Friday, February 20, 2015

Platoon

Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) was not the first film about the Vietnam War. It was, however, the first one to be made by a man who had served as a foot soldier (with the 25th Infantry Division) in the conflict. Before it was the rah-rah propaganda of The Green Berets (1968). The melancholic drama of The Deer Hunter (1978). The surrealism of Apocalypse Now (1979). Although, in good company with many outstanding films about one of the most combative periods in our country’s history, both stateside and overseas, they lacked the gritty realism of Platoon. Stone’s film not only captured the sights and sounds of what it was to be a soldier in those impenetrable jungles, but also got the little yet crucially important details – their lingo, the tight brotherhood in each squad and the way they carried themselves as well as how they carried their equipment. Through every vein of the film runs an authenticity that only a filmmaker like Stone could give it.

If the aforementioned films had been released too close to the war, Platoon came along at just the right moment when enough time had passed so that the American public was more receptive to revisiting a war that tore this country apart, from decorated officers coming home to college students who had never touched a gun in their lives. It struck a chord with people in a way that previous films had not. Stone’s film was a commercial and critical success, catapulting him and his young cast of up and coming actors into the spotlight while also kickstarting a cottage industry of Vietnam War-themed films (Full Metal Jacket; Hamburger Hill), television shows (China Beach; Tour of Duty), novels (Chickenhawk; Going After Cacciato), and even comic books (The ‘Nam).

Platoon focuses on the 25th Infantry, Bravo Company in September 1967 with new recruit Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) as the audience surrogate and our introduction to this world. We see the war through his eyes, from that first blast of bright light as he walks off the plane with other new recruits and they see a collection of body bags. They are then taunted by a group of battle-hardened veterans heading home. That will be them some day... if they live long enough.


Stone cuts to the jungle with a beautiful establishing shot from a helicopter to show how impenetrable it is before dropping us in the middle of dense foliage that makes it hard to see more than a few feet in front of you. Robert Richardson’s cinematography conveys the dense landscape and how difficult it must’ve been to navigate, especially for a new recruit like Chris whose inexperience is glaringly obvious as he brings too much gear, becomes dehydrated and is eaten alive by red ants.

Stone spends the first ten minutes immersing us in the jungle with the sounds of birds and other exotic animals and the oppressive heat that you can see on the sweaty, tired faces of the soldiers. We observe how they interact with each other adopting lingo that is a mixture of Vietnamese and military jargon before Chris’ voiceover narration kicks in and he gives us initial observations after a week of being there.

The film’s rich atmosphere is evident in the first set piece where the platoon sets up to ambush the enemy in the middle of night during the pouring rain. Stone ratchets up the tension as Chris wakes up after falling asleep to see the man who relieved him on watch now asleep and several silhouetted figures emerging from the shadows. Chris is frozen by fear and indecision – does he go for his rifle or the explosives that were set up for the ambush? Stone shows how hard it is to fight in the jungle with a night-time ambush that goes bad. Everything happens so fast and is so chaotic that it is hard to follow what is going on until it’s all over.


Thirty minutes in and Stone establishes a platoon divided into two factions: the “heads,” dope smoking guys who listen to rock ‘n’ roll music, just want to survive the war and go home, and the “juicers,” beer-drinking lifers that listen to country music and who actually like it there or, at the very least, believe that what they are doing is right. The leaders of these two groups, Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), are polar opposites that Chris gravitates towards and must ultimately choose between. Stone makes it pretty clear which side he prefers by having Chris initiated by the heads and bonds with them over Motown music and pot.

Stone shows how the deaths of three of their own angers and frustrates the platoon and they direct their wrath on a nearby village with Barnes focusing their rage through him. It is an ugly sequence as the soldiers kill animals and villagers, in particular, a harrowing scene where Kevin Dillon’s psycho redneck brutally kills a handicapped young man. Things go from bad to worse when Barnes interrogates the village chief and when he doesn’t get the answers he wants kills the man’s wife and then puts a gun to his young daughter’s head until Elias intervenes.

The village sequence is important in that it is the catalyst that causes a serious fracture within the platoon, one that has serious repercussions later on. It also symbolizes America’s might makes right mentality, underlining how out of control things got over there as the line between the enemy and innocent villagers became so blurred that for some there was no difference. This sequence also shows how the frustration and madness of the situation could get out of hand with horrible results.


Stone does a good job of getting the pulse of both sides of the platoon, letting us know where Barnes and Elias are coming from. For the former, he believes Elias is like the politicians in Washington, D.C., “trying to fight this war with one hand tied around their balls,” while the latter admits to Chris that he’s disillusioned with fighting this war, sagely predicting, “What happened today is just the beginning. We’re gonna lose this war. We’ve been kicking other people’s asses for so long I figure it’s time we got ours kicked.” It’s a nice, quiet moment between Chris and Elias that Willem Dafoe handles wonderfully with a world-weary subtlety much as Tom Berenger approaches his scene with a less-is-more attitude. His intense, thoughtful stare says it all and one rightly assumes that these moments are the calm before the storm.

At that point in his career, Willem Dafoe was known for playing bad guy roles in films like Streets of Fire (1984) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and so casting him as a good guy in Platoon must’ve seemed like a gamble. Dafoe is excellent as a dedicated soldier who takes the time to teach Chris a few things in order for him to survive. It’s a very soulful performance as he acts as the platoon’s conscience. Elias cares about his men and wants to see them all go home alive.

In contrast, Tom Berenger had been known for playing lightweight, good guy roles but caught Stone’s eye with his layered performance in The Big Chill (1983). He gives an absolutely ferocious performance as an intense, imposing figure, a malevolent force of nature with a penetrating stare and a twisted scar down one side of his face. Barnes rules his men with an iron fist. He’s a tough man who leads by example, strict and unwavering in his beliefs. He is concerned only with maintaining his functioning war machine and when he spots a spanner in the works, as he does with Elias, he sees it as a malfunctioning part that must be removed and replaced.


Late in Platoon, Berenger delivers a fantastic monologue when Barnes confronts the heads, sharing his worldview with them. He even calls them out, telling them to kill him in almost pleading fashion that is unpredictable, only adding to the tension of the scene. It’s a speech that runs the gamut and the actor works the scene, moving around the space, and interacting with everyone around him in a way that is impressive to watch. Berenger hadn’t really done anything before this film to suggest such intensity and his performance was a revelation and is still his best to date.

Stone assembled an impressive cast of young actors that included Johnny Depp, Keith David, Kevin Dillon, Forest Whitaker, and John C. McGinley who appear with varying amounts of screen time. McGinley, for example, makes the most of his moments as the cocky sycophant O’Neill and Dillon is particularly memorable as a racist murderer while Depp and Whitaker hardly get any time to make an impact.

The battle scenes have a visceral, you-are-there feel to them as Stone wisely opts to eschew a manipulative score for the jarring sounds of battle as orders are barely understood amidst the sounds of explosions and gunfire. Soldiers are killed from inexperience and ineptitude as much as for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now presented very stylized representations of combat in Vietnam while Platoon is much more realistic, presenting it as noisy and chaotic.


