NJAFBIT: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans / My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

Sadly, in film there all too often is such a thing as the oft-mentioned "law of diminishing returns." Many would say that Werner Herzog has fallen prey to it, and although I am not exactly among them, I admit to some casual misgivings of late. But- say what you will about Herzog's post-millennial films (his 1999 documentary on Klaus Kinski proved to be the last film he would make entirely in German, officially ringing in his "American" period,) the guy is keeping himself busy. And, to be fair, he hasn't laid any massive stinkbombs just yet, even if he hasn't really equaled much of his earlier work, to say nothing of his earliest (and acknowledged) masterpieces, which now seem light years away. So, we take a deep breath, muddle through the internet rumblings, and wait for the next one to come out, ever fearful of that one giant misstep that could land him in America's bad graces, where he seems to have ended up in Germany.

Well.. Here they are. Both of them. He's got two in the pipeline. Both have annoyingly long titles, and both would seem to be, at least in so far as what is perceptible in these trailers, 'crime' movies. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you:

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans


My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

Aaaaaand... I'm already lost.

I can hear the faint praise damning these two already. "Herzog riffs on the American cop movie." I can hear his voice in the interviews. "These were the films I was watching as a young man." BL:POCNO has got The Cage himself, Eva Mendes showing a little skin, and Val Kilmer. MSMSWHYD has got Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, and David Lynch himself on as producer (oh, and Udo Kier!) Both, wonderfully, have Brad Dourif, Irma P. Hall, guns, B+/A- list casts, a hint of marketability, and all sorts of baffling, tantalizing potential, so expect these two to be paired for a long time to come. Both will hopefully be out this year, but neither has an official release date announced (although both will be showing at the Toronto International Film Festival in just a few days, so keep your eyes peeled for the early reviews.)

Will Nick Cage bring the new Herzog to a big shiny multiplex near you? Let's hope not. But it might happen. Let's be real, though; Kinski (and, to a lesser extent, Bruno S.,) were Herzog's true muses in the fiction film. He seems to know this. Maybe he's shopping for a new one? If so, let's hope he chooses Shannon over Cage. Or that he has a clue what to do with either of them.

Either way, it's new Herzog. Two of them! You gotta get excited.

Not going there. Not this time.

see above


LOG: The Hurt Locker

I don't know if The Hurt Locker simply caught me at a particularly raw moment, or what exactly the explanation is, but I’ll be totally honest: this film sent me into a two-hour fit of knee-hugging, violent discomfort. It's merciless, offering the viewer ZERO comforts. Exiting the theater, I was deeply shaken, taking deep breaths, rubbing my eyes. Honestly, I don't think I have been this affected by a movie since Requiem for a Dream. And that is very high praise indeed.

While I would fully concede and even warn anyone that a film this visceral and intense can be a difficult experience in the dark enclosure of the theater, where there is no pause button to allow you a moment to catch your breath, I urge you to catch The Hurt Locker on the big screen. It’s the best movie I've seen all year, and the worst time I've had in a theater in quite a while (If that makes any sense..) Also, if you're anything like me, it's the only Iraq war movie you'll ever need.

Even more, this film is the perfect counterpoint to the phony, ridiculous pro-military flag-waving bullshit I can only imagine a movie like G.I. Joe is currently vomiting up onto the waiting laps of its legions of audiences. The Hurt Locker is definitive proof that, when done correctly, (i.e. with an eye toward realism,) an 'action' movie, particularly a war movie, is about the least fun, least escapist, most claustrophobic genre of film that there is. And that is how it should be.

To be fair: I have a tendency to oversell movies that kick my ass (most people whom I hyped up Audition to found it to be less than earth shattering,) so take my huffing and puffing with a grain of salt. But if nothing else, I am certain you will enjoy the experience of seeing this film.

See you in five years, THL...


(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer
is a movie that is desperate to relate to you. Yes, you. It is a film, following in a grand and old tradition, which attempts to define and condense a generation's romantic zeitgeist into a tidy, ninety-minute package. In this case, it's aiming at our generation. And at our hearts. Does it hit? Regardless of some of the careless comparisons being thrown around, 500 Days is not nearly on the same plane as something like Annie Hall. It takes fewer chances, and its story is less remarkable. But on the whole, it's almost as irresistible. Very good, not great, even if the punches it lands are often clock-cleaning knockout blows. Still, it's a little tough when a not-all-that remarkable movie quickly reduces some of the deepest feelings of your life into a neat little pigeon hole of a character, without a whole lot of effort. But that’s exactly what 500 Days does, and does well. Let's consider how. And why that sucks.

First, let me level all the way: I had big fat ulterior motives for seeing this movie. There's not a lot I can do for 'objectivity' on this one, and so I'm not going to try all that hard. I wanted to see this film because I've been living some all-too-similar situations this year. And because I knew it would hit home in some way, and I felt like I was interested in having that experience, for better or worse.

As we begin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a weary and worn-down twenty something, biding his time at a menial job at a greeting card company in L.A. He subsists, without very much apparent resistance, on occasional bar nights with the office crew, work time, home time, and some kind of very vague, loose grip on his former high hopes of a career in architecture. Right off the bat, a sign of the times; how many of these people (us) are there? Slaving away at some laughably uninteresting and unworthy drone work, sheepishly sidled into arrested development, personally and professionally, by the nagging realities of the paycheck life. If you don’t know this guy’s life, you know someone who knows it. And if it all feels a little mundane, that's because it is, but that certainly does not make it any less true. It does explain why these types of revelations have so often failed to make their way onto movie screens. Audiences, generally speaking, are not headed to the movies to feel like they are staring into a mirror. For this bravery, 500 Days is laudable.

