Thursday, May 30, 2019

Nautical Month Quick Picks and Pans

Captain Blood (1935) Errol Flynn kills it in the star-making title role of Michael Curtiz’s swashbuckling epic, based on the book by Rafael Sabatini. After he treats a patient from the wrong side, the young, brilliant Dr. Blood is sentenced to ten years as a slave on a British Colony in Port Royal, Jamaica. He stages a revolt with his fellow slaves, setting out for the high seas as a pirate. Blood establishes his own code of honor, fighting tyranny where he finds it (and amassing a fortune on the side). Olivia de Havilland co-stars as his plucky, capricious love interest, Arabella, the daughter of a slave-owner (Lionel Atwill). Basil Rathbone also enjoys a short, but prominent role as Blood’s rival, the French pirate Levasseur. Thanks to a charismatic performance by Flynn, and more swashbuckling hijinks than you can shake a sword at, Captain Blood is a constant delight.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Amphibian Man (aka: Chelovek-Amfibiya) (1962) This charming Soviet-era science fiction/fantasy was based on a novel by Aleksandr Belyaev, and filmed on location on the Crimean Coast and on a Leningrad sound stage. Vladimir Korenev stars as Ichtyandr Salvator, a young man with the ability to breathe underwater (his goofy, silvery outfit only adds to the film’s considerable appeal). His scientist father (Nikolai Simonov) saved him from a fatal respiratory ailment by replacing his lungs with shark gills (don’t ask about the science behind it). He retains the ability to walk on land, but remains rooted in the sea. He becomes infatuated with a young woman (Anastasiya Vertinskaya) when he saves her from a shark. She’s engaged to a cruel business owner who exploits his workers and alienates his future father in law. Things come to a head when her fiancé captures Ichtyandr as his personal slave to gather pearls. Amphibian Man is a modern fable, with its romantic subplot and theme about a protagonist living in two worlds. Catch it if you can.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969) It was a blast to the past to re-discover a movie vaguely remembered from my childhood. Like most trips down memory lane, however, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. In a prequel of sorts to the events in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the MGM film cribs many of the same plot points from Disney’s 1954 film, including: Nemo’s men rescuing shipwreck survivors, plots to sabotage Nemo’s underwater operation, and a massive beast. Unfortunately, compared to the lavish Disney production, it all looks like sloppy seconds, marred by uneven effects and mediocre dry-for-wet scenes. To its credit, this version features some nice sets, and the Nautilus design looks suitably Victorian. Chuck Connors stars as a Civil War era U.S. senator, who joins a handful of survivors on an accidental visit to Nemo’s advanced underwater city. Robert Ryan doesn’t quite fit the bill as Captain Nemo. His genteel portrayal of the renegade captain lacks the brooding gravitas of James Mason’s performance. Co-star Luciana Paluzzi is under-utilized as Mala, a resident schoolteacher. Part of the conflict is centered around who will stay and who will leave, but considering the current state of affairs (Civil War-era or present day), it seems an enticing prospect.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Warner Archive)

Kon-Tiki (2012) Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg chronicle Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s (Pål Sverre Hagen) famous 1947 expedition to support his theory about the migration of Peruvians to Polynesia. We have a seat, along with Heyerdahl’s team, as they travail the perilous 101-day, 5,000-mile voyage on a raft constructed of balsa wood. Although it’s well-shot and competently made, it feels a little like a TV docudrama. I found it difficult to keep the character names straight, and many details seemed to be glossed over. If nothing else, it might encourage you to read Heyerdahl’s book, or see the 1951 documentary about the expedition.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix

White Squall (1996) With all due apologies to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, director Ridley Scott’s White Squall is all sound and fury, signifying very little. A group of “teenage” boys (the actors were in their early 20s) set out on a life-changing one-year voyage on the sailing ship Albatross, which will push them to their limits. Many of the young characters blend together as caricatures, rather than flesh-and-blood individuals: the “dumb” kid, the spoiled rich kid, the phobic kid, etc. One of the film’s problems is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be (Is it a disaster movie? An inspirational piece? Or is it a boy’s adventure?). Much like the sailing ship, wandering from port to port, the plot meanders, as you wait for the movie to get to the point. It’s well shot, and the climactic stormy scene is appropriately harrowing, but the rest of the film is a slog to get through. And just when you think it’s over, there’s the requisite tacked-on trial scene, leading to an unsatisfying conclusion with a predictably hollow “all for one and one for all” ethos. Fans of Scott or star Jeff Bridges might be tempted to take a look, but most others should steer clear. Animal lovers take note: There’s a disturbing scene involving the death of a dolphin. It’s a random, violent act that further detracts from the story and undermines any sympathy for the character involved.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Rift (aka: Endless Descent) (1990) How low can you go? Pretty low, if you’re director Juan Piquer Simon (Pieces, Slugs). Compared to other similarly themed underwater peril films of the late ‘80s, this flick arrived late to the party. The $1.3 million budget probably wouldn’t cover the cost of the effects for the famed “water weenie” sequence in James Cameron’s The Abyss. It’s not the low budget, however, but the lackluster feel of the production that ultimately sinks the movie. Too many scenes seem to have been cut and pasted from other genre films, and the lead, played by Jack Scalia, has about as much charisma as a sea cucumber. 

The crew of deep-sea submersible Siren II, including its principal designer, Wick Hayes (Scalia), set out on a mission to locate the missing Siren I. R. Lee Ermey turns out an uncharacteristically mild performance as Captain Phillips, which left me wanting a tirade or two. Ray Wise adds a little spice as shifty crewman Robbins, but it’s not enough to elevate this soggy mess. The filmmakers bank on the audience’s collective ignorance about deep sea exploration, throwing science fact out the porthole. When the Siren II reaches 22,000 feet, one of the crew members disembarks in scuba equipment. In a later scene, it’s mentioned that the ocean floor is 45,000 feet, despite the fact that the Marianas Trench, the ocean’s deepest known spot, is somewhere in the neighborhood of 36,000 feet. The film’s underwater scenes, its raison dêtre, are unconvincing and bereft of tension. If you’re looking for excitement, you’d be better served watching a toy submarine filled with baking soda. 

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

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