Kathryn Bigelow and the Tough-as-Nails Heroine

One of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movie about men & masculinity. That’s not to say she doesn’t have an active, genuine interest in the topic as auteur, but rather that it’s curious that the filmmaker fixated on telling men’s stories happens to be the one woman director to ever win her field’s top prize. Bigelow’s preoccupation with macho, dirtbag men is especially noticeable in our current Movie of the Month—the Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—in which a scumbag anti-hero played by Ralph Fiennes is inexplicably centered in the film’s narrative instead of the more traditionally heroic badass played by Angela Bassett. Bassett’s stunt-driving, punches-throwing, testicles-kicking, politically radical heroine is a true wonder—a spectacle in herself—which makes it all the more tragic that even she is helpless to Fiennes’s greasy macho charms in the main role. That letdown is an intentionally frustrating aspect of the script (which Bigelow penned with her creative partner and already then-former husband James Cameron), but it still left me wondering what the film might have played like if Bigelow were more interested in Basset’s inner life and instead centered the woman as the lead. It would at least have been a novel departure from her usual mode.

As far as I can tell, Bigelow’s 1990 cop thriller Blue Steel is her only feature film to date with a woman in the top-billed role. Jamie Lee Curtis stars a rookie NYC police officer with a violent streak that immediately lands her in hot water. She’s not exactly the tough-as-nails badass Bassett portrays in Strange Days, but that archetype is exactly what she aspires to be. When pressed by her male colleagues about why she wants to be a cop in the first place, she “jokes” about coveting the violent authoritarianism of the position, musing “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to shoot people.” The truth turns out to be more that she grew up powerless to stop her abusive father from physically assaulting her mother, and her new badge & gun armory allows her to wield power over him and other abusers. The first time she dons her blue uniform, she struts down the street with newfound, first-in-her-lifetime confidence. During her first night on the job she overreacts to the threats of an armed suspect and unloads every bullet she’s got into his chest. She just as capable of violence as Bassett’s tough-as-nails heroine, but lacks that role model’s cool, even hand and moral sense of justice. It’s a dangerous inner conflict that the film eventually likens to the sociopathic impulses of a deranged serial killer – a man. Naturally, this wouldn’t be a Bigelow film if there wasn’t some destructive, alluring force of masculinity present to steer the central conflict.

Blue Steel’s grotesquely macho villain subverts Jamie Lee Curtis’s hero status at the film’s center by realigning her with the Final Girl archetypes that first made her famous. Ron Silver costars as a dangerously narcissistic Wall Street brute turned serial killer, essentially laying out the entire American Psycho template in an underpraised stunner of a role. This mustache-twirling villain is first inspired to kill when he witnesses Curtis decimate her perp on her first night of patrol. His fetishistic obsession with her (and her gun) quickly escalates into erotic thriller territory, a tension he relieves by shooting randomly selected victims on the NYC streets. He also shoehorns his way into the rookie cop’s romantic life with his Wall Street wealth, so that she’s unknowingly dating the very killer she’s professionally hunting. While the film is willing to link the trigger-happy cop’s penchant for violence with the Wall Street creep’s own sociopathy, this largely becomes a tale of a woman who’s boxed in on all sides by macho bullies. Between her abusive father, her gaslighting boyfriend, and the police force higher-ups who do not believe her accounts of being attacked by creeps on the street, Blue Steel’s heroine is awash in a flood of insidious machismo. For at least this one film, Bigelow proves that she can center a woman protagonist’s story why still satisfying her auteurist preoccupations with the nature & textures of masculinity. In that way, Blue Steel deserves to be regarded as one of the director’s foremost texts.

There are plenty of other reasons why Blue Steel deserves higher critical prominence in the Bigelow canon that have nothing to do with its tough-as-nails heroine. From the harsh noir lighting to the ice-cold atmospheric score & eroticized gun violence, this deeply creepy, mean thriller finds Bigelow at one of her most stylistically indulgent moments as a director. She’s channeling some serious 80s Friedkin vibes here, which I mean as a high compliment; all that’s missing is an elaborate chase scene & a Wang Chung soundtrack. Still, the most readily recognizable significance of the film within the director’s larger catalog is the rare chance to see her center a woman protagonist while remaining true to the violence & masculinity of her typical milieu. It’s not exactly the hypothetical “What if Angela Bassett was Top-Billed in Strange Days?” scenario that genre nerd audiences are likely to hope for, but it is the closest Bigelow has ever gotten to satisfying that ideal. It’s also, notably, an exquisite chiller of a film in its own right.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and our look at the director’s continued fascination with police brutality in Detroit (2017).

-Brandon Ledet

Kathryn Bigelow and the Few Bad Apples

For most of its sprawling, thematically dense runtime, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—is a politically daring, eerily prescient rebuke of the historically racist Los Angeles Police Department. As much as the film’s futuristic VR recording tech was predictive of the way police body cams & citizens’ cell phone footage would later change the way we publicly processed police brutality in the coming decades, it also served a snapshot of its then-current political angst. Strange Days plays like a big-budget blockbuster amplification of the racial police force pushback that led to the Rodney King riots, reinterpreting real-life civil unrest through a futuristic sci-fi lens. It’s a bizarre jolt of a letdown, then, when those citizens vs. police tensions are resolved in a last-minute turnaround where a police commissioner swoops in to admonish his corrupt, racist employees – simplifying the LAPD’s systemic racism to just a few rogue cops who don’t follow protocol. That same misinterpretation of racist policing in black neighborhoods would pop up again decades later, when Bigelow fixed her eye on a racist past instead of a racist future.

2017’s Detroit drew much more vocal criticism for its political shortsightedness than Strange Days suffered in the 90s, but that’s likely because more people happened to see it in the first place (not to mention the democratization of critical publication in a post-Twitter world). A brutal historical drama about the 1967 Detroit race riots, the film wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleasing box office smash, but Bigelow’s transformation from underappreciated genre film auteur to Oscar-winning establishment director means that every feature she releases in the modern era is something of an event. Like Strange Days, Detroit rushes out the gate throwing wild punches in a frenetic, meticulously detailed account of how one police raid of an unlicensed black nightclub spiraled out into a weeks-long, city-wide riot. The first hour of the film is an adrenaline-flooded nightmare as handheld war-style photography mixes with real-life news footage to paint the backdrop for the smaller, more confined story to follow in its second hour. It’s once the story slams the brakes to park at The Algiers Hotel in that second hour that the film draws a lot of its political backlash from critics – an unease with depictions of police brutality that was only exacerbated by the film being released the same week as the police-condoned racist mayhem of Charlottesville.

