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Tuesday
Apr272010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009)

Iguana Be Sedated

You don’t need to have seen The Bad Lieutenant to enjoy its sequel, Port of Call: New Orleans. In fact, it’s probably better to enjoy the second film on its own merits, and then rent the original if you’re curious. You see, Port of Call is not only a perfect sequel; it’s a nearly perfect movie.

In 1992, star Harvey Keitel and director Abel Ferrara delivered a bleak portrait of unchecked power, corruption, and addiction. Keitel played the titular dirty cop investigating the rape of a New York nun. The movie didn’t have a plot so much as an inevitable downward trajectory, as its main character sunk into gambling debt, had threesomes with hookers, and absorbed every kind of vice imaginable. By the time he’d coaxed two teenager girls into watching him masturbate, you’d either turned the movie off, or you couldn’t turn away. Keitel gave an honest, compelling performance of a lost soul, and his ultimate redemption was both touching and tragic.

Flash forward nearly twenty years to post-Katrina New Orleans. Nicolas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a dirty cop with an addiction to painkillers who’s been tasked with solving the murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants. He, too, has a gambling problem, as well as a prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), and an ex-cop father in AA. Over the course of the picture, McDonagh’s grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous: he flies into indignant hissy fits; he threatens the life of a senator’s mother; he begins seeing large iguanas crawling on coffee tables—and they see him, too. At one point, McDonagh drives to Biloxi on zero sleep, transporting the one witness to the murder—a teenage boy—and a dog belonging to one of his bookie’s clients.

The only relationship between Port of Call and its predecessor is that both share a title and story outline. This is not really a sequel. It’s as though director Werner Herzog and screenwriter David Finkelstein had seen The Bad Lieutenant and wanted to remake it with a different tone and, perhaps, a message—instead of settling for a ninety-minute nihilistic free-fall. While the original is a great acting study, it is kind of one-note; with Port of Call, the story has greater scope and the cast of characters seems to broaden and be enriched every twenty minutes or so.

In addition to McDonagh and Mendes’ Frankie, we are treated to performances by Brad Dourif as the bookie, Jennifer Coolidge as McDonagh’s dad’s alcoholic girlfriend, Val Kilmer as McDonagh’s hot-headed, wannabe bad-ass partner, and rapper Xzibit as the local drug kingpin. To a person, there’s not a dud in the bunch (yes, even Xzibit is terrific, playing a suave monster with big plans for his washed-out town). The weakest link is probably Kilmer, but I attribute that to how his character was written—and even that’s not a flaw so much as an annoyance: he’s pretending to be the hard case that McDonagh actually is.

Were it not for Nicolas Cage, this would have been nothing more than a standard cop-on-drugs picture. In recent years, Cage has been very uneven in both his performances and in the quality of roles he's taken. For every Lord of War, there was a Ghost Rider; like Tommy Lee Jones in the late '90s, he seemed to get by on his name and his "thing" (as in, all he had to do was show up and be wacky enough to remind the audience of his earlier, better roles). Since winning an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, he's coasted on good will and diminishing bankability, and has rarely been called upon to actually act.

In Port of Call, Cage acts his ass off--ironically, by honing his easiest tics (the wide eyes, the outraged outbursts) into a study of a man wound too tightly in a world that would seemingly condemn him for being as flawed as his surroundings. From the beginning of the movie, we can see that he's a conflicted guy: he wrestles with letting an inmate drown in his cell as the post-hurrican waters rise, and it's unclear why he can do the right thing in one instant and do several awful, unforgivable things in the next. This unease is what makes him compelling and surprising at every turn.

A good deal of this suspense comes from the screenplay, I know, but the part is such a perfect use of Cage's talents that I have to wonder if "David Finkelstein" is a pen-name. Maybe I'm just sick in the head, but the charm, menace and repressed goodness of Terence McDonagh had me smiling ear to ear during the whole movie--except, of course, for the several tense moments when I wasn't sure if his newest colossal mistake would be his last.

