Movie Reviews: Strange Days

Twenty years on, James Cameron's (and Kathryn Bigelow's) millennial cyberpunk masterwork still packs the kinds of wallops mainstream filmmaking has retreated from in near-panic

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I originally wrote this review in 2002, for an earlier incarnation of this site. Due to the various changes of digital address for my Web hosting, it vanished, although I miraculously had a backup copy in my archives. I've unearthed it and republished it here, with some editing and expansion, for the 20th anniversary of the movie's release.

There is a standing rule in movies that you do not unnecessarily date your film. Putting a specific future date on a story, without some historical pretext for doing so, makes it into an antique before its time. Strange Days takes place on the last few days of the year 1999 (I won't say "the last few days of the 20th century", for obvious reasons), when violence and anarchy are seething in the streets of Los Angeles, but if anything, its pre-millennial tension feels even less dated in these times of post-millennial, post 9/11 tension. It's one of the many signs this movie was too far ahead of its time for its own good.

Many groundbreaking films don't get the audience they deserve the first time out. Critics largely trashed Strange Days for its confrontational graphic violence; audiences were either scared or confused by its fulminating story of racism and underbelly paranoia. At least one web reviewer wrote a scathing dissection of it from a Bad Movies We Love point of view. I admired it instantly when I first saw it in a packed theater on opening night, and I've become even more of an evangelist for the film since. It is far from perfect — what movie is? — but the good parts of it have remained so prescient, it's no wonder it outlasted its moment in time.

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Tags: Angela Bassett dystopia James Cameron Juliette Lewis Kathryn Bigelow movies Ralph Fiennes review science fiction technology

Movie Reviews: Vampyros Lesbos/She Killed in Ecstasy

Amateurish, clumsy, primitive, and weird, but all in such an unselfconscious and unmannered way, these films end up generating an endearing fascination

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Cult films aren't made by design, just as nobody sets out to become a cult director or actor. Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy were intended to be moneymaking exploitation pictures, not cult items, and director Jesús ("Jess") Franco and actress Soledad Miranda never planned to end up as the object of veneration by cult film fans. Hence the fascination generated by both of these movies and the people involved with them: the films are amateurish, clumsy, primitive, and weird, but all in such an unselfconscious and unmannered way, they end up generating an endearing fascination. You can't fake this stuff, and you shouldn't try.

The secret of Franco's success, I suspect, was that he wasn't trying. He was making exploitation pictures on tight schedules with minimal resources, and under those circumstances, whatever natural point of view he had for his material was bound to emerge unbidden. The very crudeness of Lesbos and Ecstasy, shot back to back within a matter of weeks, makes them curiously endearing — not in the sense that they're the works of an unfairly maligned or undiscovered talent, but in that it's hard to feign being this unpolished or artless. And they both feature Soledad Miranda, a performer whose mere presence in front of a camera was special even if she was surrounded by a movie that seemed determined to be anything but.

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Tags: cult movies Jess Franco movies review Soledad Miranda

Movie Reviews: Angst

Unseen for decades except by the most stalwart, this startling early-'80s experiment remains contemporary for reasons entirely apart from its groundbreaking visuals

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Little-seen movies foment expectations they have a hard time living down. Once a forgotten film resurfaces thanks to home video or a reissue campaign, it has to live or die on its own, without the protecting encrustation of the mythology accrued around it. This is as it should be; any work of art deserves to be seen as it actually is, and not through the distorting lens of reputation.

Gerard Kargl's Angst, unseen for decades, is as good a case study as any for a movie that transcends its own mythology. Barely released in its native Austria in 1983, it survived after that only by word of mouth and by way of bootlegs. Now, on DVD and BD in English after several years' delay*, it stands free of rumor and, more importantly, all the earlier attempts to pigeonhole it as a slasher or horror film. Describing it in those terms is as limiting as talking about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer the same way; those labels come nowhere near what makes Angst special and important.

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Tags: cult movies Gerard Kargl horror Klaus Schulze movies review

Movie Reviews: Predestination

How did this astonishing little miracle of a movie -- easily the best adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's work to film yet -- pass without leaving so much as a ripple?

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Stop reading this. Go to Netflix, your local video kiosk, wherever you can get your hands on a copy of Predestination. Watch it first, because I can guarantee it will be one of the best things you've seen all year, and odds are you might never have run into it if someone else hadn't told you about it. I want to put all this up front, because this movie deserves discussion and thought, and yet it is absolutely impossible to talk about this film without treading into complete spoiler territory. Those are just the facts. Go no further unless you are prepared.

Predestination is nominally science fiction, adapted from the Robert A. Heinlein short story "'All You Zombies — '", but like all the best SF, it doesn't stay stuck inside that container; it batters its way out and leaps towards bigger things. It deals with a man (Ethan Hawke) who appears to be some kind of spy in the employ of a nebulous organization, working behind the scenes to stop a terrorist named "The Fizzle Bomber" from destroying several square blocks of New York City. There's only one curious little detail, one that scoots by quickly enough that you might not catch it: the bombing hasn't happened yet. It's to happen at some point in the future. The spies are time travelers, fixing history when it breaks.

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Tags: Ethan Hawke movies review Robert A. Heinlein science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop Spierig Brothers

Movie Reviews: R100

Hitoshi Matsumoto's latest cinematic shaggy-dog story willfully goes up blind alleys, but that's no reason to follow along.

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Hitoshi Matsumoto* is fast becoming the master of something I guess we could call the cinematic shaggy-dog story. His movies never go where they're supposed to, are never about what they claim to be, and are always this way defiantly so. By the time I got to the homestretch of Matsumoto's Big Man Japan, I'd given up on even trying to figure out where the movie was going, but I also didn't feel like I was being punished for sticking it out. Its weirdness was rewarding.

Now comes R100, a movie about defeated expectations, both for the audience and the characters. That is both the best and worst thing about it. Best in that Matsumoto hasn't started playing it safe or cloning someone else's eccentricities (little is more depressing than watching a true original do that); worst in that the payoff we do get is so strange, so many levels removed from what even an existing Matsumoto fan could gear up for, that I wouldn't be surprised if even his longtime stalwarts write him off. I haven't, but I suspect I have an unfair advantage.

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Tags: Hitoshi Matsumoto Japan movies Nao Omori review

Movie Reviews: Under The Skin

Scarlett Johannson does so much with so little, in this minimalist story of questioned self-identity.

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The easy, and wrong, way to talk about Under the Skin is through analogy and metaphor: it’s The (Wo)Man Who Fell To Earth by way of David Lynch, or something like that. I resist this approach, because it reduces any discussion of the movie to outside references, and threatens to do a disservice to what the experience of watching the film is actually like. Talk about something only through the lens of something else and you end up not talking about the thing itself at all. The thing itself works very hard to not be pigeonholed, not merely in the sense of “is it SF or not?” but “what is it, really?”

Even a simple description of what happens in Under the Skin is likely to disappoint. After a sound-and-light show that implies birth or creation or both, we meet two people, sort of. One is a man who rides a motorcycle and rescues what appears to be the dead body of a prostitute from the bank of a river. The other is a woman (Scarlett Johannson), who strips off the dead woman’s clothes and dons them herself. This, the movie implies, is not the only disguise she wears.

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Tags: movies review Scarlett Johannson

Movie Reviews: Lucy

Forget about the ridiculous premise, if you can; Luc Besson's latest gets major props for sheer audacity.

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Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: Lucy isn’t science fiction. It’s science foolishness. It relies on one of the most egregious misstatements of scientific fact — that human beings only use ten percent of their brainpower — as the linchpin for a movie so enjoyably bonkers that in the end it doesn’t really matter how dumb its core premise is. This movie is the cinematic incarnation of the old cliché, “Dance like nobody’s watching.” This one breakdances.

The premise is simple; what becomes derived from that premise, not so simple. Lucy (Scarlett Johannson), a woman living and studying in Taiwan, gets tricked by her sleazy boyfriend into delivering a case to some Korean mobster types led by the sinister Mr. Jang (an underused Choi Min-sik, the original Oldboy). The case contains some new, experimental drug soon to be flooding the streets. She's just won the drug-mule lottery, and so a terrified Lucy gets to have a packet of the stuff sewn into her guts. At one point she’s manhandled by one of her minders, and the packet bursts over and begins leaking. The drug turns Lucy into, well, super-Lucy.

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Tags: Luc Besson movies review Scarlett Johannson

Movie Reviews: My Dinner With André

Out of two men talking, nothing more, came one of the best films of its decade.

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The concept could not be simpler, or at the same time more audacious: Two friends, out of touch for years on end, reunite in a tony New York City restaurant and get caught up with each other. No gimmicks; no distractions; no injections of comic relief on the part of the wait staff or the chef; just two men of wit, intelligence, and sharply divergent worldviews sharing the lives they've been living. Most people, when confronted with the film's concept, say: That's it? To which I'd reply: That's all you need.

The André of the title is André Gregory, a longtime veteran of the theater, tall and greyhoundishly handsome in the manner of Roy Scheider. His friend is Wallace Shawn, a balding, rotund, squeaky-voiced fireplug of a man; Princess Bride fans will remember him immediately from that film as the cackling, villainous Vizzini. André and Wally are essentially playing versions of themselves, not improvising in real time (as many people mistakenly believed) but instead acting from a screenplay distilled down from dozens of hours of conversation between them.

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Tags: Andre Gregory movies review Wallace Shawn

Movie Reviews: Elysium

An attempt at politically tinged SF, but only an attempt: such are the risks of not thinking through fully the implications of your premise.

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Elysium is one of those movies that feels like it ends just when it's really getting interesting. That's not something I wanted to say about a film from the man who gave us District 9one of the few recent SF movies that despite its action-ride ingredients actually felt like a science fiction movie and not just a tarted-up shoot/beat-'em-up. Neil Blomkamp's successor to District 9 has a larger budget (although, paradoxically, it doesn't feel like a much larger movie) and more explicitly political ambitions, but in ways that work against it. The earlier film was allegory; this one is just a tract, and a not especially insightful one at that.

Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con factory grunt in a horribly overcrowded future Earth, where robot policemen administer impersonal beatings and Max's parole officer is a dingy computer. The rich and powerful have retreated to Elysium, a massive and idyllic orbital colony that looks like one giant Syd Mead painting. There, they enjoy near-immortality thanks to medical technology they refuse to share with the rest of the world. One day Max suffers an industrial accident that gives him a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, and so he takes a suicide mission from an old war buddy of his in the underground. If he helps them take Elysium, they'll let him heal himself in one of Elysium's doc-bots — a favor he'd also like to grant his girlfriend's little girl, if possible.

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Tags: Jodie Foster Matt Damon movies review science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop

Movie Reviews: Oldboy (2013)

The worst thing about Spike Lee's 'Oldboy' is that it could well have been made by most anyone.

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The original 2003 Oldboy ranks as one of the greatest films I have ever seen. The 2013 remake is to that movie like an Elvis impersonator is to Elvis. Not just in the sense that the impersonator can only ape the moves of the original, but in that he arrives years too late to the scene. He can only remind people of some glory that it was once possible to experience for the first time.

What’s most disappointing is how Oldboy ended up being this thin despite some fairly heavyweight talent on board. The director was Spike Lee, who even when I have found his films not to my taste has never taken the easy road with his material. Mark Protosevich adapted the script from the Korean original, and Josh Brolin has consistently had my attention as a good actor (W., True Grit). But somehow, it all adds up to little more than a dutiful going through the motions. And yes, the original story — with all of its appalling plot twists — has been preserved, but given how strangely uncompelling the finished product is, maybe pickled would be a better word. 

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Tags: Chan-Wook Park Josh Brolin movies remakes review Spike Lee

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I'm an independent SF and fantasy author, technology journalist, and freelance contemplator for how SF can be made into something more than just a way to blow stuff up.

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