Platoon packs in a lot of stuff during its running time: botched ambushes, the destruction of a village, discovery of an underground bunker, and a climactic, large scale battle that probably wouldn’t have all gone down in such a limited time frame, but Stone isn’t interested in making a documentary. His film is a dramatization of a composite of several events that gives the audience some idea of what it was like there and what these guys went through. Chris’ voiceover narration gets a bit pretentious at times but that’s the point as he comes from an educated background of privilege, fancying himself a literary chronicler of his platoon’s exploits. The images of what he experiences are so powerful that they render his sometimes cliché musings ineffectual.

After dropping out of Yale University and a stint with the Merchant Marines, Oliver Stone enlisted the United States Army, arriving in Vietnam on September 15, 1967 as a member of the second platoon of Bravo Company, third battalion, 25th Infantry Division. He was wounded twice and awarded the Bronze Star for combat gallantry and a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster. He was later transferred to the First Calvary Division and finally returned to the U.S. after more than 15 months in 1968.

By mid-1976, Stone’s marriage had broken up, he was struggling financially and his screenwriting career had yet to take off. Ever since he had returned from Vietnam in November 1968, he had wanted to write about his experiences in the war: “I realized I had forgotten a lot in eight years. I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’m gonna forget.’ It’s part of our history nobody understands—what it was like over there.” Stone decided that he would write about his experiences as truthfully as possible, making only slight adjustments, changing some names and combining a few characters. “It took me eight years to get to that screenplay, because I couldn’t deal with it before. I needed the distance.”


Stone finished the script in a few weeks, finding it challenging in getting the tone right and also the character of Elias, which he envisioned as a “free spirit, a Jim Morrison in the bush.” With only one B-horror movie (Seizure) to his credit, Stone couldn’t find anyone willing to buy his script until Sidney Lumet showed some interest and toyed with the idea of directing with Al Pacino starring. After the scripts for Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983) were made into wildly successful films, filmmaker Michael Cimino, whom Stone co-wrote the script for his film Year of the Dragon (1985), encouraged him to get Platoon going again with him in a producer capacity. In 1984, Stone cast it and went to the Philippines to scout locations. Dino de Laurentiis, who agreed to back it, pulled out. He was willing to cover the $6 million budget but could not find a distributor willing to take a chance on the commercially risky project.

Stone took the project’s collapse hard and felt that his career was over. In addition, De Laurentiis refused to give Stone back his script until he paid for the cost of the Philippines location scout. This experience, and witnessing how his script for 8 Million Ways to Die (1985) was completely rewritten, made Stone wary of making Platoon for a Hollywood studio. In 1985, he successful wrestled the rights for his film away from De Laurentiis and gave the script to producer Gerald Green. He sent it to John Daly over at Hemdale, a small British independent production house. Both Daly and Green loved the script and wanted to make it with Stone as director and Orion Pictures as distributor. Producer Arnold Kopelson, a lawyer turned movie producer, read the script and felt it was a game changer. He contacted Green and told him that he would raise the money for Platoon.

After making Salvador (1986), Stone launched right into Platoon in February 1986, two weeks before the former was released in theaters. The filmmaker was locked into a tight nine-week shooting schedule and used the same crew that worked on his previous film. In addition, he hired retired Marine Corps captain and Vietnam War veteran Dale Dye as technical advisor. It would be the beginning of a long-standing collaboration between the two men over many films.


When it came to casting, Stone saw Tom Berenger in The Big Chill and was impressed by his performance: “I felt like there was a redneck side to Tom, an ugly side that could really be seething, and I used it.” When it came to Willem Dafoe, Stone saw him in films like Streets of Fire and To Live and Die in L.A., “playing ugly roles and I thought there was something spiritually heightened because of the ugliness. So I went the other way.” Dafoe had met Stone when he first tried to make Platoon and then he almost got John Savage’s role in Salvador. Charlie Sheen auditioned for the role of Chris in 1983, but Stone felt he was “gawky and underweight,” according to the actor, and offered the role to his brother Emilio Estevez with Michael Pare cast as Barnes (both Mickey Rourke and Kevin Costner were considered for the part). When the film was restarted, Stone considered Keanu Reeves, Kyle MacLachlan and Johnny Depp for Chris. Sheen had made a couple of films and auditioned again, this time Stone cast him in the part.

The cast was scheduled to arrive in the Philippines in February 1986 shortly after the presidential election, but when it went sour people died and revolution erupted into civil war! President Ferdinand Marcos fled on February 25 and Corazon Aquino took over. Dafoe had flown in early and went to sleep in a Manila hotel only to wake up to the sounds of tanks in the streets. The rest of the cast flew in nine days later. Stone contemplated moving the production to Thailand, but it would have been a logistical nightmare. He held out and made new deals with the new regime, including renting all the military equipment from the government. Stone said, “I remember the helicopters were pretty dangerous because they weren’t maintained well.”

Once the cast assembled in the Philippines, Dye proceeded to put them through a grueling 14-day boot camp in order to get them in the foot soldier mindset: “Oliver said, ‘I want you to take them to the bush, beat them up, make them understand what it was like for you and me in Vietnam.’” Used to staying in hotels and being pampered, the actors underwent culture shock as they were constantly in the bush with no beds, bathrooms, hot showers or any of the creature comforts they were used to. Dye had them dig their own foxholes to sleep in, set ambushes, learn how to use various weapons, and go on ten-mile patrols with full gear and weapons. As Sheen later remarked, “This was a cram course in an infantryman’s life. And it was rough.”


At dusk on the first night, Dye asked the special effects people to stage a mortar “attack” without the exhausted actors knowing what was going on, yelling at them to return fire. Dye said, “It was utter chaos and they were shaking by the time it was dark.” The actors learned military lingo, listened to period music and had to refer to each other by the character’s names. After two weeks of this, they bonded and were ready to start filming. The cast went from training straight into principal photography. Dye remembers, “They were just flat exhausted and that was exactly the look that Oliver wanted.”

The production was not without its problems as the cast and crew endured fights, injuries, a near-fatal viper bite, insects, monsoon rains, and the firing of 4-5 production people. There were also several close calls with the helicopters, including cinematographer Bob Richardson almost getting clipped by the rotor of one. In another incident, Dye, Richardson and Stone were in a helicopter that almost hit a ravine! Stone remembers, “We scraped it by that much. We were so low, and these Filipino pilots are good, but they’re crazy.” With the start of the rainy season looming rapidly and running out of money, Stone compromised the last few shots in order to make the deadline and did it with a day to spare.

Platoon received mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “There are no false heroics in this movie, and no standard heroes; the narrator is quickly at the point of physical collapse, bedeviled by long marches, no sleep, ants, snakes, cuts, bruises and constant, gnawing fear.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote of Stone’s direction: “He doesn’t telegraph emotions, nor does he stomp on them. The movie is a succession of found moments. It’s less like a work that’s been written than one that has been discovered … This one is a major piece of work, as full of passion as it is of redeeming, scary irony.”


