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

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about a kid who goes into the bush of New Zealand with his Foster Uncle to avoid being taken back into custody by an out-of-touch child services agent. On a larger scale it’s about freedom, true freedom. Freedom that comes with responsibility, danger, darkness, and also joy. That sounds a little over the top, but it’s true. It’s also about the people who fall through the cracks and how they can help each other better than the system in place.

Ricky is a street kid, who according the state has a long list of behavioral problems. He has a taste for hip hop fashion and wears high tops and hoodies that zip all the way up over his face. After all the available foster homes in the city don’t work out, the state decides to relocate him to the country with Bella and Hec, who is a dark, quiet man with a drifter past. An unlikely fit into the middle of nowhere, he manages to make himself a home with the help of the cheerful and caring Bella. Bella dies suddenly, and the state threatens to take Ricky back. Ricky decides, rather than go back and face juvenile detention, to run away to the Bush. He goes out and gets lost. Hec finds him, but by the time that happens it’s already assumed that Hec has kidnapped Ricky and a manhunt begins. Many wrong turns and decisions later they end up on the run for four months.

The thing I really loved about this movie is that it makes you want to cry just as often as it makes you want to laugh and that’s quite often. It’s rare to see a comedy this goofy that’s also this sad and depressing. Within the first 15 minutes there’s a tragedy and it seems to keep being punctuated by moments like that. Despite the deeply genuine sadness, the humor is still able to pick you up, with its cracks at dysfunctional bureaucratic systems and absurdity.

One of my immediate thoughts at the start of Hunt for the Wilderpeople was how it felt a lot like a Wes Anderson film. For instance, the movie is broken into chapters. There’s also a similar awkward, deadpan humor. It’s easy to make an immediate comparison to Moonrise Kingdom, with the idea of escaping into the wilderness from a society that doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to. Unlike in Moonrise Kingdom, where these kids are on their own where it doesn’t seem like their lives are in that much danger, the wilderness here is very dangerous and alive. They’re the subject of an actual manhunt. People are injured. No one in Moonrise Kingdom is seriously threatened with jail time. Wilderpeople finds a way of subverting the twee humor, taking the irony out and adding a bite of reality.

It’s also a very pretty movie. The farm house is comfortably rustic and the greenery of the bush is lush and saturated. There’s so many beautiful, helicopter shots of New Zealand scenery, much like Lord of the Rings-so much so that that there’s a joke worked into the movie about it.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is touching and funny. It has its absurd moments, but deep down it has a lot of really radical things to say. The humor manages not to cloud them but instead to add a childlike sense of coping and making sense of the world.

-Alli Hobbs

Episode #7 of The Swampflix Podcast: Daredevil Cinema & Possession (1981)

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Welcome to Episode #7 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventh episode, James & Brandon discuss the Marvel character Daredevil’s humble beginnings on the silver screen in the early 2000s with illustrator Jon Marquez. Also, Brandon & James discuss the art house romance horror masterpiece Possession. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Trash Trash Trash.

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Forgotten Silver (1995): Peter Jackson’s Silent Film Precursor to The Independent (2000)

Five years before our December Movie of the Month, 2000’s Jerry Stiller comedy The Independent, went straight to DVD a very similar mockumentary aired on New Zealand television: 1995’s Forgotten Silver. Although Forgotten Silver covers cinema’s early, silent era while The Independent covers its B-movie & drive-in time frame, the two mockumentaries are very similarly minded both in their reverence for the medium they’re spoofing and in their depictions of madmen auteur directors possessed by their passion for filmmaking & troubled by their failure to secure proper funding for their art. While The Independent is a brilliant, must-see comedy for schlock junkies & Roger Corman fanboys, Forgotten Silver covers the same territory for cinephiles & Criterion fetishists.

When it was first introduced to New Zealand audiences, Forgotten Silver was framed as a true-life documentary of “forgotten” (read: fictional) filmmaker Colin McKenzie, who supposedly operated during cinema’s birth at the turn of the century through the tail end of the silent era in the late 20s. Much like how The Independent‘s Morty Fineman accidentally pioneered cinema in his quest to make movies about “tits, ass, and bombs” Colin McKenzie was credited here for accidentally inventing the world’s first tracking shot, color film, feature length film, talkie, close-up, and candid camera comedy, among other firsts. Although this list of feats is beyond preposterous for an unknown filmmaker (and they all end in blunderous fates like smut charges & miscarriages) its deadpan delivery & adherence to a traditional documentary format make it somewhat understandable that some television audiences were initially duped by Forgotten Silver‘s validity as a document of a real-life auteur. It’s got a much more wry, Woody Allen’s Take the Money & Run style of mockumentary humor in contrast to The Independent‘s more over-the-top, Christopher Guest-esque approach to comedy.

