Tag Archives: review

Strange Days: Regretful Artificial Memories

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Strange Days is one of those films more people have heard about than seen. “That cyberpunk film with Ralph Fiennes” is how I usually hear it summed up. Though this 1995 movie has quite a pedigree – written by James Cameron, directed by Kathryn Bigelow – it did not do well in the theater. When I saw it recently, I could see why; Strange Days is a mostly-courageous, mostly-creative film that mostly ignored popular trends.

Seen now, one can see the audacity, and though there are flaws of the “mostly” variety, there’s much to take away.

The Hollow Man

In 1999, right before the end of the millennium, ex-cop Lenny is busy selling the ultimate high – people’s recorded memories. A recording technology called SQUID, once meant for police work, now serves as a way to relive people’s experiences. A bustling underground in other’s lives emerged, and the sleazy-but charming Lenny is ready to make a buck.

When we meet Lenny (Ralph Finnes), he’s reliving the memories of a crime someone else committed – another high on a portable disk. We soon realize his entire life is trading memories, some contracted for, some sold, all with a market. He relishes his role as a merchant of dreams, even if a little bit of con and trickery is needed.

But Lenny’s life and joy are as false as his fake designer watches. When not trading for experiences, he keeps reliving his life with his former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). She’s moved on to live with eccentric but powerful music producer Philo (Michael Wincott), while Lenny keeps reliving the same days off of a disk. His life is just a loop of other people’s memories and his recorded ones.

The film explores Lenny slowly and has a rare quality – the courage to explore a concept. The SQUID is the only difference between our worlds, and our gateway to Lenny’s world is Lenny. By seeing his life – and his addiction – we get a natural feel for the impact of technology on people.

Of course, Lenny, is missing a lot of what’s going on.

A Small Man In The Big Picture

Lenny’s world is a small one of recordings, sales, and his two friends. Detective Max (Tom Sizemore, as charmingly sleazy as Fiennes) helps him with cons and provides information. Bodyguard and driver Mace (an incredible Angela Bassett) provides transport and muscle, as well as common sense. They also help him navigate the larger world – and his problems because Lenny is a damaged man.

The Los Angeles of the film is damaged as well and all too believable. Police brutality is a constant, and communities conflict. The murder of a famous Rapper on Philo’s label threatens to set the city aflame. One can almost understand why Lenny finds customers – who wouldn’t want to escape? Lenny’s own withdrawal and delusions seem entirely sensible.

Lenny may be trying to escape himself, but he can’t escape after consuming a random memory disk someone dropped in his car.

Hell Is Other People

The memories Lenny finds are of a brutal rape and murder of a prostitute in his circle – from the killer’s view. These scenes are disturbing, raw, and ugly – and pumped straight into Lenny’s mind.

Though these vicious memories are horrible on screen, they’re made more horrible by seeing Lenny’s reaction. We jump-cut between the POV murder and Lenny’s horrified expression as he cries and tries to make sense of what he’s living. We do not just see what is going on, Fiennes makes us feel what is going on and what he is experiencing.

Despite the disturbing nature of this sequence, the courage of the film is on display here. First, the film extrapolates how a sick mind might use the technology. We’ve seen Lenny’s customers buy sex or POV robberies, but now we’re forced to reckon with how far people may go. It’s not hard to look at this scene and say, “Yes, people would do this. Yes, they would pay for it.”

But just as – or more – courageous is the scene comes off as a critique of POV Slasher movies. Often these films put people in the shoes of the killer as they go about their gruesome business. Through Lenny – and Fiennes’s performance – he experiences the killer’s mind and how disgusting it is.

Lenny, the dealer of a modern-day electronic drug, has just had the ultimate bad trip.

An Erratic Path

The film follows Lenny, Max, Mace, and the others as they deal with the city on edge, the question of the murder, and their own problems. At this point, summing up the film is both difficult but would also spoil too much.

It would spoil too much because, at heart, this is a kind of murder-mystery film. It is the kind of movie – like a human memory – you have to experience to see the winding path and where it goes. Without spoiling, let us say it is like life – some things are dramatic when small, and some dramatic things turn out to be illusions.  Strange Days isn’t afraid to be messy or disappoint you appropriately.

Unfortunately, the difficulty in explaining the film is that sometimes the film overexplains. The film’s courage gives out in parts, where you don’t have slow revelations but large infodumps. These are not as satisfying, and I could easily give away huge parts in a few sentences – because that’s how the film does it.

The ending ends up both exciting and disappointing. There are believable ugly and beautiful plot twists, next to feel-good tropes and violence out of an opera. For all it’s courage, too many parts near the end seem contrived to be audience-pleasers. These parts are in stark contrast to the film’s, gritty, messy mood – Lenny’s world isn’t clean, and neither should the end of his tale be.

Seventy-Five Percent Courageous

Though I am critical of parts of the film, I have to applaud the sheer commitment to its core ideas for most of the movie. The film is willing to extrapolate on technology. The story is messy in most of the right splots because life is messy. There are elements that I cannot see people being brave enough to include today.

