Reviewing the Old School: Down Periscope (1996)

There was this period in the eighties and nineties where films about groups of ragtag misfits in the US military are able to achieve seemingly impossible success thanks to the unorthodox efforts of the misfit-in-chief. This era of screwball military comedies probably started with Private Benjamin (1980) and Stripes (1981) but saw a real renaissance through the nineties with Renaissance Man (1994), In the Army Now (1994), Major Payne (1995) and – that great Steve Martin vehicle – Sgt. Bilko (1996) just off the top of my head. Not always great films, but usually enjoyable enough.

Down Periscope – released in 1996, directed by David S. Ward – stars Kelsey Grammer as Tom Dodge, a navy veteran with two decades of experience and a tattoo on his penis. Yep. As you might expect from such a person, he’s known for his lack of discipline and relaxed leadership style. Having been prevented from taking command of his own submarine for years by a vindictive commanding officer, Admiral Graham (played by Bruce Dern), he’s finally given an opportunity by Admiral Winslow (Rip Torn) with an impossible task: sneak a diesel sub (a recommissioned museum piece) into two heavily guarded US Navy bases, launch flares and blow up some dummy warships. He’s given a handpicked crew of the submarine fleet’s losers, washouts, dropouts and special cases and the wargames begin. Hijinks ensue.

I don’t know. It’s sort of like if Tom Clancy wrote comedies. I mean, it probably doesn’t have the same sort of accuracy that Mr Clancy put into every detail of his books, but the jargon, the tension, the obstacles at times remind me of The Hunt for Red October except, y’know, funner. The ruses are clever and not completely unbelievable. You believe that, as outrageous as it seems at the time, Dodge has always got a plan, one that relies on both research (keeping an eye on the schedules for civilian traffic for example), experience (he knows how his fellow commanders think) and instinct (adapting on the fly). Looking at it, Dodge is a remarkably sympathetic character. He’s someone who cares about the wellbeing of his crew, and tries to get the best out of them by listening and encouraging them as individuals with individual strengths and weaknesses. He acts the father figure and it works well. You want him and his misfits to win.

The acting is good. Kelsey Grammer is the standout, but everyone brings a level of enthusiasm to their roles that makes them a delight to cheer for. Or cheer against. It’s not perfect. Far from it. Too many stereotypes and typecasts. Rob Schneider is playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect Rob Schneider to play in this film. He doesn’t do it badly per se, it’s why they kept on giving him these roles. But it breaks the suspension a little bit, if you take my meaning. Same with a few other characters but he’s the obvious example. Nothing movie breaking, but perhaps some a little better casting would have been in order.

And then there’s the ultimate question we have to ask about any comedy: Is it funny? Yeah. Yeah, it’s alright. Nothing gut-busting, I didn’t even really laugh out loud. But most of the jokes land right and I enjoyed it all the way through. A few lines fall flat, but nothing I’d write home about. Plenty of screwball and a bit of dry wit. Good stuff.

So yeah, go watch it. Remind yourself of a time when we made military comedies. We don’t really seem to make them any more, do we? Well, Hollywood doesn’t at least. I mean, it’s pretty understandable. America’s basically been in a state of war for the past fifteen years (and it ain’t ending anytime soon). The number of dead and wounded, veterans languishing in bureaucratic nightmares and unable to make the transition to civilian life has skyrocketed. The films being made, movies and series like Hurt LockerJarhead and Generation Kill kinda reflect that. Maybe that’s not a good thing. Maybe we need to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all sometimes. Maybe we need to have a look at the military films of the nineties. Maybe I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Ah well, have some fun with Down Periscope at least. The Village People sing at the end.

Reviewing the Old School: Collateral (2004)

We all knew that Tom Cruise was crazy back in 2004, yeah? Well y’know, celebrity crazy. Which is still pretty crazy, but it’s entertaining and eccentric instead of the heartbreaking sight of some poor bastard with no family and no real idea when or where they are asking for spare change from the edge of a needle-strewn alleyway… But yeah, we’d started making jokes about Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch and arguing about his Thetan levels all the way back in 2004, right?

