Friday, December 31, 2010

You Always Know When It's Over

So here it is, the end of the year, and as usual I’m obsessing over my regrets about it all, thinking about the few good things that happened while fixating on the many bad things that did as well. I don’t want to go down the list but I will say that I wish things had gone a little differently, that I’d feel a little further along in where I want to go by now. Sometimes you just can’t know with some people and as a result you wind up lying awake in the dead of night, thinking about them, wondering about the possibility that you’ll suddenly get a text from her. They’re the ones who sometimes make it worth just getting up in the morning but at the same time they still make me want to take a flying leap out the nearest window. What I’m saying is, I guess they just make me grateful to be alive. Just like certain films are able to do, come to think of it. And that’s the sort of thing you find yourself thinking about on the very cusp of the New Year, convinced of everything you haven’t managed to accomplish. Is there any reason why I’m going to remember any of 2010? Well, yes, there are several but those are the very things it would probably be best for me to forget.

See, the thing is, New Year’s Eve ’99 in L.A. it rained all day. It stopped some time around nightfall but it was still pretty wet out. I went to a party, started drinking way too much way too early and things didn’t end well so somewhere in the world there are pictures of me at that party embarrassingly passed out sprayed in silly string. I will not be posting those pictures here, but I digress. It’s a problem sometimes with movies set in the near future when they hit their sell-by date and we’re confronted with a past version of a future that never happened. At least with what’s presented in 2001 it all still looks pretty cool but since we’re now hitting the end of 2010 I suppose it’s safe to say that this won’t be the year we make contact. Kathryn Bigelow's STRANGE DAYS is an interesting case, a film set on the cusp of the then-futuristic turn of the millennium in L.A., a place where it very obviously isn’t raining and the city is in a considerably different state than it was when the date finally rolled around. In real life there also wasn’t some massive celebration on the streets of downtown and considering the city is portrayed as all but in the throes of martial law I’m not sure why such an event would be put on anyway. I know I would have much rather been home watching TCM but then again I’m not the lead character in a Kathryn Bigelow-James Cameron collaboration. An idea clearly born in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, it seems notable that the film opened mere days after O.J. Simpson was declared not guilty by a jury of his peers, something which may or may not have had a negative impact on the box office of this racially charged look at the near future and as the city took some sort of other turn in the coming years—at the very least, things kind of calmed down—it soon became clear that this view of a veritable dystopia just didn’t seem quite right anymore. The term “2K” is tossed around to refer to the year 2000, but there are never any mentions of Y2K fears and for that matter there’s nobody bitching about THE PHANTOM MENACE either so those little things get noticed now. I find myself wondering if there are any side details meant to be blatantly futuristic that aren’t anymore but outside of the inherent goofiness in a few of the fashions nothing really jumps out at me and things in the city at least seem to have gotten better than what’s presented here. Then again, have they? I’ve been out of work for a year so the future doesn’t seem too bright to me. At least there’s no rioting in the streets. Is there? Meh, I’m too lazy to go to the window to look. So if these elements are dated then what’s left in the film is primarily a look at what a person is faced with at the point of the New Year, as they realize they are in danger of looking back too much, of getting caught in the reverie of what might have been, as certain women disappear from your life. What once seemed possible no longer is, so a person has to find what else is out there, right? Is such a thing really possible, whether you’re living in the present or the future? Sitting here right now, I’m not really sure.

Late December, 1999, the near future: Los Angeles has practically become a war zone, with cops and tanks on every corner and the smoke regularly rising from the ashes. As New Year’s Eve rapidly approaches, tensions are even higher than usual with the murder of Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) a rapper who had been garnering increased attention with his anti-LAPD activism. In the middle of all this is Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) an ex-cop who has taken to dealing in black market “SQUID” recordings, events taken directly from the cerebral cortex and placed onto discs, allowing anyone to re-experience what has happened in search of ultimate pleasure or pain. While in secret he pines for a former love, the rising rock star Faith (Juliette Lewis), playing tapes he made of them over and over reliving their love, he spends much of his time with his close friends chauffer/bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett) and private investigator Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore) who are both aware of what he’s dealing in and try to put up with it. But things soon change when Lenny gets hold of a snuff tape showing the murder of friend Iris (Briggitte Bako) him Lenny to worry that Faith, now tight with manager Philo Gant (Michael Wincott), might somehow be next but he has no idea what the path of the investigation he sets out on along with Mace will lead to, a powder keg that could cause the biggest riot of all time to erupt in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve before the 21st century is allowed to begin.

