HERMAN MELVILLE IN A SUB and CHEKHOV IN TURKEY: Black Sea and Winter Sleep


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Warning: SPOILERS
black seaAfter WWII, Germany was being fought over by the Western Powers (England, France and the U.S.) and the Russians. They ended up splitting the country in half, in a riff on that Solomon and baby thing.
In Black Sea, a new action film written by Dennis Kelly and directed by Kevin McDonald, cold war politics come back to haunt the characters as a submarine crew made up of equal parts British and Russian go on the hunt for some Nazi gold with the goal of splitting it between the two.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Before I continue, I should reemphasize how I start these reviews: Warning: SPOILERS.
I feel I should do this because there will be spoilers. My god, will there be spoilers, spoilers galore. They will flow like the River Nile and spray the canvas like the drops flung forth from a fighter’s broken nose during a Mixed Martial Arts bout.
They will flow because I found the plot to Black Sea to be one of the most preposterous ones I’ve come across in some time.

I’m sorry. I hate going there. I really do. And it should be noted, that I am in the minority here when it comes to the critics. But it’s true. There was just very little in this movie I could take seriously.

The basic premise is that Robinson, a submarine captain who is an independent contractor for a salvage company, is unceremoniously fired because, well, you know, times have changed and no one needs submarines for the job anymore, yadda, yadda, yadda.

He’s made no preparations for the future, so when he is let in on a rumor or a rumor of a Nazi sub that was carrying gold from Russia to Germany and ended up sunk in the Black Sea and never recovered, he does what any fired submarine captain would so naturally do in similar circumstances, he decides to lead a crew of old comrades (the Brits) and new (the Ruskies, get it, get it, comrades?…never mind) to get to the gold first.

I mean, who wouldn’t?

So anyway, he’s backed by a billionaire, so there’s no problem there. The problems arise because what they are doing is illegal, in Russian territory, in a location that is patrolled by the Russian navy, and the only sub they can get is a hand me down that makes rust buckets look like the Nautilus.

Okay, there you have it.

Various issues with believability arise along the way, but first let’s deal with one that isn’t revealed until two thirds of the way through. To quote The Family Guy: It’s a trap. Or, really, a set up.

You see, they’re not really being financed by the billionaire, but actually by Robinson’s old company who only fired him in order to manipulate him into going rogue and trying to get the gold himself, knowing he’d never be able to resist the temptation. Then, when Robinson gets the gold and climbs to the surface, he’s to be confronted by the Russian navy, arrested for breaking international law, and Robinson’s old company will split the gold’s worth with those wily vodka drinkers.

Okay, I’m sorry. First, this company has concocted this whole scheme based on a rumor of some gold existing. A rumor.

Second, I’m unclear why they didn’t just pay Robinson to go ahead and lead a salvage crew without all the whoopdedoo and falderal. It seems it would be cheaper and easier in the long run (after all, they are actually paying for the mission as it is anyway) and they could then set up an operation using a submarine that was more likely to make the trip with no problems. And it’s not like Robinson was this paragon of virtue that he’d say no; in fact, the company is counting on the fact that Robinson’s morals are of the more malleable variety.

Finally, Robinson is ultimately informed he was fired for one reason only: so that he would be manipulated to go on this trip. So, basically this means that they lied when they said that the industry didn’t need submarine captains anymore which means it’s a little odd that Robinson doesn’t even try to find another job.

I mean, it’s all so ridiculously convoluted and unnecessarily complicated with the company doing everything they can to actually make the mission a failure rather than a success, and coming up with a plan that depends on someone acting in a way that no one can really know they will act.

In the state of the art, this is what is called trying to kill a flea with an elephant.

Though perhaps in this case it’s trying to kill one with a herd of rogue pachyderms.

The other major issue is the ending. Once Robinson finds out that his old company is using him, he and his crew change plans and opt to keep the gold and sell it themselves, pocketing everything. But what they never discuss is how they are going to do that.

Their first step, after the gold is on the sub, is to make it to some sort of dark cove on Turkey’s coastline where the authorities can’t find them.

Fair enough.

But what then? How are they going to get all that gold that doesn’t just weigh a ton, but maybe quite a few, to some location where they can sell it? And once they get it there, who do they know who would actually buy it? And how could this be done without alerting the authorities? (I mean, it’s a shitload of gold we’re talking about here.)

As far as I could tell, they have no end game. And they never even discuss it. You can’t just bring a bunch of gold to the surface and jauntily carry it back to civilization and sell it. It takes a lot of planning and a lot of knowing the right people, neither of which seems to be in existence here.

The rest of the plot is hit and miss, highly manipulative and not all that well thought out.

The main villain here is Daniels, who is forced to go on the trip though he doesn’t want to and he has claustrophobia. But he’s the “man”, or he represents the “man”, the millionaire in charge.

Again, this has some issues. He never once shows one iota of claustrophobia; it never has a payoff in the plot.

And he’s probably the worst rep a company, especially an evil one, could send on such a mission. I mean, he’s panicky and a coward and folds at a moment’s notice, telling Robinson what’s up with little to no pressure whatsoever (it’s like the company is setting this mission up to fail, they do so many things wrong).

The odd thing about Daniels is that he’s actually the smartest guy on the boat, but everyone treats him like he’s an idiot (he’s like a Cassandra coming back from the Trojan War). Early on, he very wisely points out to Robinson that if he tells the crew that they will split the gold evenly, then they will probably start killing off each other to get more for themselves.

Robinson dismisses him, but it’s a fair point (especially since it does come into play). Of course, I had a solution to that in a nano-sec. If you collect from each person the name of their next of kin telling everyone that if anyone dies on the mission, their share goes to whoever they designate, then no one can benefit from anyone dying.

There are other issues, but once the story gets started, it becomes clear that the basic outline of the plot is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, with the gold being the great while whale and Robinson being Ahab who will sacrifice anyone and everyone to achieve his desires, with Liam, a young turk Robinson takes in under his wing and brings along, as Ishmael (there’s also a Queequeg in the form of a sympathetic Russian).

But Robinson as Ahab is only intermittently convincing. As in Melville’s book, Robinson is supposed to be going as mad as Ahab does. But again, there are issues.

Since there is already one person on the sub who is certifiably psychotic (a diver by the name of Fraser), nothing Robinson can do will seem remotely mentally unstable next to him. In addition, the through line here just seems forced and not to grow organically out of the character or situation.

The forward momentum is not of the best either. It’s fine for awhile, but then the movie stops dead when, through a series of once again over manipulated plot turns (this time revolving around a superstition of having a virgin on board-the aforesaid Liam, even though he has a sonogram of his unborn child to prove otherwise), a motor part gets broken and they have to get a replacement part from the Nazi sub.

It takes forever and doesn’t add a lot to the shenanigans (FYI, this is the perfect time to go to the bathroom; believe me, you will not miss anything of any importance if you do).

Well, that’s that for the plot (I’m sure I’ve let some things out, but I’m too exhausted by now to keep on).

Wait, I will add one coda to it all. It ends like Moby Dick with Ishmael surviving the tragedy, this time with Liam, by donning a pressure suit and leaving the sub before it explodes. And in an attempt to give it all a not so nihilistic ending, Robinson manages to get some gold to him and the Queequeg character in another pressure suit, sacrificing himself.

Now, yeah, that’s super nice of him, but again, what are the two going to do with these gold bars? How are they even going to carry it once they hit land? Gold is heavy, dude, it’s heaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaavy.   And again, again, who are they going to sell it to?

Okay, now I’m really exhausted.

When it comes to the acting, everyone does what they can with what they’re given. The characters playing the Russians come off best most of the time because you can’t understand what they are saying.

Jude Law plays Robinson and whatever energy and interest the movie has is due to him. He commands the screen like he commands the sub. By the time it’s all over, one almost gets the feeling the whole thing ended up being a showcase for his talent.

Scoot McNairy (who I have to say is an actor who looks just like his name) is all sweat and tremors as Daniels. Ben Mendelsohn continues his series of crazies (with Animal Kingdom and Starred Up) as Fraser.

McDonald is a solid enough director, having given us some perfectly alright films (The Last King of Scotland) and a very interesting one called How I Live Now. Here, he’s sort of overwhelmed by the weak screenplay.

winter sleepAs I was watching Winter Sleep, the new Turkish film from writers Ebru Ceylan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the latter also directing, something odd entered my thoughts. After awhile, all I could think was how much like characters from an Anton Chekhov play were the people up on the screen.

And then in checking the movie out, there it was. There is a third writer given credit. It’s written by Mr. and Mrs. Ceylan and based on short stories by Chekhov.

Of course, I was a little off. For me, the inspiration seemed more to be Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya, but I’ll take what I can get.

The reason everyone on screen seemed so influenced by the great Russian playwright and short story writer is that the characters are so, well…Chekhovian.   All of them are trapped in their situation, but they are trapped not so much by circumstance, but because they seem unable to really do anything about it.

They want to, they think about it, they talk about it, but in the end, a certain lethargy, a certain inability to move, their being overwhelmed by boredom, by life, by existential ennui, takes control and they find themselves in many ways in the same place they were at the beginning of the story.

The central character even tries to get to Istanbul at one point like Olga, Irina and Masha try to get to Moscow, but it’s just not something that is possible.

Winter Sleep revolves around Aydin, the owner of a hotel outside a small town. It’s an incredibly beautiful place, etched out of some sort of stone hill that is common in the area. But the season is winding down and winter is on the horizon.

He was once an actor (he’s very proud to say he never did soap operas) and is an intellectual, but now he spends most of his time writing short articles for a local magazine that he thinks are worth his while, but are probably a bit beneath him and somewhat condescending about the people he meets.

At the same time, it helps stop him from finally getting to that history of Turkish theater he’s been planning on.

He lives with his much younger wife, but they don’t share quarters anymore and seem to live completely different lives. His sister is also staying there trying to recover from her divorce. Various conflicts arise over a tenant who is behind in his rent; Aydin’s wife trying to raise money to fix a school, not just without Aydin’s help, but desperate for him to have nothing to do with it at all; and a brother and sister getting on each other’s nerves as siblings do.

No one is happy (of course not, it’s Chekhov), but no one does anything about it (one of the reoccurring lines of dialog is someone telling the other, go ahead, leave, no one’s stopping you—but yet, no one can seem to go). Sometimes, I wasn’t even sure they knew why they were unhappy other than it’s just the human condition.

But the characters are rich and vibrant. It is rare indeed to see such three dimensional personalities on the screen like this. They have the breath of life to them and command your attention no matter how petulant, frustrated, confused and childish they act.

And do they act childish, bickering and snarking away at each other, needling each other for slings and arrows that seem so minor in many ways, but at the same time, are universal issues that define all our lives, no matter how much we know they shouldn’t.

But what can you do? There they are again, like weeds.

The plot is leisurely to say the least. It does what it wants to do and unfolds in its own time (it’s three hours and eighteen minutes, but it seemed so much shorter). In many ways it’s simply a series of lengthy conversations with little, if any action.

But what conversations. What dialog. What acting.

It has one issue: a false ending. Of course, this is a huge improvement over the Ceylan’s last film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which has a wonderful first half, but a second one with enough finales for ten movies. At the same time, once you get past this coda, the movie manages to grab you again until it does resolve itself, or resolve itself as much as any Chekhov story can.

With Turkish stage star Haluk Bilginer commanding as Aydin; Melisa Sӧzen as his young wife Nihal (there’d be something very King Learish and Cordeliac about the whole thing if it wasn’t so very untragic); and Demet Akbag as sister Necla.

The two Ceylan’s are also known for Three Monkeys and the aforesaid Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Two of the major filmmakers from Europe.

Winter Sleep is Turkey’s entry in the 2014 Foreign Language Film Oscar category.

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