Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Port of Call: Zoo Orleans

While I'm on the Bolt bus from Boston to NYC -- I whale watched this weekend and loved it -- I am watching Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans. Why? Because you demanded I write something about it. I hope y'all don't make me regret this.

*Serpentus Coluber caspius

The movie begins with a shot of a snake slithering through Hurrican Katrina water as the credits pile up with familiar batshit crazy types: Werner Herzog, Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer. I am not at all afraid of snakes and like all phobias, if you don't have it you think it's strange that other people do. What's scary about snakes? They're beautiful and the way they move is intoxicating.

The snake is moving through a flooding prison and a prisoner named Chavez, seeing the snake, says "oh shit". It's the first line of dialogue in the movie. The first and last series has made me hyper aware of how movies begin and "oh shit" doesn't give me much hope for anything beautifully scripted. But it's Herzog so at least it'll be watchable.

I didn't see the original Bad Lieutenant (1992). The only thing I remember hearing about that movie when it came out was that it was 'sick' and that Harvey Keitel went full frontal. There was an uproar because a) you're not supposed to see penis in movies and b) if you do it's supposed to be porn star size. At least that's the rule according to the internet which always collectively freaks out when confronted with anything approximating reality.

I have no phobia about snakes or trouser snakes but I sure as hell don't want to see Nicolas Cage's!!! I bring this up because in this sequence he talks about his $55 underwear and then he takes off his jacket off. For a second I was very afraid. In the end he just jumped into the 'oh shit'ty water with his clothes on to rescue Chavez.

Six months later Cage is investigating a crime and snorting...vicodin? That rescue apparently messed up his back forever. At least that's what I think he's snorting. I didn't even know it was possible to snort prescription medication but I recently watched the first season of Nurse Jackie (so good) and you learn a lot about how creative people get with their addictions, prescribed and otherwise.

Cage's bad lieutenant is investigating an execution style massacre of an entire family in New Orleans. It's drug related as is virtually everything in the movie. In a little dead boy's room he reads a sad poem about a fish, which sits in a glass. I'm currently undecided about the movie but the cinematography (by Peter Zeitlinger) is pretty great.

During a precinct meeting about this bloody crime there's a fun pan left through assembled cops that ends on Nicolas Cage, his shoulders are asymmetrical with pain and his face wears an odd hung expression. He has the most unlikely of movie star faces. If a woman were as ugly as Nicolas Cage she would only get to be a character actress. She would never in a million years get any leading roles and certainly wouldn't earn millions while phoning it in in numerous action pictures.

Insectum Aphidoidea

Not that he's phoning it in in this movie.

I suppose you could say that Nicolas Cage is a good actor but i think you'd have to define good acting first. At any rate he's unarguably an inventive actor. But invention and "good" are not always simpatico. You should also be consistent and you should maybe work towards cohesive characterizations and end goals. In short, there should be a method to your madness... especially when there's actual madness. Otherwise it'll all tip over into self-parody or self-aggrandizement or self-love or all three. I sometimes think that Nicolas Cage is, as an actor, as compulsive a masturbator as his Adaptation altar-ego. Take his Big Daddy role in Kick-Ass for another example. Yes, it's funny that he's mocking Adam West's Batman cadences but to what end?

The bad lieutenant is sometimes working on his murder case but just as often he's preying on club goers outside of a bar named Gator's Retreat to score more dope. Somewhere in the world right at this very moment, a grad student has just proposed a dissertation on animal imagery in Bad Lieutenant ... or possibly the films of Werner Herzog. Herzog's got a complete menagerie inside that filmography: monkeys, iguanas, grizzlies... you name it.

Anyway the lieutenant just forced a guy some poor sap to give up his drugs and then made the guy watch as he banged his girlfriend. Pleasant. While doing this naughty deed, Cage emits these sounds that are meant to function as sexual grunting but sound closer to guffawed barking. He's such a weirdo (character and actor). There are many shots of animals in this movie, but there's many more of Nicolas Cage behaving like a beast. Now I am beginning to remember vague implied descriptions of perversity from the first film and also why I never saw it. I understand that the two Bad Lieutenants are not especially related as films, outside of their shared perversity?

Because of my policy about not showing you photos of Nicolas Cage -- a policy I just invented during this post -- I've decided to only share animal photos during this train of review-thought thing. So far we've seen gator signs, snakes, teddy bears, zebra print fabric... and now an actual alligator, or two of them. One, twitching and dying, appears to have caused a car accident and is belly up on the ground. The other functions like an exclamation point, question mark or punchline to the scene. He's been watching his buddy dying. At first I thought he seem sad but later I decided malevolent. Maybe he chased his friend into the traffic... and was using him as bait for human meat? It must be the framing of his massive jaw.

