Review: Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Director: Werner Herzog

****

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a strange beast. It takes its name from Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), and both feature a police lieutenant (Harvey Keitel in the original, Nicolas Cage now) whose behaviour on-and-off-duty is morally and legally questionable. However, that is where the comparisons have to end; Keitel and Cage aren’t even playing the same character. This is not a sequel, nor a remake (or a ‘reimagining’ as the studios like to say. Idiots.). The only thing the two films have in common is the name; BL:POCNO director Werner Herzog claims never to have seen Ferrara’s film, and Ferrara denounced Herzog’s film before it even began shooting. This can’t end well, surely?

The plot centres on Cage’s Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, working in a post-Katrina New Orleans. He’s good at his job, despite suffering from severe back pain and addictions to cocaine and gambling. His beat is a city ravaged by Mother Nature and crime (Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography and Toby Corbett’s design and sets create a city that is struggling to rebuild, bereft of the traditional picturesque nature of the South). Against this colourful gallery of ailments, McDonagh is investigating the murder of five Senegalese immigrants whilst trying to hold his life and his relationship with his drug-dealer girlfriend (Eva Mendes) together.

BL:POCNO sounds like insanity. Strike that; it is insanity! It shouldn’t work. This is the kind of schlocky material that leads to the likes of Showgirls and 8MM. Yet, it does work. Somehow, through all the chaos, the drugs and the violence, a surprisingly entertaining romp emerges. Of course, it helps to have two experts in capturing insanity onscreen. Firstly, Cage is mesmerising; he goes from endearing hero to cackling hophead in the blink of an eye/sniff of a line. No-one does this kind of controlled mania like Cage, and it’s his best performance since Lord of War (not difficult when your CV since then includes Knowing and [shudder] The Wicker Man.) Herzog, meanwhile, brings his uncanny knack for the brilliantly absurd to the fore. As far as this critic knows, this is the only film to shoot a scene from the point of view of an iguana that is actually the figment of a character’s drug-addled imagination (That sentence will make a lot more sense once you see the film). Any man who could simultaneously get a ship hauled over a mountain and control Klaus Kinski could extricate some sense from this mess, and Herzog does. He keeps just enough of the barmy brilliance of William M. Finkelstein’s script intact to allow the plot to come through, and then craziness ensues. When you go to the box office and are about to enter the theatre, just take a deep breath and then let yourself go. It’s often easier to go with the flow than resist the mania.

Review: Star Trek (2009)

Director: JJ Abrams

****

Realistically, there should be something embarrassing about any studio’s attempt to relaunch a tired franchise. In recent years, they’ve had a chequered history; for every Batman Begins, there’s a Superman Returns. Star Trek should really fall into the latter category; based on a campy ‘60s TV show, which was followed by films of ever diminishing quality. Insurrection? Nemesis? No, thought not. However, director JJ Abrams and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci do a tremendous job of reducing the various stories and history of the Star Trek franchise down to an exciting and heartfelt origin story, accessible to both die-hard Trekkies and complete newcomers.

When a Federation starship is attacked by a vengeful Romulan warrior (Eric Bana), the captain’s pregnant wife is evacuated at the cost of her husband. 25 years later, the child grows up to be James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine, cocky), who is a rebel in his rural Iowan home. Federation Commander Pike (Bruce Greenwood, dignified) then comes to persuade Kirk to train to become a member of the Federation. If this doesn’t reek of standard origin story by now, it will by the time Kirk meets the classmates who will eventually become his crew on board the Starship Enterprise, such as Uhura (Zoe Saldana, short shorts), Bones (Karl Urban, goofy) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), the Vulcan who bases all decisions on logic and seems to lack emotion.

As you can probably guess, the first hour or so of the film is setup for the rest of the film and the prospective franchise. However, that’s not altogether a bad thing. There are clichés, there are obvious character arcs and relationships and build-up to an inevitable mano-a-mano between hero and villain. However, there is also a tremendous amount of energy and verve here. Indeed, there is one element that is alack in many origin tales, and sets this film apart from the likes of Batman Begins: fun. Star Trek is fully aware of its campy origins and nonsensical premise, and embraces them. The characters are drawn quickly, but Pine and co. give them enough depth to make them distinct and likeable. In particular, Quinto is eerily reminiscent of Leonard Nimoy, capturing the essential dignity of Spock. Even smaller roles, such as John Cho’s Zulu, Anton Yelchin’s Chekov and Nimoy himself as a future representation of Spock (it makes more sense when you watch it) are excellently handled; only Simon Pegg disappoints as a loud (that is to say, annoying) Scotty. Beam him up, indeed.

Humour comes thick and fast, with one-liners bandied back and forth, and the action is on the grandest scale CG can provide. It’s a zippy two hours, and should leave any action hound sated. It’s clearly got an eye on starting a franchise, and is unrepentant in the sheer silliness of the whole endeavour. However, if the next Star Trek is as purely entertaining as this one, we should be willing to embrace our sillier side.

Review: Tetro (2009)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

****

“And lo, while Spielberg continued to rake in the millions and Scorsese finally won his Oscar, Coppola tended grapes in the Napa, periodically emerging to make stylistic curios.”

At some stage, someone must have reminded Francis Ford Coppola that he made The Godfather, or he realized grape-stomping can’t completely fulfill him artistically. In either case, Tetro builds on the visually interesting but overly-plotted experiment that was Youth Without Youth, and emerges as a fine return to form, Coppola’s best in two decades. To avoid having this film disappear into relative obscurity, Coppola needed something special in here. The lead character is an egotistical but misunderstood genius. Quick, call Vincent Gallo! Yup, the biggest ego in movies made a movie with one of Hollywood’s biggest megalomaniacs; hit the dirt!

The film begins with Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) arriving in Buenos Aires seeking his brother who ran away from home years before. However, Bennie’s youth and hopes leave him unprepared for what awaits him. His brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo) has changed his name to Tetro, lives with his partner (Pan’s Labyrinth’s Maribel Verdú) and does odd jobs at his friend’s (Rodrigo de la Serna) theatre. A misunderstood genius, Tetro distances himself constantly from his past and his family, and Bennie’s arrival threatens his fragile façade. When we first meet Tetro, his leg is bound after he broke it in an accident. Knowing Gallo, it wouldn’t be surprising if he took a sledgehammer to his tibia before shooting began. Despite his rep, Gallo is an ideal candidate for the role of Tetro. His understatement and subtlety is excellent, as well as providing a counterpoint to his traditionally inflated ego.

That understatement is an anchor for the rest of the film; as we know, Coppola has a keen eye for visual beauty, and Tetro is nothing short of sumptuous. Mostly shot in crisp black and white by Mihai Malaimare, Tetro has much in common with its title character; a cool veneer periodically erupting into full-on colourful outbursts. Descents into the characters’ imaginations are bright bordering on gaudy, as dancers tango on beaches and stages. It’s a step up fromYouth Without Youth’s experiments, and the cinematography orders you to stare in awe. This isn’t a complaint, however, because the story meanders as the plot goes on. Much to Tetro’s chagrin, Bennie finds success as a writer, and the relationship between the brothers shifts back and forth between strained and amicable. As new characters come and go (including a delicious cameo by Almódovar’s muse, Carmen Maura), and the relationship between the brothers shift from vim to violence, the emotional interest of the viewer is worn out well before the end. However, the visuals do command the audience’s attention while Verdú, and Ehrenreich in particular, compliment Gallo’s understatement with energy and aplomb. Strangely enough, this film has much in common with Gilliam’s recent Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Both have a definite atmosphere, great performances from troubled leads, and colourful segments of pure whimsy and imagination. Whilst the latter remains emotionally ragged, Tetro remembers to engage both the eyes and the imagination.

Review: The Secret In Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) (2009)

Director: Juan José Campanella

***

The Secret In Their Eyes is a film that isn’t so much crafted as it is engineered. When watching it there is a sense that every scene has been put in place to elicit sympathies from all and any audience; a catch-all crowd-pleaser that contains all the elements of a sure-fire winner. Indeed, the Academy were seduced enough to deny Michael Haneke or Jacques Audiard their first golden baldie. Am I being too harsh? Possibly.

The film opens with Benjamin Esposito (a charismatic Ricardo Darín) going to visit his former colleague and old flame Irene (Soledad Villamil, resembling a Hispanic Carrie-Anne Moss). Esposito is a retired criminal investigator who is trying to write a novel based on one of his most notorious cases from 25 years previously, which involved the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. Within five minutes, the wheels are in motion for a flashback-led story of the original case, as well as the investigation of new leads. These two plot threads are well worn in detective thrillers, as is the ‘will-they, won’t-they’ romance between the leads. The remarkable thing is that director/co-writer Juan José Campanella manages to keep proceedings from going too far into clichéd territory; even if we’ve seen similar scenes in other films, they feel fresh here. Much of this has to do with the sheer audacity of the director. The standout scene involves the attempted arrest by Esposito and his colleague Pablo (Guillermo Francella) of the prime suspect in the murder case (a slimy Isidoro Gómez). It’s a tracking shot of such scale and intensity that it takes your breath away. The scene’s worth the price of your admission alone.

A surprising amount of humour is found in The Secret In Their Eyes; much of it comes courtesy of Pablo and his drunken ramblings. Some may be dismayed by the juxtaposition between these laughs and the brief flashes of the rape that come earlier in the story. It’s a tricky mix, but Campanella keeps just enough distance (chronologically and thematically) between the scenes to ensure awkwardness and bad taste are (barely) kept at bay. The performances are excellent, though Villamil is arguably the standout, providing an emotional anchor for Esposito and the events surrounding them; their romance is one of the most intriguing and involving plot lines. As the story goes on, Campanella and co-writer Eduardo Sacheri take the opportunity to hint at Argentina’s sinister military past as plot twists arise from rivalries and corruption. Ultimately, it comes to a head with a protracted and unusual last reel with a final twist that is either silly or sublime, depending on how you feel about the 120 minutes that have gone before. There is a touch of self-importance to proceedings, though not enough to condemn the film to pretentiousness.

Whilst not as accomplished or layered as A Prophet or The White Ribbon, The Secret In Their Eyes has a lot going for it; juggling murder with romance and corruption with comedy is no easy feat, but it gets by on sheer chutzpah, a beautiful canvas courtesy of DP Félix Monti and some lovely acting. There are much better thrillers, but few with as much zeal as this one.

Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor) (2009)

Director: Niels Arden Oplev

****

Anyone who has used public transport at any stage over the last couple of years has probably seen a few copies of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy being read. The three books, centering on bisexual computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, have gripped the masses in a way no other book has since The Da Vinci Code. With such a large potential audience, a film adaptation of the Trilogy was inevitable. Whether it would translate well to the screen was another matter, as a dense (borderline convoluted) plot had to be condensed down to two-and-a-bit hours. Scenes of violence, some of it sexual, also had to be factored in. Fun for all the family!

The film of the first chapter, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, works for three reasons. Firstly, it was made in Sweden by Swedes with a Swedish cast. Larsson’s books don’t shy away from their origins, and neither do the films. In this film, Stockholm is as gritty and exciting a canvas as any American city, with scumbags to spare. The Swedish Tourist Board will be delighted.

The second reason is the casting. It’s an unfortunate truth that meaty lead roles for women are rare, but Lisbeth is a genuine opportunity for any actress. Noomi Rapace steps up to the challenge with a brave and intense performance. Lisbeth is severely damaged goods, and Rapace plays her as forever vengeful, but never without reason. Opposite her, Michael Nyqvist gives good straight man as Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist who gets help from Lisbeth to solve the disappearance of a young girl 40 years before. He is fascinated by Lisbeth, and who wouldn’t be? Next to Blomkvist, the heavily pierced and sociopathic Lisbeth is an intriguing figure. Rapace hints at vulnerabilities, but the anger comes first, and she proves as magnetic a heroine as Kill Bill’s Bride or Alien’s Ripley; Noomi Rapace has arrived.

Thirdly, the script (adapted by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg) is very faithful to the book, and is just as unflinching in its depiction of violence, much of it revolving around Lisbeth. When she is wronged by a creepy parole officer, retribution is brutal but equal to the crime.  Whilst the basic disappearance plot is kept intact, right down to a sinister final act in which several skeletons are jolted out of cupboards, the mechanics of it all can’t help but feel like a TV crime serial. Indeed, the look of the whole film feels a touch TV movie-ish, perhaps due to budgetary constraints. The ending tries to tie up loose ends a little too neatly, but director Niels Arden Oplev keeps the atmosphere pacy and tense throughout. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a fierce and fiery film, with a leading lady you just have to meet!

Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden) (2009)

Director: Daniel Alfredson

**

And so, after the great beginning, the big flop. The film adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was such a success with critics and audiences that any kind of follow-up was going to find it difficult to match up to it. Then consider that the second chapter of the Millennium Trilogy is considered the weakest by fans, as sociopathic computer hacker Lisbeth Salander is threatened by the shadows of her past and convoluted plotting. Still, hopes were high that the film treatment could maintain the standards set by its predecessor.

Sadly, these hopes remain unfulfilled. The main problem with The Girl Who Played With Fire is the same problem that weakens the book, namely the overly dense plot. Jonas Frykberg’s script remains too faithful to Stieg Larsson’s text, and the pace of the film suffers as a result. This time around, Lisbeth (once again played by Noomi Rapace) is framed for the murders of three people, one of whom was a investigative journalist (Hans-Christian Thulin) whose exposé on sex trafficking was about to be published in Millennium, the magazine at which Lisbeth’s friend Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is an editor. The plot goes on to include Lisbeth’s kickboxing lover (Yasmine Garbi), a boxer (Paolo Roberto) and a gang of smuggler bikers. It all eventually leads to Lisbeth being forced to face her past, but not before the audience have stopped caring. Director Daniel Alfredson (brother of Tomas, the director of Let The Right One In) spends so much time trying to untangle the knots in the plot that he forgets to make it seem like Lisbeth is in any kind of danger. An (arguably superfluous) opening scene sees Lisbeth swanning around a Caribbean villa, planning her return to Stockholm having made millions with her hacking expertise. She has a hideout in the city, Blomkvist is working hard to clear her name and, being the sociopath she is, there is no sense of jeopardy since there is nobody that can be used as leverage. As a result, the midsection of the film drags frequently under the weight of all the exposition. Furthermore, Alfredson tries to make the film look more cinematic, and fails spectacularly. The fight scenes look amateurish, while a lesbian sex scene is awkwardly added to distract from the OTT plot. Meanwhile, the bad guy (Mikael Spreitz) is a towering blonde Aryan who feels no pain. He’d be more at home as a henchman in a James Bond movie.

The film has one saving grace: Rapace. She inhabits the role of Lisbeth with just as much dedication as the first film. Since Nyqvist’s role is reduced to the spouting of exposition, Rapace must shoulder the film on her own. She does well, but is not enough to save the film. The final installment, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, may explain some of the plot complications herein, but this does not bode well either for the final chapter or David Fincher’s American redux. The Girl Who Played With Fire has been badly burnt in the transfer from page to screen.

Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Director: Terry Gilliam

**

You have to pity Terry Gilliam. His film projects have an unfortunate habit of going belly-up. From the debacle over the edit of Brazil, to the overbudgeted fiasco that was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, to the collapse of the now-in-development-again Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam has faced down a lot of problems and come through bruised, but still standing. Tragically, one man who didn’t come through making The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was Heath Ledger, who died in January 2008, midway through the shoot. With his usual pluck and verve Gilliam, having initially put the film on hold, hit upon the novel idea of having different actors portray Ledger in scenes in which his character Tony ventures into Dr Parnassus’ (Christopher Plummer) Imaginarium. With aplomb, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law fill in the gaps in Ledger’s performance, while the scenes Ledger filmed prove the talent he displayed in The Dark Knight and I’m Not There; a wonderful actor was taken long before his time, and he will be missed.

Sadly, the rest of the film doesn’t meet the high standard Ledger sets. To be fair, the supporting cast (Plummer, Tom Waits, Lily Cole (in a breakout role) do fine. They bring enough credibility to their roles. However, the script (by Gilliam and Charles McKeown) doesn’t do their talents justice. The story (involving a travelling show centred on a portal into an alternate world called the Imaginarium and a wager between Parnassus and Waits’ Satan) is nigh-on unfollowable, and is so far-fetched as to rob the audience of any empathy for, or interest in, the characters. Yet, as with much of Gilliam’s back catalogue, the emphasis is not on story, but on visuals, and the trips the the characters take into the Imaginarium are undeniably beautiful. Rivers morph into cobras, and ladders stretch to the sky, yet they can’t make a throwaway script work, and thus the film falls flat. The scenes in the Imaginarium are the most interesting, but there aren’t enough of them to save the film, whose pace sometimes slows to neutral in scenes set in the real world. To paraphrase George Lucas, a special effect without a story is a boring thing.

Kudos must be given to Gilliam for presenting beautiful and original images to us, and for preserving the final performance of a great talent. It’s just a shame that that talent wasn’t invested in a better film before it was taken from us.