Home » New films: Project Almanac, Black Sea, Black or White
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New films: Project Almanac, Black Sea, Black or White

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Project Almanac
Directed by Dean Israelite

I’ve complained about “found footage” films before – the kind where what you’re watching has supposedly been shot by characters within the film. In many, of the “Blair Witch Project” variety, the idea is that, but for this supposedly real and found content, we wouldn’t know what happened to a group of missing people. But they’re often quite hard to watch in terms of camera motion and they fall victim to inconsistency in terms of which character is filming something, of footage miraculously coming from a third party camera, or scenes in which the filming makes little sense.

The beginning of “Project Almanac” brought out all those same concerns. It’s jumpy enough in terms of hand held camera motion that I was genuinely, initially concerned that I might experience nausea during the film. But, as with many such stylistic choices, if the story wins you over you tend to forget about the distracting element, whereas if it doesn’t, that element continues to stick out like a sore thumb – and “Project Almanac” won me over.

It’s a story about a bunch of high school students who discover a machine in a basement, that’s part of a time travel project started by one of their fathers. This begins when one of them realizes that there’s an image of him at his current age that appears in an old film of his seventh birthday party. It’s a relatively simple film in its limited scope – this isn’t about world-changing events and instead focuses on the kinds of things teenagers might do if armed with such a device. There’s a predictable comment about going back in time and killing Hitler, but most of the activity centers on such activities as winning the lottery and engaging in ways to become more popular at school, fortunately without too much reliance on “Groundhog Day” style repetition.

It also starts out, somewhat amusingly, with problems associated with finding a suitable power source to activate the machine, resulting in tapping into an unknowing classmate’s hybrid car battery. The science is kept relatively simple and, conveniently, the group has already been introduced as being science nerds led by a boy genius – although they never seem to have the common sense to clear their work bench of wrenches and hammers, despite a characteristic of the machine that makes such nearby items fly around the room (but then how would we, the audience, know the machine was working?).

The film is well paced and the sense of sheer wonder and amazement, as well as the panic as things start to unfold, as they inevitably do, are well conveyed by the young cast. The story isn’t without inconsistency however, as we see different physical outcomes from characters who encounter themselves in different time periods – a classic time travel paradox – as well as other inanimate objects which seem to co-exist with themselves without problems. But it largely manages to avoid digging itself holes it can’t get out, despite one or two plot elements that seem truncated or unexplored, as though introduced and then edited out.

Aside from the engaging cast and successful pacing of a refreshingly simple story, the film also benefits from having a setup and reason for the found footage aspect of the storytelling that actually makes sense. I’m still not a general fan of this approach and it feels overdone, but “Project Almanac” uses it to surprisingly good effect. There are several other elements, as described, that would normally bother me more – but the overall package simply worked well enough to overcome them.

Black Sea
Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Jude Law stars as a laid-off underwater salvage expert in this story about a sunken German submarine, rumored to be full of gold. “Black Sea” is a film that sometimes feels as much a critique of class and capitalism as it does an otherwise standard action film, and Law employs a thick Scottish accent as part of his working class persona, surrounded by similarly displaced and bitter guys who have been used and discarded by apparently uncaring employers. With so little to lose, and a background in the Navy, the prospect of a submerged fortune is understandably appealing and thus a fairly solid premise for a film is born.

The problem is that the film repeatedly stumbles in trying to deliver on that premise. We’re given a group of guys who know their way around ships and submarines, but they also find it remarkably easy to travel to Sebastapol in a small bus where they purchase a used Russian sub as though they’re on a used car lot. The film also has the misfortune of timing, in that it catalogs the various problems that have occurred between the countries around the Black Sea that have contributed to the gold never being recovered, and yet they’re in the heart of the Crimean peninsular, at Russia’s primary naval base, in apparently peaceful conditions.

Those are narrative circumstances that could be overcome with a date stamp on the film but it also suffers from extraordinarily heavy handed storytelling and direction. The basic story concept is actually quite good. Law’s Robinson and his crew need a similar number of Russians, because the submarine they’re buying is Russian with Russian systems and labels – and these two groups never trust each other – there’s no camaraderie of ex-military guys thrown together in a common quest. Added to that, their vessel is in poor shape and the conditions they’re working in, at depth, are inherently dangerous.

However, these circumstances aren’t allowed to play out in any natural way – it’s as if they aren’t believed to represent sufficient jeopardy. Instead, everything is amped up to a maximum level of tension the entire time and, just in case the audience is in doubt, we’re subjected to extreme camera angles and closeup shots that seem to scream “YOU SHOULD BE TENSE NOW!” It’s like getting caught in a shouting match on social media.

It’s a shame because I really do think the story itself had a lot going for it, and it’s certainly not as entirely predictable as many films. But it isn’t given room to shine. It’s also a film that makes the choice not to explain a great deal of what’s going on. If you’re not familiar with submarine operation, the use and limitations of sonar, concepts such as crush depth, etc., the film isn’t going to help you much and it seems to assume the audience will arrive with that prerequisite knowledge, presumably from other films about submarines.
Overall, I was disappointed. “Black Sea” was a project I had looked forward to and I generally enjoy Law’s work. But I was constantly distracted by the mixed delivery – on the one hand assuming the audience is smart enough to understand the mechanics and physics, but apparently not trusting the audience enough to recognize narrative tension without being beaten over the head with it.


Black or White
Directed by Mike Binder

Kevin Costner re-teams with writer/director Mike Binder (“The Upside of Anger” – although I have a softer spot for his 1993 “Indian Summer”) and co-stars with fellow Oscar winner Octavia Spencer for this pleasantly effective family drama about two grandparents vying for custody of their grand-daughter.

Costner is the lead character and so the film is largely sympathetic to his position as the just-widowed grandfather trying to maintain custody of young Eloise. But it’s an interesting role as, aside from the comfort of the status quo living arrangement and his love for the girl, in several ways he’s not actually a very suitable guardian – he’s a heavy drinker and, despite living in the same house together, he knows virtually nothing about her schedule or needs. In contrast, her grandmother (Spencer) has a vast, extended family and support structure but, in the context of the film, is the somewhat predatory outsider trying to snatch the girl away.

Eloise’s mother died in childbirth and her father (Spencer’s character’s son) is an absent father with a long history of drug use. One of the complications of the film is that Costner’s supposed age is a bit of a mystery and the images we see of his dead wife appear sufficiently young that it’s easy to start out wondering if we’re seeing the dead wife or the dead daughter. But the film generally works quite well despite seeming to be quite formulaic in its internal conflicts and the inevitable courtroom arguments regarding race. I don’t think a single thing happened that surprised me and yet I still enjoyed watching it unfold, stereotypes and predictability and all.

New films: Project Almanac, Black Sea, Black or White via @sacramentopress

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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