Alligatoridea Mississippiensis

As the gator wanders away from the scene of the accident, we get the 100th or so shot of Cage chasing his particular dragons: crack, vicodin, heroine. You name it. And then he goes on a date with Fairuza Balk. He's still working angles on how to get more drugs and saying amusingly truthful things while doing so.
Whatever I take is prescription. Except for the heroin.
Oh, yes, I said Fairuza Balk. Plus Kilmer and Michael Shannon? They're all swirling around Cage in this film. I think Herzog must miss Klaus Kinski like crazy. Perhaps he's experimenting like Dr. Frankenstein, assembling the parts or essence of as many unstable, livewire or "off" screen personas as he can find by shoving them all into the same movie and squeezing.

Canis lupus familiaris

The further along the movie goes -- I'm done with it now. T'was too hard to write and watch and bus at the same time -- the more clearly we see the lieutenant's insanity. The animal motif keeps building, too. After the snake, fish, and gators we get an adorable white dog that keeps trading owner hands, prompting Cage to utter what might be my favorite of his line readings in the movie.
I got a friend. She just loves animals. All of 'em. Dogs, too.
As if dogs were the least lovable of animals. Heh.

The dog doesn't really own his scene. He's too subservient. The reptiles are another story altogether. Not to be outdone by the gators, iguanas show up rather memorably and twice over. Plus more fish and stray sightings like a bull fight on the television. The plot is a pileup as Cage, almost continually high, fucks up his investigation (he loses the only witness) and gets deeper and deeper into drugs and debts and danger as he juggles police duties, drug fixes, criminal activities, and relationship infighting with his family and prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes, pretty solid throughout).

For all of that, I think the movie is a comedy. The story turns give the impression that the whole thing is an unreliable farce or satire or... possibly political satire? This does take place after Hurricane Katrina and the white guy fuck-up keeps being rewarded for his insanity. Maybe that's a stretch. I'm tired. I'm on a bus! In addition to the narrative being jokey or at least absurdist, the hallucinatory bits, like a double iguana sighting, are so vividly performed and directed. The famous iguana sequence is as good as I'd heard but not for the reason I was expecting. I had thought that the scene would be a hallucination from the bad lieutenant's perspective as iguanas distract him from the investigation. Instead Herzog begins and ends the scenes with the iguanas rather than the cops and its shot from their side of the room. It's the cops not the iguanas that are the intrusion.

Iguana Iguana

It's a brilliant choice, which forces the surreal joke that maybe the animals are imagining the movie rather than being drug fueled hallucinations themselves. What do iguana dream of anyway? Like the alligator watching the car accident, one has to wonder what these reptiles are up to. Whatever their master plan, they're ready for their close-up. Mr. Herzog will give it to them.

The movie will make room for a few more animal references and sightings. The most vivid is the story of man becoming an animal. After smoking crack Cage tells a local drug dealer about a football player who sprouted antlers... "like a gazelle! like an elk!" peppering this tall tale with Jack Nicholson laughter. But the iguanas have already claimed the movie for their own and will steal this very scene from both the human gazelle and Cage himself.

The investigation plot -- the least interesting but constant part of the movie -- wraps up and the movie loses me. Why did Herzog and screenwriter William M Finkelstein end this drug fueled comedy with a serious rehab coda? Still, all is not well in New Orleans even after justice has been served. The bad lieutenant is still bad. All that has changed is that he is now aware of his depravity. The movie ends by reuniting the lieutenant with the prisoner he rescued from the hurricane.
Bad Lieutenant: Do fish dream?
...he asks ex con Chavez in a wonderful non-sequitor after a rehab discussion.

Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos et. all

I hoped that the movie would end right there in an imagined animal kingdom. Instead there's one more line. We jump to a shot of Terrence and Chavez visiting an aquarium, the water that first threatened them two hours back is now safely behind glass. Unfortunately Herzog and screenwriter William M Finkelstein can't resist one last full circle joke about Cage's underpants as the movie's last line. Did they have to?
Bad Lieutenant: You know Chavez, I still hate that I ruined my underwear for you.
*all species names herein are potentially innacurate. I wasn't going for research or realism.


cal roth said...

It'll grow on you. Too bad you saw it while travelling! It needs you to be focused to be really absorbed by it. It's Herzog, you can't see it on a bus.

I love Cage in it. I can't even look at him, it makes me nervous.


but i did like the movie.

he makes me nervous too. that scene with the interrogation of the two old ladies that i didn't mention (too caught up in all the animals) is really top notch unhinged stuff.