Once Detroit shifts from its macro view of how the 1967 riots ignited & spread to the specific, intimate terror of The Algiers Hotel, its interests shift from political unrest to militaristic torture. Convinced that a sniper in the hotel is shooting at the National Guards, a small band of police officers torture the business’s residents to “confess” who is guilty of the (non-existent) crime. The duration & methodical repetition of this sequence, in which several black men are murdered & psychologically tormented by white cops, drew a lot of criticism as torture porn that turned black pain & brutalized black bodies into mass entertainment. That lingering fixation on physical abuse & torture had been part of Bigelow’s visual language since her earliest features, an approach to storytelling that could only be described as “unflinching.” Whether that sensibility was worth continuing when she shifted into telling real-life black stories as a white artist is a conversation worth having, especially since Charlottesville was such a raw nerve when the film was first released. What really disappointed me about Detroit personally, though, was Bigelow’s continued reluctance to interrogate the racism of the offending police force as an institution rather than a defect among a few bad apples. She showed very little progress on that front in the 22 years between Strange Days & Detroit, if any at all.

In its superior opening hour, Detroit is actively interested in the institutional reinforcement of racial segregation & subjugation, which only makes its third-act backpedaling all the more frustrating. In a bewildering mixed-media collage of animation, real-life newsreel footage, and blood pressure-raising historical reenactments, Bigelow paints a wide picture of the systemic racial inequality that led to the civil unrest at the film’s core: the history of urban housing inequality and the cycle of white flight; the media coverage of the riots as senseless self-destruction rather than a purposeful expression of political discontent; the police force’s unwillingness to shoot looters dead, as they value property over black lives; etc. When we zero in on the extensive torture session at The Algiers, however, that critical eye towards institutionalized inequality becomes much murkier, to the point of being meaningless. Every commanding officer, National Guardsmen, and varying other police force higher-ups who catch wind of what the “rogue” cops did at The Algiers (entirely under the direction of a single bully, played by the eternally punchable Will Pourter) is disgusted by their actions. Although the real-life cops who committed these heinous acts were never fully held accountable, the movie makes sure it’s clear that they acted as a standalone gang of rotten apples. It makes no moves to interrogate how their evil acts may have been encouraged or even deliberately trained into them by their higher-ups. They’re portrayed as human flaws in the system, instead of the ugly truth that they’re a sign of the system working exactly as intended.

For me, Detroit is overall a mixed bag, but the in-the-moment effect of its intense opening hour is almost enough to carry it. There’s some truly impressive, ambitious craft on display from Bigelow before the film slams its brakes to dwell on militaristic torture tactics for a literal eternity. Strange Days is similarly upsetting in is own depictions of intimate brutality, but its bigger sci-fi ideas remain a work of sprawling ambition throughout, making for a wholly satisfying picture in its entirety. No matter how much my genre-nerd impulses allow me to overlook Strange Days’s political shortcomings, however, I can’t help but be disappointed to see Bigelow’s “a few bad apples” misinterpretation of systemic police brutality & racism continue all the way into the 2010s. It only makes the superior firm’s own backpedaling conclusion more of a letdown in retrospect.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Strange Days (1995)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Hanna, Boomer, and Britnee watch Strange Days (1995).

Brandon: Long before she was routinely churning out Oscar Buzz dramas about wartime brutality, Kathryn Bigelow had a much more exciting, subversive career as a genre film auteur. Her early catalog of slickly stylized, darkly brooding genre pictures was a fitting evolution from her educational background as a painter, providing her a sturdy canvas for bold visions with evocative themes. The problem was that no one seemed to give a shit. Bigelow scored a surprise hit with the X-treme Sports bromance thriller Point Break, but it was an anomaly among her other underseen, money-losing experiments in stylized genre filmmaking: her 1950s motorcycle gang throwback The Loveless, her neo-Western vampire tale Near Dark, her apocalyptic sci-fi epic Strange Days, etc. As Bigelow’s profile has ballooned in the decades since—thanks partly to being the first & only woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Director—these titles have gradually earned film-nerd prestige as cult classics, but their distribution & cultural clout still remain disappointingly muted considering what they achieve onscreen. For instance, I was only able to see Strange Days for the first time this year because I happened to pick up a long out-of-print DVD of the film at a local thrift store, as it is not currently streaming or available for purchase in any official capacity. That’s absolutely baffling to me, considering that the film plays like a major 1990s blockbuster of great cultural importance, not some esoteric art film that appeals to few and has been seen by even fewer.

Released in 1995, Strange Days is set in the near-future apocalypse of Y2K. Like a (much) bigger budget version of former Movie of the Month Last Night, Bigelow’s film uses the ceremonial end of the Millennium on New Year’s Eve, 1999, to signal a complete societal breakdown and possible end of life as we know it. However, in this case the apocalypse seems to be less of a literal cosmic or technological event than it is a political shift that amplifies the various crises of contemporary mid-90s Los Angeles. Blatantly influenced by real-life cultural events like the Rodney King riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Lorena Bobbitt saga, Strange Days is an allegorical amplification of its own times more than it is a predictor of future events – a time-honored tradition in science-fiction worldbuilding. Yet, its central conflict was incredibly prescient about the way virtual reality technology, misogynistic abuse in the entertainment industry, and documentation of systemically racist police brutality would play out in the following couple decades. Along with her creative partner (and already then-former husband) James Cameron, Bigelow framed the social & political crises of the 1990s as the beginning of the End Times. The scary thing is that it feels like we’re still living in the exact downward trajectory depicted onscreen.

Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny: a former, disgraced LAPD officer who makes a greasy living selling virtual reality clips of real-world crimes & home-made pornography for a black-market technology known as S.Q.U.I.D. (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). The Cronenbergian SQUID device allows users to live in the head of the filmmakers who record those clips – feeling their emotions & physical sensations on top of seeing through their eyes. Beyond selling literal memories on the black market, Lenny is also hopelessly stuck in his own past – bitter about being ejected from an increasingly corrupt police force, obsessed with former girlfriend Faith (a routinely abused grunge rocker played by Juliette Lewis, who curiously performs Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey songs throughout the film), and exploiting the bottomless kindness of an old friend who’s obviously in love with him (Angela Bassett, an eternal badass) even though she’s way out of his league. Lenny’s already pitiful existence as a Los Angeles bottom-feeder spirals further out of control once he stumbles into possession of VR clips confirming a conspiracy theory that his former employers, the pigs at the notoriously racist LAPD, executed political-minded rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), who threatened a revolution that would overturn the power structure of the entire city, if not the world. Faced with a rare opportunity to expose the LAPD for the corrupt, racist murderers they truly are, Lenny must decide what’s most important to him: reclaiming the supposed glories of his own curdled past or fighting for a brighter future for others who need his help. The city-wide Y2K celebration rages into a fever pitch around him as he reluctantly follows this conflict to an inevitably violent, Hellish climax. Also, Angela Bassett’s there to kick corrupt-cop ass & save the day whenever Lenny fails to do the right thing – far too often.

Strange Days lost tens of millions of dollars at the American box office, a commercial failure that threatened to permanently derail Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial career. It’s only gotten more thematically relevant as bodycam-documented police brutality, #metoo testaments of ritualized sexual assault in the entertainment industry, and advancements in virtual-reality escapism have escalated in the decades since, but I don’t know that it would have been a hit today either. Hell, I don’t know that this movie could have been made today, at least not on this scale. Its production budget, thematic ambitions, and unflinching brutality make it out to be a one-of-a-kind miracle that it was ever greenlit in any era, since these kinds of financial-risk blockbusters are usually not allowed to be this politically alienating or emotionally unpleasant. Hanna, what do you make of Stranger Days’s dual nature as commercial filmmaking and provocative art? Do you think it satisfies more as a big-budget action spectacle or as a seething political provocation? Or is it stuck somewhere between those two sensibilities, failing to satisfy as either?

Hanna: CW: Rape

I was definitely more drawn to the existential and political threads in Strange Days; I am especially always down for the exploration of technology-facilitated escapism and the feedback loop of social decline that inevitably follows. I think it’s totally fitting that Lenny is motivated into action by a cruel corruption of his black-market product– a particularly heinous snuff film which provides a first-person POV of a brutal rape. It reminded me a little of YouTube, starting out as a platform for AFV-esque bloopers and cat videos but being unable keep the thinly-veiled child pornography from creeping past the censors. Eventually the things that help us forget how awful the world is will be corrupted by the awfulness of the world, at which point we have to do something about the real world or (more likely) find a new outlet of escape. I appreciated Strange Days’s unwavering portrait of how brutal the world is for people whose realities are so politically fraught (like Jeriko One) that they can’t afford to slip into the mind of an 18-year-old girl taking a shower for the fun of it, and how important it is for people who can (like Lenny) to reckon with the actual world instead of feeding off of stale pleasures.

The film didn’t quite shine as much as a blockbuster for me, mainly because of how completely grimy and disgusting I felt throughout and afterwards: Lenny is as weaselly as he could be without being totally unlikeable (although I really appreciated his cacophonous silk ensembles); the villains represented and practiced the full spectrum of physical, sexual, and emotional, and political violence; and the first-person rape scenes were absolutely grotesque. I don’t usually have a problem with unpleasant movies, but I like my commercial cyber-noir films to have a little more heart. In that respect, Angela Bassett is Strange Days’s saving grace as Mace – she is a blast to watch in the action scenes, and serves as the only source of real compassion for the movie. I was also deeply in love with the sheer scale (and diversity!) of the confetti-riddled New Year’s party at the end of the film, which wouldn’t have been possible with an indie budget.

I really struggle with the brutality of this movie – on one hand I think it is absolutely thematically critical, and it’s such a relief when the abscess of horrible people is kind-of washed away (although the upstanding moral center of the police commissioner seemed a little too good to be true). On the other hand, two and a half hours of that was a real doozy. On the other other hand, I think Strange Days being difficult to watch is part of the point – it’s like we’re SQUIDing a feature-length tape from one of the extras, or from Kathryn Bigelow’s demented psyche. I’m all twisted up. What do you think, Britnee? Is Strange Days worth the brutality? Do you think there are things Bigelow could have done to make the ride a little smoother without compromising the story?

Britnee: That’s a question that’s been weighing on my mind since we initially watched Strange Days. Suffering through the intense scenes of rape and racial violence was difficult, and that’s the reaction that I think Bigelow was aiming for. This type of brutality is all too common in today’s modern world, and it’s crazy how this Y2K sci-fi movie from the mid-90s remains so relevant. She was onto something for sure. Here we are in 2019, and the same crap is happening. Bigelow really understands how shitty humanity truly is, and that point is made clear in Strange Days. Now, could this point have been made without going as far as she did with the POV rape scene? I think so. The moment it’s made obvious that a rape is about to occur, the scene could have ended. We didn’t need to be subjected to witnessing the rape to understand what was happening.

Even though there are brutal, hard-to-watch moments in Strange Days, I don’t think that should deter anyone from watching the film. The film itself is pretty amazing and thought provoking, so fast forwarding through a few minutes of this over two hour movie won’t spoil the experience one bit. Honestly, other than the POV rape scene, the amount of violence in Strange Days is no different than any other action movie.

I think everyone in the crew would agree with me saying that Angela Basset is the star of the show. Her Mace character is a complete badass, and she completely outshines everyone else, especially Lenny. Boomer, what would Strange Days look like without Mace? Could the film survive the absence of that character?

Boomer: This is such a good question. This movie lives and dies based on Angela Bassett. In fact, despite never having seen the movie before, there are two particular images from it that are permanently lodged in my subconscious: Mace in her bodyguard/chauffeur uniform (a style I think I’ve been unconsciously trying to emulate for most of my life) and her face as the colorful confetti falls around her like so much technicolor snow. I concluded that those two shots must have been included in a promo for the film’s airing on the Syfy (ugh) channel back when it was still Sci-Fi (much better); digging through the TV archives, it looks like there were four airings in November 1998, two in May of 1999, and one in September of 1999, all of which line up perfectly with the timeline in my mind of when these images would have found their way into my brain and gotten stuck there. And before you ask–yes, there was an airing on New Year’s Day 2000, smack dab in between the thematically similar Until the End of the World and the generically titled The Apocalypse (presumably this one), which was itself followed by Night of the Comet, a personal favorite. That promo (which I can’t find anywhere) may even explain my lifelong obsession with and adoration of Angela Bassett although that could also be chalked up to seeing What’s Love Got to Do With It at a very young age.

There’s essentially no film without Mace, at least not one with a character with whom the audience can sympathize and empathize. I found it difficult to identify with Nero, despite the fact that he’s our viewpoint character and the ostensible protagonist. We’ve all been on the blunt end of a relationship that ended badly, finding ourselves in a situation wherein we still care deeply about our ex after they’ve moved on, but Nero’s ongoing obsession with and attachment to Faith, above and beyond being an unsubtle metaphor, is off-puttingly pathetic. Sure, he cares about her, and she’s undoubtedly gotten herself into a bad situation with the abusive Gant, but she’s a big girl and making her own (truly terrible) decisions; given the revelation at the end about who else she’s been sleeping with and why, Nero comes across as even more of an idiotic galoot. The “Faith” that lives in his mind (and his clips) is pure artifice, and for all his charisma and supposed worldliness, his inability to comprehend his own myopia makes him pitiful, not pitiable. In contrast, Mace is a total badass; she doesn’t have to feint at cowardice in order to get close to those she fights and then fight dirty like Nero, she just stands tall (and stylish) and refuses to flinch in the face of mad dogs, burning cars, and raging Pris cosplayers. Without Mace in his life, Nero may have made it to Retinal Fetish unharmed, but he for sure would have been killed at the hands of Steckler and Engelman long before the final villain got a chance to enact his plan.

