Saturday, 29 May 2010

Bad Lieutenant - Port of Call: New Orleans

The only Werner Herzog films I'd seen before this one were the extraordinary documentaries Grizzly Man and Encounters at the end of the World. So this is the first feature film of his I've seen and I am unable to compare it with his previous output. Nor have I seen the original Abel Ferrara version of Bad Lieutenant. So my impression of this film may be offered either positively, as being baggage-free or, negatively, as being ill-informed. I leave that to my reader to judge.

The story is of Nic Cage's eponymous corrupt cop, newly-promoted and charged with investigating the murder of a drug dealer and his young family soon after the Katrina disaster. His girlfriend is a prostitute and, like him, a cocaine addict. Cage's character becomes increasingly demented, the various strands of his life tightening around him, like the tentacles of a cruel but efficient predator, as he tries to escape them.

The resolution of all this is both surprising and surprisingly satisfying. Along the way, there are some bizarre and superb individual scenes, mostly involving Cage's character in one or another drug-induced, highly emotional state, fraternising with his police colleagues, the criminals with whom he becomes increasingly complicit, and his alcoholic ex-cop father.

Nic Cage's cop is a great film character, a mass of contradictions who makes the film what it is. The bad lieutenant and The Bad Lieutenant are amoral but sweet, violent but fun, occasionally frightening but - most importantly - highly entertaining. 

Monday, 24 May 2010

Four Lions

Four Lions is Chris Morris' return to form, a film worthy of association with the genius both of his 90s output and the record (and movie) label Warp. It tells the story of a group of would-be Islamist terrorists in Sheffield, haphazardly organising a suicide bombing alongside their everyday lives as father, husband, neighbour, brother.

The performance of Riz Ahmed as Omar, the lead character, was brilliant, totally convincing. The supporting cast was solid too. The humour was classic Chris Morris, and it managed to stay (just) on the side of plausible rather than falling into farce, most of the time. There were some parts which were shocking, in one or two cases too shocking to be funny despite their comedy potential.

This is a film that treats the audience as adults and doesn't tell you what to think of what is happening onscreen. I felt a bit confused after seeing it - but not in a bad way. It takes a few days to let the content sink in: always the sign of an interesting film, but something that often happens following a movie which is not particularly enjoyable to watch (such as extreme French horror Martyrs). Four Lions, however, is both a quotable knockabout comedy-drama and a unique, thoughtful, even seminal film of ideas. A must-see.

Saturday, 8 May 2010


Translated in some places as Metastasis and others as Metastases (I prefer the latter), this movie has been called "the Croatian Trainspotting" with good reason. Three of the four principal characters could hardly be closer to Renton, Begbie and Spud (although there is no direct counterpart to Sick Boy). Krpa, the Begbie equivalent, is an extraordinarily nasty piece of work, a sociopathic, misogynistic veteran with a hair-trigger temper and a deep sense of nationalism. The most sympathetic character - the Renton equivalent - is just out of rehab and trying to stay straight(ish) while his father encourages him to look for work and his overindulgent mother steals crafty drags on his cigarettes. Mean while, our two friendly losers - the Spud types - are drunkenly, goallessly stumbling through life toward an early grave.

Knowing next-to-nothing about the social and political context of the film, which is clearly making a point about post-war Croatia, I could only engage with it as a story about its characters. And in some ways it's well done. The relationships are believable even while they're in some cases utterly depressing, involving intense scenes of domestic violence and general misery. However, the occasional interest this film had for me was too infrequent to lift it above its limitations.

One of these limitations comes from the fact that Metastaze seems to be very cheaply made - a scene in which our heroes sit around in a graveyard seems to have been filmed by a sole camera which hangs above them, swaying gently in the wind. The lighting is poor, although I don't know whether this is a deliberate, aesthetic choice by a Dogme-influenced director or simply an artefact of a low budget. As I've said before, I often find films to be underlit, and this feature may bother other viewers less than it did me.

The cheapness of the film is not limited to its filming. The quality of the script may be very high, for all I know, but the subtitling was not. "Your" appearing as "You're" was the worst example of the errors strewn through the subtitles, making the watching experience far from that of some films with such excellent titles that you barely notice the conversation is entering through your eyes rather than your ears. The subtitling is constantly there in Metastaze.

This is not the sort of film which would be ruined by knowledge of the ending, so I hope I will be forgiven for describing it. (It's also not a film many people are likely to see, I would think: it was premièred to about 60 people at the East End film festival a couple of weeks ago but I doubt it will get a wide general release.) The film ends with Krpa, having bungled a bank robbery because his lookout pal nodded off on duty, being chased on foot through the streets of Zagreb by a couple of policemen. So far, so Trainspotting. However, this scene is set not to Iggy Pop but to music straight from Benny Hill. It's a strange tone and it illustrates what for me was the main problem with Metastaze - I was unable to decipher the point the film was trying to make. It might be that this was because it wasn't trying to make one, but that seems unlikely given the political overtones and the subject matter. Equally, it's unclear why metastases - cancerous growths which migrate from a primary tumour and settle in other parts of the body - was chosen as a title: presumably it was meant to be evocative or metaphorically appropriate, but it fails in practice.

So was this film just poorly-thought-out, or was something lost in translation? I can't tell - but, either way, I cannot really say that Metastaze deserves 80 minutes of your time.