New Orleans Film Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (dir by Werner Herzog)


“Do you think fish dream?”

— Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Happy Mardi Gras!

Since today is not only Fat Tuesday but also rapidly coming to a close, I think it’s time for me to share one final New Orleans film review.  Admittedly, though this film takes place and was filmed in New Orleans, it doesn’t feature any Mardi Gras scenes.  However, it does feature a lead performance that is perhaps as bizarre as anything that you’re likely to see in the French Quarter tonight.  Of course, I’m talking about Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans.

Whenever I mention this movie to anyone, it only takes a few minutes before they get around to saying, “What was the deal with the iguanas?”  Everyone remembers the two iguanas who would randomly show up throughout the movie.  At one point, they were sitting in a coffee table while Lt. Terrence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) and Sgt. Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) were watching a house across the street.  When McDonagh demanded to know why the iguanas were on his coffee table, Pruit replied, “There ain’t no iguanas.”  McDonagh looked down at them and grinned.  This was followed by several hand-held close-ups of the iguanas, looking around inquisitively while McDonagh kept giving them the side eye.

The iguanas show up a second time, after McDonagh has tricked one gangster into killing another gangster.  “Shoot him again,” McDonagh demands, “his soul’s still dancing!”  Herzog pans over to show us that, indeed, the man’s soul is still dancing next to his corpse.  After the soul gets shot down, an iguana wanders across the floor.

What do the iguanas represent?  Some people think that they actually are meant to be hallucinations.  As the result of a back injury that he received saving a prisoner during Hurricane Katrina, McDonagh has permanent back problems and this has led to him getting hooked on drugs.  The perpetually high McDonagh sees and does a lot of bizarre things over the course of this movie.  Perhaps the iguanas are just a part of his addiction.

Myself, I think the iguanas represent the fact that, no matter what McDonagh and anyone else in New Orleans does over the course of the film, the randomness of nature is going win out in the end.  After all, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens with Katrina, which is perhaps the ultimate example of how helpless modern society is in the face of nature’s whims.  The film takes places in neighborhoods that have yet to recover from the flooding.  Every corner of the film is full of physical, emotional, and mental debris.  McDonagh pops pills and snorts cocaine in an attempt to maintain some semblance of control but ultimately, the iguanas are going to show up regardless of how much control he thinks he has.  Just as how Klaus Kinski, at the end of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, couldn’t keep the monkeys off of his raft, Terrence McDonagh can’t keep the iguanas off of his coffee table.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans apparently started life as a reboot of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant.  The script (which was credited to William M. Finkelstein) is full of moments that mirror scenes from Ferrara’s film.  Once again, the protagonist is a corrupt police lieutenant who spends almost the entire film fucked up on drugs and whose only friend is a prostitute.  Again, there’s a disturbing scene in which the lieutenant harasses a young woman in a parking lot.  Again, the lieutenant has gambling debts and again, the lieutenant has to solve a horrifying crime.

While promoting his film, Herzog always said that 1) he had never seen Bad Lieutenant and 2) he didn’t even know who Abel Ferrara was.  Judging from the way Herzog directs the film, which is the complete opposite of the approach that Ferrara took to similar material, I’m inclined to believe Herzog.  Whereas Ferrara’s film was a grim and humorless plunge into the depths of Hell, Herzog takes an almost satirical approach to the story.  The running joke throughout Herzog’s film is that the bad lieutenant gets results precisely because he is so thoroughly messed up and incompetent.  The final part of Herzog’s film features so many sudden twists and turns that it’s hard not to conclude that Herzog is poking fun at how American crime films always have to wrap everything up within the final fifteen minutes, regardless of how messy or convoluted their plots may be.  Whereas Ferrara’s film featured Harvey Keitel naked and bellowing in soul-searing pain, Herzog gives us Nicolas Cage grinning, laughing, and apparently having a ball.

