Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009, Werner Herzog)

I recently read an interview with Elliott Gould in which he described himself as a “jazz actor,” and watching Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, I realized that the same label could be applied to Nicolas Cage. In his signature roles, Cage doesn’t adopt a straightforward approach to characterization, but rather treats the script as the theme and proceeds to riff on the material he’s given. In many ways, Lt. Terence McDonagh is the ultimate Cage performance, full of unorthodox acting choices that work beautifully. Cage goes over the top all right, but it never feels like he’s simply hamming it up for the hell of it. Everything works in the context of the character, from his repeated dialogue quirks (dig his disbelieving chuckle whenever he mentions the henchman “G”) to the character’s outlandish behavior. It would be sort of unbearable if Cage appeared to be breaking a sweat, but he inhabits the character so fully that he seems completely in control even in the character's craziest moments.

Take the already legendary bit in which McDonagh turns up to interrogate an old woman, delivering a half-crazed monologue while shaving with an electric razor. On the one hand, it’s an almost surreal touch. But unlike, say, Marlon Brando offering George C. Scott a Milk Dud in The Formula, it makes a certain amount of sense- McDonagh’s been going nonstop for three days, and he’s become so blinkered by the case (and so strung-out on drugs) that he no longer has time to shave at home. And if it disorients the woman, so much the better.

Similarly, BL: PoCNO can be seen as a spiritual cousin to The Long Goodbye. Like Altman’s film (which- whaddya know- stars Gould), Herzog’s is a genre offering that’s not content to color inside the lines, inside using the framework to explore the confines of the formula. And if Herzog’s film isn’t the masterpiece that Altman’s is, it’s less because his material isn’t as good- although it’s hard to beat Chandler’s best novel for source material- but because the filmmakers’ approaches to genre exploration are difference. Altman exploded the detective mystery by transplanting a 1940s story to the alien world of 1970s Los Angeles, thereby exploring the contrasts of the genre conventions to the morality of the later period.

By contrast, Herzog couldn’t care less about the genre in which he works, treating the script as almost an excuse to chase after the things that really interest him- New Orleans post-Katrina, the implacability of nature (those iguanas!), and a hero so rotten that he poisons damn near everyone he encounters. Even psychoanalysis gets thrown out the window here- none of the Catholic guilt of the first film. Instead, Herzog and Cage make McDonagh a guy who has so much fun being bad that it becomes infectious. It’s this sense of fun that makes BL: PoCNO something of a tough nut to crack- it’s rare to find a movie that invites us to enjoy a character this irredeemable, after all. But in the hands of Herzog and Cage (two great surrealist tastes that taste great together), it’s more than a guilty pleasure- it’s one of the year’s most irresistible entertainments.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Me and Orson Welles (2008, Richard Linklater)

It’s become something of an awards-season cliché that actors are bound to get plenty of hype for playing famous people. Frankly, I’ve gotten a little tired of it- yeah, I suppose it’s neat to see, for example, Jaime Foxx playing Ray Charles, but once the initial charge wears off, the idea of one celebrity playing another feels like a thespian parlor trick designed to grab the attention of Oscar voters. However, Christian McKay’s justifiably feted turn as the late Mr. Welles is an exception- a full-blooded creation that transcends the requisite mimicry. McKay’s work is spellbinding, and his Welles is the rare interpretation of a historical figure that would be just as compelling a character had he not existed in real life.

Naturally, McKay has an advantage over bigger name stars in that he doesn’t carry the same amount of star baggage, which allows him to slip more easily into the role itself. But the brilliance of McKay’s performance is that he understands, deep down, that the image of Orson Welles that looms so imposingly over film and theatrical history was as much of a creation of Welles as it was the great man’s honest-to-goodness personality. His brash charm and titanic ego weren’t merely the results of his genius- they also allowed his genius to function in a society that can be brutal to those who stray too far afield from the safe and mediocre. Yes, Welles could be a bastard to those around him, even his closest collaborators. But who could possibly argue with the results?

Great man aside, Me & Orson Welles isn’t a great film about the theatre in the way that Topsy-Turvy is. Much of this is due to how blinkered its story is- young hero Richard (Zac Efron) is cast less than a week before opening night, and is sort of carried along by circumstance, with the assistance of plucky ambitious Sonja (Claire Danes) and the blessing of Welles himself. Welles casts a long shadow over this story, to the point where even his absence is defined by the fact that he’s not there. But while this isn’t particularly satisfying from a dramatic standpoint, it feels strangely right in light of the character of Welles. Throughout his career, the Welles mystique dominated practically everyone with whom he worked, although Joseph Cotten carved out a solid career on his own and John Houseman became an eminent figure in his own right after parting ways with his early associate. And needless to say, Richard and Sonja are hardly Cotten and Houseman, and they quickly find themselves swallowed up in Welles’ grand design.

