Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

There are reasons why Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans shouldn’t work. Chief among these is that the story is completely played out. Corrupt cop, running amok, playing by his own flawed rules as his life unravels around him. You’ve heard it all before, and in less capable hands, this would be a completely forgettable movie. Lucky for everyone that Werner Herzog doesn’t like to make forgettable movies.

Nicholas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, the titular Lieutenant. While rescuing a prisoner about to drown in his cell during Hurricane Katrina, McDonagh injures his back, an injury that the doctor tells him will likely plague him and cause him pain for the rest of his life. Bummer, but apparently the doctor’s solution is to give him an eternal prescription for Vicodin. This propels McDonagh down a dark path of drugs and debauchery. Before you know it, he’s shaking down johns of his hooker girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), smoking crack and banging club girls in parking lots, and racking up huge gambling debts with his bookey, Ned (Brad Dourif). It is a slippery slope indeed. But McDonagh, unlike many of his cinematic counterparts, doesn’t try to scrabble his way out of the hole and fail, he gleefully digs himself deeper and deeper into the chaos and madness of underground New Orleans.

In the midst of his freefall, McDonagh still manages to be a devoted cop, coping with the post-apocalyptic mayhem that immediately followed Katrina. A Senegalese drug dealer and his family are murdered execution style, and he is in charge of the investigation.

Left alone, the story wouldn’t do much. But screenwriter William Finkelstein (Cop Rock, yes, I said motherfucking Cop Rock!!!) populates his script with quirky background characters, roles that Herzog fills, in his usual style, with an assortment of twitchy misfits. Xzibit plays drug dealer with dreams of expanding into real estate. Fairuza Balk does a turn as a slutty traffic cop that McDonagh tries to enlist in his unending quest for pharmecuticals. Tom Bower and Jennifer Coolidge play his almost adorably alcoholic father and stepmother, who on a different level and with different substances, struggle with the same demons as McDonagh. Val Kilmer is his equally, though differently, corrupt partner, and does so with an accent that seems so removed from his person that I was almost convinced someone else was doing the voice. This idiosyncratic collection of individuals adds a much needed texture to the movie.

Above all of these characters, Cage stands out. This is a difficult sentence for me to type since I generally hate pretty much everything he’s done for the last 15 years except Con Air. But he plays McDonagh like a delirious, manic, cracked out Jimmy Stewart with a revolver stuffed down the front of his pants. His performance harkens back to some of his earlier, riskier, roles. He’s emaciated and pasty, sweating like he has a severe case of Dengue fever, with a bad haircut. His performance toes the line of being too much, and he risks boiling over into caricature, but he reins it in before it goes too far. Herzog gives Cage ample room to play with in the confines of drug induced bedlam of McDonagh’s mind, my favorite being a paranoid stare down with a pair of iguanas that Val Kilmer insists are not iguanas, and may not be there at all.

When I first saw a trailer about this movie, I dismissed it completely. I assumed that it was going to be some pedestrian film about a corrupt cop that only wanted to capitalize on the success of something that came before. Apparently Herzog lobbied for a name change, and there is no connection to the 1992 Harvey Keitel Bad Lieutenant. Regardless of the title, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans twists and tweaks the formula and characters just enough to a make a move that is interesting and worth watching.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ong Bak 2

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning should not be confused with Tom yum goong, which was released theatrically in the US as The Protector, but has appeared in a number of questionably legal places mislabeled as Ong Bak 2.

The real Ong Bak 2 begins in the year 1431 AD, a time of strife and siege in the history of Thailand. The countryside is full of warlords, bands of outlaws, and political upheaval. There are mystics, treachery, royal courts, and all of the fun stuff that goes accompanies a feudal society.

This is the story of Tien, the son of a high-ranking member of the military. When he is a young boy his parents are betrayed and murdered, and he is captured by tough looking slave traders with facial tattoos. Instead of waiting passively to be sold, Tien clubs the main bad guy in the face with a rock, and his captors decide to soak him in blood and toss him into a mud pit to fight an angry crocodile for sport. Tien is feisty for a boy from a privileged family, especially one who was taught to dance instead of fight, and he kills the croc. While he is locked in a life and death struggle with the aforementioned angry reptile, the slave traders are taken out by another band of outlaw raiders.

