets drawn into a shady plot where he's promised total autonomy by wealthy benefactor Lewis (Tobias Menzies). The job: venture--undetected and off-radar--deep into the Black Sea in Russian waters to extract millions in gold bars from a Nazi sub that sank in 1941--a sub that Robinson's former employers know about but were unable to salvage because of maritime laws and established boundaries. Seeing the secret operation as the perfect way to get back at his old bosses, Robinson assembles a ragtag crew consisting of Brits and Russians who take an immediate dislike to each other, especially with the increasing paranoia about each screwing the other out its share. There's also Tobin (Bobby Schofield), an 18-year-old who Robinson takes under his wing, and Daniels (Scoot McNairy), a sniveling American pencil-pusher and Lewis flunky who seems overly concerned that Robinson has promised every man onboard an equal share of the take. The operation itself is as ramshackle and rickety as the ancient, rustbucket sub that Lewis supplies, and when tensions rise to the point where hotheaded Brit Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn) stabs and kills Blackie (NIGHT WATCH's Konstantin Khabenskiy)--the only Russian who speaks English--which leads to a brawl that causes an explosion, knocking multiple crew members unconscious and costing them the vessel's drive shaft. Tempers reach a boil and rampant mistrust takes over, leaving them stranded in Russian waters, no one knowing they're down there, and Robinson having knocked out the radio in a earlier fit of rage.

Macdonald's handling of the intense sense of claustrophobia is terrific, and one extended sequence where three of the crew obtain the preserved drive shaft of the Nazi sub and try to take it on a precarious ridge back to their own sub while maneuvering the heavy gold with a tow-line that's about to snap--because they only have enough oxygen for one trip to the Nazi sub and back--could almost be a stand-alone short film and a master class in sustaining suspense in a set piece. Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly owe a tremendous debt to Clouzot's THE WAGES OF FEAR in this sequence and DAS BOOT--the reference point for submarine thrillers--in many others. You could perhaps term BLACK SEA as a DAS SORCERER of sorts. In a gritty performance that channels Sean Connery or Robert Shaw at their surliest, Law has never been better, creating a well-rounded character who's an honest man and a hard worker, driven to support his estranged young son who he regrets throwing on the backburner for his job. He sees his good qualities reflected in Tobin, who's got a baby on the way with a hook-up he barely knows but is on the job because supporting his kid is the right thing to do. But Robinson is also so blinded by rage about losing his job and his sense of self-worth and he's so overcome by his need to stick it to the rich that he's willing to risk the lives of everyone onboard if it means getting the gold. BLACK SEA is the kind of dark, brooding, edge-of-your-seat, manly-man adventure thriller that they just don't make much of anymore. This never would've been a blockbuster, but it definitely could've been a word-of-mouth sleeper hit. (R, 114 mins)

(US/Italy - 2015)

The directing team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Benson also scripts and Moorhead serves as cinematographer) earned some accolades in cult circles for their 2013 meth withdrawal horror film RESOLUTION, which got them a spot with the helmet-cam "Bonestorm" segment of 2014's unwatchable V/H/S: VIRAL. SPRING finds the duo capturing some lovely imagery throughout Italy in a film that looks much more grand and magnificent than its budget would indicate, and Moorhead engineers some impressive aerial tracking shots going from the city to the sea and back again. While SPRING is a huge technical step forward, Benson's script is on the half-baked side, though they admirably demonstrate some patience in holding back the big reveal that this isn't the kind of movie you think it's going to be. Lou Taylor Pucci, a Next Big Thing in indie circles about a decade ago with THUMBSUCKER, THE CHUMSCRUBBER, FAST FOOD NATION, and SOUTHLAND TALES, stars as Evan Russell, a sullen 20-something who dropped out of college to care for his cancer-stricken mother just a few months after losing his father to a sudden heart attack. Needing to get away after his mom's death to clear his head and because the cops are looking to press assault charges on him after a post-funeral bar fight that costs him his bartending job, Evan impulsively takes off to Italy to decompress. He parties with some British tourists and helps out on a farm run by wise old widower Angelo (Francesco Carnelluti), but soon falls head over heels for Louise (Nadia Hilker) who, putting it mildly, has a secret and is not entirely what she seems to be.

I guess if there had to be a reworking of BEFORE SUNRISE with a heaping helping of the supernatural, evolutionary anomalies, Roman mythology, a splash of Lovecraft and a dash of Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION, then SPRING is probably as good as it gets. Benson and Moorhead's decision to use mostly practical effects is a welcome one, and the film works best when it's being enigmatic. Once the big shock reveal happens--and it's a great effects moment--SPRING has nowhere else to go and becomes a gabfest with facile metaphors about fear of commitment and loving someone despite their flaws. It wouldn't take much tweaking to turn it into a ridiculous, SPLASH-inspired mumblecore romantic comedy (just imagine "He's looking for the perfect girl. She's half-octopus and needs human DNA. Sometimes you have to catch love before it slithers away!" on the poster art, with their backs against one another with "Get a load of this one here!" expressions on their faces, his thumb aimed at her and her tentacle aimed at him). SPRING isn't nearly as profound and observational as it thinks it is, but there's no denying that it has a pair of excellent performances from Hilker and Pucci, who's matured into a promising second-string Ryan Gosling. SPRING looks great and serves as a wonderful travelogue of Rome and the surrounding area, but the angst mixed with the horror and the fantasy elements and the banality of the central conceit just never really gel. An interesting idea, but not enough to sustain a nearly two-hour film. (Unrated, 110 mins)

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