Some of the best movies are made for cable. This one, an HBO original, is a brutal, complex, tough-minded drama set inside Attica during the 1971 riot. Kyle MacLachlan is ideally cast as Michael Smith, the Pollyanna-ish rookie guard who believes inmates should be treated humanely (and is therefore treated humanely, more or less, by the inmates once he and the other guards are taken hostage). Among the prisoners are Samuel L. Jackson (right before Pulp Fiction broke), as a levelheaded Muslim who wants minimal bloodshed and forges a bond with Smith, and Clarence Williams III as a wild-eyed revolutionary itching for revenge on the guards. Entertainment Weekly panned it as “yet another diatribe about how the tradition of ‘60s protest was the ruin of America,” a grotesque misreading of what it’s really a diatribe against — lack of compassion on both sides of the bars and both sides of the social/political spectra. It does this, refreshingly, without big speeches or big “moments.” It also gets us to see the prisoners as humans even after we’ve cringed at the fairly frightening riot in the film’s first half. MacLachlan may not have much in his repertoire but virtuous all-Americans, but, like James Stewart, he excels at finding the complexities and hesitancies in them. It’s one of his better performances outside the Lynch-verse. This taut, ballsy film proved the 64-year-old John Frankenheimer hadn’t lost his touch.
Archive for March 1994
Though one can’t help wondering what Orson Welles might have done with it, Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of the Joseph Conrad standard is enticing and properly grim. Tim Roth is Captain Marlowe, a seaman assigned to journey by steamboat into the jungle lair of Mr. Kurtz (John Malkovich), who has set himself up as a god. Yes, Apocalypse Now had more ambitious razzle-dazzle. But how can you resist Malkovich as Kurtz? He seems to have watched Marlon Brando’s Kurtz and chosen to go in the polar opposite direction, creating a fey paper tiger who doesn’t seem plausible as a man who could assume control of a village. But then again, did Jim Jones or David Koresh seem plausible? Roth is low-key and solid, maintaining our interest in one of the most boring characters in all of literature, and Isaac de Bankole magnetizes the camera as Mfumu, Marlowe’s guide. The real star, however, is Nicolas Roeg, who makes the familiar story tactile and menacing; visually, the movie is powerfully absorbing without being show-offy. Kudos also to Stanley Myers’ score and Anthony B. Richmond’s cinematography.
John Duigan’s Sirens gets down to business with an admirable quickness. Sometime in the early ’30s, a British cleric is sent to Australia to persuade an artist to consent to having a sacreligious etching removed from his exhibition. In no time flat, the cleric and his wife are on the road, and are soon greeted by a sozzled old bum who tells them to “get fucked.”
That’s as brusque an omen as any. Once the man of faith, Rev. Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant) and his proper wife Estella (Tara Fitzgerald) arrive at the spacious estate of the artist, Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill), it’s clear that Sirens won’t be about art so much as the loosening of inhibitions. Lindsay, a famous real-life artist whose actual home served as the film’s setting, amiably but firmly waves off Anthony’s objections. The repressed and oppressive will never get his art, and will never get in touch with their inner Dionysus. Best to let them fumble about being offended.
For one reason or another, the couple’s stay at Lindsay’s estate stretches out long past the overnighter they’d planned, giving Lindsay’s models plenty of time to plant seeds of doubt in Anthony and mostly Estella. Elle Macpherson’s nude participation as the lead model Sheela got lots of ink at the time, and she acquits herself well enough as an actress, chomping on apples and smirking at Estella’s wide-eyed prissiness. Contemptuous socialist Pru (Kate Fischer) and the bashful, aptly named Giddy (Portia de Rossi) round out the trio of beauties, who enjoy swimming in the nearby pond and taunting Lindsay’s handyman and male model Devlin (Mark Gerber), who’s nearly blind.
Duigan frames Sirens as a lush idyll, and its eroticism — good-natured, harmlessly naughty — arises from character and material; those expecting the typical Skinemax softcore will be pleasantly surprised to find themselves not fast-forwarding past the talky bits. The ever-irreverent Grant pulls off the neat trick of making Anthony a sincerely devout Christian but not a fool. He can argue eloquently for his position, though his arguments mostly fall on deaf ears; Lindsay, played low-key by Neill, compares Christianity unfavorably to the older Pagan beliefs. To Lindsay, the Christians have sucked all the sexuality — all the fun, all the juicy power of women — out of life.
Some oddities: Estella’s apparent preoccupation with the Titanic (a symbol of a posh, hollow way of life sinking under the waves?); a phallic snake that keeps slithering into view (once it even curls around a teacup and knocks it over — either a well-trained snake or a vastly lucky accident); an episode in which a lone girl runs back and forth across water while boys jeer at her. All of this is oblique but suggestive, setting the stage for Estella’s fever-dream of lust. She accepts Anthony’s penis stoically but finds herself yearning to be rogered from behind by the rough/gentle Devlin. For Anthony’s part, he’s intrigued by Giddy, the least disdainful of the models.
Sirens is somewhat misleadingly titled, maybe ironically titled: nobody crashes onto the rocks, either figuratively or literally; disaster is not on the menu. These sirens do sing, and emerge from water rather alluringly in a dream sequence, but no real harm comes of their seductiveness. Rather, it’s the liberated thought they and Norman Lindsay represent that endangers the ship (Titanic?) of forbidding rectitude. This is a comedy, so everyone leaves the experience either happier or happily the same.
It’s a fluffy art-house confection that, because of the near-starring role of Elle’s macphersons, has amusingly gained a cult of baseball-cap straight guys who normally wouldn’t sit for a film in which the merits of art and Paganism are debated. But the movie should entertain everyone else, too, except maybe guilty Christians. Or, perhaps, especially guilty Christians.