Rewind Review – Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Introduction

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

This is quite an unusual Werner Herzog film. Of course, one must realize that the statement is quite nearly oxymoronic in as much as there is no standard or quintessential Herzog film. It just never really seems to have his stamp on it until we start seeing Terence’s hallucinations through our eyes rather than his; or rather in perspective rather than POV.

It is interesting to note Herzog insisted he wasn’t doing a remake but producers added the insinuation with the title, for marketing purposes and in crediting the original writer, for fear of law suit. What is most intriguing and at the same time most vexing about this film is that it is a tale which has a lot of circles, and they all close such that the film is nearly a Spirograph and the beauty of such a thing is in the eye of the beholder. The only reason it is vexing is because all these separate subplots are fine except a majority of them resolve themselves within two minutes of each other to very comedic effect, whether intentional or not.

Nicolas Cage is getting very good reviews for this film and they are deserved, the only minor caveat I will add is that saying this is him at his best may be a little inaccurate. Perhaps this is him in his type. As I scan his filmography I see where I have liked him previously and he was depressed, frantic or addicted to something. Where he’s been most effective has been in The Weather Man, Adaptation and Matchstick Men to mention more previous work, where he usually gets hammered, looks uncomfortable and falters greatly is in action parts like Knowing. No speculation as to why that is but the Nicolas Cage seen in this film is scarcely the same man as he was in Knowing and thank goodness for that because he has to carry the film.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009,  First Look Studios)

In the end it is definitely an interesting film and not your usual fare. It leaves you torn between the comedy and the sad absurdity of the situation. At some point it does almost become a bit too much but all that is alleviated by a brilliantly directed and acted closing scene. A scene which frames the starting point of the troubles in the tale and while substance abuse seems to be over you’re left to wonder about the rest.

What Herzog does in this film can be best described as flirting with film noir. Flirting is as far as it ever goes because Herzog will never tie himself down to the conventions of genre but the seedy underworld elements are there as well as the lack of a moral compass, yet with so many frames thrown into the mix and some of the camera-work it could never be considered as such – barring the obvious fact that it is in color. It also resembles the progeny of those who loved noir, the New Wave, with some standard technique thrown in for good measure.

Herzog really works brilliantly with this cast which is part of what brings such a strange story home in the end. So well does he work with them that two actors in particular were nearly unrecognizable because of how they acted in their roles: one being Xzibit as Big Fate, the drug dealer who is the target of an investigation McDonagh (Cage) is heading the other being Fairuza Balk as a Highway Patrol Officer.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009, First Look Studios)

What is also interesting is that the story followed in the film for a significant portion of it is the execution of an immigrant family in the slums of New Orleans. That investigation vanishes after a while like a red herring but then works its way back in very interestingly.

What Herzog creates here is as always an interesting cinematic experience but also a transparent and approachable story line that perhaps will get people interested in his work. This may be about as close to convention as he ever is but you do get a taste for his style.

7/10

The Gray Area 2013

To put it in its simplest terms this piece is my best attempt to keep myself and my BAM Awards process honest. What this means is that if I had a legitimate opportunity to see a film in 2012, but for whatever reason it falls through the cracks, its review ends up here, rather than rolling over into 2013. There have been some good films that have appeared here in the past and I have found a home for them after all. For a guide to what these ratings mean go here.

Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher (2012, Paramount Pictures)

This is the kind of film that looks pretty good based on the trailer, but I’ll admit I didn’t rush out to see despite the fact that this film boasts the brilliant move of using Werner Herzog as its villain. My reaction to the trailer was that it seemed like those bits would be the highlights. It does, however, expound upon that with good action sequences and an intriguing web of mystery that’s well executed in visual and cinematic terms. It’s another winning project for Tom Cruise, who remains one of the few actors who can consistently find star vehicles that work on a narrative, financial and aesthetic level.

8/10

Clandestine Childhood

Clandestine Childhood (2011, Film Movement)

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, for I mentioned this when I reviewed Teddy Bear, not only do I truly enjoy the fact that Film Movement pairs a short film with its feature, but whenever possible its by the same director, and on occasion the short that inspired the feature. Here that is the case and it’s interesting inasmuch as the short serves as a springboard to the feature rather than just being expounded upon. The film is very well-shot with creative use of color and effective lighting throughout. It illuminates the oppressive atmosphere rebels in Argentina faced living under the regime of the late-70s/early 80s with human characters, humor and sensitivity. It’s not a wonder that Avila’s first feature earned him a spot at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes.

8/10

The Impossible

The Impossible (2012, Summit)

Out of all the films that will likely end up appearing in this post before it peters out, this one was the most lamentable. This past year was the first time I that I jotted down a list of films I wanted to see before the year was out in order to create my lists and awards. This was the only one left on the the outside looking in.

All that aside, be it my awards, the Oscars or anything else, the film still stands and should be seen. The film has a very smooth and even flow, such that the climactic sequence feels like it may be a prelude of false hope. On the technical end the film is a small marvel, not only in terms of effects work but also in terms of sound design and scoring. That’s before you get to the narrative and the performances. There’s a wonderful, pitch-perfect cameo, which is as much as I will say. As for the leads: Ewan McGregor’s work in one particular scene is likely the best moment of his career to date, and he’ll have many more to come, Naomi Watts is brilliant and all her accolades for the film are more than deserved. Most critical is the involvement of Tom Holland. He’s the audience’s bridge to the narrative, we divide time between his mother’s plight and father’s search, and he shoulders much of the burden and has a star-making turn that out not be drowned out in the award season buzz and should be seen.

Perhaps the best thing one can say about this film is that its impact as a piece of cinema is not immediately felt because it really is a harrowing and intimate portrait of a tragedy, and all that credit goes to director J.A. Bayona. The tonality of the film never wavers in its intent so it for the most part continues to feel like an account of an event rather than fiction. It never really feels over-dramatized or sensationalized, it’s real enough such that it’s engaging if not entertaining in the traditional sense.

9/10

The Thompsons

The Hamiltons (2012, Film Harvest)

Essentially part of the criteria for falling through the cracks in one year is cognizance. The release date on video for this film was 12/31, which made it a tough one to acquire and view before the end of the year.

This film reaches an honorable and rare duality of being a sequel that one could watch without having seen its predecessor and that continues the trajectory of a series properly. This sequel builds upon its own vampire myth, which is one whose origin is genetic rather than viral. What this film does infinitely better than its predecessor is build mystery, and suspense but also has reveals and significant plot points at a persistent pace. The necessary information, both new and old, is relayed quickly enough such that the raising of stakes happens early and often. You also have here a rather unusual paradigm wherein humanity is the outside world and you’re purely in a vampiric world. What The Thompsons does is firmly establish a foothold for the Buthcer Brothers concept in the genre, one that should be supported by those who like seeing new takes on old creatures, and specifically, want vampires to be brutal.

8/10

A Journey from Narrative to Documentary with Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is a very interesting figure with whom the typical film enthusiast may not be familiar. However, if you believe that all films are run-of-the-mill, and that documentaries cannot compare to narrative fiction films, allow Herzog to demonstrate the opposite. With these titles you can become familiar with him and if you enjoy them can move on to his more challenging, esoteric works.  

Narrative

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

This tale is the perfect introduction to Werner Herzog, as it is the simplest and most transparent of his tales. It is also the perfect segue from his narrative work to his documentaries because it concerns a true story. It tells the tale of a mysterious foundling, Hauser, who appears as if from nowhere on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828. He can hardly speak, walk or write. Rather than interviewing historians and having them dispute the facts and various uncertainties regarding this strange and unusual case, Herzog presents us with a fictionalized depiction of this man’s life, mostly due to the fact that both its beginning and end are shrouded in mystery.

The mysteries of Hauser’s life are echoed throughout with a brilliant use of fragmental imagery and stories. One story Hauser only knows the beginning of, another being a shot of what looks like the hills in the distance as a Mysterious Caped Man freed him, this image is inconsistent and flickering seeming to indicate his spotty memory of his past, lastly in a near-death experience we see an awe-inspiring image of people climbing a pebbly crag in a heavy fog where at the top, remaining unseen, Kaspar says he sees Death. Foreshadowing his demise but as in reality we remain uncertain of the culprit’s identity.

The cinematography in this film is always simple in its framing and even in its lighting except where it needs to be fantastical, keeping a very true-to-life feel no dramatic contrast, or shafts of light to detract from the reality of the tale being told. Some takes are also quite long so that we see how the simplest task is labored for Kaspar when he is in his cellar.

Lastly, this movie will really keep you hooked due to the incredibly layered performance of Bruno S., which is absolutely spellbinding. He creates a wonderfully intriguing and surprisingly complex character which belies his seeming simplicity.

Documentary

Lessons of Darkness

The next logical step in the progression from narrative film to documentary would be Lessons of Darkness. What is amazing about this film, in part, is the cinematography with long tacking helicopter shots of oil fires and the destruction which Kuwait was left in following the Gulf War. However, starting with a quote from the Book of Revelation, a common theme in Herzog’s docs, Lessons of Darkness is much more an allegorical statement about the destructiveness of war in general than a commentary on the Gulf War itself. In fact, it is never identified as Kuwait in the narration of the film and no soldier discussed is ever identified as American. Herzog rendering the chaos more anonymous makes it then much more profound. For about an hour we travel across the countryside amidst oil lakes, fires and smoke and watch as the destruction remains, increases and regenerates.  There is little if any narration at all in this film because the images and the title cards say it all, as does the title of the film itself. This is a land that has been demolished and left in squalor and a cloud of smoke and it needn’t be identified because it could be anywhere next, due to these factors Lessons of Darkness toes the line between documentary and narrative film and it is also the rare documentary that increases the scope of the subject it is covering rather than decreasing it.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

The progression should continue with this step because it also concerns war but in a much more concrete and traditionally documentarian fashion. This film tells the tale of Dieter Dengler, who grew up in Germany after World War II. The theme of a country decimated (in more ways than one) by war returns. As a child he has a dream to fly but has no means to do so in his homeland. He decides to immigrate to the US and become a citizen and join the Air Force. He goes off to Vietnam where he ends up a POW.

