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Wednesday
May122010

Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)

Late is Enough

I can’t figure out whether I hate or admire Hellraiser: Hellworld.

On the one hand, it’s a well-intentioned deconstruction of the horror genre and Internet culture, circa 2005. On the other, it’s the eighth film in a horror franchise, and the fourth to go directly to video; so it’s likely that I’m not writing about great art.

In the movie, Hellworld is the name of a wildly popular computer game based on Clive Barker’s 1987 classic, Hellraiser. Players jump on-line and navigate their way through the labyrinth of hell, trying to avoid the sadistic, disfigured cenobites. As the film opens, a number of teens attend the funeral of their friend, Adam (Stelian Urian), who became so obsessed with the game that he dug a trench in his basement and lit himself on fire (I guess it was less expensive than springing for the expansion pack).

A few months later, Adam’s friends each win invitations to attend the legendary Hellworld party, an orgy of booze, sex and house music exclusive to masters of the game. Chelsea (Katheryn Winnick) is reluctant to go, believing that going to the event would be in bad taste—but she gives in to her gang of annoying friends and allows the rest of the movie to happen.

The bash takes place in a gothic mansion that has been tricked out with architecture resembling the famous Hellraiser puzzle box, a brass-and-wood bauble that opens the doorway to other dimensions—but mostly to hell. Through the haze of pot smoke and the best/worst extras-in-a-party-scene dancing you’ll ever witness comes The Host (Lance Henriksen). He welcomes the revelers, offers them drinks, and invites them to explore the house.

It’s right about here that Hellworld unapologetically abandons the point of the Hellraiser franchise and becomes a cross between a slasher movie and a Saw knock-off. We’re treated to a series of drawn-out vignettes in which Idiot A wanders into a room filled with really dangerous-looking equipment, says, “Gee, what’s this?,” and ends up getting beheaded/disemboweled/nearly decapitated. Because the music’s so loud, no one hears any of this; meaning that idiot B can follow a steamy seductress into the basement for sex, wind up getting locked in another room with really dangerous-looking equipment, and say, “Gee, what’s this?”

The slasher part of the equation, oddly enough, is Pinhead (Doug Bradley). For Hellraiser die-hards, the coolest thing about the lead cenobite—besides, you know, the pins—is the fact that, in the earlier films, he and his demon crew would enter a scene with great fanfare and drag unlucky assholes back to hell. Their arrival was heralded by composer Christopher Young’s majestic doom score and odd visual cues of reality bending to make way for another universe bleeding into our own. In Hellworld, Pinhead pops up from behind bookcases and lab shelves and chops people’s heads off with a meat cleaver.

This is the kind of movie where the mind is free to wonder about things like why the license plate on the teenagers’ truck switches inexplicably from Canadian plates (or maybe Bulgarian) to New York ones, or why the Chatterer cenobite is back among Pinhead’s posse when he was clearly destroyed at the end of Hellraiser 2. It’s not a film that evokes electrical impulses in the brain.

Until the climax.

If you’re actually going to rent this movie, you may want to pause and come back to this review when you’re done. At the three-quarter mark, when Chelsea and her last surviving friend, Jake (Christopher Jacot), are on the run from Pinhead, they discover that The Host is actually Adam’s father. He’d set up the Hellworld party as a death trap for the people he believes enabled his son to kill himself. This is no surprise to anyone who watches movies with Roger Ebert’s Law of the Economy of Characters tucked away in the back of their heads; but there’s a further twist.

The Host actually drugged Adam’s friends at the beginning of the party and buried each of them in shallow plots at the back of the property. The drug was so powerful that it caused a group hallucination, wherein everyone thought they were being killed by Pinhead and the cenobites.

I won’t reveal the third twist because it’s really lame and places about sixth in Hellworld’s nineteen different endings. But I want to talk about what the second twist means for the rest of the movie.

I’ll set aside the fact that, from a meta standpoint, it’s kind of ridiculous that a good chunk of the movie Hellworld is meant to be a single hallucination being had by six different people locked in coffins (if I’m dreaming about my friend being killed, for example, why would I be crying on the phone to my other friends because I don’t know what’s happened to him?). The genius of the movie’s conceit is that it retroactively makes every one of its problems not problems anymore—from all the shitty acting (a good deal of it coming, sadly, from the barely awake Doug Bradley), to the bizarre, film-school-quality camerawork, to the wholly uncharacteristic actions of Pinhead.

