Saturday, January 11, 2014

Strange Days

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks from a story by James Cameron, Strange Days is the story of a former cop turned black marketer who finds himself in trouble due to a device that records memories where a user had witnessed a killing by two corrupt cops. Set in 1999 Los Angeles just two days before the millennium, the film is a cyberpunk thriller that explores the world of technologies and memories as a man deals with his past as well as his friendship with a female bodyguard. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D’Onofrio, William Fichtner, and Michael Wincott. Strange Days is a phenomenal yet gripping film from Kathryn Bigelow.

It’s 1999 just two days before the new millennium as the film is about these last two days where a black marketer discovers about a conspiracy involving two police officers in the death of a renowned rapper through a recorded memory from a hooker. With the help of a female bodyguard and a private investigator, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) tries to find out what these cops are doing as well as who has been killing not just the witness of these murders but also who has been stalking Lenny’s former girlfriend in rock singer Faith (Juliette Lewis). It’s a film that has a lot of elements of suspense and intrigue as it’s set in futuristic 1999 where Los Angeles is in chaos over tension between the people and the police. Even as it also features a man struggling with his past over his lost love while the only true friend he has is this no-nonsense bodyguard named Mace (Angela Bassett) who doesn’t like his work as she always bails him out.

The film’s screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks is very intriguing not for its mystery but also in the drama where Lenny is still pining for Faith. Even as he watches old tapes in his head of the good times they had before she left him for the music impresario Philo Grant (Michael Wincott) who also manages the controversial rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) who has become a voice of the people. One’s murder by these two corrupt cops in Steckler (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Engelman (William Fichtner) that was witnessed by a friend of Lenny in the hooker Iris (Brigitte Bako) through her SQUID memory recorder that she wears on her head would trigger the events in the film. The film does become this suspense-thriller through its script yet there’s much more to it as it concerns the relationship between Lenny and Mace.

Mace is easily one of the film’s most interesting characters as she was this former waitress who met Lenny when he was just a cop comforting her son following an incident. Their friendship has Mace being not just a mother of sorts for Lenny but one where she tries to maintain some control as she has no interest in seeing other people’s memories through his device nor does she approve Lenny’s line of work. Once she realize what is going on and the trouble that Lenny is in, she reluctantly helps out as she is this commanding presence that is really unlike a lot of characters in film. There’s no bullshit about her which makes Mace so intriguing in comparison to Faith as she is this rock singer yearning to make her break but hangs out with the wrong people. The characterization of Lenny and Mace isn’t just the highlight of the script but also some of the dialogue where it’s very direct but also has some moments of humor.

Kathryn Bigelow’s direction is definitely intoxicating from the first moment of the film which explores a gang trying to rob a restaurant and evade the cops in a chase as it’s mostly shown in two takes all from the perspective of a robber. All of it is shot in a shaky steadicam as if someone is watching this moment as if they’re that person. It’s among these elements of style that Bigelow would incorporate as it does play into this idea of the future where people put on a headgear and be near a recorder in their hand so they can record these memories. It’s not just these steadicam shots that are among the finer moments of the film but also the presentation that Bigelow has in the way she explores Los Angeles in this period of turmoil and tension in the last days of the 20th Century.

The direction also has Bigelow use her slow-motion visual trademark to not just play into the action and suspense but also some of the drama in order to explore some of the tension and stakes in the film. Even as it plays into that world of reality and memories where it’s all about someone re-living an old memory or looking into someone else’s memory. The action scenes which involve a few fights and such are very engaging as it includes the film’s climax where Mace deals with the corrupt cops and Lenny dealing with the mysterious killer. Overall, Bigelow crafts a very fluid and enthralling film about a man uncovering a mysterious murder that could spell doom for the world.

Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti does amazing work with the film‘s cinematography where it mostly takes place at night with a few scenes set in the day as it has an air of style in its lighting as well as the way it presents Los Angeles in its most chaotic. Editor Howard E Smith, with additional work from James Cameron, does excellent work with the editing in not just creating a feel in the steadicam shots where it feels like it is presented in one take but also in its use of jump-cuts and rhythmic cuts to play with some of the film‘s action. Production designer Lily Kilvert, along with set decorator Kara Lindstrom and art director John Warnke, does fantastic work with the set pieces from the look of the New Year‘s Eve party in the middle of Los Angeles to the clubs and hotels that the characters go to. Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick does nice work with some of the film‘s costumes from the suits that Lenny wears as well as the clothes that Mace wears the slinky, revealing dresses that Faith wears.

