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Strange Days (1995)

Strange DaysMany know Kathryn Bigelow from her Academy Award winning and nominated films of recent years.  However, her earlier work features some stunning films that showcase a brilliant visionary style, and no other movie reflects that better than Strange Days.  Released in my favorite year in film, 1995, it bombed at the box office, but gained quite a lot of praise.  Roger Ebert even gave it a four out of four stars, and it was nominated for several Saturn Awards including Best Science Fiction Film with Bigelow winning for Best Director.  Time has since allowed for this film to gain a wider appreciation from genre fans, and I’ve wanted to share mine with you for quite a while now.  Strange Days is essentially the Blade Runner of the 1990’s, but even Blade Runner doesn’t do to me what Strange Days does.

It’s the eve of the millennium in Los Angeles, December 31, 1999.  Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop turned street hustler who preys on human nature by dealing the drug of the future.  A new technology, called “wire tripping,” allows for anyone to re-live actual life experiences tapping directly into the cerebral cortex for the ultimate escapist high.  However, Lenny is soon tangled up in a deadly plot, alongside limousine driver and security specialist Mace (Angela Bassett), when a set of murderous and controversial wire trip recordings end up in his possession that could have radical implications upon the entire city.  It’s an environment that will lead him deep into the danger zone when he falls into a maze filled with intrigue and betrayal, murder and conspiracy.

Kathryn Bigelow was married to James Cameron for a time, and even after their marriage ended, they remained regular collaborators.  Cameron was a producer on this film, co-screenwriter, and an uncredited editor.  I can definitely see his creative influence at work.  It’s that real depth of humanity on display with all of these colorful characters, real penetrating emotion, exciting science fiction ideas, and the exciting energy of storytelling which harkens back to The Terminator.  His creative fingerprints are clearly here, and they are wrapped up in Bigelow’s razor sharp pacing, incredible direction, and mind blowing visuals.

The look of the movie definitely has that dystopian vibe with a lot of grit, smoke, neon, and seedy locales.  Yet, it doesn’t look depressing, but instead, it’s exciting and intense.  The cinematography is just simply stunning, and it will escape me to no end how Batman Forever got nominated at the Oscars for Best Cinematography this year while Strange Days was entirely snubbed as well as The Usual Suspects, Seven, and Twelve Monkeys.  All of those are vastly superior looking and shot films on every level, and Strange Days is really in a league all its own from the signature James Cameron blue tinge style to Bigelow’s really dynamic visual edge that absorbs us fully into this dark, vibrant, mind-twisting reality.  The camera work is amazingly dynamic, intriguing, and inspired.  It’s a visual feast that really embraces a kinetic energy without ever sacrificing artistic integrity.  If you took Blade Runner and hyper-charged it with adrenalin and a riveting edge of flash, you would get Strange Days.

The movie jacks you into a wire trip from the start to clearly convey the language of the experience.  People are buying these recordings to experience the forbidden pleasures in life like armed robbery or sexual desires.  It’s an extremely tempting thing that gives you all the rush and excitement without consequence, but it’s entirely illegal forcing Lenny to be the king of this underground business.  Thus, he comes into the center of two related criminal plots.  The first involves a pair of corrupt cops, portrayed by William Fichtner and Vincent D’Onofrio, tracking down a damning wire trip recording that could erupt the entire city in violence and outrage.  The second is someone who stalked, raped, and murdered a friend of Lenny’s, and now is focusing his sick and disturbing torment on Lenny himself.  All of this melds together into a larger conspiracy that engulfs these characters into a powerful dramatic story that rips and tears at emotions with severe risks and consequences.

Now, I absolutely love Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero.  He’s the real crux of this whole film energizing it with his slick charm and charisma.  He’s a mesmerizing salesman selling fantasies with the sensation of pure, raw reality.  Yet, he never comes across as sleazy.  Fiennes makes Lenny very genuine in everything he does, and thus, he is the perfect unlikely hero with a yearning broken heart, a life of down and out black market seediness, and a real vulnerable quality to him.  Ralph Fiennes is an incredible actor, and he makes this a very deeply human and emotionally vulnerable character that draws you completely into the film.  Lenny Nero is not a man who views himself as a hero, but the frightening descent that he is caught up in forces him to take action, especially with his former love Faith, portrayed greatly by Juliette Lewis, at the center of it.  Faith has fully fallen into the deep end of the sleaze as a rock singer hooked up with Michael Wincott’s wire trip addicted record label owner Philo Gant.  Lenny desperately wants to win her back, or at least, pull her out of that deep end.  As a side note, I really love the wardrobe of Lenny Nero.  It’s very stylish and flashy with plenty of unique personality, much like Lenny himself.

