THE BAD LIEUTENANT - PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS
starring Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner
screenplay by William Finkelstein, based on the film by Abel Ferrara
directed by Werner Herzog
screenplay by Joe Stillman
directed by Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad & Marcos Martinez
ME AND ORSON WELLES
starring Claire Danes, Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Zoë Kazan
screenplay by Holly Gent Palmo & Vincent Palmo, based on the book by Robert Kaplow
directed by Richard Linklater
by Ian Pugh Playing against his sadistic instincts, police sergeant Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) saves a man from drowning in a flooded prison during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, earning him not only a promotion to lieutenant but also a debilitating spinal injury. A subsequent addiction to prescription painkillers inevitably leads McDonagh to harder drugs and casual abuses of his newfound power as he attempts to solve the murder of a Senegalese drug dealer and his family. Trading Abel Ferrara's sulphuric New York for a no-less-hellish Louisiana noir, Werner Herzog's in-name-only remake of Bad Lieutenant is a work of delirious madness. That should come as no surprise from the man who's spent the last forty years cataloguing human obsession, but I don't think I'd ever really understood the method behind it until The Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans (hereafter Bad Lieutenant 2). Madness is about possibility, and what better complement to that philosophy than Nicolas Cage, an actor who--at his best, like Herzog--apparently regards the conventions and boundaries of his craft as simple suggestions that must be defied? A quick look at what they're capable of accomplishing together and you're a little surprised they haven't teamed up before. As McDonagh, Cage projects the dangerous unpredictability of Kinski* and the sympathetic brutality of Bruno S.: you don't fear him, exactly, but you're afraid of what he might become; you don't feel sorry for him, but you lament what he could have been. ("I'll kill 'im," he says at one point, the frightening indifference in his voice leaving uncertain if--or how--he plans to act on that idle threat.) Halfway through the film, after the stakes in play are thoroughly established, Cage/McDonagh suddenly adopts a muted, cotton-mouthed accent. Why?
That move recalls the shaky, malleable personality that defined Cage's Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas (and this may well be his best performance since), revisiting the same addict's desperation to alter his very being until he's acceptable to society. But pay attention to his incredulous chuckle whenever he mentions that one of Big Fate's henchmen is nicknamed "G," or how he shifts uncomfortably between stern lectures and ingratiating small-talk while interrogating his perps: he's barely keeping it together, but he's probably been like that for years. Leaving Las Vegas' Ben Sanderson was a good friend and loving father until the alcohol robbed him of something vital; the way Herzog and Cage play it, there are no entry (or exit) points in Terry's insanity--we have simply stumbled onto the latest iteration of it. There is little variety in his life beyond snorting, fucking, and making promises that are immediately broken, and we suspect this was always the case. And though the people around him are capable of redeeming themselves (his prostitute girlfriend (a wonderful Eva Mendes); his alcoholic father (Tom Bower)), we soon realize that we're not about to witness any epiphanies or interruptions to that cycle. Should Terry suffer any residual guilt from robbing civilians or cheating his fellow officers, rest assured it will have dissipated by the next time he does it. Should he incur any debts that are impossible to repay, rest assured they will correct themselves. Should Herzog send us into a hallucinatory daydream involving crocodiles, rest assured that the next scene will feature iguanas instead. Unlike Harvey Keitel in his own version of the material, there isn't a moment of introspection that lasts long enough to be noticeable--the film doesn't send Terry deeper into the recesses of insanity so much as it merely reinvents his personal status quo every five minutes.