I can't recommend The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans highly enough. It is, in its own twisted way, a life-affirming love letter to movies and fans of great acting. It walks the line between farce and spiritual revelation in ways that I've never seen before. And if that doesn't sell you on the movie, at least watch it for the giddy joys of the iguana-cam!

Monday
Apr262010

Date Night, 2010

Married...with Affection

Date Night is a really cute movie. It stars two of the hottest comedic talents on television right now, 30 Rock’s Tina Fey and Steve Carrell of The Office; so one might expect the film to be pretty damned funny. Well, it is funny. But Date Night is the kind of movie that gets by on good will more than big, outrageous laughs. It’s just cute.

Fey and Carrell star as Claire and Phil Foster, a completely average suburban married couple who have two kids, great jobs, and zero hip factor. Their idea of a good time is going out to eat at a chain restaurant and creating imaginary conversations between people sitting across the room. They clearly love each other, but the spark of their youth has been dimmed under years of responsibility and routine.

One night, they head into the city to an exclusive new restaurant, where they brazenly steal the reserved table of another couple (for the Fosters, this carries the same life-affirming rush as skydiving). It turns out the table belongs to a couple of grifter sleazebags who are holding a very important thumb drive for ransom from a local mob boss (Ray Liotta, who, between this movie and Wild Hogs is on a hot streak of paycheck films where he plays heavies inspired by the villains in Goodfellas—of which he was, ironically, not one); when a couple of corrupt cops show up to reclaim the drive, the Fosters find themselves at the wrong end of a gun and in the middle of a dark conspiracy.

From there, Date Night proceeds as a sort of mirror-world version of Adventures in Babysitting. Though, to be honest, it doesn’t have the edginess of that picture. What it does have is a keen sense of how (happily) married couples work and relate to one another. Phil and Claire bicker but they don’t scream; they talk about their fading looks and sex drives, but there are no late-film revelations about infidelity. Through all the car chases (which this movie does particularly well, believe it or not), gunplay, and awkward, impromptu stripper dances, what shines through is a sincere love and respect for one another, and a desperate desire to get home to their children.

Coming out of the movie, I remarked that I didn’t laugh very much, but I smiled a lot. It’s hard to get down on a movie with a serious comedy pedigree that doesn’t, by default, bust one’s guts, but that offers instead a warm appreciation for married life. Carrell and Fey are obviously very talented and synched-up, and I bought their relationship in every scene and with every line.

This is a safe, PG-13 comedy for suburban married couples, and I guess I’m okay with that. I wouldn’t rush out to the theatre to see Date Night, but it’s worth checking out on TV after you’ve put the kids to bed.

Sunday
Apr252010

The Losers, 2010


"Eh" for Effort

They’re a grizzled, chiseled band of quirky ex-military specialists framed and left out to dry by a government that now wants them dead. Yep, I saw the new A-Team trailer today in front of The Losers.

This film is about a grizzled, chiseled band of soldiers who do the dirty work that larger military units are too graceless to handle. And they may have to sacrifice everything in order to rid the world of scumbags who traffic in poor people and seek great power through new, illegal weapons. Is it weird that they played The Expendables trailer today, too?

Which movie am I talking about here?

Oh, yeah! It’s The Losers, a movie based on the DC/Vertigo graphic novel about a small, quirky band of ex-military specialists framed and left out to dry by a government that now wants them dead; after thwarting a human traffic ring in Bolivia, they take on a new mission that involves taking down a rogue CIA agent before he can acquire a new, illegal weapon and start World War Three.

If 1996 was the year of dueling volcano blockbusters and 1998 was the year of Earth-ending asteroid pictures, then 2010 is shaping up to be the year of men-on-a-mission movies. And, brother, are they off to an inauspicious start.

It’s not that The Losers is a bad movie; it’s just not a particularly inspired one. If you’re thinking of catching it in theatres, please, stop and look at the rating. Yeah, that’s a PG-13 in the little box at the bottom of the poster, and I predict the FX network won’t have to do a lot of cutting to bring this cozy actioner to basic cable in a couple years. The movie feels safe from beginning to end. At no point did I get concerned over the fate of anyone on the team, nor did I believe that they might fail in their mission. Perhaps it’s a by-product of having seen this same movie way too many times (and executed much better), but The Losers feels and plays like a primer on the genre: it’s probably fantastic if you’ve never seen a movie of its kind before—or an episode of The A-Team.

Though, as I said before, it’s not bad. The main cast is uniformly top-notch, and their chemistry is terrific. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Idris Elba spar as the first- and second-in-command of the bunch, and I bought their rapport; they’re the wise old pros keeping tabs on the younger, wittier kids, played by Columbus Short, Chris Evans, and Oscar Jaenada. I didn’t quite buy all of the team as military experts, though; in particular Short and Evans, who seem like replacements called for by a marketing exec that wanted the film to skew younger.

Zoe Saldana pops up as a something-or-other whose main purpose is to seduce Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character and play motivation chameleon. At first, I was on-board with her character, but over the course of the film, she devolved from seductress to pouty, confused assassin to kept woman, and I mourn the death of her mystery.

If there’s a reason to check out The Losers, it’s Jason Patric as Max, the evil CIA spook who is after a “green” weapon that can evaporate landmasses in a kind of sonic black hole. His character is suave, ruthless, and totally nuts. Patric obviously doesn’t take the role seriously, and boozily wanders throughout the picture as a maniacal cross between Andy Warhol and Chuck Bass. His final scene is priceless in its weirdness.

I think the main problem with the movie is that the material feels like it should be heavier than it has been written. I haven’t read the DC/Vertigo story, but those comics tend to be dark and merciless, and I can’t help but think screenwriters Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt watered down an adult story for the benefit of teenagers and casual comics fans.

Early on, especially, the action is interrupted by a lot of pointless freeze-frames and comic book artwork superimposed on live-action scenes; it’s as if this were the first comic adaptation and director Sylvain White wanted everyone to know that his movie was campy, like those funnybooks the kids are reading today down at the soda shop. I almost felt insulted by this, until I realized that it’s likely that nobody involved in the picture knew better.

“But wait,” you say. “Didn’t Chris Evans play The Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies?”

Why, yes, he did. And the makers of those films didn’t know shit about comics, either.

The lesson for today, kids, can be summed up by Tom Petty’s assertion that even the losers get lucky sometimes.

And sometimes, they’re just unlucky, boring hacks.

Note: The Losers also has the dubious distinction of featuring the worst use of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" in the history of pop culture. It's used three times here, without thematic purpose, and I was baffled by the filmmakers' refusal to realize that whatever cute joke they were trying to make with the song was simply not effective. It's a slap in the face for fans of both Journey and Glee.

Monday
Apr192010

Kick-Ass (2010)

Mob Mentality

There’s been a lot of outrage leveled at Matthew Vaughn’s new film, Kick-Ass by people who, frankly, should know better (I’m looking at you, Roger Ebert). The movie has been called too violent; its marketing has been accused of being aimed at children, who have no business seeing the movie; it has been derided as lacking a moral compass. I read some of these opinion pieces before seeing Kick-Ass (which I rarely do, in order to keep my thoughts on a given film untainted), and the accounts of unrepentant child violence had me a bit worried. Now, having seen the movie, I’m sorry to say that every word of that brand of criticism is completely unfounded.

Kick-Ass is the best comic book movie ever made—which is weird, because the comic it’s based on has a number of issues that prevent it from being great. Yes, it is very violent. Yes, it features plenty of amoral and/or completely insane characters. And, yes, I think children should see the movie (more on that later). But it is much more optimistic and far less graphic than the source material, parts of which were really hard to stomach. I’m positive that if there were an alternate cut of the film released—one that was completely faithful to the comic book mini-series—the current version of Kick-Ass would be hailed as a paragon of virtue.

