You've probably already heard how crazy Werner Herzog's new Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is -- and it does quite often feel as if it were hopped up on crack as much as its protagonist is. The Bad Lieutenant feels like a James Ellroy novel transplanted to Nawlins and re-explored by an impish German auteur. What surprised me is how gleefully, dementedly funny it is as well. Perhaps it shouldn't, as I know what a sardonic and twisted sense of humor Herzog has from interviews. Herzog's film, from an excellent screenplay by William M. Finkelstein, and which bears no relation to the original Bad Lieutenant other than the name and being about a truly fucked up police officer, surpasses the original by being more clearly funny. Even some of the more potentially upsetting scenes are squeamishly riotous; one where Nicolas Cage's Lt. McDonagh interrogates an elderly African American grandmother about her grandson while also putting the fear of God in another old lady (even cutting off the poor woman's oxygen supply to get answers) made the elderly couple behind me uncomfortable but I giggled as I squirmed. And it also surpasses the original by having a bit more of a compelling crime mystery at the center, even if that plot is not the thing here.
Even without calling attention to it at all, Herzog captures the flavor of New Orleans without romanticizing it. In fact, au contraire -- he shows it's seediest and saddest sides, poverty-wrecked neighborhoods, post-Katrina, dilapidated plantation homes now rusting and rotting in the backwoods, alligator roadkill, depressing casinos and antiseptic high rise hotels. And the little flourishes only add to the delight here, like the shots from the point-of-view of iguanas and gators (lizard-cam, if you will), animals that it seems only the high-as-a-kite McDonagh can see (just as he can also see the dancing soul of a man who's been shot).
And of course Cage's performance is insane, and electrifies the film. It's good to have this Cage back, the Wild at Heart and Raising Arizona Cage who went off his rocker and to new heights, rather than the action-hero-Cage who started to seem like he was phoning in his performances in uninspired blockbusters. He's gleeful and it's contagious. But miraculously, Cage also manages to tap into the pathos of his character, and the film, too, balances that line between black comedy and sadness, rarely wobbling in the wrong direction.
Besides being aimless at times, if there's any other misstep in the film, in Finkelstein's script, it may be in the final act in which things -- all the deep, dangerous holes in which the lieutenant has dug for himself -- seem to all-too-neatly tie up happily. But even then, I couldn't help but get the sense that Herzog and the screenwriter had something up their sleeve; even in that final series of fortunate events it's hard not to picture them coming at you with a wink and a nod.
The supporting cast is excellent and chosen with care. Eva Mendes surprised me; it's not easy to find something interesting in what could be the stereotypical kind-hearted hooker role (and there were a few times where it started to feel cliched anyway), but she succeeds in making you care about the character. The boyish Shawn Hatosy is subtle but quite good as the more competent of the main trio of cops (along with Cage and Val Kilmer's less-fleshed-out cop Pruit); The Great Debaters' poker-faced Denzel Whitaker as the young witness; Brad Dourif, a long way from hanging out with Saruman, as always making an impression in very few scenes; and rapper-turned-actor Xzibit exhibiting excellent acting chops as drug kingpin Big Fate, who partners with the lieutenant and finds him as disturbing and hilarious as I do.
But it's Cage who really makes the film unforgettable. Long after the film is over, in our minds his soul is still dancing. -- craig phillips
West's 2005 horror film The Roost, his first feature, gained him some notoriety
as a throwback creature feature. It foreshadowed the path he'd go down as a
filmmaker -- a B horror movie with a 70s/80s visual style, a refreshing lack of
gloss - but it was uneven, a bit silly, and had one ending too many. His new film The House of
the Devil finds a maturing West moving through similar terrain but more assuredly. It's
again a return to old school horror but there's nothing campy here; it captures
the vibe without winking at the audience. This isn't Scream.
title card tells us we're in the 80s, with ominous words about the high number
of Americans who believed then in abusive Satanic Cults, and the even more
ominous words that the following is based – loosely no doubt -- on real
events.Even the opening credits
are done in 80s horror movie font and freeze-frame style with a slightly cheesy
synth-beat music score.And the
film’s storyline is refreshingly simple: a broke co-ed applies for babysitting
gig with the wrong family, and… it doesn't go well.
Donahue is quite appealing and natural as Samantha, the archetypal role of the
feisty college student thrust into a hellish situation (she was previously
seen in the odd but interesting 2008 Western-horror hybrid The Burrowers).
she decides to take the job, offered to her by the family’s soft-spoken
patriarch Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, best known
for LOL, Baghead and other indie/mumblecore-ish films) innocently warns her
that "it could be a kid from hell." But she doesn’t know the half of
it. And oh by the way, there's actually no kid. That's about when most people
would try to flee, but Ulman comes off as so sympathetic and persuasive (and
she's desperate for money) that, well, what the hell...
And of course the Ulman's house just has to be quite
a ways outside of town, surrounded by Blair Witch-ish woods. And the gig
just has to coincide with a lunar eclipse, which hits, of course, at midnight,
making everything even darker.
