Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cage: Bad with a badge in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Pairing Nicolas Cage with wild man filmmaker Werner Herzog sounds enticing and unusual enough. But for their film to share the same name with the 1992 film starring another unhinged and talented actor (Harvey Keitel) and directed by another uncompromising filmmaker (Abel Ferrera) that only ups the ante.

The 92' movie was a dark, unsettling character study of an authority figure drowning himself in drugs, anonymous sex and reckless gambling. If he sees any redemption for himself, it's in solving the case of rape against a nun, who refuses to name her attackers because she has forgiven them. This turns the Keitel character on his heels and puts him through a hellish revelation that maybe he isn't beyond some sort of forgiveness, even if it's unorthodox.

Now in this 2009 film we are presented with a similar character and a similar set of circumstances. Cage is a cop addicted to crack, gambles beyond his means and he won't hesitate to assault an elderly woman to gain information about a murder witness. His character is in the middle of trying to solve the murder of a drug dealer and his wife and children while attempting manically to maintain his drug and betting habit. Like the Keitel lieutenant, he gets his dope from shaking down pushers and users, all the while desperately trying to go through the motions of his work. The Cage character shares a sympathetic soul mate and dope buddy in a hooker named Frankie (superbly acted by Eva Mendes)

The differences between the 92' and 09' films are vast. Ferrera's film was set in the mean streets of New York where running into any Martin Scorsese character wouldn't be a surprise. Herzog's film trades the ubiquitous Big Apple for the exotic but devastated Big Easy post Hurricane Katrina. Instead of Ferrara's use of Catholic iconography and guilt, Herzog gives us humidity and reptiles. The only real glimpse of any religion in this film is during a funeral scene, but otherwise the movie is without piety. Instead, there are bizarre, trippy closeups of iguanas and a dead alligator that signify Cage's druggy paranoia. Not to mention, his vision of a soul escaping the corpse of a mobster only to start break dancing. Only from Herzog I guess.

You probably are wondering if this all means that 'Port of Call' is a frantic dark comedy masquerading as a cop thriller/remake of a disturbing drama. Answer: relatively yes. The laughs are there to be sure, especially with scene devouring Cage in the lead, but there's certainly more beneath the surface. Many reviews are stating that this is Cage at his most over the top, but in my opinion, I don't really think it is. For very over the top Nicolas Cage see Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) or Face/Off (1997). Here, Cage shows some real depth beyond the gun waving and crack pipe smoking. Besides scenes where he seems beyond reprehensible we get some tender moments with him and the fragile Mendes character and humorous ones with a diverse gallery of characters: his partner (Val Kilmer) his beleaguered bookie (Brad Dourif) his boss (Vondie Curtis Hall) his alcoholic father (Tom Bower) and a drug kingpin (Alvin Xzibit Joiner) who may be behind the murders Cage's character is trying to solve and who may out slime the lieutenant.

Since many people are wondering if this movie is remake of the Ferrera film (it isn't) they may also be pondering which film is superior, but that would be pointless to determine. Both films stand alone and take the same themes and not even share other ones. The Keitel film had a strong theme of loneliness and self pity. The Cage film focuses more on a plot (will the drug related murder be solved?/will the lieutenant redeem himself?) without sidestepping the characters' development. I would say that this would make a great double bill displaying the talents and borderline insane imaginations of two filmmakers and two brave actors and the different interpretations of material that could have been made into lesser, more conventional films in the hands of the wrong filmmakers. The first Bad Lieutenant strongly focuses on pathos, the new one mixes that with off the cuff humor.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

At look at Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in 2009.

23 years after it was made and knowing perfectly well of it's existence by reading reviews and seeing a VHS copy of it on the shelves of my local Blockbuster as a child, I finally saw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer after borrowing the DVD off a friend of mine. This friend worked at a video store in the early 90s and got a copy of the film and asked his boss if they could put it on the shelf as a rental. His boss took it home and return it horrified, stating to his young employee that they could in no way put this movie on their racks. My friend then suggested that they put the video cassette behind the counter and rent it out only to those daring to view it. His boss agreed to that.

Now in 2009, where transgressive and graphic horror movies are as commonplace as the latest romantic comedy of the month, I watch Henry knowing what I'm in for since my generation seems fairly desensitized. However, the film goes steps above usual slasher pics and really belongs in the same category as Clean, Shaven (1993) and Monster (2003) much similar films that share it's themes of hopelessness, nihilism and dark and shocking human behavior without being exploitive or sensational.

Henry is played by character actor Michael Rooker, who made his movie debut with this film. Rooker went on to co-star in more mainstream films such as Eight Men Out (1988) Cliffhanger (1993) Mallrats (1995) and The Replacement Killers (1997). But in Henry, he gets a chance to showcase his talents as a wholly convincing actor who brings more dimension to a serial killer than you might expect. Henry is portrayed as a cold and creepy murderer but also alternates as a soft spoken loner who becomes affectionate and protective (to a point) of a young woman named Becky (Tracy Arnold) the sister of his close buddy Otis (Tom Towels) a fellow sociopath who's more foul and violent than Henry. The best scenes in the film, and the most telling, are the ones where all three main characters sit at a small table in the kitchen of their scuzzy apartment. The attitudes and traits are fully revealed as we find out that these are people who were born into this world with no hope or any chance at redemption. Poor, naive Becky casually tells Henry about her upbringing of sexual abuse at the hands of her father and only the audience is aware that she is associating with two men who will cause her eventual downfall.