This has got to be one of Nicolas Cage’s wildest performances.  He yells.  He bulges his eyes.  He grins maniacally at the strangest moments.  He interrogates a suspect while taking hits off a joint.  Because his character has a bad back, Cage moves stiffly, carrying himself almost as if he were a living Golem.  McDonagh may have his demons but, at the same time, he also seems to be having a blast every time we see him.  Wisely, Herzog also allows the character some quieter moments.  When the lieutenant talks about how he used to imagine there was pirate treasure buried in his back yard or when he and an ex-con sit in front of a gigantic fish tank, Cage gets a chance to show that there actually is something going on underneath all of McDonagh’s bluster.  This not only one of Cage’s most over the top performances but also one of his best.

Herzog not only gets the best out of Cage but also the best out of New Orleans.  He may not make New Orleans look beautiful but he still captures the atmosphere that has made New Orleans one of the most legendary cities in the world.  Cage, Herzog, and New Orleans make for a great combination.

Movie A Day #120: Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde (1993, directed by John Shipperd)


Scott Wolf plays Clyde, a nerdy high school student who has a go-nowhere job at a burger place.  Maureen Flannigan, best known for starring in Out Of This World, is Bonnie, who likes to steal stuff and have fun.  Unfortunately, Bonnie’s father (played by Tom Bower) is not an avuncular alien who sounds like Burt Reynolds.  Instead, he’s the extremely strict and controlling police commissioner of their hometown.  Clyde like Bonnie but Bonnie wants nothing to do with him.  It’s not until Clyde spies Bonnie shoplifting in a record store that he realizes that larceny is the key to her heat.  When Clyde steals a van and Bonnie steals her father’s guns, the two of them head for Mexico, robbing banks, shooting guns, making love (which, judging from the comments I have found online, is the main reason the film found an audience once it started showing up on HBO) and becoming media celebrities along the way.

An attempt to do a teenage version of Bonnie and Clyde, Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde predates Natural Born Killers by a year with its critique of the public’s fascination with sex and violence.  While the film was hurt by its low-budget, both Maureen Flannigan and Scott Wolf were ideally cast as the young lovers and the entire movie is a hundred times better than anyone would ever expect something called Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde to be.  After being typecast of Out of this World‘s wholesome Evie, Maureen Flannigan tried to change her image with this violent film.  Unfortunately, the movie ended up exiled to late night showings on HBO where it guaranteed that kids like me would never look at reruns of Out of This World the same way ever again.

A Movie A Day #108: Against The Wall (1994, directed by John Frankenheimer)


The year is 1971 and Malcolm Smith (Kyle MacLachlan) has just started working as a prison guard at Attica Correctional Facility.  Even though his father (Harry Dean Stanton) was a prison guard, Malcolm does not fit in with the other guards at Attica.  Malcolm is younger than them and is disgusted by the inhumane treatment of the prisoners.  If not for his wife (Anne Heche) and the child that they are expecting, Malcolm would just quit but he needs the money.  He fears that he is going to eventually turn into just another sadistic guard.

When a prison riot breaks out, Malcolm is one of the guards taken hostage.  While the psychotic Chaka (Clarence Williams III) wants to kill all of the guards, Jamaal X (Samuel L. Jackson) realizes that killing the hostages will sacrifice what little leverage that prisoners have.  If the guards are killed, Jamaal X reasons, the state police will have no reason not to storm the prison and violently restore order.  Over the course of the four-day riot, Jamaal and Malcolm become unlikely friends and allies but it turns out that, even with the guards being held hostage, the government has no interest in negotiating with the prisoners.

This moving, thought-provoking, and well-acted docudrama originally aired on HBO and it won John Frankenheimer a well-deserved Emmy.  Samuel L. Jackson is powerful as Jamaal X and this is one of the few times that Kyle MacLachlan got to play a thoroughly normal person with no dark secrets or weird quirks.  Malcolm Smith is just a regular everyman who finds himself in the middle of a history-making event.

For fans of Twin Peaks, Against the Wall features three alumni of the show.  Kyle MacLachlan, of course, starred as Dale Cooper while Clarence Williams III appeared in one episode as Roger Hardy.  Finally, Harry Dean Stanton, a longtime favorite of David Lynch, appeared in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

A Movie A Day #70: Wired (1989, directed by Larry Peerce)


Sometimes, you watch a movie and all you cay say, at the end, is “What the Hell were they thinking?”

Wired is one such movie.  Based on a widely discredited biography by Bob Woodward, Wired tells two stories.  In the first story, John Belushi (Michael Chiklis, making an unfortunate film debut) wakes up in a morgue and is told by his guardian angel that he has died of a drug overdose.  Did I mention that his guardian angel is Puerto Rican cabbie named Angel Vasquez (Ray Sharkey) and Angel drives Belushi through a series of flashbacks?  Belushi meets Dan Aykroyd (Gary Groomes, who looks nothing like Dan Aykroyd).  Belushi gets cast on Saturday Night Live.  Belushi marries Judy (Lucinda Jenney).  Belushi uses drugs, costars in The Blues Brothers, dies of a drug overdose in a sleazy motel, and plays a pinball game to determine whether he’ll go to Heaven or Hell.  While this is going on, Bob Woodward (J.T. Walsh) is interviewing everyone who knew Belushi while he was alive.

There are so many things wrong with Wired that it is hard to know where to even begin.  I haven’t even mentioned the scene where Bob Woodward travels back in time and has a conversation with Belushi while he’s dying on the motel room floor.  Wired tries to be a cautionary tale about getting seduced by fame and drugs but how seriously can anyone take the message of any movie that features Ray Sharkey as a guardian angel?  The scenes with Woodward are strange, mostly because the hero of Watergate is being played by an actor best known for playing sinister villains.  (Seven years after playing Bob Woodward, J.T. Walsh was actually cast as Watergate figure John Ehrlichman in Nixon.)  Considering that this was his first movie, Michael Chiklis is not bad when it comes to playing a drug addict named John but he’s never convincing as John Belushi.  He never captures the mix of charisma and danger that made John Belushi a superstar.  Wired wants to tell the story of Belushi’s downfall but never understands what made him special to begin with.

Wired tries to be edgy but it only succeeds for one split second.  During the filming of The Blues Brothers, a director who is clearly meant to be John Landis walks over to Belushi’s trailer.  Listen carefully, and a helicopter can be heard in the background.

As for the rest of Wired, what the Hell were they thinking?

A Movie A Day #33: Two-Minute Warning (1976, directed by Larry Peerce)


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For the longest time, I thought that Two-Minute Warning was a movie about a gang of art thieves who attempt to pull off a heist by hiring a sniper to shoot at empty seats at the Super Bowl.  As planned by a master criminal known as The Professor (Rossano Brazzi), the sniper will cause a riot and the police will be too busy trying to restore order to notice the robbery being committed at an art gallery that happens to be right next to the stadium.

I believed that because that was the version of Two-Minute Warning that would sometimes show up on television.  Whenever I saw the movie, I always through it was a strange plan, one that had too many obvious flaws for any halfway competent criminal mastermind to ignore them.  What if the sniper was captured before he got a chance to start shooting?  What if a riot didn’t break out?  The sniper spent the movie aiming at empty seats but, considering how many people were in the stadium, it was likely that he would accidentally shoot someone.  Were the paintings really worth the risk of a murder charge?

Even stranger was that Two-Minute Warning was not only a heist film but it was also a 1970s disaster film.  Spread out throughout the stadium were familiar character actors like Jack Klugman, John Cassevetes, David Janssen, Martin Balsam, Gena Rowlands, Walter Pidgeon, and Beau Bridges.  It seemed strange that, once the shots were fired and Brazzi’s men broke into the gallery, all of those familiar faces vanished.  When it comes to disaster movies, it is an ironclad rule that at least one B-list celebrity has to die.  It seemed strange that Two-Minute Warning, with all those characters, would feature a sniper shooting at only empty seats.  For that matter, why would there be empty seats at the Super Bowl?