Angela Bassett is absolutely bad ass here in a very gritty, powerful way.  Mace is exceptionally tough not taking any crap from Lenny, who hustles and leeches favors off her when he’s down and out, and as a security specialist, she can back up every ounce of that attitude.  Bassett exudes energy and strength in every frame, and intensifies every moment.  I’ve always been impressed by Bassett’s mixture of tough exterior with a tender interior.  She definitely brings that out in Mace with all the raw emotional power possible.

Now, you talk about Academy Award quality work, I honestly believe that both Bassett and Fiennes achieved that in this film.  Had Strange Days not fallen under the radar, I believe it would have been heralded with that kind of reverence at the time.  Both Bassett and Fiennes deliver stunning, deeply powerful performances, and the script fuses Lenny and Mace together in a very personal way born out of tragedy and heartbreak.  Furthermore, the chemistry between Bassett and Fiennes is spectacular.  They spark off amazingly whether it’s sharp wit and humor, vehement conviction, or deep emotional drama.  They are an electrifying pair which forge a riveting gravitas around them, but also make it a fun ride with their great rhythm and heart.

This film is just filled with an array of exceptional acting talents putting forth their best.  From Tom Sizemore to Juliette Lewis to William Fichtner to Vincent D’Onofrio to Michael Wincott, the supporting cast is bursting with charisma, awesomeness, and solidarity.  Everyone is equally as compelling and vibrant creating a very electrifying ensemble.  Under Kathryn Bigelow’s direction, everyone delivers a powerful and intensely memorable performance.  Bigelow seems to very much favor Sizemore as he appeared in Blue Steel and Point Break with much smaller roles, but here, he’s given a very prominent role as Max, a friend of Lenny’s who is still on the police force that weaves himself tightly into this plot.

On top of having that mind-blowing, amazing cast, Bigelow delivers an exciting, riveting thriller.  The mysteries are wonderfully interwoven with all the character dynamics, volatile social climate, and science fiction tech elements.  There’s wickedly tight tension and heart-pounding excitement at every turn.  The powder keg of Los Angeles is building towards an explosion, and the lethality of the situation only builds as forces converge.  This is a movie that constantly pushes further and further along the razor’s edge of madness, suspense, and danger.  Surely, there is action here handled with the riveting intensity that Bigelow demonstrated with Point Break, but saturated with larger doses of style and exhilaration, if that’s even imaginable.  The two corrupt cops dousing Mace’s limo with gasoline and lighting it on fire forcing her to drive it into in the bay, and then, make a shotgun glass shattering escape to avoid drowning is superbly executed, as is everything here.  This film is soaked in emotion and thrilling, edge of your seat suspense, but still finds those moments of pure entertainment to make it a greatly fun experience.

Surely, the odd aspect of the film is that it was released in 1995 and takes place in the year of 1999 featuring a very radical decline in society.  It’s a very narrow jump into the future.  However, I really do like that it uses that “end of the millennium” sort of craziness and chaos to enhance every aspect of the film.  Strange Days also reflects a lot of early 90’s Los Angeles culture with the earthquakes, riots, and police brutality incidents, and so, it feels very encapsulating of what one could pessimistically feel the future of that Los Angeles could have been.  People are packing assault rifles, cops are wearing tactical riot gear, and the entire city looks like it’s on the edge of all our war.  This is the vibe and energy that Bigelow injects into the fiber of the film, and it really erupts in the film’s climax.  Strange Days is more than just a cyberpunk thriller, it has real social commentary on the darkest parts of society with shocking consequences.  The climax leaves me speechless.  I really don’t have the words reserved to describe it.  There is no easy road taken in this story, and nothing is handled lightly.  This is a hard hitting, gritty, visceral film that holds nothing back on any level.

Fueling all of that is a stellar score by Graeme Revell and a very aggressive soundtrack of mid-1990s electronic, heavy metal, and edgy music.  Every creative element of this movie is jacked into that kinetic, cyberpunk style that soars to magnificent heights.  It’s a pure encapsulation of a stunning vision by Bigelow built on the foundation of a rock solid, stunningly intelligent screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks.

Strange Days is a brilliant, incredible movie with a lot of strong thematic material, wickedly amazing performances, and a spectacular visual style.  This is one of the best and most original movies I have ever seen.  My mind was blown all over again watching it for this review.  Kathryn Bigelow would not be nominated for an Academy Award until 2010, but the evidence of her shockingly amazing talent was evident in 1995 with Strange Days.  This is a film that deserves vastly more exposure, credit, and accolades than it has received.  Surely, Point Break fulfills every action film adrenalin rush satisfaction for me, but this is the remarkable, awe-inspiring film experience.  This is surely, without a doubt, the far superior film of the two, but both deliver on every promise and exceed expectations every step of the way.  My recommendation is that you must see this movie no matter what!

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Alien: Resurrection (1997)

With Alien: Resurrection, it became painfully obvious that Twentieth Century Fox was now less interested in making credible sequels and more so in just bleeding this franchise dry.  Let’s try to put this into perspective.  Joss Whedon, as many know, is the creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Angel, & Firefly.  He’s a proven great screenwriter and director.  He is the screenwriter for this film as well, but by his own admission, the filmmakers executed every aspect of his script wrong.  Everything imaginable was done wrong from Joss’ written vision.  Various other aspects were introduced by the film’s shitty French director Jean-Pierre Juenet.  This, mainly, includes all the bad, stupid humor.  The worst part of it is the fact that he’s very proud of all the stupid comedic bits, thinking it makes the film more entertaining and fantastic.  This is the sort of thing that flushes the film down the toilet.  Watching the DVD Special Edition cut, other things become obvious.  His originally intended main title sequence is stupid, irrelevant, and directly setups a terrible tone for the film.  It comes off as total, stupid B-movie cheese, and the cheap CGI effects drag it down to even lower levels.  The theatrical cut sets a much better tone, but it hardly sets you up for how abhorrent this film really is.  So, by that train of thought, the Special Edition introduction fits the quality of this motion picture much better.

After killing herself to prevent the government from taking the monstrous Alien to Earth, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) awakens 200 years later to find she has been cloned in order for scientists to withdraw the Alien DNA living inside her.  As the world around her begins to fall apart and the terror begins again, Ripley realises that the scientists who cloned her may not have fully removed the Alien from her, at the same time that she is, once again, perhaps the only one who can stop the horrific infestation from reaching Earth.

Alien had Ridley Scott, Aliens had James Cameron, and Alien 3 had David Fincher – filmmakers who have all gone onto very high profile, blockbuster, and critically acclaimed careers.  Jean-Pierre Juenet is about third class next to them.  Where the previous three films gave the franchise a real weight and emotional depth, this film becomes a badly done and clichéd comic book adventure.  It shows nothing of subtlety or intelligent originality.  It’s all BIG camera moves, BIG action, BIG (yet shallow) characters.  It also features over-the-top and cheesy performances by all but two cast members.

Ron Perlman and Michael Wincott are exceptional actors who are always reliable for bringing the goods.  Wincott tends to bring a mysterious and engaging quality to his performances.  Top Dollar in The Crow is probably his most high profile role.  Here, it’s more low key, but that just makes him more intriguing.  I think he could shine well in a classic film noir feature.  Unfortunately, he has very few scenes, and gets killed relatively early.  Ron is a bad ass, plain and simple.  There’s a definite reason why he got such a role in Blade II, and more importantly, as Hellboy.  He’s good at ass-kicking, gung-ho roles.  This outing is no exception.  Although, most casting choices are uninspired.  One might be used to Dan Hedaya in more comedic roles, but he has fit into a dramatic feature well, such as The Usual Suspects.  Here, you might think that his character would be made to hold more dramatic weight, but it’s 99% bad humor.  General Perez does not come off, remotely, as a serious military officer.  He comes off as a mentally stunted fool.  Compared with Apone or Hicks from Aliens, he’s a buffoon.  I’d sooner be led by Bill Paxton’s Hudson.  If Perez is representative of humanity’s military, then it’s a sad state of affairs for the human race.  Winona Ryder is no Carrie Henn, in terms of a vulnerable female role, and is no Lance Henriksen or Ian Holm, in terms of a peculiar android (or ‘artificial person’).  Simply said, she fails to provide Annalee Call with any true depth or fascinating quality.  There’s no reason for her to be here, let alone anything for her to do in this role.  Brad Dourif provides nothing but over-the-top goofiness.  You can’t take him seriously for a second.  Good over-the-top Dourif is The Exorcist III, this is Dourif on the opposite end of the quality spectrum.  Doing it with all the weight of a feather, and being god awful in a role you want to forget in short order.  So many of these roles are cliché, paper thin characters meant to fit a cardboard cutout archetype to service the poor plot.  You need the evil military guys, the mad scientists, the gruff mercenaries – all check.  So, there is a need to scrutinize Joss Whedon’s script.  I know he’s capable of far more diverse, complex, and interesting characters than this.  I just don’t understand how he was responsible for such a lightweight, flat, and uninspired script.  I can understand the filmmakers botching up the execution of the script, but I can’t believe they drained depth and character from it to where Joss would still accept a screen credit.  Much of it would have to be Mr. Whedon’s fault, unfortunately.

