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film fatales #167: strange days (kathryn bigelow, 1995)

I've been a vocal fan of Kathryn Bigelow since 1987's great vampire movie Near Dark. She is the only director of ten or more movies where I have seen every one of those pictures. She was stuck in the "cult film" genre for too long. Point Break was a real financial success, but Strange Days, which followed it, was a colossal flop ($8 million box office on a budget of $42 million). She didn't direct another feature for five years, and when she did, it was The Weight of Water, her worst picture (and another box office failure), and then K-19: The Widowmaker, which lost money despite a cast headed by Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. It was another six years before a Bigelow-directed film was released, and long-time fans like myself were delighted when that film, The Hurt Locker, made Bigelow the first-ever woman to win a Best Director Oscar.

Bigelow is a grand stylist, and I'm not generally a fan of style over substance. She has never made a perfect film, not even my beloved Near Dark. But a movie like Strange Days is very much in the Bigelow tradition of movies that look great, look interesting, and are just a bit off-kilter in appealing ways (for her fans, at least). It's too long, and the plot is muddled at times, but there is definitely something going on. It was released in 1995 after a long gestation that involved a lot of input from James Cameron, for a couple of years Bigelow's husband  ... his name is all over the credits, most notably as writer. (In a fine irony, when Bigelow won her Oscar, one of the other nominated directors was Cameron.) It's fascinating that the film, made largely in the early-90s, and taking place on the end of the 20th century (it culminates with a huge celebration on New Year's Eve as 1999 turns into 2000), offers a society in upheaval, with racial tensions aggravated by the actions of cops. Usually, a dystopia looks some years into the future, but for the Strange Days filmmakers, dystopia was just around the corner. And while some of the film feels dated, its depiction of violent cops attacking people of color is sadly too close to home in 2023.

In the world of Strange Days, people get "jacked in" via a kind of virtual reality that allows them to experience the actions of others as they were happening, as that other. There can be a sweetness to this, as when a dealer gifts a tape of a person running on the beach to a man with no legs:

But mostly, those virtual experiences turn ugly, with one in particular being so revolting, critic David Denby wrote, "Conceptually, this is the sickest sequence in modern movies". The problem, as is so often the case with Bigelow, is that while she appears to be offering a violent world accompanied by disturbing virtual realities, she is in fact so good at creating these scenes that you can't help but be impressed. It's like a Cecil B. DeMille movie ... oh, we don't approve of immorality, hey, look at this orgy! Bigelow critiques the violence in such as stylish way that she makes us love it, no matter the intentions.

Still, it's got a remarkable cast. The three leads all had Oscar nominations by the time the film was made: Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, and Juliette Lewis. It's fun seeing how everyone looked almost 30 years ago, especially Vincent D'Onofrio and Tom Sizemore (the latter has long, stringy hair). Lewis sings a couple of PJ Harvey songs, including "Rid of Me". There are plenty of other fun names in the cast: Michael Wincott, Glenn Plummer, Richard Edson, William Fichtner.

Strange Days has also been very hard to see for a long time. It's been out of print forever. It recently turned up streaming on HBO Max, which is where I caught it (I hadn't seen it since it first came out). It's not the place to start with Bigelow ... that would be Near Dark and The Hurt Locker. But like almost all of her work, it's compulsively watchable.

the lunchbox (ritesh batra, 2013)

This is the thirtieth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 30 is called "Modern Bollywood Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen modern Bollywood film, as dictated by Ramish's list here.

This was the first feature for writer-director Ritesh Batra. He had intended to make a documentary about the Dabbawala, a lunchbox delivery service in India that works remarkably well. Doing research, Batra decided there were plenty of good stories among the delivery workers, and so he opted to create a fictional film, The Lunchbox. The documentary basis is evident in the detailed way he shows us how the system works. But the central story is a romance between a wife, Ila, who makes lunches for her husband, and a man, Saajan, who accidentally receives her lunches (a mistake said to occur only once every six million deliveries). The two form a relationship around those lunchboxes ... she includes a note in each box, and he writes a response for when the box is returned. The relationship deepens, as does the length of the notes, which become more like letters.