There was only one thing about Mace that I didn’t like, and that was the fact that she and Nero ended the film with a kiss. I understand the symbolism and all, especially given that the fact that the film’s chronometer keeps ticking even after the new year, showing that the world didn’t end and life does, in fact, go on. It’s sweet, but I would have preferred an ending in which their relationship remained platonic. I understand that her affection for him comes as a result of his tenderness with her son (even keeping him in a different room while the kid’s father is taken out in handcuffs so he doesn’t have to see his father being arrested) in spite of the racial tension between the LAPD and working class people of color, but her devotion to him as a result of a single (admittedly important) act of kindness despite a years-long friendship characterized by his selfishness makes her seem, in some ways, no better than Nero in his continued allegiance to Faith. In a movie that is otherwise ahead of its time with regards to social commentary and exhilarating visuals, their final kiss feels like a concession to the discourse of the time (I felt much the same way in the film’s final minutes, which move from an “all cops in this system are corrupt” to showing that the middle-aged white commissioner is actually sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden). What do you think, Brandon? Is this a concession for a mainstream audience, or am I being too hard on a movie that I genuinely loved and enjoyed?

Brandon: That kiss played as more bittersweet than crowd-pleasing to me, but mostly because I never saw their relationship as platonic to begin with. The parallel between Nero’s unrequited obsession with his ex and Mace’s unrequited obsession with Nero is a tragic presence throughout the film, one that mirrors the SQUID technology’s commodification of dwelling on past & memories. Nero and Mace are both emotionally stuck in place in a way that makes them ineffective human beings, not to mention ineffective heroes. The difference between them is that Nero knows exactly how much heartache that unrequited desire causes, but still uses it to his own petty advantage. He knows from his own experience that Mace’s love for him means she would do anything for him, and nearly every exchange they share in the movie involves him exploiting that devotion to accomplish his own small-minded goals. It’s up to Mace to hold him accountable to be a hero in the one instance where he can make a positive effect on the world, since his natural impulse is to use the Jeriko One tape to yet again shoehorn his greasy self back into his ex’s life, unwelcome and uninvited. He’s the ultimate toxic dirtbag crush in that way, so when Mace kisses him at the end it feels like she’s only sinking deeper into a romantic pattern everyone else knows is bad for her – despite the swelling triumph of the moment.

For me, the crowd-pleasing Hollywood Ending element at play is the police commissioner’s last-minute turnaround, which has already been referenced briefly a couple times above. It does seem odd that a film so allegorically tethered to the systemic racism of the Rodney King-era LAPD in particular would backpedal in its final moments to downplay the problem as a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. Hanna, you mentioned that the appalled police commissioner saving the day seemed to good to be true for you as well. How much do you think that Hollywood Ending undercuts the film’s commentary on the racism & brutality of the LAPD? Does it ultimately feel soft on cops as a societal menace or is the criticism of police as an institution earlier in the film strong enough to survive the “happy” ending?

Hanna: I absolutely think it was too soft on cops; it definitely felt like a “bad apples” ending when I was hoping for a “bad apple tree” ending. One of key elements of horror in race-based police brutality– before, during, and after the Rodney King riots – is that there is little to no possibility of justice for victims, family, or community members; the system works to protect itself above all else, resulting in acquittals or minimal sentencing for acts of outrageous violence performed by police officers. The institutional preservation of racist cops has been so critical to the existence of our law enforcement system that it seems kind of ridiculous for a film documenting the depravity and moral perils of Y2K urban life to leave it out. Sure, it would have been heartbreaking for the commissioner to double down on the scumminess of law enforcement by ordering Mace’s arrest or refusing to arrest his own officers, but it would have felt more true to life and to the nihilistic Strange Days universe. Maybe Bigelow wanted the ending to reflect the type of justice that the United States should work towards in the next millennium (in which case I would have at least appreciated a nod to institutional rot in the higher ranks); maybe she wanted to shoehorn a shred of optimism into Strange Days. I also imagine that a corrupt commissioner taking down the only ray of light in this movie might not test well with audiences.

One thing that really stood out to me about Strange Days, and crystallized its pre-Y2K identity, is the aura of derision surrounding the SQUIDs. In Strange Days the SQUID tech seems to be purely black-market outside of the police force, and SQUID addicts (called “wireheads) are publicly scorned. In 2019, documenting and sharing every aspect of life for the sake of others in multiple modes of media has become ubiquitous, as has living vicariously through the videos and posts of people living glamorous, exhilarating lives. The only missing component is the simultaneous sensory experience, which honestly doesn’t seem too far off. Britnee, what did you think of the SQUID and pre-Y2K tech anxiety in Strange Days?

Britnee: When reminded that this film did come out in 1995, the SQUID technology in Strange Days does have a speculative sci-fi vibe. It just seems like the ridiculous type of futuristic tech that could only be made up in movies. Yet, it turns out that it’s not too far out there when considering the direction our modern world is going with tech. As Hannah mentioned, there’s a widespread obsession with having every waking moment of life recorded, and it’s becoming deadly. Take, for instance, Facebook Live. At first, it seemed like the only people using the platform were old high school classmates selling crap from pyramid schemes during Facebook Live “parties,” and all of a sudden, this technology was being used to live-stream shootings from the POV of actual killers. Even those obnoxious gender reveal videos are becoming deadly. Recently, a plane crashed while dumping a punch of pink water over a gender reveal party and a grandmother died during a gender reveal explosion. The age-old “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude is being amplified by modern tech, and everyone wants to do something wilder than the next person to get viral video fame. I swear, one day some idiot is going to make a gender reveal weapon of mass destruction and nuke us all. That’s exactly how the world is going to end. The trajectory of livestreaming and everyday video documenting does remind me of the SQUID. It started out as innocent fun and blew up into something totally dangerous.

The look of the SQUID and its mechanics honestly freaked me out so much. The idea of giving up control of my body and feelings to experience someone else’s is very unsettling. And the risk of being lost in a permanent brain fry like the black market dealer Tick (aka Sonny Bono’s long lost brother) really does a number on my blood pressure. When sensory SQUID-like tech starts to hit the market, I am going to stay so far away from that shit. Memories and feelings are private, and the idea of sharing them, much less having someone experience them without consent, is, for lack of better term, icky. Boomer, if Bigelow were to create Strange Days in 2019, what would the SQUID look like? How would it be used/distributed?

Boomer: The SQUID is ridiculous looking, but at least it doesn’t have the nauseating aspects of the things from Existenz, so that’s something, at least. We’ve already seen some level of VR in our world with the rise of the PS4 VR system and the Oculus Rift, but for something that is as fully immersive as the SQUID appears to be, it is definitely going to be something that requires access to more than just the eyes and ears, and it won’t be as interactive as the programs designed for those systems. It’s not like anyone playing back the Jeriko One cartridge or the opening robbery footage would be able to alter the outcome, so it’s not really a “game,” it’s more of a movie that you experience (despite Nero’s admonition that it’s “not ‘like TV, only better;'” it kind of has to be). Although you can gather all the information that you would need to create a purely audio/visual experience from external equipment that we have now (glasses with cameras, microphones), and those things could eventually be minimized even further (contact lenses that feed to a video, in-ear aids that could actually record what one is hearing), neural access would still require something that’s not too dissimilar from what we see on-screen, although the transmission of it would probably include the internet and not mini-discs. And, hopefully, one would be able to wear one without a horrible wig that screams “villain” from the first moment one appears on-screen (ahem). The real question is how Nero is able to sell the experience of being a woman taking a shower. No way is the SQUID water safe.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I love that the SQUID technology is so new & low-tech that the black-market equipment is still prohibitively bulky. In order to “secretly” record someone with the device you have to accessorize your outfit with a fanny pack & an obnoxious wig to conceal the device, so the price of violating other people’s privacy it is that you look like an absolute jackass. Considering how the disastrous PR for Google Glass played out just a few years ago, that ended up being yet another prescient detail from this eerily accurate premonition of the shithole future we’re currently living in.

