DEAD CALM (1989) revisited

November 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. For years, I considered this one of my favorite guilty pleasures; however, I now realize just how unfair that label is. After nearly 30 years, this arm-rest-gripping thriller from director Phillip Noyce (CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, THE QUIET AMERICAN) deserves respect as a well made (except for the ending), well written and well acted film. It proves that two boats may not be enough for three people.

Terry Hayes adapted the screenplay from the 1963 Charles Williams novel, and the production team, including George Miller, is behind the MAD MAX franchise. Cinematographer Dean Semler won an Oscar a couple of years later for DANCES WITH WOLVES, and his eye brings us some terrific shots … none better than an early view of both boats and an expanse of sea.

Of course the film is best known for showcasing a young up-and-coming actress named Nicole Kidman. She began her career at age 16, and was still only 21 when this one was filmed. Her youthful features had yet to make way for the mature and stunning woman we know today. The following year she appeared in DAYS OF THUNDER, kicking off her Tom Cruise era. In the quarter century since, Ms. Kidman has reached the pinnacle of the acting profession and is a four time Oscar nominee, winning for THE HOURS. She has gained respect for never shying away from tough or controversial roles, and in 2017 has excelled in THE BEGUILED and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. Earlier in the year she won an Emmy for her challenging role in “Big Little Lies“.

Ms. Kidman’s role here is as Rae, a mother entertaining her young son by singing “Eensy Weensy Spider” as she drives through a torrential storm that would eventually lead to an accident that tragically kills the boy. Soon Rae and her military officer husband John (Sam Neill) are off on a rehabilitation trip aboard their sailing yacht . Their peaceful time together is interrupted as they spot a stalled schooner off in the distance, and a man frantically rowing a skiff towards them. They help a dazed and profusely sweating Hughie (Billy Zane) on board as he explains how the other passengers on The Orpheus all died from botulism. When John goes to check out The Orpheus, Hughie commandeers the yacht from Rae and heads off leaving John seemingly helpless on the sinking vessel.

What follows is some extraordinary tension and psychological gamesmanship that keeps us enthralled with the three characters. The juxtaposition between the two boats is fascinating. As John’s resourcefulness meticulously brings the dying Orpheus back to life, Rae and Hughie are involved in a mental chess match of life and death between a sociopath and a mother in mourning. There is also a creative manner in which John (and viewers) picks up some of the bleak backstory casting doubt on Hughie’s tale.

Sam Neill was in his early 40’s, and this was four years before his Dr. Grant took the tour of JURASSIC PARK, where no expense was spared. In 1988 he had portrayed Meryl Streep’s husband in A CRY IN THE DARK, and recently his strong, silent persona has been key to the success of HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of the best from 2016) and TV’s “Peaky Blinders”. Billy Zane, age 22 at the time of filming, makes a wonderfully frenetic entrance in the film. He met his wife Lisa Collins on this shoot – she’s one of the unfortunate Orpheus passengers. He has also enjoyed a long and consistent career, with his most recognizable roles being from TOMBSTONE (1993) and of course as Rose’s jealous fiancé in TITANIC (1997). His cameos in the ZOOLANDER movies are legendary in comedy, and now in his 50’s, Mr. Zane remains extremely busy as an actor.

The tagline for the movie: “When you are in the middle of nowhere, there’s nowhere to hide” is terrific, and the confines of a boat at sea set the stage for a life lesson – sometimes you just have to fight. Orson Welles worked on his version of the film for years, but the project was never finished. Instead, director Phillip Noyce and three excellent actors deliver a taut thriller that keeps our palms sweaty … at least right up until that ghastly ending that somehow leaves me annoyed and laughing in frustration.


 


ZOOLANDER 2 (2016)

February 12, 2016

zoolander2 Greetings again from the darkness. Here comes yet another write up where I am out of step with the majority of film critics. While most are heaping hatred on it for idiocy and self-obsession, my response is … isn’t that the point of a sequel to Zoolander, itself a tribute to idiocy and self-obsession? Maybe the difference stems from my not being a big fan of the 2001 original. Granted, the sub-plot of child labor from the original was (and remains) a real world issue, while this one is fuzzy-focused on a plot to kill the beautiful people in hopes of finding the fountain of youth … less real world tragedy and more like holding a mirror up to society’s insecurities.

The fashion industry was skewered in the original, but couldn’t wait to embrace this sequel. In the 15 years since that first Zoolander, a symbiotic relationship has formed between TV – Movies – Music – Fashion. The lines are blurred now that actors have become models and models are acting. TV shows are built around fashion and fashion shows boost music. And all of these elements are tied into the explosion of social media outlets. The greatest impact yet is probably the fact that most every person has a camera (phone) attached to them at all times and in every environment … we have a citizenry of selfie-taking models.

What can’t be denied is that the sequel is a smorgasbord of celebrity cameos (some might call it overkill). There are times the cameos pop up so fast that it’s challenging to keep up. Spotting the celebs, following the sight gags and catching the one-liners … that’s the tripod on which writer/director/star Ben Stiller has built his Zoolander second home. Though it’s not as quotable as the original, the production value is much improved. Never is this more evident than the slick looking opening chase scene that sets the stage for national narcissism being attacked for the next 90 minutes.

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson return as male models Derek Zoolander and Hansel, though when we first see them, they have been in years-long hiding … Derek claiming to live as a “hermit crab”. The film begins by catching us up on why they are in hiding (it’s related to Derek’s Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good), and what’s up with others like Mugatu (Will Ferrell), Derek’s wife Matilda (Christine Taylor), and Billy Zane (Billy Zane). The gag is that Derek and Hansel are now “old and lame” … literally out of fashion in fashion.

As with most comedies, it’s best to avoid the trailer and any details or punchlines before walking into the theatre. You need only know that the old favorite characters are still here and an army of new ones (including Penelope Cruz and Kristen Wiig) arrive – some for a few scenes, others for only a few seconds. Satire is still the name of the game and the biggest fashion icons are front and center: Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, Anna Wintour and “both Wangs”. A big assist goes to Kiefer Sutherland who joins in the fun of poking fun at his own image. There’s even a jab at celebrity political endorsements with the line “She’s hot. I trust her.”

Justin Theroux is back as Stiller’s co-writer and also plays a role in the sub-plot involving Derek’s son, and the script proudly plays homage to the original (as it should) while still moving into contemporary themes (as it should). So “Relax” (nod to Frankie) and take in the fun. It’s the type of fun akin to riding a roller coaster … fun while it lasts, and over when it’s over. To paraphrase Derek, it’s a ‘really really ridiculously’ good time.

No trailer posted (it’s for your own good!)

 

 


TITANIC (1997, 3D-2012)

April 8, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Of course I saw this one a couple of times when it was first released in 1997. Having only watched it once since, I was happy to hear it would get a re-release on its 15th anniversary … even if the marketing hook was the post-production 3D. My thought was with James Cameron working his technical magic, the 3D would be fine, and maybe even add to the spectacle of the sinking ship. After all, he was the mastermind behind Avatar, which with Hugo, are the only two films (in my opinion) that haven’t been weakened with 3D technology.

Unfortunately, I can’t overstate my disappointment in the 3D for Titanic. The colors and lighting are destroyed. When we first see young Rose (Kate Winslet) arrive to board the majestic ocean liner, her lavender hat appears almost gray through the 3D glasses. And later, the stunning crimson Renault, where Rose and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) get to “know” each other, appears dull and darkened. Additionally, so many face shots are darkened, rather than illuminated by the beautiful fixtures that adorn Titanic. I was so saddened to see such dullness on top of such greatness. Sure, there were a couple of times where the 3D gave a boost to a special effect, but the film is so beautifully made and such a technical marvel, that the impact is minimal to the positive.

What I will say is that despite my frustration with the technology, I do hope a new generation is introduced to the film. Personally, I am no fan of the love story between Jack and Rose. However, it is such a delight to see the young, eager versions of Little Leo and Kate as they go about their antics. They were 22 and 21 respectively during filming, and we now know them as mature actors and major movie stars. That wasn’t the case when Titanic first premiered.

The real genius of this film is two fold: the story-telling and the technical achievement. Gloria Stuart stars as 101 yr old Rose and she is used to perfection in telling the personal story of Titanic. Her love story with Jack allows director Cameron to show off the amazing ship from all angles … first class, third class, dining rooms and engine rooms. She also allows the viewer to connect with the characters on a personal level. The technical aspect is even more astounding. Sets, models, CGI, and documentary footage are all blended to form a cohesive presentation of one of the most dramatic events of the past 100 years.

Here are a few notes of interest regarding the movie and those involved. The movie was number one at the box office for 15 consecutive weeks and grossed more than $1.8 billion … a record that stood until Cameron’s Avatar eclipsed it. Cameron was already an established sci-fi director with Terminator I & II and Aliens, but he almost had the plug pulled by the production company due to cost overruns. Matthew McConaughey was the producer’s first choice for Jack, but (fortunately) Cameron held firm for DiCaprio. The elderly couple hugging each other in bed as the ship sinks were based on the Strauss’ who owned the Macy’s department store chain. And yes, there were Astor’s and Guggenheim’s onboard when it went down.  Kate Winslet (Best Actress) and Gloria Stuart (Best Supporting Actress) received nominations for playing the same character (Rose). If you have seen the movie before, pay particular attention to the secondary characters … the wardrobes and acting are tremendous: Frances Fisher as Rose’s mother, Kathy Bates as the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, Billy Zane as the fiancé, David Warner as his henchman, Bernard Hill as the Captain, Victor Garber as the architect, and Jonathan Hyde as the sleazy ship owner. Also catch Suzy Amis in one of her last acting jobs before becoming Mrs. James Cameron … she plays the granddaughter to “old” Rose.

This is an historic film version of an historic event and should be seen by all movie lovers. Some of it is a bit hokey, but if you doubt the technical achievement, compare it to A Night to Remember, the 1958 version of the Titanic story.  And depending on your taste, crank up the closing credits and listen to Celine Dion belt out the Oscar winning Best Song.  She is, after all, “the greatest singer in the world” (an SNL gag).

watch the trailer for “the ship of dreams”: