Tuesday, December 22, 2009

bad lieutenant- port of call...

So, last year around this time I did sort of an obsessive run down of as many films released in 2008 as I could. It was pretty funny to basically marathon watch as many recent flicks as I could get my hands on and then write about them, although generally just capsule reviews, nothing terribly in depth. Hopefully it was kind of fun to read too, I dunno. This year, as you can probably guess if you've been following the blog at all, I've been feeling much less motivated. I guess because it's the end of the decade (and how the fuck did that happen? It kind of snuck up on me) a lot of people are feeling compelled to make lists, to the point where I don't really feel any particular need to do that (though I did make best of year/decade music lists that will be posted soon on www.eastvillageradio.com, so if you care what I think about music, you can read those there). I am kind of trying to get caught up with some of the horror movies I missed theatrically this year, and I'll probably write some about some of those. For any number of reasons, some of which I've written about on Negative Pleasure, I just do not have my shit together right now, and I really want to write stuff and post stuff, but I'm kind of not feeling it. Maybe I'm just being a lazy ass. Time will tell, I suppose...

I don't know if I really have a favorite film of 2009, but if I did, it would probably be Werner Herzog's BAD LIEUTENANT- PORT OF CALL, which is funny, because as soon as I heard about that film being made, and first saw the trailer, I was convinced that it was going to totally suck. Although I really love Herzog, I just didn't have enough faith in him that he could successfully remake as film that didn't need to be remade as much as BAD LIEUTENANT. There were just so many reason not to make this movie. BAD LIEUTENANT, for one, is kind of a great film, it's really powerful and emotionally jarring. It's also not that old, less than 20 years. Watching it now, there's nothing terribly dated about it, it still feels pretty contemporary. And of course being an Abel Ferrara film, it's the work of a cinema artist with a unique vision, in fact looking at Ferrara's work and life, it feels like an incredibly personal film for him. Though there are many crime films about redemption, as BAD LIEUTENANT is, it's a pretty unique movie and a very effective one. I had to wonder what a remake could really have to offer that the original was lacking.

Then, of course, there's Nicolas Cage. Nicolas Cage just sucks. He makes horrible movies and acts badly in them. NATIONAL TREASURE, THE WICKER MAN remake, GHOST RIDER, NEXT, KNOWING...He's become a camp figure, really I think a lot of people see his movies now for the unintentional laughs. Occasionally he'll do a good flick (THE WEATHER MAN was one) and actually be good in it, but for the most part he's really just a symptom of the increasing decay of cinema, his movies are just such shit, they're so aggressively shit, there's no artistry involved, it's not like they're trying to make good movies and failing, stuff like GHOST RIDER and KNOWING are just cynically incoherent by-the-numbers lowest common denominator shit.

The trailer for BAD LIEUTENANT- PORT OF CALL was extremely unpromising. Mostly, it seemed to be about how "funny" Nicolas Cage's awful performance was going to be, acting all bug eyed and crazed, as in THE WICKER MAN remake. The original BAD LIEUTENANT isn't particularly funny, but the comedy isn't missed, and the addition of it to the remake seemed like kind of an insult to the original, taking something powerful and reducing it to ridiculousness, perhaps not a remake as much as a parody, and though it seemed to soon for a remake, far too much time had passed for a successful parody, if one was ever needed at all. The self-importance of Ferrara's film was not so much that it required being taken down a notch, rather it was a serious, uncompromising movie that presented a challenging viewing experience.

As the release of BAD LIEUTENANT- PORT OF CALL approached, the press surrounding it was equally unpromising. Most of the media attention seemed to be focused on one scene in which Cage's character hallucinates some lizards, and how insistent Herzog was that this scene remain in the finished film. It seemed really trivial and self-consciously "quirky," and the way in which it was approached was uncomfortably smirky and smarmy, like, if that was all anybody had to say about the project, did it really have much to offer otherwise?

Despite these reservations, I went and saw BAD LIEUTENANT- PORT OF CALL anyway. It was still a Werner Herzog film, something I should have kept in mind from the beginning, because Herzog doesn't really make bad films, or at least hasn't made any, certainly nothing as bad as this movie seemed like it would be. BAD LIEUTENANT- PORT OF CALL is kind of a great film. It's definite a Herzog film, somewhat subtly incorporating the director's overriding theme of the conflict between humanity and nature, the inevitability of nature despite manmade constructs to deny or overpower it, within a pretty stellar urban crime narrative. Set in New Orleans, and opening during Hurricane Katrina, Herzog's film shows the natural world as constantly threatening to overwhelm the world of man.

Herzog takes elements of the story and some of the scenes of the original BAD LIEUTENANT and makes them his own. Ferrara's film deals largely with redemption, it's a film heavily informed by Catholocism, very much in the vein of Martin Scorsese's MEAN STREETS (both films of course star Harvey Keitel). Herzog is less concerned with the spiritual life of his characters, Cage's Lt. McDonagh is more concerned with saving his ass than saving his soul. His failures have to do with the constructs of man's world, in essence the denial of the natural world, drugs, prostitution, gambling...Always the world of nature is encroaching upon civilization, the aforementioned iguanas, a crocodile crawling along the freeway...Perhaps you could say this is a film about control, the impossibility of control, since no matter what we do to create order, there is always some form of chaos threatening to overturn the balance.

Heavy themes aside, BAD LIEUTENANT- PORT OF CALL is also a very entertaining film. Thankfully not as campy as the trailer suggested, it is still often very funny, with the very sly, sardonic humor often suggested at but rarely full articulated in Herzog's other work. Cage's character's mania certainly reaches some heights but fortunately never the level of self-parody that marks other recent Cage performances. In one of the films funniest, but in a way also most poignant moments, McDonagh, high on crack, responds to a shooting by instructing the gunmen to shoot again, because, "His soul is still dancing." Herzog cuts to the man's soul, breakdancing across the room (it plays much better on the screen than I'm describing it, one of the hallucinated iguanas also effective makes an appearance in this sequence).

In a nutshell, I shouldn't have doubted Herzog. I'm not going to rush out and start seeing every Nicolas Cage movie now, but obviously he can still pull off an effective, controlled performance under the right director. BAD LIEUTENANT- PORT OF CALL is really vital, vibrant filmmaking, full of life and though, depth, humor, entertainment, meaning, resonance. See it twice if you're not a jerk...

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