That’s to say that if the truly awful parts of the movie are just the trippy dreams of stupid teenagers, then the movie itself is not necessarily bad. It may be unpleasant to watch Lance Henrikesen actually pop up and say, “Boo!”, but in the context of feverish hallucination, I’ll buy it. Maybe in a narcotic state, the mind turns everyone’s mannerisms and line deliveries into a series of One Tree Hill audition tapes. I don’t know. It’s possible.

And that puts me back at square one. Is this movie good, or is it really fucking terrible?

Maybe I should let time decide.

Five years have passed since this snuck onto video store shelves, and there’s talk of rebooting the franchise with a big-screen remake. Yep, it’s official: Hellraiser: Hellworld is an awful, awful movie.

Friday
May072010

Iron Man 2 (2010)


Jumping the Stark

This week, “Kicking the Seat” takes a break from its normal movie review format to bring you the transcript of a high-level meeting that took place six days before the world premiere of Iron Man 2. Needless to say, you should read this fast, as there’s no telling when the Cease and Desist Order may come down.

Some back-story: I received a soiled manila envelope in my P.O. Box Saturday morning, addressed simply to “Kick Seat .Com”; the return address was a crude Sharpie scrawl that read, “DP—Los Angeles, CA”. The contents were a copy of what you are about to read, and four strands of blonde hair.

4/20/10 Transcript of “Iron Man 2 Issues” meeting, Marvel Studios, Los Angeles, CA.

Meeting Host: Dell Armisen, Chief Quality Officer, Marvel Media Management Bureau for Operational Productivity

Attendees: Jon Favreau, Director, Iron Man 2
Justin Theroux, Screenwriter, Iron Man 2
Robert Downey, Jr., Star, Iron Man 2

Transcriber: Dovelyn Proust, Templeton-Young Professional Errands

Dell Armisen: Gentlemen, thank you for coming down on such short notice. Robert, I know this was a particularly difficult thing for you to pencil in, but it’s important and we at MMMBOP are really glad you could make it.

Robert Downey, Jr.: [From stool in the far corner of the room, offers DA bag of carrots] God, I love these carrots. You wanna try some? They’re this new synthetic/organic blend that Gwyneth turned me on to. It’s like Red Bull, but it, you know, comes from the ground.

DA: Not today, Robert. Jon and Justin, you two are the main reason I called this meeting. I saw the final cut of Iron Man 2 yesterday. After watching it, I read the shooting script, and I’ve got some concerns.

Jon Favreau: Really? ‘Cause everyone I’ve talked to at Marvel loves it.

Justin Theroux: Yeah, man, everyone’s been so far up our asses about how great this thing is, I’m getting to be, like, “Hey, man, chill out—it’s not Shakespeare!” You know what I mean?

DA: Not to put too fine a point on it, Justin, but the difference between Iron Man 2 and Shakespeare is that Shakespeare was actually good. And I’m not surprised that Marvel Entertainment loves it. However, we’re the Quality Police of Marvel Studios. Our job is to make sure we distinguish the new studio from the dark work-for-hire days of Elektra and Ghost Rider.

JF: So, you don’t think it’s as good as the first one?

DA: It’s in a totally different universe, Jon.

RDJ: I told Justin. Remember, Justin, I told you how I thought Black Widow was DC, but you said, “No, man, trust me, she’s Marvel”. I knew this would come back to bite us in the ass. Is it hot in here?

DA: That’s not what I meant, Robert. Incidentally, Black Widow is part of our stable. And we may as well start there. Scarlett Johansson, Jon. What happened?

JF: Whaddya mean?

DA: When I first read that you’d cast her, I thought, “Wow, Scarlett Johansson with a Russian accent?” I wondered how she’d pull it off. And I’m still wondering.

JF: Yeah, we talked about that on-set. The first few takes, she tried her hardest, but it just sounded like she was choking on Benicio Del Toro’s balls. So we ditched it altogether. Now she’s just a hot spy. We don’t even call her “Black Widow” in the movie.

DA: Yeah, I noticed that. So did Marc Weathers in Brand Management.