All of the acting is excellent: the late, award-winning Irrfan Khan as Saajan, Nimrat Kaur as Ila, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a workmate of Saajan's. It's a delightful first feature, although I felt a bit cheated by the ending, which is inconclusive when the audiences wants resolution.

music friday: harry belafonte

I'm like a lot of people ... I toss around the word "legend" too often. But Harry Belafonte was a legend.

When I was growing up, I assumed certain things were specific to our family. So I thought the fact that we owned Harry Belafonte's album Calypso was unique. Well, it wasn't. As with so many things, what I saw as unique was just being a typical middle-class suburban family in the 1950s. Calypso was the first LP to sell more than one million copies. It was ubiquitous, even if I didn't realize it at the time. Here are a few of the "lesser-known" songs from that album:

A few years later, his Belafonte at Carnegie Hall was another monster hit:

A few years later, "Matilda" inspired Allan Sherman to record his version for his first album, which was also a monster success:

geezer cinema: the villainess (jung byung-gil, 2017)

One of those cases where it pays to read the IMDB Parents Guide in advance:


Violence & Gore: Severe

There are several fight scenes throughout the movie. We see bullet wounds, stabbing etc and blood gushing continuously.
Copious amounts of blood sprays from wounds during seamless and prolonged scenes of combat. Impalement is common along with creative ways to strangle, smash, hack and bleed people from innumerable angles.
A Man lies in a pool of blood and smiles at his daughter before being hit with a sledgehammer in the side of his head. Blood sprays on the girl's face.
A man's hand is severed with a hatchet, spraying blood around the inside of a bus while screaming in pain.

Which I suppose is another way of reminding us that this is a Korean movie. There are plenty of good things about The Villainess. Director Jung Byung-gil has a real flair for action, and he used new, tiny cameras to achieve some mind-bending cinematography (Park Jung-hun is the cinematographer). Kim Ok-vin (Thirst), who I think plays the title character (the plot is, shall we say, confusing), is terrific in the action scenes (she is a legit martial artist as well as an actor).

But outside of the action set pieces, The Villainess drags. The basic plot is simple enough ... think the various permutations of Nikita ... but the explanation(s) for the behavior of The Villainess are so messy, the movie ends up relying too much on flashbacks that are supposed to clarify things. It's a two-hour movie that could be even better at an hour-and-a-half.

Still, it's hard to argue with those action scenes ... well, they are so indiscriminately brutal you either get desensitized or you quit watching (if you started in the first place). Your mileage may vary, is what I'm trying to say.

2 or 3 things i know about her (jean-luc godard, 1967)

My 11th Godard film, although my Godardness is more spare than that would suggest. He released a lot of movies in 1967 ... three features and two short contributions to anthologies, plus he shot 2 or 3 Things simultaneously with Made in U.S.A., released in 1966. This culminated in Weekend, which is where my chronological experience with Godard ends. Weekend famously ends with the title card "The End ... of Cinema".

The last time I made a "Best Directors" list, I had Godard at #11. (Many years ago, I listed Breathless as the 13th-greatest film of all time.) Given that he lived until last September, that he made at least 30 features after 1967, my neglect of his post-Weekend career is hard to explain, and it's all on me. Yes, there are some who break Godard's career into parts, much as I have done, but I have been negligent, and have only myself to blame. Oddly, although I only just watched it for the first time, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her may offer some insights into why I quit watching his films.

Wikipedia claims of Godard's work in the French New Wave, "Although Godard's work during this time is considered groundbreaking in its own right, the period stands in contrast to that which immediately followed it, during which Godard ideologically denounced much of cinema's history as bourgeois and therefore without merit." Honestly, you'd think all of this would only encourage me to embrace those films, and I tell myself regularly that I should do so. But instead, deciding to watch a Godard film, I choose one I hadn't yet seen, from 1967.

I'm indulging in digressions, which is appropriate ... 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is full of them. Godard's own quiet narration underpins much of what we see ... he comments on his own movie as it is happening. The Brechtian distancing is never far from our attention. When we meet the main character, the narration informs us, "She is Marina Vlady. She is an actress. She's wearing a midnight-blue sweater with two yellow stripes. She is of Russian origin. She has dark chestnut or light brown hair. I'm not sure which." After which the narrator continues, "She is Juliette Janson. She lives here. She's wearing a midnight-blue sweater with two yellow stripes. She has dark chestnut or light brown hair. I'm not sure which. She's of Russian origin." Actors/characters regularly look at the camera when speaking, and it's not always clear if they are speaking to another character, the narrator, or the audience.

There are other ways Godard distracts us. Several times, background characters play pinball machines, including one long scene when the sound of the machine is constantly vying with the dialogue we are trying to hear.

2 of 3 Things I Know About Her is frustrating, intentionally so. It isn't as "friendly" as some of the Godard I prefer (besides Breathless, there's Masculin Féminin, Weekend, and especially Vivre Sa Vie), and there isn't anything as charming as the dance scene in Band of Outsiders. The film hints at that end of cinema Godard declares at the end of Weekend. #284 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

revisiting indiana jones and the last crusade (steven spielberg, 1989) with the grandson

I've seen the first three Indiana Jones movies. I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark. I liked Temple of Doom a lot more than most people did. My memory of Last Crusade is that it didn't live up to the first two, and in fact I've never seen any of the subsequent movies in the series. My grandson was over, and he wanted to watch Last Crusade, which he likes. I still think it falls short of the first two, but I need to get past that negative statement, because Last Crusade is a perfectly serviceable film, one that a 10-year-old can watch with ole grandpa and know they'll both be entertained.

There's a bit of been there, done that about the third film in the series, and since the original was a highly enjoyable pastiche that bragged about its been there done that nostalgia, it's a case of going to the well one time too many with Last Crusade. But my grandson hasn't seen the other Indiana Jones movies, and he doesn't know the movie tradition from which Spielberg was drawing, so it's all fresh to him.

All of the films have an uneasy relationship with faith, explicitly here since everyone is searching for the Lost Grail. It's as if Spielberg wasn't satisfied with just a great action picture, so he added a little "depth". I imagine this is one reason we get Indy's dad in this one ... nothing like a little easy character "development" to add that depth. And Sean Connery is fun ... you believe he's Harrison Ford's dad.

As always, there are some wonderful set pieces. If you don't set your expectations too high, you will enjoy Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

revisiting the 9s: no end in sight (charles ferguson, 2007)

[This is the fourteenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

I first saw No End in Sight in late 2007. At that time, I wrote:

A common thread emerges from all of these witnesses ... Whatever your thoughts on the morality or political efficacy of the war, we might have pulled it off. But the people in charge were arrogant pricks who refused to listen to expert advice because they knew what they wanted to do, and they did it.

Bush is attacked primarily as the hands-off President who let things happen on his watch. The ones who construct the failed scenario (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and later Paul Bremer, to mention three of a very small number) apparently didn't do a single thing right. So whatever "success" might have been possible was never going to happen, thanks to the colossal incompetence of the men (and Condi Rice) in charge.

The film's own success comes by presenting material you think you know from a slightly different angle, which allows you to see things afresh. This is not an anti-war film, or perhaps even an anti-Iraq War film. It is a film that unsparingly documents the endless series of boneheaded decisions that have left Iraq in a state of chaos. It is not a pretty picture, or a pretty film.

Judging (or rather, re-judging) a documentary is affected not just by the artistic work itself, but also by how the situation depicted in the movie might have changed in the ensuing years. The American presence in Iraq has been reduced enough that President Biden was able to announce the end of the combat mission in Iraq (in 2021!) without sounding too evasive. But the main thing you take away from the film isn't anything specific about Iraq policy. Instead, Charles Ferguson shows how incompetent the U.S. was, and nothing I've seen since then makes me think he was wrong in his assessment. (Also, that their incompetence didn't rise from innate stupidity, but more from innate arrogance.) Most of the leaders are still with us (Donald Rumsfeld died a couple of years ago). Perhaps the most interesting continuing story from the film is that of Seth Moulton, a Marine who was one of three U.S. veterans of the war who are interviewed extensively. Moulton entered politics, becoming a member of the House of Representatives in 2015, where he still serves.

I think the film not only holds up, but makes me wonder why I hedged on the ultimate 10/10 rating. That's what it deserves, and probably deserved then, as well. No End in Sight was nominated for an Oscar ... Ferguson's next film, Inside Job, won the Oscar. If this series lasts long enough, I'll eventually re-evaluate Inside Job, too.