The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “This is movie-making with a zealot’s fervor … [Stone] clearly wants us to understand what fighting in that war was like. He succeeds with an immediacy that is frightening. War movies of the past, even the greatest ones, seem like crane shots by comparison; Platoon is at ground zero.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley praised Berenger and Dafoe’s performances: “They are explosive, mythic Titans in a terrible struggle for the soldier’s souls.” Finally, Gene Siskel gave it four out of four stars and wrote, “Platoon is filled with one fine performance after another, and one can only wish that every person who saw the cartoonish war fantasy that was Rambo would buy a ticket to Platoon and bear witness to something closer to the truth.”

Platoon presents the Vietnam War as a moral quagmire, an impossible situation that the United States had no chance of winning because they were so out of their depth. All the average soldier could hope to do was survive. Stone’s film shows what it was like for them to be there with startling detail and authenticity, from the camaraderie to the madness. For Stone and a lot of veterans I imagine the experience of making the film and seeing it was therapeutic. After years of being looked down on by an uncaring public that saw the war as an embarrassment, Platoon was an opportunity for veterans to get some much deserved and long overdue respect.


SOURCES

Nashawaty, Chris. “Oliver Stone Talks Platoon and Charlie Sheen on the Vietnam film’s 25th Anniversary.” Entertainment Weekly. May 24, 2011.

Norman, Michael. “Platoon Grapples with Vietnam.” The New York Times. December 21, 1986.

Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Hyperion. 1995.

Willistein, Paul. “Platoon: The Vietnam Odyssey of Oliver Stone.” The Morning Call. February 1, 1987.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Jack Reacher

There was a certain amount of trepidation when it was announced that Tom Cruise was cast in the title role of Jack Reacher (2012), an adaptation of the popular series of crime novels by Lee Child. Fans were upset that the movie star did not resemble the character in the least despite getting the author’s blessing. Cruise used his clout to get Christopher McQuarrie out of director’s jail after the critical and commercial failure of his directorial debut with The Way of the Gun (2000) and entrusted him to adapt Child’s 2005 novel One Shot. The end result is a smartly-written, well-acted thriller with lean, visceral action sequences.

A sniper (Jai Courtney) kills five random people outside of a stadium in Pittsburgh. All of the evidence points to disgraced ex-soldier James Barr (Joseph Sikora) and he’s arrested by the police. During questioning he refuses to say anything, only writing on a piece of paper the words, “Get me Jack Reacher.” Before this man can be summoned, Barr is badly beaten into a coma while in custody. Guilty or not, it’s a clear violation of his rights and a lawyer by the name of Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) decides to defend him.

Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), a former military police officer now troubleshooting drifter, surfaces and explains to Helen his connection to Barr. She convinces him to do a little digging into the case and it quickly becomes obvious that all the evidence points a little too conveniently towards Barr. Who set him up and why? The deeper Helen and Reacher dig the more danger they find themselves in with an enigmatic man known as the Zec (Werner Herzog) pulling the strings. Initially, Helen tries to convince Reacher to help her with the case while later on the tables are turned as it is he who has to convince her to continue with their investigation.


Tom Cruise is excellent as the mysterious Reacher, playing him with an engaging mix of no-nonsense attitude with occasional flourishes of humor. Reacher is the kind of person that carries himself with confidence that comes from being very good at what he does. On occasions, McQuarrie shows Reacher thinking the case through or quietly sifting through evidence or walking the crime scene. His economy of words mirrors his efficiency as a man of action, knowing the exact moves to put down five attackers without killing them. Cruise may not look like Reacher, as described in Child’s book, but he conveys an unbeatable combination of intelligence and physical prowess.

A pre-Gone Girl (2014) Rosamund Pike is good as a determined attorney that is initially exasperated at Reacher’s knack for getting in trouble, but as their investigation progresses realizes that there is more to this case than meets the eye. Her performance hints at a woman with something to prove – first and foremost to her father (Richard Jenkins), the city’s upstanding District Attorney, and then to her co-workers who think she’s crazy for following a case she can’t possibly win. Helen is a good foil for Reacher, always a step behind him – the Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. Helen has a strong sense of justice – so much so that she takes on a case that her firm doesn’t want and her father tries to dissuade her from pursuing. Unfortunately, in the last third of the film she is reduced to a damsel in distress, a hostage that must be rescued by Reacher.

As he demonstrated with The Way of the Gun, McQuarrie knows how to orchestrate action sequences for maximum effect. He continues to do so with Jack Reacher as evident in the cleanly choreographed action where you know where everyone is and what is going on at all times. McQuarrie has crafted a no frills, no bullshit thriller devoid of narrative fat – it’s an old school crime film as if the filmmaker took an Action Movie 101 course taught by Don Siegel with a minor in car chases taught by John Frankenheimer. Case in point: the wonderfully executed car chase as Reacher pursues the bad guys and is in turn chased by the cops. Even more impressive is that Cruise did all of his own driving! Compared to most contemporary action movies, the editing in Jack Reacher is practically sedate in tempo—or, rather methodical, much like the film’s protagonist. McQuarrie understands that you only need to make an edit when necessary and eschews frenetic hand-held camerawork that is still popular for a much calmer approach that is just as effective if not more so.


I like how McQuarrie subverts some of the Hollywood thriller clichés. Helen and Reacher never become romantically involved and, at one point, she even mistakenly assumes he’s going to kiss her. The first six to seven minutes of the film are dialogue free as the filmmaker utilizes a strong sense of visual storytelling, forcing us to pay attention to what is happening. He also opts to have no to very little music used during the action sequences, which gives them a more visceral impact. Werner Herzog’s bad guy is unrepentant and a survivor with his experiences in the Soviet Gulag shaping his entire worldview. He plays the Zec with an icy quality that is quite unsettling. There’s a corrupt cop, but his reasons for being in league with the bad guys remains deliciously ambiguous and unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Jack Reacher is stylish and grown-up, assuming that its audience is smart enough to follow Reacher’s investigation in a way that adheres to the usual investigative beats but presented in a slightly unusual way. McQuarrie has written a solid screenplay with snappy, give-and-take dialogue that comes to life when Reacher first meets Helen, her father and the police detective (David Oyelowo) in charge of the investigation. The exchange between them is funny and delivered with crackerjack timing by the actors. There is a wonderful economy of words, like when Reacher recounts Barr’s stint in Iraq. McQuarrie only shows us a glimpse of it and lets Reacher fill in the rest, giving us just enough information to establish Barr’s past and their connection.

In its seemingly random nature, the opening sniper attack echoes the real-life Beltway sniper attacks that took place over three weeks in October 2002 in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. and its patsy shooter with a checkered past anticipates American Sniper (2014) by two years. Both films feature veterans who’ve done questionable things and returned home psychologically scarred, having trouble adjusting to regular life. McQuarrie includes nice details, like when Helen visits with the father of one of the sniper victims and this puts a human face on what were initially anonymous targets. It shows that this rampage has consequences, leaving behind families devastated by the death of their loved ones.



