Why are we talking about the films of Kathryn Bigelow? Well, surely the better question is why aren’t you listening to us talk about Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days, K-19: The Widowmaker, The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty. Remedy that at your earliest convenience.
Adrian Pasdar’s Caleb Colton picks up an unfortunate condition from a young woman, Jenny Wright’s Mae, that he meets at the local dive bar of whatever small Midwestern town he’s in. No, not crabs, but vampirism. The two do seem to have struck a chord as they talk through the night, but Mae mysteriously bolts off just before sun-up, for largely not-going-on-fire reasons, as Caleb discovers come the morning.
He’s saved from a fate exactly like death by Mae’s “family” in their blacked out RV, headed by Lance Henriksen’s Jesse Hooker, who reluctantly, at Mae’s insistence, overrules Bill Paxton’s annoying, supposed-to-be-intimidating nutter Severen, who’d rather see the newest member of the family cast out. Rounding out the family are Jenette Goldstein’s Diamondback, Jesse’s girl (I wish that I had Jesse’s girl… apologies to Rick Springfield), and child vampire Homer (Joshua John Miller), who basically gets the story arc of Let the Right One In condensed into three lines of dialogue.
While Caleb is trying to come to terms with his new life, new love, and new hunger for blood, and his understandable reluctance to give in to the latter, the family tear across the Midwest, killing, feasting and arsoning, in a complete mockery of the masquerade most vampire films have about blending in to avoid detection and all that. So, it shouldn’t be all that hard for Caleb’s dad, Tim Thomerson’s Loy, and younger sister to follow the trail. And when these meet, Caleb will have to choose between his two families.
I thought I’d seen Near Dark before, but I think I’m confusing it with the slightly similarly themed Lost Boys, which, although I can barely remember it, I’m fairly comfortable in saying is a much more enjoyable film, because Near Dark wasn’t very interesting to me at all. I don’t really have all that much to complain about in terms of the filmmaking, and the plot is, on a theoretical level, solid enough to carry it, but I just could not bring myself to care about any of these characters.
I thought Bill Paxton would be good for a laugh, and he very much isn’t, and while Lance Henriksen acquits himself better he’s still not doing very much at all. Unfortunately this film is based almost entirely around the white hot blistering chemistry that there isn’t between Pasdar and Wright, and without that this is basically Twilight with a bit of pyrotechnics in the final reel.
I don’t hate it, but I sure as hell don’t care about it. Minor plaudits for an interesting, if ultimately not all that fitting, Tangerine Dream soundtrack, but that’s a recommendation for Spotify, not Netflix.
Improbably-named Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is a new recruit from the FBI Academy whose first posting sees him in the bank robbery section of the Los Angeles office. Here he is partnered with Gary Busey’s veteran agent Pappas, whose theories on the identities of their most-wanted gang of robbers are largely mocked by the rest of the office. Young Johnny is willing to listen to his older colleague, though, and, wouldn’t you know it, Pappas was right all along.
The gang are “The Ex-Presidents”, a highly efficient and disciplined crew who hide their identity by wearing masks of former US presidents. Based on the small amounts of evidence that has been recovered, Pappas believes them to be surfers, using the proceeds of their crimes to fund their eternal, wave-chasing, summer. The athletic Utah then begins to learn to surf so that he can go undercover in the surfing community to identify suspects.
Through his instructor and girlfriend, Tyler (Lori Petty), Utah meets Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi, a bullshit artist who regularly spouts a bunch of spiritual hokum about oneness and what it is to actually live, while in reality being a violent, bank-robbing thug, though it’ll be a while until young Johnny realises that. There are other members of The Ex-Presidents, of course, but since they don’t have characters I won’t bother introducing them.
After an initial, incorrect, identification, Utah finally realises that the robbers he’s after are Bodhi and his friends, though his first attempt to apprehend them goes wrong, and a butt-hurt Patrick Swayze raises the stakes considerably, including forcing Johnny to take part in a crime and having Tyler held hostage. But he’s a totally likeable, Zen dude! How could he?
There’s a scene in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz that references Point Break’s most famous scene, where a frustrated, conflicted Keanu Reeves impotently fires his pistol in the air as he finds himself unable to fire on an escaping Patrick Swayze. It’s also Point Break’s best scene, but largely because it’s being referenced in another film, one that’s actually good. And Hot Fuzz demonstrates precisely what’s wrong with Point Break: the friendship between Danny and Nicholas is believable, and therefore also the disappointment and conflict. Between Bodhi and Johnny? Absolutely not. There’s no chemistry between them at all, due in no small part, to the fact that the characters actually don’t share that much screen time together before Bodhi’s membership of The Ex-Presidents is revealed, though that only compounds the felony.
Curiously enough, Point Break DOES have a relationship with good chemistry, and from the moment of meeting, thanks to a successful respect-earning shortcut, and that’s that between Johnny Utah and Pappas, but whether the problem lies primarily in the writing or in Swayze I’m not sure.
The ending can also, in the parlance of our times, do one. The absolutely best way to punish Bodhi would be to deny him his greatest desire: his longed-for encounter with the waves created by the fifty-year storm. Instead, the murderer, kidnapper and thief is, inexplicably, granted the experience. I often appreciate a downbeat ending, but certainly not here, especially when it’s for some reason intended as a happy one.
And it’s not that Point Break is a bad film: Pappas and Utah are fun, there are some good action scenes, John C. McGinley’s face is punched. But the whole thing is absolutely undermined by the void where the film’s centre ought to be.
Strange Days breaks Predator 2’s record of shortest expected time for societal collapse (and simultaneous technological advancement), with this 1995 film set in 1999 leveraging some turn of the Willennium tension to show a Los Angeles sitting on a powder keg of racial and class tension. Wandering around with a match is Ralph Fiennes’ ex-cop Lenny Nero, now selling SQUID disks on the black market to rich clientele. What’s that, you grudgingly ask? Well, a SQUID disk is a direct recording of someone’s experience that you can then download into your mind and experience that experience as if you were experiencing that experience.
Sleazing his way around town, somewhat grudgingly aided by his friends, Angela Bassett’s Lornette “Mace” Mason, a bodyguard and limousine driver, and Tom Sizemore’s Max Peltier, fellow ex-cop and now private detective, but before long Lenny is pulled into a whirlwind of events that I’m not sure are worth recapping in any detail, otherwise we’ll be talking about it for as long as it would take to watch the film.
It starts with a now dead hooker and friend desperately trying to get a message and a SQUID disk to Lenny, which could see danger brought to Lenny’s ex-girlfriend, Juliette Lewis’s Faith, whom he still pines for. She’s chosen her singing career over their relationship, and is now shacked up with a shady manager / record label type, Michael Wincott’s Philo Gant, who’s also dealing with the fallout from the death of popular rapper Glenn Plummer’s Jeriko One, also a spearhead of a social movement.
So there’s a lot of moving parts before we add in a couple of coppers trying to get a hold of the SQUID disk with no regard for due process, and all of that’s before we know exactly what this McGuffin is going to tell us. This is a very complicated case. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in your head, man.
But, not more, arguably, than the noirs that this steals its central structure from, before giving it a gloss of cyberpunk and Blade Runner that, I suppose, rather dates the film, but thankfully for me at least it’s a point in time I can rather get behind. I’ll tell you how remarkable this film is: Tom Sizemore is in it and he doesn’t ruin it. I actually think he’s quite good in it, bringing the total number of tolerable Tom Sizemore turns to one.
Fiennes is dependably engaging, and his relationship with Angela Bassett plays out nicely over the course of the piece. I perhaps wonder if this story will hold up at all to repeat viewing, however I’ve only seen this once, and I liked it a great deal. Well worth pulling off the shelf, particularly if like me this has been on your “must catch up with this” list for the past twenty years, oh Lord I am so old.
K-19: The Widowmaker
We sail into the dubious waters of “based on a true story” with K-19: The Widowmaker, the story of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear missile submarine. It’s 1961, the height of the Cold War, and the Central Committee is desperate to demonstrate to the United States that it has the same first-strike capability as its opponent, and the Soviet Navy’s newest flagship is rushed to sea in order to conduct a test launch sure to be noted by US spy planes.
The only problem is, well, all the problems. Inadequately fitted out, poorly built, missing key equipment and personnel: all the hits of the Soviet regime. There have also been a number of deaths during construction, and a final note of doom is instilled in the crew by a failed champagne bottle smash, sailors being a superstitious bunch. Hmmm. I pronounced “morons” very oddly, there. But I digress.
There are also a few changes in the crew manifest, with a new doctor, Peter Sarsgaard’s inexperienced reactor officer and Harrison Ford’s Captain Alexei Vostrokov all parachuted in at the final moment, this last because Liam Neeson’s Captain Polenin dared suggest to his superiors that everything wasn’t hunky dory with the construction.
The first half of the film consists of the preparation for their sea trial, the boat’s launch, then Vostrokov’s rigorous and unpopular drilling of the crew, which leads to injuries and mutinous thoughts. The test missile is successfully fired, though, and for a moment the crew are jubilant and united. Then the coolant system on the nuclear reactor goes tits-up, which causes a modicum of alarm for all aboard. Still, no problem, they can use the backup system to cool it. Oh, they didn’t install that before setting to sea? Well, that’s a problem. Really, it’s a mystifying thing that the Chernobyl disaster happened under the same regime. Utterly baffling.
The second half of the film follows the crew’s struggles to cool the reactor while temperatures rise in the men and, more crucially, around the nuclear fuel rods. They need Bobby Carlyle from The World Is Not Enough, clearly.
Sean Connery has been much-derided for his accent in John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October, which I’ve never understood because I’ve never thought he was trying to do one. His character may have been from Lithuania on the page, but was clearly from Lothian on the screen. It’s an approach Liam Neeson and, particularly, Harrison Ford ought to have tried. Poor Harrison. We all know he stopped caring around The Star Wars Holiday Special, but what a time to try giving a crap again. The story deserves the effort but it doesn’t deserve that accent. Accents. Whatever they are. Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard should be grateful to Ford, though, for hiding their similar but lesser crimes.
Fortunately, though, it is possible to look past those poor, butchered, syllables and enjoy Neeson and Ford’s performances, and the fact that both are such alpha males means it’s far from clear which of them will prevail when they inevitably come into opposition. Different casting could have given away too much, and certainly made it less entertaining.
I could watch K-19 repeatedly, and have done so because submarine movie, but it’s definitely not my favourite of the genre. However it is extremely well-shot, and the sense of the cramped, claustrophobic confines of the submarine is absolutely transmitted through the lens. Much of this is to do with the incredible preparations undertaken by Bigelow and her crew, including finding the blueprint for the real K-19 and building the sets based on it, then cleverly hiding camera tracks amongst the pipework on the ceiling. The director also enlisted former high-ranking submariners as consultants, and even went as far as having the cast take part in firefighting drills and other such activities to allow them to experience some of the same conditions faced by their characters.
The plot is rather conventional but Bigelow’s action strength comes to the fore, ratcheting up the tension in the film’s latter portions as the crew fights to stop the submarine blowing up and potentially precipitating World War III. The fact that I’m here talking to you does, though, rather give the ending away. However, I am happier having to face Harrison Ford’s accent than radscorpions. Just.
The Hurt Locker
Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant First Class William James arrives in Iraq as a replacement bomb disposal expert, an opportunity opened up by dead man’s smouldering boots. He joins Anthony Mackie’s Sergeant J. T. Sanborn and Brian Geraghty’s Specialist Owen Eldridge as they go about the extraordinary day to day activities of bomb disposal, which are anything but day to day.
There’s perhaps not all that much value in describing in great detail each of the bomb disposal vignettes that we see, as while each of them are quite excruciatingly tense experiences, they are as much there to gain an insight into the characters as they are to shed a light on the traumatic experiences of soldiers undertaking this kind of work.
Primary focus, of course, is on Renner’s character, who seems like a reckless, thrill-seeking cowboy, and a large part of the success of the film is derived from his performance in taking us along as we try, and ultimately fail, to answer the question of why he’s like this. Some people are just wired that way, it seems to say.
On a second viewing that’s perhaps the only disappointment in a film that is otherwise blindingly well executed. Nail-biting stuff, with a clutch of excellent performances in the lead and supporting roles, and some impactful, some might say explosive, moments. Extraordinary stuff, and I think in the last decade only Sicario has come close to building the same levels of tension that The Hurt Locker did.
I don’t think I have a great deal innovative or informative to tell you about The Hurt Locker – it was many people’s top film of 2009, or 2008, depending on how you count it, and I broadly agree. Required viewing.
Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty is another trip down True Story Lane, with more meticulous preparation, though this time of an event more than a location. That event was the May 2011 infiltration of a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan by US Navy SEALs which resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden. Interestingly, the planned film was actually intended to be about the fruitless, years-long search for Bin Laden, but when the news of his death was released Bigelow and writer Mark Boal effectively tore up their film and scrambled to put together this story instead.
The film follows the CIA’s investigation of Bin Laden’s whereabouts through numerous years and numerous millions of dollars, and does so through the viewpoint of Jessica Chastain’s Maya, a fictional analyst based on a number of real people. Things begin, after some genuine audio of 9/11 victims, in 2003 at a CIA black site, where a terrorist suspect is being tortured by Jason Clarke’s Dan as Maya silently observes. The suspect’s pleas to her for leniency, because she’s a woman, are soon shown to be misdirected, and, while perhaps not deserving of the “killer” description she has been given by her superiors in Washington, Maya is quickly seen to be hard, driven and determined, outlasting Dan as he eventually wearies of the role and returns to Washington.
She is single-minded in her pursuit of Bin Laden, to the likely exclusion of all else in her life, and she weathers attempts on her life, the death of a colleague and friend (if she has such things), shifting political climates and lack of faith in her leads, until the point that her years of frustratingly barren work suddenly bear fruit and she pinpoints the location of a high-value target, possibly Bin Laden himself. The film climaxes with the SEAL raid on the compound and the identification of the USA’s most wanted man.
I recall very clearly really, really not enjoying Zero Dark Thirty when it was released in the cinema, and also being very critical of its portrayal of torture. Curious, then, that on revisiting it I found it gripping and rewarding, and found the stance on torture considerably more neutral than I had at least remembered it to be.
A lot of my engagement this time around owes much to Chastain, who does a stunning job of making interesting a character who is barely a character: Maya is a cipher, a machine relentlessly analysing information, but Chastain gives that machine a human face. She is more than that, demonstrating stoicism, imperturbability and other, similar, traits, but it’s all stuff going in with very little coming out.
Though she shoulders the bulk of the film, Chastain is not alone and there’s a pretty fantastic cast, even in extremely minor roles, among whom are Mark Strong, Stephen Dillane, Jennifer Ehle and James Gandolfini.
Direction-wise there’s less flair and less evidence of any Bigelow stamp, though that’s pretty appropriate for the topic. The standout scene style-wise is the SEAL team raid, shot in a cool, detached, documentarian style. The filmmaking in general gains more credit, though, as with K-19, when you appreciate the effort put in in pre-production and the painstaking work to, for instance, recreate the Abbottabad compound.
Mark Boal’s well-researched script is the core strength underpinning the film, and I found it gripping, though it is at times troubling, notably its fence-sitting and hand-waving about torture, which is a repugnant thing, though given the reaction at the time to that aspect of the film plenty of people seemed to think it was making a particular statement, though they tended to disagree on what that statement was. This time, however, I don’t think that indicates that the truth therefore lies somewhere in between. But I do think you should watch it.
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