A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Strange Days

March 9, 2010

Strange Days

A conversation I had with my wife when I heard that Kathryn Bigelow had directed the Oscar nominated Hurt Locker:

Me: Kathryn Bigelow – why does that name sound familiar?

Amanda: You know her.  She directed Strange Days.

Me: I thought that was her!  That movie rocks!

So when Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar two days ago we decided to watch Strange Days as a celebration of sorts.  But, really, I don’t need an excuse to watch this movie.  It’s one of the best noir sci-fi films ever made… and yet I haven’t watched it in ages.  Not sure why.  Maybe it’s some of the intense violence that is portrayed.  You do really get sucked into this movie – and it’s hard to let yourself care for the characters in the film when they’re in for such a rough ride.

The premise of Strange Days is really gripping.  It takes place in the not-too-distant future (which in this case is new year’s eve 1999.)  The world is pretty much just like our world, only in the verge of martial law because eveybody’s crazy with millennium fever.  Oh, and there’s this magic tech called “tapping” that lets you record your complete sensory input and re-live it.  Or re-live the input of anybody else who has tapped.  Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny, a down on his luck ex-cop who makes a living (almost) selling black market wire recordings.  An acquaintance of his and friend of his ex girlfriend Faith is brutally murdered.  She was mixed up in something – something that involves the cops and a murdered singer.  From there it’s a Raymond Chandleresque noir thriller, which means most of the time Lenny is on the run, getting beat up, and doesn’t know who to trust.

Like his friend Max tells him “The issue is not whether you’re paranoid.  The issue is whether you’re paranoid enough.”

What’s impressive is how Bigelow builds the tension, introduces you to the world and manages to make the characters so human.  You can’t help caring about Lenny and his sad devotion to his lost love (played by a slinky all-growed-up Juliette Lewis.)  Then there’s his one true friend – the only person who hasn’t given up on him and who repeatedly pulls his bacon out of the fire as he gets deeper and deeper in over his head – played with fire and passion by Angela Bassett in the performance of a lifetime.  The story takes the lead here, the characters are more important than the setting or the special effects.  Indeed the whole wire-head thing is treated only as a great plot device that lets you literally get inside the heads of the characters.  It involves some great camera tricks as well, and you know that a lot of effort went into it, but it works so seamlessly that most of the time you don’t even notice.

The first ten minutes of the movie are a single continuous first-person take – and there’s  commentary track that’s a half-hour symposium that Kathryn Bigelow gave on how they accomplished that.  But after you’ve been through those ten minutes you totally believe the world this whole film takes place in, the technology of the wireheads just exists.

This movie is part of the reason I love this whole movie-a-day project.  I love watching truly great movies, and this really is one.  Believe me.  And let me just re-iterate: Angela Bassett – performance of a lifetime!  Best thing in this movie, and that’s saying something.

My one small quibble would be I suppose that the movie becomes a little bit more action-movieish in the very end, probably the work of producer/writer James Cameron.  But, I suppose that’s okay too: it’s not the same mood as the rest of the film, but it leaves you with a great adrenal rush and a satisfied feeling at the end of it all.

March 9, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 9 – Strange Days

Strange Days – March 9, 2010

Let’s start with the light stuff and get it out of the way, because make no mistake, while this movie might have been marketed as an action/scifi/murder mystery? It gets pretty fucking dark, pretty fucking fast. Now, this movie stars Ralph Fiennes as Lenny and Angela Bassett and her AMAZING BICEPS OH MY GOD (seriously, I saw this movie and immediately wanted to be Angela Bassett – still do) as an old friend of his, Macy. There are some other familiar faces too. Vincent D’Onofrio, looking a lot less smug than he normally does on Criminal Intent. Juliette Lewis as, well. Juliette Lewis. And Micheal Wincott, who will always be the creepy bad guy in The Crow to me but here plays a guy named Philo, which I’m guessing is a nod and a wink to Philo T. Farnsworth. And then there’s Tom Sizemore, who I’m now more used to seeing on VH1 with Dr. Drew. It’s a pretty decent cast overall, and fucking stellar with its two leads. Fiennes is all sleaze and wasted potential and Bassett is probably one of the baddest bad ass bitches I’ve ever seen on screen. You wonder why she puts up with him until the conversation before the party at the end.

It’s a hard scene in a movie full of hard scenes. A lot of this movie is difficult to watch. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s painful. When I first saw ads for this movie it looked pretty cool. Action sci-fi murder mystery set in the near future! Except that movies set in the “near future” are sort of doomed to fall into the past very quickly. There’s no way to set something in the “future” and name a year and have it not be dated. And yet the mood of the movie needs its setting. It needs that fin de siècle, the world is on the edge of revolution, everything’s coming to a head feel.
“The economy sucks, gas is over three bucks a gallon…” Our dystopian future, ladies and gentlemen! Okay, so we don’t have the direct link to the brain porn, but we are all sort of voyeurs to each others’ mundane lives. What the hell else are YouTube and Twitter, right? The thing is, I still think the conceit of the movie, the “drug” Lenny deals, “wire tripping”, it’s a good concept. Not a new one, certainly, but it’s a good one. We’re hooked enough to seeing what other people’s lives are like. What if we could feel what they were feeling? I totally buy the idea. It’s more involved than Niven’s wireheads and it’s done a hell of a lot better than it was done in TekWar. Yeah, I watched the TekWar movies. Don’t judge.

Anyhow, what strikes me is that there are two movies going on here. There are two plots and until you hit the end, it’s hard to see where the borders are. Lenny and Macy and the people around them spin and careen through the movie and the city and both plots until they’re knotted together so tightly they’re inseparable. There’s the murder of the rapper, Jeriko, the facts of which could start a riot that’s been building for a while now. And there’s the murder of Iris, a contact of Lenny’s who knew something terrible. They’re the same plot. But they’re not. Because the movie takes you through the incipient riot and the chaos and the police and the tensions rising and the tanks on the streets, and then it makes you follow Lenny and Macy while they try to track down a single killer. One they don’t even know is connected to Jeriko until well into the movie. And through it all you’ve got Lenny’s obsession with his ex. The tensions in the small scale, with the two cops and Lenny and Philo and Macy kicking everyone’s ass, are set against this backdrop of a world where bad things happen as a matter of course and there are bigger things to worry about than whether Lenny’s ex is in trouble.

It’s an amazingly well done movie. And for something set in “the future” of 1999-2000? It holds up remarkably well.

Tomorrow night we’re going to take the whole “continuous take” idea (which is used to amazing effect at the opening of Strange Days) and watch Russian Ark.

March 9, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment