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Cinema Sunday (12/6/09) December 6, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
Tags: , , , , ,

If you don’t know the films of Werner Herzog, you owe it to yourself to track them down.  In many ways, his filmography is a compendium of obsession, both in his fictions (Aguirre: The Wrath of God; Fitzcarraldo; Cobra Verde; his remake of Nosferatu) and his documentaries (Little Dieter Needs to Fly; The White Diamond; Grizzly Man).  Reduce many of his films to their core, and you will see men who are wrestling with demons, gripped by inspiration, or in thrall to some urge so primal and powerful they can’t help but heed it.  Herzog is one of cinema’s great treasures, and his films are some of the most exciting, yet most overlooked, in the last forty years.

In many ways, it’s fitting that in his latest film, Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans, Herzog finds himself paired with Nicolas Cage.  Love him or hate him, Cage is an actor who is no stranger to obsession himself.  Take a look at a list of his movies, and you’ll find him inhabiting characters that grapple with many of the same issues that trouble Herzog’s protagonists.  Cage has appeared in plenty of turkeys – in fact, turkeydom has largely been his domain since the mid-90’s – but when he’s firing on all cylinders (Wild at Heart; Leaving Las Vegas; Adaptation; the vastly underrated The Weather Man), he’s as good as we’ve got.  Herzog and Cage are unafraid to go too far.  Sometimes this ends in failure, but it’s always seemed far better to overshoot the mark than to not try hard enough.

As a hugely entertaining document of this pairing we have Bad Lieutenant, a not-really remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 vehicle for Harvey Keitel.  Here, Cage stars as Terence McDonagh, a cop in post-Katrina New Orleans.  McDonagh is less concerned with protecting and serving the public than he is with allowing his police work to protect his own needs and serve his own interests.  He is a violent drug addict (painkillers, then cocaine, then heroin) and a compulsive gambler, the boyfriend of a prostitute, and the kind of cop for whom the thin blue line is more an inconvenience than a moral calling.

The plot is a thinly veiled coathanger on which Herzog gets to hang Cage’s fantastically unhinged performance.  Five people are murdered, execution-style, and it’s up to Cage and his sidekick (an unusually understated Val Kilmer) to find the murderers.  Over the next two hours, the movie gives us, in no particular order, numerous scenes of McDonagh doing crack, cocaine, and heroin; McDonagh having sex with a stranger in a parking lot while forcing her boyfriend at gunpoint to watch; rapper Xzibit as – wait for it – a drug dealer; an emaciated Fairuza Balk as a highway trooper who wants a piece of McDonagh’s sweet lovin’; McDonagh cutting off an old lady’s oxygen until she gives him the information he wants; a boilerplate Italian heavy, played by a guy who’s watched Goodfellas one too many times; Eva Mendes as McDonagh’s hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend; the breakdancing spirit of a murder victim; and a bizarre fascination with voyeuristic iguanas.

For Herzog’s non-documentaries, characterization is where it’s at – the plot is secondary to watching his protagonists contend with their demons.  Bad Lieutenant is far from a perfect film – and probably doesn’t even rank with Herzog’s best work – but it’s fun to see Cage inspired again, and it’s always fascinating whenever Herzog dips his toe in the mainstream waters.  Your appreciation for this movie will hinge on whether or not you’ve grown tired of Nicolas Cage.  For me, this movie was the cinematic equivalent of a warm blanket and a cup of cocoa, as I got to watch two masters do what they do best.


It’s not worth a full review, but I wanted to throw in a quick plug for this subversive little gem.  As high school movies go, I Love You, Beth Cooper isn’t Election-good or Rushmore-good or Say Anything-good, but it’s definitely on par with the second tier of high school movies, like Clueless or Mean Girls or Can’t Hardly Wait.

When valedictorian Dennis Cooverman (newcomer Paul Rust) proclaims his love for the titular blonde (Hayden Panettiere) in his graduation speech, it sets in motion a night of hijinks that plays like a junior-league version of Martin Scorsese’s black comedy After Hours.

Director Chris Columbus (working on a small scale for the first time in years) made an inspired choice in casting Rust as the gawky Dennis.  By refusing to go with a recognizable face (Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg leap immediately to mind), Dennis is allowed to be fresh and original, and not just another in the long line of soft-spoken, stuttering dweebs that’s so popular at the moment.  Similarly, Panetierre does a remarkable job with a character that could have just been a typically brassy high school bitch.  Instead, she imbues Beth Cooper with the nuance necessary to teach Dennis the movie’s difficult lesson: it’s a disillusioning loss of innocence to see for the first time the real-world flaws in the object of our fantasies.  When we fantasize about people we don’t know well, we see them as an idealized version that says more about who we are than who they are.  I Love You, Beth Cooper is a smart, funny diamond in the rough that got lost in the summer shuffle.  Seek it out.


Current listening:

Black Kids – Partie Traumatic (2008)



1. thoreauly77 - December 7, 2009

“When we fantasize about people we don’t know well, we see them as an idealized version that says more about who we are than who they are.”

-great line. it takes a while for that realization to ever set in, unfortunately, and usually when/if it does, its too late.

still, i do enjoy the lovely beginning of getting to know someone and being infatuated, crushing, wondering whether or not if..

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