JT: Fuck that guy, man. He got on my case last year ‘cause I refused to include Mickey Rourke’s character’s super-villain name in the script. I mean, Ivan Vanko’s a badder name than “Whiplash”, right?

DA: Hmm, yes, Mickey Rourke—

RDJ: Total nut job, that guy. I tried to pet his dogs once, and he slapped the coconut extract right out of my hand. Crazy bastard got it all over my face and TMZ had a field day with those pictures of me with white powder smeared across my nose.

DA: Mickey Rourke, Justin. You have Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke as the villain in your movie, and you give him, what, two scenes of actual dialogue?

JT: Ivan Vanko wasn’t the bad guy in the movie; it was Justin Hammer, the Sam Rockwell character.

JF: Wait, I thought you said it was Ivan Vanko.

JT: Nooo. You told me you wanted this to be about the rise of Justin Hammer—you called him Iron Man’s Lex Luthor, which is why I specifically had him get arrested at the end of the movie and yell stupid shit at about “getting” Iron Man; like Gene Hackman in Superman One.

JF: Noooooo. I told you a month ago that I wanted Vanko to be the bad guy. That’s why we filmed all that juicy back-story stuff that we hinted at in the beginning of the movie; so we could flesh out how he’s this rich character who’s life story is the exact opposite of Tony Stark’s.

RDJ: Remember, Johnny, we filmed that stuff but it got cut out, ‘cause I wanted to leave in more of the banter between me and Gwyneth?

DA: Yes, about that. What happened to Tony Stark’s relationship with Pepper Potts? At the end of the first film, they’re clearly beginning a romantic relationship. She’s helped him rise from the ashes of being a narcissistic asshole and become a selfless, noble hero; but in Iron Man 2, you’ve made Tony a wholly unlikable creep, and his relationship with Pepper is reduced to scene after scene after scene of them fighting and talking over one another. Was that all improv, by the way?

JT: Most of it, yeah. In fact, the actual script for Iron Man 2 is about ten pages long—and much of those are thumbnails of the action scenes. Jon and Robert and I felt that it would be more real if we just let the actors inhabit the characters and talk like the characters would talk.

DA: No, Justin, they talk like Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow would talk on the set of a movie with no screenwriter! I swear to Christ, I thought I was watching outtakes of Ocean’s Twelve yesterday.

RDJ: But, me and Gwyneth, that’s our thing. You know, it’s like, when you’re at Coachella and you’re rocking out to Balinese trance-pop-fusion—you’re just in the zone and you can’t break that. You can’t fake it, either. Can you, um, press that little button there, and get me a kiwi-salmon-chunk bar from Mitzi’s?

DA: No. While we’re talking about characters, I’d like to bring up Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. Jon, why did you insist on letting Sam do his “thing” all over this movie?

JF: ‘Cause he’s Samuel L. Fucking Jackson, baby! You don’t rein him in. People wanna see him be big and bad and black, you know?

DA: But in the first Iron Man, he’s a mysterious, serious guy, like in the comics: a no-nonsense soldier who has to corral a gang of super-powered head-cases that he doesn’t fully trust. Here, you’ve got him strutting around with disco music, smirking as he talks Tony Stark down from a giant donut.

JF: I hear what you’re saying, and I respect that. But at the end of the day, people don’t want to see serious characters in a superhero movie. That’s why we lightened Nick Fury up a bit. It’s also why we had Tony Stark break dancing drunk in the Iron Man costume after he DJ’d that party. It’s no different than when Peter Parker did his dance number in Spider-Man 3, and look how much money that movie made, huh?

JT: That’s right, man. You claim to be about “quality”, but all you’re doing is sitting here, whining. “Oh, the characters aren’t well thought out!” “Waaah, I don’t know who the villain is in this movie!” Grow up, dude. It’s a fun popcorn movie. It isn’t Shakespeare.

DA: We wouldn’t be having this conversation if the movie were fun. The first film, yes, was a great time. I saw it four times in the theatre—after all the premieres and test screenings. It had a tremendous sense of discovery and invention, and I loved that the Iron Man suit was a work in progress: it kept evolving throughout the picture, mirroring Tony Stark’s development. That movie had fucking heart. The sequel has none of that, and it’s a boring, soulless tragedy.

RDJ: Look, Daryl? Darrell? Sorry, but I couldn’t disagree more. This movie had lots of heart and pathos. It had Tony Stark becoming a drunk. He finds out the suit’s killing him and has to find a cure. He’s got a lot going on, and so of course he’s going to lash out at the world and turn his friends away.

DA: Maybe if the first film hadn’t happened, sure. On top of that, you had over two hours to develop the alcoholism and poisoned blood storyline, but you buried it under bullshit sub-plots like Rhodey stealing the second Iron Man suit and helping Justin Hammer and the Air Force create an army of killing machines. Let’s sidestep for a second and look at that. Did that make any fucking sense to you?

JT: Well, if you’re asking why Tony Stark would program an Iron Man suit so that Rhodey could pilot it, even though it was established in the first movie that Tony didn’t fully trust his best friend because of his government ties—and seeing as how a major thread of this movie involves the government trying to seize Tony’s technology—then, yeah, I can see where that might be a problem. But at the end of the day, you had to have that plot so that they could become friends again at the climax and fight off giant robots for twenty minutes.

DA: Jesus.

RDJ: I mean, come on, man. Weren’t you touched by us getting back together? Me and Don Cheadle worked on that scene for twenty minutes, trying to get our eyes at just the right level of squintiness before the CG faceplates came down on our heads. It was a look between both of us that said, “We’ve been through too much shit to let a little matter of you nearly destroying my empire and selling out mankind to a sleazy weapons developer to stand in the way of this great bond we have. Now let’s blow some shit up.”
We acted the hell out of that scene.

DA: Robert, honestly, you haven’t acted in a movie in two years.

RDJ: What about Sherlock Holmes? The Soloist?

DA: I think we’re done here, gentlemen. Given what I’ve seen of your film, and based on our conversation today, I can only, in good conscience, recommend to the Board of Directors that Iron Man 2 be pushed back another year, until significant re-writes and re-shoots can be made. There’s some good stuff in here, but the film right now is un-releasable.

JF: Now, hold on a minute. This movie’s six days out from release, and you’re gonna try and sack it? You don’t have the authority to do that!

JT: You're so money, baby.

JF: I golf with Kevin Feige, motherfucker!

JT: And I wrote the outline for Tropic Thunder!

RDJ: And I was Chaplin, Goddammit!

DA: Guys, your anger doesn’t impress me. We at MMMBOP do, in fact, have the authority to halt any release if we feel that it could tarnish the good will that Marvel Studios is trying to build with its audience.

You may think it’s okay to not explain how a poor drunk Russian physicist is able to create an identical power source to Iron Man’s ARC reactor, or why Tony Stark would explain to said villain in an interrogation the best way to defeat him—in the way only Dr. Evil would. You may even think you can get away with a random first-person fisheye lens shot of Tony walking through a party, and explain it away as creativity. But it’s just laziness, and the belief that you can put any nonsense you want into a franchise picture because it’s a guaranteed blockbuster.

We believe in quality and integrity, and there is no way in hell Iron Man 2 will come out this summer. If, by some miracle, Kevin Feige were to override my decision, he’d have to explain to the Board why they need to hire a new Chief Quality Officer. And I assure you, gentlemen, he does not want to do that!

RDJ: You know? This guy might be onto something.

[DA, JF, and JT look quizzically at RDJ]

RDJ: Ha ha! Just kidding! Have fun searching The Ladders, fuck-wad!

Sunday
May022010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

We'll Always Have Englund

After several months of outrage and speculation, fans of A Nightmare on Elm Street can rest easy. The Internet has been ablaze with the cries fans wondering how Platinum Dunes could sully the franchise’s legacy by not casting Robert Englund in the remake. The actor has portrayed child-killer-turned-dream-demon Freddy Krueger in every Elm Street movie since the 1984 original, and in doing so has become a beloved pop culture icon. Never mind that producers Brad Fuller, Andrew Form, and Michael Bay cast veteran actor Jackie Earle Haley and promised a return to the darker tone of the first couple of films—before Freddy became a wisecracking, murderous cartoon. For the die-hards, it was Englund or bust, and no replacement would do.

