Dead Calm (1989)

Recent previews of Hugh Jackman’s upcoming P.T. Barnum film, in which his wife will be played by Michelle Williams, bothered me in the pit of my stomach. The fact that actors age but their love interests are not allowed to is not news, but this is the first time that it’s happened between someone who I consider to be of “my generation” (Williams is six years older than I am, but she’ll always be Jen on Dawson’s Creek to me) and someone I consider to be of the generation that came before (Jackman is 12 years older than Williams and was, in my mind, an “adult” in the X-Men movies when Williams was still “my age” or thereabouts). Of course, this never really bothered me when I was a kid watching Dead Calm, in which leads Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman (playing his wife) are a staggering twenty years apart (Kidman even turned 20 during production!), likely because they were always from the “before” generation. Looking back now, it’s a little distracting, but that doesn’t make the film any less thrilling, creepy, and well-done.

The film opens at Christmas, when Australian Naval Officer John Ingram (Neill) detrains to find that his wife and child are not present on the platform to welcome him home. He is approached by two police officers, who take him to see his wife Rae (Kidman) in the hospital, where she is recovering from a traffic collision that took the life of their toddler son. Some time later, John has taken Rae out on their yacht, the Saracen, to recover, although she is still haunted by the image of their son as he flew through the windshield. Their calm life at sea is disrupted by the arrival of Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane in the role that won him international attention), who rows straight into their vessel from a ship he claims is sinking and unable to be salvaged, not to mention full of the bodies of his shipmates who have died of botulism. Suspicious of this story, John goes to investigate, only to discover a scene that implies Hughie may be lying, an inference that is backed up when Hughie awakes and absconds with both the Saracen and Rae, leaving the bereaved woman to fend off the madman.

This is a taut movie, full of lingering shots of the vast and empty ocean that serve to demonstrate the depth of Rae’s isolation as she is trapped aboard the Saracen and her attempts to retake the ship in order to rescue John, who is trapped aboard the other sinking vessel. John, too, must fight to keep the ship on which he is trapped afloat long enough for his wife to free herself from Hughie’s machinations and save her husband from drowning. For the first 80% of the film, all of the sound is completely diagetic: the beeping of the radar, the lapping of waves against the hull, the gentle lull of ocean winds; it’s only when John is trapped in a failing air pocket that the standard orchestral score that audiences associate with thrillers comes into play.

There’s also a great inversion of the “damsel in distress” motif that was the de facto modus operandi of thrillers of the time (and before, and, to an extent, since). Rae is no pushover, as she has to use her feminine wiles to gain his trust, and never for a moment does she let her fear overwhelm either her survival instincts or her devotion to rescuing her husband. The damsel of the film is technically John, as he is the one who is in need of rescue, although he is more active in his attempts to save himself than this type of character usually is, as he works bilge pumps and restores engine operations in order to stay alive. The choice to show the couple as a pair of loving, respecting survivors of a horrific accident–we actually see their son fly through the air after the collision, which is followed by more subtle horror as the police tell John that the boy survived the impact but died before the paramedics arrived–contrasts the “dead calm” of the ocean and the Ingrams with the trauma at the beginning of the first act.

The choice to cast Zane as the antagonist was also a stroke of genius, as his pretty boy looks and his apparent irrational behavior upon the event of his “rescue” make him seem initially sympathetic. Hughie seems more like a victim of sunsickness, malnutrition, and the survivor of a traumatic incident (like the Ingrams), until he reveals his true colors. His soft performance serves as a strong contrast to his violence once it erupts, and even after he shows his true colors, he’s so cute and harmless-looking with his dark lashes and puppy dog eyes that his spiral out of control is believable but even more unsettling. This is the role that garnered him great acclaim, and it’s not difficult to see why. Kidman is also a breakout here, and she’s phenomenal. Although he’s never gone on to have as much success in his career as Kidman, at least he was only typecast as “sinister hunk on a sinking ship” rather than marrying one (if we count SeaOrg). Aside from a last-minute fakeout that this movie should be better than, this is definitely one to catch.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Orlando (1992)

The phrase has recently devolved into something of a critical cliché, but I find myself becoming increasingly possessed by the idea of “pure cinema.” In the modern pop culture push to blur the lines between what is cinema and what is a video game, television series, or “virtual reality experience,” I find myself receding into the comforts of art that can only be expressed through the medium of film. “Pure cinema” titles like The Neon Demon, The Duke of Burgundy, and Beyond the Black Rainbow, with their hypnotic tones & basic indulgences in the pleasures of sound synced to moving lights, have been the movies that captured my imagination most in recent years and I often find myself chasing their aesthetic in other works. Sally Potter’s 1992 fantasy piece Orlando delivered my much-needed pure cinema fix with such efficiency and such a delicate hand that I didn’t even fully know what I was getting into until it was maybe a third of the way through. Initially masquerading as a costume drama with a prankish dry wit, Orlando gradually develops into the transcendent pure cinema hypnosis I’m always searching for in my movie choices. It pulls this off in such a casual, unintimidating way that it’s not until the final scene that the full impact of its joys as a playful masterpiece becomes apparent. This is the exact kind of visual and tonal achievement that could only ever be captured in the form of a feature film, a cinematic reverie that’s nothing short of real world magic.

I’m not sure why Tilda Swinton kept making films after she already found her perfect role in 1992. Orlando is essentially a one-woman show that finds Swinton navigating the only place where her unearthly presence makes any sense: the distant past. Playing the titular role of Orlando, a fictional (male) royalty from a Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, Swinton looks all too at home in her costume drama garb, as if the actor were plucked from a 17th Century painting. Orlando is a nervous little fella, often breaking the fourth wall with Ferris Bueller-type asides to the camera to alleviate his anxious tension. Early on, he finds himself squirming under the seductive scrutiny of Queen Elizabeth (played by an ancient Quentin Crisp, another genius choice of gender-defiant casting). The Queen promises that Orlando may retain possession of and lordship over his family’s land as long as he obeys a simple command, “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” He keeps this promise through an unexplained triumph of the will & fairy tale logic, living on for centuries in his youthful, androgynous state. The only change in Orlando’s physicality is that after a brief experience with the masculine horrors of war, he transforms into a woman. She explains to the camera, “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” This shift is treated less like a huge rug pull and more like an internal, gender specific version if the identity shift in Persona. It’s a casual, fluid transition that leads to interesting changes in how Orlando experiences love, power, and property ownership, but had little effect on her overall character. Time continues to move on from there, decades at once, and the movie shrugs it off, concerned with much more important issues of identity & sense of self.

Besides the refreshing way it casually disrupts the rigidity of its protagonist’s gender, Orlando is impressive in the way it’s narrative structure more like a poem than a traditional A-B feature. Segmented into sequences titled (and dated) “1600: DEATH,” “1650: POETRY,” “1750: SOCIETY,” etc., Orlando reads more like a collection of stanzas than a period piece or even a fairy tale typically would. Its isolated meditations on topics like “LOVE,” “SEX,” and “POLITICS” shake it free from any concerns of having to fulfill a three act structure, allowing characters like Queen Elizabeth or a sexed-up Billy Zane drift through Orlando’s life without any expectation of achieving their own arc. Each piece is a contribution to the larger puzzle of Orlando’s curiously long & gender-defiant life. When seen from a distance, the big picture of this puzzle is pure visual poetry. Scenes are short, amounting to a hypnotic rhythm that allows only for a visual indulgence in a series of strikingly beautiful images: Swinton’s impossibly dark eyes, Sandy Powell’s world class costume design, love, sex, war, heartbreak. If you had to distill Orlando down to an image or two, there’s a scene where a living tableau is staged on ice as dinner entertainment and a soon-to-follow dramatic performance featuring traditional Shakespearean crossdressing that’s disrupted by loud, but oddly beautiful fireworks. They’re entertainments created solely for the sake of their own visual beauty, a spirit the movie captures in its sweeping fairy tale of a life that never ends.

Sally Potter makes this pure cinema aesthetic feel not only casual & effortless, but also frequently humorous. Orlando’s knowing glances to the audience are a prototype version of a mockumentary style later popularized by shows like The Office and the magical realism of their gender fluidity is often treated like a kind of joke, especially when they declare things like, “The treachery of men!” or “The treachery of women!” The final scene of the film perfectly nails home this half fantastic/half humorous tone as well, playing something like a divine prank. I feel like I can count on one hand the movies I’ve seen that achieve this balance of dry wit and visual opulence: The Fall, Ravenous, The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover, Marie Antoinette, and maybe Tale of Tales. I’d consider each of those works among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime and after a single  viewing I’m more than willing to list Orlando among them. My only disappointment in watching Sally Potter’s masterful achievement is that I’m not likely to ever see it projected big & loud in a proper movie theater setting. Watching it at home on the same television where I’d steam a Netflix series or a pro wrestling PPV felt like an insult to a movie that deserves a much more grandiose environment. It is, after all, pure cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantom (1996)

