“There are a lot of inconveniences to yachting that ordinary people don’t know anything about.”

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Rudy Vallee’s observation about a life on the ocean wave in THE PALM BEACH STORY might very well be echoed by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman in DEAD CALM, which I finally caught up with. Director Phillip Noyce is someone I haven’t really bothered myself about — I found his lauded QUIET AMERICAN dull, more faithful than Mankiewicz’s re-Americanized version but simply tedious to watch, and I never persevered with SALT, despite its refreshingly coherent action scenes. And I promise to never watch SLIVER or PATRIOT GAMES.

But this one finally tempted me, viewed as a George Miller movie (he produced) rather than a Noyce one. It feels tightly storyboarded and has been pared down until the backstory squeaks, a mere vestige of some now-lost subplot. The really intense suspense is in the first half, I found, but like such films as Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP, it builds up such goodwill that you don’t notice if the last half isn’t as strong. I enjoyed MAD MAX: FURY ROAD as much as the rest of you, and it’s prompted me to revisit the Miller back catalogue.

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Never get on a boat with Billy Zane, by the way. Just some friendly advice. Think about it.

Nicole K, still sporting her original birth face at this point, is both photogenic and convincing, while staunch Sam Neill is dominant enough to suggest a deeply-buried thematic level the film never quite gets around to pinning down. His advice to his spouse that she must forget their dead child and move on to their new life is uncannily echoed by Zane later in the film as he urges her to stop thinking about her drowning husband and devote her attentions to him.

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But it’s the nasty thrills and elbow-gnawing suspense that mark the film out as attention-worthy. Miller has always been not only unafraid to kill men, women, children and dogs, he has practically insisted upon it — you can see his entire career as a preparation for LORENZO’S OIL, just so we’ll take that movie’s fatal childhood disease seriously. Trust him, he’s a doctor.

Bad panty continuity. Nicole stips off to seduce Zane, then climbs straight on deck wearing only a jacket — and is suddenly sporting tighty-whities. Did Noyce seriously say, “No one will be looking at her ass, they won’t notice”? Fiona reckons Nicole just didn’t want to spend the rest of the movie bare-ass (Zane clearly DID). I guess her character just generated panties by sheer willpower. I can’t help feel the movie offered a few later opportunities for the character to don grundies. You can’t rush into these things.

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Now all we need is the Orson Welles version. I don’t mind if it’s not finished, or not very good — TOO MUCH JOHNSON convinces me it’ll be interesting anyway, and the less work it undergoes at the hands of others, the better.

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19 Responses to ““There are a lot of inconveniences to yachting that ordinary people don’t know anything about.””

  1. In light of the “Other Side of the Wind” debacle I don’t hold out much hope of seeing any more Welles anymore.

  2. Oh, it’ll happen. We may just need some more people to die.

  3. Oja is the major impediment at the moment.

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    DEAD CALM is harrowing, and the shot in where we return to Sam Neill’s character pumping water out of the Saracen is as good an example of perfect camera placement as I can recall.

  5. henryholland666 Says:

    I saw this months ago, but unfortunately it was on a movie channel that has commercials and there were definitely bits that got edited out to fit the runtime. I liked the claustrophobic atmosphere, the music and thought Zane did a good job with a pretty thankless part. I also liked that the flashbacks to what happened on Zane’s boat were done in a quick cutting style, it felt like memories flickering across the screen.

  6. “Sliver” was complete crap, of course, but what’s the reason for not watching “Patriot games”? Rejection of its american jingoism? (It’s Tom Clancy, after all). Of its frivolization of the irish conflict?

    Not that I want to defend it that much, either. From what I remember, “Patriot games” was okay, but the really good one was “Clear and present danger”. A truly excellent movie, and much more critical of U.S. foreign policy than what one might think, considering its source.

  7. I just didn’t fancy the Clancy — sheer prejudice, really, but one has to choose SOME films to not watch…

    Dead Calm gives the impression that stuff has been cut out already, so if they pared it down any further it’d skirt incoherence! I’d like a bit more underlying theme — it’s a perfectly-tooled machine for producing tension, but the suggestions of a critique of machismo are intriguing but vestigial. It’s one of those films that has to fade out rapidly with nothing said once the threat is handled…

  8. Yes! DEAD CALM is easily the best Noyce film I’ve seen. Recently caught up with THE BONE COLLECTOR – and what a load of useless junk that was.

