30 11 2009

Considering the fact that every third film today is a re-make or, more pretentiously, a re-imagination of an earlier success, it’s always galling to hear filmmakers giving the hard sell on why it’s so vitally necessary to re-do what’s been already been done; why in many ways, Freddie Krueger’s story is even more relevant today than it was in 1984, or why this generation must have a DEATH RACE to call its own… Of course, the only real reason to re-make, or re-imagine a film is to appeal to its “built-in” audience – and make bank. Any filmmaker who claims otherwise is full of what they’re peddling.

And then there is THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, a film being discussed with refreshing honesty by both its director Werner Herzog, and the director of the first film to bear the BAD LIEUTENANT title, Abel Ferrara. And when I say ‘refreshing,’ I mean that Ferrara has been quoted as saying that that all those involved in remaking his film “should all die in hell.” (An actual quote – and it’s worth noting that Ferrara’s follow-up to his own LIEUTENANT was BODY SNATCHERS, a re-imagining of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.) Herzog, for his part, claims never to have seen Ferrara’s 1992 film, and has freely admitted that the BAD LIEUTENANT title was added to his project to secure financing. There’s the movies for you, kids: an original story, even one with a great director and bonafide Disney movie star, requires association with a pre-existing title to get made. But in what could be considered a Hollywood judo move, Herzog has put together a unique, even bold crime film, by taking on the name of another. It’s in this subversive spirit that BL:POCNO (such a fun acronym) seems to have been produced, and that, fortunately, translates into a viewing experience full of freaky pleasures.

Nicolas Cage (second from right, caucasian) in THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS

In one of his two greatest and least-unbearable performances of the ’00’s, Academy Award Winner and Japanese commercial pitchman Nicolas Cage plays Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, who, at film’s open, appeals to his better angels and rescues an inmate from a flooding prison cell during Hurricane Katrina. In saving the con, Terence injures his back, and is prescribed some serious painkillers. Before long, these are supplemented with every other type of narcotic imaginable – and Terence is in deep with all the bad elements of the Crescent City. What follows is a surprisingly tight, and altogether surprising noir, in which Terence juggles gambling debt, drug addiction, a hooker girlfriend with a heart of gold, and an assortment of well-cast ne’er-do-well’s. It’s a highly-entertaining depiction of a man mentally and emotionally spiraling out of control, and like all real noir, it’s not on a moral bent against either its pro- or antagonists. Herzog certainly doesn’t present a sinner just to tear him down; there’s too much to explore in the symptoms of moral and mental descent.

If Cage is to be the modern Klaus Kinski, Herzog’s new and wild American muse – all I can say is bring it. Bring that shit on, Werner. Director and actor here make a perfect fit, Herzog the great documentarian of madness, and Cage, who does crazy in a way all his own. Cage’s style pushes so far in one direction of artifice, from PEGGY SUE to CON AIR, he almost dares you to accept him in a role, and to enjoy him faking it, as he clearly does. When Cage is bad, as well as when he’s good, he goes for broke, and in BL:POCNO, he goes so broke, he’d better be lining up some of those bonkers Japanese commercials, and fast. In one scene, before a pair of old ladies, Cage waves a .45 Magnum and screams, unprovoked, “I hate you! You’re why this country’s going down the shithole!” If this doesn’t make you laugh, you haven’t accepted the dare of Cage and of this film. And I feel so very sad for you.

How'd it get BUUURNED?!

Herzog himself colors in the margins of a smart, if somewhat straight screenplay with bizarrerie that improves the pace in the film’s midsection. Between the appearance of drug-induced iguanas, (with shaky, patent-pending Iguana-Cam,) and a metaphysical break-dancing ho-down that begs to be watched on repeat, it’s hard not to get a thrill from the genuine weirdness Herzog injects into what would appear by its title to be another unnecessary remake. He manages to make a strong case not only for his own remake’s existence, but even a case, in some cases, for remakes.