At this point in the tale is where Herzog’s talents really come into play. He does use some stills but he decides to re-enact certain events in Vietnam with Dengler, many years later, and with local volunteers making the experience much more immediate to all involved, the audience, Dengler and the Vietnamese. Certain parts of the jungle are crucial to his escape are also revisited with several incredible tales such as the retrieval of his wedding ring, loss of his comrade, spotting of a bear and being alone facing death.



Grizzly Man

Anyone who ever heard of Timothy Treadwell during his lifetime and dismissed him as crazy should watch this film. Here Herzog tells the tale of a man many simply called ‘The Grizzly Man’ due to the fact that he’d sojourn to Kodiak Island, Alaska every summer to live amongst the Grizzly Bears and ultimately met his demise there. Every decision a person makes especially one of this magnitude, involving this much risk, is made for a reason. In this tale the reasons unravel themselves. An intimate and complex portrait of a gentle tortured soul is painted beautifully by masterful filmmaker.

The range of emotions you feel watching this film run the gamut and they hit you hard and in succession. You’ll be astounded by the purity of his intent, think him crazy for something he did, feel nostalgic sadness hearing his parents speak, laugh because of something he said, be on the verge of tears feeling his friends loss and be remorseful that things didn’t go differently.

Grizzly Man is a complete cinematic experience in every sense and the fact that the film is a documentary is irrelevant. The structure and pacing of events gives you chills at times.

Grizzly Man just might be the best documentary I’ve seen in my limited experience, (barring my having seen Encounters at the End of the World because the idea of meeting those who work in Antarctica has always fascinated me) in part because of some things a documentary professor would dislike. Herzog remains the eminent auteur putting his stamp and occasionally his opinion in the film, which is technically verboten but I didn’t mind – it’s human, it’s being an artist. It was a film as seemingly simple but utterly complex as the man himself and to paraphrase Herzog as any man’s human struggle. Treadwell’s footage couldn’t have found better, more caring hands.

So now that you have a road map showing you how to go from Narrative to documentary by the great Herzog you can find all of these films on Netflix.

Review- Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog in Chavet cave. (IFC Films/Sundance Selects)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Werner Herzog’s meditation on the cave art which was discovered when the Chauvet cave in France was first unearthed in 1994, a sight that is seen by a privileged few human eyes. Meditation is an apt word for it also, for while these examples of cave art are the best preserved, some of the oldest and most detailed we’ve found there’s still plenty about them shrouded in mystery which scientists of varying disciplines are trying to piece together.

This lack of certainty with regards to the subject leads this to be a documentary of a more poetic nature, which makes Werner Herzog the perfect director to tackle the subject. Herzog has shown in his documentary work not only the ability to write illuminating narration and deliver it exceedingly well but also to make almost any subject fascinating, render it in an interesting fashion and find an emotional angle in which to attack it.

The attack in this instance is somewhat deterred by some production restraints that are placed on the film by the curator of the cave. While perhaps there’s too much time dedicated to discussing them they do have bearing on the story in two manners: firstly, it’s a Herzog documentary and whether you like it or not he will be involved in it. He’s not one to distance himself from his subject. Second, it does illustrate the efforts that researchers are taking to maintain the pristine conditions of the cave so they can continue to study it without any more degradation than necessary.

Despite lighting limitations there are many wonderful images captured within the cave and as any true artist would Herzog uses the limitations to his advantage. One prime example which you see frequently is the camera hardly moves, the light pans over to it; the light level changes, shadows emerge and then fade to black. It makes the transition more natural than it would be with ideal lighting conditions and its exploited well.

Heightening the poetry and emotion of the piece beyond what it should realistically be expected to achieve is the music. The scoring of this film echoes a timelessness and a message being conveyed across the aeons that is difficult to communicate in words.

While the film isn’t as tightly edited as it could be there are sequences within in it that are like pieces of music themselves with crescendos and then silences and then the extended montage of just cave images that they were able to shoot closer since research for the year had been concluded.

The interviews are also pivotal, thankfully they weren’t too numerous if anything at times an intercession was lacking but the positive that came from them was that they were revealing attempts to elucidate the impossible.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams owes much of its success and some its struggles to its subject matter. The subject matter couldn’t be more interesting: it’s a fascinating examination of unanswerable mysteries of a bygone era and the dawn of man. However, much is unexplained, which allows your imagination to work and that’s good but leaves you in search of some closure. Regardless, Herzog does add a nice button connecting the cave to the modern day in a very creative way and it’s a film well worth seeing.

8/10