Psychological analyzing is left for the audience to conduct, since Henry refreshingly has no characters to provide a moral center. There's no police officer, psychologist or any other figure of sane authority for the audience to live vicariously through. This helps make the movie more challenging and thoughtful.

The acting is another reason to see the film. Rooker, Towels and Arnold are examples of perfect casting. Seeing them perform as these sick characters and them watching them being interviewed in the making of documentary on the DVD is a surprising contrast. The three respective actors come across as intelligent people who fully understand the characters they have bravely portrayed. It's unfortunate when an actor plays a mad and dangerous character and is either typecast or believed to be like that in real life. It's also the sign of real talent and conviction in an actor.

The story behind the making of Henry is just as fascinating as the film itself. Shot in Chicago in 1985-86 with an extremely limited budget by director John McNaughton (who would later go on to helm bigger budget movies such as Wild Things) the film was financed by two home video executives who wanted a simple slasher film but instead were overwhelmed when McNaughton gave them a direct, and frighteningly frank character study of a murderer. It seems as though movies such as this come out of left field by budding and ambitious filmmakers who are smarter than they are given initial credit for and take the opportunity to make what could have been a hacky, throwaway horror movie to make something deeper and more resonant, and as a result deliver a picture that ages well in the pantheon of horror cinema, in times where it's expected to remake landmark horror films than to create new ones. I wouldn't be surprised if Henry got remade. I certainly hope it isn't.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Trash Classic of the Week: Double Agent 73 (1973)

I work at Ottawa's oldest single screen movie theatre, the Mayfair. Inside it's historic and regal auditorium I had the rare opportunity to see a 35mm print I purchased in an ebay auction of a 1970s sexploitation film entitled Double Agent 73. The film builds, or at least attempts to build, it's gimmick out of the fact that it's star, a buxom Polish blond named Chesty Morgan, has the measurements
73FF-32-36. Yes, this is a fact and it of course would give the sales clerk in the bra and panties department at Sears a stroke.

But I digress. Double Agent 73 is the cinematic handiwork of Doris Wishman (1912-2002) a feisty and tough talking filmmaker who pioneered the now defunct nudie cutie sub genre that flourished in the late 1950s to mid 1960s. Working within this sub genre was verboten in the eyes of puritanical censors and the moral majority at the time. But it brought in boffo box office and in the days before Deep Throat and the porno-chic craze that occurred in the early 70s, nudie cuties were all the cinematic rage. Films starring talent with pale and wrinkly boobs and bums (pubic hair was off limits) who basically had nothing much to do but play volleyball, these films were basically the pages of Playboy in motion picture form. But when hardcore porno moved in, the nudie cuties became obsolete. However, Wishman attempted to continue in the genre and alter it in her idiosyncratic and Ed Woodian fashion. Double Agent being an example.

A down and dirty, seemingly no-budget spy movie, DA73' tells the "story" of secret agent Jane Tennay (Morgan) whose vacation is interrupted James Bond style by her boss, who orders her to investigate and bring down heroin kingpin Ivan Toplar (referred to in short hand by his henchmen as Mr. T. Chuckle, chuckle.) Her boss instructs her to take pictures of vague files that contain info on the bad guys and to also shoot pics of each man she "eliminates". To achieve this objective, a camera is surgically implanted in one of her big boobs, which of course is curious since her boss could have just given her a camera that she could have used in the traditional manner, but then the film wouldn't have an inexplicably funny way of showcasing Morgan's dirty pillows.

Speaking of her titular (pun intended) mammaries, you would think that this plot device would be quite sexy and arousing, but alas, it's the opposite. Morgan's breasts conjure unwanted images of a busty elderly woman whose chest has become the cruel victim of gravity. Her tits (which get more close-ups in this film than Norma Desmond could have ever hoped for) also grossly resemble cow udders.

Highlights of this masterpiece include a car chase where the film speed is rapidly increased to try and hide the fact that the drivers aren't even close to exceeding the speed limit. A scene where Morgan's superiors run slides off of what is clearly a motion picture projector. And the (spoiler alert!) last shot where her breasts are superimposed over stock footage of a plane taking off to signify that Morgan has a new assignment just as she was about to return to her well deserved vacation. Poor Chesty.

I sincerely hope that my description of this film doesn't dissuade you from seeking it out. It's available on DVD from Something Weird Video ( It's outright tackiness, inept direction, vacant performances, bad blocking, and editing that would give you an idea of how well Helen Keller would do cutting together film, make Double Agent 73 quite a laughably bad treat. The print that I saw on the big screen actually looked quite great. I expected a pinkish looking faded print, but instead saw something that my friend, filmmaker and Mayfair programmer Lee Gordon Demarbre remarked could be the source print for a Blu-ray release. I wonder...droopy boobs containing a spy camera in full 1080p HD glory...