The leader of the new outlaws, Chernung (Sorapong Chatree), takes a liking to the plucky underdog, Tien, and takes him under his wing. Over a period of years the boy trains in a wide variety of weapons and martial arts, including Muay Thai, Karate, Kung Fu, Silat, and a little Jiu Jitsu thrown in for good measure. There is even a scene that tips its cap to Jackie Chan’s turn in the Drunken Master series.

Of course when young Tien grows up he turns out to be none other than Tony Jaa, who on this particular feature film is credited at star, co-director, martial arts choreographer, and action director, among others. After passing a number of physical and mental tests, Tien replaces his mentor, Chernung, as head outlaw.

Whereas Ong Bak was pretty much a hey-world-look-at-me stunt reel for Jaa, Ong Bak 2 focuses more on the story. Which is really too bad, since that is where problems arise. The story itself is fine, though you’ve seen it many times before in every single Kung Fu movie ever made. The trouble lies in the way the story is told. Is this going to be a revenge story, a story of redemption, or is he going to reconnect with his lost love, Pim (Primorata Dejudom)? There are a number of directions the narrative could go, but it never really goes anywhere. An hour into the film there is still no discernable path.

Much of the story is told through flashbacks, you jump into Tien’s memories at random, and the structure feels forced. It would flow much smoother in the story was simply told in a linear fashion from the first events to the last.

As it is, the plot is jumbled and difficult to follow at times. I’m not sure who is on who’s side, who is betraying who, and where alliances lie. Perhaps this is due to my woeful lack of knowledge about the history of Thailand, perhaps not.

That is one issue. Another is that Tien never has a concrete goal or story arc. Again, it seems like he could go in a number of ways, but he never goes anywhere. The filmmakers try to do too much in a 98-minute movie, and instead accomplish too little. There is no antagonist. There are a number of possibilities, but no one steps forward and takes over. This overall lack of focus detracts from the film and drags it down.

While the story leaves something to be desired, the action is top notch. The fight scenes are intricately choreographed, and are sure to please fans of the first movie. While Muay Thai takes center stage in Ong Bak, Ong Bak 2 features a wide variety of martial arts. The filmmakers want to embody all of the martial forms in one person, Tien. It also features something else the first film didn’t, weapons. It turns out that Jaa is just as adept with a sword as he is with his elbows, knees, and fists. There is a scene where Jaa runs on top of a herd of elephants that is reminiscent of the car surfing scenes in Teen Wolf, and the climactic battle is exactly what fans of this genre want. (Seriously, it’s more than twenty minutes long.).

In a period piece it is vital that the details not take you out of the movie, and in that regard the film looks great. It is full of elaborate set pieces and costumes, and beautiful scenery. As I said, I don’t have much knowledge of Thai history, so I don’t know how spot on the details actually are, but they certainly convinced me enough to keep watching. No one in the background is mistakenly wearing a digital watch in this movie. They even got the teeth right. One of the most distracting things I can think of is watching a western, a post-apocalyptic movie, or maybe a film about a 15th century band of Thai outlaws, where everyone has a mouthful of gleaming, perfectly white, capped teeth.

Ong Bak 2 is worth watching if you’re a fan or martial arts films, especially of Tony Jaa, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the original or Tom yum goong, and prepare to be bogged down in a story that is never fully realized.

The US DVD release comes with an extra disc of special features. There is an alternate cut of the movie that has a few subtle differences. This version is called Ong Bak 2: Birth of the Dragon, there is a slight variation in structure, it is 15 minutes shorter, and there is a Thai hip-hop song over the end credits.

There is a trio of short production documentaries that are worth watching. They provide some helpful historical context for the story, and even some plot elements and information that should have been in the actual film. Apparently there was some sort of prophecy when Tien was born that said he should stay away from weapons or his life would go down the tubes. This seems like a small point, but would have added a lot to his character, and clarified some glaring questions in the plot.

And make sure that if you do watch Ong Bak 2, watch it with the subtitles. This goes without saying most of the time, but the voices they picked to do the dubbing work on this one are a little too ridiculous.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

2 Fast 2 Furious

When I watched The Fast and the Furious it took well over four hours to finish a movie that is only 106 minutes long. I’ve sat like sentinel through movies like Surf Nazis Must Die, Black Devil Doll From Hell, and countless other highly questionable films, but watching more than ten consecutive minutes of The Fast and the Furious was too painful to take, even for me.

So of course they made a sequel, 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious. (Actually they’ve made three sequels, so far.) You can tell it is going to be cool because they use the number 2 instead of the word Too.

Director John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) and writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (who scribbled the updated 3:10 to Yuma and the A-Team remake) manage to avoid some of the pitfalls of the original, like bad writing, worse acting, and an idiotic story. How they get around these traps is really a stroke of genius, they just don’t include any of them in the movie.

No one goes to see 2 Fast 2 Furious for story or characters or any of those things most films rely on. No, people go to see movies like this to see cool cars drive fast. That’s it. The driving beat of the soundtrack, hunky studs, and girls in bikinis are just icing on the cake, but the cars take center stage.

2 Fast 2 Furious starts out with a car race (imagine that) that is essentially live-action anime. The camera zooms in and around what look like computer generated Matchbox cars, bright lights flash as the Miami cityscape flashes past, and one character even yells out, “Smack that ass,” as she jumps her pink convertible over a drawbridge. The scene is just absurd enough to be a lot of fun. Too bad the rest of the movie never lives up to this potential.

Paul Walker reprises his role as Brian O’Connor, now a disgraced cop, living underground in Miami, where he earns a living as the baddest street racer in town. But the FBI and US Customs need his help, since no one else can drive like him. He teams up with estranged childhood friend, Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson, reteaming with Baby Boy director Singleton), and sexy undercover Customs agent Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes), in order to take down the infamous, hard to catch, drug kingpin, Carter Verone (Cole Hauser, a natural redhead who looks really weird with his hair dyed black).

After the promise of the initial scene, the movie devolves into an action movie cliché. There are the stock vicious bad guy, corrupt cop, and even a federal agent who doesn’t like the way these renegades make up their own rules as they go along. As you can imagine, he is against this whole damn thing and spends most of his screen time scowling.

Thankfully there is not much of a script, which leads to mercifully few attempts at actual acting, since none of the cast is particularly skilled at doing anything but look pretty. The less opportunities for these actors to prove they can’t act, the better. And of the script that is there, every third line is, “I got you.” Seriously, you could make a drinking game out of it and be pretty wasted by the end. But like I said, there isn’t a lot of time wasted on things like story and character. Here the elements of film serve one purpose, and that purpose is to get to the chase scenes as quickly as possible.

Too bad that none of the action sequences are nearly as much fun as the first one, and the movie becomes boring and hackneyed, though admittedly more watchable than the first. Instead of spending ninety minutes watching all of 2 Fast 2 Furious, watch the first scene, try not to have a seizure, turn the movie off, and go on about your business.

Mostly this movie made me want to watch a movie like Bullit, The French Connection, or Two-Lane Blacktop, something that not only has great car chases, but also things like story.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cherry 2000

Cherry 2000 (1987) is like a who’s who of awesome 1980s B-action movies. Seriously, David Andrews, Brion James, Tim Tomerson, Robert Z’Dar, Marshall Bell, amongst others. Laurence Fishburne even makes an appearance in the first act for good measure. Director Steve De Jarnatt wrote Strange Brew, and it was produced by Caldecot Chubb, who, besides having an amazing name, went on to produce Pootie Tang. This is like a 90-minute parade of kickass.

The year is 2017, and the world, or at least southern California, has become a Logan’s Run looking dystopia, where everything on the outside seems pretty and clean and nice, but beneath the façade it is all sorts of fucked up. Unemployment is forty percent, and sexual relations have become so strained that it involves strictly worded contracts, with the terms negotiated by attorneys.

Middle management suck up, Sam Treadwell (Andrews), however, has found a way around all of this sexual red tape. He found himself a sweet domestic sex robot, Cherry 2000 (Pamela Gidley, of Thrashin’ fame). She is perky, blond, and a robot, and he loves her because she’s completely passive, doesn’t have any personality, and he can delude himself into thinking that she is the perfect woman. All in all, the set up is a little like a futuristic Lars and the Real Girl, except way way creepier.

In the future, when you’re about to sex up your sexy lady sex robot, remember one thing. It may be the future, but your sexy sex robot is not waterproof. Poor Treadwell finds this out the hard way, when he’s about to hump Cherry in the middle of a soapy puddle on the kitchen floor. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Much to his chagrin she short circuits.

He is distraught and overwhelmed with grief. His work starts to suffer. But on the bright side, he is able to save her ‘personality’ on a miniature DVD. Now all he has to do is leave the sterile confines of Anaheim, make his way to the frontier town of Glory Hole (yes, the town is called Glory Hole), find a tracker (think mercenary tour guide) to take him into the lawless wasteland that lies beyond the boundaries of law and order, to the robot graveyard in Zone 7 where they have lots of Cherry 2000s just hanging out. When he finds a new Cherry he can simply plug the disk into her ear and everything will be back to normal. Sounds pretty easy, what can possibly go wrong?

The town of Glory Hole seems to be populated solely by futuristic gay cowboys. It looks like a post-apocalyptic, western-themed musical is about to break out at any moment.

In Glory Hole, Treadwell finds sexy redheaded tracker, E (Melanie Griffith). Her sweatshirt says “Dignity,” something that no one in this movie has, and she looks like grizzled Franka Potente from Run Lola, Run. They drive her futerized red Mustang into the desert, and we can tell right away that she is a badass because she drives at night without headlights.

Even though the Zone is a desolate hellhole, and haven for warlords and criminals, it is not without a certain charm. Where else in the world can you cook rattlesnake in a toaster oven? And it is full of colorful characters, like Six-Fingered Jake, a sort of easy listening Zen outlaw.

For no good reason, E starts to fall for Treadwell, despite the fact that he is a mopey bastard who walks around listening to an audio track of his sex doll say things like, “can I help you with that?” and “let me do that.” Of course he starts to develop feelings for her because, you know, she’s not a fucking robot. It has been a long time since he has fucked anything without a motherboard, and much like a pubescent boy, he is unsure of how to cope with these strange new feelings.

Then shit starts to get weird.

They manage to run afoul of Lester (Tomerson), a Hawaiian-shirt wearing warlord of the wasteland, who runs his stronghold like a post-apocalyptic beach blanket bingo health spa. With Lester it is all bbqs, the hokey pokey, and summary executions. He is the Big Kahuna of the apocalypse, a new age guru who cares about the feelings of his henchmen, wants them to be themselves at all times, and reminds them that “life is an adventure.” He is all about individual empowerment and ruling with an iron fist.

Like I said, shit gets weird.

There is a complete lack of chemistry between Andrews and Griffith, and in a movie full of mediocre acting, Griffith delivers a truly uninspired performance. One might even go so far as to wonder why in the world Antonio Banderas would marry her.

Basil Poledouris (Conan, Red Dawn, Iron Eagle, RoboCop 3) handles the score, and does not disappoint. It is a bizarre amalgamation of new wave synth spaghetti western, mixed with an Elmer Fudd cartoon. The effect is truly stunning.

One final note. After the apocalypse you might want to consider wearing a sleeveless white t-shirt with black gloves, it is a good look.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Book of Eli

With post-apocalyptic movies the details are so very important. They are little things, but it is the little things that truly make a world believable, and that really stand out when they don’t fit. To be honest the same issues pop up in a lot of westerns as well.

The first problem that always springs to mind is teeth and dental hygiene. After the breakdown of civilization, for whatever reason, there is very likely to be a total dearth of dentist offices, and I’m pretty certain that no one is going to continue to manufacture tubes of Aquafresh for you. Given those circumstances, every time I see some post-apocalyptic war monger with a mohawk and shoulder pads, who also still happens to have a perfectly straight set of pearly whites, I get distracted from whatever is going on and start to wonder of maybe he has the last oral hygienist of the wasteland on retainer back at his fortress.

Shaving also distracts me. These are hard, desperate times. These are times when survival is goal number one, two, and three. You don’t have to maintain a smooth visage for work, and, like the teeth thing, you more than likely don’t have ready, daily access to the resources necessary for daily grooming. It seems strange to me in many post-apocalyptic movies when the men are all clean-shaven, and all of the ladies still shave their armpits.

Cleanliness will be a luxury after Armageddon. There are two groups of people I can think of who will likely still cling to the routines of daily bodily maintenance. First are prostitutes. Through necessity of profession, they’ll probably try to stay tidy. For them it is a business expenditure.

The second group is those with the power. Like I said, shaving will be a luxury, a decadent act, and you know who has the time and means to shave? The guys who run shit, that’s who. Think of Adam Ant in World Gone Wild. He’s always meticulously groomed, and even though he wears head-to-toe white in the middle of the desert, he’s spotless. You can tell just by looking at him that he’s the man in charge. After the end of the world, if you see a guy with a fresh shave and a clean set of clothes, run, for that is not someone to be trifled with. He will most likely skin you alive and hang you from something tall as a warning to everyone else not to fuck with him.

The Book of Eli walks down the middle of the road when it comes to the details. Everyone has fucked up grills except a specific few. Even among the women, the only ones who maintain a western civilization level of cleanliness are essentially courtesans or kept women. And the only one with a clean shave is Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the local despot who likes to read books about Mussolini.

The art department got those details right, but there are others that they miss, mainly the clothes. If we are to believe the stories, then there was a massive holy war thirty years ago that “tore a hole in the sky,” and scrappy bands of survivors have been eking out a meager existence ever since. Long gone are mass produced chinos, fairly knew looking wool watch caps, and evenly stitched garments off all descriptions. Early on, the protagonist, in his pristine khakis, finds a suicided corpse who just happens to be wearing a lightly worn pair of Doc Martins. Score. Maybe he had a stockpile, but I don’t really buy it.

This leads me to my first major issue with The Book of Eli. Like I mentioned, the story takes place thirty years after doom’s day. That is what they tell us, but the details don’t back up the story. It seems to me that after thirty years things would be farther gone. There are a lot of bullets left, more gasoline than I would have expected, I already mentioned the clothes, and more canned goods than one would expect after thirty years of scavenging. At one point, Eli goes into a deserted house and tries the sink. Of course nothing comes out, but after thirty years, I think I would stop checking things like that.

I could buy that this movie takes place after ten, maybe even fifteen years, but I just don’t entirely buy thirty. Enough, I should talk about the actual movie.

Former Kmart employee, Eli (Denzel Washington), is a lone samurai wandering through the sun-blanched wasteland of what used to be the western United States. Much like Jake and Elwood Blues, he is on a mission from God. That mission is to escort the last existing copy of the Holy Bible to a safe place somewhere out west. Turns out that all the bibles were hunted down and burned after the war, and that religion was apparently the root cause of the hostilities.

I don’t usually think of Denzel as a badass. He can be tough, but it’s usually a more cerebral, thinking man’s, kind of tough. He’s good at being menacing, like in Training Day, but doesn’t usually play the reactionary, fight at the drop of a hat character. In the first act, there are ample moments where he shows otherwise, as he machetes his way through some hijackers and then dismantles an entire bar after spouting a few bible verses. The movie starts off with a lot of promise, and nice amount of severed heads and hacked off limbs.

While Eli has been doing his level best to keep the bible safe for thirty years, Carnegie has spent the last three decades trying to find his own copy. Both men are old enough to remember the before times, both are literate men, and both are well aware of the power of the bible and religion. Eli wants to use the power for good, while Carnegie wants to exploit it and use it for control.