But what I found particularly refreshing about Me & Orson Welles was that, for all his flaws, Welles is never made the villain. But then, Linklater has never been about bad guys. His potentially villainous characters are generally buffoons who need to be taken down a few pegs, such as Greg Kinnear in Bad News Bears, O’Bannion in Dazed and Confused. And if there’s one thing Welles isn’t, it’s a buffoon. He’s an egomaniac, a blowhard, a taskmaster, and a philanderer. But as Linklater’s forebear Renoir once put it, “everyone has his reasons.” Linklater is clearly on Welles’ side not just because of his genius and charm, but also because his shortcomings are part and parcel with his brilliance.

Also, I would be delinquent in my duties as a critic (albeit an unpaid non-pro version of one) were I not to mention the film’s other great supporting performance, courtesy of Zoe Kazan. Admittedly, the scenes involving Welles are the centerpiece of the film, and the primary reason for seeing it. However, Kazan is so good as Gretta, an aspiring writer with whom Richard has an ongoing flirtation throughout the film, that her scenes have a charge all their own. Gretta is the only major character in the film who exists independently of Welles, and in the hands of a lesser actress these scenes would feel like half-hearted stabs at a romantic subplot. But Gretta is no obligatory love interest, and Kazan’s presence transforms her scenes with Efron into a refreshing reprieve from the intrigues of the Mercury Theatre. Kazan is what is so often referred to as an “unconventional beauty,” but she’s warmer and more genuine than any number of cookie-cutter starlets, with a smile that’s absolutely glowing. In her own luminous way, Kazan gives just as much of a star-making performance as McKay does.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Antichrist (2009, Lars Von Trier)

One of the challenges of reviewing a movie as visceral as Antichrist is that it’s difficult to see past the initial impact to the headier stuff on display. I saw Antichrist for the first time on Friday night, and since then I’ve been turning it over in my head, trying to puzzle out what Von Trier is doing with the film. However, my more immediate reaction to it was closer to stunned silence at the sheer force of the filmmaking and the often-shocking imagery. Make no mistake- Antichrist hits, and hits hard.

“If nothing else, Antichrist is the best horror movie in years,” I told a friend the other day, and I stand by this statement. With all his aspirations to artistry, Antichrist is first and foremost a horror movie, and a highly effective one (read: scary) at that. Much like Kubrick’s take on The Shining, most of the horror in Antichrist comes not from the explosion of violence and gore that comes in the last couple of reels, but rather from the creeping dread in the build-up to that point. And I do mean “creeping”- Von Trier’s use of extreme slow-motion in a number of sequences in Antichrist is nothing short of stunning, giving already some already gorgeous images a hypnotic effect while burrowing themselves into your consciousness. If I had trouble sleeping the night after I saw Antichrist, it’s these shots that were to blame.

Thankfully, Antichrist gave me plenty to think about during my sleepless hours. The best horror films tend to smuggle in their ideas as subtext, but Von Trier foregrounds his here in a way few horror filmmakers have. Antichrist is a thicket of themes and theses, tackling topics ranging from the historical repression of female sexuality to the sinister qualities of the natural world. In addition, Von Trier the limits of psychology and psychotherapy, examines the grief process, and the dissolution of a loving marriage in its wake. All this set against the portrayal of a world seemingly ruled over by a deity who appears to be anything but benevolent. Pretty heady stuff, I’d say.

Even more than most of Von Trier’s films, Antichrist has been a target for plenty of criticism from those who believe the filmmaker to be an inveterate misogynist. But while the film eventually becomes the story of a woman who goes nuts and subjects her husband to unspeakable violence, I don’t think it’s as simple as it appears to be at first glance. After all, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg, fierce and fearless) is still reeling from the accidental death of her son, which Von Trier shows in agonizing detail in the film’s opening scene. And rather than trusting her treatment to the medical establishment, her therapist husband (Willem Dafoe) takes on the case himself. He then proceeds to fully embrace his therapist role, making himself emotionally unavailable at precisely the time she needs a loving husband most. What’s more, his therapy techniques are dubious at best, consisting of Freudian psychobabble and face-your-fears platitudes, the latter leading them to their cabin in the woods (called “Eden”), which she harbors fears for even under ideal circumstances.

So yeah, He probably isn’t helping her sanity much. But just as important is Von Trier’s acknowledgement of the longstanding male fear of female sexuality, which have manifested themselves in alarming ways throughout the centuries. Before her son’s death, She was working on a graduate theses that examined these historical practices, but in light of the circumstances surrounding the boy’s accident- She was making love to her husband when the boy escaped his crib, and indeed she is shown having an orgasm just as he plunges to his death- she would understandably connect her carnal urges to destruction. So considering her extreme guilt coupled with her overwhelming grief, and exacerbated by the forbidding surroundings of Eden, the violence She displays in the final reels of Antichrist isn’t much of a stretch for the story.

This is made explicit in what is perhaps the film’s most notorious shot, in which She takes a pair of scissors to herself and snips off her clitoris. In other hands- for example, Takashi Miike at his laziest- this might have come across as an empty shock tactic. However, in the context of Antichrist, it’s anything but. Having already supplied us with images of historical persecution of women- torture, executions, and the like- von Trier uses this shot to summon up an image of contemporary persecution, one practiced among cultures that are still suspicious of the female sex. That Antichrist shows a woman doing it to herself is especially horrifying, since She has become so afraid of the destructive power of her sex that she feels the need to remove it altogether.

Even setting aside the film’s rather politically-incorrect views on gender, Antichrist is a von Trier film through and through. He’s arrogance in dealing with his wife’s mental health is similar to that displayed by Tom Edison in Dogville and Grace in Manderlay. And the use of hypnosis as a key plot point hearkens back to von Trier’s earlier work, from the narration of both The Element of Crime and Europa to the harrowing final scene of Epidemic. And like many von Trier films, Antichrist is a portrait of a social institution- a marriage, in this case- that is sent into disarray by the addition (or subtraction) of a key ingredient. After little Nick falls from the balcony, nothing can be put back together again, until, yes, “chaos reigns.”

Alas, Antichrist isn’t one of von Trier’s best films. For one thing, von Trier doesn’t quite manage to make his multitude of ideas cohere in an interesting (what does She’s sexual psychosis have to do with her phobia of the outdoors, for example?). Likewise, while some of the film’s more infamous elements- such as the aforementioned self-mutilation- make sense thematically, others seem to be included primarily for shock value, lending credence to the naysayers who dismiss von Trier as a mere provocateur. All the same, Antichrist is an important film, one for critics and cinephiles to dismiss at their peril. Von Trier claims that he made the film while suffering through a bout of severe depression, and the frayed-nerve filmmaking on display here is clearly born out of a very dark and personal place. For all its flaws, Antichrist feels like a key work for its maker, and I suspect that its reputation will only grow once the shock has worn off.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Friday, December 4, 2009

2009 Releases by Rating

10 ratings:
Up (Pete Docter)

9 ratings:
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Lorna’s Silence (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

8 ratings:
Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson)
Duplicity (Tony Gilroy)
Julia (Erick Zonca)
Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola)
Two Lovers (James Gray)
You, the Living (Roy Andersson)

7 ratings:
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)
Coraline (Henry Selick)
Crank 2: High Voltage (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor)
Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Robert Zemeckis)
Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)
Fados (Carlos Saura)
Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
Hunger (Steve McQueen)
In the Loop (Armando Iannucci)
The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh)
Observe and Report (Jody Hill)
Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki)
Revanche (Götz Spielmann)

6 ratings:
(500) Days of Summer (Mark Webb)
24 City (Jia Zhang-ke)
Adoration (Atom Egoyan)
The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)
Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone)
Land of the Lost (Brad Silberling)
The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)
Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli)
Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
Star Trek (JJ Abrams)
Sugar (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden)
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain)
Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim)
Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy)
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Chris Weitz)
Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)
Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer)

5 ratings:
17 Again (Burr Steers)
Angels and Demons (Ron Howard)
Away We Go (Sam Mendes)
Brüno (Larry Charles)
Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore)
An Education (Lone Scherfig)
Funny People (Judd Apatow)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates)
Hotel for Dogs (Thor Freudenthal)
Inkheart (Iain Softley)
Monsters vs. Aliens (Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon)
A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Tyson (James Toback)
Watchmen (Zack Snyder)
Whatever Works (Woody Allen)

4 ratings:
Big Man Japan (Hitoshi Matsumoto)
Extract (Mike Judge)
G-Force (Hoyt Yeatman)
Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee)

0 through 3 ratings:
None… yet.

Still need to see:
35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis)
Antichrist (Lars Von Trier) [opening 4 Dec]
Anvil!: The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi) [now on DVD]
Avatar (James Cameron)
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog)
Big Fan (Robert Siegel)
Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders)
Bright Star (Jane Campion)
Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar)
Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn)
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (Frederick Wiseman) [coming in February]
An Education (Lone Scherfig) [now playing]
Home (Ursula Meier)
Humpday (Lynn Shelton) [now on DVD]
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Terry Gilliam)
Import Export (Ulrich Seidl)
Invictus (Clint Eastwood)
Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke) [now on DVD]
The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson)
Mammoth (Lukas Moodysson)
Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater) [opening 18 Dec]
Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo)
Passing Strange: The Movie (Spike Lee)
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (Lee Daniels) [now playing]
Red Cliff (John Woo)
Rembrandt’s J’Accuse! (Peter Greenaway) [now on DVD]
The Road (John Hillcoat)
A Single Man (Tom Ford)
Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Storm (Hans-Christian Schmid)
The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
Thirst (Chan-wook Park) [now on DVD]
Up in the Air (Jason Reitman]
The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
Wild Grass (Alain Resnais)
World’s Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait)