The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans -2009-

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Directed by Werner Herzog. 122 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre)

I love Port of Call so much that this will resemble a gush far more than it will a review. Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog may be the greatest actor/director collaboration since Emily Watson starred in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Cage turns in perfectly psychotic performance as Lieutenant Terrance McDonough, placing him right alongside Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle as a great American antihero. In spite of his latter-career focus on documentaries, Herzog hasn’t lost a step when it comes to narrative filmmaking. I’d say that Port of Call is the director’s best dramatic film since Fitzcarraldo.

Herzog wisely skips over the played out Mardi Gras and bayou bullshit that saturates most New Orleans based films, opting instead to show a grittier, post-Katrina side of the city (Andrew Dominik chose a similar approach while making Killing Them Softly). The film is a sincere character study of McDonough as he balances his addiction and corruption with his cases and personal life, but we know better than to think Herzog would make just any old cop-on-the-edge flick. And as always (with the exception of his documentary Wheel of Time), Herr Herzog does not disappoint.

Despite its dark marketing campaign and grim plot, Port of Call is a work of comic genius. McDonough never runs out of hilarious and clever ways to score drugs, make quick cash, and advance his investigation. Nearly every scene is memorable, and the reptile close-ups are Herzog at his head-scratching best. And the ending, with its rapid-fire plot resolutions, is beautifully implausible.

Aside: While the supporting cast is good all-around, a nearly-unrecognizable Jennifer Coolidge is especially impressive.

Aside: The screening preceded a discussion and Q&A with both Cage and Herzog, and it was as beautiful as you can imagine.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-04)

The Place Beyond the Pines -2013-

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Directed by Derek Cianfrance. 140 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 Like his previous picture, Blue Valentine, Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is another beautifully shot study of non-nuclear families and the way in which they may transform – or break – over time. While the film still has the aesthetics of a Sundance flick (complete with a score by Mike Patton, frontman of Faith No More, Tomahawk, Mr. Bungle, and three dozen other bands), its substance is closer to a European epic such as Bertolucci’s 1900 or Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Hell, there’s even a big spoonful of Ibsen motifs thrown into the mix. It’s a tall order, and I appreciate Cianfrance’s courage to attempt a saga of American tragedy.

 To attempt, however, is not necessarily to accomplish. Beyond the Pines is a far from perfect film. The second half (you can tell exactly where they would have placed the intermission if the film had been released in the 60s) just can’t match the pacing and intensity of the first. The Sophocletic drama is often too heavy-handed, and the newly introduced character simply aren’t as interesting as the film’s leading men and women. All of this is a considerable letdown since I fully believe that a writer/director of Cianfrance’s talent should have been able to follow through with his ambition.

 Perhaps a crucial piece of the Pines puzzle is sitting on some cutting room floor somewhere. The film clocks in at a hefty 140 minutes, and I know that Cianfrance’s first cut was significantly longer than that. If someone from the Criterion Collection is reading this, I wouldn’t mind seeing an extended cut one of these days, so keep that in mind.

 While Beyond the Pines does not rise to greatness, there’s still lots to recommend here. The performances by all the major players – Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, and Bradley Cooper ­– are some of their finest work. I really need to tip my nonexistent hat to Cooper, an actor whom I usually find to be distractingly conspicuous, for disappearing into his role. The inclusion of Ray Liotta is a nice touch, and I thank Cianfrance for not overusing him. Like crime-drama cologne, a little Liotta is all you need.

 Some of the best scenes in the film come not from it’s A-list but from Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Robin, Gosling’s mentor/accomplice. Mendelsohn has been working in Australian film and television since before I was born, but American viewers have become more familiar with him in recent years (recent credits include the psychotic bank robber Pope in Animal Kingdom, corrupt corporate magnate Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises, and air-headed junkie Russell in Killing Them Softly). Someone on Twitter a few weeks back tweeted that Mendelsohn would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the next five years. I don’t doubt it.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-03-29)