The story centers on high school nerd Dave Lizewski, (Aaron Johnson) a comics enthusiast whose limited social skills are appreciated only by his two geeky best friends. Dave’s daily life is marked by classes, rejections from girls, frequent masturbation, and the occasional mugging by knife-wielding street trash. One day, he asks his friends why there are no real-life superheroes. They laugh at him and say that if someone without otherworldly powers were to put on a spandex costume and try to fight crime, they’d get their ass kicked. Cut to Dave, ordering a green-and-yellow SCUBA-diving outfit off the Internet.

With only a couple of lightweight batons as weapons, Dave takes to the streets to combat evil. He soon spies his wallet-stealing nemeses trying to boost a car, and orders them to leave the vehicle alone. Not surprisingly, they challenge him, and Dave’s complete lack of training leaves him beaten, stabbed, and ultimately run over by a car.

Weeks later, he emerges from the hospital with so much nerve damage that he finds himself nearly impervious to pain; his bones—most of them broken in the attack—have been reinforced with steel rods, leading him to believe he’s been given the kind of indestructible metal skeleton that Wolverine enjoys. Without missing a beat, Dave restores his costume and sets out once again to rid the world of crime. His second attempt is more successful, if only because this fight is caught on bystander’s cell phone camera and posted on YouTube—and because Dave is able to fend off a gang of punks through persistence and some lucky moves.

Using the alias Kick-Ass, Dave launches a Web site to field requests from people in trouble. His exploits draw media attention, and also put him on the radar of two very different kinds of people. The first is local mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), whose business is threatened when a costumed vigilante disrupts a major drug deal. The second is Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a weapons enthusiast with a grudge against D’Amico. Big Daddy and his eleven-year-old daughter, Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), are also costumed vigilantes, whose actions are mistaken for those of their role model, Kick-Ass.

The rest of the picture is about the conflict between these three powerful forces of personality: The virtuous but naive and ill-equipped Kick-Ass versus the powerful and corrupt D’Amico versus Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, whose motivations lay in both justice and revenge. A fourth caped crusader, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) comes onto the scene mid-movie, and is the schizophrenic embodiment of all three ideals—his significance is something I’ll leave for you to discover.

The reason Kick-Ass is so successful as a movie is because it is almost completely grounded in reality. People have lauded Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight for their “gritty realism”, but that story’s protagonist is a billionaire who fights ninjas and nerve gas, whose greatest villains have been a supervillain district attorney and a brilliant, evil clown.

When I say Kick-Ass is based in reality, I mean that the only thing stopping a teenager from doing what Dave Lizewski does in this movie are willpower and empathy. Dave doesn’t become a crime fighter because he thinks it would be cool to wear a costume. He does it because he’s fed up with people being bullied or—worse yet—being too scared to help their fellow citizens when they’re in trouble. Bruce Wayne was motivated to become Batman foremost because of deep emotional scars stemming from the murder of his parents; Dave Lizewski is a regular kid who wants to make the world a better place—even at great personal cost to himself.

Which is why I think kids should see this movie. I have no idea what the appropriate age might be, but I find it hilarious that the fake outrage over Kick-Ass is aimed at children who might see this picture and think it’s cool to endanger themselves, when I can’t go to an R-rated slasher film without hearing mothers and fathers shushing their toddlers or watching them carry an infant out of the auditorium in the middle of the show (don’t worry: they always come back). Considering the fact that there is so much horrible, mediocre shit floating around the airwaves—from Dancing with the Stars to Chat Roulette to Fox and Friends—how awful is it to expose a child to a movie where the cool thing to do is to be selfless and help people?

Sure, the movie is violent. But Kick-Ass is by no means the most graphic piece of mass entertainment I’ve seen this year. Hell, if a kid stays up past 9pm on a weeknight, he or she is likely to see more objectionable material on network television—never mind the Internet (and don’t give me the “blocking” argument—kids will see what they want to see, and they already know your passwords). Plus, the violence in Kick-Ass—particularly when Hit-Girl takes on the mafia with her guns and Samurai sword—is so inventive and thrilling that it can only be considered art; it’s challenging art, only because of the age of the person doing the killing—but it’s still art.

And, really, Hit-Girl is the reason to see this movie. There’s no way in hell this would happen, but Chloe Moretz deserves to win an Oscar. This is her coming-out party as the most flawless, natural child actor since Haley Joel Osment saw dead people. She’s called upon to do nasty things to people, use terrible language, and, best of all, show real range as an actor. Those that call Kick-Ass “morally reprehensible” were probably in the bathroom when Hit-Girl learned the hard way that she’s not invincible. They must also have been refilling their sodas when her ultimate fate was revealed—I won’t spoil it, but it’s far from the nihilistic horror show many would have you believe; it is, in fact, a hopeful (and moral) ending for her character. No, these idiots simply saw a girl in a leather outfit say the word “cunt” and completely lost their minds.

If there’s a weak link, actor-wise, in this movie, it’s Nicolas Cage. He’s great fun to watch as Big Daddy’s alter ego, Damon Macready; he’s obsessed with guns and with training his little girl for combat, but he’s got the personality of a nerdy science teacher. He’s so warm and lovable that the minute he puts on his Batman costume and starts talking like Adam West, he lost me. I get what Cage is doing here, but it doesn’t work at all. At all. He also alternates accents for no reason, occasionally lapsing into a weird Southern drawl and breathlessly calling his kid, “Child”. Fortunately, there are enough scenes where Cage simply, silently, unloads on criminals that the rest of his performance can (almost) be forgiven.

Cage’s craziness (or laziness) stands out so much, I think, because as his nemesis, Mark Strong paints such a nuanced portrait of a crime lord. He plays Frank D’Amico not as a Tony Soprano-type grease ball, but as a devious, ruthless businessman, trying to balance running an empire and keeping that empire separate from his family life. I love how Strong works his menace selectively. In one scene, he orders two people to be beaten to death on a live Internet feed; in that same scene, he appears as a clueless dad who barely knows how to work the computer.

Because Kick-Ass is a comic book movie, the ending is left wide open for a sequel. I hope that doesn’t happen. In fact, I’d be okay with never seeing another comic book movie. They aren’t necessary anymore. The ones that came before Kick-Ass were either earnest superhero pictures or gritty deconstructions, all in search of the honesty that would define the genre. Kick-Ass is the definition of a great superhero movie because it shows superheroes as not being that great. Their power doesn’t exist in mutant abilities or outrageous spandex costumes. Truly super heroes are born when good people make hard choices and do the right thing, no matter the consequences; more often than not, they get their asses kicked for the effort.

Wednesday
Apr142010

The Black Waters of Echo's Pond, 2010

Suspicious Minds

Walking into The Black Waters of Echo’s Pond, I had no idea I’d be watching my second Greek fantasy movie of the week. The promotional materials for Clash of the Titans is all swords, sandals and CG, but depending on which poster you look at for Black Waters, it’s either a demon movie, a Grindhouse slasher-throwback, or the tardiest knock-off of I Know What You Did Last Summer, starring Robert Patrick.

This movie is all of those things—and, of course, a primer on Pan, the Greek man-goat and amateur flautist. Black Waters opens with an Exorcist-style flashback to 1927. A group of explorers uncovers instructions for building a magical board game that will open a door to the realm of the gods. They construct the game, of course, because they’re idiots, and unleash a nine-foot tall mythical creature with glowing red eyes and a love of creative murder. When the rich industrialist who funded the expedition shows up on his private island to see the game for himself, he encounters the last survivor of Pan’s rampage—who decides to kill himself and his benefactor, rather than spend another second with the beast. It’s a feeling I became very familiar with over the next ninety minutes.

