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Posts Tagged ‘Kathryn Bigelow’

Were you aware they’d done a remake of Point Break? I’m guessing it’s really not a very good movie, seeing as it’s so obscure. When I first became aware of it the other day, my immediate thought was ‘that’s a pretty new movie to be getting a remake’ – but then, of course, I thought about it and realised that Point Break – the Kathryn Bigelow version, that is – is thirty years old this year. Thirty! I can scarcely believe it.

On the other hand, while all great movies have a timeless quality, that doesn’t preclude them from also being essentially of the time they were made, either, and there is something quintessentially early-90s about Point Break: it’s not brash and excessive like an 80s movie, but neither does it have that slightly chilly slickness you get in a lot of films from the following decade. The sense of a changing of the guard is only emphasised by the presence of iconic 80s heart-throb Patrick Swayze (in a very questionable but also authentic hair-style) and also Keanu Reeves, a man for whom the 90s were a defining decade.

The film opens with scenes of Swayze hanging ten and catching waves (etc), and looking majestic doing so, while Reeves struts his stuff on the FBI academy firing range. Keanu is playing football-star-turned-rookie-FBI-agent Johnny (made-up name) Utah, whose first assignment sees him join the bank robbery section in Los Angeles. Utah is a bit buttoned-down, but not yet a fully-fledged pen-pusher like his boss. He is partnered with a world-weary veteran named Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) who has become a laughing-stock around the office: charged with catching an elite gang of robbers nicknamed the Dead Presidents, Pappas has become convinced that they are surfers, based on their schedule (they’re only active in summer, California’s surf season) and a few shreds of forensic evidence. Someone needs to go undercover on the beach and see what’s going down…

Well, it’s obviously not going to be Busey, so Keanu buys a board and is soon getting surfing lessons from a nice young woman named Tyler (Lori Petty). Through her he has his doors of perception well and truly opened up when he meets top surfer, free spirit, and near-as-dammit spiritual guru Bodhi (Swayze) and his gang of followers. Not only that, his buttons are loosened, his screws are undone and he takes to wandering about inside the FBI building carrying his board. He even turns up late for a raid after some night-surfing (and a spot of the old whoa-ho with Petty) takes the place of the recommended early night. But could Bodhi and his pals be getting up to more than some extreme sports?

It sounds rather generic when you write it down that way, and indeed one of the things that makes Point Break such an intriguing movie is the fact that it has almost exactly the same basic plot trajectory as the original The Fast and the Furious film while still feeling like a stylish and classy film for grown-ups, right down to the central character dynamic. One plot summary I’ve seen of this movie suggests that Keanu finds his mission complicated when he falls in love with Swayze’s ex-girlfriend. The film itself is rather more ambiguous on whom the exact object of Keanu’s affection is, something which Hot Fuzz recognised with typically forensic accuracy when one character summarised a key sequence: ‘Patrick Swayze has just robbed this bank, and Keanu Reeves is chasin’ him through peoples’ gardens, and then he goes to shoot Swayze but he can’t because he loves him so much and he’s firin’ his gun up in the air and he’s like ‘ahhh!” It’s all very subtextual, naturally, but Swayze is very sinewy and macho and Keanu is still at that point where he’s often sort of blankly bovine and – there’s not really another mot juste in this case – pretty.

Nevertheless, Keanu is showing signs of improvement, and this is surely the first film to establish his potential as a genuine action movie star: he runs and fights and chucks himself about with great aplomb. And he always has that same Reevesian charisma – he is a still point of total calm on the screen, which you somehow cannot help but fill with your affection for the lad. At one point in Point Break, the film (which has hitherto been relatively restrained and naturalistic) requires Keanu to hurl himself out of a plane in flight, without a parachute, and apprehend his quarry in free-fall. Even at the height of Bondian absurdity, Roger Moore was excused this sort of thing, but Keanu – well, he doesn’t exactly sell the bit outright, but he makes you indulge the film in it.

Of course, if we’re talking about pretty – and yes, this is a fairly shallow and spurious bit of linking – then we should also mention that Lori Petty is in this movie too. She always struck me as someone extremely smart and watchable, but – on the face of things, at least – the failure of Tank Girl dealt her career as someone who could lead a movie a mortal blow. Here, you just wish she was given a bit more to do than be a plot device: as noted, the central relationship in the movie is between Reeves and Swayze, so she ends up sidelined and barely appears in the third act of the movie.

Most of this is chasing and shooting, which Bigelow handles with her characteristic muscular efficiency: she’s had a distinguished career, but one where good films just haven’t had the success which they deserved, with some quite substantial gaps in her filmography as a result. On one level Point Break feels like it occupies some peculiar narrative space between The Lost Boys and The Fast and the Furious – Patrick Swayze (who surely gives the best performance of his career here) as the somewhat unlikely missing link between Kiefer Sutherland and Vin Diesel – but at the same time the film has a class and a quality which elevates it above the level of simply being a popcorn genre movie. I’m not sure it has any genuine depth to it, but it certainly gives that impression. A great thriller, deserving of its cult status.

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I don’t think there are any directors whose work I will avoid on principle (though these days Quentin Tarantino comes close – ironic, given he was just about the first director I really became aware of as a personality), but there are a few whose films I will go to see just on the strength of their name. These days I find Kathryn Bigelow to be one of them, which is why I trundled along to see Zero Dark Thirty.

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I must confess that my liking for Bigelow stems mainly from the superior genre movies she was making in the 1980s and 90s – Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days, and so on. This century, however, Bigelow seems to have become a purveyor of serious dramas based on historical events – although the events in question seem to be becoming increasingly contemporary: following 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker, set in the 1950s, we had 2009’s The Hurt Locker, set in 2003, and now Zero Dark Thirty, filmed within a year of the events depicted in its climax. At this rate Bigelow’s next film will be a rugged prediction of the near future, which should be interesting.

Anyway: Zero Dark Thirty, which is apparently armyspeak for half-past midnight. This is a somewhat fictionalised account of the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Central to the story is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent who has basically devoted her entire career to tracking down the al-Qaeda leadership. This involves much painstaking research, use of electronic and human intelligence, and a degree of persuading prisoners to tell her things against their will.

There’s no getting around the fact that this is a movie that depicts representatives of the US government torturing captives. Most of the first twenty minutes of the film are devoted to the routine interrogation of a prisoner by Maya’s colleague Dan (Jason Clarke), who their captive describes as ‘an animal’, possibly with some justification. However, to simply describe this as ‘the CIA torture movie’ is to be overly simplistic.

It’s just one element of a long and intimidatingly dense narrative, chopped up into a number of chapters, and set in several different countries. The studio are apparently marketing this as an action thriller but it contains few of the incidental moments of suspense and violence that you’d expect from that kind of film. Nor does it really have a familiar narrative structure for one to latch onto, which may be a case of a film staying close to the truth at the expense of its storytelling – there’s one brief sequence concerning a character played by Jennifer Ehle which does stay much closer to the standard playbook, and which for me had somewhat more suspense than the rest of it. On the other hand, the film commendably avoids a sensationalist approach and triumphalism.

Either way, it’s helped by Bigelow’s typically accomplished direction and a script which ensures you can always follow the melody of the story even when not all the lyrics are completely clear. And it’s filled with good performances, from Chastain, Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, and others. Better known names pop up as more senior establishment figures – hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong pops up as, basically, the CIA’s head of assassinations, while Stephen Dillane and James Gandolfini also appear. All well and good, but rather more unexpected and distracting is a brief cameo from John Barrowman as some sort of analyst. Couldn’t get a part in Les Mis, John?

