“Cape Fear” (1991) dir. Martin Scorsese

When director Martin Scorsese signed a deal with Universal Pictures in the late 1980s to release his passion project “The Last Temptation of Christ,” I’m fairly certain he was required to deliver a commercial film in exchange for Universal releasing such a polarizing personal film. Well, in 1991, Scorsese delivered in spades.

Forget “Boxcar Bertha” (the exploitation film Scorsese made for Roger Corman in the early 1970s), “Cape Fear” is Scorsese’s ultimate balls-to-the-wall exploitation film. Granted, it wasn’t seen that way given the large budget and stellar acting cast (Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis), but make no mistake, Scorsese’s remake of the 1962 shocker with Robert Mitchum is the ultimate Freddy-Jason stalker/slasher film.

Many Scorsese purists detest this film. To whom I say, f–k you! Scorsese loves ALL films, including the sleazy ones that used to play Forty Deuce. Legend has it that he got into a fight with one of his girlfriends, studio executive Dawn Steel, over the merits of the classic 1982 exploitation film “Vice Squad” (Scorsese angrily argued that it should have been up for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars).

Despite its disreputable pedigree, it did win Oscar nominations for DeNiro and Lewis. And it was Scorsese’s biggest box-office success until the release of “The Aviator” in 2004. I’m docking the accompanying trailer MAJOR points for NOT including the music from “Cape Fear” and substituting generic music instead. The music from Cape Fear (originally composed by Bernard Herrmann, but adapted for the remake by Elmer Bernstein) is one of the scariest scores ever composed for a motion picture. I’ve included a link to this score here:

Scorsese has always used music … especially pop music … effectively in his films. I wish I had a clip I could link to, but the use of Guns N’ Roses “Patience” during a vicious verbal fight between Nolte and Lange, while their daughter played by Lewis tearfully locks herself into her room, is brilliantly edited and shot.

“Strange Days” (1995) dir. Kathryn Bigelow

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Kathryn Bigelow has always been one of the most exciting directors around. It’s nice she’s getting some acclaim, box-office love, and Oscar nominations/wins to boot (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”). However, one of her most underrated films is 1995’s thriller “Strange Days.”

Produced by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron, “Strange Days” is one of those films that makes you think, “Man, that was soooo 1990s.” Not only for the flashy visuals and maximum volume / intensity action and violence, but also because the film takes place in the days right before Y2K. And as such (given millennial fears), the film shows America on the verge of a social, economic, and racial apocalypse (not entirely inaccurate).

The film features Ralph Fiennes in the lead as a sort of virtual reality drug dealer, selling lifelike virtual reality experiences of illicit and sensual pleasures. However, like any drug, the virtual reality experiences can sometimes be addictive and people find themselves slavishly addicted to “playback.” As the film unfolds, there’s elements involving “snuff” clips (people being killed for the purpose of making a virtual reality user experience murder), assassinations, and political/legal corruption.

A lot of this is very melodramatic and sometimes laughable (it’s always interesting to see how older filmmakers and storytellers envision a future we’ve already lived through). But what’s most amazing is in how much it predicted: the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (and ensuing conspiracy theories involving the LAPD, record label moguls, and rival gangs), the addictive nature of an internet life (as seen with people – mainly in Eastern countries – who have literally died playing multiple hours of video games at a clip without rest), the addictive need to watch more and more disturbing imagery (because it’s only a click away, remember), and how we all are just a significant event away from mass chaos and confusion (i.e. Katrina).

“Strange Days” may be flawed, but even nearly 20 years later, it’s still an undeniably exciting film. The acting, from Fiennes to Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D’onofrio and Michael Wincott, is excellent. I had the privilege of seeing “Strange Days” the day it opened in October 1995 on a huge screen with a very loud (and then novel) digital soundtrack … and tellingly, only 2 other people in the audience.  This is a film that seriously needs reevaluation, along with a deluxe Blu Ray edition that takes full advantage of the medium.