PICKS OF THE WEEK
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (A)
U.S.; Werner Herzog, 2009, First Look
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a weird title, but a great, crazy film. Its greatness is, in fact, inseparable from its craziness, or from Nicolas Cage's fantastic, raging, brilliantly over-the-top performance as the bad madman cop, Terence McDonough.
The movie, which starts in a parking lot with some police brutality and then shifts to a flooded jail in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, first shows Cage's Terence being bad and self-destructively good. We see him robbing and raping suspects in the lot, then perched on a jail walkway with Val Kilmer as his partner, debating whether to save a trapped prisoner in a cell with the water rising. Terence makes fun of the jailbird's plight, then jumps in the water, soaking an expensive suit and underwear, and, as it happens, also wrenching his back and throwing himself into near-constant pain afterwards.
From then on, in one appalling scene after another, Terence races around New Orleans, in the catastrophe's aftermath, bent over from crippling pain, and swallowing and stealing stronger and harder drugs to kill it, laughing explosively and chattering maniacally, beating and blackmailing suspects and perps, recklessly piling up huge gambling debs with his perturbed bookie (Brad Dourif), plotting felonies with the local crime boss (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner), screwing and snorting coke with his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) and in general behaving as badly as any lieutenant possibly could -- including Harvey Keitel, who was the original Bad Lieutenant in Abel Ferrara's blistering original 1992 film. (Ferrara's was more violent and just as crazy as Herzog's, but not as flat-out weird.)
In Bad Lieutenant, Cage again abandons restraint and lets it rip. It's as good (and deep-down bad) as he can do. And, defying expectations, it's almost as good as Herzog can do too: a near-great neo-noir. Bad is mostly not shadowy neo-nourish. It's noir as in the brutal, straight-ahead vision of a Sam Fuller, a Don Siegel or a Phil Karlson, with a touch of Buñuelian surreal nightmare around the edges. Like true noir masterpieces such as Rififi, Touch of Evil and Double Indemnity, Herzog's movie is about individual sin and social evil, with bad Terence as the crazy-house mirror reflection of all the madness around him.
The Last Stage (The Last Stop) (A)
Poland; Wanda Jakubowska, 1948 (Polart/Facets)
Neglected, and rarely seen, this 1948 Polish movie by Wanda Jakubowska -- a director largely lost to film history -- is one of the great Holocaust chronicles: a richly detailed, unsparing yet deeply compassionate portrayal of everyday life in Auschwitz. It is a film of terrifying accuracy: It was shot in the notorious concentration camp itself after the war, with actual Auschwitz prisoner/survivors among the many extras, and with co-script and direction by Jakubowska, herself an Auschwitz survivor. She helped keep herself going while imprisoned there, she said, by committing all her experiences to memory, so that she would be able to use them later for a film.
Most of the cast of The Last Stage are women; we are in the female section of Auschwitz for the majority of the action. (The Last Stage may be the ultimate "women's prison" picture.) The vast assembly of inmates includes not only Jews, but political prisoners, gypsies, and other Europeans. The central characters are a Polish-Jewish inmate who acts as interpreter for the German officers and guards, and several Polish-Jewish female doctors and nurses (played by a little-known but excellent cast that includes Wanda Bartowna as the interpreter, and Antonina Gorecka and Barbara Drapinska among the medical team).
Director Jakubowska, telling her dark story of persecution, tragedy and revolt, gives us an incredible ground zero view of what life in Auschwitz and the other death camps was like: the nightmarish train arrivals in the night, the rows and lines of prisoners brutalized by the guards, the infrequent escape attempts and callous offhand shootings, the prisoner's camp symphony orchestra blaring out tinny band music as a "morale booster," the exploitation of a gypsy musician inmate, playing guitar and then forced into sex by a lesbian Nazi officer, the rows of beds filled with the weak, sick or dying, and -- something Jakubowska must have visualized or imagined, but that strikes you as true -- the horrifying meetings of the Nazi camp officers, where they openly discuss the regimen of slaughter and the most efficient methods of murder.
What of Jakubowska herself? Except for this film, she is still largely unknown to film history, even though she was a very rare women filmmaker who managed to have a long, productive career despite starting out in the 1930s, when few female filmmakers thrived in America or Europe. She directed her first film, at 25 (like Orson Welles). And in 1933, when she was only 26, at a time when few foreign-language films penetrated the U.S. market, Jakubowska's short film, Morze was nominated for an American Academy Award.
She continued directing, under great difficulty, through the war, and The Last Stage was released in 1948, during the international heyday of the Italian neo-realist masters Rossellini and De Sica. Jakubowska's work here compares very favorably to the great Italians' best and most famous war films: Rossellini's Rome: Open City and Paisa and De Sica's Shoeshine. The acting is intense; the look naturalistic; the technique highly inventive, mobile and visually stunning.
