THE BAD LIEUTENANT—PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS – VVVVV
Very loosely inspired by Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (2002), this Werner Herzog film is exactly as entertaining and batshit crazy as you’d expect a Herzog version of Bad Lieutenant to be. Excising the Catholic overtones from the Ferrera film, Herzog concentrates instead on the Lieutenant’s (Nicolas Cage) out-of-control drug and gambling addictions, and his zealous descent into corruption to support. You ain’t never seen anyone play a zealous drug addict until you’ve seen a twitchy, spastic Nicolas Cage play a zealous drug addict.Who but Herzog would be ballsy enough to linger for a full minute on a hallucination of iguanas in extreme close-up? Who else would have characters deliver lines like “Do fish dream?” and “Shoot him again—his soul is still dancing!” Who else would let Cage deliver such a crazed performance that it makes Klaus Kinski look like Mister Rogers? Inspired by the film noir genre, Herzog takes the elements of a classic crime film and intentionally ramps them up to ridiculous extremes, setting them in a post-Katrina New Orleans that is pungent with swampy, sleazy atmosphere. At 121 minutes it could use some trimming, but The Bad Lieutenant is more fun than a desk full of iguanas.
CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY – VVVVV
Early in Michael Moore’s latest left-wing polemic, he and his cameraman once again shuffle up to General Motors headquarters, and Moore wearily explains to the guard, “Come on, I have not been let into this building in 20 years!” (Equally weary, the guard rolls his eyes and says into his walkie-talkie, “It’s Michael Moore here to see the chairman.”) This is a cute throwaway moment, and it contributes to the summation feeling of Moore’s new film. All the familiar elements are here—ironic stock footage, Bush-bashing, true-life horror stories, sardonic narration—at the service of a topic at the core of most of Moore’s earlier work: the wealthy class’s manipulation of capitalism for greedy purposes, and their callous indifference to the working and middle classes.The topic may be broad, but Moore launches his most coherent, focused, and devastating attack since Roger & Me, miraculously turning the already very well documented stock market crash into a compulsively watchable story. It is a delight to be reminded of how powerful a filmmaker Moore can be, so firmly is he in control of his music, images, pacing, and tone. “I can’t really do this anymore,” he admits after his climactic stunt, and he has said in interviews that this could be his last documentary. Too bad, because when hearing Moore propose Roosevelt’s failed Bill of Rights (which would incorporate most of what Moore has lobbied for) as an alternative to unchecked capitalism, I had a startling realization: this guy might be on to something.
CREATION – VVV
The text that opens Creation claims that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was the “biggest idea in the history of thought.” But this slow, stuffy film is not about Darwin’s theory (although we certainly hear the phrase “millions of variations” more than once during a montage) or the effect it had on society (although such repercussions are hinted at in several long, awkward, monologues). Instead, it concerns Darwin’s own gradual loss of faith, triggered by the death of his daughter, and the moral battle he had within himself upon writing his theory. (Basically, it’s Darwin Begins).As played by Paul Bettany, Darwin is not a particularly dynamic screen character, and his strained relationship with his religious wife (Jennifer Connelly) is, within the context of a Hollywood biopic, fairly flat and predictable. Certainly loss of faith can be an interesting topic, but I can’t help feeling director Jon Amiel has captured the least interesting part of Darwin’s story.
GEORGE A. ROMERO’S SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD – V
It’s no fun watching a great filmmaker lose his mojo. The best that can be said for George A. Romero’s sixth zombie film is that it’s more entertainingly awful than Diary of the Dead, but this is strictly direct-to-video stuff. Picking up on some of the minor characters from that film, Survival follows a group of soldiers trying to make their way to safety during the zombie apocalypse (Or, in corny Romero-speak, “It was an us vs. them world. All we were lookin’ for was a place where there was no them.”) They meet up with O’Flynn, a mercenary who takes them to the island where he has feuded for decades with the dastardly Seamus Muldoon.Naming his Irish characters “O’Flynn” and “Seamus Muldoon” would suggest that Romero is out of touch, but nothing prepared me for how this once gritty and intense filmmaker could make a film so free of atmosphere and absent of his usual social commentary (unless the laughable final shot indicates a swipe at partisan politics, and oh god, I hope not). With dialogue, acting, and even zombie carnage lame across the board, somebody needs to finally shoot this franchise in the head.
THE INVENTION OF LYING – VVV
Ricky Gervais is a funny-looking man, and in The Invention of Lying, his first film as co-director, co-writer, and star, the denizens of an alternate universe where lying has never been conceived are relentless in pointing this out. In the most painful date in movie history since Taxi Driver, Jennifer Garner cheerfully tells him that he is “tubby and with a snub nose” (among other insults) and at one point excuses herself to go masturbate. Gervais is an expert on mining laughs from insincerity and human nature, so I laughed loud and often during The Invention of Lying.Why, then, do I feel a tinge of disappointment? By creating The Office and Extras, Gervais has set himself an impossible standard, but I still hoped he would have handled the sentimental passages with more nuance, and not saddle himself with such a formulaic plot or a love story with so little chemistry. The film has many of the biggest laughs of the year, and times when the one-joke nature gets tedious. While high-concept studio comedies are where he is best suited, even Ricky Gervais at 60 per cent means a lot of laughs.
LIFE DURING WARTIME – VVVv
Todd Solondz revisits characters from 1998’s Happiness with this similarly disturbing sequel about the difficulty and sometimes impossibility of forgiveness. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is separated from her phone sex–addicted husband and haunted by the ghost of Andy (Paul Reubens!). Meanwhile, Joy’s sister Trish (Allison Janney) tries to deal with her son finding out his father Bill is a convicted pedophile, when Bill (Ciaran Hinds) has just been released from jail. If the film lacks the explosive force of Happiness, maybe it’s because we’ve been down this territory with Solondz before, and really, how can you top Dylan Baker masturbating to a teen idol magazine?The film contains some of Solondz’s most powerful scenes, like the one between Bill and his estranged son, or between Bill and a lonely woman played by Charlotte Rampling—moments so painful and emotional that they make Solondz’s gallows humour feel more cruel and condescending than usual. In *Life During Wartime
* we watch seemingly normal characters deal with overwhelming, almost ludicrous tragedy and transgression, and perhaps it’s the conflict between ludicrous and tragic that makes this film so troubling and fascinating.
THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS – VVv
In the film destined to be remembered as TIFF 2009’s other George Clooney movie, the square-jawed former Batman plays Lyn Cassady, an ex-officer of a top-secret military operation in which soldiers used supernatural powers, or, as they called it with amusing egotism, they were Jedi using the force. The film, which follows Cassady’s misadventures with a journalist (Ewan McGregor) through a terror-stricken Middle East, possesses a Coen-esque fondness for absurdity with a straight face, but there’s something off-putting about the tone of this movie.Director Grant Heslov seems a little too sure that he’s made a clever, quirky comedy, and there is an air of self-satisfaction to the film that’s alienating. There are enough laughs in the premise to sustain the first half, but the central joke wares pretty thin, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about any of the characters. Oh, and if I see one more deadly scene where serious characters accidentally get high, I’m swearing off “quirky” comedies.
A SERIOUS MAN – VVVVV
Most modern movies taking place in ’50s suburbia depict their setting as oppressive, but few suburbs are more oppressive than the one in A Serious Man. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor seeking tenure who suffers from two selfish kids and a wife who has announced her intention to leave him for another man. The Coens are sometimes guilty of being condescending to their characters, but here there is only one character, surrounded by selfish non-people who act as part of the fabric of Larry’s punishing existence. This is the Coens’ funniest movie to date (yes, even funnier than Lebowski), so rich and subtle in its observational humour and background gags that it recalls Jacques Tati. It’s also one of their darkest: I first thought this was an atheistic movie, but with its dark Jewish sensibility, this movie’s version of God is very real, and very, very uncaring.
TRASH HUMPERS – VVv
If you thought Gummo was too mainstream you’ll love Harmony Korine’s latest and least compromising work, closer in spirit to a nasty piece of installation art than a movie. Filmed on a video camera and edited on a VCR (complete with tracking problems, sloppy cuts and “Play” and “Stop” graphics), this grainy and creepy film chronicles nothing more than the random antisocial behaviour of a group of freakish people, including, yes, the vigorous humping of trash cans, among other, even more twisted activities. Early reports that this is a musical are technically correct. Our heroes do indeed periodically sing and dance, but you won’t leave humming any of the tunes.Korine’s grungy, working-class landscapes are always striking, but I fear Korine is guilty of making little more than a freak show that festival-going intellectuals can feel safe at, obvious social commentary be damned. But I’ll give Korine this: as angry his film made me, it has definitely lingered in my memory.
THE WHITE RIBBON – VVVV
Michael Haneke is one of the chilliest filmmakers around, and The White Ribbon might be his chilliest movie. After the startling, graphic evil depicted in his earlier films, this slow, black and white mood piece is even more austere than usual, but similarly unnerving. Set in a small German village on the eve of the First World War, fear and distrust strike the populace when an unexplained series of violent incidents begins. In Haneke’s dark vision, nobody comes off looking good: not the sexually abusive Baron, nor the corrupt Pastor, nor the strict and uncaring teacher, nor even the children. I don’t think this is quite top-drawer Haneke. I suppose I held it at arm’s length, admiring its craft but not getting sucked in as mercilessly as Cache, Funny Games, and The Piano Teacher. Still, this is a painful and powerful film, with Haneke’s gorgeous compositions contrasted harshly to his brittle, cruel characters. This village is as rigorously oppressive as that of A Serious Man, and Haneke’s unmistakable inference is that the village’s climate of fear, unfounded hatred, and deep distrust for those who do not conform foreshadows the rise of the Nazis.