Now, you have to ask where does Sigourney Weaver fit into all of this?  She’s not playing Ellen Ripley.  Not the Ripley we came to know and evolve with through the first three films.  This is a hollow shell of a character with the memories of Ripley, and slight emotional traces thereof.  But she’s not the weary, battle hardened, desperate character that Alien 3 left her as.  Nor is she the strong, assertive, and haunted woman of Jim Cameron’s film.  Sigourney does give us a rather creepy character, but it’s nothing recognizable to the franchise’s fans.  Her character is truly alien.  The emotional state of this Ripley Clone is sporadic and erratic.  It’s all over the map, not allowing an audience to connect with the franchise’s heart and soul.  It also plants Weaver, firmly, in the mud.  She has no place to expand or grow with this dead role.  Ellen Ripley’s character arc concluded with Alien 3.  Closure was had, even if it was bleak.  She went through all kinds of hell, saw so many die, and the pain and loss was absorbed into every fiber of her being.  She was as human as any character you will find, and her end came with pathos and poetry.  You might not have liked it, but within the context of that story, her death was appropriate and purposeful.  It should not have ended any other way.  Then, they go ahead and piss all over that with this cold, hollow “resurrection.”  It is D.O.A.  Sigourney Weaver’s role is one you cannot emotionally invest yourself in because she has very little emotion to offer.  It’s about the stark opposite of the real Ellen Ripley we saw in the first three films.  Suffice it to say, this film easily could’ve been scripted and shot without Sigourney Weaver or anything including Ripley since this really isn’t Ripley, not in spirit.  She’s a stranger amongst strangers, and a stranger to her fans.

Moving on, and as I said, the film is filled with BIG everything.  Every shot in the film is something complex and highly involved.  There’s always movement, and extremely little, if any, subtlety in its cinematography.  This forces the film to be less grounded and more overly dramatic.  Dutched angles are seen throughout.  Some scenes have one after another after another after another, for no effective reason.  Juenet and cinematographer Darius Khondji were painting with broad strokes to show off their budget and gimmickry.  Just them trying to make the film look artistic and interesting while achieving neither.  Furthermore, every action sequence is over shot.  Push-ins, sweeping crane shots, steadicam madness, low angles, high angles, dolly tracks.  Khondji just throws all the tricks into every sequence, turning them into a massively over worked mish-mash, and not trying to differentiate one from another.  Once the action begins, it’s shifted into hyperactive mode.  It’s like Michael Bay on steroids – everything done to maximum capacity and minimum reality.  At least with Michael Bay, he does it to give his films an epic feeling, this all falls flat for me.  Also, the film is saturated with this sickly green tinge that is simply too much, and makes the film exceptionally unattractive to watch.  When it’s not green, it’s this deep brown which is equally unattractive.  Just adds to the excessively stylized comic book visuals that only further flushes the film down the crapper.  There’s no beauty or inspired photography in the look of this film, ever.

Like I stated before, there are stupid concepts in this film, some minor, some major.  A minor one also shows the lack of thought put into the futuristic setting.  In several hundred years, why would we still be using paper currency?  Even today, in the early 21st century, we’re mostly relying on debit and credit cards.  Most people don’t handle tangible currency, it’s mostly computer based funds.  Bills are paid online, plastic cards are swiped to make purchases.  Three or four hundred years from now, paper currency will be an ancient concept.  Also, a pinhole crack in a space ship’s hull (or window) would not cause the effect seen in the film’s climax.  It is simply against the laws of physics and intelligence.  But it fits in with the complete stupidity of the film.