STRANGE DAYS went into wide release on Oct. 13, 1995, the same day as William Friedkin’s JADE and Roland Joffe’s THE SCARLET LETTER which has long provided me with the theory that the high profile box office disasters of these three big budget R-rated films (total domestic gross for this one: $7.9 million) all at once at that point in time was some kind of ground zero for the development of major changes in Hollywood in the coming years, resulting in a never ending swarm of lame comic book movies and other pre-packaged concepts that by this point signals the possible death of quality commercial movies. And it’s all the more unfortunate considering how this particular film at time displays genuine cinematic bravery in how everything is put together even within all its dystopian drudgery. Kathryn Bigelow is an amazing filmmaker and STRANGE DAYS, maybe one of the best sustained examples of her talents years before she won the Best Director Oscar, continually provides proof of that. With a screenplay by co-producer James Cameron and Jay Cocks (story by Cameron) everything about it is a hugely ambitious piece of work with undeniable confidence in almost every frame in what feels like an attempt to make the biggest, most important and exciting movie ever made, one that would point the way towards where humanity needs to be going and what it needs to move past. And it does this while giving us the most rocking, extreme entertainment experience imaginable all in an epic running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours which, frankly, seems like it’s that long mainly to remind us of what an epic it is. Make no mistake, it is at times a staggeringly phenomenal piece of work technically speaking, at times overwhelming to watch in its furiously compelling clarity and it makes it endlessly fascinating to watch, no matter what some of its flaws might be. It’s just hard to ignore some of those flaws.

The issues that have dated a few things are there but so are any number of other matters, points which reveal some of Cameron’s own limitations as a storyteller like the runner about Lenny’s taste in ties which has a Screenwriting 101 feel to it along with considerable histrionics in both plot and dialogue (gobs of exposition spat out by characters in a blatantly obvious style, lines like “Memories were meant to fade!” and “This tape is a lightning bolt from God!”) that could very well have come right out of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS—I may as well mention for the hell of it that Roger Ebert gave STRANGE DAYS four stars, so there you go. As is the case with some of her other films, including BLUE STEEL and POINT BREAK, Bigelow’s undeniable skill behind the camera can sometimes override her ability to adequately address inherent flaws in the material she’s working with. Some of the specifics of Iris’s death in particular are so inherently unpleasant that it just causes things to become kind of a skeevy bummer (that said, points to it for being the rare film to explore such R-Rated sci-fi concepts) and as much as the film tries to make a big thing about the thematics of what can be seen with the naked eye--the very first shot, the nightclub named the Retinal Fetish, even the name Iris--in some ways it feels like a case where so much attention is lavished on the various themes, the production design, the music and just the overall gestalt of the thing that certain little elements like actual human motivation get lost in the process. Mace is a little too much of a superwoman-slash-figure-of-all-that-is-pure-in-the-world (a truly awesome one, granted) and the character of Faith feels particularly like the script never managed to make sense of her which may be partly due to miscasting (I actually think Juliette Lewis is sort of awesome in about 43 different ways as a screen presence and she sometimes drives me a little crazy but I’m still not convinced she’s completely right in this role) but too much of her effect on Lenny has to be taken on, well, faith. Trust me, I’ve gotten massively fixated on certain women myself in the past (shocking, right? And one or two of them may have slightly resembled Juliette Lewis so trust me, I get it) and if you saw the way I behaved you’d think I was a fucking idiot too but it doesn’t necessarily play as drama, at least not how it’s presented here. It feels like the character is missing a crucial beat of calmness between her and Lenny along with all her screaming at him, beyond what we see in the SQUID flashbacks, to provide a kind of understanding to their relationship. As it is, fifteen years after seeing this movie for the first time I’m still not sure what to think about the character at the end (I can’t help but wonder if the final shots of her were tacked on after the fact) and I don’t mean that as a point of interesting ambiguity. It’s just a little frustrating.

The issues with Faith are such a minor point in such an ambitious storyline that it feels strange to be spending so much time on it, but other problems arise throughout resulting in a piece of work so seemingly convinced how it has to be ‘the film of the 90s’ that it kind of drowns in its own self-importance, details like the important activist/singer whose death the plot revolves around but whose music doesn’t sound like anything that would be a hit then or now, not that I know much about rap. All the talk of a CHINATOWN-like conspiracy turns out to be a smokescreen, one provided by both the character making the claims and the film as well, leading to how everything involving Josef Sommer’s Police Commissioner—how much of the story winds up getting resolved—feels like it’s right out of a 70s cop show produced by Universal. Much of the film’s understandable preoccupations with racial politics may very well be rooted in what was going on in Los Angeles throughout the 90s, almost more than the film knows what to do with, but solving it all and quelling the riot still comes down to the decision made by an old white guy which doesn’t seem all that rebellious.