Anonymous said...

oh, i love when you writhe those reviews, you should do that more often. you really have a great point of view and knows how to make your observations fun!

Glendon said...

I watched this at my local theatre that specializes in foreign and independent films. That audience is typically reserved and polite during a film (thankfully no chatting, popcorn munching, or the dreaded lighting up the theatre with a cellphone), but so silent and still it's almost to the detriment of having a crowd atmosphere. With Port of Call, I have never seen the room get as rowdy as it did. People were either choking from laughter or audibly gasping at the funhouse Herzog and Cage prepared for them.

That type of crowd enhancement was lost on my second viewing at home.


thank you. i am trying to be looser about writing since otherwise i never get anything written.


glendon -- yeah. i should have seen it in the theater. it is kind of shocking but i'm sure it would be moreso with a crowd. Particularly the iguana bits and that moment with the old lady's oxygen supply.

Morgan Leigh Davies said...

I saw it at Telluride and half of the audience was totally scandalized, and the other half (yours truly included) was completely out of control. I don't remember the last time I laughed so hard at a movie, especially in the theater. I almost don't want to see it ever again because I'm afraid the experience wouldn't hold up.


Morgan... then maybe only repeat it with a group.

Christine said...

@Glendon Agreed. I saw this at my own small-town, normally staid, art-house theater, and people we're very engaged: applauding when certain characters came in, gasping in horror, talking back to the screen, etc. I think it's definitely a crowd movie.

Unknown said...

I thought it was one of the best movies from last year, took me totally by surprise. Morgan Freeman, I love you, but you owe Nic Cage a Best Actor nomination.

Zeecube said...

As a native New Orleanian, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this movie. My office is just down the street from "Gator's Retreat"... many highlights, esp. the "soul dancing" bit.

amir_uk said...

What a joy to read, Nathaniel (especially as the subject is still fresh in mind - the movie only opened here last weekend). But yeah, you know I was thinking to myself as I read this review - 'gosh Nathaniel's changed up his style a bit. It seems freer' - and then I see in your comments that you say you're trying to be looser. Well, it worked. And then some.

In all of this, you didn't lose that very special tone of voice of yours - nor your little rhetorical flourishes like the 'demon' segue from one section of the review to the next. Really compelling stuff - learnt a lot from reading this for my own writing - and just a tiny bit jealous of your style...

Volvagia said...

Tried to watch from Blockbuster. Disc was scratched. Not the type of movie where you can miss even a second.

Anonymous said...

I saw the original 1992 version here on my big screen a few weeks ago. It was a really powerful shocking disgusting movie. Harvey Kitel was great in the movie. Although I agree the original movie is a mini or cult classic my thoughts were why would I want to watch this type of police-criminal-debasing- disgusting story again? (by Herzog with Cage) you really did not give us any indication of your like or dislike of this movie. I think a movie like this does need some serious 2 hour attention without distractions. It seems that its comic satire makes it not a serious drama. I guess I will order it from netflix just because Herzog made it. Some really liked Cages performance in this. Herzogs most famous movie Aguirre the Wrath of God really bored me. (I have seen it twice) Some of his films I have really liked. I cant see Cage filling in for the craziness of Kinski in some of Herzons movies or Keitel in Ferrarar's original Bad Lieutenant. I think I have talked myself out of watching it.

Anonymous said...


what you think of jennifer coolidge?



jason -- i always like jennifer coolidge. but i couldn't fit her into where i was going with this particular train of review thought.

anon 7.40 -- oh. i thought it was clear that i liked the movie? maybe not. cal seems to think i didn't also.

i wasn't that distracted. if i couldn't multi-task you'd almost never see any posts at this blog ;)

Colin Low said...

Nathaniel, I have to say that I really enjoyed this review, and it counts among my favourite of your writings. You have a real gift for making askew observations and connections in nearly every paragraph! You should be paid to do DVD commentaries; hell, your whole podcast team should.

Burning Reels said...

That was as shambolic and fun as the film itself:)

Would it have made any impact on the FB awards?


colin & burning. thanks... er i think. i guess you don't normally hear shambolic as a compliment ;)

the FB Awards... i dunno. Maybe Cage but probs not since i love all 5 of the men i went with so much. and missed the 6th, too. who knows. what's past is past!

speaking of. gotta wrap those up. ARGH.

Burning Reels said...

Looking forward to your individual scene categories.

And of course it was a compliment - shambolic in a Herzog/Lynch/Kaufman way;)

By the way, I think people are a little harsh on Cage - yes, he is baaad when he's bad but when he's good, he's excellent and most interesting and i'm willing to believe there is a little method in the madness.

Glenn said...

I hated this movie so much! I was not surprised that it was released direct-to-DVD here.