Flash forward to present day, where a group of horny, attractive kids has chosen the same island as the site of a college reunion—which takes place, of course, in a house in the woods (I’m only guessing it’s a college reunion; based on the wide range of the actors’ ages—anywhere from about twenty-two to thirty-two—this could have been a reunion for The Real World/Road Rules Challenge). They meet Pete (Robert Patrick), a gun-totin’ good ol’ boy who takes care of the island and tells them a great ghost story about mysterious disappearances in the area. They laugh off the legend and enjoy an evening of drinking, pot-smoking, and pseudo-sexual encounters; don’t worry, I’m still writing about The Black Waters of Echo’s Pond—which in no way involves a hockey-mask-wearing zombie.

While rummaging through the basement, one of the kids finds a dusty old crate containing the board game of doom. Inevitably, the whole group gets roped into assembling it and ends up playing what can only be described as a cross between Monopoly, a Ouija board, and the kinkiest game of "Truth or Dare" you've ever imagined. Yes, in order to advance tokens on the board, the players must answer deeply personal questions honestly, and it turns out this gang of nine have been screwing each other and screwing each other over for years; there's so much revelation and betrayal in this small group of "friends" that I felt like I was watching an episode of Maury.

It's unclear to me whether or not it was the putting together of the game or the answering of the questions that gave Pan the ability to manifest, but soon the monster is whispering in people's ears and convincing them to chainsaw each other in half and rip out breast implants.

Oh, yeah, Black Waters is also kind of a torture porn movie. Seeing as it was made about three years ago, I can definitely understand the creators' desire to capitalize on a hot trend. But it's 2010, and the whole tied-up-screaming-and-bleeding thing just seems sad now--like seeing a New York movie from the 80s and catching a glimpse of the Twin Towers.

But not all is bleak at Echo's Pond. There are two reasons to actually watch this movie: James Duval and Danielle Harris. They play Rick and Kathy, respectively, the two characters who (almost) make it to the end of the film. Rick and Kathy hate each other; she's the over-achieving snarky do-gooder (who, at the game's behest, engages in some off-screen lesbianism with the group's party girl), and he's the slacker rich kid who happened to kill Kathy's brother in a drunk driving accident. Watching these actors spar as these deliciously imbalanced characters, I wondered if the screenwriters had pitched the movie as a demon thriller involving only two characters, but were forced to pad out the cast with a slew of underdeveloped eye candy; it certainly feels that way.

Duval's Rick is the stoner Bruce Campbell of the movie: a nice, hapless guy who ends up fighting demons in the woods; as his friends become possessed and start butchering each other, Rick dashes from scene to scene, trying to figure out a means of escape with a look on his face that says, "Dude, where's my car?" Actually, calling the rest of the cast his friends is misleading. None of them can stand Rick, mostly because of what happened with Kathy's brother. Which is why the movie's narrative trajectory--sloppy as it is--leads to one of the coolest, most frustrating endings ever.

I won't spoil it, but there's a groaner of an "It Was All a Dream" moment, followed by a really cool twist on that notion; this was followed by a colossal fumble that shows either A) the screenwriter didn't read (or write) the line of dialogue immediately preceding the end, or B) some hack executive stepped in and ordered the editing out of a brilliant ending in favor of a criminally insulting one.

I'll give director Gabriel Bologna some credit for overseeing some pretty nifty gore effects (four words: rake to the face!), and for a beautiful piece of misdirection the leads to the demise of a key character--who's accidentally thrust onto a chainsaw during an argument. But the movie fell apart due to editing. Its choppiness and incoherence, in my opinion, destroyed a potentially terrific little film.

I should note that I've still not seen a trailer for this movie. The filmmakers have been pimping it at horror conventions for years now, and I've seen and met a quarter of the cast at these shows. Co-writer Sean Clark was at HorrorHound Weekend a few weeks ago, with a little cardboard starburst hanging above his table that read, "In Theatres April 19th!". I didn't believe it until I checked Yahoo! Movies last Thursday.

This is a truly scrappy, grassroots picture; if you're into supporting that kind of thing, regardless of quality, then, by all means, seek Black Waters out. Otherwise, definitely catch it on video. Of the two Greek-myth-inspired flicks to catch this weekend (I can't believe I'm typing this), Clash of the Titans is your best bet, hands down.