The real wonder of Bad Lieutenant 2 is that it's genuinely bewildering. (It would work pretty well on a double-bill with A Serious Man.) As a result of his own trigger-happy ignorance, Terrence is stalked by a mob enforcer; when the enforcer is finally gunned down, Terrence concludes--laughing hysterically--that he must be shot again because "his soul's still dancing," and indeed he has left a much younger version of himself breakdancing on the floor. We barely knew this guy, dismissed him outright as a mindless thug, and yet we're left wondering who he was to warrant such a spry and lively avatar. (The music that accompanies this entire sequence is the same hillbilly rag that played off the dancing chicken at the end of Stroszek--a fittingly cryptic bit of self-referencing on Herzog's part, as well as an existential question mark if ever there was one.) Bad Lieutenant 2 is about the measure of a man, the weight of his daily routine, and whether he or anyone else can begin to understand how the totality of his experiences defines him. Asked at a pivotal juncture if the murder investigation ever mattered, Terrence mumbles, "Look at me. Now look at you. It never did." What does matter to him? That's the question that drives this film, and the bitter joke of it is that you'll never be able to tell by looking at him--or by how he looks at anyone else.
There's no room for ambiguity in the aggressively witless Planet 51, another casualty in the post-Shrek landscape of children's cinema. It basically amounts to an inferior remake of the "Futurama" episode "Fear of a Bot Planet" whereby little green men, their culture mired in '50s Americana, scare themselves silly with panicky sci-fi movies about human invasions. That doesn't bode well for douchebag astronaut Chuck Baker (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), who arrives from outer space and must be hidden/protected/saved by anxious teenager Lem (Justin Long). Practically everything you need to know is contained in this thumbnail, but it's interesting to consider how films like this create so strict a delineation in the material they proffer to their intended audiences. Piss-and-pratfall jokes for the kids constantly bump up against pop-culture references intended as a heavy elbow aimed at their parents' ribs, and never the two shall meet. Despite its obvious intentions, post-'50s sci-fi acts as Planet 51's target for adults, with dramatic dialogue lifted wholesale from Star Wars, E.T.'s moonlight bike ride, a harmless version of Alien's xenomorph (a pet dog--named Ripley!), and one more sarcastic iteration of "Also Sprach Zarathustra"--though, by this point in time, anyone old enough to understand those jokes in the first place has already heard them a hundred times over. It should probably go without saying that the apocalyptic/psychosexual implications of '50s culture are largely ignored in favour of portraying the locals as lovable naïfs, meaning that the greatest threat to be found in the film is the proto-hippie (Alan Marriott) who stages obnoxious protests and makes moves on Lem's unrequited love (Jessica Biel). He eventually receives a violent beat-down for his trouble, which alone probably says more about Planet 51 than I ever could. A spoonful of false nostalgia makes the bitter medicine go down, doesn't it?
Similarly, find a winking allusion to historical/artistic precedent in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles, as the titular wunderkind (Christian McKay) wonders aloud how he could possibly top his theatrical production of Julius Caesar in 1937. It turns out to be a relevant theme, though, when Welles, in need of a Lucius, hires Richard (Zac Efron), a precocious lad of seventeen eager to jumpstart his artistic career at the Mercury. Efron valiantly attempts to carry a film on his own accord (despite a certain blandness, he proves that being the only bearable aspect of the High School Musical series wasn't quite a fluke), but he's nothing compared to the self-conscious artist/brute looming over his character. While it's tempting to say that everything and everyone are overshadowed by McKay's pitch-perfect imitation (one that captures the artist in all his legendary brilliance, ego, and cruelty), it's really the spectre of Welles himself that haunts Me and Orson Welles. The picture's about the hope that a proximity to genius will force it to rub off on the rest of us--a point never made clearer than when our boy brushes a writer friend's manuscript against Keats's Grecian Urn. For all its conclusions about the virtues of going your own path and forging your own memories, Richard's story ends up completely absorbed by Welles, or at least the reputation that preceded him; he's a regular Holly Martins, an unknowing child-amateur destined to fail against the devil's charisma. (Even Claire Danes's Sonja, the objet d'amour of the piece and a major point of contention among the central players, is merely a pale imitation of Alida Valli's Anna Schmidt.) Me and Orson Welles feels like it belongs on the stage--and maybe that's appropriate, but it doesn't forgive the stiltedness of it. What's more, rather than act as a reflection of the titular artist's work, it seems like it would prefer you not give it a second thought when Welles's own tales of great but flawed men are there for the taking. When was the last time you saw Citizen Kane, anyway? Originally published: November 26, 2009.