Hanna: I think it’s a little ironic that Strange Days was able to perfectly predict a cellphone-equivalent tool for citizens to use against institutional abuses (including police brutality), but was unable to predict the continued apathy of police commissioners in the face of damning video evidence.

Boomer: While checking to see if there was anything else that might have sparked my lifelong Angela Bassett fascination, I learned that she played Betty Shabazz in two separate, unrelated films (notably in Malcolm X, but also in Mario van Peebles’s Panther). Let’s also all take a moment to note how deeply fucked up it is that the main IMDb image for Brigitte Bako, the actress playing Iris, is taken from this film and is in fact the shot directly after her killer opens her eyelids?

Britnee: The few moments that we get of Tick’s pet lizard are some of my favorite parts of Strange Days. I wish the little guy would have had more screen time. Apparently, I’m not the only person that recognized his prominent role in the film as I found a fantastic little webpage for this Eastern Collared Lizard.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2019
February: The Top Films of the 2010s

-The Swampflix Crew

New Orleans Uncensored (1955)

The Prytania has been running an unofficial William Castle retrospective over the past few months as part of their ongoing Classic Movies series. That programming choice made a lot of sense around October, when Castle’s iconically kitschy team-ups with Vincent Price – The Tingler, The House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, etc. – where a perfect celebratory lead-up to Halloween. One Castle title just before that run stood out like a sore thumb, though, as it predated his infamous theatrical horror gimmicks and instead fell into a genre Castle isn’t often associated with. New Orleans Uncensored is a cheap-o, locally shot noir about corrupt shipping dock workers, much more in tune with films like Panic in the Streets than anything resembling the Percepto! or Emergo! horror gimmickry that later made Castle a legend. The director does find stray chances to exhibit his eye for striking, attention-grabbing imagery throughout the film, but for the most part his presence is overpowered by New Orleans itself, making the film more of a worthwhile curio for locals than it is for Castle fanatics.

Originally titled Riot on Pier 6, this film mostly concerns the organized crime rackets that had quietly, gradually overtaken hold of the second largest port in the U.S. Amazingly, it frames the suggestion that New Orleans government & business might be susceptible to corruption as a total shock; sixty years later it’s as obvious of a fact as the sky being blue. The docks themselves are portrayed as gruff working-class playpens where fistfights often break out en mass to the point where workers are recruited for professional boxing careers and assigned nicknames like “Scrappy.” This wild, bully-overrun schoolyard is controlled from behind the scenes by a few Dick Tracy-level mobster archetypes who tend to fire bullets instead of throwing punches, the cowards. We watch a naïve outsider who hopes to start his own legit shipping business at the docks get seduced by the power & convenience the existing mafia structure offers him instead; he then eventually helps the fine folks at the NOPD take those criminals down once he realizes the full scope of their corruption & violence. It’s all very surface-level, familiar noir territory.

The one distinguishing element of New Orleans Uncensored is the visual spectacle of its locale – a 1950s New Orleans backdrop that looks almost exactly the same half a century later. Whereas Panic in the Streets was a document of local faces & personalities, Castle’s film is actively interested in documenting the physical locations of the city like an excited sight-seeing tourist. Panic in the Streets was mostly contained at the shipping docks and backrooms that concerned its plot, while New Orleans Uncensored goes out of its way to capture as many of the city’s cultural hotspots as possible: Pontchartain Beach, The Court of Two Sisters, Jackson Square, French Quarter nightclubs, Canal Street float parades, etc. In one particularly egregious indulgence in sight-seeing, a couple shares a nightcap beignet at Café du Monde, claiming the ritual is “a traditional New Orleans way of saying goodnight.” It’s practically a tourism board television ad. Of course, as the title suggest, the appeal of this local sightseeing to outsiders is the city’s national reputation for sin & debauchery. The film’s plot about corrupt shipping dock companies getting their due punishment for their transgressions against social order is mostly an excuse for displaying as much sex, drunkenness, and Cajun-flavored merriment as the Hays Code would allow. That becomes a major problem in the snooze of third act when the tourism is sidelined to resolve the much less engaging mafia plot, but it’s fun while the good times last.

There isn’t much room for William Castle to show off this unique touch for attention-grabbing gimmickry & cheap-o surrealism while ogling “The Mistress of The Mississippi.” Outside an opening credits graphic where a disembodied hand stamps the word “UNCENSORED” on a map of the city and a drunken montage depicting an all-nighter of a couple partying until dawn in French Quarter nightclubs, Castle is fairly well behaved in his visual stylings. The closest the film comes to touching on his iconic gimmickry is the way the movie is presented as if it were a documentary instead of a fictional drama – bolstered by stock footage & news reel voiceover. However, that choice often reads as an Ed Woodian means of cutting financial corners more than some deliberate artistic vision. If anything, the movie does function as a genuine documentary, as its sightseeing record of a 1950s New Orleans is far more valuable & purposeful than its criminal conspiracy drama or its William Castle visual play. The history & personality of the city is far more pronounced than Castle’s here, and if the movie maintains any value as a cinematic artifact it’s in that local tourism.

-Brandon Ledet

Corrupt Lieutenant (1984)

I have a bad habit of occasionally purchasing second-hand DVDs solely for their shoddy cover art. I don’t think I’ve ever topped myself in this trivial pursuit since the day I purchased a bootleg copy of some forgotten cop thriller titled Corrupt Lieutenant. The cover for my obviously unofficial copy of Corrupt Lieutenant is a master work of outsider art & visual anti-comedy. Falling somewhere between rudimentary Photoshop collage & a nightmare swirl of stock photography, it’s the exact kind of utter garbage my terrible raccoon brain can’t help but hoard away at home instead of just letting it rot at Goodwill. Unfortunately, that means these movies sometimes collect dust, unwatched for years until I force myself to follow through on actually giving them a chance. As it turns out, Corrupt Lieutenant not only has some of the best-worst artwork I’ve ever found on one of these ill-advised excursions to the thrift store; it also stands as one of the few select examples I can think of where it turns out the movie itself was actually worth the gamble. As far as cop thrillers go, it’s not exactly mind-blowing, but considering the state of its cover art it’s a miraculously competent picture.