That wasn’t the strangest thing about Two-Minute Warning, though.  The strangest thing was that Charlton Heston was in the film, playing a police captain.  In most of his scenes, he had dark hair.  But, in the scenes in which he talked about the art gallery, Heston’s hair was suddenly light brown.

Recently, I watched Two-Minute Warning on DVD and I was shocked to discover that the movie on the DVD had very little in common with the movie that I had seen on TV.  For instance, the television version started with the crooks discussing their plan to rob the gallery.  The DVD version opened with the sniper shooting at a couple in the park.  In the DVD version, there was no art heist.   The sniper had no motive and no personality.  He was just a random nut who opened fire on the Super Bowl.  And,  in the DVD version, he did not shoot at empty seats.  Several of the characters who survived in the version that I saw on TV did not survive in the version that I saw on DVD.

What happened?

The theatrical version of Two-Minute Warning was exactly what I saw on the DVD.  A nameless sniper opens fire and kills several people at the Super Bowl.  In 1978, when NBC purchased the television broadcast rights for Two-Minute Warning, they worried that it was too violent and too disturbing.  There was concern that, if the film was broadcast as it originally was, people would actually think there was a risk of some nut with a gun opening fire at a crowded event.  (In 1978, that was apparently considered to be implausible.)  So, 40 minutes of new footage was shot.  Charlton Heston even returned to film three new scenes, which explains his changing hair color.  The new version of Two-Minute Warning not only gave the sniper a motive (albeit one that did not make much sense) but it also took out all of the violent death scenes.

Having seen both versions of Two-Minute Warning, neither one is very good, though the theatrical version is at least more suspenseful than the television version.  (It turns out that it was better to give the sniper no motive than to saddle him with a completely implausible one.)  But, even in the theatrical version, the potential victims are too one-dimensional to really care about.  Ultimately, the most interesting thing about Two-Minute Warning is that, at one time, an art heist was considered more plausible than a mass shooting.

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Back to School #43: River’s Edge (dir by Tim Hunter)


In his film guide, Heavy Metal Movies, Mike McPadden describes the disturbing 1987 teen crime drama River’s Edge as being “666 Candles“.  It’s a perfect description because River’s Edge appears to not only be taking place in a different socio-economic setting than Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club but perhaps on a different planet as well.

River’s Edge opens with a close-up of a dead and naked teenage girl lying on the edge of a dirty, polluted river and it gets darker from there.  The dead girl was the girlfriend of the hulking John Tollet (Daniel Roebuck, playing a character who is miles away from his role in Cavegirl).  As John explains to his friends, he strangled her for no particular reason.  His friends, meanwhile, respond with detachment.  Their unofficial leader, the hyperactive Layne (Crispin Glover), insists that since nothing can be done about the dead girl, their number one concern now has to be to keep John from getting caught.  While Layne arranges for John to hide out with a one-legged drug dealer named Feck (Dennis Hopper), two of John’s friends, Matt and Clarissa (played by Keanu Reeves and Ione Skye), consider whether or not they should go to the police.  Oddly enough, John really doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.

Seriously, River’s Edge is one dark film.  If it were made today, River’s Edge would probably be directed by someone like Larry Clark and, in many ways, it feels like a distant cousin to Clark’s Bully.  The teenagers in River’s Edge live in a world with little-to-no adult supervision.  Matt’s mom is more concerned with whether or not Matt has been stealing her weed than with the fact that Matt might be covering up a murder.  The local high school teacher is a former hippie who won’t shut up about how much better his generation was compared to every other generation.  In fact, the only adult with any sort of moral code is Feck and he’s usually too busy dancing with a sex doll to really be of much help.  It’s a world where no one has been raised to value their own lives so why should they care about a dead girl laying out on the banks of the river?