Mann’s Chinese Six, Hollywood

Sunday, November 29, 4:10pm showing


Pre-Judgement: UP IN THE AIR

20 11 2009

Today, I present not only a new item on the Spielblog, but an all-time first in cinematic criticism: a review of a film that I have admittedly, even brazenly, not seen. It has been too long, people, that simply ‘not seeing’ a film has disqualified critics from saying what they think of it. Take for instance UP IN THE AIR, not in theaters until Christmas day, but already a top contender for my least favorite film of 2009. Though I can’t quantify it exactly, something about this film, its je ne sais quoi, makes me want to kill. Or at least blog. Everything about it irks me, starting with the title. (I mean, if you’re gonna judge a book, why not start with its cover?) UP IN THE AIR. Do you get it? Do you?! Good. Now let’s all groan in unison, shall we? This title is exactly as clever as the underlying modern-transit-as-existential-flux metaphor that’s obviously at play here. (Again, haven’t seen, still hate.) Please, watch this, the springboard for my advance loathing. If you’re anything like me, you may want to bite down on a wooden spoon while you do.

Hey, do you like this shot? Thanks, I stole it from PUNCHDRUNK LOVE.

All his frequent-flyer miles. But what do they add up to, really? Don’t you see? God it’s so rich… This interminable extended TV trailer, it would follow, is a pretty accurate display of the slick pop humanism at work here. And I might not even be rubbed wrong if all this weren’t accompanied by the most outrageous bombast upwind of Glenn Beck: “Jason Reitman represents the hope of the cinema,” says the Chicago Sun-Times. Tell you what, while we’re wildly leaping to unfounded conclusions, let’s give Jason Reitman the Irving Thalberg Award for lifetime achievement and get it over with. Sorry no, Jason Reitman represents a guy with fine taste (except for that whole JUNO screenplay thing,) and the means (read: ‘dad’) to pick and purchase source material of a decent caliber. Young Jason is perhaps the hope of the Canadian cinema, (Socialism, all of it!) but not the American. Furthermore, are you kidding me JUNO was an abomination.

Not that I need to justify my flagrantly uninformed opinions, but I feel that this ad has pushed me to prejudge the film as a whole. Admittedly, after JUNO, my smug detector’s primed whenever Jason Reitman’s name appears, but somehow, this ad crosses a line – an arbitrary line, but a line – between merely obnoxious, as the vast majority of ads are, and boastful. Take that last beat, where Danny McBride’s character actually compliments George Clooney on how witty he’s being. OK, now imagine Jason Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner writing that line. And chuckling. And giving each other high fives. Absolutely infuriating, no? I literally haven’t been able to sleep since seeing this ad. This scenario just replays itself in my head until the cock crows. YES I own a rooster, people. And while we’re talking navel-gazing, let’s not ignore this Reitman tidbit, about how the young director’s currently documenting his own press junket, because selling yourself is so much fun, you see. Choice quote: “It’s really not a promotional tool,” Reitman, 32, said of his project. “It’s really for my own enjoyment.” But of course it is, Jason.

THE AIR UP THERE starring Kevin Bacon, shown here for obvious reasons.

First impressions aside, who knows, Reitman’s new movie may turn out tolerable. Perhaps it won’t be so horrifically self-satisfied and faux-profound as it appears. (‘Prauxfound.’ Coining it. Bam.) Another Clooney triumph, MICHAEL CLAYTON, had a notably ‘meh’ trailer. But if the invitation to this party is on par with the fest itself, then consider this my RSVP. To whom it may concern, I’m afraid I won’t be attending UP IN THE AIR, sincerely, S. Spielblog.


9 11 2009

One unfortunate byproduct of having a Netflix account, is stumbling upon a film you’ve never heard of – only to discover why you’ve never heard of it. For every famous failure, there are many more films so worthless, they’ve not even made it into the annals of notoriety; films so forgettable, they’ve been, well, forgotten – forgotten, and yet somehow also released on DVD. There such a film lays, with its all-star cast and pedigree, like a shitty genie, waiting for you, the foolhardy Netflixer. “How could it be bad,” you wonder, moving it to the top of your queue in spite of its one-and-a-half star mean rating. But alas, Aladdin, you rubbed the wrong lamp… Future Netflixers, take note. THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS will be a paragon of this ‘fool’s gold’ category.

Clooney vs. GOAT

Steven Spielblog raves: "GOATS... be... gold!"

The basis of MEN…GOATS, a 2005 book by Jon Ronson, is the true tale of so-called “psychic spies” in the United States Army: men who, following the tragic debacle of Vietnam, found themselves in the experimental first wave of a re-envisioned Army, one that sought to change the minds and capture the hearts of its enemies – and only failing that, to kill them. The First Earth Battalion (or Jedi, as they called themselves) was tasked with developing psychic techniques in conflict resolution: approaching battle zones with “sparkly eyes,” and towing loudspeakers to broadcast “indigenous music and words of peace.” This was all primarily the brainchild of Lt. Col. Jim Channon – and though it may have been a basically batshit dream, there was, the creators of this adaptation propose, something beautiful about it… More than beautiful, though, it was kooky. Highly kooky.

Directed by George Clooney’s best friend in the whole wide world Grant Heslov, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS turns Lt. Col. Channon into the far, far kookier “Lt. Col Bill Jango,” who, as played with hippy-dippy charm by Jeff Bridges, can’t help but avoid drawing comparison to The Dude. Unfortunately, Heslov relegates the story of Jango and the formation of the Battalion to flashback, and instead centers his narrative around Bob Wilton, a fictional journalist played by Ewan McGregor. Left by his wife and struggling with feelings of inadequacy, Wilton travels to Iraq to chase a story and prove his worth – but winds up meeting Lyn Cassady (Clooney,) a washed-up former Jedi who initiates him in the ways of the First Earth Battalion.

If this doesn’t sound like much of a plot, that’s because it’s not. The film’s present-day portion is simply, sadly lifeless – a road trip comedy that stumbles out of the gate and never finds a rhythm. Clooney fares better than McGregor, who struggles here, equally with an American accent, and with the bland everyman role he’s been handed. Wilton, our guide through the weird and wacky world of the Jedi, comes off by turns as manic and naïve, but imbued with a deep, intractable boring-ness, which I suppose was meant to make him the “relatable” one in the film’s nutty menagerie. Talk about miscalculation. Ten minutes in, I wanted to ask him to leave the movie.

Spacey & Clooney

Oh yeah, Kevin Spacey's in this too. He plays a real dickhead. Surprise.

As long as the piece stays in flashback and sticks to the facts of Ronson’s book, it’s not fully objectionable, though with its clunky presentational narration and mincing score, it must qualify as one of the sloppiest ever screen adaptations of a nonfiction book. But it’s in the present, in Iraq, that the thing just falls to shambles. The final stretch of the film finds Wilton and Cassady at a desert Army base, where a bastardized, violent version of the First Earth Battalion’s techniques is being used on Iraqi detainees. In what apparently passes for a climax these days, McGregor and Jeff Bridges’ Jango, (who makes an extremely predictable appearance in the film’s last act,) dose the soldiers with LSD, and set the detainees free. Listen, I oppose the Iraq war, now and always. But when our would-be Jedi heroes free a bunch of anonymous POW’s just to make a stand against “the dark side,” my reaction isn’t “hey, good for them for blowing up the Death Star,” it’s “wait, who the hell are those guys in the orange jumpsuits, and why are you letting them go?” Problem is, in order for this scene of defiance to have any impact, the audience must believe, as the protagonists do, that the First Earth Battalion is something worth fighting for. Something true, even beautiful. But the film has done nothing before this point to present psychic spies as anything but a grand-scale goof. So instead of rousing any emotion, this climax turns into one big head-scratcher. The victory of the hippy-dippy weirdos! … You know, “hurrah,” maybe, I guess!

I’d call it preachy too, but it’s unclear what exactly is being preached. There’s an unfocused, limp anti-war sentiment floated through the piece, and even a brief stop-off in the real world as our characters saunter through Ramallah long enough to deem it, too, kooky – but the filmmakers’ attempt to embed this anti-Iraq war sentiment into a seemingly un-ironic embrace of the First Earth Battalion’s worldview, makes for a finish that’s worse than muddled; it’s fucking creepy.


Vista Theater, Los Angeles

Saturday, November 9, 4:30pm showing