It’s worth noting upfront that my unsanctioned copy of Corrupt Lieutenant isn’t even titled correctly. Although it’s been released under the alternate titles The Order of Death, Corrupt, and Bad Cop Chronicles #2: Corrupt, this Italian crime thriller was originally distributed under the name Copkiller, which is by far its most apt moniker. Since the distributors of the film allowed its copyright designation to slip into public domain status, however, it’s been repackaged several times over in disparate stabs by a wide range of enterprising folks trying to make a buck. This is how Copkiller was retitled Corrupt Lieutenant in the early 90s after its star antihero, Harvey Keitel, was featured in the infamous Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant. The two films don’t really have all that much to do with each other outside of Keitel’s starring role in both. The Ferrara picture plays like an especially deranged version of a Scorsese crisis of faith exploration, while its Italian predecessor is more of a sleazy, giallo-esque knockoff of the crooked cop genre Friedkin ignited with The French Connection. Performances from Harvey Keitel and a typically acting-shy Johnny Rotten combine with a score from omnipresent Italian composer Ennio Morricone to afford the film an air of legitimacy, but its shitty public domain transfers, off-kilter Italian dubbing, and sleaze > substance ethos are all constant reminders of its true place in the world as a forgotten work of mediocre genius.

A killer dressed in a police uniform and ski mask is terrorizing the cops of New York City by murdering them one by one, seemingly at random. A young John Lydon plays a spoiled brat punk who confesses to these crimes to Harvey Keitel’s grizzled lieutenant. Keitel’s either believes the confession or is angered enough by its flippancy to falsely imprison Lydon in his own apartment, since the rest of the force is treating him like a liar and a prankster. After a period of keeping the smirking punk tied up & torturing him for a more detailed confession (he feeds him out of a dog food bowl, shoves his head in an oven & cranks the gas, etc.), Keitel’s forces his prisoner at gunpoint to actually slit a cop’s throat, an ill-considered plan that backfires in a wide variety of ways. While figuring out what to do about that cop’s death, Keitel’s finds himself seducing the widow of the man they killed and Lydon moves into his former captor & newfound accomplice’s apartment on his own free will, nagging him as a kind of spiritually corrupt conscience. The film takes on a tense, slowly ratcheted form of psychological torment from there as the weight of the crime the two committed together and the true identity of the (would-be titular) cop killer eventually driving the whole thing home for an inevitably tragic conclusion.

Corrupt Lieutenant is most notable for the authenticity of its violence & grime. Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten, is reported to have provided his own wardrobe for the picture, which shows in his convincingly ratty, 80s punk appearance. When Keitel’s corrupt lieutenant goes on a bender and starts bonding with the gross little bugger in the most unlikely of unions, the grotesqueness of their collective downfall looks & feels legitimate, an effect that’s only amplified by the VHS-quality imagery of a shitty bootleg DVD transfer. Similarly, Keitel’s physical violence laid upon Rotten’s scrawny shoulders is a convincing kind of rough-housing and it’s occasionally tempting to worry about the little shit’s physical wellbeing. Instead of reading the punk’s rights, Keitel’s more prone to shout, “Shut the fuck up!” and thrash him around the interrogation room. I’m not convinced the film has anything more to say beyond a Cops Can Be Violent Criminals Too cliché, but the way Rotten worms that idea into Keitel’s head in the back half and the way Beetlejuice/Mars Attack actress Silvia Sidney posits that, “The police create disorder, not order. They inspire us to commit crimes so that we can be punished for them,” makes the idea interesting and more than a little bit slimy. There’s even a hint that Rotten’s confessed cop killer gets a sexual satisfaction out of having Keitel’s slap him around, which is then backed up by the S&M collages plastered on his bedroom walls.

I’m not exactly sure what I expected out of Corrupt Lieutenant/Copkiller/The Order of Death/Corrupt when I popped it in the DVD player, but the sleazy Italian cop thriller I got was a surprisingly entertaining watch. That could maybe be chalked up to the low expectations set by its laughably bad cover art, but I think anyone with a little appreciation for giallo or the post-Friedkin crooked cop thrillers of the 70s & 80s would be able to get on board with it as a minor entertainment. Funnily enough, just about the only scenario in which I wouldn’t recommend the film is if someone were specifically looking for a work similar to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Corrupt Lieutenant has even less to do with that work than Herzog’s “spiritual sequel,” which was mostly about, I don’t know, iguanas & Nic Cage freakouts. Much like the cover art for my DVD copy of the film, that little bit of revisionist rebranding was amusingly brash & ill-considered.

-Brandon Ledet

Cold Steel (1987)

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three star

It’s tempting to think of 1995’s Jade as the bargain bin version of William Friedkin’s masterfully sleazy 80s cop thriller To Live and Die in L.A., but maybe the director wasn’t at all imitating past success with that admittedly dire misfire. By the time Friedkin made Jade, the 80s sleaze market he helped shape with his Wang Chung-scored cop thriller masterpiece had formed into its own solid genre, ranging wildly in both content & quality. The Sharon Stone/Adam Ant cop thriller Cold Steel, delivered by the one-time director Dorothy Ann Puzo, is just as sleazy & cheaply made as Jade and could easily be accused of the same claims of To Live and Die in L.A. counterfeiting (heh, heh), but because it doesn’t feature a filmmaker retreading old ground it gets by as a straightforward genre entry. Cold Steel is undeniably of its time in every possibly way. Its clash of 80s pop ballad cheese with extreme stomach-churning violence is only unremarkable because there was so much other tacky, tonally incongruous violence being produced at the time of its release. Considered in isolation and divorced from its peers & influences, Cold Steel is a fairly entertaining picture (which is more than can be said in Jade’s defense, unfortunately).

Released the same year as Lethal Weapon, Cold Steel attempts to navigate the same balance of light humor and intense violence as that much more enduring work, but can’t manage to match the intelligence of Shane Black’s game-changing screenplay. In this scenario, our down on his luck, perpetually drunk cop mixes pills & booze to show his gritty side, but bangs an automated coffee machine with commands like, “C’mon! Squirt!” only to receive a coffee facial to show that he’s also, in effect, a lighthearted clown. This sloppy cut-up finds himself entangled in a never-ending loop of revenge when a vicious gang (including Adam Ant as a smooth-talking goon) murders his father on Christmas Day for a perceived past wrong. The leader of the gang responsible, known only as the Iceman, is a hard drug-shooting creep with a mechanical voice box that allows him to speak through the wound in his throat. It’s at first unclear if this thieving, murderous crew has any clear motive in their violent robberies or if they’re just generic gangster baddies, but as our boozed-out hero chases them down through a series of explosion-heavy car chases, industrial setting confrontations, and heartless double crossings, a much clearer picture starts to unfold. Somewhere in all this chaos he finds the time to woo a young Sharon Stone through the erotic exoticism of eating sushi and that’s how sleazy 80s cop movies are made.

