Archive for October 1995

Creatures of the Night: “Leaving Las Vegas” and “From Dusk Till Dawn”

October 27, 1995

The key to understanding Leaving Las Vegas is that it’s only marginally about alcoholism. Yes, the main character, down-and-out screenwriter Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), could drink Dudley Moore’s Arthur under the table and still walk a straight line. But what you get isn’t the usual When a Man Loves a Woman TV-movie-of-the-week, in which Ben slowly and painfully pulls himself out of the hell of oblivion. For Ben, oblivion is heaven. It doesn’t take long to realize what Leaving Las Vegas is going to be: a two-hour-long suicide. Ben’s life is pretty much over — his marriage is history, he can’t get arrested in Hollywood — and he decides to go out on his own terms, candidly admitting his plan to drink himself to death.

This road is slower than, say, OD-ing on heroin, and much faster than eating oneself to death, like the poor bastard in Seven. The lingering, bitter execution by the bottle has a dark glamour, and the writer-director, Mike Figgis, doesn’t deny it. Figgis doesn’t gasp in horror at what Ben is doing to himself, nor does he make it look like fun. What he does do is almost impossible to sustain. The most effective addiction movies tantalize us with the early scenes of the protagonist compulsively indulging his needs; then there’s usually a big splashdown, and while the protagonist inches his way back to sanity, we do penance for our voyeuristic enjoyment of his decline. Disintegration is an old and perversely satisfying tradition in drama, but it’s only socially acceptable to enjoy it as long as we understand that healing and redemption are just around the corner. In Leaving Las Vegas, Figgis presents disintegration as a state of grace. He doesn’t romanticize alcoholism or suicide, but he does suggest the intensification of feeling in the midst of numbness. Adapting a novel by John O’Brien, who killed himself two weeks after Figgis had committed to the project, Figgis goes well beyond the slickness of his previous movies. The film is trancelike and intimate, cool but not cold, with an erotic glow that provides a comforting (and sometimes disturbing) contrast of warmth.

In a possible nod to Taxi Driver, Ben almost runs over a Vegas hooker, Sera (Elisabeth Shue), and is immediately smitten with her. Ben takes her back to his ratty hotel room and pays her for a night of service, which amounts to a night of lying around talking, since Ben can’t perform. Sera is touched and intrigued by this gentle, rambling, self-destructive man, and thus begins one of the darkest, most mysterious romances in modern movies. Sera’s Eurotrash pimp Yuri (Julian Sands) is the flip side of Ben: he’s self-destructive, too, but he’s also vicious and cold. Her scenes with Yuri are meant to show us what she’s glad to leave behind — not hooking (which she continues), but hooking for an abusive jerk — but Julian Sands doesn’t have the seductive aura of danger that, say, Harvey Keitel did in Taxi Driver. Yuri is killed off early in the movie, and I expected this to have some bearing on the rest of the story, but it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s to show the contrast between Yuri, a screw-up who takes his sickness out on Sera, and Ben, a screw-up who generally only takes his sickness out on himself (which, in this movie’s terms, is semi-heroic). Maybe Figgis also wanted to avoid the typical scenes of Yuri getting jealous of Ben and trying to kill him. The pimp isn’t important to Figgis, anyway. The heart of the movie is Ben and Sera, the walking dead who find life in death.

Nicolas Cage keeps Ben a mystery to us, yet he gives us access to his emotions. The performance is all over the place and tightly contained at the same time. Is Ben believable as a person? Not really, and that’s not really the point. Ben is abstract, but not in the hip, unfeeling way that the characters in Heat were. As a character, Ben is like the lurching, discordant, unpredictable jazz on the soundtrack (which Figgis composed). Cage’s performance is a long, bluesy riff on self-annihilation, and this works better than a hyper-realistic characterization, in which a lesser actor might pull together a boring, analytical portrait that details how Ben got this way. Cage couldn’t care less how Ben got this way — Ben is this way, and that’s all that matters. Ben may not be “real” — Figgis admits as much when we first see Ben filling a shopping cart with booze — but his emotions are, and they’re not emotions we often encounter in a movie. Ben knows what he wants, and Sera’s love doesn’t change what he wants. Yet she’s more to him than just a distraction on the way to death. She treats him with the gentleness that he can’t and won’t give himself.

