Rating: The Ugly – 63.4 Genre: Science Fiction, Crime Duration: 87 mins Director: Kathryn Bigelow Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis
Strange Days is a film that certainly doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts given that Kathryn Bigelow directed it, her then husband James Cameron wrote it, and Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett starred in it along side a host of quirky support talent. A rather unadventurous and unoriginal vision of the near future provides the backdrop for an even more humdrum tale of murder, police brutality, and city riots. Fiennes stars as a former vice cop turned black marketeer who deals in “playback”, a futuristic digital voyeurism that allows the user to experience what others have gone through so long as they recorded themselves doing it. When he receives a clip of someone being murdered he finds himself not only the target of that same killer but neck deep in a high profile case of police brutality that threatens to turn the city into flurry of millennial riots.
Returning to the director’s chair four years after the sensational Point Break, Bigelow largely underwhelmed her eager fans with a visually solid piece of future fiction but an overall uneven movie. The idea of an illicit form of digital recreation was an interesting and even prescient premise but there’s just too much confusion in the writing of this movie to allow any of it to breathe. It quickly gets lost in a patchwork of big ideas which Cameron was clearly attempting to develop into as many profound sociocultural statements regarding mid-90’s L.A. as possible. There are simply too many subplots operating on different wavelengths from the point of view of both momentum and the tension they generated. Furthermore, the main plot doesn’t emerge until the 50 minute mark and that it builds towards an illogical drawn out ending and overall anticlimax makes it all the more tedious. The production design and overall visual look is modest in its ambitions and while better than some future based movies it still lacks the inspiration of the great sci-fis.
Fiennes gives a somewhat interesting lead performance as he relies on a strangely innocent charm to engage the audience. However, the absence of any edge to his personality ensures he doesn’t come across as a former narcotics cop from a near anarchic LA. There’s also a distinct lack of chemistry between him and Bassett despite the latter’s admirable attempts to rise above her character’s stereotyping. As such, the idea that her character would fall, let alone, hold a torch for Fiennes’ less than heroic trafficker is just not believable and, with that, their entire subplot dissolves into yet another distraction from the central story. The supporting acts are largely wasted too with Tom Siezmore’s private investigator counting as one of the more bizarre decisions from both an acting and writing point of view.
Outside of the compelling central concept of virtual playback and its somewhat interesting if flawed lead performances, the only thing that can be said for Strange Days is that while few of the threads are original, the attempt to sew so many of them together into one story does give the film a certain distinction and a even an entertaining quality. However, at over two hours long and with so many distractions, it’s a draining entertainment and not nearly substantial enough to justify even a single revisit.
Rating: The Ugly – 60.1 Genre: Thriller, Crime Duration: 102 mins Director: Kathryn Bigelow Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Silver, Clancy Brown
Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red teamed up so perfectly on Near Dark that it seemed a cinch they’d do it again but unfortunately this uneven story about a female police office who is targeted by a deranged stalker falls well short of the mark. There are too many sub-plots most of which are rushed and some of which are laughably realised and at times Ron Silver really hams it up as the bad guy. However, the main story which pits Jamie Lee Curtis and the always excellent Clancy Brown against Silver’s lunatic obsessive is actually quite interesting. Furthermore, it’s a wonderfully shot movie with some brilliantly staged night time sequences adding significantly to the atmosphere. Thus, despite some considerable failings, one feels strangely compelled to forgive it – but only barely.
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 131 mins Director: Kathryn Bigelow Stars: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Kathryn Bigelow had already proven her action chops with the brilliant Point Break so she was always a good candidate to direct a film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. However, in The Hurt Locker she and writer Mark Boal take a more pensive approach and focus on the mental battlefield that the soldiers fight internally. Think The Thin Red Line without all the monologues or broad sweeping references to nature and you’ve got the idea. For the most part, it works thanks to the compelling performance of Jeremy Renner as the ace explosives disarmer who is addicted to the rush he gets from his job. The film follows him and the two other men of his unit, the equally excellent Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, as they are called to disarm a variety of devices. However, the unnecessary danger that he puts himself and those around him in strains relations between him and his men resulting in a few close calls, both professional and personal.
Bigelow effectively contrasts the lulls and boredom of downtime with the fear and tension of battle and her handling of the latter scenes is especially fantastic. One scene in particular where Renner and Mackie’s characters coordinate their efforts against a sniper threat under a baking hot desert sun works beautifully. However, despite the plaudits this film received, there are problems. Boal based this film on a series of Vanity Fair articles and unfortunately he never really stepped back far enough from that source material to tie them together into a single story driven by a discernible plot. As such, the story comes across as a fascinating collection of anecdotes. Furthermore, their attempt to engender the proceedings with a sense of purpose towards the end comes off as rather clumsy with Renner’s character inexplicably getting involved in a couple of incidents that ultimately bear no consequence to the rest of the sequences. That said, because the individual sequences are such a treat to watch and the acting is universally first class, The Hurt Locker remains a richly entertaining experience.
Rating: The Good – 80.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 157 mins Director: Kathryn Bigelow Stars: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
The search for Osama Bin Laden was always going to make a thrilling story but few would’ve expected it to be depicted in the manner Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty did. Rather than give us a sprawling manhunt full of thrills and close calls or a tense forensic investigative mystery, she and her writer Mark Boal offer up something more contemplative and altogether more unorthodox. Jessica Chastain plays the driven young agent who is charged with fulfilling the increasingly unpopular remit of finding the world’s most wanted man. Beginning in 2003, we see the eroding yet hardening effect the eight year manhunt has on her as she moves from one source to another (the infamous “detainees”) trying to piece together the puzzle from their scant accounts. The controversial torture scenes are incorporated incidentally and without judgement (this shouldn’t be mistaken for approval) so that an overall picture is painted. This of course encourages a more objective assessment of the entire affair and lets the viewers make up their own minds. It’s the personality of the main players that keeps the audience interested during the protracted first and second acts, watching them wear and tear in relation to the pressure of a fruitless endeavour and changes in political climate. Chastain is real and reveals a curiously compelling strength but there’s no doubt her character can grate (there are a few misjudged brattish moments where she genuinely tests the audience’s loyalty). Jason Clarke is excellent as the lead investigator and Jennifer Ehle shows yet again how important she can be to a movie in a well written support role.
As he did with The Hurt Locker, Boal shows that script writing is not his first trade. The structure is almost alien to what we are used to but thanks to the uniqueness of the story and a more refined working relationship with Bigelow, they manage to steer this one home. The first two acts can be slow going but there’s an organic flow to the chapters and events as they unfold. There’s also a serious payout because during the final act when we leave Chastain’s character and pick up with the SEAL team who execute the ultimate search and destroy mission, this films morphs into sleekest depiction of stealth warfare we’ve ever witnessed on film. A series of rugged and grizzled looking men (a mix between lesser known actors and actual former SEALs) begin to fill the cast and Greig Fraser’s cinematography comes into its own as the bleached deserts of day time Pakistan are replaced with the steely grey of the extended night-time mission. The action is slick, real, and very hardcore for when the SEALs aren’t busy surviving helicopter crashes and improvising their entries they’re executing their plan and training with formidable precision. And it’s in this feature that the true strength of Zero Dark Thirty is revealed. It’s authenticity. Based on real life accounts and informed by a team of consultants, this film pulses with realism. Everything in this film from the experimental stealth helicopters, the four goggle night vision apparatus, to the relatively more modest even humdrum tools of the earlier investigation (with the exception of that cool “predator bay”) feels legitimate. And when combined with Bigelow’s methodical buildup and tightly controlled tension, it all amounts to a cinematic experience that is genuinely unique and immensely competent.
Rating: The Good – 87.5 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 122 mins Director: Kathryn Bigelow Stars: Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey
One of the most underrated action movies of the 90’s and one of the very best action films of any era, Point Break is a white-knuckle action showcase from the first scene to the last. Keanu Reeves (in one of his best roles to date) plays the FBI agent Johnny Utah who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfing bank robbers while Patrick Swayze (in arguably his finest performance) plays the magnetic Bodhi whose addiction to life on the edge is as compelling to those around him as it is dangerous. Gary Busey (who himself starred in that other great surfing movie Big Wednesday) steals every scene as Utah’s grizzly partner and a host of “beach-rat” twenty-somethings contribute strongly in making this one of the most sardonically charming casts of its decade. The chemistry between all concerned is fantastic and it’s back-dropped with a rip-roaring soundtrack which is excellently counter-weighted by Mark Isham’s serene score. W. Peter Ilif’s dialogue is a big block of surfer cheese but stuffed with razor blades and when the latter combine with that soundtrack, the movie threatens to become one of the coolest sounding action film ever.
The action is what most people remember Point Break fondly for but the manner in which both Utah and Bodhi are intertwined in both personality and spirit is what really grounds the film. It actually provides the basis for a surprisingly mature examination of the adrenaline-junkie profile as Iliff ties both characters’ motivations to broader questions of meaning and belonging (fret not:- it really is done well!). This is most cleverly realised in the cover identity Utah creates for himself which ultimately becomes a roadmap for the remainder of his career and we are led to infer, his life. All this adds a touch of class to the story but it’s also done subtly enough that the movie never veers towards a drama and away from the steel-toned action film that it most certainly is.
Long before The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow proved she had the chops for action. But that wasn’t in this film. That was in the earlier Near Dark. In Point Break, she proved she was nothing short of an action auteur. From the manner in which she uses the hand-held camera to her judgement in how to get the best out of Donald Peterman’s stunning cinematography and Howard Smith’s intense editing, Point Break is the reason why so many critics made fools of themselves when they announced The Hurt Locker is long-awaited proof that women can direct action movies. High points include the first bank robbery which became the template for all later bank robbery scenes (even masterpieces such as Heat took their cues from it), the sky-diving scenes which have yet to be outdone to this day (even by dedicated sky-diving films), a ferociously shot FBI raid on the house of the rival surfing gang, and best of all that scintillating foot-chase which goes down as one of the most realistic chase scenes in screen history. “Little hand says it’s time to rock & roll!”
The vampire genre is peculiar in that it is the most over-exploited yet poorly represented of all the horror sub-genres. Happily, Near Dark is not only an exception to that rule but it’s also quite simply the best modern representative of the genre. Director Kathryn Bigelow and Tangerine Dream’s brilliant score add a haunting and dreamlike quality to Eric Red’s excellent script about a small town boy named Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) who gets more than he bargained for when he takes a pretty girl (Jenny Wright) on a night-time drive. Before he knows it, he’s kidnapped by her “family”, which is led by the sensational Lance Henrikson’s Jesse and populated by an array of brilliantly fleshed-out (no pun intended) characters. The most captivating of these is without doubt Severen, played by Bill Paxton in one of the most explosively entertaining performances you’ll ever see. Paxton quite simply burns a hole in the screen as the deranged and incendiary vampire but it’s a testament to the quality of the acting throughout that a performance of that stature doesn’t overshadow that of the others.
Near Dark is a more mature and contemplative horror film than we typically see as it blends aspects of both the western and vampire genres together in ways that draw interesting parallels between the two. There’s a strong romantic theme running through the film which is fascinatingly skewed by Red’s more intimate take on the vampire mythology. There are no fangs on show, which makes the feeding all the more believable and indeed gruesome. The bar scene in particular (involving a great piece of ensemble acting from the “vampires”) will leave you seriously squeamish. The story takes a couple of logical leaps towards the end but they don’t really tarnish the overall experience because Near Dark is really about the lingering atmosphere it sets.
This was Bigeolow’s first great film (the more observant will notice the cast is full of regulars from her then husband James Cameron’s films) and her use of sound and awesome imagery (just check out that early shot of the family bearing through the desert in their RV) gives it an intimate yet appropriately otherworldly feeling which not many directors can achieve. Of course in that respect, credit must also be given to screenwriter Eric Red, whose previous film The Hitcher had a similar dreamlike vibe to it. Red’s script is quite minimal in parts which makes the words of the characters all the more relevant when they are spoken. Furthermore, at crucial junctures, he uses the extended moments of silence in between lines almost as lacunae which gives the audience a more tangible sense of the world of the “vampire”. It really is an extraordinary device which is only augmented by Tangerine Dream’s luminescent score riding somewhere in the background. In fact, that score and Red’s words work so effectively together, it’s like he wrote the script to their music. There are not many films coloured so strongly by their score and it’s yet another testament to the skill of Bigelow that neither it nor the script cancel the other out. In fact, it’s exactly that type of balancing act which makes Bigelow such a good director and Near Dark such a good cross-over horror.