Despite all this good stuff, I still found this quite a hard film to properly engage with, and this was largely due to the approach taken by the script. Zero Dark Thirty has drawn a lot of flak for endorsing torture as an intelligence-gathering technique, but to me it seemed that the film simply doesn’t take a position on this – it reports the CIA use of torture as a fact, nothing more. The US administration’s move away from the use of these kind of methods is reflected in the script, but again without any kind of moral judgement being made. And this is a theme which continues throughout the film, as it is framed in such a way as to avoid looking at the wider issues raised by the story. Did the CIA’s eventual killing of Bin Laden have any measurable effect on terrorist activity around the world? If not, what was the point of it? What, for that matter, was the justification for the shoot-to-kill protocol adopted by the members of the assault team?

To be fair, the film does imply that both Maya and the USA have, in their own ways, developed a fixation on Bin Laden verging on the obsessive. But this is the softest of grace notes in the overall film. As a historical document the film is interesting and involving, but it’s not necessarily a comfortable one or satisfying one. This is a big, important story, but most of the time the film refuses to engage with it on any level beyond that simply of the events unfolding. According to its own rules of engagement, Zero Dark Thirty is an impressive film – but those rules are much more limited than they surely needed to be.

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When a cluster of films with a similar theme all come out at the same time, is it always the best one that makes the most money? Is it the best one that’s best remembered? Here, I suppose, we’re into the problem of defining words like ‘cluster’ and ‘best’ and, perhaps, even ‘similar’. I thought that there were startling parallels between District 9 and Avatar, but no-one else seemed to pick up on them. In that case I would very definitely argue that the better film made less money and less of an impact. Earlier in his career, though, James Cameron was part of a wave of low-budget SF movies set in California with a vaguely punk-ish sensibility and a fascination with time travel, the end of the world, and automatic weaponry – and here surely the best film won on all counts, simply because you’re much more likely to have heard of The Terminator than Trancers, Cherry 2000 or Night of the Comet.

This is threatening to turn into Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but a few years after Terminator, Cameron’s one-time wife Kathryn Bigelow contributed to another notable wave of films – vampire horror movies, usually with teenaged or youthful protagonists. I’m not sure that The Hunger quite counts as kicking this off, but anyway: Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Vamp, and Once Bitten all came out in the space of couple of years. And so, in 1987, did Bigelow’s Near Dark. This is a film which hasn’t enjoyed quite the same profile as some of its peers, but it seems to me to have been much more influential.

Adrian Pasdar does a good job of channelling the spirit of a young Elvis as he plays Caleb, a young Oklahoman farm boy. Caleb is a typical, red-blooded guy and of an evening likes nothing better than to head into town in search of attractive feminine company. Unfortunately this very red-bloodedness draws the attention of Mae (Jenny Wright), who is… oh, well, there’s no point being coy about this: she’s a vampire. However, Caleb forms a connection with Mae that makes her reluctant to rip him open and guzzle his blood, and she leaves him with just a playful little bite on the throat. This is enough to leave Caleb with serious problems when it comes to walking home the following morning. Just prior to his actually bursting into flames, he is abducted by the rest of Mae’s ‘family’, who lack her wholesome good looks and sweet nature. Their initial reaction is to try to kill Caleb, until they realise he is one of them. At this point they are prepared to let him join the family – but in order to truly belong, he has to learn to kill…

There are various problems with the story of Near Dark: there are holes in the plot (does Mae not realise biting Caleb will turn him?), which is reliant on at least one massive coincidence, and various elements are simply unsatisfactory – the ‘cure’ for vampirism that’s concocted near the end is a bit mundane and unconvincing, while the fact that the female lead is responsible for numerous savage murders over a period of years (for which she never shows much remorse nor receives any kind of punishment) is never really addressed head-on. And this last does matter, because Near Dark is framed partly as a mythic clash of good and evil – or, perhaps, innocence and sin. On the other hand, it’s because the movie does this so well that one’s prepared to overlook the problems with the plot.

For a film which is famously a western-horror fusion, there’s a strangely fairytale-ish quality to a lot of Near Dark – the characters are archetypes, the settings classic. The film looks beautiful, thanks to Bigelow’s compositions and Adam Greenberg’s cinematography. I’m not sure whether the striking synth score by Tangerine Dream really suits the subject matter of the film, but it’s one of the most memorable elements. The film looks and sounds impressively distinctive – which is probably quite important, given that it is mainly about putting new interpretations on very well-known ideas and themes.

From the opening dustbowl scenes onwards, the film’s setting in a decaying south-western USA can’t help but recall The Grapes of Wrath, and it’s not that difficult to see the itinerant vampire family as the monstrous equivalent of the Joad family from that book – both are migrants, both bound together by powerful ties of blood and loyalty. Both are, to some extent, aliens in the modern world. But perhaps one shouldn’t go too far down this path, as while the Joads are painfully sympathetic creations, Near Dark‘s vampires are not. They are, in fact, properly scary like few other screen undead. Given Bigelow’s connections with James Cameron (who is in the movie), it’s not much of a surprise that several members of the Cameron Repertory Company turn up to play the monsters. Lance Henriksen plays the head of the family, Bill Paxton is his berserk rockabilly sidekick, and Jenette Goldstein is the closest thing the pack has to a maternal figure. All of them made an impression in Aliens as members of the marine platoon – but all of them are even more memorable here. (There’s a story that the three of them pitched Bigelow a prequel to this movie focussing on their characters – sadly, she passed.)

What lifts Near Dark above the level of films like Fright Night and The Lost Boys is the way in which it jettisons most of the chintzy trappings of older vampire stories in favour of its own, stripped-down mythology. There are no coffins, no crucifixes, no stakes or garlic – and indeed the word ‘vampire’ is never used at any point in the film. Instead the movie finds a way to incorporate the creatures into a dusty, fading western landscape where they don’t feel remotely incongruous. And perhaps the reason why Near Dark‘s vampires are genuinely frightening when so many others feel like joke-shop monsters arises from this. In many other films, vampires are just vampires, and supposedly frightening solely for this reason. The classic archetype of the aristocratic foreign vampire, which is so often the default setting for this kind of character, only became so deeply embedded in the popular consciousness because this figure at one time symbolised a set of genuine fears and concerns for the audience of vampire stories. It’s putting a fantastical costume on a real source of unease. Nowadays, we have different worries, and just trotting out the archetype unthinkingly only presents us with an empty costume to be scared of.

Near Dark works so well as a vampire movie in that it does find a way to use the myth of the vampire to comment on a genuine contemporary source of fear – that of rootless, criminal migrants, potentially committing terrible crimes and then vanishing in the night. It’s important to say that this needn’t be a valid or logical fear – and indeed, if this reading of the film is correct, it must be said that Near Dark‘s view of drifters is surely about as rational as the Daily Mail‘s view of immigrants – but the fear itself has to be genuine for the film to work. And it does.

Even so, the vampire lifestyle almost begins to look alluring at one point in the film – but then the plot takes an unexpected turn and we’re in for a final act which is probably the weakest part of the film. There are various odd and unlikely developments in the cause of a vaguely unconvincing happy ending. The rest of the film is intelligent and well-made enough to more than compensate, and there are some brilliant set-pieces – the family’s visit to a bar, resulting in the gory slaughter of nearly everyone within, and a shootout with the local cops where the real danger is not the bullets but the sunlight the bulletholes allow into the hiding place. This last bit was shamelessly nicked by From Dusk Till Dawn (a movie which got everything nearly wrong which Near Dark gets right), but this film has surely been hugely influential despite its lack of commercial success. Needless to say, a remake is apparently in the works – but I was more surprised to hear of an attempted remake from 2008, which was never completed. Notably strange things about this were the reappearance of key cast members in different roles (Paxton in Henriksen’s part, Goldstein in Wright’s – how the hell was that going to work?) and the fact that it was abandoned on the grounds that it was ‘too similar to Twilight‘. I can’t imagine any version of Near Dark being remotely similar to Twilight, to be honest, but there you go. For the time being the original movie stands, reputation unblemished by dodgy sequels or unnecessary remakes: the best fusion of classic Americana and supernatural horror I can think of.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 31st October 2002: 

It came as quite a surprise to me recently when I realised that I hadn’t actually seen a new Harrison Ford movie on the big screen since 1989. This is a man, after all, who’s been voted the greatest movie star of the 20th century, someone whose track record where the box-office is concerned has few peers – and someone whom my generation spent their childhoods watching, either in the Star Wars franchise or as Indiana Jones. But somehow none of his 90s output ever lured me into the theatre. I mainly wanted to see his new film, K-19: The Widowmaker, because of the track-record of its director.

