NEAR DARK (1987)

October 24, 2013

near dark1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s always fun to take a fresh look at a cult favorite, especially a quarter century since initial release. Near Dark is best known as Kathryn Bigelow’s first solo directorial effort … yes, the Oscar winning director of The Hurt Locker (plus Point Blank and Zero Dark Thirty). But that’s not why this one has a loyal following. It’s actually a very stylish (low budget) vampire/road trip/quasi-western that focuses on family. And it’s one of the very few vampire movies where the word “vampire” is never uttered.

Ms. Bigelow co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Red, who also wrote The Hitcher. Similarities abound, yet this one stands on its own thanks to the photography and the performances. We can’t help but notice three main actors come directly from James Cameron’s AliensBill Paxton, Lance Henrickson, and Jenette Goldstein. Of course, Mr. Cameron and Ms. Bigelow were in a relationship that resulted in marriage (and later ended in divorce). Near Dark lost at the box office to another near dark2vampire movie released at the same time, The Lost Boys. Having its production company go out of business provided no marketing help and Near Dark has since built a rabid following thanks to cable, DVD and midnight showings.

The basic story has a young local (rural Oklahoma) boy (Adrian Pasdar, who is married to one of the Dixie Chicks in real life) meeting a stranger in town (Jenny Wright, who played Rob Lowe’s wife in St Elmo’s Fire). Their initial sparks lead to necking .. get it? Next thing we know he is being dragged into a speeding Winnebago by Paxton, Henrickson, Goldstein, Wright and Joshua John Miller. We soon enough figure out it’s a traveling troupe of vampires and Caleb (the young local boy) is in big trouble.

There are a couple of well known/classic scenes: the sequence in the bar where we really get to see the personalities of each of this group, and the bungalow shootout where the bullet holes in the walls allow the deadly rays of sunshine to wreak havoc with the bloodsucking clan. Additionally, you will note some beautiful shots that confirm Ms. Bigelow’s background as an artist – the backlit shot of the group in the fog, and Caleb’s horse riding scene.

near dark3 For those accustomed to seeing the “cool” Bill Paxton, they will be surprised at his frenetic wild man act. You might also recall his stint a couple years prior in the The Terminator as one of the blue-haired punks that naked Arnold meets upon his arrival. Jenny Wright is fun to watch here and it’s a reminder of her talent, and what a shame that she retired/disappeared from the acting world in 1998. Others in support include Tim Thomerson as Caleb’s dad and (a very young) James LeGros as the frightened teenage cowboy playing pool in the bar scene. Caleb’s sister is played by Marcie Leeds, who played young Sarah (Barbara Hershey’s character) in Beaches.

A sure sign of 1980’s horror is the electronic score provided by Tangerine Dream. The score would be much different today, but it’s very much a part of the film’s fabric and style. In addition to the key actors coming from Cameron’s film, you will also note Aliens on the town’s theatre marquee.

Bram Stoker published “Dracula” in 1897 and since then it’s provided source material and inspiration for an amazing number of films. Some of the best known include: Nosferatu in 1922, Bela Lugosi as Dracula in 1931, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Frank Langella in Dracula (1979), The Hunger with Catherine Deneuve (1983), Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula with Gary Oldman (1992), Tom Cruise in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk til Dawn (1996 with George Clooney), Blade (1998), and most recently the Twilight franchise, TV’s “True Blood“, the excellent Let the Right One In (2008) and the animated Hotel Transylvania (2012). Next up is an NBC series with Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the title role of “Dracula“. For the undead, it’s quite an impressive family tree of entertainment and horror.

 

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ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

January 5, 2013

zero Greetings again from the darkness. Kathryn Bigelow entered the realm of elite directors when her war thriller The Hurt Locker exploded onto the Oscar scene a few years ago. Once again she proves why the critics adore her, and the movie going masses stay away. She is an expert filmmaker, a brilliant technician, though not much into the whole entertainment scene.

We always try to label films and this one doesn’t quite fit as thriller or action, or even war genre. It’s really a tense, procedural drama focusing on the behind-the-scenes CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, it’s mostly the story of one obsessed CIA agent’s research and un-wavering pursuit of the one most responsible for the tragic events of 9-11-01 (as well as many others).

zero4 The film started out as a story of the nearly decade long pursuit and the failure to find him. Everything, including the movie, changed on May 2, 2011 when Navy SEAL Team Six pulled off the daring and historic mission to kill bin Laden. The book “No Easy Day” by Mark Owen (pseudonym for real life SEAL Matt Bissonnette) was released and many of the details became public. Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal (former journalist) went even deeper into research mode and now the film has instigated Congressional hearings in regards to some of the scenes.

Bigelow presents this as old school, hard core males vs the intellectual, instinctive and brazen Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. In the book, she is referred to as “Jen”, but her name matters not. What’s important is her laser-like focus for almost 10 years, despite the numerous attempts by her superiors to ignore her theories.

zero3 Much of the film deals with the group meetings and presentations to CIA mid-managers, who either don’t trust her or refuse to put their own careers on the line. Maya remains relentless. She finally gets a audience with CIA Director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) and introduces herself as “the M*****F****R who found this place, sir”. This comes across as confident, not disrespectful.

Bigelow and Boal refuse the temptation of providing any real backstory or personal life on these characters. We do learn that Maya was recruited right out of high school, so we can assume she wasn’t a typical 18 year old. The only thought of a romantic interlude is quickly shot down by Maya proclaiming (in so many words), she’s not that kind of girl.

zero5 Most of the men in the film are presented as near Neanderthals. Jason Clarke is the old school field agent who has mastered the use of torture, water-boarding and humiliation to gain information from detainees. The “60 Minutes” clip of Obama saying that America will no longer utilize torture is one of the few tips to national politics that the film offers up. The only other politics are those played by station chief Kyle Chandler, who is protective of his job, and Mark Strong, who seems relatively helpless without the support of his superiors. All the while Maya keeps pushing and pounding for action.

The Langley desk jockeys vs actual Field work provides a distinctive line in the sand between the two worlds, and emphasizes just how easy it is to make a mistake in judgment. What if we had been wrong on the location of bin Laden? What if the “fortress” had belonged to a drug dealer instead and the SEAL team had invaded a private home within the boundaries of our supposed ally zero2Pakistan? Jessica Chastain is believable and tough in her role, and Jason Clarke dominates the screen in his early scenes. Other fine support work comes courtesy of Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, and Jennifer Ehle. When we finally get to the strategy session for the mission, we meet SEAL’s played by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton. The 25 minutes or so dedicated to the helicopter mission are filmed as if we are wearing the same night-vision goggles worn by the brave souls storming the castle. It’s a very impressive sequence.

If you enjoy the details of a procedural drama, then you will find much to like here … knowing the ultimate outcome doesn’t affect the suspense one bit. However, if you seek an entertaining respite from your daily grind, this one will offer no assistance … despite another excellent and minimalistic mood score from Alexadre Desplat.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you get a kick out of the details involved in a CIA procedural OR you enjoy expert filmmaking, regardless of entertainment value OR you need further proof that Jessica Chastain is a major star OR you want to see Mark Strong’s best impersonation of Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: it’s still too soon after the actual event OR you can’t stomach the thought of torturing detainees

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAtWcvCxPhc