Picks and Pans Review: Dead Calm

updated 04/17/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/17/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sam Neill

One ocean, two boats, three people. It hardly sounds like a prescription for terror, but this classy Australian chiller capitalizes on its incongruities. Here's a thriller that traffics in claustrophobia, even though it takes place on the open sea. Here's a vehicle for heartthrob Sam (A Cry in the Dark) Neill that keeps him away from his leading lady—and any other human—for most of the movie. And here's a scare flick that makes the palms sweat, even as the mind notes its implausibilities.

Like everything else in the movie, the plot forges a lot out of a very little. An attractive couple, Neill and newcomer Nicole Kidman, are recuperating from the death of their only child by taking a tranquil cruise on their sailboat. But when the twosome encounter another boat in distress, an unsavory intruder, Billy Zane, pierces their solitude. While Neill examines the damaged craft, Zane takes off with wife and boat for an extended cat-and-mouse chase that ultimately involves sexual seduction as well as physical violence.

The movie is something of a film-school exercise: How do you rile up an audience when all you've got is the confining set of two boats? But Australian director Phillip (Newsfront) Noyce builds the suspense without force-feeding the audience red herrings. According to his camera, the stunning Australian scenery, which has distinguished other movies from Down Under, is a false promise. His mesmerizing Australian sunsets are treacherous mirages, and the calm blue water camouflages a troubled world. As the stalwart hero, Neill elevates the movie with his signature integrity, and Kidman, showing some of Sigourney Weaver's steely resolve, is alluring. With their attractive performances anchoring the drama, Dead Calm keeps the hands clammy and the nerves on edge. (R)

GLASNOST FILM FESTIVAL: CONTEMPORARY SOVIET DOCUMENTARIES

In spite of the commonly held belief that "Soviet documentary" is an oxymoron, the art form has a long and in some ways distinguished history in Russia. After the 1917 Revolution, Lenin sent "agitation trains" across the country to bring "living posters" glorifying the Soviet regime to the largely illiterate peasant masses. Perhaps the most talented of the documentary filmmakers working on the agitki was Dziga Vertov (1896-1954), who pioneered a style called kino-pravda—literally "film truth"—which would later become westernized as cinema verité. Most of his films, however, were essentially propagandistic, and very little "verité" was to be allowed during the next 50 years. Now, freed by the era of glasnost, Soviet filmmakers have recently been turned loose, and 22 of their latest efforts are touring the U.S., sponsored by the New York-based Citizen Exchange Council.

Among the most compelling is Vladimir Shevchenko's Chernobyl. Shevchenko's film crew was the first into Chernobyl in the days immediately following the 1986 nuclear disaster. The filmmaker, who died of radiation poisoning shortly before his film's wide release, chronicles the extraordinary efforts of the people who fought to secure the reactor and assigns responsibility to "complacency, incompetence and demagoguery." In another film of surprising frankness, Homecoming, the U.S.S.R.'s Vietnam is explored through the eyes of returning veterans by Tatyana Chubakova.

And the Past Seems But a Dream commemorates the 50th anniversary of a book written in the 1930s by a group of children from the Siberian village of Igarka. Filmmaker Sergei Miroshnichenko accompanied the now-elderly authors of the book back to the village where, he discovers, they were exiled as children by Stalin.

Social ills are tackled as well. In The Limit, Tatyana Skabard examines imprisoned women alcoholics, many of whom have abandoned their children. One boy interviewed says he hopes to grow up quickly so he can kill his mother. This Is How We Live explores how adolescent alienation has manifested itself in "unofficial" youth groups, the ugliest of which advocate fascism. "The children are playing brutal games now," says a teacher. "They will go to any extreme to be different from our generation."

In an especially eloquent documentary, Boris Kustov's The Wood Goblin, an old weathered man sits on a tree stump in a Siberian forest, stroking his cat. With great dignity he tells of the smear campaign by corrupt officials that drove him from his job as a local Party chief. Destitute, he built a cabin in the backwoods, beyond the state's reach. "I joined the party of the green world," he explains of his days defending animals and trees from poachers and loggers. Still, he worries about the psychological health of the Soviet people: "What can be done today with people who have been deceived and lied to so many times? How can conscience be reawakened? How can we be made to believe?" Comrade Gorbachev may be asking himself the same questions every night.

The festival will play across the United States through May 5. Call the Citizen Exchange Council—212-643-1985—for details. (Unrated; in Russian with subtitles)

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