31 Days to Scare ~ Dead Calm (1989)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After tragically losing their son, a married couple are spending some time isolated at sea when they come across a stranger who has abandoned a sinking ship.

Stars: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, Billy Zane

Director: Phillip Noyce

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When recommending 1989’s Dead Calm, I also wish there was a way I could wave a magic wand and clear your mind of the last thirty years of movies its three stars and director would make.  All have gone on to be involved with massive projects (and even win one Oscar) and you can’t help but look at this gripping thriller they made before becoming Hollywood commodities in a different way than you would have back when it was first released.  Though the film remains a bona fide nail biter, I think the “before they were stars” wonder of it all could lessen the impact slightly for a viewer in 2021 as opposed to someone that sat down in a theater in April of 1989 when Dead Calm sailed onto U.S. shores and changed many careers.

The history of Dead Calm begins all the way back in 1963 when it was written as a novel by Charles Williams and attracted the attention of legendary director Orson Welles.  Welles liked it so much that he began filming the movie soon after but left it unfinished.  Years later a copy of the book fell into the hands of Australian director Philip Noyce (Above Suspicion) who got fellow Ozzies George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Terry Hayes (a collaborator with Miller on The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) involved and the rest was, uh, smooth sailing.  The cameras rolled in mid-1987 and the shoot took place over six months on the open sea. 

Like Jaws, Noyce benefited from the location in giving the audience a sense of isolation for an unlucky couple trying to forget a recent tragedy and the trouble they unknowingly welcome aboard in the from of a stranded stranger.  When the stranger turns out to be a psychotic that has sunk his own ship to hide a bloody crime, he manages to get the husband off the boat long enough to take control of the new vessel and the wife.  Now the couple must find a way to communicate and independently stay alive from the dangers present on both ships.

While Billy Zane (Ghosts of War) was the true fresh face of the bunch, the Hawaiian-born, Australian-raised Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) was already an established star down under.  It was Sam Neill (Peter Rabbit) who was considered the veteran, having played Damien Thorn in a third Omen film and weathered the nightmare horror experience that was Possession.  Just coming off A Cry in the Night (aka Evil Angela aka A Dingo Stole My Baby: The Movie) with Meryl Streep, Neill was a considerable “get” for this small-ish picture.

You can see what attracted a filmmaker like Welles to the original story. There’s a tortured soul living in all three main characters and the novel expands on this more, lessening some of the vice grip tension the screenplay from Hayes employs.  That’s why the film Noyce has made is so much of a thrill, because you never know quite what’s about to happen or where the characters might be headed next.  Kidman’s grief-stricken spouse was involved in a horrific accident that claimed the life of her son and always carries the guilt of that with her, unable to share intimacy with her husband out of shame because of it.  Without admitting it, the husband might be directing some of that guilt her way as well, though he makes a good show at hiding it.  Zane’s monstrosity picks up on this once he gets them separated and manipulates that…but also misjudges just how deep the earlier life changing event has bonded the couple, preparing them for what is currently taking place.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the overly commercial ending was a studio intervention to add an extra shot of adrenaline, but the movie succeeds just fine without it.  Dead Calm had already completed its carefully plotted voyage without capsizing its precious suspense cargo in the process.  I wish we had the option of watching Noyce’s original cut instead of the one with the tacked-on joy buzzer of a climax but at least it gives us a few more minutes of the gorgeous cinematography from Dean Semler (Razorback and an Oscar winner for Dances with Wolves) because the work he does is truly magnificent.  Surprisingly, this was a bit of dud at the box office but cleaned up nicely on home video and yes, it holds up like a watertight seal all these years later. It all worked out fine for those involved. The next year Kidman would star in Days of Thunder with future husband Tom Cruise and Noyce’s follow-up film would be 1992’s Patriot Games, the sequel to Sam Neill’s next movie, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. Zane would have to wait through a few years of forgettable films before scoring big time with his next sea faring flick…1997’s Titanic.

Movie Review ~ Above Suspicion

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: A newly married FBI agent is assigned to an Appalachian mountain town in Kentucky and drawn into an illicit affair with an impoverished local woman who becomes his star informant. She sees in him her means of escape; instead, it’s a ticket to disaster for both of them.

Stars: Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Johnny Knoxville, Thora Birch, Sophie Lowe, Austin Hébert, Karl Glusman, Chris Mulkey, Omar Benson Miller, Kevin Dunn, Brian Lee Franklin 

Director: Phillip Noyce 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 104 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6/10) 

Review:  I’m the first to admit that it’s taken me a while to buy a ticket on the Emilia Clarke train.  I’m likely one of the last people to have avoided playing the Game of Thrones, I’ve yet to be completely won over by Clarke’s charms in films like Me Before You and Last Christmas, nor was I convinced she was destined to be an action heroine by Terminator: Genisys or Solo: A Star Wars Story.  I just wasn’t seeing a star there like most people did.  In the end, what I needed was a movie like Above Suspicion to turn my head and finally notice there was an actress with some depth there…and unfortunately this time she’s the best thing about the film. 

That’s partly due to strength of Clarke’s performance as Susan Smith which, through no fault of her own, winds up overshadowing everyone else in the film.  She sets a high bar for commitment: to the look, the accent, the demeanor, everything is considered and casts a believable picture of the local high-school dropout and sometime drug abuser.  Living in a cramped double wide with her drug dealing ex-husband (a bedraggled Johnny Knoxville, We Summon the Darkness) and a menagerie of rogue deplorables while raising their two children, Smith busies herself with small-time crimes like check fraud to help her stay afloat. Smith senses an opportunity for change when she hears new FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston, The Longest Ride) is working with the town’s law enforcement (Austin Hébert, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) to ferret out who has been robbing rural banks. 

Armed with firsthand knowledge of the culprit and not unwilling to give up names in exchange for payment, Smith’s informant relationship with Putnam escalates quickly to a physical level, even as she befriends his new wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe) at the same time.  However, once Agent Putnam has what he needs from Smith she becomes more of a liability than an asset and as her usefulness wanes, so does his interest in her on an intimate level.  With Putnam moving on and leaving Smith to deal with the fallout from the town who now views her as a snitch, she becomes desperate to either get her man back or make sure his success is short lived.

Little more than a juiced up made for television movie about the real-life scandal that rattled a small Kentucky town in 1988, Above Suspicion should work on screen as well as it does on the page.  Based on Joe Sharkey’s 1993 non-fiction book of the same name and adapted by Chris Gerolmo, who penned Mississippi Burning, it’s hard to fathom this tale of an FBI agent’s affair with his informant that led to murder could ever be called lackluster but absent in overall polish it certainly is.  Surprisingly, it’s directed by Phillip Noyce who is no slouch when it comes to putting together a crackerjack thriller with films like Dead Calm, Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, or heck, even the severely compromised 1993 Sharon Stone film Sliver to his credit.

The whole film feels flat and even though cinematographer Elliot Davis (Love the Coopers) captures some beautiful Appalachian scenery, he has a curious obsession with filming Clarke on a diagonal tilt and it doesn’t make the rest of the movie have any more depth to it.  It just makes you cock your head to one side in all of her close-ups.  Clarke is also underserved by Huston as her co-star, with the two exhibiting zero of the chemistry necessary to create the kind of heat that would convince us of the passion that burned hot but cooled dramatically once Putnam, a clear opportunist, saw something shinier ahead of him.  Huston plays the endgame at the outset, leaving little room for his characterization to grow having one foot out Smith’s door from the beginning. 

If there’s one actor that feels like a match for Clarke, it’s Lowe as Putnam’s short-suffering wife.  Not being married that long, Kathy Putnam already seems to understand that her husband is a flawed man who will need constant attention throughout their union.  Lowe brings a brittleness to the role that doesn’t stem from being a jilted wife but from being resentful of having to do all the hard work with her husband while Smith gets him for the fun parts.  Together, Clarke and Lowe share some excellent scenes that spark with the kind of liveliness the rest of the film really needed.  Popping up in a brief role, so brief I have to believe more of it was left on the cutting room floor, Thora Birch (Hocus Pocus) is Clarke’s bouffant-coiffed beautician sister that I wanted additional time with.  Sadly, the script favors more scenes between Putnam and Smith that just rehash the same arguments over and over again on why they can’t be together. Point taken, point made.

Originally intended for release in 2019, Above Suspicion fell victim to the delays of the pandemic and is flying below the radar into theaters before joining the other generic-named titles in the Redbox machines at your local gas station.  The entertainment value is marginal, and it’s mostly due to Clarke and some high production values that keep the film buoyed for most of it’s average running time.  Is it a total wash? No, nothing about tips the scales so much that I would say to skip it but thinking about how a tweak in the casting or even adjustments in performances could have helped up the ante just makes me wish I’d seen that better movie instead.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Giver

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Synopsis: In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the “real” world.

Release Date: August 15, 2014

Thoughts: A bit surprising that it’s taken 20 years for Lois Lowry’s popular young adult novel to make it to the big screen…but not a total shock now that big budget films about seemingly utopian societies that reveal dystopian undercurrents are all the rage (see The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Host, and Divergent if you think I’m wrong).  Attracting an impressive cast including Oscar winners Jeff Bridges (Jagged Edge) and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County, Hope Springs), this has potential…unless audiences find themselves maxed out on this genre which may be reaching its saturation level.