Jack Reacher’s coda is surprisingly moving as McQuarrie quietly makes a poignant statement about the effect of the war in the Middle East has on an individual without being preachy about it. People come back after making life and death decisions on a daily basis and are expected to adjust to “normal” life. Barr is just a guy trying to put his life back together and becomes an unwitting pawn in a scheme that involves making money through elaborate scams. While Reacher busted him for crimes he committed during the war, he fights to clear the man’s name back in the world. Some soldiers return home from war and are forced to the margins of society while others, like Reacher, do so by choice. One must give Cruise credit for using his clout within the industry to get a mid-level budgeted film for grown-ups made at a Hollywood studio – something that is virtually unheard of these days. One hopes that he can do so again for a sequel that this intriguing character deserves.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Welcome to Woop Woop

After the critical and commercial success of his breakthrough film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Australian filmmaker Stephan Elliott followed it up three years later with the absurdist comedy Welcome to Woop Woop (1997). In comparison to the crowd-pleasing romp of his previous effort, this next film was so unabashedly odd and in-your-face about it that most fans of Priscilla were alienated. Critics trashed the film, audiences stayed away and Elliott retreated to more conventional fare with Eye of the Beholder (1999). However, those willing to immerse themselves in the strange world of Woop Woop (Australian slang for the middle of nowhere) may enjoy this wildly entertaining look at the margins of Australian culture.

The film opens with a cheeky disclaimer that while no animals were harmed or mistreated during the making of the film, neither were any humans, which makes sense when you see how much abuse its protagonist endures over the entire running time. We meet Teddy (Jonathon Schaech) on the mean streets of New York City trying to sell exotic birds to two women (one of whom is played by Tina Louise – Ginger of Gilligan’s Island fame). The transaction is interrupted by two thugs coming to collect $10,000 he owes a gangster. Teddy is saved by an exotic dancer friend (a cameo by Rachel Griffiths sporting an outrageous Southern accent and even wackier outfit) who kills them causing the birds to fly the coup. As they take to the sky suddenly every bystander in Times Square pulls guns and starts firing at them! Welcome to Woop Woop indeed.

On the run, Teddy decides to travel to the Northern Territory in Australia to get more exotic birds and also to lie low. While stopping for gas, he picks up two passengers, one of whom is an attractive woman named Angie (Susie Porter), who loves candy bars and sex. As they drive off, Elliott shows the beautiful-looking yet harsh outback—miles and miles of desert with big blue skies. After several bouts of vigorous sex, Angie cold cocks Teddy and he wakes up in Woop Woop, a ramshackle town residing within a crater-like area on Aboriginal turf populated by denizens that are Australia’s answer to the eccentrics that inhabited John Waters’ early films.


Teddy eventually wakes up and Angie tells him that they got married. He is taken to meet her father Daddy-O (Rod Taylor) who lays out the town’s rules in a nicely delivered monologue. Much to his chagrin, Teddy finds out that he’s trapped in Woop Woop and completely at the mercy of its clearly insane inhabitants. He soon finds an unlikely ally in Angie’s sister Krystal (Dee Smart) and they devise a plan for escape.

For such a hunky actor with model looks, Jonathon Schaech has no vanity, committing to the role completely and not afraid to look ridiculous (walking around in nothing but his underwear and one of Angie’s nighties) or disgusting (he wakes up in Woop Woop covered in cake and mud from lying in a pig pen) or brutalized (he’s punched in the face several times by Angie). He gives a brave performance that sees Teddy getting humiliated repeatedly, but his character has a definite arc over the course of the film. Teddy goes from crass opportunist to romantic but without completely changing his personality.

Susie Porter gives a memorable performance as the psychotically upbeat Angie. She’s fixated on Teddy and has an insatiable sexual appetite. The actress does a nice job of portraying Angie’s duality: idealistic romantic with a savage streak. She epitomizes the townsfolk of Woop Woop – a genial façade but underneath lurks a real nastiness. In this respect, she’s a chip off the old block.


Veteran actor Rod Taylor’s Daddy-O is a satire of the stereotypical macho Australian alpha male. When we first meet him the man is even wearing a rugby uniform – one of the country’s most popular sports. Taylor plays his character as the unhinged ringleader of a crazed three-ring circus of a town. It’s a juicy role that the late-great actor sinks his teeth into and has fun playing.

After the success of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Hollywood came calling and Stephan Elliott was offered big, studio movies like Twister (1996), but he wasn’t interested because he had seen what costume designer Lizzie Gardiner had gone through on a $50 million movie and it wasn’t a good experience. He said that she came home “every night bursting into tears. All she could do was cry.” He was also offered First Wives Club (1996) and even met with some actresses but realized, “would I be happy doing it? Absolutely not.”

Elliott spent three years in development hell: “Every studio, sub-studio, mini-major and major was taking an interest – and then it doesn’t happen; or then wants Sharon Stone in without asking you.” A couple of companies promised creative control but he realized that he had “no control, no freedom, wanting script changes and so it went.” Elliott became so frustrated that he decided to become a director for hire and met producer Nick Powell who gave him a “very dark script” to read and found it to “very tough looking, quite a mean look at Australia.”


Producer Fiona Dwyer had optioned Douglas Kennedy’s novel The Dead Heat and hired him to write the first two drafts. According to him, she didn’t like what he wrote and fired him. Dwyer hired Michael Thomas (Backbeat) to rewrite it. At the time Elliott read the script it was called The Big Red and he felt that it needed a major rewrite in order for it to fit his sensibilities, “then twisted it a much more funny way rather than a cruel way of looking at it.” He saw the film as a homage and farewell to Australian culture from the 1940s to the 1960s that was disappearing.

While making Priscilla, Elliott approached the estate for Rodgers and Hammerstein to get access to their library and was flatly rejected. After the soundtrack album sold very well he approached them again for Woop Woop and they were much more receptive. Just before filming was to start, Elliott came down with hepatitis and the production was delayed until he got better.

In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Welcome to Woop Woop operates on the principle that indiscriminate camp silliness can carry a movie. Maybe it can, for about a half-hour at most.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “But in Welcome to Woop Woop, unrelentingly heavy whimsy makes for royal tedium, and Elliott’s broad caricature of outback eccentricities comes across as more crude (even cruel) than charming.” The Los Angeles Times’ Jack Mathews wrote, “Schaech, one of the stars of Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!, has an amiable presence, but seems as lost in his role as his role is lost in Woop Woop. You know you’re in trouble when the hero of your story is the least interesting one in it.” Finally, in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann wrote, “One gets the impression that Elliott, having scored so grandly with Priscilla, was determined to outdo himself – ‘I want more! more!’ You can hear him saying – but forgot to weave the parts together or create characters we could care about.”


Woop Woop features a community that is primitive and ugly, populated by inbred grotesques that love listening to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It resembles a landfill site masquerading as a frontier town. Their major export appears to be dog food made from kangaroo meat and called Woof Woof. It’s a town stuck in the past, frozen in time as epitomized by their nightly screenings of Classic Hollywood musicals and old popular culture relics that litter the town.