Having recently watched the truly awful remake, I’m happy to report that Robert Englund’s legacy is solidly intact. It’s not that Haley does a bad job. No, the problem with this vision of Freddy—and with the entire movie—is that everyone involved in the re-imagining seems to have confused Freddy Krueger with Jason Voorhees (easy enough to do, I guess, since Platinum Dunes also re-made Friday the 13th last year, and confused Jason Voorhees with Leatherface).

The original Elm Street was not a movie about Freddy Krueger as a person or a personality, but rather as the vague bogeyman that stalked the dreams of a group of teenagers—who were the ultimate focus of the story. The film’s heroine, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), came of age during the picture, with Freddy representing the thin, cruel membrane separating childhood from adulthood. In later installments, Freddy—and, more to the point, his razor-tipped glove—became a pop phenomenon, and the series wandered from a sinister exploration of the teenage mind into slasher territory, where the goal is to out-do the gore and creativity of the previous kill.

The opening scene of Samuel Bayer’s remake delivers some of the edge we were promised, as a teenager named Dean (Kellan Lutz) struggles to stay awake at the Springwood Diner. His eyes are red and he wears the distressed, worried face of someone who desperately wants to sleep. When he slips into the dream world, there’s a great shift in atmosphere that’s marked by the exaggerated neon lights of the diner marquee flashing green and red (the colors of Freddy’s sweater) across everything. Dean follows a waitress into the kitchen, and he dazedly wanders past giant cauldrons of boiling pig’s heads and flames shooting out of stove burners. It’s a creepy moment that recalls some of the imagery of the original series while grounding the nightmare landscape in a slightly off-kilter version of reality.

But then, Freddy’s gloved hand drops into the extreme foreground, accompanied by a loud crashing sound, and the whole picture takes a swan dive into cheap-scare hell.

For all the phony hype about Bayer’s credentials as a music video director, his take on Freddy is embarrassingly pedestrian. In the original Elm Street, Wes Craven used eerie music and unsettling imagery to creep his audience out; his nightmare world was full of moaning corpses with centipedes spilling from their mouths and long-armed specters chasing teens down alleys. He didn’t need to slap moviegoers across the face every ten minutes with loud noises and people jumping into frame. Bayer has confused alertness with fear, and replaced imagination with iconography.

What do I mean by that? Let’s look at the glove. In the opening of the original, we see the glove being made. A heavy-breathing, soot-handed man welds blades to copper hinges and hammers together this scary, weird thing whose purpose we can only imagine. In the new movie, the glove is just The Glove, a useless trademark that’s as intimidating as a McDonald’s hamburger. Freddy scrapes it along pipes, producing more sparks than an 80s metal music video, and he occasionally scratches people to death with it.

Bayer and company don’t understand that the glove is like Freddy Krueger’s war paint, an intimidating tool that represents the killer’s sadism and creativity; it was never meant to be the whole show. If you’re not convinced, think back on the iconic kills of the 1984 Elm Street. The hanging in the jail house; the bloody whilrpool bed; Tina getting flung around the room; only one of these involved the glove, and even then, you couldn’t see it being used. Bayer might as well have put a machete in Freddy’s hand, and a hockey mask on his face, for good measure.

A deeper problem with this interpretation of Freddy is that the screenwriters have rewritten his fundamentals. The only origin story we got of the killer in the original was a great two-minute monologue about a local child killer who was tried and released on a technicality; a gang of angry parents trapped him in the boiler room in which he worked and set it on fire.

The new movie envisions Freddy as the kindly janitor at a nursery school, who loved all of the children he helped take care of. Jackie Earle Haley plays these flashback scenes with genuine sweetness, and I thought for a moment that some of the ‘net rumors might be true: that Freddy was framed and killed by mistake—which would have been a bold, fascinating choice. What made things more complicated was Haley’s portrayal of Krueger not only as a kind man, but a possibly retarded one—sort of a Dark Night of the Scarecrow kind of thing.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, Freddy turns out to be a child molester—the really dumb kind who leaves giant claw marks on the backs of five-year-old girls whose parents might, I don’t know, give them baths and stuff. The problem here is the huge narrative disconnect with what we’re shown of Krueger and what people say about him. We don’t see him act creepily towards the kids except in one brief scene that could just as easily be interpreted as the inappropriateness of innocence.