Cold Steel and Jade are both derivative and narratively unambitious in their post-To Live and Die in L.A. genre sleaze, but Cold Steel is entertaining enough to prove that wasn’t Jade’s only problem. Some of its entertainment is pure novelty, especially in its casting of Adam Ant, Sharon Stone, and (in a brief scene) minor scream queen Heidi Kozak. What really struck me, though, was how shocking the film’s violence felt despite the familiarity of its generic narrative. Stuntmen on fire, vicious stabs to the neck, grotesquely detailed drug abuse (another nod to Friedkin?), and overeager sexual leering all give the film a slimy sheen of 80s sleaze that never quite reach the heights of films like To Live and Die in L.A. or Cruising, but are still affecting in their own right. I’ll even admit that a few of Cold Steel’s stray stabs at humor got a laugh out of me. I guffawed especially hard when the hero cop responds to the warning, “He’ll kill you both!” with a casual, “Yeah, I’m planning on not letting that happen.” Movies like Jade prove that following genre convention and searching for easy thrills doesn’t automatically equal entertainment value success, but Cold Steel somehow survives by playing by the rules and getting dirty in the details. It won’t blow your mind, but you could do much worse if this is the type of action picture you’re looking for and you’ve already seen To Live and Die in L.A. one too many times.

-Brandon Ledet

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

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fivestar

A body of a rich man is found on the main street of a small Mississippi town.  Bumbling local authorities luckily mistake Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) — a quick witted, sharp-dressed homicide detective from Philadelphia — for a suspect. After being taken in, he is dragged into the investigation and small town politics, butting heads with the police chief, minor rednecks, and rich good ole boys. Virgil makes his way surrounded at all times by potentially violent white supremacists, who resent him for not only being black but also for being successful, with only facts and quick reflexes as he plunges headfirst into town drama.

The setting of the South itself is as much a character as Virgil. The hot weather permeates every scene of In the Heat of the Night with its humidity. There’s squeaking air conditioners and sweat rolling off of everyone. Every backroad is dusty and treacherous. There’s fields of cotton with hunched over weather beaten pickers right before a scenic driveway to a plantation. The broken down desperation is constant. In the Heat of the Night could have simply been a crime movie (at some point I thought to myself that this movie vaguely has the same feel as a really good Columbo episode) but the setting is everything. Virgil is a successful black man in a town run by poor, angry white men. The heat is as oppressive as the prejudice and bigotry.

The setting is hostile. The people are racist. But it’s pretty satisfying to watch Sidney Poitier play a no nonsense successful detective constantly proving everyone wrong and blatantly disobeying people who order him around like a dog, calling him “boy.” One of the best moments of the movie is when a rich racist man slaps him and without hesitation he slaps back. Being from 1967, this feels like such a rallying point: that finally on film a black man can slap back.

During the opening credits, one thing I found kind of surprising is that Hal Ashby edited this film. I wasn’t aware of his editing work, so I was kind of eager to find out what the guy who directed Harold and Maude and Being There could bring to the editing table. It turns out a lot. His quick cuts and the cinematography of Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) result in a movie that’s just as moving technically as it is acting and story-wise.

In the Heat of the Night is a well paced, beautifully shot thriller. Just watching it, you can feel the humid Southern air. Poitier playing a stubborn and heroic bigotry-defying Tibbs is definitely iconic. And even if it weren’t for all of that, it would still be a good crime movie.

-Alli Hobbs

Brannigan (1975)

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fourstar

When you bring up John Wayne, it’s inevitable that his name will conjure images of old-fashioned Westerns. He’s synonymous with the genre, an in-the-flesh embodiment of cowboy cinema. That’s why I was surprised when I sat down at a Christmas party with my grandfather to watch one of his favorite John Wayne pictures to find that it wasn’t a Western at all. It’s not even set in America, let alone the Old West. Brannigan is a fish-out-of-water action comedy about a hard-boiled Chicago detective brandishing pistols in a stuffy, crime-ridden 1970s London. Of course, John Wayne plays the titular police detective with the same worlds-away-from-Chicago cowboy swagger he’s most closely associated with, but the setting is still jarring. In some ways, though, it makes you appreciate Wayne’s screen presence even  more to watching him operate outside of his element.

Besides casting a Western cinema legend in a non-Western role, Brannigan hosts several other glaring self-contradictions. Tonally, its mix of severed-finger, bullethole-ridden, sexual assault-threatening violence pairs ridiculously with its sarcastic, seen-it-all-before humor. This contrast can be best observed in an over-the-top pub brawl when Brannigan punches a goon so hard that he slides across the entire length of a bartop in a surprise tangent into Looney Tunes physics. Genre-wise, the film can’t decide if it wants to be a suspenseful heist film or an outright comedy. It can’t even decide which storyline is its main concern: the plot that has Brannigan chasing after a notorious crime boss being held for ransom or the plot that has Brannigan being chased himself by an assassin prone to using bomb & shotgun booby traps like an especially vicious Kevin McCallister. Or are both of these stories merely a backdrop for a blood-soaked comedy about Old World stuffiness vs. New World cavalier?

My favorite aspect of Brannigan‘s self-contradicting nature is where it sits on exploitation cinema’s temporal landscape. Although it’s a major studio film, it feels like it’s caught somewhere between the welcome-to-the-real-world harshness of New Hollywood, the righteously funky world of blaxploitaion (except with a white man as the lead, of course), and the as-yet-created humorously violent world of 80s action cinema. John Wayne establishes himself here as an early action star. His super-sarcastic, know-it-all one-liners play like a precursor to characters that would later be played by folks like Arnold Schwarzenegger & Sly Stallone. Brannigan doesn’t just burst into a room; he bursts into a room & dryly intones “Knock, knock” while brandishing a pistol. Then there’s the fact that every criminal in the world apparently knows legendary supercop Jim Brannigan by name, even though he works for Chicago’s municipal police department. That detail would be later repeated in every Commando, Cobra, and Hard to Kill to follow. He’s even provided a cute, tiny, foreign sidekick, another staple of the 80s action genre, although this time she’s never threatened to become a love interest despite all of Brannigan’s incessant leering. She does, however, spontaneously reward him with a kiss on the cheek over a dinner for two. Why? She explains, “You’re just so damn solid.” Indeed.

John Wayne badassery aside, Brannigan is a well put together action flick. Its lush shots of drive-bys, gun holsters, and sexy workers showing leg – all the leg – are all surprisingly intricate enough for a film that didn’t have to try too hard to succeed. John Wayne is entertaining enough on his own to carry the film, but a lot of effort still goes into detailing the organized crime end of London’s underbelly. Pubs, saunas, brothels, and late night stakeouts provide a nicely detailed background for Wayne to perform against and the car chases & counterfeit money production play like a precursor to Friedkin’s masterful To Live & Die in L.A.. Even without Wayne, Brannigan would still be a decent, humorous action flick with a great villain & hero, and a satisfying (albeit slow-moving) plot. Wayne’s hard-drinking, gun-toting supercop who calls everyone within earshot “Partner” is 1000% more cowboy than he is Chicago detective, but his performance is still what makes the movie special instead of merely decent. I’m far from a Western fanatic, so this oddly humorous & wildly violent action pic ended up being my favorite performance I’ve ever seen from Wayne. It’s easy to see why my grandfather holds it in such high regard despite it being far outside headlining star’s wheelhouse & being generally regarded as trash.

