90's Thriller Throwback: Strange Days (1995)

James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow's 90's Techno-Thriller Gem Is Due For An Upgrade

by robotGEEK

As much as I love 80's and 90's sci-fi thrillers, I kind of forgot about this gem. And that probably has to do with the fact that as of this writing, it has yet to make the leap to Blu Ray here in the U.S., which is a shame because after finally getting the chance to revisit it, HD is really the only way to go.

In the year 1999, virtual experiences are the new drug. Using stimulators worn on top of your head, you can experience anything you can dream of, an experience so real it's addicting, naturally making them illegal. When a former cop (Ralph Fiennes) turned dealer of virtual experiences gets caught up in the middle of corruption and conspiracy within the LA police department, he must use his street smarts and the help of a loyal friend (Angela Bassett) to clear his name and save the life of his former flame.

Written and produced by James Cameron and directed by the great Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Blue Steel, Point Break) during what I would consider her prime years of really great output, Strange Days is pure 90's techno/thriller bliss. It has so much greatness going for it, that I'm not even sure where to begin. Let's start with the look of the film. This is when Bigelow was really shining as a visual artist. While she's since become more of an Oscar-worthy filmmaker, I can't say that I've really connected with any of her work outside of the 80's and 90's. For me personally, it's both the subject matter she chooses and it's in how she shoots them now, where she's adopted the handheld freestyle approach. But here, she does a magnificent job giving the film a slick aesthetic that makes full use of the gorgeous widescreen cinematography.

James Cameron co-wrote this with Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York), and I must say, they did a really great job in keeping you fully invested in a film that runs two and a half hours long. The film kickstarts with one of these virtual experiences and you're immediately thrown into this futuristic world via 1999. While a little jarring at first, it's an efficient way to get thrown into this new world full of new technology, but also overflowing with crime and poverty. Through a series of seemingly unconnected events, the film then sets up the crux of the story that's to follow, and you're thrown into a world of corruption, backstabbing, double crosses, addiction, technology and murder. What I loved most about this was that you never really knew where it was heading. It sort of plays it safe in the beginning, coming across as a bit tamer than you expect, only to be punched in the gut as the film progresses. Every time I thought I knew where it was heading, I was wrong. And every time I thought the film was nearing it's end, I was wrong. By the time it was over, I was exhausted, but in the best possible way. There are some really great performances, mainly from Angela Bassett as a total badass, and Fiennes is remarkable in the kind a role that you never would have expected from him, yet he pulls it off flawlessly. The supporting cast is also impressive, with a who's who of really great actors that you're sure to get a kick out of.

As mentioned earlier, this has never gotten an HD update yet, which is both strange and yet not entirely surprising considering Cameron's inability to make time to even get 2 of his most beloved classics released on Blu Ray. Last I read was that the new transfers and restorations for both The Abyss and True Lies had been complete, but he was quoted as saying he simply did not have the time to dedicate to checking out these new prints for release. It's been years now of constant teasing, but still nothing concrete yet. And the same goes for Strange Days. Still no HD release in any form as far as I can tell. I couldn't even rent it on Amazon. Luckily there is a Region B Blu Ray release from the UK that you can get for under $20 (that includes shipping). If you have a region free player, then you're all set. I should warn you that it was a little tricky getting it to play for some reason, even with my region free player. Not sure if it has to do with the Blu Ray itself or my LG brand player, but it took me several times with no luck. I finally had to play a different Region B Blu Ray for a little while, then switched it out to Strange Days and it finally got to play. But that's never happened to me before with this particular player. Just a heads up in case you encounter the same issue.


90's Action Attack!: Jackie Chan's Who Am I? (1998)

by robotGEEK

Jackie Chan is Kicking Ass and Taking Names in This True Underrated Gem

I tell you, this Pandemic has really brought a lot of my insecurities to the surface. I see my view count drop significantly on here, and in moments of weakness, I wonder if I should even bother continuing on here or not. I guess we all go through moments like that, but for me it seems to feel like this more and more and I honestly just want to give up on this. And who knows? Maybe I will. But for now, I'll keep trucking on in the hopes that someone out there is still actually reading these and maybe even turn you onto a hidden gem. 

Though I've always been a big fan of Jackie Chan for nearly my entire life, this is a film I wasn't really even aware of until recently. And I think I only came across it when digging through his IMDB page recently too, not because someone actually suggested it. It's funny how films can slip through the cracks for some people. So it was literally a blind buy. The concept sounded interesting, and it's a film that he directed himself, something he rarely does anymore. But I sadly discovered that here in the U.S., there wasn't a widescreen release of this for some reason. Australia's Umbrella Academy did release this on DVD and Blu-Ray in widescreen fairly recently, so I'm very happy that I have a region-free player.

Who Am I? is fucking awesome, plain and simple. I always go in a little apprehensive to his films because believe it or not, I've never really been a big fan of his action/comedies. I prefer his straight-up serious action films like Police Story, Crime Story and The Protector. And the fact that I hadn't heard of this one yet also concerned me. But I'm here to tell you that I was treated to a pleasant surprise. This is quite the hidden gem people, and I hope with the release of this on Blu Ray via Umbrella Academy, that more people will soon discover it. While there are a few funny bits, I would not call it an action/comedy, because there were so few moments that they attempted that. But thankfully, those moments were actually legitimately funny. But it's pretty much a straightforward serious approach for the most part. There's no fighting for the first 45 minutes (which didn't bother me at all because your really sucked into his story of survival), but let me tell you, when the action hits, it hits hard, brutal and fantastic. It's classic Jackie Chan all the way and it blows my mind this isn't considered one of his best films, because in my humble opinion, it is.