Jakubowska made over 20 features during a career that spanned half a century. She continued directing until 1987, when she made her last film, Colors of Love, at the age of 80.
I think it should be a major project of film history to revive and investigate the rest of Jakubowska's career and work. And The Last Stage should be seen by anyone deeply interested in twentieth century cinema and history. Or by any human being with a heart and a soul. (In Polish, and German, with English subtitles.) (Extras: Jakubowska history and filmography.)
The Italian Straw Hat (A)
France; Rene Clair, 1927, Flicker Alley
Rene Clair's brilliantly funny 1927 silent comedy takes the classic 1851 play by Eugene Labiche and Marc Michel, about a Parisian wedding coming apart at the seams, and resets the action in 1895, when one simple mishap -- the horse on the groom's (Albert Prejean) carriage nibbles the expensive Italian straw hat of an errant wife (Olga Tschekowa) in mid-liaison with a hot-tempered Lieutenant (Vital Geymond), leaving the wife fearful of discovery by her pistol-packing husband (Jim Gerald) if he discovers the damage -- throws the entire nuptial day and night into a chain of increasingly violent, mad and hilarious misunderstandings and clashes.
Clair, a devotee of early cinema, not only sets the action in the year that saw the birth of cinema, he shoots his film in the style of early cinema as well. Beautifully stylized, wonderfully directed, gorgeously designed by the great Russian art director Lazar Meerson, with a cast that's perfect from top to bottom (including the horse), this sophisticated, wildly funny film is one of the prime classics among all French comedies, silent or talkie. And here, the new, restored and reassembled Hat comes in a print that positively glows with life, sex and wit.(Silent, with musical scores and English, French and Spanish intertitles.) (Extras: two silent shorts, Ferdinand Zecca's 1907 Fun After the Wedding and Clair's 1928 documentary on the Eiffel Tower, La Tour; booklet with essays by Lenny Borger, Iris Barry and Rodney Sauer; two separate soundtracks, including Sauer's orchestral score for the Mont Alto Motion Picture orchestra and Philip Carli's solo piano score; and the complete script of Labiche's original play on DVD-ROM.)
The Last Waltz (A)
U.S.; Martin Scorsese, 1978, MGM
One of the great rock concert films: Martin Scorsese's brilliantly shot and edited record of the Band's farewell concert at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium, with an unbeatable supporting cast of singer-songwriters, pop heroes, guitar gods and rock legends that includes Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, EmmyLou Harris, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Ronnie "The Hawk" Hawkins (their first boss and front man), and Bob Dylan (their most famous boss, bringing down the Fillmore with a fantastic joint Band-Dylan rendition of "Forever Young.")
Fabulous rock fan and chronicler/director Marty S. planned every shot and is on top of every moment in the film. Interspersed with the songs, every one a knockout (from "Up on Cripple Creek," to "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" to "I Shall Be Released," to one featured song by most of the guests) are reminiscences of life on the road (which they're now quitting) by the five Band members, Levon Helm (drums, singer), Rick Danko (guitar, singer), Richard Manuel (keyboards, guitars singer), Garth Hudson (keyboards) and the incredibly handsome Robbie Robertson (lead guitar and songwriter). On stage, Robbie and Joni exchange a look that suggests the sweetest of memories.
The movie is a sweet memory too -- and I think the version of "The Weight" here, played and sung by the Band and the Staple Singers, is one of the great musical sequences in cinema history. "Beautiful!" breathes Mavis Staples after they finish the last chorus. Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Civilisation: A Personal View by Lord Clark (A)
U.K.; Michael Gill/Peter Montagnon/Ann Turner, 1969, BBC/Warner Brothers
One of the greatest and most influential of all TV documentary mini-series is the 1969 classic of televised art history Civilisation, writer-narrator Kenneth Clark's survey of western art and its meaning and impact throughout the ages -- beginning in the Dark Ages and progressing through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Age of Reason to the 20th century.
Clark examines, with inimitable style and devotion, mostly the visual arts (something ideal, of course for television), emphasizing movements and masters from Da Vinci and Michelangelo to Turner, the Impressionists and Rodin.
But Clark also celebrates music (Bach, Mozart and Beethoven), literature (Shakespeare, Dante and Tolstoy) and even politics (Jefferson). Dead white males these great artists might be, but here we see and feel their magnificence and universality. (Extras: David Attenborough, the BBC Two controller who conceived and produced the project, and later became just as famous for his wonderful TV natural history documentaries, recalls Civilisation; photo gallery; booklet with Marcus Hearn essay.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (D+)
U.S.; Betty Thomas, 2009, Fox
Who could have imagined way back in the Age of Elvis and Ike that the '50s pop group still going strong in the 21st century would be...Alvin and the Chipmunks?
Really? How much mileage can you get out of speeding up voices on a kids' record?