Here we find a suitable point to begin to pick at this film’s myriad comparisons to Annie Hall, a bold and, frankly, lazy proclamation with which I take some umbrage. It’s an interesting exercise to examine the films’ differences. On their surfaces, the dual plot lines (guy meets girl from out of town, unlikely romances blooms, flourishes, sours, ends) would certainly seems quite compatible. They even employ (500 Days straight up quotes) a lot of the same filmic quirks (direct-to-screen dialogue, animation, etc.) But there are key differences.

First and foremost, and crucially, Allen’s character in Annie Hall was a lot more likable of a guy. As Alvy Singer, Allen’s hero-self at least had delusions of himself as partly remarkable, which ingratiated that film further to those males (read: all of us) who have a hard time letting go of the idea they truly are the best thing that could happen to anybody, including pretty ladies. Indeed, Joseph Gordon-Levitt only partially steps out of the slimy shadow of Keanu Reeves he has been crouched under for the last few years. As a performance, it’s probably perfect. He does major justice to the role, but alas, the film affords him precious few opportunities to show us much other than what we have already seen from him.

Ditto and likewise for Zooey Deschanel, whose character remains the most troubling, if perhaps for reasons which remain mostly unclear, by design or otherwise. For all the films perceived posturing about how right everything could have been, Summer, as a character, is nowhere near as memorable to us as should perhaps could or should have been. The script seems to too often hedge its bets, perhaps an attempt to bridge the audience through generality; get too specific, and it's not relatable anymore, apparently. Contrast this with Annie Hall's various very specific, very pointed moments; Annie on stage in the noisy restaurant, or Alvy on her bed after a late night call to kill a spider. Woody, for all the other misgivings that have been laid on him, at least had the balls to get real with us. 500 Days mostly just wants to approximate real, or perhaps wholly underestimates its audience’s capacity for anything outside the straight lines of Tom and Summer. Or maybe that’s not right. Maybe Annie Hall’s realities were too heightened, too elevated, removed from truth. Can you decide?? I sure can’t.

Even within the kept realm of Woody Allen, love this grand always was a young man's (read: fools) game. Compare Annie Hall to more recent Allen films, such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, with Scarlett Johanssen vamping her way across Spain, or even worse, to Whatever Works, which casually bandies around some of the most ridiculously unearned and unnecessary sexual motifs since Caligula. Even Allen himself, it seems, has given up on all his old romantic preoccupations. He’s moved on. And yet.. Annie Hall is still the one we talk about.

On one hand, we should perhaps be at least somewhat grateful that our generation’s seemingly ubiquitous, (??) fumbling journey toward Gen-Y love has been cataloged, imperfectly or not, and committed to celluloid for posterity. For all its inviting of your personal baggage to color the frames, 500 Days remains on track, telling the story it needs to tell, and telling it well. More than a few moments will ring more than true for nearly any viewer who has ever found themselves in any kind of similar predicament. It's like a choose-your-own old adventure. If this scene doesn't remind you of When, the next one probably will. There is a lot of awful, messy truth about love in this movie. But if it really is the truth, how bad is it, really?

Marc Webb’s direction is good, in an average, tentative sort of way. Rightfully, his focus remains on the story, and so we are spared all but a few super-cutesy, gratingly zany moments, and they are paced out well enough that it never gets to be too much. Contrary to the buzz, 500 Days is actually remarkably unflashy for at least 70% of its run time. The flairs that do turn up mostly work, even if it's clear that music video director-cum-filmmaker Webb certainly does not possess the brilliance of a Gondry or a Jonze, try as he might to emulate their quirky sensibilities. If 500 Days is his flash in the pan, I wouldn't be that surprised. When the kookiness fades out and the movie shows us its true feelings, it's all about Summer and Tom. And that's good. A couple of very nice, bravura moments, particularly the much talked about split-screen “expectations/reality” scene, will certainly be enough to place this film firmly in the hearts of many. Including myself.

Now, to get personal.

It's probably not fair, but it's more than a little nice that the movie takes Tom's side through all this. After all, all the Summers in the audience aren’t paying attention anyway. Guess what? It takes balls to be Tom. For every Tom, a genuine, if imperfect, and totally normal guy, there are a hundred other guys out on the fringes that would be more than happy to give Summer the no-strings-attached attention she so adamantly proclaims she wants. And why not? What’s wrong with all that? What the hell does a guy like Tom have to offer, anyway? (Um.... don't get me started.)

Being so close to it, I can quickly pick apart 500 Days’ many misdelivered arrows, like a Star Wars fanboy maniacally spotting the shot-for-shot differences in Boba Fett's face masks. If I may- *ahem:*

If we want to believe that a certain one is 'the one,' then we will believe it.

And if we believe that they are 'the one,' then.. They are.. Aren’t they?

I have no doubt that I will return to 500 Days, and I have no doubt that there is much truth in what it conveys. How and why the things it portrays do or do not apply to my life (or yours) is certainly a fair question. But, if you're anything like Tom (or me,) you'll have no trouble figuring out where the movie ends, and what you lived (or are living) begins. If nothing else, it may be of some comfort to know that, yup.. You’re not alone, cowboy.

I say- be proud, Toms. Stay the course. Your day will come, and so will mine. And if, when it does, it ends up being some version other than that pie-in-the-sky one you dreamed up with your Summer, that is a reality you will simply have to deal with. For, as you know, the alternatives will certainly not suit you any better. In the meantime, there are lots of morals you can pull out of a film like 500 Days of Summer. It’s quite malleable, actually. Take the pieces you want, and leave the rest. That’s what Tom and Summer did. Well, Summer did, anyway.

Now it’s your turn.