The film features good performances from Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, and Daniel Roebuck but really, the entire movie is stolen by Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper.  In the role of Layne, Glover is a manic wonder, speaking quickly and gesturing even when he isn’t making a point.  When Layne first shows up, he seems like he’s just overly loyal to his friend John but, as the film progresses, it becomes more apparent that he’s less concerned about protecting John and more interested in ordering other people to do it.  For Layne, protecting John is ultimately about maintaining power over Matt, Clarissa, and the rest of their friends.

As for Dennis Hopper — well, this is one of those films that you should show to anyone who says that Hopper wasn’t a great actor.  The role of a one-legged drug dealer who lives with a sex doll sound like exactly the type of role that would lead Hopper to going totally over-the-top.  Instead, Hopper gave a surprisingly subtle and intelligent performance and, as a result, he provided this film with the moral center that it very much needs.

Glover and Hopper

 

44 Days of Paranoia #30: Nixon (dir by Oliver Stone)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Oliver Stone’s 1995 presidential biopic, Nixon.

Nixon tells the life story of our 37th President, Richard Nixon.  The only President to ever resign in order to avoid being impeached, Nixon remains a controversial figure to this day.  As portrayed in this film, Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) was an insecure, friendless child who was dominated by his ultra religious mother (Mary Steenburgen) and who lived in the shadow of his charismatic older brother (Tony Goldwyn).  After he graduated college, Nixon married Pat (Joan Allen), entered politics, made a name for himself as an anti-communist, and eventually ended up winning the U.S. presidency.  The film tells us that, regardless of his success, Nixon remained a paranoid and desperately lonely man who eventually allowed the sycophants on his staff (including James Woods) to break the law in an attempt to destroy enemies both real and imagined.  Along the way, Nixon deals with a shady businessman (Larry Hagman), who expects to be rewarded for supporting Nixon’s political career, and has an odd confrontation with a young anti-war protester who has figured out that Nixon doesn’t have half the power that everyone assumes he does.

Considering that his last few films have been W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and SavagesI think it’s understandable that I’m often stunned to discover that, at one point in the distant past, Oliver Stone actually was a worthwhile director.  JFK, for instance, is effective propaganda.  Nixon, which feels a lot like an unofficial sequel to JFK, is a much messier film than JFK but — as opposed to something like Savages — it’s still watchable and occasionally even thought-provoking.  Thanks to Hopkins’ performance and, it must be admitted, Stone’s surprisingly even-handed approach to the character, Nixon challenges our assumptions about one of the most infamous and villified figures in American history.  It forces us to decide for ourselves whether Nixon was a monster or a victim of circumstances that spiraled out of his control.  If you need proof of the effectiveness of the film’s approach, just compare Stone’s work on Nixon with his work on his next Presidential biography, the far less effective W.

(I should admit, however, that I’m a political history nerd and therefore, this film was specifically designed to appeal to me.  For me, half the fun of Nixon was being able to go, “Oh, that’s supposed to be Nelson Rockefeller!”)

If I had to compare the experience of watching Nixon to anything, I would compare it to taking 10 capsules of Dexedrine and then staying up for five days straight without eating.  The film zooms from scene-to-scene, switching film stocks almost at random while jumping in and out of time, and not worrying too much about establishing any sort of narrative consistency.  Surprisingly nuanced domestic scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen are followed by over-the-top scenes where Bob Hoskins lustily stares at a White House guard or Sam Waterston’s eyes briefly turn completely black as he discusses the existence of evil.  When Nixon gives his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention, the Republican delegates are briefly replaced by images of a world on fire.  Familiar actors wander through the film, most of them only popping up for a scene or two and then vanishing.  The end result is a film that both engages and exhausts the viewer, a hallucinatory journey through Stone’s version of American history.

Nixon is a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd