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Movie reviews: Jude's Submarine actioner dives deep for great thrills

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Black Sea

Black Sea

The Pyramid

The Pyramid

Penguins of Madagascar

Penguins of Madagascar

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Black Sea

BLACK SEA (Thriller. Starring Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, David Threlfall, Michael Smiley, Konstantin Khabenskly, Jodie Whitaker, Bobby Schofield. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Cert 15A

With the seasonal screens guaranteed to be swamped by all things Hobbity it's good to see that there's still room for a good, tough, old-fashioned thriller in the schedules and Black Sea certainly ticks all the right boxes.

Granted, there is the small matter of getting over Law employing an Aberdeen accent but once that minor hurdle has been negotiated then you should be absolutely grand.

Law plays Robinson, a veteran submariner who's worked the oilfields of the world for more than 20 years but finds himself unemployed as the company he works for moves to automated equipment.

He's certainly not alone in his predicament, as director Kevin Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly (who penned the Channel 4 series Utopia) set us up nicely with a portrait of proud, hard-working men tossed on to the scrapheap by uncaring corporations.

Acting on a tip-off from a fellow former oil worker, Robinson hears of a Nazi U-boat filled with Russian gold which sank in the Black Sea in 1941 and puts together a crew to salvage the haul.

So, what develops is a caper movie in a submarine, with Robinson assembling a team of Russian and English-speaking men who are willing to risk their lives in a rusting former Red navy sub.

Among them are Fraser, a psychotic Australian diver played by Ben Mendelsohn, the charismatic joker Reynolds (the excellent Northern Irish actor Michael Smiley) and the young Scouser Tobin (Bobby Schofield), who's effectively the crew's mascot.

Also along to supervise the trip is Daniels (Scoot McNairy), a representative of the mission's financiers and clearly not to be trusted given that he's brought along a copy of the Financial Times, effectively echoing the role played by Paul Reiser's slippery company man in Aliens.

It doesn't take long for the tension to rise and hostility between the Russians and Brits to take hold, not least when Robinson is adamant that every crew member will receive an equal share of the loot, something which the volatile Fraser is opposed to, leading to a catastrophic confrontation and a dramatic worsening of the venture's circumstances.

The bar for submarine movies was set by Wolfgang Petersen's masterful Das Boot and while Black Sea is a different beast from that epic war story it does manage to ratchet up the claustrophobia and give the audience the jitters about what it must be like to be stuck in a metal tube at the bottom of the sea, not least when there's a deranged Australian wandering about the place.

Law does a great job as the resourceful and relentless Robinson (mind you, I'm not so sure that the flashbacks to his life with ex-wife Jodie Whitaker totally work), looking and, after a while, sounding the part while Michael Smiley provides some necessary comic relief in a fine and thoroughly gripping adventure.

****

PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR

(Animation. Featuring the voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Werner Herzog. Directed by J.P. Simon and Simon J. Smith. Cert General)

It says quite a lot about the state of contemporary comedy when there more genuine laughs to be had in the pre-title sequence of an animated feature aimed predominantly at children than in the entire wretched running-time of Horrible Bosses 2, a film which would like to think of itself as adult and somehow 'edgy'.

That gripe over, this spin-off from the Madagascar series sees cinema's fascination with penguins continue in a quite hilarious fashion.

The opening scenes manage to take a lovely swipe at the parent franchise and include some knowing digs at how cute penguins are, even including a guest voice appearance from Werner Herzog as a German documentary-maker.

Clearly, the writers and directors know exactly what they're at here and are determined to enjoy themselves. Which they do effortlessly.

Penguins of Madagascar is essentially an old school James Bond movie, with Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private even breaking into Fort Knox (a la Goldfinger) at one point.

The central story involves an evil mastermind octopus called Dave (voiced by John Malkovich) who's kidnapping penguins from zoos around the world and intends to use some class of device to turn them into monsters. Helping out our intrepid quartet is an international spy organisation called North Wind, whose leader Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch) happens to be a rather smug, self-satisfied wolf.

The film cracks along at a riotous pace and has plenty going on to keep adults entertained too, not least a sequence which is supposedly set in Dublin and some of the most outrageously hammy puns you'll hear all year. Thoroughly enjoyable and unreservedly recommended.

****

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN

(Drama. Starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler, Elena Kampouris, Ansel Elgort, JK Simmons. Directed by Jason Reitman. Cert 16)

After such a promising start to his directorial career with Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Young Adult the wheels have come off Jason Reitman's bandwagon with a vengeance. Labor Day managed to waste the talents of Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin in a schlocky melodrama so ridiculous it could have come from the poisonous pen of Nicholas Sparks and, if anything, Men, Women & Children is even worse.

Like the recent and equally awful Third Person, the film is a Crash-style melange of overlapping stories, all of which are meant to form part of a some profound 'point' but merely leave the viewer shrugging their shoulders.

Things go very bad right from the start with a portentous voiceover from Emma Thompson waffling on about secrets and the internet while we're shown footage of a communications satellite orbiting the earth.

The essential aim of story seems to be that we all (men, women and children - yes, we get it) have aspects of ourselves which we choose to hide from others and that in the age of the internet this has become even more pronounced. So, in a small Texas town there are husbands cheating on their wives, wives cheating on their husbands, kids with eating disorders being bullied and one parent pushing her daughter towards some sort of online celebrity.

Based on a novel by Chad Kultgen (thank God I never had the misfortune to read it), Men, Women & Children is a tonally dysfunctional slice of melodrama in which none of the actors involved seem to have been given anything remotely resembling a sense of what type of film they're appearing in. Honestly, when Adam Sandler in a straight role is the best thing about a movie then you know you're in deep trouble.

**

THE PYRAMID

(Horror. Starring Ashley Hinshaw, Denis O'Hara, James Buckley, Amir Kamyab, Christa Nicola. Directed by Gregory Levasseur. Cert 16)

Brought to you by the people behind the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, The Pyramid is the latest in a long line of cheaply-made, efficiently-directed horrors which are practically guaranteed to turn a profit. I suppose you can't fault the producers for sticking to tried and trusted methods but for once you just wish they showed a bit of the kind of imagination which made The Babadook easily the best spine-chiller of recent years.

The film starts out looking like it might be yet another example of the 'found footage' genre but then just sort of forgets all about that as we follow a couple of archaeologists and, of course, a documentary team as they try to fathom the mysteries of a newly-discovered pyramid in the Egyptian desert. You can pretty much guess from the start that the feisty Nora (Ashley Hinshaw) will be last girl standing and along the way we have some waffle about the weighing of souls by Anubis, a rather cranky ancient deity, lots of jump shocks and some unconvincing feral cats. Really, a bit of effort wouldn't have gone amiss here.

**


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