  9. Ack. He’s clearly got some talent, but the current climate seems unconducive to his genre skills. I could see him making a good fist of a superhero flick, or doing well on TV, which seem to be the two options nowadays.

  10. Noyce’s earlier Australian films are quite interesting, without always being entirely successful — Newsfront and Heatwave both struck me as being compelling ideas rather than wholly convincing films (both have very strong and then very weak elements, which makes for a jarring experience — though on the visual level both perform well, especially the latter, which has a kind of nightmarish quality in several key sequences). My favourite from that period is Backroads, a road movie that manages the neat trick both of seeming very much of its period and strikingly fresh in its specific subject matter.

  11. Cool. Heatwave has Judy Davis, doesn’t it? Always a positive.

  12. Haven’t seen DEAD CALM but will exploit this chance to assert Sam Neill is a flat-out wonderful actor. Could cite a dozen hugely unlike roles, but my favorite is in RESTORATION– the most convincing royal game-master in my experience.

  13. Still to see it — I bet I’d enjoy the world-building at least.

    Neill is so often sort of stolid and dependable, that one forgets he can do balls-out-crazy (Possession) and any number of more nuanced characterisations. Always happy to see him.

  14. Heatwave does indeed have Judy Davis, one of the film’s great strengths. Unfortunately the male lead is Richard Moir, who is far weaker than his onscreen partner. There was another Australian film from around the same time dealing with the same material (both films are inspired by actual events), with John Hargreaves in the male lead. Davis and Hargreaves could really have made Heatwave sing, in my view.

  15. Thought Noyce did a good job with Salt, but I must put in a word for Blind Fury, a sort of B-movie very loose Americanisation of the Zatoichi movies, starring Rutger Hauer as a blind Vietnam veteran.

    Billy Zane’s finest hour, for me, will always be his OTT turn as “The Collector” in Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, which is excellent fun and has a cracking cast (William Sadler, CCH Pounder, Dick Miller, Thomas Haden Church, also Jada Pinkett Smith’s finest hour). Lots of rubber monster meltdowns, flashbacks to Golgotha etc.

  16. This film is interesting to interpret from a feminist perspective. I like your observation: “Staunch Sam Neill is dominant enough to suggest a deeply-buried thematic level the film never quite gets around to pinning down.” Although John is dominant in his relationship with Rae, there is an interesting reversal in their gender roles: She evicts Hughie from the yacht and rescues her husband. I wrote a post on Dead Calm called “Why Younger Men Love Older Men.” If you would like to read it, here is the link: https://christopherjohnlindsay.wordpress.com/2015/10/31/dead-calm/

  17. Thanks! Enjoyed your piece. I do think Neill urging Kidman to move on is something the film deliberately wants us to compare to Zane’s spiel when Neill goes missing: “It’s over, forget him, think of your future…” Taking the active role and rescuing her husband seems to be what allows Kidman to deal with her grief, but it’s not done by dismissing the past.

  18. I have a soft spot for Sliver (in fact I kind of like it even more than Basic Instinct), but that might just be because I’m a fan of the new age-y electronic music of Enigma, that underscores the opening murder. Forget High Rise too, this is the best veiled J.G. Ballard film! (Even though it has closer ties to Rosemary’s Baby, being based on a novel by Ira Levin and taking place in an extremely similar apartment building location, full of friendly yet shifty and duplicitous, tenants)

    It is also one of the best films about the pleasures and inherent failings of surveillance and the patheticness of voyeurs (and I say this as a technology obsessed voyeur myself, who still enjoyed the final emasculation scene!)

    “Miller has always been not only unafraid to kill men, women, children and dogs, he has practically insisted upon it — you can see his entire career as a preparation for LORENZO’S OIL, just so we’ll take that movie’s fatal childhood disease seriously. Trust him, he’s a doctor.”

    This is throughout all Noyce’s work as you mention, but I would still highlight his serial killer film The Bone Collector as perhaps the apex of this, in which every single person who gets harrowingly kidnapped during the film being horribly murdered, with Angelina Jolie’s job being to pick over all the details of the victims in the crime scenes. I found it to be one of the most uncomfortable and upsetting of all of the post-Silence of the Lambs serial killer films just for that shift in focus from prevention to aftermath, but I guess it was doing its job in making such a film almost unenjoyable to watch!

  19. Hollywood movies are allowed to be ALMOST unenjoyable, I guess, but mustn’t ever cross that line. Had CSI come into play yet? (Ballard loved that show, for its ruthless expunging of humanity.)

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