I may critique the film, but that’s because it only falters when it loses that courage that infuses so much of it. The film feels easy in so many ways, sprinting forward with its ideas horrible and wonderful, so when it trips, you feel the jolt. I’ll take courage most of the time over cowardice predominating.

None of my critiques are directed at the cast, who are uniformly excellent. Fiennes is absolutely believable as Lenny. Basset’s Mace is a real bad-ass. You can feel the cast’s courage, and indeed they carry the film when it’s bravery isn’t apparent.

Stumble Towards Greatness

The lesson that stays with me from the film is that in creativity, courage always beats cowardice. Even partial courage is better when it predominates. This film may not have done well at the box office, but it has been re-evaluated in time, and that validates the flawed bravery of the movie.

Much like its protagonist, the film is imperfect and has shallow moments, but it does keep going. If you don’t stop, maybe you get to a place that’s better.

Steven Savage

My Agile Life: Review Lets You Get It Right; Review Lets You Let Go Of Perfection

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, Steve’s LinkedIn, and Steve’s Tumblr)

More on my use of “Agile” and Scrum in my life!

Perfection is the nemesis of success. The Perfect isn’t just the enemy of the good – sometimes the good is the enemy of ever accomplishing anything. Trying to get everything right can kill you, and sometimes even trying to get it really good is a barrier.

Sometimes you just have to complete something, review it, and improve it or do it again. Reviews are what let you get things done right – not trying to be perfect (which is not the same as being competent).

I learned this in my Agile Life efforts in, of all things – cleaning.

Cleaning is a regular effort – Business As Usual if you want to use bizspeak. It’s also something that may not always go perfect, from a difficult stain to not having a box to throw junk in. It’s also hard to get right as there’s always something else to do if you want to get obsessive.

So I had to do some cleaning and encountered a difficult issue in, of all things, the shower – nasty little stain. I didn’t have the proper cleaner, it seemed ridiculous to run out and buy it for five minutes work, and . . . I let it go. I’d get the stain cleaner at my next grocery run and get it next week.

By accepting yes, this stain wasn’t going to be a disaster, I avoided a half hour of running around for five minutes work I did the next week. Plus I learned to keep certain cleaning supplies on hand.

An agile way to do things – learn and improve and don’t sweat every detail. Delivering, review, and processing what you learn means you get better and waste less time.

Now cleaning is kind of a ridiculous example, but consider other places this applies:

  • If you’re writing something there’s only so right it’s going to be. That’s what editors, pre-readers, and just regular improvement will bring.
  • If you’re decorating the apartment do not think you’ll get it right the first time. Do your best and review it.
  • If you’re working on a web page and a photographer is late maybe you can make due with current photos – or what they sent you.

Finally, I’d note that if you’re doing something regularly – updating a website, cooking, etc. this is a REALLY good place to learn to let it go. Things that might not be perfect can get a bit more perfected next run.

I’d refer to the 10th Agile principle here: “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.”

(By the way I do plenty of books for coaching people to improve in various areas, which may also help you out!)

– Steve

A Writer’s View: Timey-Wimey

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

Plotting stories, and indeed writing them, is a process of discovery.  A discovery at the end of your tale changes what you think of the beginning.  Closing a scene helps you find a theme that alters the scene.  A character you thought you new surprises you.

Writing, in the words of a certain madman with a blue box is Timey-Wimey.  You finds things out about your world out of order.

We’re frustrated with this because our work feels unreliable, unpredictable, almost as if it’ll betray us.  Ever encounter someone who treated their stories and characters with suspicion?  Yeah, you probably have – it may have been you.

I’ve found that we have to accept this.  Simply put, writing encompasses such breadth of possibilities there’s always a bit of unpredictability, of discovery.  If it’s too predictable, it’s not a creative act.

What we can do is embrace this timey-wimey, acknowledge it, minimize the negative effects, and maximize the positive.

First, be open to the timey-wimey.  Accept that things change, that you’ll have these amazing insights, and that the act of plotting and writing reveals new depths.  This back-and-forth  of do-find-redo makes your work alive.

Secondly, learn to use these insights.  Figure the best way to find them, embrace them, and apply them.  Maybe you keep timelines, maybe you iteratively improve things.  Maybe you have to accept some rewriting.  Maybe you keep extensive notes.  Find a way to make the timey-wimey issues a tool.

Third, don’t fight it.  This is just part of the creative process.  You may have great onslaughts of ideas, or have to accept you can’t tweak a story anymore.  Run with it and make good work first, don’t get lost in frustration or fiddly bits.

Fourth, accept imperfection.  At some point it’ll be good enough to be as good as it needs to be.  Don’t run with the timey-wimey aspects of work so long you’re revising forever.

I’ve found a huge key to using the timey-wimey creativity, and writing in particular is:

  • To improve iteratively.  Engage in gradual review of your work.
  • Gradually deepen your work.  Start with simple ideas and improve them over time, going deeper, adding detail.
  • Every time you go a bit deeper into your work, review the big picture a bit more.
  • Work out a system to do these reviews and do them regularly.
  • Practice!

A lot of this is like Agile practices – which I’ve also been working with.  Agile is about iterative improvements, and is a good mindset for a writer.

– Steve