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Common wisdom seems to be that the film market is currently flooded with so many comic book properties that mainstream audiences will soon be experiencing a wicked case of “superhero fatigue” and the whole Marvel/DC empire will crumble. So far I seem to be experiencing the opposite effect. All of these rampant comic book adaptations have sent me on something of a superhero tangent and I’ve been finding myself looking back to comic book cinema of the past for smaller titles I might’ve missed over the years. Sometimes this urge is a blessing, like when it lead me to Sam Raimi’s goofily masterful Darkman. In the case of The Phantom, however, I’m not so sure I’m on the right path.

Based on a comic strip that’s been running continuously to this day since the 1930s, The Phantom is a starring vehicle for 90s pop culture artifact Billy Zane. While dressed as his superhero alter ego The Phantom, Zane is decked out here in skintight purple spandex, black leather mask & boots, and a handgun he rarely touches. He also rides an immaculately white horse & keeps a gigantic wolf for a pet. Raised by Mongolian pirates 400 years in the past or some such nonsense, The Phantom is rumored to be an immortal ghost who protects the sanctity of the jungle from white archehologists & businessmen looking to plunder its resources. In the comics he does this through practical real world means (including some martial arts shamelessly designed to show off Zane’s fanny in purple spandex). The movie adds a supernatural element to the mix in some black magic skulls that can be exploited to bring on world domination. This addition threatens to make The Phantom entertaining as a campy trifle with half-assed old-world mysticism backing up its comic strip charm. Nothing significant comes of it, though, and after the novelty of seeing Billy Zane dressed up as a handsome, but deeply odd superhero wears off the rest of the film is a total bore.

The main problem with The Phantom is that it lacks any strong creative voice or soulful eccentricity required to make a comic book movie really work. Just match up your very favorite scene from this film to an 15 seconds of Darkman & you’ll see what I mean. There was a time when the legendary Joe Dante almost helmed The Phantom as a tongue-in-cheek camp fest and another where the delightfully sleazy Joel Schumacher could’ve dragged it down to the same so-bad-it’s-great depths he brought Batman & Robin (the one with the bat nipples & ice puns). Sadly, neither of those versions of The Phantom were meant to be and the film wound up in the dull, uninspired hands of the director of Free Willy & Operation Dumbo Drop. It’s easy to see how The Phantom could’ve swung in a more interesting direction. If nothing else, the slightly off performances of the spandex-clad Zane, O.G. Buffy Kristy Swanson, and a deliciously evil Catharine Zeta-Jones all feel like they belong in a much better movie (or at least a less boring one).

As with everything in criticism, my boredom with The Phantasm might’ve had a lot to do with personal taste. Once the wackier introductions to the film’s central scenario were out of the way, the movie would up playing like a second-rate version of the Indiana Jones franchise, especially in the way it mimicked the “Tune In Next Time!” structure of old, serialized action programs on the radio. There are Indiana Jones junkies out there who might be aching for more similar content to tide them over until the next inevitable reboot and those might be the only folks I’d recommend The Phantom to. Anyone who’s looking for an eccentric comic book movie here is a lot more likely to feel let down. The aspects of The Phantom that wound up fascinating me the most were more or less all related to its comic strip source material. The Phantom is credited as being the first superhero shown wearing the skintight jumpsuit that has become pretty much the standard for the genre and is often seen as a direct precursor to superhero titans like Batman, Superman, and Captain America. The artwork & narrative of the strip also has a distinct echo of the work of madman outsider Fletcher Hanks to it, especially of his character Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle.

It’s never a good sign when an adaptation is outshined this much by its source material and it seems audiences at the time of The Phantom‘s release shared wholeheartedly in my boredom. The film bombed at the box office and, despite strong VHS & DVD sales, never earned the two sequels in its originally-planned trilogy. I wouldn’t call this effect “superhero fatigue”, however. It’s more of a boring movie fatigue, as the superhero source material was the only interesting thing going for this slog, an effect that fades fast once the novelty of the live action comic strip wears off.

-Brandon Ledet