Carnegie is the most interesting character here. He is the most multi-dimensional. On the one hand he is a tyrannical dictator who uses force and fear to lord over the population of his town. On the other hand, he does his best to provide safety for his people, establish an infrastructure that supplies things like clean water, and at a basic level, believes in community. He has had to do awful things in order to create and maintain this little slice of what life was like before, but at times it seems like he does them with an earnest, though misguided, sense of the greater good at heart. There is a duality that exists in Carnegie’ character that isn’t there in the simple, single-minded Eli, or any of the other characters. He is driven and corrupt, and that is ultimately his undoing.

At the heart, The Book of Eli is a fairly simple story. Eli has the book, Carnegie wants it, and that’s all that really matters. Everything else is superfluous.

There are things I really like about this movie, and things I really don’t. Aside from the details I mentioned, it does look pretty good. There is washed out quality to the images and a simple, monochromatic color palate that works very well with the setting, and despite the over use of dramatic slow-motion, the Hughes Brothers (American Pimp), create a good looking film.

The filmmakers are obviously aware of the post-apocalyptic as a genre, and give a number of nods to the history. At one point there is a poster from A Boy and His Dog (the sweet ass 1975, Don Johnson joint) on the wall; there is a motorcycle riding, post-apocalyptic extra wearing shoulder pads; and there is even a tip of the cap to George R. Stewart’s classic 1949 novel, Earth Abides. The scene with the elderly cannibal couple, who have spent thirty years killing and eating trespassers, is awesome, though woefully short. Overall, I would have liked to see a little more on the cannibalism front. There is a lot of talk about it, but it gets limited screen time.

The action sequences are pretty righteous. From the early machete battles, to the climactic shootout, all of it is engaging and badass. Personally, I could have used a little more action, but I pretty much always want more action. It’s like cowbell, there is rarely enough.

I’m not usually a fan of twist endings. They either have to happen organically, or be something unique and original. And there are a couple of twists here at the end. One you will see coming from a mile away, maybe farther, especially if you pay attention, or have ever read Fahrenheit 451. The other part of it just feels really contrived and isn’t set up enough to really be believable. When it happens you’re like, “Wait, does that mean he’s. . . Really? I don’t know that I buy that.”

The God and religion stuff also gets really old. The movie starts out action oriented, but then the spiritual stuff takes over the narrative. I’ll admit that I am highly biased against religion and have been for all of my adult life. This is neither the time, nor place to get into it, so I’ll leave it at that. But as it goes on, The Book of Eli becomes overly preachy and simplistic. All of the initial complexity in Carnegie goes away, and by the third act he is just a stock villain with nothing to redeem him.

At times this starts to feel like one of those Christian produced judgment day movies, like Omega Code, or the Left Behind series. It gets less and less interesting as the movie progresses. This is especially annoying to me because they spend the entire movie going the religious route, and then at the very end they try to back away from it. It is jarring and unsatisfying, and I walked away feeling like all of the trouble, in the end, was pointless.

If you have nothing better to do, and have a hankering to see a recent post-apocalyptic movie, you might as well watch The Book of Eli. Of course I’ll say that you should watch any of the Mad Max movies, World Gone Wild, A Boy and His Dog, 2019: After the Fall of New York, 1990: The Bronx Warriors, or any of the dozens of post-apocalyptic films out there, instead.

I do have to admit that I enjoy the resurgence of the post-apocalyptic in popular culture, in movies, comics, and literature. When the Cold War ended, it seemed like the genre was done for. Though with the current political climate, a war that seems likely to extend into the indefinite future, and eight years of an insane cowboy with his finger on the button, the general fear of obliteration, and the accompanying annihilation fantasies, has once again made an appearance in public.

What does that say about me that, one, I missed the paranoia and fear of the end of the world that fueled much of my childhood, and two, I welcome it back with open arms? I don’t think I’m going to dig any further into that; it would probably just worry me.