Visual effects supervisor James Lima does terrific work with some of the film‘s visual effects such as the fuzzy visuals that a person wears when wearing the SQUID device. Sound editor Gloria S. Borders and sound designer Brian Williams do brilliant work with the film‘s sound from the atmospheres of the parties to the way some of the flashback memories and such sound like as they‘re recorded. The film’s music by Graeme Revell is superb for its ambient-based score with elements of rock and electronic music while music supervisor Randy Gerston brings in a sprawling soundtrack filled with all sorts of music ranging from metal/hard rock, alt-rock, electronic music, world music, and hip-hop from acts like Marilyn Manson, Skunk Anansie, Lords of Acid, Bob Marley, Deep Forest w/ Peter Gabriel, Me Phi Me w/ Glenn Plummer, Tricky, Prong and the Doors’ Ray Manzarek, and Juliette Lewis doing two covers of songs by PJ Harvey.

The casting by Sharon Baily, Debi Manwiller, Richard Pagano, and Melissa M. Thomas is incredible for the ensemble that is used which includes some notable small performances from Louise LeCavalier, Joe Urla, and Nicky Katt as a trio of Philo’s bodyguards, Michael Jace as a former pro footballer who becomes a bodyguard of Philo, Richard Edson as Lenny’s supplier Tick, and Josef Sommer as LAPD deputy commissioner Palmer Strickland who Lenny knows is the most incorruptible person on the force despite his issues with him. Brigitte Bako is wonderful as Lenny’s hooker friend Iris who witnesses Jeriko’s murder while Glenn Plummer is terrific as the outspoken rapper Jeriko. William Fichtner and Vincent D’Onofrio are excellent in their respective roles as the corrupt cops Engelman and Steckler as two loose cannons who take the laws into their own hands.

Michael Wincott is superb as Faith’s manager Philo who is a slimy individual that likes to take control of everything while being addicted to watching people’s memories. Tom Sizemore is amazing as Lenny’s private investigator friend Max who is this very eccentric guy who doesn’t do things conventionally while helping Lenny and Mace figure out the murders and such. Juliette Lewis is fantastic as Faith as Lenny’s former lover who is trying to make it as a rock singer who cares about Lenny but doesn’t love him anymore as she is trying to hide something that Lenny doesn’t want to know.

Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as Lenny Nero as this former cop turned black marketer who finds himself in trouble when one of his machines has uncovered a major conspiracy as he also deals with his feelings for Faith and clinging to the past as it’s one of Fiennes’ more underrated performances. Finally, there’s Angela Bassett in an outstanding performance as Mace as she is this no-bullshit bodyguard/chauffer who just wants to get paid and do what is right for her son while dealing with Lenny’s troubles. Bassett also proves to be a formidable badass as she is one woman not to fuck with while she has some amazing chemistry with Fiennes as they become this very unlikely yet engaging pair that is fun to watch.

Strange Days is a remarkable film from Kathryn Bigelow that is highlighted by the spectacular performances of Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett. The film is definitely not just a fascinating cyberpunk, dystopian film but also a thriller that is very captivating and adventurous. Even as it’s armed with a cool soundtrack and some pretty funny dialogue. In the end, Strange Days is a kick-ass yet tremendous film from Kathryn Bigelow.

Kathryn Bigelow Films: The Loveless - Near Dark - Blue Steel - Point Break - The Weight of Water - K-19: The Widowmaker - The Hurt Locker - Zero Dark Thirty - The Auteurs #29: Kathryn Bigelow

© thevoid99 2014


Stevee Taylor said...

This is such an underrated film! And definitely a very underrated performance from Ralph Fiennes - it is quite unlike the rest of his filmography. I must get around to watching it again.

thevoid99 said...

Totally. I think it is one of the most underrated films of the 90s. Not just because Fiennes gets to play someone desperate and lost. He's also pretty damn funny in this film where there's a great little moment where he complains about his tie.

ruth said...

Just caught this not too long ago. It's well, a strange film but I quite like this one. Ralph Fiennes is absolutely gorgeous in this movie but yes he's very good here playing a role who I didn't normally associate him with. I also like the chemistry between him and Angela Bassett who's equally terrific. I saw Tom Sizemore last year at a local film fest and I wish I had asked him about his wig here, ahah.

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-It is a weird film but a really entertaining one. Definitely features some of the best work of Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett.

TheVern said...

I loved this movie. I love how Bigalow and Fiennes help sell the device to see other people's memories as something cool, but then turn it into something really ugly. The sound design you mentioned is perfect. And From this film I got to discover who PJ Harvey was. SO it gets big points from me

thevoid99 said...

@theVern-I do love PJ Harvey. I have all of her albums. I think it's a film that should be lauded more because it was the right film at the right time. Even in that wave of cyberpunk films that were coming out at that time yet it was this film that got it right.

Dell said...

Great review! It's ashamed this movie seems to be pretty much forgotten. It is definitely a gripping film and a rather inventive one. Though it is odd now to think of it as taking place in a "futuristic 1999."

thevoid99 said...

@Wendell Ottley-It's a film that I think deserves to be rediscovered as I feel like it was sort of ahead of its time.