In some respects, it reminded me a lot of Rumble in the Bronx, in that it's a co-production (this time with South Africa I believe?), and so there's some really bad acting and dubbing mixed with some solid acting and moments where there is no dubbing at all. But we're not here for the acting, we're here for the action, and in that respect, Who Am I? is brutal and it quickly became one of my favorite Jackie Chan films.

What I found interesting is that this was made the same year he also made the first Rush Hour. To think that the same year he wowed American audiences with a new hit action/comedy franchise, while also making his own film outside of the U.S. is surprising to me. When did he sleep? I don't know, but I'm glad he didn't because this movie fucking rules. I was also surprised to learn that after this, Chan didn't direct another film (outside of a few documentaries) for another 12 years. Interesting.

I hope this convinces some of you to seek this one out. If you're looking for an old-school martial arts action film, you can't go wrong with this one. A true hidden gem among Chan's work, Who Am I? delivers the goods tenfold. Now that I look back on it, it's really the last film Chan starred in and directed himself that really represented the type of film he became so famous for back in the 80's and especially into the 90's, before special effects.

Speaking of Umbrella Academy, I will say that most of their Blu Ray's actually are Region-Free, even if they do have a region code on the back of the packaging. But I've learned that "some" Sony Blu Ray players won't play them, but other brands will. I learned this firsthand because my previous Blu Ray player was a Sony, yet it wouldn't play certain Region-Free discs. I've since upgraded to an LG Region-Free player so I'll never have that issue again and I love it.


Decade of Disaster: The Towering Inferno (1974)

by robotGEEK

It's funny how things will suddenly send you down a rabbit hole. It suddenly struck me that I don't think I'd ever seen a Steve McQueen film before, so when I watched The Hunter (you can find my review a few posts back) for the first time a few weeks back, it got me digging through his filmography to see what other films he had done. Of course we all know the big popular titles like The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, but the one that stood out to me was The Towering Inferno. I love 70's Cinema. Mix that with a disaster flick with an all-star cast and I was pretty sure I was in for a good time. So it was a no-brainer for me. Towering Inferno it is.

Every time I watch an epic 70's film, I'm almost always impressed. It was such a special time in cinema for a number of reasons, but to me, it's an era of filmmaking that I absolutely adore. I loved the scope of everything. I admire the intense practical effects work that went into films like this, the gorgeous widescreen cinematography, and the lovely yellow/brown/orange color scheme prevalent in nearly all of their set designs. Blah, blah, blah. Sorry. I'm getting off track.

Released in the middle of the Disaster craze of the 70's, The Towering Inferno is a film that was much better than I anticipate going in. While I was certainly expecting a good time, I wasn't expecting for this to be as good as it was on both an entertainment level, and on a technical one. Man, if you walk away from this film with anything, it's the appreciation that went into all the work that went into practical effects and sets. It's really kind of mindblowing, because we've been somewhat desentasized these days that pretty much anything can be achieved through the magic of CGI, whether it looks good or not. If you can dream it up, it can be realized on the big or small screen. But you can still always tell that it's CGI, no matter how hard they work and try to make it look real. It just never does. So when you see something like this, it just kind of blows your mind and at least for people like myself, makes me miss those days of practical sets, pyrotechnics and stuntwork.

I learned that this comes to us courtesy of 2 directors, mega-producer Irwin Allen, who directed the stunts and action sequences, and John Guillermin, who directed the non-action sequences. Guillermin is the genius responsible for the live action King Kong from 1976, my personal favorite Kong film to date, and another wonderful old school epic that utilizes amazing old school effects work with an impressive star-studded cast of somewhat then-unknown actors like Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lang and a whole lot of familiar faces.

As I mentioned earlier, we are huge fans of 70's cinema and design. Any chance we get to check out a film from this decade, we are always down, and one of the things we love most about these films from that era is the set design, and The Towering Inferno is no exception. The color schemes (full of orange, yellow and brown), and the slick mod design to everything gives it all such an extra punch of awesome.

It's no surprise to learn that this set was not without it's conflicts. I mean, this cast is highly impressive, and there were sure to be some diva-like behavior abound.....and a whole lot of complaining from nearly everyone involved. A quick IMDB search will give you all the details, but it's a juicy read for sure, if not surprising. I will add though that everyone was on top of their game. McQueen was pitch perfect as the no-nonsense heroic fire captain, and Newman was surprisingly restrained, but effectively in charge. I never noticed before, but he reminded me a whole lot of Rutger Hauer here. The way he talks, acts, mannerisms and even the way he looks!

At nearly 3 hours long, The Towering Inferno never feels like it. It moves along briskly, with barely a moment to spare. It's a brilliant class act - towering achievement in old school epic filmmaking with an all-star cast, incredible effects and a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

There are multiple platforms where you can either rent or buy it digitally, but you can purchase the blu ray pretty cheap too. I picked mine up for roughly around $10 used, and it's a great addition to my collection, because it's one I know I will revisit often.