Far larger dumbass ideas culminate in the abomination called ‘The Newborn.’  I won’t even bother commenting on its design as I think ‘abomination’ says enough.  It’s just pathetic that one of the most merciless, relentless, and fearsome creatures in the history  of science fiction cinema is dwindled down to this lame ass, mutated, embarrassing mess.  Twisting the knife further, it actually says, “Mommy.”  A further slap in the face is how helpless the Alien Queen is depicted as, and the fact that this regurgitated beast bitch slaps her to death.  James Cameron and Stan Winston have been insulted.  As bad as all that is, the French hack makes it even worse – Ripley makes love to the damn Alien!  You may vomit now.  It’s nothing graphic in detail, but the implication alone is enough to make you sick.  And the complete hack director of Catwoman, Pitof, is the film’s special effects supervisor.  Seems French hack director socialize with other French hack directors, both destined for bankrupt American filmmaking careers.

The film’s effects are a divided issue.  The CGI is obvious and substandard.  I keep wondering how, in 1993, at the dawn of digital filmmaking, we got realistic, flawless, seamless computer generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but over fifteen years later, we continue to get cheap, crappy CGI effects in countless films (even for high profile, big budget films).  This film was all of five years later, and the computer generated Aliens and effects are hardly seamless.  There is no effort involved in picking them out from their live action surroundings.  The physical effects, on the other hand, are definitely up to standards.  This is due to Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated – mainly Allec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.  They worked with Stan Winston on Aliens, and took over with their own company, ADI, on Alien 3.  I’m not keen on the brown, veiny Aliens, but the quality of the physical and practical effects, across the board, are of a high standard.

You can talk about the film’s score, but it’s nothing exceptional.  Standard fare, forgettable horror-action cues.  Which rather sums up the film.  The entire problem with this film is that it takes a fairly serious franchise constructed by three serious filmmakers who injected it with strong layers of suspense, terror, and character depth, and then, deteriorates it into one-dimensional, one note characters and over worked action sequences.  Suspense and terror barely fit into the mix.  It’s all replaced by poorly conceived ideas, and a badly interpreted and executed script.  It is one bad turn after another that beats the credibility of a once great franchise further into the dirt until it’s six feet under, and then, spits on the grave for good measure.  If this was some terribly troubled production with all kinds of creative differences (i.e. Alien 3), some of this might be forgivable, or at least, understandable.  But it absolutely was not.  Director Jean-Pierre Juenet loves this film with all his heart, and thinks everything he did was wonderful and fantastic.  Perhaps, even brilliant.  The reality is that he made an abomination of a film that drove the final, hot, sharp nails into the coffin of the franchise.  It could’ve ended with Alien 3 without much argument, at least, in light of Alien: Resurrection, but alas, the Hollywood money machine kept on milking it.  Paul W.S. Anderson went on to beat the dead horse further with AVP, and unfortunately, put a bullet through the heart of the Predator franchise as well (which hardly had been run into the ground).  AVP-R, in my opinion, helped to turn the tide a bit, but it all remains to be seen.

This film, on its own, is pathetic and badly done.  When compared to its predecessors, it’s a terrible piece of cinema that never should’ve been.  A fourth Alien film, if it needed to be done (which it didn’t), could’ve been put into the hands of any number of far more credible, talented, and higher quality filmmakers.  How it landed in the hands of a Frenchman who had never made an American film before, let alone anything in the realm of straight horror, is beyond me.  It failed on every level.  There are very brief bits of goodness here, but they are crumbs that will not satisfy your hunger for another well-made Alien film.  This is a straight shoot ’em up splatter fest devoid of the suspense and character depth each previous entry had instilled in the franchise.  Nothing is improved upon in the Alien Quadrilogy DVD Special Edition cut.  It just prolongs the agony, and there’s not enough of a distinct difference to offer a separate review of it.  This one review covers enough, and you can feel free to send it down the refuse, again.  This could rival Highlander II, Freddy’s Dead, & Jason X as the worst genre sequel of all-time.  It really was and is a letdown in light of where the film series began and evolved to.  This sequel is a poor afterthought for a franchise that still had a decent measure of credibility remaining.  Thankfully, you can still watch the first three films as a complete trilogy, and easily ignore Alien: Resurrection in its entirety.