Much like Brewster McCloud (1970) or Breakfast of Champions (1999), Welcome to Woop Woop features a stylized, hermetically sealed world populated with eccentric characters governed by their own set of rules. What makes these absurdist comedies so difficult to follow is that they don’t offer an easy way into them and so they come across as impenetrable films. Stephan Elliott’s film tries to present Teddy as the audience surrogate, the most “normal” of the oddball cast of characters, but he starts off as a rather odd fellow – a not-so smart hustler that sells exotic birds. It’s only when he meets Angie and then wakes up in Woop Woop that he seems relatable in comparison.

As I watched Woop Woop again, I kept asking myself, what is Elliott trying to say? What is his end game? Is there any point to all of this? The film isn’t all non-sensical comedy as it attempts to examine the darker, uglier aspects of Australian culture, which thankfully saves it from being simply a chaotic mess. This is evident in Daddy-O’s dramatic speech where he tells Teddy about the town’s tragic past. With the numerous exaggerated caricatures and its wacky sense of humor, Elliott appears to be skewering all kinds of Australian stereotypes but in a way that only those familiar with them will understand, which explains its limited appeal and its marginalized status even in its native country. In this respect, Welcome to Woop Woop is the unholy union of Luis Bunuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky.



SOURCES

Hays, Matthew. “Stephan Elliott.” The Advocate. March 17, 1988.

Kennedy, Douglas. “It’s like selling your baby to highwaymen.” The Guardian. October 5, 2006.


Urban, Andrew L. “Subversion in the Outback.” Urban Cinefile.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Nate and Hayes

Before Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), pirate movies were considered to be box office poison and with good reason. High profile efforts like Yellowbeard (1983), Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) and the most notorious of them all Cutthroat Island (1995) were financial flops. In 1983, Nate and Hayes attempted to fuse the sensibilities of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with the pirate genre to predictable critical scorn and lackluster box office returns. The movie is significant for two reasons: the screenplay was co-written by John Hughes and starred Tommy Lee Jones. Yes, the man responsible for classic 1980s teen movies like Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985) wrote a pirate movie. I remember when Nate and Hayes came out and the trailers made it look like a fun, action/adventure romp, but for some reason I never got around to seeing it. Decades later, I decided to check it out and see if it was as derivative as its reputation would suggest.

We meet Captain Bully Hayes (Tommy Lee Jones) and his crew hacking their way through a jungle not unlike the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This will be the first of a few nods to that film. They cross a dodgy looking rope bridge (that oddly anticipates Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom by a few months) and arrive in a village populated by spear-wielding natives. Hayes is a cocky and confident smuggler trading rifles for gold. Predictably, the deal goes bad and he barely escapes with his life in an exciting chase sequence only to be caught by Ben Pease (Max Phipps), a rival now working for the Spanish who charge him with treason. He is thrown into prison where he recounts the story of how he got there.

Hayes is taking a young missionary couple – Nathaniel (Michael O’Keefe) and Sophie (Jenny Seagrove) – to an island mission somewhere in the Pacific Ocean where they plan to get married and convert the local natives to Christianity. Hayes is smitten with Sophie who invests the money she inherited from her dead father in his “trading company” unbeknownst to Nate. Unfortunately, on their wedding day the mission is attacked by a ruthless gang of slave traders led by Pease. They burn the village to the ground, kidnap Sophie and leave Nate for dead. Hayes rescues him and together they devise a plan to rescue Sophie.


Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t have matinee idol good looks and this works in his favor as Bully Hayes. The actor’s rugged features are a good match for his character. The actor tempers his trademark stoicism with a mischievous roguish glint in his eye. Hayes may have disreputable standing, but meeting Sophie awakens good tendencies within him. Jones is a physical actor and he uses that quality effectively in Nate and Hayes to play a man of action. The actor is also smart enough to realize that he’s starring in a pulpy genre movie and adjusts his approach accordingly by playing Hayes as an unrepentant adventurer as he says at one point, “I never flew the skull and crossbones, but I have sought pleasure and profit all my life at sea without regard for any man’s law.”

Michael O’Keefe plays Nate, the uptight missionary who learns to loosen up once he hangs out with Hayes and his crew. It’s a thankless role that the actor commits to fully, but doesn’t succumb to simple caricature. Nate isn’t an idiot; he’s just naïve and quickly learns a thing or two about the world under Hayes’ guidance. Jones and O’Keefe play well off each other, their characters start off loathing each other and then bond over confronting a common foe and achieving the same goal. At times, it looks like the two actors are having a blast playing heroes in a pulpy action/adventure movie in the way they exchange good-natured looks while pursuing the bad guys.

The casting of Hayes’ crew is spot-on. They really do look like a group of grungy buccaneers out for a good time and to make some money, not above killing anybody that gets in their way. Ferdinand Fairfax’s direction and Tony Imi’s cinematography is a little on the flat side, giving Nate and Hayes a made-for-television quality with the occasional cinematic flourishes, which is a shame because the pirate movie is a genre crying out for flashy style as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise demonstrate so amply.


David Odell wrote a screenplay entitled Savage Islands, which he based on an actual Pacific pirate in the 19th century. Jeffrey Katzenberg greenlighted the film over at Paramount Pictures with Tommy Lee Jones cast as the pirate. According to Odell, as they were in pre-production building ships, director Ferdinand Fairfax wasn’t happy with the ending of the script. Odell rewrote it several times but Fairfax “couldn’t decide what he wanted.” John Hughes owed the studio a commitment and they sent him a copy of the script. He did a rewrite in three weeks, transforming a 105-page script into a 250-page one, and then left the project. A week before principal photography began the filmmakers were not satisfied with Hughes’ revisions and, according to Odell, tossed them out. Odell handed in another draft and went off to work on Supergirl (1984). The filmmakers were still unhappy with the third act and Fairfax rewrote it himself.

Nate and Hayes received mostly negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it one out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is a loud, confusing, pointless mess that never seems to make up its mind whether to be a farce of an adventure.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Ferdinand Fairfax, the director, allows the actors to strain for comic effects that aren’t there.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas felt that the movie “could easily have been terrific … But Nate and Hayes drowns in excessive violence and Trevor Jones’ loud, bombastic score.”

At the end of the day, Nate and Hayes starts off as an extended riff on Raiders of the Lost Ark and then mutates into a pirate movie that plugs in all the right elements: fist fights, gun battles, chases, swordfights, angry natives, a lovely damsel in distress, dastardly villains, and loveable rogues – what more could you want? Nate and Hayes is saved from being simply another genre exercise by Jones’ appealing performance. The obvious comparisons to Indiana Jones probably hurt the movie’s commercial prospects, but over time it has aged surprisingly well, coming across as a lean, swashbuckler as opposed to the unnecessarily overstuffed, plot-heavy Pirates of the Caribbean movies.



SOURCES


Helford, Ross. “A Conversation with David Odell.”

