‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ – No, it is Not a Remake

Alright, let’s get this out of the way; Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” is not a remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film “Bad Lieutenant” which, as a friend of mine from high school pointed out “made ‘Taxi Driver’ look like ‘Alice in Wonderland!’” The only thing these films have in common is they have a main character who is a police lieutenant with serious gambling and drug addictions which suck them deep into a realm of immorality. Other than that, they are completely different cinematic works which somehow ended up with the same darn title. Comparing the two films, while in some respects inevitable, does neither any favors. Then again, they do have the same producer, Edward R. Pressman.

I do have to confess this is the very first feature length movie from Werner Herzog I have ever watched. Yes, I did see “Grizzly Man” and “Encounters at the End of the World,” but they were documentaries (brilliant ones might I add). Being the big movie buff that I am, you will likely find this shameful on my part, and it probably is, but you won’t have to worry about me comparing “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” to all his other works. From what I have heard, Herzog’s films deal with human psyches in a most extreme and uncontrollable state, so this film must be right up his alley in terms of themes he has dealt with throughout his career. It also allows Nicolas Cage a role where he can (and does he ever) go completely crazy in the only way Cage can.

Cage stars as Terence McDonagh a sergeant with the New Orleans police force. We watch as Terence enters the severely damaged police department with his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) as they try to salvage some stuff which was not laid waste in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They end up coming across a prisoner still in his cell who should have been evacuated, and he is running out of time as the water level rises. Bothe Terence and Stevie seem perfectly willing to let this unlucky schmuck drown, but when Terence sees him start to pray, he quickly jumps into the contaminated water to rescue him. While he succeeds and is later made a lieutenant as a result, he also ends up with a serious back injury which requires medication he is told to take indefinitely, probably for the rest of his life.

Terence starts off being prescribed Vicodin by his less than hopeful doctor, something I had when I got my wisdom teeth taken out, and which my mother became terrified I would get addicted to. It’s all downhill from there as Terence quickly moves from Vicodin to cocaine, and then to crack or whatever else he can smuggle out of the evidence room. And just when you think he could not sink any deeper, he does. Eventually, he gets involved with local drug dealer Big Fate played by rapper Xzibit, looking livelier here than he did in “The X-Files: I Want to Believe.” By collaborating with Big Fate, Terence hopes to pay off his mounting debts. Throughout this twisted voyage, he is also met by a pair of iguanas who keep following him. Of course, no one can see them except him.

As dark and immoral as the plot and the characters are, I actually found this film to be shockingly funny. Seriously, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” has moments which are laugh out loud funny, and I couldn’t believe how much I was enjoying myself while watching this insanity. What’s on display here gives “Observe and Report,” the blackest of black comedies, a big run for its money in the perversely funny department. The audience I saw it with were also laughing as loud as I was as the utter madness constantly left us in complete hysterics.

But the big delight I got was watching Cage act in a totally unhinged state to where you would think this was a sequel to “Wild at Heart.” This collaboration with Herzog brought Cage back to the kind of role he does best. In films like “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Face/Off” among others, he proves to be a master of pulling off over the top performances which are infused with endless creativity. Herzog simply sets him loose to play a character whose mind is in a constant state of implosion which exposes a soul most corrupted.

One key scene comes when Terence pulls over a young couple driving home from a club. Cage plays the scene straight as he gets from these two what he wants and knows they have on them, and then he switches gears when the lady gives him a hit from what she is smoking. In the process, he begins to make out with her while her stunned schmuck of a boyfriend is forced to watch. This scene is as horrifying as it is hilarious, and only an actor as risk taking and reckless as Cage could possibly sell us on it.

So, what’s Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” really about? I’m not entirely sure. It could be he is forcing us to look at a man whose soul is as toxic as the water that submerged much of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and of how this man is forced to descend into hell in order to find of redemption. But considering how over the top this film is in portraying Terence’s increasingly manic state, you have to wonder if Herzog is more interested in the journey Terence is taking as opposed to where he ends up. It didn’t matter much to me in the end because I was enjoying myself too much, and that’s even if it was for all the wrong reasons.

Cage is also surrounded by a good cast of actors who do memorable work here as well. It was nice to see Brad Dourif here, having seen and liked him in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II,” as Terence’s bookie whom he is heavily in debt to. Kilmer is very good as Terence’s corrupt partner, and that’s even if he has to stand in the shadow of Cage throughout. I have to say I was very surprised to Jennifer Coolidge cast as Terence’s stepmother. Having seen her in so many comedic roles, it was interesting to see her to take on something different and more dramatic. Vondie Curtis-Hall appears as well playing Terence’s superior, Captain James Brasser, and Tom Bower rounds out the cast by portraying his alcoholic father, Pat McDonagh.

Eva Mendes is also on board here as Terence’s prostitute girlfriend, Frankie. She previously co-starred with Nicholas Cage in “Ghost Rider,” and she plays the same kind of role she played in “We Own the Night;” a party girl whose boyfriend supplies her with all the fun and drugs she ever needs. On the basis of her performance here, I hoped she would get stronger roles in the future as she makes Frankie’s transition from being selfish to getting saved from herself very believable. She has since gone on to give excellent performances in “The Other Guys,” “Holy Motors” and “The Place Among the Pines.”

Herzog gives this film a rough and dirty look which all but suits the characters and the sleaze they submerge themselves in. The whole shebang could have been ruined if he shot the whole thing in high definition, for it would have made the visuals look much too tidy. This is not a movie you want to look all smoothed over and polished at the surface. It requires an atmosphere thick with humidity and with slime dripping off of everything as it eats away what is left. For all I know right now, Herzog is not a director who is even remotely interested in sweetening up story and characters in order to make his movies more available to a mainstream audience.

“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” deserves to be taken on its own terms and not compared to Ferrara’s film in which Harvey Keitel went for the “Full Monty.” Its story is not always easy to follow, but it is endlessly entertaining for those in the mood for something bizarrely funny and far from normal. It also allowed Cage a temporary haven from the junk he has been forced to star in, and he gets free rein to go wild and crazy like no one else can. Thus, Cage reminds of us here that he is still more than capable of giving a brilliantly entertaining performance, not that we should have doubted that in the first place. While his career looks to having him churn out one straight to video movie after another, there is always those gems like this, “Joe” and “Pig” to remind us of what a tremendous talent he is.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have a ton of Herzog films to catch up on. I am behind enough on his work as it is.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Halloween II (2009)

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It’ll be interesting to see what people think of Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II.” With this sequel to his remake, he has not made your typical slasher flick even though it does contain some amazingly brutal and bloody moments. One crushing death plays like an homage to the fire extinguisher scene from Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible.” I have also heard some complain because this sequel doesn’t even feel like a “Halloween” movie to them, but wasn’t that the whole point of this re-imagining? Do you really want the same old slasher formula we have long since gotten burned out on? Isn’t this why Zombie was brought on to do the remake? You know, to give this long running series a much-needed re-invigoration?

Zombie’s vision of Michael Myers may not be as scary as John Carpenter’s was, but I wasn’t expecting that to be the case. With Zombie’s take on the “Halloween” saga, what have here is more of a character study of how Michael became so infinitely evil, and this something we have seen much of in this never-ending franchise. “Halloween II” is definitely on a par with Zombie’s previous film, and everything comes around full circle to where there’s no doubt family is forever.

“Halloween II” starts moments after the previous film with Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) walking down the street all bloodied up after shooting Michael dead at close range. However, it turns out Laurie didn’t kill him. The bullet must have bounced off his skull knocking him unconscious or something else along those lines. This seems to be a reasonable excuse to bring Michael back, and it is step from previous “Halloween” movies which managed to come up with ridiculous excuses to bring Michael back for another round with horny teenagers.

As Laurie is wheeled into the hospital crying hysterically, the first of many times she does so, shades of Rick Rosenthal’s “Halloween II” emerge, but this cannot be mistaken as a remake of sequel. Meanwhile, the drivers of the coroner van carrying Michael’s body end up smashing into a cow leaving them severely injured. This allows Michael to escape to live and see another October because, in the end, what is Halloween without Michael Myers?

Meanwhile, we see Laurie getting patched up in surgery, and the extent of her injuries is unsettling. The detail given to the doctors working on her is horrific very realistic, just the way Zombie wants it to appear. You look at Laurie’s mangled body, and you think to yourself it’s a miracle she lived through this dark, dark night.

“Halloween II” then moves to a year later as Laurie, still deeply traumatized by that horrific evening, struggles to go on with her life. She has since been adopted by Sheriff Lee Brackett (Brad Dourif) and lives with him and his daughter, Annie (Danielle Harris). While the previous movie was told through Michael’s eyes, this one is seen through Laurie Strode’s perspective, and she is no longer the person she once was.

One of the big differences with this sequel is the way it was filmed. Whereas Zombie’s “Halloween” was filmed in 35mm, he instead filmed “Halloween II” is in 16mm which gives everything a much harsher edge. This worked very effectively for him on what is still his best movie, “The Devil’s Rejects,” and it makes the killings in “Halloween II” feel all the more brutal. Michael doesn’t just slash his victims; he pounds them to a bloody pulp.

Tyler Mane once against gives us the most lethal and threatening Michael Myers ever unleashed on the big screen. Being as tall and hulking as Mane is, it’s a wonder why anyone would be foolish to take him on. Here’s another interesting thing about Michael in this one, he has a beard. That’s right, for the first time ever we get to see this iconic character with facial hair. This is ironic because Michael has proven to be very useful with knives to where I am convinced he can give himself the closest shave without ever having to use any shaving cream. Then again, Michael has more on his mind than facial hair.

Taylor-Compton’s Laurie Strode is not the chaste and resourceful character Jamie Lee Curtis gave us in the original, but she digs deep into this role and takes Laurie to places no ordinary person would dare go. You think she is at bottom when the movie starts, but she’s not anywhere near it. Taylor-Compton makes you care about Laurie as she comes to the realization of who she really is, and you want her to escape the abyss she is drowning in. You want to help her.

One especially good performance comes from Brad Dourif as he gets more screen time here. The sheriff he portrays here is not your typical clichéd stupid cop who makes all the wrong decision, but instead a caring adult and who is constantly looking out for Laurie and Annie. Dourif is great here in a way you would not usually expect an actor to be in a film like this, and he is one of the most underrated character actors working today.

That’s the great thing about Zombie’s “Halloween” movies; he is not out to give us the usual slasher flick. With these two films, he has taken the time to develop his characters to where they are not the usual pack of one-dimensional stereotypes the horror genre keeps relying on. While he still does employ the usual white trash characters who utter disgusting dialogue, it is clear he is moving beyond them now. This shows growth on his part which makes me look forward to his future work.

Zombie also conjures up some truly weird imagery throughout as we get a closer look into Michael’s deeply disturbed psyche. Sheri Moon Zombie returns as Michael’s mother, but this time she speaks to her murderous son from the grave and convinces him that if he kills Laurie, he can bring the whole family back together. Some may still criticize her acting abilities, but she is better than people tend to give her credit for.

Danielle Harris also returns as Annie Brackett, but Zombie doesn’t have her doing the same old things she did previously. Considering how Annie almost died, she is nowhere as foolish this time around (not completely anyway). Annie, along with her dad, is desperate to life Laurie out of her emotional abyss even as Laurie makes it incredible for them to even try to do so.

But of course, we cannot forget Malcolm McDowell who returns as Dr. Sam Loomis. This time around, the “Clockwork Orange” actor gives us a Sam Loomis who is a pure asshole getting high off the fame he obtains by exploiting his involvement with Michael and his family. Loomis is no longer the helpful psychiatrist he was before and is instead a profiteer off the misfortunes of others. His sudden change of heart towards the film’s climax may feel a little forced, but McDowell sells it to where we really feel his pain when he comes to accept the damage he has wrought on others.

The brilliant sound design in “Halloween II” also needs to be mentioned as well. Michael doesn’t just crash through windows and walls in this one. You feel him bashing his way through everything in his path, and it this movie a visceral thrill the other “Halloween” sequels could only dream of offering. Zombie is not out to give you a bunch of cheap scares, but is instead out to horrify you as much as possible as we suffer along with Laurie as Michael continues his endless pursuit of her.

Zombie also does a better job with suspense this time around, and it really boils in certain moments when our anticipation gets the best of us. We know Michael is going to strike, and we fear the bloody damage we know he will brutally inflict. I’m glad Zombie came back to do this sequel even though he originally wasn’t planning to. Having anyone else direct this follow up would have been a mistake.

John Carpenter’s “Halloween” was a one of a kind film which was never intended to start a horror franchise. Zombie is not trying to outdo Carpenter, but to merely make Michael Myers and all these characters his own. While “Halloween II” is not a masterpiece, he does stay true to his vision of this unstoppable monster and improves on his previous film quite a bit.

NOTE: The DVD and Blu-ray release of “Halloween II” contains the director’s cut of the movie. This version changes a few things and adds more scenes which focus on the characters more, and it’s even better than the theatrical version as it gives you an even clearer sense of what Zombie was trying to accomplish.

Theatrical Version: * * * out of * * * *

Director’s Cut: * * * ½ out of * * * *

Halloween (2007)

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This one is a remake of one of the best horror films ever made. What could be the point of remaking it other than to make a quick buck? So many people have been milking this franchise dry for decades. Just when you thought Michael Myers was finished once and for all, he springs back with some utterly lame excuse for still being alive.

But what this “Halloween” remake has going for it is Rob Zombie who gave us “House of a 1000 Corpses” and the brilliant grindhouse flick “The Devil’s Rejects.” We all know just how much he loves John Carpenter’s original film, and we believed him when he said he would make this “Halloween” his own. If there was ever going to be a “Halloween” remake, who better to do it than Zombie?

This reimagining proved to be polarizing for “Halloween” fans in general. They either loved it, hated it or had a mixed reaction to it. One thing for sure, it is far more brutal than Carpenter’s film. Zombie does not try to hide from the ugliness of violence, and there is no campiness to be found here.

The first half is the freshest part as it deals with Michael Myers as a child and looks closely at what made him such a monster. This is where Zombie’s “Halloween” could have been disastrous as things tend to be scarier in a horror movie when the motives of the killer are barely described or explained. But what Zombie does is force us to look at Michael as a human being instead of an indestructible force of nature, and this makes his version all the more compelling.

Michael could not have come from a more dysfunctional family if he tried. His mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a stripper at a local bar, his step dad (William Forsythe) is an abusive prick who has nothing nice to say about anything or anybody, and his sister Judith (Hanna Hall) would rather make out with her boyfriend than take her little brother trick or treating. On top of that, he is constantly bullied at school and has this little hobby of killing animals which is typically a serious warning sign of someone about to embark more homicidal adventures.

Zombie succeeds in making you feel for Michael even as we condemn him for the violence he inflicts on others. We fear him but also empathize with him because we see the pathetic hell he has been put through.

The adult Michael is portrayed by Tyler Mane, a huge individual whom you never ever doubt will leave some serious damage in his path. I thought it was genius of Zombie to cast such a tall actor in this role. When he was at a Fangoria convention, Zombie said it made more sense to cast a very tall actor in this role as opposed to a regular height kind of guy. Michael has to be a formidable force of evil, and Mane gives us the best version of this character since Nick Castle played him in the original.

After spending a lot of time on Michael’s back story, Zombie moves us through the “Halloween” we grew up on as we get introduced to Laurie Strode and her friends from school. Many of the scenes from the original are repeated here which brings this movie down some as they remind us of just how great Carpenter’s film was. Zombie moves through those scenes at such a rapid pace to where the characters never seem as fully realized as they could have been. Laurie Strode is played by Scout Taylor-Compton, and she is one hell of a screamer! She may not be on the same par with Jamie Lee Curtis, but she does make the role her own and is fun to watch.

Playing Laurie’s babysitting friends are Kristina Klebe as Lynda and Danielle Harris as Annie Brackett. Harris is a Michael Myers veteran herself, having played the daughter of Laurie Strode in “Halloween 4” and ‘Halloween 5.” It is important to note she was not cast in this movie as a result of her previous work in the franchise, but because Zombie said he was truly blown away by her audition. She does deserve a lot of credit for playing such a believable teenager even though she was 30 when the cameras started rolling.

Zombie casted many of his friends like Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Leslie Easterbrook, and Ken Foree as well. There are also cameos from B-movie actors like Dee Wallace Stone, Sybil Danning and Clint Howard. One of the best performances in “Halloween” comes from Sheri Moon Zombie herself. As the mother of Michael Meyers, she shows a lot of range here we haven’t seen before as her character proves to be the only who truly cares about Michael and what he is going through.

Another awesome actor featured here is Danny Trejo whose character encourages the young Michael to live inside his head so he won’t feel so boxed in when inside his prison cell. The way Trejo spoke those words must have come from a real place as he once served time in prison. His performance and scenes with Michael are haunting, and I would have loved to have seen more of him in this movie.

Overall, I liked Zombie’s ever so brutal vision of Michael Myers. It does not quite equal what Carpenter gave us, but it is certainly much better than several of the sequels which were inflicted on us. Zombie has created a movie which truly shocks and unsettles the viewer. Whereas you cannot help but snicker at the usual clichés in every other slasher movie, this one throttles you back into your seat. At the very least, it is the best remake of a John Carpenter movie yet. After the dismal remakes of “Assault on Precinct 13” and especially “The Fog,” this one fares much better in comparison.

* * * out of * * * *