It’s difficult to say for sure if Forgotten Silver provided any direct inspiration for The Independent, but there are some undeniable similarities in their DNA. While Forgotten Silver is concerned with restoration of McKenzie’s entire catalog, The Independent follows the discovery & restoration of Fineman’s “lost” anti-herpes PSA The Simplex Complex. Also like The Independent, Forgotten Silver is mostly concerned with the completion of a single feature film, this time profiling the production of Salome, a multi-year production of a Biblical epic featuring 15,000 extras, a city-sized hand-built set, and endless funding issues that similarly plagued Fineman’s Ms. Kevorkian. The film also establishes its legitimacy as a documentary by enlisting several big names in art cinema – producer Harvey Weinstein, critic Leonard Maltin, and actor Sam Neill among them – to provide interview fodder. Peter Jackson, the film’s co-director/creator alongside documentarian Costa Botes, get the most screentime of all, framing the story of how McKenzie’s films were found & restored and what significance they have to the history of cinema at large in his talking head interviews.

The differences between Forgotten Silver & The Independent are just as apparent. Because Colin McKenzie was (fictionally-speaking) long dead before Peter Jackson brought his work to light, Jackson serves as the central voice in Forgotten Silver. Morty Fineman, on the other hand, is Jerry Stiller alive & at his loudest & most demanding, dominating The Independent‘s runtime. The films’ tones are also drastically different. The only time Forgotten Silver approaches The Independent‘s over-the-top ridiculousness is in its depictions of sub-Charlie Chaplin vaudeville routines involving cream pies that McKenzie filmed in order to financially support Salome. For the most part, though, the two films are remarkably simpatico. At heart, they both aim to resurrect long-dead cinema genres in loving spoof form. Forgotten Silver‘s approach is just more subdued & deadpan due to the nature of its turn-of-the-century subject matter. The Independent is a much flashier, more over-the-top comedy, which makes sense given its exploitation cinema homage. Both are great, must-see comedic gems for cinephiles in either camp.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, 2000’s The Independent, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this transcription of Morty Fineman’s fictional filmography, and last week’s recommendation that you also watch the documentary Corman’s World to get the full picture..

-Brandon Ledet

 

 

Possession (1981)

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Let’s just get this out of the way: Possession is a masterpiece. It’s a cold, incomprehensible film that confidently unleashes cinematic techniques like deadly weapons. Filmed in Berlin in 1980, Possession occupies harsh, uncaring architectural spaces, but populates them with passionate characters that remain in constant, violently fluid motion. The camera moves with them, rarely allowing the audience to settle as it chases its tormented subjects down sparse rooms and hallways like a slasher movie serial killer. In one shot the central couple undulates back & forth in front of a blank white wall, constantly swirling around each other during a bitter argument, but seemingly going nowhere as if trapped in a void. The film feels like a visual manifestation of madness, inertia, and heartbreak all rolled into one dizzying package. It captures the cold horror of divorce & separation and transforms it into an unknowable evil. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in quite some time, but finds its horror in ambiguity instead of a tangible, comprehensible threat.

That’s not to say there aren’t the typical on-screen genre-signifiers of horror in the film. There is gore. Characters bleed at the impact of sharp instruments and are confronted by humanoid demons, but these aspects serve more as exclamation points than the main attraction. With a title like Possession and the heavy synths in the opening theme, it’d be reasonable to expect a straight-forward 80s zombie or vampire flick, but the film refuses to be pinned down so easily. If Possession were to be understood as a creature feature, the monster in question would be the coldness of romantic separation. When a character supposes early in the film, “Maybe all couples go through this” it seems like a reasonable claim. The bitterness of divorce, loneliness, and adulterous desire then devolve into a supernatural ugliness. The main couple frantically move about Berlin as if drunk or suffering seizures, downright possessed by their romantic misery. Their own motion & inner turmoil is more of a violent threat than the film’s most menacing blood-soaked monsters or electric carving knives.

For a taste of the film’s fascinatingly bizarre sense of movement, the Crystal Castles music video for “Plague” samples key scenes and repurposes them as demonic, Kate Bush-style interpretive dance. It could possibly spoil some striking images, but the film’s plot is mostly spoiler-proof in its intentional obfuscation. The Berlin setting, the sound design in the final scene and the protagonist’s confession that he’s “at war against women” all allude to the possibility of a war allegory subtext, but it’s not explicit or concrete. If anything, characters are at war with themselves and the uncaring nature of the world they occupy. When Sam Neill’s protagonist confesses “For me, God is a disease” it’s easy to empathize. Whoever created the cruel, heartless world of Possession and brought life into it must have at least been as callous as a disease. With its brutal momentum & inevitable bloodshed it’s a terrifying hellscape, especially if it’s something that “all couples go through.”

-Brandon Ledet