Friday, January 23, 2015

Blackhat

Michael Mann’s interest in computer hackers and the socio-political impact of their illegal activities can be traced as far back as 1995 when he was briefly linked to an adaptation of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Count Zero, a science fiction tale involving international espionage via cyberspace. Two decades and several films later, Mann has returned to this subject matter with Blackhat (2015), a thriller about a group of American and Chinese government agents tracking a cyber-criminal determined to disable the international banking network.

The filmmaker certainly has his work cut out for him as historically movies about computer hacking are notoriously inaccurate (Swordfish) or pure flights of fancy (Hackers) with WarGames (1983) having the distinction of being a more realistic portrayal and a bonafide hit as well. Mann’s perchance for meticulous research and his obsession with attention to detail would ensure that at the very least Blackhat would depict the world of computer hacking as realistic as a fictional film would allow. The challenge would be to convey all the requisite tech jargon in an interesting and understandable way that wouldn’t lose the uninitiated while also appealing to those in the know.

After one of their nuclear power plant’s computer network is infiltrated by an unknown hacker causing the coolant pumps to overheat and explode, the Chinese government sends cyber defense expert Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), who also enlists the help of his sister (and computer expert) Chen Lien (Tang Wei), to the United States where he compares notes with FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) who dealt with a similar attack. When soy stock is manipulated at the Chicago Mercantile Trade Exchange, Dawai and Barrett figure out that the same Remote Access Tool (RAT) was used as on the power plant.


Dawai reveals that he was the co-architect of the software and that to catch the hacker behind these incidents they need the other person who helped create it – Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth). The trouble is that he’s currently serving a 15-year stint in prison. He cuts a deal with the FBI: he’ll help them catch the hacker in exchange for commuting his prison sentence. And so, the assembled team begins to track down the trail the hacker left behind, both electronically and in the real world.

Chris Hemsworth does a solid job as a hardened career computer hacker and handles his tech-heavy jargon well, selling the material in a believable way. He even has a nice scene with Tang Wei where, over dinner, Hathaway reveals a bit about his checkered past, conveying a convict mentality much like James Caan’s character did in the diner scene from Thief (1981). Some may criticize the casting of Hemsworth as he is too good-looking to play a credible hacker but let’s face it, to get Blackhat made at a studio with the budget it had ($70 million), Mann had to cast a recognizable movie star with some clout. Thanks to his recurring role as Thor in the insanely popular Marvel Studios movies, he has that clout.

The romance that develops between Hathaway and Lien initially feels tacked on and unnecessary, like it was a clumsily written plot device to get us emotionally invested in the characters and is not integrated as well as in films like Miami Vice (2006) or Public Enemies (2009), but as the film progresses it starts to feel more natural. This is perhaps Blackhat’s glaring fault and what separates it from Mann’s truly great films. The film lacks the emotional weight that you see in Heat (1995) or The Insider (1999) where the stakes are so high for the individual characters. There is a lot at stake for Hathaway in Blackhat, but it never resonates as strongly in previous Mann films and this may be due to the weaknesses in the screenplay or Hemsworth’s performances or a combination of both. That being said, it is interesting to note how for the first half of the film Hathaway’s attacks on the bad guys are all done from distance, be it from a computer or a gun. It is only once he becomes personally affected that he must deal with his enemies in an up close and personal fashion.


The screenplay written by Morgan Davis Foehl (and revised by Mann) throws around plenty of computer-speak but does it in a way that allows you to follow what’s going on with very little trouble, which is important in a film that hopscotches all over the world, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Malaysia to Indonesia. Unlike pretty much every other fictional film’s depiction of computer hacking, Blackhat gets a lot of the details right, most notably in what comes up on computer screens. Instead of trippy graphics we see screens of computer code that Hathaway and his crew have to sift through and make sense of in order to figure what the bad guys are doing.

Mann is still a master of action as evident in several tense shoot-outs sprinkled throughout the film, including one in a storage yard between Nick and his crew and the bad guys. It is an immersive experience that drops you in the middle of a noisy gun battle with bullets that whiz by and danger lurking around every corner. Blackhat is also beautiful to look at with some truly stunning digital cinematography courtesy of Stuart Dryburgh, from the vast expanse of an airfield that dwarfs Hathaway to the Hong Kong skyline at night. Mann takes us to some exotic locales and immerses us in them in a way that creates an atmospheric experience. Shooting on location creates a real, tangible sense of place that you can’t fake with CGI. It also provides local color and offers a window into a foreign culture.


In lieu of the Sony Corporation hacks in 2014, Blackhat is eerily relevant. The film shows just how vulnerable we all are to having our private, intimate details exposed, from the individual to a high-ranking NSA agent. With the right software and the means, anything can be hacked. Blackhat is part cyber whodunit and part pulse-pounding action thriller. It is too soon to say if this is another masterwork from Mann. Some time, distance and repeated viewings will determine how it ranks in the pantheon of his work. That being said, it is still an impressive effort that demonstrates Mann’s ongoing exploration of his trademark motifs and themes that include protagonists who excel at their respective vocations, brief yet intense romantic relationships, and the role technology plays in their lives. Blackhat also features Mann’s trademark style, but with plenty of substance. It may lack the emotional weight of his previous work and, as a result, may not convert new fans to his particular brand of cinema, but to the faithful the film is pure cinematic catnip.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Inherent Vice

There are unfilmable novels and then there is Thomas Pynchon, the premiere post-modern novelist responsible for legendary tomes like Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. He is known for producing dense, complex novels that explore themes such as racism, philosophy, science and technology while fusing theological and literary ideas with popular culture references to comic books, films, urban myths and conspiracy theories. Satire and paranoia are common currencies that he uses in his novels. And that’s only scratching the surface.

The 1960s were an important decade for Pynchon. It was at this time that his novels V. and The Crying of Lot 49 were published and the bulk of Gravity’s Rainbow was written. He would revisit the ‘60s again from the perspective of the 1980s with Vineland and, most recently, with Inherent Vice, which was published in 2009. The latter novel has been considered his most accessible work since Lot 49 and has been adapted into a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, the American auteur responsible for such memorable efforts as Boogie Nights (1997), There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) among others.

Possibly informed by Pynchon’s stint in Manhattan Beach, California during the mid-‘60s, Inherent Vice is part stoner comedy/mystery and part lament for an era that was all but gone by 1970 when the story takes place. If the ‘60s was about having your head in the clouds then the ‘70s was about having your feet on the ground. Like its source material, the film plays fast and loose with notions of plot and story, riffing on elements of a Raymond Chandler-esque mystery through a counterculture filter.


Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator of the rumpled variety. One night, he’s visited by an ex-girlfriend by the name of Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) whose latest boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a big-time real estate developer, and his wife are involved in some kind of shady scheme. Doc soon finds himself framed for murder, Shasta disappears (as does Mickey) and he runs afoul of hardass Los Angeles police detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). During the course of his investigation, Doc finds himself immersed in the bizarro social strata of California culture, including a drug-addicted surf musician (Owen Wilson), a member of the Black Panthers (Michael K. Williams), a cokehead dentist (Martin Short), and a secret cartel known as the Golden Fang.

Inherent Vice is the second collaboration between Anderson and actor Joaquin Phoenix and the former may have found his cinematic alter ego. Working together brings out the best in both of them with the actor delivering another excellent performance. He portrays Doc as a peaceful hippie P.I. content to coast through life surrounded by a cloud of pot smoke, but is thrust into a strange world when an ex-lover comes back into his life. He acts as our guide on this journey and the key to navigating the sometimes murky narrative waters is to never lose focus of the primary mystery: the disappearance of Shasta. Doc represents the peace-loving idealism of the ‘60s and who is confronted by all kinds of outlandish people that represent the aggressive excessiveness of the ‘70s.

Anderson populates Inherent Vice with a stellar cast of supporting actors that includes Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, and Martin Short, all of whom bring this collection of oddball characters vividly to life. Some may find the cavalcade of recognizable movie stars distracting but, on the contrary, they act as important signposts along the way to help us keep track of the numerous characters Doc encounters during his investigation.


Josh Brolin gets the most screen-time of the supporting cast as Bigfoot Bjornsen, a throwback to cops of the early ‘60s, complete with crew cut and deep loathing of hippies like Doc. Initially, Bigfoot starts off as Doc’s primary nemesis, but over the course of the film he reveals a frustration with his lot in life, displaying a grudging mutual respect. Brolin certainly has the imposing frame to play Bigfoot and wisely plays the role straight, which makes several of his scenes that much funnier because the uptight character is a product of a bygone era that clashes with the more easygoing Doc as much as the excessive culture of the ‘70s.

The trailers for Inherent Vice are misleading in the sense that they sell the film as some kind of madcap comedy and while there are some out-and-out funny scenes, like Martin Short’s cocaine-addicted dentist, there is a melancholic tone that permeates most of the film expanding on “The High Water Mark” speech Raoul Duke gives late in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) as he laments the death of ‘60s idealism. Inherent Vice even ends on a surprisingly emotional moment that is quite affecting. Instead of going for quick, comedic beats, Anderson applies the aesthetic he used in There Will Be Blood and The Master by breaking the film down into lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes between Doc and one of the many people involved either directly or tangentially to Shasta’s disappearance, which may test the patience of some expecting the stylish zaniness of something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. While Terry Gilliam’s film reflected Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo sensibilities, so too does Inherent Vice reflect Pynchon’s peculiar sensibilities. Like the book, Anderson takes his time and lets you sink into Pynchon’s world, which is certainly not an experience for everyone.

Several reviews have compared Inherent Vice to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), but they are only similar on a very superficial level. Anderson’s film is its own thing – a shaggy dog journey through a corner of Pynchon’s universe that the filmmaker has brought faithfully and lovingly to life. Much like Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (2012), Inherent Vice is made by and for fans of Pynchon’s novel, which will leave the uninitiated out in the cold, struggling to follow a film that may seem like an incoherent mess, but is actually quite faithful to its source material with huge chunks of the author’s prose coming out of the characters’ mouths. You shouldn’t have to see a film more than once to “get it,” but there are some that reveal themselves in more detail and whose nuances are appreciated upon repeated viewings. This is such a film. As Pynchon himself once famously said in response to the complexity of his novel V., “Why should things be easy to understand?” The fact that one of Pynchon’s novels has been adapted into a film is quite a significant accomplishment. That it successfully translates his worldview is even more noteworthy.


SOURCES


Siegel, Jules. “Who is Thomas Pynchon . . . and why did he take off with my Wife?” Playboy. March 1977.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Strange Days

Mainstream popular culture’s flirtation with the Cyberpunk genre reached its cinematic zenith in 1995 with Johnny Mnemonic, Judge Dredd, Virtuosity, Hackers, and Strange Days. They all underperformed at the box office for various reasons and with varying degrees of success managed to convey the aesthetics and themes of the genre. The most satisfying film from the class of ’95 was Strange Days, an action thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks. Bigelow had already dabbled in the Cyberpunk genre by directing an episode of the sci-fi television miniseries Wild Palms in 1993. She was clearly testing the waters for what would be a full-on treatment with Strange Days. Anchored by strong performances from Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett, the film explores some fascinating ideas, addresses topical issues and comes closest of any film at that point since Blade Runner (1982) to translating the ideas of Cyberpunk authors like William Gibson onto film despite a disappointing ending.

Bigelow starts things off audaciously as we experience a restaurant robbery from the point-of-view of one of the assailants, following them as they are subsequently chased by the police. After the sequence ends she reveals that it was all recorded via illegal technology known as SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) that allows the user to experience the sights, sounds and sensations of the subject recorded directly from their cerebral cortex.

Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a slightly upscale street hustler that deals in these discs, but draws the line at “blackjack clips” (a.k.a. snuff films) because he’s got ethics. James Cameron and Jay Cocks’ tech slang-heavy dialogue in the opening exchange between Lenny and his supplier, a jittery guy named Tick (the always watchable Richard Edson), does a fantastic job of immersing us in the former’s world by the way he speaks and acts. As Lenny drives through the streets of Los Angeles, making deals on his cell phone, Bigelow provides us with glimpses of a city in decline. It’s as if the 1992 L.A. Riots never completely ended as we see burning shells of cars, soldiers patrolling the streets and three women beating on a man dressed as Santa Claus.


Meanwhile, a young woman named Iris (Brigitte Bako) is running for her life from two cops (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) whom she witnessed and recorded on a SQUID device killing prominent rapper and outspoken activist Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer). If the recording is made public it will put an already unstable general populace over the edge.

Strange Days features, without a doubt, my favorite performance of Ralph Fiennes’ career. At the time, it was seen as casting against type, but in retrospect it was a stellar example of his impressive range and willingness to immerse himself in a character. Lenny tries to talk his way out of a number of dicey situations and is only sometimes successful. From his expensive yet sleazy-looking wardrobe to his rapid-fire patter, Lenny is a slick operator fast-talking his way through life, but whose whole world changes when he watches a particularly disturbing SQUID clip. Fiennes does an incredible job of portraying a man stuck in a rut of his own making and is eventually forced to take stock of his life.

Lenny also has a tough-love friendship with Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), a no-nonsense private security contractor. They banter back and forth but when he occasionally tests the limits of their friendship she gives him a reality check about the chaotic mess that is his life. Angela Bassett is a revelation as Lenny’s ass-kicking friend. She exudes a toughness that not only comes with her profession but is also part of her character and a survival instinct. Mace may be hard on Lenny, but it is only because she cares about him. Bassett and Fiennes share a nice scene together where Mace cleans up Lenny after Philo’s goons gave him a tune-up. It’s a touching moment that says so much about their friendship. What I find interesting about Mace is how Bigelow reverses the traditional action stereotype by having her be the tough action star who can handle herself while Lenny consistently gets the crap kicked out of him and has to be rescued. She’s also the voice of reason and helps him finally let go of his attachment to Faith.


The 1990s was a good decade for Tom Sizemore with memorable roles in films like True Romance (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), Heat (1995), and Saving Private Ryan (1998). He had a bit part in Bigelow’s previous film, Point Break (1991), and is well-cast as Lenny’s other close friend, Max Peltier who humors his continued obsession with Faith. Like Lenny, he’s an ex-cop only he got into the private investigation business. Sizemore brings his customary easygoing charm to the role and gets to say one of the film’s most memorable lines when Max tells Lenny, “The issue isn’t whether you’re paranoid, Lenny … The issue is whether you’re paranoid enough.” There’s a fantastic give-and-take between Fiennes and Sizemore that makes their characters’ long-standing friendship instantly believable. It’s all in the shorthand and the good-natured ball-busting between them that is fun to watch.

When he’s not on the street making deals, Lenny relives key moments of a past relationship with ex-girlfriend Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis), a singer now involved with her manager Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). While the cast is uniformly excellent, the lone exception is Juliette Lewis who simply isn’t convincing as Lenny’s object of obsession. She broods and sulks her way through Strange Days and plays such an unlikeable character that you wonder what Lenny sees in Faith. I don’t find her all that attractive, especially in this role and she comes across as flat in her scenes with Fiennes who is obviously a much superior actor. This film also further emboldened Lewis to continue singing off-camera, joining other actors that fancy themselves rock stars.

Unfortunately, Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner are largely wasted as anonymous rogue cops that make things tough for our heroes. The latter utters one or two sentences the entire film and the former reprises his psychotic grin from Full Metal Jacket (1987) and little else.


At the time, much was made of a particularly disturbing sequence in which Lenny watches a SQUID clip of a man raping and killing a woman. To make matters even worse, the killer wires up his victim so that she experiences him getting off on raping her. Rape is always a tricky thing to depict and Bigelow is clearly not glorifying it, but showing it to be an ugly, horrifying act. I think it is important that she makes a point of showing how upset the clip makes anyone who watches it. In regards to this scene, Cameron said in an interview, “Rather than glorifying violence, it puts you in the driver’s seat of being the killer. That deglamorizes it.” Bigelow said, “My hope is that the violence is understood in its context. The violence is designed to be horrific. It’s designed to make you think it is awful.”

The screenplay is at its best when its dialogue immerses us in this near-future world. For example, we witness Lenny pitching the SQUID experience to a neophyte. He tells the potential client, “This is not like T.V. only better. This is life. It’s a piece of somebody’s life. It’s pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex. I mean, you’re there, you’re doing it, you’re seeing it, you’re hearing it, you’re feeling it.” These words beautifully sum up how the technology works and its allure. It is the ultimate in virtual reality. For thirty minutes you get to be someone else and experience what they went through without any of the potentially messy consequences. It’s the latest in voyeuristic thrills. Fiennes really shines during this scene as he seduces the potential client with his pitch in a riveting performance, telling him at one point, “I’m your priest. I’m your shrink. I’m your main connection to the switchboard of the soul. I’m the magic man, the Santa Claus of the subconscious.”

James Cameron came up with the idea for Strange Days in 1985, but it wasn’t until 1993 that he mapped out the entire film in a 140-page screenplay/treatment hybrid. However, he was beginning work on True Lies (1994) and unable to make it himself. He contacted ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow and asked if she was interested in directing Strange Days. She found herself drawn to its “incredibly clever, great concept,” and how it “operates on many levels.” Bigelow contacted ex-Time magazine film critic Jay Cocks, whom she had worked with previously on an unrealized Joan of Arc film, and asked him to complete Cameron’s partially finished script.


After the L.A. Riots, Bigelow helped with the clean-up effort and this provided a lot of visuals for the film: “You’d be on a street corner with these shells of buildings that once were, with tanks and National Guard cruising by.” Unlike science fiction films like Blade Runner and Total Recall (1990), Bigelow set Strange Days in a “hyperkinetic, darker version of today … It’s a future that we’re almost living in.”

Ralph Fiennes was drawn to the role of Lenny Nero because it wasn’t an “obvious contemporary action hero.” He saw the character as “weak, he’s emotionally screwed-up, he’s a bit of a jerk – but he’s likeable. He’s not particularly brave, and somehow he comes through the shit and is okay.” Cameron identified with Lenny, saying in an interview, “Lenny is me. There is a certain aspect of a filmmaker that is a salesman, who has to be able to sell a studio on a movie.” To research the role, Fiennes met with and drove around with Los Angeles police officers.

The exciting foot chase between Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in Point Break gave Bigelow the confidence to do the point-of-view chases in Strange Days. To film the first person SQUID clips, the director and her team had to build a stripped-down Steadicam that was light and versatile. She constructed and even choreographed the opening restaurant robbery sequence to be continuous and unbroken even though the final version has cuts. To create the massive New Year’s Eve celebration at the climax of the film, the production staged a rave with 10,000 people in downtown L.A. with performances by Deee-Lite and Aphex Twin. Over the course of filming that night, five people were hospitalized from overdosing on the hallucinogenic drug Ecstasy.


Strange Days received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “It creates a convincing future landscape; it populates it with a hero who comes out of the noir tradition and is flawed and complex rather than simply heroic, and it provides a vocabulary.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Fiennes gleefully captures Lenny’s sleaziness while also showing there is something about this schlockmeister that is worth saving, despite much evidence to the contrary. As for Ms. Bassett, she looks great and radiates inner strength even without the bone-crunching physical feats to which she is often assigned.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers described it as Bigelow’s “magnum opus,” and “a visionary triumph.”

However, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Bigelow, a poet of cheap thrills, turns the audience into eager voyeurs. I only wish she’d stayed with her premise. Strange Days has a dazzling atmosphere of grunge futurism, but beneath its dark satire of audiovisual decadence lurks a naggingly conventional underworld thriller.” Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll wrote, “As the New Century approaches in an eruption of racial conflict, murderous cops and battered heroes, the movie screeches into reverse and love conquers all. It’s not that a happy ending is bad, it’s that it comes from nowhere but a failure of nerve.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Strange Days does have a superior cast, but only Bassett manages to survive the numskull script, and that just barely.”

Even though Strange Days is set in the near future, it is very much a film of its time. The killing of Jeriko One and the subsequent cover-up eerily anticipates the deaths of real-life rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. even though I’m sure Cameron and Cocks were inspired by the beating of Rodney King, which led to the subsequent L.A. Riots in 1992. It appears that Bigelow’s film is heading towards a riot of similar if not bigger proportions, but during the third act Cameron and Cocks lose the courage of their convictions and opt for a love conquers all cliché ending when a Rome is burning finale would have been a more fitting conclusion. It robs Strange Days of its power so that it’s merely a good film instead of a great one.



SOURCES

Heath, Chris. “Are You Feeling Lucky, Cyberpunk?” Empire. April 1996.

Hochman, Steve. “Rave Party Extras Are Deee-Lited.” Los Angeles Times. September 19, 1994.

McGavin, Patrick Z. “One Director’s Reality Check.” Chicago Tribune. October 15, 1995.

Smith, Gavin. “Momentum and Design.” Film Comment. September-October 1995.

Spelling, Ian. “Strange Genesis.” Starlog. January 1996.


Yakir, Dan. “Strange Days.” Starlog. November 1995.