K-19 is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who over the past fifteen years has been responsible for some of the most interesting and intelligent SF, horror, and action movies to come out of Hollywood. Sadly, her last couple of movies haven’t done so well and with the new film she seems to have taken a leaf from the book of her ex-husband James Cameron and entered the realm of true-life maritime disasters.

Russia, 1961: with the USA and USSR seemingly intent on forcing a nuclear confrontation, Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) of the Soviet navy is struggling to ready his new vessel, the K-19, for sea trials. Believing he’s ideologically suspect, the Kremlin impose another captain on the project – Captain Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a strict disciplinarian. The ship acquires a reputation as being cursed, something which seems to be true as no sooner have they left harbour than the ship starts sinking! Fortunately it turns out the K-19 is a submarine and so this is not the drawback it might otherwise be. As Vostrikov starts running a punishing series of drills and tests on both sub and crew, warning signs from the nuclear reactor are overlooked – a mistake that will cost all on board dear…

One of the more interesting things about K-19 is that it’s an American picture about Communist Russians, who were still supposedly the bad guys until a relatively short time ago. Their intrinsic Russian-ness is indicated by the cod-Slavic accents employed by everyone in the movie and also by some fairly gratuitous vodka-drinking, caviar-guzzling, balalaika-playing and Cossack-dancing below decks, but the film’s approach to their Communism is rather more subtle. The crew themselves are depicted first and foremost as heroic sailors without much in the way of ideological commitment (the ship’s Commissar, on the other hand, is pretty much a bad guy), let down by the Communist Party high-ups who send them out on their mission (and just so the audience knows they’re villains, they’re played by the British actors Joss Ackland and John Shrapnel). And while the crew are seen watching anti-American propaganda, this concerns things that every true-blue American dislikes about their country anyway: Richard Nixon and the Ku Klux Klan, rather than JFK and Disneyland.

But the nationality and politics of the crew are a fairly secondary consideration given the disaster that they’re caught up in. Well, eventually caught up in: this is a long movie and the reactor doesn’t really start doing its thing until about an hour into it. Prior to this there’s a lot of material about the sub in dock and then the first sea trials, which ideally should have been the time to build the characterisations of the crew… but this doesn’t really happen. The crew (all played by unknown actors) remain anonymous for the most part, and even Neeson and Ford can’t give their characters too much depth. Still, Neeson gives a typically powerful performance.

Harrison Ford, on the other hand… well, for one thing he just doesn’t convince as a Russian. Typecasting it may be, but that craggy (and now faintly grizzled) face seems as American as Monument Valley. Ford’s never been the most nuanced performer at the best of times and here he never manages to bring the complex Vostrikov to life: he’s not nasty enough as a Captain Bligh-type at the start of the film to make his conversion to a more human figure in the closing stages really interesting, and it wasn’t until very near the end of the film that I warmed to him.

Ford’s performance sums up much of K-19. I found myself thinking ‘hmm, this bit’s like Crimson Tide… this bit’s like Hunt for Red October…’ It only really comes to life intermittently, but when it does it’s truly gripping. The sequence where the young reactor team are forced to enter the lethally radioactive reactor compartment to effect repairs, without protective gear, is horrific and very powerful.

This is a frightening story, and one that deserves to be told. But this treatment of it is perhaps too worthy and reverential. Bigelow directs with her customary muscular panache, the film looks suitably lavish, and the script has a flair for the telling details of submariner life. However, K-19: The Widowmaker is too often drab and over familiar to really succeed as a movie. By Bigelow’s admittedly high standards, this is sub-par.

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