There aren’t any werewolves in this movie, but
there is a cameo by Dee Wallace, of Cujo and The Howling fame, as a landlady
who seems in a suspicious hurry to rent out a place to Samantha. That plot thread,
by the way, seemed a bit of a red herring – West sets it up to make you think
the film will unfold in the creepy house that Samantha decides to rent, but
instead we never return there. While this could’ve just been sloppy
storytelling, I’m inclined to think it was with a purpose, and to also
foreshadow Samantha’s own fate.
wouldn’t behoove me to reveal more of the plot, but West’s more interested in
setting mood and tone, and to shock in random bursts rather than as a steady
machine-gun fire. House of the Devil builds slowly, perhaps too much so for
those used to non-stop action of many recent horror films, except those films
often don't take the time to build tension or character. A couple of
early scenes do drag on in pacing a bit, but as one scene hooks on the next the effect
is chilling. The jolts, when they happen, are all the more heart-stopping,
and the third act is particularly shocking in how quickly it transpires. I
think the climax may even feel too rushed to some but I think it’s all the more
jarring for how it unfolds.
some ways the film could use another twist or two to it before it's all over,
but the simplicity of it is part of its spell. West knows all the conventions
of the genre, the expectations of the set up, and plays with them. And the
final shot could be just at home in Argento’s Phenomena, with Donahue a sub for
effectively, understated music score is composed by Jeff Grace, who also did
West's The Roost and the underrated chiller The Last Winter.
Noonan, who played a TV horror show host who introduces the story in The Roost, and who looks more and more
like the man in Grant Wood's American Gothic, is perfectly cast as the
soft-spoken Ulman. His wife is played by cult favorite actress Mary Woronov, a
frequent lead in many a Paul Bartel movie (and Principal Togar in Rock N Roll
High School) adds a level of gothic creep to her part, looking a bit like an older version of Karen
Black from Burnt Offerings (a 1976 film with which this film shares a certain amount of trappings).
of film's precautionary morals may be: Be careful who you order pizza from.
Don't get the one with mushrooms!
The Coen brothers' newest is one of the most Jewish-centric American films I've seen in a long while. As a lapsed Jew who's gone through my own existential crises, I found it especially fascinating. The film, like the Jewish faith, centers on questions and doesn't provide all the answers, and like my people it is gifted with a dark sense of humor and an often bleak worldview.
A Serious Man begins with a prologue, a darkly comic Yiddish folk story whose own ending is open-ended and foreshadows everything to come, including the main film's conclusion as well. And the Dybbuk-cursed 1960s world in which we then shift is at once dreamlike and a nightmare (and the film contains dream nightmares within the waking nightmare), as if David Lynch soaked his brain in the Talmud. But the blandly manicured Minnesota landscape of A Serious Man is unique, to both the time and place, as well as to the Coens' unmistakable perspective. It's every bit as distinct as their more WASP-inhabited wintertime Minnesota seen in Fargo, but also seemingly more autobiographical than any of their other films -- at least regarding the characterizations and the spot-on recreation of Synagogue Suburbia.
Michael Stuhlbarg, whom I saw on stage in New York several years ago with Billy Crudup in The Pillowman, and he was excellent even if I'd forgotten his name until this film came out, more than carries the film's burden. Neither too caricatured nor too milquetoasty, Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik with his black rimmed glasses and astonished-at-the-world expression seems at first a cousin to John Turturro's Barton Fink but Gopnik's exasperation is more grounded in reality. The Coen brothers of course can always be counted on for spot-on casting (it should be noted that the casting directors here are Ellen Chenoweth, who has a most impressive list of credits, and Rachel Tenner; both have cast quite of the Coens' recent films). No famous names here, just a lot of terrific character actors who look like they could be distant (or not so distant) members of my own family. Fred Melamed, who's had a long but relatively under the radar career, stands out as the touchy-feely family friend that Larry's wife wants to run off with. I know some fellow members of the Tribe have felt that the Jews depicted here are too gargoylish and stereotypical, a viewpoint I am sympathetic to but disagree with; I'd argue that the film actually shows more compassion for the main characters here than many Coen brothers film that have preceded it -- particularly Larry and his sad, awkwardly closeted brother (played so sweetly by Richard Kind). And it's the ideas here that are meant to be provocative.
"I'm a serious man, Larry," Melamed's Sy tells the stunned Gopnik, and at his own funeral, the rabbi repeats the assertion. While in some ways the notion that someone is more serious than another is playfully mocked here as essentially meaningless -- who doesn't want to be seen as "serious"? -- the Coens are striving for something deeper here.
Larry, a physics professor, attempts to teach the Uncertainty Principle (in both reality, and even less successfully, in a dream), but has yet to come to grips with how the principle may reflect his own life.
NY Times' critic AO Scott asks in his review of the film the appropriate question: "Are the Coens mockig God, playing God or taking his side in a rigged cosmic game? What’s the difference?"
The film's unsettling ending seems so perfectly Jewish and so perfectly apt given all that leads up to it. The Jewish faith explores life as questions that we spend that life trying to get the answers to -- some are answered, some are never answered, and sometimes the parking lot outside is more fascinating than you realize. But it's also a meditation on living a life, passively versus actively, and the things that happen to Larry may be happening to him because he has been passive for too long.
While the Dark Event (or event) that take place at the end is not quite akin to the Biblical plague of frogs at the end of Magnolia -- both deus ex machina but forgivable in this case because it is in fitting with the feeling we're all part of chaos theory being played out every day.