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Ahyperactive vision of an L.A. about to erupt on the cusp of the millennium, Strange Days is supposed to evoke the technologically overloaded, racially polarized state of contemporary America. All it really conjures, though, is the wish that director Kathryn Bigelow and her fervidly overacting cast be dosed with Ritalin.
Giving a basic action-flick plot a punk-rock edge, Days follows ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) as he sells bits of other people’s memories—“pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex”—on computer disks. Played back through a sort of cyberhairnet, these discs allow people to have the full sensations of, say, robbing a liquor store. Not exactly the Aristotelian ideal of dramatic catharsis, but there’s a market (illegal, of course) for this stuff. Lenny himself likes to replay the days of erotic fulfillment he had with ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), a former runaway who left him for nefarious music-biz executive Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). The bootlegger refuses, however, to deal in “blackjack”—the cyberexperience equivalent of snuff films.
Prone to grandiose claims about his status—“I’m the Santa Claus of the subconscious,” for example—Lenny is actually something of a loser. He can’t get over his obsession with Faith, and is regularly ripping off or being ripped off by his so-called friends. Despite such occasional nice gestures as giving a running-on-the-beach clip to an amputee, Lenny is a sleaze and a chump, which doesn’t help him make the transition to hero when the plot requires it. Nonetheless, the script (by Time critic Jay Cocks and director James Cameron, Bigelow’s ex-husband) requires that Lenny save Faith from a creepy killer who starts sending him personalized blackjack disks.
Faith is not the only one at risk. Rap prophet Jeriko One (Showgirls choreographer Glenn Plummer) has been gunned down, and if he was actually the victim of reputed LAPD “death squads” the city will explode in racial apocalypse. With New Year’s Eve 1999 approaching, Lenny allies with another ex-cop, Max (Tom Sizemore), and a pink-collar worker turned steel-hard bodyguard, Mace (Angela Bassett). There are rogue cops (notably Vincent D’Onofrio) at loose, and their activities may threaten both Faith and the public order.
Despite its perfunctory good-vs.-evil scenario, order is not actually one of Days‘ principal concerns. In fact, Bigelow courts trendy chaos, sending Lenny and Mace to the Retinal Fetish club for servings of post-punk, pre-millennial panic. Tricky’s ominous post-dub music can be heard in one scene, ferocious black-Brit metal-pop band Skunk Anansie makes a cameo, and Faith takes the stage to sing two songs by PJ Harvey. (As in Hackers, the music of the future is exclusively British.) Given the film’s tiresome frenzy, it almost seems as if the director would prefer that it end in bloody devastation.
This punky hysteria signifies nothing, but it’s energetic and colorful. More disturbing is the way Days juices its lame narrative with rape, sex murder (both shot from the perpetrator’s viewpoint), and racial hostility. Echoing the Rodney King case in its treatment of both its principal African-American characters, the movie frivolously toys with powerful emotions. When it’s revealed that the filmmakers actually have nothing to say on the subjects of sexual violence and interracial antagonism, the cheapness of their shock tactics becomes obvious.
Almost two-and-a-half exhaustingly agitated hours long, Days ends with a surrender to utter conventionality. The action squeals to a halt as the villain explains the ludicrous plot, and then trust in America’s institutions is matter-of-factly restored by the appearance of a good cop. Even more fatuous than the conclusions of such overheated previous Bigelow actionfests as Blue Steel and Point Break, these developments casually sell out the film’s entire hard-fought atmosphere of desperation. After frantically feinting every which way, this final attempt to have it both ways is nothing less than pathetic.
Director Richard Donner has come to specialize in buddy films—notably those of the “Lethal Weapon” series—so it’s only natural that he spends much of Assassins auditioning a pal for star Sylvester Stallone. Since Stallone plays a shadowy, solitary hit man, however, this is an implausible theme. Scripters Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, and Brian Helgeland don’t enhance the scenario’s believability any by providing Stallone’s Robert Rath with a choice of a hotheaded young admirer who wants to kill him and a secretive surveillance expert who’s supposed to function as a love interest simply because she’s female.
Taut and terse in mode but rather flabby in its thinking, Assassins opens with not one but two preludes. Both times, Rath fails to kill his “mark”: In the first, he allows his victim the dignity of suicide; in the second, his prey is plugged first by an exuberant up-and-comer, Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas). This actually suits Rath fine. Though he’s a killer, he doesn’t like his trade much and—in a dubious bid for some audience sympathy—he intends to quit. In fact, Rath is haunted by a job he did 15 years before: shooting his Russian rival and friend Nikolai. Brief black-and-white flashbacks to this event interrupt the film, begging the question of how Rath feels about all the other people he’s iced.
When a new assignment is relayed—in recklessly explicit terms—to Rath’s laptop, the assassin thinks he’s found the big score that will allow him to retire. He heads for Seattle to take out Electra (Julianne Moore), who’s intercepted data of intense interest to Rath’s anonymous taskmaster and, in her spare time, has hidden videocams in all the other apartments in her building. (This plot element, so charming in Sliver, is soon abandoned.) Rath arrives around the same time as Bain, and quickly (if inexplicably) decides to save rather than snuff his designated victim. That frees Bain to stalk them both as they flee to an unnamed Caribbean offshore-banking haven. (Aerial shots clearly identify the island as Puerto Rico, which, being a U.S. territory, is not the place to go to avoid American banking regulations.)
A jumpy, reclusive cat lover and anti-fur activist, Moore’s Electra is not exactly Sharon Stone, Stallone’s sexpot ally in his previous solitary-killer flick, last October’s The Specialist; her relationship with her new protector remains as chaste as in any Doris Day vehicle. Her determination not to abandon her cat slows her down at crucial moments, but like most action-flick sidekicks she quickly learns the tricks of the tough-guy trade. Rath’s plan to neutralize Bain requires her cooperation, and she more or less comes through.
Donner’s a professional hit man too, in his way, and he furthers the momentum with some sharp (but not too flamboyant) edits and clever use of Portishead’s “Sour Times.” Indeed, things percolate nicely until it becomes time to resolve the movie’s minor mysteries, which turn out to be just as silly as they usually are in Hollywood action flicks. Identifying the enigmatic figure behind Rath and Bain’s assignments, reconciling the two rival assassins, and otherwise closing out the proceedings involves vague notions (“female intuition”) and bad history (“the Cold War was ending”—in 1980?). But then any movie that begins with a hit-man-with-a-heart-of-gold premise can hardly expect to end up somewhere credible.
The notion of women’s history as a handmade quilt is as trite as anything Judy Chicago ever thought up, but that metaphor is just the beginning of the banalities embroidered by How to Make an American Quilt. Adapted by scripter Jane Anderson (who wrote the pseudo-Capra It Could Happen to You) from Whitney Otto’s novel, this tribute to women’s, uh, womenness uses the structure of The Joy Luck Club and most of the cast of Little Women in the hope of making as much money as Fried Green Tomatoes. Oddly enough, at the helm is Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse, who debuted with the sharp chamber piece Proof, a film whose nuanced view of human relationships has nothing to do with Quilt‘s homespun homilies.
Finn (Winona Ryder) is a Berkeley graduate student who decides to spend the summer with her grandmother Hy (Ellen Burstyn) and great-aunt Glady Joe (Anne Bancroft), ostensibly so she can finish her thesis. In fact, she’s fleeing her commitment to live-in lover Sam (Dermot Mulroney), who’s just asked her to marry him. The house shared by Hy and Glady is the meeting place for a quilting circle, so she’s about to hear the regrets and recriminations not only of her hostesses but also of master quilter Anna (Maya Angelou), her daughter Marianna (Alfre Woodard), and the other quilters, Sophia (Lois Smith), Em (Jean Simmons), and Constance (Kate Nelligan).
These women are united by their obsessions with men who strayed, fled, or died. Most are widows, some are divorced, and one, Marianna, is convinced that her lost “soul mate” is a poet she met for just a few hours in a Paris café. In flashbacks, the younger Hy (Alicia Goranson), Glady Joe (Claire Danes), Anna (Maria Celedonio), Sophia (Samantha Mathis), and Em (Joanna Going) relive their mistreatment by various cads. Meanwhile, Finn’s flighty mom (Kate Capshaw) decides to settle down, and her daughter contemplates sleeping with local hunk Leon (Johnathan Schaech). Thematically, this doesn’t add up to much more than: “women used to be cheated on, but now they can cheat too.”
The proceedings are much cornier that Proof‘s admirers have any reason to expect. Quilt is not only tediously heartwarming, it’s also outright cloddish in its use of musical signifiers and visual gags. (Finn, for example, just happens to be contemplating a photo of a phallic sculpture when Leon drops by.) Even as it questions the motives of all men, this mythic melange overestimates the power of female solidarity to overcome other social forces: Although Anna was once a maid in Hy and Glady Joe’s home, she and her daughter are supposed to fit easily into the otherwise all-white quilting circle. (The film is not so radical as to endorse interracial marriage, however; alone among the many lovers Marianna had in Europe, her “soul mate” was black.)
As in Tomatoes, female bonding and high-spirited old-ladydom are clearly supposed to be essential to the tale’s appeal: When not bickering, Hy and Glady smoke pot together and sing along boisterously with Neil Diamond’s “Cherry, Cherry.” According to the press kit, Moorhouse wanted the men to be as fully developed as the women, and she and Anderson even added some male characters who aren’t in the book. Except as betrayers, however, they’re all inessential and devoid of motivation. It’s just as well that most of them are gone, so the women can concentrate on the serious matrilineal business represented by those narrative quilts. The filmmakers claim that Quilt is about “how women love men,” but the movie would be more convincing if there were as few men on the screen as there are in the audience.