Two Bad Lieutenants – One Good Producer

Film producer Edward R. Pressman puts together some pretty amazing films. In the 90s alone he had Homocide, Two Girls and a Guy, Hoffa, Reversal of Fortune and The Crow. In the oughts, he had American Psycho, Harvard Man, Undertow and The Cooler. In the 80s he had Oliver Stone. Anyway, I guess I’m just so fond of many of his films, and a lot of them I’m fond of specifically because I love the originality and daringness of them, so seeing that he wanted to remake one of his films that was near perfect – irritates me to no extent.

Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who can be hit or miss. Usually hit. Sometimes he puts together a story like Bad Lieutenant (Ms .45 or King of New York) where he just finds his focus and rings it dry, and sometimes that focus never becomes deeply, disturbingly clear (like New Rose Hotel). Bad Lieutenant was the kind of film in the early 90s that was like shock treatment to cinema. It was pure, raw, eviscerating, unflinching, beautiful and filthy all in one. Harvey Keitel plays amazingly, the emotionally unstable, severely addicted and bitterly human titular character. Like I said, near perfect.

Now, it probably didn’t get much theater-life as a result of its NC-17 rating, a rating as ridiculous as ever, considering the ungodly acts of violence, drug use and sex that prime time crime shows now think is necessary to keep their viewers. Have you ever wondered how in the world Law and Order SVU gets away with half of the content they deal with at nine o’clock at night? I’d wager Ferrara himself would shudder. I digress.

Werner Herzog, another amazing (and sometimes not-so-amazing) filmmaker comes along and remakes Ferrara’s film Bad Lieutenant. So the first part that irked me “bad” was the new subtitle. No longer is it Bad Lieutenant, now it’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans. What? Why? That was the first thing I said, then I was like, “And how could Pressman let this happen!?” Yes, I distinctly recall sitting in front of Apple’s trailers website and yelling those very words at the screen. Was it contractual? As maybe part of the deal for shooting in New Orleans after Katrina? That I could understand, but anything else is just not an acceptable reason. In fact, there hasn’t been an acceptable reason to subtitle a film since like 1982 or unless it’s a documentary. I digress, again.

So first the title is bastardized, then the whole film I come to find out too! Well, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it until now (as you may notice from my blog, even though I have a lifelong plan to watch every film in existence, I’m always a little behind. Theaters are too noisy these days, plus I have my own.)

In the opening minutes to the film, the lieutenant (here played uncomfortably by Nicolas Cage) displays immediate heroic traits and enables the audience to sympathize for him throughout the rest of the film. We even find out in the next scene that he’s now plagued with a painful ailment as a result of his kindness. This is a terrible change to the original film. The whole beautiful point of Ferrara’s film is that the lieutenant has no immediate redeemable traits; we’re led to believe he is just a horrible man and we grow to despise him before we witness the raw realization that he has of his own downfall. Some goodness will come out of him in the later scenes, but it’s never overwrought like Herzog’s.

Now, agreed, Herzog does 180 on us at the end and leave it with a cold closing scene that is in direct contrast to what we’ve been made to feel for him, but this is unnecessary and to be expected in a modern film – always there’s a twist – but it’s vague here and doesn’t reflect the meaning behind the original version. The beauty of the 1992 version is that his self-destructive nature is heightened by the disturbing case that he is working on; he’s affected by it. Nicolas Cage’s lieutenant could care less about dead children on his turf, he’s heartless. I even question what he felt was in it for him to risk his silk underwear in the opening scenes of the film, in order to save a trapped prisoner in a quickly flooding New Orleans. Maybe he new it was a promotion.

Keitel knows how to feel this character out. Cage doesn’t. Cage’s vocal tone and accent even begins to morph throughout his scenes. I just don’t think he cared about this one at all. What Herzog is sorely lacking here is his muse: Kinski. Klaus Kinski in the role of the lieutenant would have been quite something to witness on film. Too bad we’ll have to just stick with Woyzeck.

Ferrara knows how to use New York City to his advantage. Herzog is a foreigner to New Orleans. It’s void of any color; lifeless even in the wake of the floods. Herzog is no stranger to making great films about foreign lands and the people who inhabit them (Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde), and he appears to be employing some of that in this film too with his Senegalese drug dealers.

It’s a shame this film was remade, when it should have been apparent to the producers that it was perfect in its place in contemporary film history. If they wanted to cash in on it, couldn’t they just have waited two years and created a nice, deluxe edition Blu-ray boxset for the tenth anniversary of the film? Or give it the Criterion treatment. Everyone is aware that Hollywood is clearly hard-up for anything original anymore, that’s why every summer there is at least three or four remakes of films that should be preserved as the beautiful shining relics that they are, instead of being bastardized by filmmakers who can’t come up with their own ideas. I think what bothers me the most is that I’ve always regarded Herzog as a genius, a savant in his film concepts and style, so the fact that he needs to remake something is just sad and a clear sign of the times.


Mister Lonely

What makes someone want to be an impersonator? Well, director Harmony Korine doesn’t actually ever answer that question, but instead paints his usual tableau of paper-thin characters, playing deeply-affected characters. Korine’s collage of personalities on film is best depicted through his earlier work like Gummo and Julian Donkey-Boy, but he does get a few things right in his latest addition to his absurdist dramedy series.

Told in four “parts,” all named after Michael Jackson songs:

Man In The Mirror
Beat It
You Are Not Alone

the film follows the life of a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who living in France is struggling to find himself and at the same time find work. One day while performing (not Michael Jackson songs, mind you) at an assisted living home, another impersonator, Marilyn Monroe (played rather unconvincingly by the usually fabulous Samantha Morton), spots him and later she tells him about a retreat her and her family have created in Scotland where celebrity impersonators can live in peace and tranquility.

All is not as good as it seems though when Monroe returns home with the new friend. Soon the sheep on the land have all become infectious and must be put down, which quickly sours the mood of life and escapism. Along with that, Monroe’s husband Charlie Chaplin (channeling Adolf Hitler at times, and played by the TOKYO! deviant Denis Levant), indulges his jealous fantasies of his wife and Jacko cheating on him behind his back.

Other impersonators at the retreat include:

The Three Stooges
Queen Elizabeth
The Pope (no idea which one)
Abe Lincoln (if Abe Lincoln had a foul-mouth)
Sammy Davis, Jr.
James Dean
Shirley Temple
Little Red Riding Hood
Buckwheat (who has a fetish with chickens, this I could have done without); and,

Eventually, in a sort of celebration for the lives of their slain sheep, the gang builds a performance hall on the property and stages a variety show of sorts for which they tout “the greatest show on Earth.” It’s anything but, but is also the only time we see them becoming something that they are really not: comfortable in themselves.

Specifically, for me, I was more affected by the separate story line involving a (not-surprisingly) wonderful Werner Herzog as a priest. When one of his nuns accidentally falls out of a plane, while dropping food rations over an impoverished village, she frantically prays to God to save her and give her the ability to fly on her way down. Well, God doesn’t grant her wish to fly, but when she plummets into the ground below, she does jump right back up again without merely a scratch.

Korine comes back to this separate story line intermittently, but there appears to be little cohesion between the two competing stories. True to life, Marilyn Monroe commits suicide (by hanging herself, albeit), much to the dismay of her husband Chaplin and her wanna-be lover Jackson. Chaplin seemed to become more an impersonation of Hitler when alone with Marilyn on the retreat, but then really none of the characters ever truly seem to inhabit their celebrity doppelgangers. Instead, they seem more comfortable in the disguises while remaining their own individual selves.