And some of it has to do with the staging as well, like how long Angela Bassett is able to hold certain people at bay during the climax without anyone stopping her and the rioters who all seem to be waiting for their cue for them to begin. And yet, the film is constantly a demo for some of the most amazing camerawork you’ve ever seen—seriously, my total admiration for how Bigelow and her crew shoots some of this knows no bounds—in multiple demonstrations of the first person sensation of being ‘jacked in’, particularly during the astounding almost-opening shot. These sections contain a quality that is truly visceral beyond words and also interestingly sets them apart from how Brian De Palma would have approached such material. If the quality of the script matched Bigelow’s own ambitions as a visual stylist this might very well be a masterwork. On the one hand, it’s continually awesome. On the other hand, it’s kind of a case of substance over, well, substance which displays how Bigelow’s forever compelling vision doesn’t necessarily disguise how she’s not always the best with plausibility and tying everything together (if I wanted to nitpick further I’d wonder about how these professionally made discs—wait, aren’t they black market?—are always referred to as ‘tapes’ which for some reason I find a little distracting). In some ways the entire film now plays as a howl in the night at something that never quite was and even Lenny’s obsession with Faith seems to just fizzle away in the end amidst all the mayhem in favor of Mace. While it may be a truly ambitious attempt to proclaim what the state of the world is like in 1995, transposing things to what it will become by the millennium, it still feels like it’s a statement being made by somebody whose idea of the world doesn’t go beyond the Los Angeles county line. It’s a display of humanity only if by humanity you mean total cinematic awesomeness and lots of nonstop intensity in a future noir urban hellhole, forever obsessed with the people in life you’ll never get back. I’m not saying those things aren’t human but it still feels like it’s missing some key element of genuine feeling, as astounding as every frame is.

It’s another sign of ambition in the movie is how it attempted to feature who was emerging at the time, even if it may have paid the price in how they weren’t really box office names. Ralph Fiennes is a terrific actor and his slippery style makes him ideal when he’s selling his wares but I’m never sure I buy him as a former L.A. cop and his inherently serious nature means he’s not very good at selling those Hollywood movie-style quips he’s supposed to blithely toss off. His weak nature provides an interesting effect, making him sort of the woman in the film when paired up against the much tougher Bassett who, make no bones about it, is pretty fantastic, looking amazing and making me wish that the film had been a hit if only so we could have gotten another ten movies, a few hopefully directed by Bigelow, in which she got to be a similar badass. Sadly we didn’t but she’s still amazing here, lending total conviction to all of her overbaked dialogue and I will simply mention without comment that of all of the tough women James Cameron has created over the years this one, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is by a long shot, the most feminine and the toughest at the same time as well as being, what the hell, probably the hottest as well. Juliette Lewis is the one with the problematic role but her inherent intensity does shine through and she owns the camera whenever it’s pointed in her direction, it’s just the movie hasn’t figured out what to do with her. Tom Sizemore also has some problematic dialogue (seriously, I think at least half of what he has to say is just him endlessly explaining things) but he does strong work nevertheless and Michael Wincott is as slimy as we ever want a Michael Wincott character to be. Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner are appropriately imposing as the two cops connected to it all (based on D’Onofrio final moments, it’s clear how much Bigelow loves FULL METAL JACKET), Brigitte Bako provides palpable desperation to her few scenes as Iris and Todd Graff from Cameron’s THE ABYSS (and a screenwriter/director in recent years) has one of the film’s most affecting moments as a paraplegic with his own sad addiction to getting jacked in. I should mention that there’s also lots of terrific music always bleeding into scenes including Juliette Lewis singing “I Can Hardly Wait” by PJ Harvey (which is pure dynamite) along with a particularly evocative score by Graeme Revell—I always liked the propulsive force of the car chase after a McGuffin has to be recovered at an impound lot which incidentally is a beautifully sustained section of pure action filmmaking in every possible way.

So? What happens now? I’m feeling like I need to find a way to move forward, to move beyond some of what’s happened in the past year. Hopefully I can at least start to do that. The ending of STRANGE DAYS has what is now an unfortunate byproduct of that kind of feeling, concluding on a point of optimism after the dystopia of the past two-plus-hours with the date of the new century displayed but looking at that date flashed now, eleven years after it was supposed to happen, the hope doesn’t seem to be there anymore. Maybe if I try hard enough deep down, I can somehow find that optimism at midnight when we turn to the very odd sounding year of 2011. I’m glad 2010 is ending. I need it to end. I need to move on. Now I’ll just have to see if I can. After all, memories, certain memories anyway, were meant to fade. It sure sounds cheesy in the context of this film that is considerably flawed while also being somewhat great, but maybe it’s also kind of true. Anyway, Happy New Year. I hope.


le0pard13 said...

This is a marvelous selection for your year-closing film review, Mr. P. I guess I enjoy this one purely for its women: Bigelow, Lewis, and especially Bassett. As usual, your writing and viewpoint on the film makes it a treat for your readers. Here's hoping 2011 is a hell of a lot better for you, Mr. Peel. Thanks for this.

Unknown said...

"Bigelow’s undeniable skill behind the camera can sometimes override her ability to adequately address inherent flaws in the material she’s working with."

I agree! This is the problem I've always had with Bigelow and what prevents her from being a truly great filmmaker. I really felt that with THE HURT LOCKER she finally jumped this hurtle but I love STRANGE DAYS, flaws and all. Aside from BLADE RUNNER, it is probably THE best Cyberpunk film and even though Cameron pillages ideas from countless SF novels (William Gibson, hello!), he does it in a way that doesn't feel like a rip-off.

I am also in total agreement with you re: Juliette Lewis. Horribly miscast in this film her performance in it gets on my last nerve every time I watch it. How can Ralph Fiennes' character be totally obsessed with her when Angela Bassett is right there?! Aigh. Someone like Jennifer Jason Leigh would've been great in Lewis' role but I digress.

The is pretty great right up until the end where it feels like Cameron had no idea how to end the film so he threw a bunch of ideas at the wall and went with what stuck but I really felt that the film should've went all the way and had a full-stage riot happen instead of the aborted effort that does occur which just felt false to me.

Still, up until that point, the film was really working for me.

Fantastic review, as always.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Very glad you liked the piece, guys, thanks for the great comments which shed more light on what people respond to with this film. And a Happy New Year to you both.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I've always wondered if I should watch this, and after reading your review, I guess I still don't know.

Does Fienes look as dopey in the movie as he does in the stills? I know he's playing a lowlife, but it does not seem to be a good look for him.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


In terms of whether or not you should see the movie, I can answer with absolute certainty...maybe.

And dopey or not, Ralph Fiennes kind of does look in the movie like he does in the stills. The nature of his voice doesn't entirely go with the character either. I can believe him as many things but L.A. fast talking salesman-type may not be one of them.

Ned Merrill said...

I have vivid memories of watching this with my brother via an Academy screener one night in the hospice where my dad was staying shortly before he died of cancer. Haven't revisited since, but I remember really enjoying it and feeling like it had gotten short shrift at the box office. Don't know if I should view it again or keep it in that part of my past.

re: Juliette Lewis...remember when she was an "it girl," or something close to it? I can't remember what I thought about her here, but I was never a big fan. Now, Geoffrey Lewis...that's a different story.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I always liked her but still find it strange that she's Geoffrey Lewis's daughter. I don't mean that in a good or bad way, that's just how it is.

I have a few films where there's an odd personal connection to them and sometimes am not really sure if I want to revisit them. And in a few of those cases I don't think I have so I understand where you're coming from on that point.

Tim Speaker said...

First time commenter, long time reader...

I wanted to throw in my two cents at the Lenny/Faith dynamic. Yes, Lenny does look like a sucker, constantly attempting to keep his connection with Faith going long after it has expired.

However, I feel that this is because of his repeated replays of his happiness with Faith through his wirejack device. In a sense they cannot become memories, because he literally re-experiences his love and happiness with her on a daily basis, which essentially causes him to have a tenuous grip on the reality of who Faith is in the present tense. This is the tragic crux of the film, as it is extremely evident to the audience that Faith is no longer the person in the wirejacks - she is as cold and soulless as can be - but Lenny cannot rectify her present with their past. Yes, Lenny is a sucker, but at least his motivations are evident.

Also, I thought Juliette Lewis's singing performances were killer. I'm truly confused as to what she is doing with her career for at least the past decade.

Superb work as usual. Keep up the great Mr. Peel.