-Brandon Ledet

Cop Car (2015)

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fourhalfstar

Cop Car is the second feature helmed by 34-year-old director Jon Watts, and it is hands down one of the best new thrillers that I have seen in quite some time. Somehow, it’s a Coen Brothers crime thriller that features no involvement from either Joel or Ethan, an unblinking gaze into Everytown, America, full of heartless thugs and killer cops, long empty highways, oppressive silence, and inevitable death. There are only five characters of significance, all but one in search of an exit, and the sweet, sweet voice of Kyra Sedgwick as the unseen dispatcher. It’s moody, cinematic, and not to be missed.

Two elementary-age boys, Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford), have run away from home; after travelling what they guess must be fifty miles, they stumble across a cop car in a thicket. After a series of escalating dares, the two end up finding the keys to the car and taking it for a joyride, where they nearly run Bev (Camryn Manheim) off the road. Unbeknownst to them, the car belongs to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), who left the vehicle behind in order to drag a corpse to what I can only describe as his “murder hole,” a covered hole the size of an old well, where he drops the corpse and sprinkles it with quicklime. He returns to discover the car is gone, along with the other body (Shea Whigham) in the trunk.

I can’t really say more than that without giving away too much; I only recapped what could be gleaned from the trailer in the paragraph above, and even that feels like it verges on being too spoilery. The film’s appreciation for the seemingly endless vastness of rural living, the way it extends for as far as the eye can see while you’re standing in the middle of it, is captivating in its paradoxically warm yet clinical approach. There’s an inherent serenity to the calm and quiet of dry country, and the way that this peacefulness is disrupted and destroyed throughout the film is effective every time. The tension in the film begins almost immediately, and the way that it builds as the boys innocently and stupidly play with deadly police equipment (including a defibrillator which one child is preparing to shock himself with before he is distracted) plays out like a Fibonacci sequence of increasing anxiety as things get worse and worse, in the best possible way.

Bacon plays the sheriff’s spiraling mania and intermittent calm with perfection, and Whigham’s character is also delightfully terrifying. The film has a great deal of trust in its audience’s intelligence, which is a rarity in contemporary film, and the movie refuses to spell anything out for you or hold your hand through the narrative. The most Coen-y thing about it, however, is the way that you, as a member of the audience, are expected to fill in the blanks and the backstory. We never are told for certain who Whigham’s character is (he’s never even named), why exactly the Sheriff had him in the truck, or who the other person was, although it can be assumed that it has something to do with drugs. Why are these boys running away from home in the first place? That’s for you to decide, making the film more immersive than it would be if we knew more about the characters’ home lives than the tidbits we get. If you actually want to be on the edge of your seat this year, check out Cop Car.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Driving While Black (2015)

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fourstar

“As a black man, I have to deal with an extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life.”

The same year the aggressively crass (and surprisingly touching) Tangerine took America on a whirlwind tour through the seedy side of Los Angeles populated by trans sex workers & drug-addled pimps, Driving While Black offers a different perspective of the city rarely seen in cinema: that of the young, black stoner. With its tape warp hiphop/Stones Throw Records-leaning soundtrack (complete with a Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf ringtone) & graffiti-flavor title cards, Driving While Black poses itself on the surface as a laid-back stoner comedy, but packs a much heftier political punch than what you’d typically expect from that genre. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny. Unlike the way Dear White People softens its political provocation by focusing on the emotional stress of its college student protagonists, Driving While Black never strays from its musings about police brutality & abuse of power, but still somehow mixes that message with goofball gags like the image of its protagonist getting so high that he glides down the street like Dracula. It’s an impressive & often powerful balance in comedic tone.

Here’s the plot of Driving While Black in an over-simplified nutshell: Dimitri, an aspiring artist/overgrown pizza deliver boy, is trying to make it to a job interview at the behest of his girlfriend & mother to better himself, but on his way he is constantly derailed by a historically race-obsessed police force, the LAPD. There’s a depressing sense of routine & ritual in his run-ins with the law, which prompts him to mutter things like “Here we go again with the bullshit” whenever he’s pulled over. With direct references to milestones like the Rodney King riots & our current era of online activism in reaction to police murders of unarmed black youth, the film has a keen sense of history & knowing, hands-on experience with police abuse of power in L.A.’s black community. Establishing that it’s a cradle-to-grave problem, cops are even shown harassing children, calling them “little assholes” & “cum socks” (and then humorously over-explaining the meaning of that latter insult), and accusing them of crimes they obviously didn’t commit. In some encounters, cops lecture the protagonist on how to not look suspicious (because dressing or acting a certain way is likely to get you pulled over). In others, they overstep their authority with statements like “You’re not under arrest, but I am going to handcuff you for your safety and for mine”. There are some surreal scenes, like depictions of Ku Klux Kops (who wear a sort of police uniform, hooded robe hybrid) with glowing eyes & demonic voices, as well as just-as-surreal encounters where cops are surprisingly helpful. There are also some more believable moments where they’re portrayed as real people, however nerdy or unnecessarily aggressive. What really stands out, though, is the fact that Dimitri has to deal with police on (at least) a daily basis, completely against his will, a point hammered home by the fact that the LAPD uses his pizza place as a social meeting ground.

Speaking of Dimitri, actor Dominique Purdy should be given a lot of credit for making sure that the movie never tips too far into a didactic, political downer. He’s just a generally affable, funny guy, something that the movie is smart to exploit. Watching him go about his day, interacting with L.A. weirdos, drug dealers, street performers, and Homes to the Stars tour groups, are some of the film’s most enjoyable moments, which invites the audience to share in his frustration when his day is sidelined by police-related complications. The film is also smart to directly reference Dave Chappelle multiple times, as the comparison to his likeness & stoner-minded sense of political humor is likely to come up time & time again anyway. Since Purdy collaborated with director Paul Sapiano as a writing partner on the film’s script, he has a personal connection with the material that more or less allows him to be his effortlessly funny/charming self. It’s tempting to infer that Driving While Black is a glimpse of his Purdy’s personal Los Angeles, an affable stoner’s guide through the relentless annoyance & potential danger of a racist institution that complicates & threatens his otherwise pleasant, laid-back lifestyle. And because it’s a problem with no clear answer, the film ends that tour on a chillingly ambiguous note, a brave choice in conclusion for a screwball stoner comedy, however political. It’s a rare treat that a movie can be this consistently funny & still leave you with such a provocative feeling once the credits roll. I’m excited to see the rest of the world’s reaction as Driving While Black‘s distribution starts to gain traction. There’s surely to be a good bit of great post-screening lobby talk in the coming year as more people get to experience this gem.

-Brandon Ledet