Elisabeth Shue actually has the tougher role. The phrase “hooker with a heart of gold” never once entered my head, though it easily could have. Sera wants to give Ben love in the only way she thinks she can, through sex, but she doesn’t realize that the impotent Ben gets something from her that transcends sex. Shue, whose comeback should have begun here, makes us feel Sera’s frustration and shifting affection for Ben, her yearning for peace. We’ve seen similar prostitutes many times before in movies — the hooker redeemed by the love of a good man — but what’s new about Shue’s performance is its lack of obvious masochism. Whereas Jennifer Jason Leigh might have brought seething self-disgust to the role, Shue gives us a woman who, like Ben, accepts exactly what she is. Sera’s awakening is moving not just because she responds to Ben’s basic decency but because she’s confused, and then comforted, by the kindness she didn’t know she still had in her. If Ben isn’t quite “real,” Sera is real enough for both of them.

Leaving Las Vegas is most certainly not for everyone — not for the literal-minded, anyway (I’ve heard grumblings about it on the order of “Only in a movie could a beautiful Vegas hooker fall for a smelly drunk”). I would hope that even those who might be repelled by the subject matter and the occasional harshness (there’s an extremely painful gang-rape sequence) would respond, like Ben and Sera, to the odd and flickering emotions that the situation stirs up in them. We know that Ben is as good as dead, and that Sera isn’t going to “save” him in the conventional sense. To be blunt, you have to make a certain leap and, like Sera, agree with Ben that his chosen course is the right one for him. This is a leap of imagination, and is not the same thing as justifying actual suicide. If you stand outside the movie for two hours pouting in disapproval, Leaving Las Vegas is going to be a very cold and unsatisfying experience. If you let it take you where it’s going, it’s one of the most powerful rides in years.


Seth and Richie Gekko (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino), the homicidal brothers in From Dusk Till Dawn, kidnap an innocent family and cross over to Mexico, where they stop at a truckers’ dive called the Titty Twister and go to war with dozens of very persistent vampires. The movie, which was written by Tarantino and directed and edited at the speed of light by Robert Rodriguez, wears its violence and political incorrectness like a big red S on its chest. The S isn’t for Superman; it’s for splatter. Even before the vampires show up halfway through the movie, people are blown away or burned, or get holes shot through them. It’s a cyclotron synthesis of Natural Born Killers, Of Mice and Men, Near Dark, Dead Alive — hell, every horror movie with Dead in its title — plus the usual Tarantino touches: the Big Kahuna burgers from Pulp Fiction; “Okay, ramblers, let’s get ramblin'” from Reservoir Dogs; George Clooney’s head-shake and “Come again?” cribbed from Christopher Walken in True Romance (how come Walken isn’t in this?). From Dusk Till Dawn is junk every second of the way, but it’s the freewheeling, drive-in type of junk that Tarantino and Rodriguez love so much, and the movie’s relentless crappy retro-ness has great charm. Are these guys ever going to grow up? I hope not. In From Dusk Till Dawn, Sam Raimi meets John Woo in B-movie heaven, which for more serious moviegoers may be a form of hell. Let ’em stay home and rent Jefferson in Paris. The moment when George Clooney asks fallen preacher Harvey Keitel whether he wants to be “a faithless minister or a mean motherfuckin’ servant of God” is why some of us keep going to the movies.


October 27, 1995

The pre-credits sequence of the aptly named Copycat is a fair warning of how idiotic and shameless the movie is going to be. Dr. Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver), a cool and somewhat smug psychiatric specialist in serial killers, is lecturing at a San Francisco university. Illustrating the general serial-killer type, she asks every white male in the auditorium between the ages of twenty and thirty to stand up; they do, some smiling sheepishly, some (disturbingly) not. Actually, this is a good start for the movie, but within a minute or so, things go bad and never get better. Helen spots a scuzzy guy in the audience, who leers at her and makes a cut-throat gesture. She looks away; when she looks back, he’s gone.

After the lecture, Helen needs to use the ladies’ room; a cop makes a sweep of the bathroom, sees a pair of (apparently) female feet inside one of the stalls, and leaves Helen alone. If you were Helen, wouldn’t you make the cop stick around? But Helen is brilliant and also very stupid. The female feet belong to Daryll Lee Cullum (Harry Connick Jr.), the sicko in the audience. What follows, as the psycho strings Helen up by her throat and then turns his playful attention to the unfortunate returning cop, is so overbearingly grotesque that it threw me out of the movie, and for the most part, I stayed outside.

After the credits, we cut to thirteen months later: Helen is now an agoraphobic wreck. (Presumably she was rescued, but we never learn how.) Helen has a cheerful gay live-in assistant (John Rothman) and many agoraphobic e-mail buddies, and she’s flirting with alcoholism and pill addiction. She’s become infantilized by the trauma, afraid of everything, and I wished Sigourney Weaver’s performance were in another movie, where she wouldn’t come off as a neurotic bitch who has to pull herself together. She played some of the same notes, for example, in Death and the Maiden, and the character of Helen is a lot like Weaver’s Ripley in Aliens — her run-in with the monster gave her expertise but also nightmares. And, like Ripley, Helen must face the monster again.

Young women are being butchered all over the city. The crimes seem unconnected, but the chipper detective on the case, M.J. Monahan (Holly Hunter), suspects the perp is the same guy using different methods in each kill. Her suspicions are confirmed when she and her partner Ruben (Dermot Mulroney) bring the case to Helen, who immediately recognizes the M.O.s of the Boston Strangler and the Hillside Stranglers. The ingenious killer is copying the “greats,” constructing a twisted artistic homage to them, to himself, and mostly to Helen, who is presented as a totemic object of adulation among deviants. They all want to appear in her next book — feared and infamous forever.

In bits and pieces, Copycat seems to be on to something: Our fascination with serial killers can backfire and slash our own throats. And maybe that’s how the script (by Ann Biderman and David Madsen) was conceived. The brilliant, baby-faced killer (William McNamara) might almost embody the standard line that psychos are easily swayed by the violent media. Doing his damnedest with an unwritten character, McNamara is genuinely, blandly frightening in some moments (usually at his most innocuous) and utterly unconvincing in others (when he’s trying to be diabolical). The killer also dotes on a bedridden older woman who’s never identified. Another sicko mama’s boy? Whether the fault of the writers or the director-for-hire (Jon Amiel), the killer is maddeningly opaque. The movie is less interested in him than in his elaborate (and highly implausible) ingenuity. It also isn’t interested in his victims, whose pain is remote and depersonalized, as in a squalid slasher movie of the ’80s. At times, the film itself seems sick.

Every time Holly Hunter appears, she brings some light into the murk. M.J. strides into ghastly crime scenes and smiles sweetly at the cops gathering evidence. She’s flirtatiously businesslike. Yet she isn’t callous. The script gives M.J. a few flower-child-Buddhist lines to set up her character — a detective who accepts everyday death as part of the big picture, but isn’t hardened to human pain — and Hunter stays inside this intriguing woman. She’s the reason to sit through the idiot plot and cheap tricks of Copycat. Her enjoyment of acting translates as M.J.’s enjoyment of deductive work. The other stand-out is Harry Connick Jr., whose very persuasive performance as a vicious redneck wacko is surprising (if not pleasurable). When taunting Helen via computer link-up late in the movie, Daryll displays a malevolent playfulness that shows up McNamara’s generally blank psycho. Connick is riveting without making evil seductive, though part of his effectiveness in the role has to be due to novelty casting: the nice boy who sounds like Sinatra gets nasty.

Copycat has too many characters and needless plot twists — padding in between corpses. Will Patton turns up as M.J.’s former lover, a cop who’s jealous of her developing bond with Ruben. Then (I’m about to give a plot point away, so be warned, even though you can see it coming a mile off) a random disturbance in the precinct station is concocted so that Ruben can be shot and Patton can tearfully confess to M.J. that he secretly wished Ruben dead. The scene is pathetic and pointless; Patton’s cop has no reason to be in the movie. Neither does Helen’s live-in helper, so appealingly played by John Rothman that he practically has “psycho fodder” tattooed on his forehead.

The scenes of Sigourney Weaver alone and frightened in her vast apartment are, in a word, moronic. Jon Amiel drags out all the old tricks: Helen in the shower, Helen creeping around in the dark, Helen forced to leave her apartment when the monster comes to visit (the hallway tilts agoraphobically; for a minute, we’re watching bad imitation De Palma). I looked at Helen’s big bones and powerful legs and had to laugh; she could cripple her rather small adversary with a good swift kick. How can Copycat ask us to be worried about Sigourney Weaver? No woman of her great humor and great height is credible being menaced by scummy little psychos. The Alien directors had the right idea: put this formidable woman up against a huge and horrifying creature out of Lovecraft. But William McNamara?

Empire Records

October 20, 1995

“Damn the man! Save the Empire!” Barely released in 1995 — the soundtrack (one of the great ones, by the way) got more play than the movie did — this can best be described as the best Kevin Smith movie Smith never directed. Plotlessly and very often hilariously, the sharp script (by Carol Heikkinen) follows a day in the life of the flailing New Jersey shop Empire Records, which may soon be swallowed up by the corporate store Music Town. An anecdotal comedy like this lives or dies on the charisma of its ensemble, and this is a decidedly fun group to spend 90 minutes with; everyone’s great here, most notably Anthony LaPaglia as Empire’s irritable manager, Ethan Embry as the hyper wannabe-rock star Mark, Rory Cochrane as the philosophical Lucas, Robin Tunney as the morbid, shaven-headed Deb, Renee Zellweger as the impetuous Gina, Liv Tyler as the Harvard-bound Corey (who wants to sleep with visiting pop star Rex Manning, played with maximum smarm by Maxwell Caulfield), and Brendan Sexton III as the belligerent shoplifter “Warren.” For a taste of some of the classic lines and exchanges, go here. This has gained a cult on video for a reason. Discover why. I own the “remix” DVD (as well as the original version) but haven’t bothered to watch it.


October 20, 1995

Brodie (Jason Lee) and T.S. (Jeremy London), the befuddled and talkative guys in Mallrats, hang out and debate whether Lois Lane could survive impregnation by Superman. (They conclude that only Wonder Woman would have a uterus sturdy enough to carry a Superbaby to term.) They don’t limit themselves to this topic, but all their conversation belongs to the same genre of meaningless but very funny talk. In short, Brodie and T.S. are almost clones of Dante and Randal, the heroes of writer-director Kevin Smith’s previous film, Clerks. Is this all Kevin Smith can do — two unambitious guys sending up verbal balloons? I prefer to think that Smith, who has a sharp ear for dialogue, has other shots in his cannon, and that Mallrats is to Clerks what Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado was to his El Mariachi: a name-star, bigger-budget version of the fledgling auteur’s no-frills calling card. Yet the charm of Clerks and El Mariachi was their smallness and low-budgetness. Painting them on a larger canvas doesn’t do much for them.

That said, I enjoyed much of Mallrats. Smith has assembled a decent cast, though the best I can say for Shannen Doherty, as Brodie’s bored girlfriend, is that she proves she’s a good sport. And Michael Rooker, who just a few years ago seemed to be getting dignified roles, appears as the ranting chrome-dome dad of T.S.’s girlfriend (the appealing Claire Forlani) and is required to put his foot through a floor, lick chocolate off his fingers in merciless close-up, and spend half his screen time puking; he must really be a good sport. Joey Lauren Adams has a pleasant, unself-conscious, bubbly sexiness. And comics fans will get a kick out of Stan Lee’s cameo as himself, dispensing “Face front, true believer” wisdom.

Almost everyone has lively things to say, the topics usually centering on the Kevin Smith triumvirate of sex, comics, and movies. The show-stealers, as in Clerks, are the slacker-Mutt-and-Jeff team Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself). Mewes seems to tune in to an oddball galaxy far, far away (he’d have been perfect in Dazed and Confused); at times, he’s like a foul-mouthed version of the wacko Disney characters capering around the margins of The Lion King or Pocahontas. Smith doesn’t act much — his character isn’t called Silent Bob for nothing — but he knows how to use his big, beefy body, and his sober deadpan links him with Buster Keaton. What doesn’t link Smith the director with Keaton is his rather uninspired handling of slapstick. Silent Bob goes crashing through ladies’ changing rooms or beats up the Easter bunny, and you appreciate the idea of it, but you’re acutely aware that you’re not laughing. Smith is best with verbal slapstick, not visual.

Smith’s movies are something like the easygoing, pleasantly unambitious slackers he puts on the screen. Maybe I shouldn’t criticize Smith for returning to the same ground in the $7 million Mallrats that he covered in the $27,000 Clerks; after all, Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore effort was Pulp Fiction, not much of a genre jump from Reservoir Dogs. Yet I watched Mallrats feeling that Smith had already handed in a brilliant first draft with Clerks, and that Mallrats, though printed on better paper and free of typos, is an unnecessary second draft. Kevin Smith is a viciously witty and refreshingly rude writer, and not a bad rough-edged comedy director. But how much further can he go with these scrappy talking-heads movies? (Mallrats provides a blunt answer: no further than the mall.) The true test of comedy directors, be they Billy Wilder or John Waters, is how deftly they can adapt their gifts to a variety of stories. Smith needs to move on now — he needs to shit or get off the pot.

River of Grass

October 13, 1995

Nothing could be more exhilarating and erotically dangerous than a young man and woman on the lam, right? River of Grass twists the trope inside out, exposing the situation as the uneventful dead end it probably usually is in real life. The debut film by writer-director Kelly Reichardt (who went on to make the critically lauded Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy), River of Grass (named for the Everglades near where the non-action unfolds) is almost like Badlands left out in the sun to blanch and peel for two weeks. The pair on the lam are Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a thirtyish housewife and mother dismally dissatisfied with her lot in life, and Lee (Larry Fessenden), a dentally challenged ne’er-do-well who finds himself in possession of a gun. One night, Cozy leaves her baby alone in the house and wanders off down the road, where Lee almost runs her over. She tracks him to a bar, and after a possible accidental killing, they’re on the run from the cops — including her dad (Dick Russell), a failed jazz drummer who tends to drop his gun.

In this comedy of ennui, Cozy and Lee don’t fall in love, don’t even have sex (from what we see); they just slouch through an extended vacation in which the monotony is broken only by a cockroach. Cozy is thrilled to be forced to leave her life behind; it’s the sort of dramatic escape she’s probably been yearning for, having seen the same movies we have. But this sort of fantasy is much less rejuvenating in actual practice, where Lee tries to sell his mother’s record collection just to put gas in the car. Bowman’s daydreamy, laconic manner (she also narrates) bumping up against Fessenden’s white-trash creepiness (in between directing his own films, he usually specializes in being creepy in other people’s films) creates its own kind of erotic friction, though not one that’s ever acted on or even thought about. (The closest to physical they get is sharing a joint, passed back and forth between their toes.) Cozy lazes around in a swimming pool like a lackadaisical mermaid, while Lee sits on the edge, staring down at his feet and playing with his gun. You can almost hear Reichardt chortling behind the camera.

There’s an element of wit in Reichardt’s minimalism here that isn’t present in her later, more somber work; though this film is set in suburban Florida and her latter two films camp out in Portland, Oregon — basically kitty-corner across the country — they all take place in the depressed parts of America, the lonely roads bracketed by industrial machinery, the disenchanted people shuffling around aimlessly. It’s a consistent vision and, to me, an appealing one.

Strange Days

October 13, 1995

You walk up to a door, jimmy the lock, and step inside. You’re in a swank Los Angeles hotel room. You sneak across the carpet, put on a ski mask, and keep going until you see the woman. She sees you — she screams and runs away. What do you do now? You catch up to her, overpower her, and handcuff her wrists to the wall. She’s helpless; she’s crying. You take out a razor and tease her with it, cutting off her bra and underpants. What do you do now? You wrap a cloth around her throat and go to work — simultaneously raping her and strangling her, until she dies at the moment of your orgasm.

If you felt as appalled reading that paragraph as I did writing it, wait until you see it and (almost) experience it. This interactive-atrocity sequence, which has the immediacy and inevitability of a nightmare, is the most horrific and memorable part of Strange Days, an apocalyptic thriller about the next big thing in multimedia. “Clips,” they’re called — playbacks of experiences ranging from luxurious showers to armed robbery. Originally a surveillance device for undercover police (they replaced body wires), they’ve been co-opted by the underground: People are paid to wear electronic skull-caps that record everything they see, hear and feel, and the resulting clips are sold to wealthy clients who want to see, hear and feel the forbidden without leaving their living rooms. The most popular clips — the clips we see the most of — deal with sex and violence.

Strange Days gets into a weird contradiction. The hero, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), is an ex-cop and shady dealer in clips. His clients, by and large, are coarse scum with money, and he gets them what they want. If the movie is trying to say something distressing about the American appetite for sex and violence, I’m confused. The clips deal with the sort of fringe stuff that generally doesn’t go over with a mass audience; furthermore, the clips are available only to those rich enough to buy them (or computer-literate enough to pirate them) — in other words, they’re sold to the rotten elite, not to anyone the movie audience can relate to, so the movie blows its chance to be an attack on our appetites.

There is an idea here: The street-level guys like Lenny and the people paid to wear the recording device provide gutter entertainment for the corrupt, jaded princes of the city. But the script, by James Cameron (yes, him) and Jay Cocks, doesn’t develop this idea into a theme that would put an ironic spin on the premise. Straining for a big statement, the writers juggle too many balls and drop most of them. The wild card is director Kathryn Bigelow, an erratic filmmaker whose movies have almost all focused on escapist brutality (her best previous film was Near Dark, a vampire noir). “You know you want it,” say the ads for Strange Days, and Bigelow, who’s made her share of violent clips, knows you want it, too.

But do you want to rape and murder? Or how about falling to your death off a building while escaping the cops? Or experiencing your own near-murder through the eyes of your stalker? Individual scenes in Strange Days are as forceful and compelling as anything ever filmed. I admit I would consider that you-are-the-rapist sequence very morally iffy had a male director put it on the screen. Since the director is a woman, the scene takes on a wilder resonance. For a few awful moments, we’re all rapists — you, me, Bigelow, everyone around us in the audience. In an odd way, the scene is a harsh affirmation of one’s own morality: To recoil from it is to know, once and for all, what we could never be capable of. Still, we watch, don’t we? We stay in our seats; we don’t walk out. When Lenny receives the rape-snuff clip and experiences it, we wonder why he doesn’t remove the skull-cap receiver in disgust. He keeps watching and suffering. So do we. No movie since Peeping Tom has implicated the viewer so directly.

The clips lie at the heart of what a lot of recent, inept virtual-reality movies (Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, The Lawnmower Man) have been trying to say about the future of sensory input. I wish Bigelow, who’s a real exploitation artist when she doesn’t waste herself on crap like Blue Steel, had done more with the clips. Not necessarily more rape scenes (one is quite enough) but more breadth of experience. There’s a lovely scene in which Lenny visits a hacker friend (Todd Graff), a legless nightclub worker, and brings him a clip that gives him the sensation of … running. Just running, along a beach, catching the eye of a young woman in a bikini — that’s his exquisite fantasy. Another man jacks in and “becomes” an 18-year-old girl lathering herself in the shower, and I wish Bigelow had tried to get that on film; what an innocuous yet sensuous thing to want to experience. Lenny himself keeps jacking into clips of himself and his ex-girlfriend (Juliette Lewis), like a mournful, jilted single guy torturing himself with homemade porn videos taped when he still had a sex life. The clips carry an emotional charge that the script, as it pushes forward, seems to lose track of. Perhaps Cameron and Cocks didn’t have enough faith in (or didn’t anticipate) the visual power and intimacy of Bigelow’s clips.

That rape-snuff clip, it turns out, is part of a larger mystery. Strange Days, set during the last two days of 1999, addresses the social problems turned up just a notch. That “just a notch” is scary: Nothing in this millennial L.A. is all that far-fetched. Four years ago, nobody knew from CD-ROMs or cyberspace; four years from now, it’s quite likely we’ll be seeing something like Lenny’s clips. Yet the whole mystery of the movie depends not on technology but on … police racism. Come again? I’m not saying this is a non-issue, but it comes out of left field in a movie that gives us so much else to chew on. The racism angle feels like visceral, hot-button stuff grafted onto a basically cerebral concept.

At the precise moment when Strange Days seems ready to iris in on meaty, personal issues, it mushrooms into a crusading PC statement. If the clip business itself were revealed to be racist — escapist experiences aimed first at rich whites, and then trickling down, in corrupted form, to hook the underclass on it, like crack — or if the technology were shown to be misused by police violating civil rights, I’d have accepted the plot twists. As it is, Strange Days is almost two and a half hours long, so I don’t know how the filmmakers could have solved the problem except by losing Lenny’s chauffeur-protector-unrequited lover Mace, who adds an unnecessary half hour. Angela Bassett, however, is so lively and touching in the role that I can’t object too strongly. She makes magic with a role that’s token in every way: Mace the black superwoman is in the movie to fend off charges of sexism and racism.

Lenny shuffles to and fro, tracking down clues to the identity of the snuff-clip killer, always getting in trouble that Mace always bails him out of. Strange Days has a saggy, repetitive middle section redeemed partly by the clips and partly by the performances. Lenny is one of those blurry James Cameron heroes who are what Cameron needs them to be at any given moment, but Ralph Fiennes works well with the hand he’s dealt. He may be the most likable of the new screen chameleons; he uses his technique to invite you in, not shut you out (that’s what made his work in Schindler’s List so chilling). When he’s on the screen with Bassett or with Tom Sizemore as a grungy ex-cop, you’re watching some of the finest acting teamwork of the season.

Fiennes makes a good salesman; I’d buy a clip from him. But he isn’t good enough to hawk what Cameron and Cocks are selling. Strange Days belongs to the same hypocritical genre as Kids and Showgirls: outwardly rebellious, secretly conservative. (Cameron dug himself a hole in T2 when he decried the same technology that gave him those fabulous morphing effects.) The movie also belongs to the Network media-evil club, along with Natural Born Killers, Serial Mom, and To Die For. The media has replaced drugs as America’s boogeyman, and Strange Days ties the knot between the two: The media is a drug, stringing us out on hellbound sensation. Yet Strange Days itself does the same thing. (If we didn’t see the clips, the movie would be just another Blade Runner knock-off.)

Kathryn Bigelow gets caught in the same contradictory tangle that ensnared Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers: the dilemma of becoming part of the decay you’re trying to illuminate. She thrashes around inside this movie, the way Sam Peckinpah thrashed around trying to make an anti-violence western and ended up with The Wild Bunch. Bigelow doesn’t resolve the problems of the material, but you can feel her coming up underneath it, straining against the surface of zombie sensation and trying to push through into the fresh air of common sense, common decency. That’s what you take with you, and what makes Strange Days fascinating despite all the awkwardness and chaos of the climax, when the movie seems to cave in on itself. Of course Bigelow can’t resolve the questions her movie raises; no one can. Strange Days is like our own disordered thoughts put on the screen — our thoughts about violence and the audience’s complicity with violence, with some other ingredients thrown in, plus Juliette Lewis singing PJ Harvey for some reason. It’s a big messy sprawl, and it’s satisfying as only a flawed movie can be.

The Addiction

October 6, 1995

One of Abel Ferrara’s interesting failures — a deep-dish art-house vampire movie, shot in stark b&w, with Lili Taylor as a philosophy student who gets bitten by Annabella Sciorra and tailspins into the madness of hunger. How could it miss? Well, there’s a reason that Bad Lieutenant is Ferrara’s best film: It wasn’t written by Nicholas St. John, whose scripts for Ferrara have been pretentious at best, ham-handed at worst. This one is both. When we’re not watching the humorless Taylor shooting up blood or blathering about deep stuff, we’re wincing at death-camp footage. One can justify the images of real-life atrocity as Ferrara’s usual outrageousness, but after a while the gallery of Holocaust horror just seems like a cheap, unearned way for St. John to beef up his themes of collective guilt and evil in modern society. Taylor is compelling, Ken Kelsch’s photography is riveting, and Christopher Walken is amusing in a small role as some sort of vicious vamp guru. Also with Paul Calderone and Father Robert Castle. Score by Joe Delia. Ferrara’s next was The Funeral, also with Sciorra and Walken.