The best part of the film is the wonderful opening title sequence containing great theme music that will remain etched in your brain for a long time after watching the movie. The opening credits seem to build towards a better film that what actually follows, Ala In Like Flint or The Pink Panther for that matter. But the result is something that must be seen to be believed, a truly amateurish and horrid piece of cinema. Did I mention that in the realm of cheesy 70s exploitation, it's truly something great?

The First Entry: The Third Man (Spoliers included. I discuss the ending! Beware!)

I thought I'd begin my blog by talking about what is considered to be a major classic in modern British cinema: Carol Reed's 1949 offbeat film
noir The Third Man starring Joesph Cotten and Orson Welles.

You almost can't check a critic's list of some of the most influential films ever made without coming across this film. With it's use of dutch angles, shadows, the utilization of post war Vienna and Anton Karas' distinctive theme music, The Third Man almost exists in a category of it's own.

This is one of those films I know I needed to see. An acquaintance of mine told me that the blu-ray edition of the film, recently released by Criterion, was going out of print and that he had one remaining copy left at the CD/DVD store he works at. He mentioned that he wanted the last copy to be bought by someone who'd appreciate it instead of using it as an opportunity to resell it for big bucks on ebay. I agreed to buy the movie knowing I'd enjoy it and sure enough after watching it at around three in the morning I was right. I realized that this is one of those movies where you connect the dots along modern films that have proceeded it and have "borrowed" it's style. If Joel and Ethan Coen were filmmakers in the 1940s, they probably would have made a film akin to The Third Man. This is film noir but not necessarily in the tradition of Bogart or Mitchum. It's film noir with a European flavor, with odd music and unpredictable storytelling. It's main character fits perfectly in it's milieu . Holly Martins (Cotten) is an American pulp fiction author who comes to Vienna to meet with his old school friend Harry Lime (Welles) Almost immediately after his arrival, he learns that Lime was killed after being struck by a car. He meets with Lime's shady associates who gives him contradictory details about his death. He meets and becomes friendly with Lime's old lover Anna (Alida Valli) He runs afoul of the local military brass headed by Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who tries to convince Martins that Lime wasn't the most honorable fellow and that he was involved in a insulin racket on the black market. Confusion and paranoia begin to hover over Martins as he begins to discover the truth about the friend he really didn't know.

The paranoia and suspicion are the film's most evocative themes. They're amplified by the setting, the cold and dark streets of Vienna, full of mysterious and boisterous bystanders. Martins practically drowns in these people, ignorant of their customs and behavior and unable to understand their language. He stands out like a sore thumb as he wanders dumbfounded, acting as some sort of amateur private eye trying to figure out the real circumstances behind Lime's death, which later proves to be a disappearance. Major Calloway and his men hover behind him, demanding he take the first train out of Vienna and stop playing sleuth.

Harry Lime is a ominous character who exists in the first act of the movie like an unexorcised ghost. He's on the minds and mouths of the characters as if he's a force of nature. When Lime finally does materialize in the famous scene where Martins spots him standing across the street, hidden in a doorway, enshrouded in shadow with a smug smirk on his face, Martins shouts out to him and Lime flees and returns to wherever he's hidden, which is what he continues to do for the rest of the picture. Disappear and reappear when it is safe and necessary for him and then quickly disappear again like some sort of stubborn apparition.

One great scene where he emerges from his disappearing act to rendezvous with Martins is my favorite scene of the film. I had to re-watch it because I felt I didn't fully pay attention the first time. This scene is so perfectly acted and written and photographed. It's what's called the famous "cuckoo clock speech":

That scene is the only time Martins and Lime really have a long conversation and it's their only opportunity to play off each other: Martins, the naive, inquisitive protagonist who wants answers from his mysterious old friend, and Lime, the confident and arrogant mystery man who displays to the audience and Martins his heartlessness and ruthless and cynical nature. The dialogue is pitch perfect and I imagine is most likely exercised by drama students in acting classes.

The film then progress towards it's exciting and visually amazing climax set in the large and pungent sewers that Lime uses as his crafty getaway from the intrepid authorities and Martins, who is now allied with them to stop Lime.

The visual feast of that scene includes the triangular trap doors Lime quickly opens as he runs from the heat and enters down into the sewer. Spiral staircases, brick walls, long and dark tunnels, steel ladders and stairs that lead to more water soaked tunnels. What is supposed to be Harry Lime's crafty escape route leading to his "re-disappearance" only proves to be his trap and then after a quick and tense confrontation between Martins and Lime, it becomes his grave. This is one hell of a cinematic set piece. An on-foot chase scene that can put many generic and by the book car chases in many of today's action movies to shame.

The Third Man probably looks and plays better today than in did in 1949. The wonderful B&W cinematography by Robert Krasker compliments the film and it really gives it character in addition to Carol Reed's sure handed direction. This is what they call essential viewing.