On top of that, there’s no trial, so we miss out on the miscarriage of justice angle that enriched the previous origin. The new story doesn’t know what it wants to say, and it certainly doesn’t have a point, so by the time we figure out that he really was a bad guy, we’re so confused and annoyed that his motivations don’t carry any weight.

Okay, enough about Freddy—we’ve established that he’s not scary or interesting—what about the teenagers? Utterly forgettable. I get what the filmmakers were going for: by ensuring that their actors looked strung-out and ragged the whole time, we would buy their sleep struggles and get more into the story. The trouble is, you have to have really solid actors to pull this off, ones who can perform through the mask of insomnia and display some sort of charisma or drive. Everyone in this movie has two modes: disaffected, monotone delivery or flipped-out, screaming hysteria; it’s like two hours of watching Hot Topic clerks go off their meds.

Some argue that it’s unfair to compare a remake to its original, but especially in terms of the main cast, it’s inevitable here. In 1984, Heather Langenkamp played Nancy, the good girl who watched her friends get murdered, and who had to become powerful in order to survive; she had an alcoholic mother and a police captain father whose overbearing nature put her in real danger. Today’s Nancy, Rooney Mara, plays the whole movie as a shy Goth Chick and ends it as a machete wielding bad-ass, in the exact same out-of-fucking-nowhere character transformation that happened at the end of the Friday the 13th remake (down to the scene structure, where she shouts a one-liner at the killer before nearly decapitating him).

To further defend my tireless contrast of the two movies, I submit that if the filmmakers wanted this Elm Street to stand on its own, they should not have stolen so many visual gags from the original. Either that, or they should have just committed to a shot-for-shot remake with modern special effects.

As it stands, they half-assed everything. All of the scenes that were re-created from the first Elm Street pop up as bizarre mile markers that don’t work with the rest of the picture. Hey, kids! Remember when Freddy’s face came out of the wall? Here it is again, made “better” by CG, the addition of claws, and a big roaring sound!

A Nightmare on Elm Street’s biggest sin is the climax. Few things stun me into slack-jawed disbelief, but Samuel Bayer made it happen. In the original film, Nancy discovers that she has the ability to bring objects out of the dream world and into the real world. She decides to drag Freddy out so that he’ll be vulnerable enough that her father can arrest him. Using the knowledge she acquired from books (!), she rigs her house with booby traps; she knows that he’s a devious killer, even without the advantage of dream powers, so she gives herself as much of a leg up as possible. The last ten minutes of the movie are made of exciting chase scenes around the house, with Nancy struggling to get out alive.

In the remake, Nancy pulls Freddy into the real world, where he throws her and her boyfriend around a room for about two minutes. Somehow Nancy gets the best of him and slices his throat open. He gags on some black blood, falls down, and dies like an utter pussy.

Oh, and if you think the fright gag that ended the ’84 Elm Street was bad, just wait until you see how Bayer decided to close out his picture. It’s much, much worse.

For all the advancements in technology and storytelling that Hollywood has made in the twenty-six years since A Nightmare on Elm Street debuted, you’d think that some talented director and screenwriter could, if given a sizable enough budget, create a unique and terrifying movie about teenagers being killed in their dreams. I was all for this remake, in principle, because Freddy Krueger is a character who has the powers of the mind as his weapon. Dreams are unpredictable phenomena, ruled by repressed memories and current fears, and signified by shifting perceptions of time and reality. I’m still waiting for someone to successfully put that on the big screen (Joss Whedon did it on the small screen nearly ten years ago, on a great episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

If Platinum Dunes’ idea of a visionary director is a guy who repeatedly puts Freddy in the right of the frame and his interchangeable victims in the left of the frame like an early Kevin Smith movie, then I would hate to see what kind of person they’d consider a hack. This movie is not wholly devoid of ideas, but it doesn’t know what to do with any of them. It is full of dull actors, failed homages, and, yes, a wisecracking, cartoon killer (the key here is that Jackie Earle Haley’s Freddy delivers his awful jokes dejectedly, as if he would rather be reciting Shakespeare; whereas Robert Englund sold the lines with black glee).

There’s no reason for this movie to exist, and no reason for anyone to watch it. Unlike its predecessor, a bona fide classic horror movie, this garbage is best shaken off like a bad dream.

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.