Why am I bringing this up? Mostly because I remember that being the reason I didn’t watch Collateral straight away. I mean aside from me being a broke-arse teenage high school student (as opposed to all those high school students in their late twenties – hey look at film and television, it’s a serious problem). Tom Cruise had made a bunch of bad films, he’d broken up with Nicole and married whats-her-face (sorry, just googled that and he married whats-her-face in 2006), and he’d gone crazy. That matters to a kid who reckons they’re a film snob while secretly thinking that Shrek was the greatest masterpiece in cinematic history. I blame my dad. I’ve got less of a problem with that now, and apparently Tom Cruise is just super-lovely. One of the nicest guys in Hollywood. Top bloke. But separating Tom from the characters he was playing, it weren’t easy at the time. It wasn’t until this film came highly recommended by a mate that I sat down and watched it.

And it’s good. Really good. The tale of a relationship that develops between an LA cabbie and his charge as they drive from stop to stop. It just so happens that the customer is a contract killer working for a drug cartel, murdering witnesses before a major indictment. Jamie Foxx plays Max, the cabbie in question, the terrified ordinary citizen who desperately wants to get through the night alive but at the same time is smart enough to know how unlikely that is, and does a great job of it. He’s a character that has to constantly push through shock, panic and sheer terror while having a man who’s probably going to murder him also try and befriend him. Tom Cruise plays Vincent, the private sector murderer without a conscience. His hair is greyed to make him look older but it’s bloody Tom Cruise, you can put him in a clown suit made of daffodils and he’ll still bring a powerful presence to the screen when required.

The other actors all do a fantastic job as well. Jada Pinkett Smith plays Annie, a lawyer for the prosecution, appears briefly at the beginning but leaves such a great impression and has such good chemistry with Jamie Foxx that you aren’t at all surprised (and can’t possibly be displeased) when she appears at the end. Mark Ruffalo looks surprisingly different with facial hair as Detective Fanning. Barry Shabaka Henley talks jazz as Daniel with Vincent and Javier Bardem talks about Black Pedro as Felix with Max. Director Michael Mann knows how to get the best out of his cast, and it is a stella cast (Tom Cruise included). The music, the angles, the closeups which reveal intimacy and the wide shots that show isolation.

But this is a film all about conversation, and writer Stuart Beattie writes some really excellent stuff. It’s not the fast-paced banter you’d expect in a Tarantino or Ritchie film, rather it’s a slow boil deconstruction of a decent man’s soul as that man is on the verge of panic while another man puts a gun to his head and tells him to calm down.

The movie is all about the relationship between Vincent and Max, and it’s funny how well Foxx and Cruise pull it off. There’s not much chemistry between them, and that seems largely intentional. There’s always a distance, at first caused by their relationship as client and cabbie and then by Vincent’s pistol. The weird part is how likeable Vincent is. He actually seems like a pretty good guy aside from being very willing to shoot anybody and everybody he runs into. He helps Max deal with an overbearing boss, buys his mother flowers and encourages him to “call the girl.” It’s weird how he tries (tries so hard) to be a good friend. And that’s the thing. It’s the reason why he doesn’t just shoot Max as soon as the luckless cabbie finds out about Vincent’s career goals. Because he’s so starved for human contact that he’ll spend hours trying to connect with a bloke he’s probably gonna top at dawn.

Good stuff. Great film.

Anyway, point is that you shouldn’t always judge a film by the actor playing in it. Now Tom’s come back and he’s done some great stuff in the past couple of years, so I’m not too worried about people prejudging his stuff. Some real shit as well (Oblivion), but a lot of absolutely fantastic (Live Die Repeat) and fun (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, his cameo in Tropic Thunder) roles in the main. He’s a good actor and a good guy.

But, y’know, don’t judge whatever new Nicolas Cage film comes out before you see it? I guess? No, no. You can prejudge Nicolas Cage all you want.

Reviewing the old school: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

I’ve struggled a bit writing this. I hadn’t watched this film in a while, and it seemed like a decent choice for an old movie review. It’s bloody fantastic. Problem is, to be honest, just about everyone probably already knows that. It’s Hayao Miyazaki, often cited as the first of Studio Ghibli’s long run of amazing films (even if the company hadn’t technically started yet). Of course it’s good. Of course it’s been praised, dissected, critiqued and analysed by a million others before. What can I possibly add to the discussion? Fucked if I know, but maybe if I ramble on for a bit I’ll think of something.

So, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (or Kaze no Tani no Naushika). The story takes place on a post-apocalyptic world a thousand years after industrial human society had been destroyed in the “Seven Nights of Fire” (this being a Japanese film, titanic organically grown robots with surprisingly uncreative names were involved). Much of the planet has been claimed by the Toxic Jungle, that releases poisonous spores into the air within and around, and is gradually claiming human settlement after human settlement. Nausicaä is a princess of the kingdom known as The Valley of the Wind (hence the title of the film). Far and away one of the hardest bastards in the film (there is one other character who kicks as much arse and he needed to be voiced by Patrick Stewart to do it), she’s also a committed pacifist with a talent for calming, charming and redirecting the deadly insects that protect the Toxic Jungle rather than following the trend in other human kingdoms to kill everything remotely threatening with fire. Aside from a dying a father, everything’s going pretty sweet in the valley until an enormous airship from a neighbouring kingdom, Tolmekia, crashes into the valley and just ruins everyone’s day. Partly because it was carrying spores from the toxic jungle. Partly because it was carrying a foreign hostage who died after the crash. Partly because it was carrying the… embryo… of one of those giant robotic killing machines that I mentioned destroyed the world earlier, that the Tolmekians want back. Anyway, several hopeful anti-war and environmentalist lessons later, everything turns out relatively alright.

It is a beautiful film. The animation is smooth and hold up well for a thirty-one year old film. The art-style makes intimate moments seem grand and grand moments feel intimate, as well as finding the beauty in in what are honestly some fucking horrific-looking beasts. There’s this scene early in the film, when Nausicaä is searching a cave for resources and she discovers the shell of an enormous insect called an ohm. Like, really bloody enormous. It’s presented like a religious experience, a pilgrim entering a cathedral and seeing light fall upon an altar. A lot of blue and white in this moment. A few minutes later the beast that left the shell behind is a nasty, snarling monster chasing after that character voiced by Patrick Stewart (an unforgivable offense in my book, but Nausicaä’s a far better person than I am). Red eyes and a black shell, stark in the desert outside of the cave. Another minute later and the monster has been calmed and is heading home with a surprising grace. Red has been turned back to blue.

Given this focus on colour, the cinematography, the characters and the message that humanity’s best chance of not killing itself is strong anti-war and environmentalist leadership (not to mention the post-apocalyptic setting), I kept comparing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to, of all things, Mad Max: Fury Road. No, seriously. There’s a tonne of parallels there that I don’t have the time to go through in order to get this up before a self-imposed deadline, but if I ever meet George Miller I’d be inclined to ask how much of an influence Hayao Miyazaki is on him. I might even write a much longer post on the subject sometime in the future. We’ll see. I’m not saying that if you enjoyed Fury Road you’d enjoy Valley of the Wind. Except I actually am. And vice versa.

So, have I added said something interesting in all of this? Maybe. That last bit sounded good, even if it was a bit short. Fuck it, that’s good enough. Point is, if you haven’t seen Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind before, you should definitely watch it. If you have seen it before, well, you should watch it again.

Leave a comment. Thoughts are always appreciated, ideas for future Old School Reviews will be politely considered.