A lot, apparently. Here come the Chipsters again, returning for the inevitable movie sequel. But how could you possibly top something like Alvin and the Chipmunks? Squeakquel gamely tries. It shows the little Chipper-nippers sent, oddly, to a human high school, while David recovers from one of the movie's several bone-crunching slapstick accidents. There, the trio, who are the only animated animals in the school, run into a remarkably unflappable, if often nasty, student body and a flock of "Dorks Rule" high school comedy clichés.
We get the mean jocks, the snooty cheerleaders, slapstick in the cafeteria, outlandish football heroics by wee gridiron great Alvin, and, of course, the big climactic talent contest -- for which you would have thought these three pros would be ineligible. Squeakquel also brings back their old nemesis, perfidious record exec Ian (David Cross, unchained).
Sneery-leery Ian is up to his old Chip-tricks. He stumbles on a bright, chipper chipmunk girl group called the Chipettes, composed of Brittany (Christina Applegate), Jeanette (Anna Faris) and Eleanor (Amy Poehler). Immediately he begins plotting his evil comeback and revenge. And there are blazing, squeaking, chip-flipping Chipmunk or Chipette renditions of "You Really Got Me," "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," and the inevitable "Shake Your Groove Thing" and "We Are Family."
It has to be said. This "Chip" is no pip. Squeakquel director Betty Thomas, who also gave us The Brady Bunch Movie and I Spy, has not reformed. Still, if you are five years old, you might like Squeakquel, as long as Mommy and Daddy promise to buy you a Chipmunk squeakie-doll and an Alvin crayon set. (Extras: featurettes, music videos.)
Irene in Time (C+)
U.S.; Henry Jaglom, 2009, Breaking Glass Pictures
Irene in Time is the 16th Rainbow production (dig that crazy Orson Welles logo!) of Henry Jaglom, ex-'70s movie rad, comrade of the B.B.S. Easy Rider gang, and the later comic cine-poet laureate of the pricey angsts and wayward romances of now bourgeois but still rebellious post-'60s L.A.
Jaglom is master of a cine-dramatic style that, like Mike Leigh's, makes heavy use of improvisation -- and Irene really clicks in the way loopy Jaglom romances like Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, Always, New Year's Day and Last Summer in the Hamptons all did.
Star Tanna Frederick, Jaglom's ferociously smiling (All About) Eve in his 2005 backstage movie tell-all, Hollywood Dreams, here plays an enthusiastic but ill-dated L.A. single who adored her father, meets some disappointing men, parties hard with her sympathetic gal friends and learns a shocker about her dad, a gambler who once won a yacht in a big poker hand and named it "Irene in Time" for her.
Jaglom, whom I've known since I was head reviewer for L.A. Weekly, is one filmmaker who's just like his movies, and who can never be accused of selling out, playing studio politics or making an impersonal movie. Instead, he's often slammed for those commonly cited indie flaws, awkwardness and self-indulgence -- though those of us who like him feel that it's the awkwardness of life, the self-indulgence and narcissism of L.A. itself. All the actors are good --especially Frederick and Andrea Marcovicci, and Jaglom's Sitting Ducks comic Zack Norman has an opening anecdote about that yacht that's a killer.
Sweet movie. Good cast, including Karen Black, Victoria Tennant, Adam Davidson, David Proval, Reni Santoni and others. Very nice songs too, in a Carole King vein, thanks to Harriet Schock.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex (A-)
Germany; Uli Edel, 2008, mpi
Of all '70s radical student real-life melodramas -- the Weather Underground, Patty Hearst, May 1968 Paris, the Aldo Moro assassination -- the long-running bloody history of Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang, told in this unusually convincing film, may be the craziest and most instructive. Uli Edel, a master of unvarnished urban realism, tells the story without an obvious political agenda; he's fascinated by the people, including Moritz Bliebtreu as Baader and Martina Gedecki as Meinhof -- two idealistic but misguided bourgeois "revolutionaries" who are dreaming a dream of revolt that quicklky becomes a nightmare.
The B-M gang here are clearly somewhat crazy and dangerous hedonists and narcissists; their establishment opponents are opportunists who brutalize with impunity. Edel shoots lucidly and swiftly, somewhat in the manner of Costa-Gavras, but he doesn't heroize anybody. His film is often a knockout. (In German, with English subtitles.) (Extras: documentary; featurettes; interviews with author Stefan Aust and writer-producer Bernd Eichinger.)
The Black Balloon (A-)
Australia; Elissa Down, 2007, Icon/NeoClassics Films
An excellent, admirably acted family drama from director co-writer Elissa Down, about a household disrupted by the autism of the sweet but explosive eldest brother and by the stormy coming-of-age rite of passage of the younger. With Toni Collette, Rhys Wakefield and Luke Ford. Balloon won six Australian Oscars, including best film, director and script; it's both slick and compassionate, warm and engrossing. (Extras: commentary by Down; documentary, trailers.)