The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009, USA)

Werner Herzog has presided over what might loosely be termed ‘remakes’ before: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), his predictably odd re-imagining of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic actually seems to sit quite comfortably in amongst his other classics of the 1970s, and while Rescue Dawn (2007) could hardly be termed a replica of his earlier documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), their similarities do reflect the always fine line between fact and fiction that all of his best films carefully tread. This last point has always struck me as the major value of his work; as such, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982), for all of its merits, seemed only to be the second best documentary about the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), the first being the film itself and its self-reflexive examination of the director’s relation to his chosen artifice through the proxy of Kinski’s titular character.

If there is reason to be disappointed with his latest film, the mouth-numbingly wordily-titled The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, then it is for an absence of this sense of Herzogian ambiguity between fiction and fact; one might question why this usually picky auteur plumped for making what is a reasonably straightforward thriller in the first place, save for the possibility of working with Nicolas Cage, whose gloriously deranged central performance – bouncing around from scene to scene and from score to score – rivals virtually anything that the Bavarian director’s famously lunatic collaborative partnership with Klaus Kinski committed to celluloid.

That aside, there is very little of note; none of his famous eye for establishing an extreme sense of location, whether through visuals or diegetic sound, surely a waste considering both the architectural specificity and the unparalleled musical tradition of the city of New Orleans. Indeed, as lensed by long-time DP Peter Zeitlinger, the film looks much like a bog-standard cable TV police drama. Neither does there seem to be much in the way of an overarching theme, unlike in Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant (1992) which was much more obviously steeped in a strongly Catholic sense of sin, foregiveness and redemption. Herzog himself has said the film is about “the bliss of evil”; the bliss certainly shines through in the film’s sheer enjoyability, but the near-slapstick tone detracts from the idea that its protagonist is genuinely evil, particularly when one remembers just how bad Harvey Keitel was in the earlier film.

As a standard crime drama, the film is hard to fault thanks to a tight and at times highly amusing script from veteran scribe William M. Finkelstein, save for some horribly shoehorned-in clunkiness towards the end about a childhood spoon. As one might expect from a Herzog film, the emphasis is very much placed on just the one central character, putting what is one of Cage’s career-best performances in the full spotlight but at the cost of marginalizing an under-used supporting cast. Eva Mendes has little more to do than Isabelle Adjani did Nosferatu; as if we needed reminding, Herzog’s is worldview is unmistakeably male-centric.

Except maybe it isn’t. Outside of the narrative there are some genuinely odd moments, all seeming to involve animals. Iguanas are filmed in extreme close-up while Johnny Adams sings Release Me on the soundtrack, a camera views the scene of a car crash as if through an alligator’s eyes, a family dog seems to cause characters more trouble than one might suspect, and the film ends with a shot of its main character being dwarfed by a background of sharks swimming in an aquarium tank. What is the relevance? Perhaps, when all is said and done, Herzog cares little for this silly world of cops, drug dealers and hookers; it would seem to be an opinion which shared by these animals, indifferent and largely undisturbed by the petty goings-on of the human world. Maybe this is why Bad Lieutenant feels hardly like Werner Herzog’s film at all; it just is not in the world he is interested in. Regardless, it is an amiable-enough piece of popcorn entertainment and, along with Kick Ass (2010), a welcome reminder of just how much fun Nicolas Cage can be.

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010, USA)

Those a little perplexed by the sheer pulpy excess of Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Departed (2006), should remember that, like Quentin Tarantino after him, the director’s famously encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema has long placed on equal par the genre picture and the art-house classic, a democracy in which Gun Crazy (1950) is as important an influence as Ossessione (1943). One ought not to forget either that Scorsese was a graduate of the Roger Corman film school, an early brush with exploitation which can be betrayed to varying extents in his output ever since Boxcar Bertha (1972) gave rise to Mean Streets (1973). The problem is, running to an overlong 138 minutes Shutter Island if anything needed to be a little more Corman and less Cimino.

The year is 1953, and we begin aboard a ferry carrying US Marshal Teddy Daniels and his newly-appointed investigative partner Chuck Aule, who together have been sent to the small titular island, home to the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane, a forbidding place established from these early shots aboard the boat – the hold all clanking chains and handcuffs – to their arrival through the high-security electric-fenced perimeter of the hospital. On arrival, the hospital’s head psychiatrist, the charming, smooth-talking Dr. John Cawley, explains that it is his liberal-minded philosophy that these dangerous prisoners may be ‘cured’ of their mental traumas by allowing them to act out their anxieties rather than by punishing and medicating them; this awakens hostility from Teddy, who in a series of dreamlike flashbacks recalls not only his wife’s death in an arson house fire but also his presence as a soldier at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, dually haunted by the ghosts of a loved one and strangers he was unable to save from mechanised slaughter.

Ostensibly Teddy and Chuck’s mission is to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of Ashecliff’s patients/inmates, Rachel Solando, who had been locked up for the brutal drowning of her three young children. But just how did she manage to escape from her locked cell, barred at the windows? Within the opening reels, this is the apparent central mystery, but slowly the detective story mutates as it transpires that Teddy has other, hidden reasons for coming to the island: not only has he reason to believe that his wife’s killer has been sent there, but he also suspects that the facility has been conducting mind experiments on its inmates. Thus, he is conflicted between two motivations: on the one hand avenging his wife’s death, and on the other crusading against what he sees as the appropriation of the Nazi thought experiments he fought against during the war.

This is only the piano terra of what quickly becomes a complicated Memento-like (2000) house of cards representing the fractured psychology of Marshal Daniels. Communicating to the ghost of his dead wife, who seems to be urging him on in his investigations, albeit then decaying into a pile of ash, he begins to question the trustworthiness of all around him – inmates, staff, even his own partner. Most of all, he is suspicious of Dr. Jeremiah Naehring, the German ex-pat colleague of Cawley’s who seems to suggest a link to the wartime experiences he is unable to forget. But can he believe even himself, led by ghosts of his own memories?

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, whose comparably more sober Mystic River (2003) and Gone, Baby, Gone (2007) have also been filmed, Shutter Island is the kind of story which translates very well to the visual medium, and Scorsese employs a full gamut of camera techniques in order to send us hurtling around the menacing prison’s corridors and its surrounding windswept island in a whirlwind fashion. Hitchcock seems the key reference point in terms of storytelling, reflected most obviously in the Bernard Herrmann-esque score as well as visual nods to Vertigo (1957) and Psycho (1960), but one can’t help but think that Hitch might have trimmed the running time down by a reel or so; the drawn-out ending in particular makes the full 138 minutes feel just too long, and the sheer obviousness of the big plot twist makes it seem as if Scorsese is showing his cards more than a little too early.

The length issue is reflective of the film’s essence as a hybrid of detective story and psychological autopsy, and the film ends up feeling a strangely schizophrenic mish-mash of visual styles. The opening reels feel strangely old-fashioned, an homage to the classic post-war film noir tradition right down to the apparent use of very retro-looking back-projection placing the island ferry atop the ocean waves, and veteran DP Robert Richardson’s camera and lighting take ecstatic delight in showing the period mise en scene. And yet despite the hokey, over-expositionary dialogue, there is an unease about those early scenes, largely thanks to some odd jump-cut editing and subtle use of minor temporal discontinuities to set the viewer on alert that all is certainly not what it seems. The dream sequences, though, are pure Tarkovsky, undercranked and littered with symbols and associative elemental imagery, with a feeling of po-faced unease that occasionally threatens to turn into slapstick.

The pastiche of film noir tropes is unsurprising for the director whose films always seem so enamoured with cinema history, but the evocation of the Holocaust seems flippant, almost frivolous, to what is ultimately an insubstantial story, if an entertaining one. Of course, noir owed its existence to World War Two, not only as a reaction to its horrors but as a product of its resultant immigration to Hollywood of the likes of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, and it is certainly possible to use experience of it to great achieve great empathic effect – see how Nabokov subverted the apparent comedy of Pnin with the haunting tragedy of Buchenwald – yet here it feels like Scorsese is unable convincingly to work it in to the story, at least with the unresponsive DiCaprio as lead. Not that DiCaprio is bad – in fact he seems well suited to this period hokum – but for a film which about interior psychology his performance is simply too opaque.

For its problems, Shutter Island remains enjoyably entertaining, and a film unashamedly soaked in love for the history and traditions of cinema, and for the sheer craft of old-fashioned thriller filmcraft. Still, it is an obtuse, awkward work, and will surely baffle many more than it will delight, but this seems to be where its charm lies; file under ‘personal projects’ alongside The Aviator (2004) and Kundun (1997). Maybe this is where the true value of his work has resided all along.

Aruitemo aruitemo [Still Walking] (Koreeda Hirokazu, 2008, Japan)

The shomin-geki, a particular type of Japanese family drama, is a long-established genre dating back to the early 1920s, but it is one which is perenially associated with, indeed practically synonymous with, the director Ozu Yasujiro, whose work is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the BFI. There is perhaps no better context within which to view this film by Koreeda Hirokazu, a director who has long been spoken of as his natural heir, given that his films share similar themes and concerns with those of his predecessor. Still Walking sees the parallels between them stronger than ever, and if one were to imagine the ghost of the great director watching with us, he would surely be nodding in silent approval.

A prologue introduces us to Kyohei and his wife Toshiko, an elderly middle-class couple living in a quiet coastal town. We see the old man doggedly struggle up some steps before exchanging kind greetings with a lady, from which exchange we learn that he is the area’s retired former doctor, and later that his house is his former surgery, still full of now disused medical paraphernalia. In contrast to this character, we are then swiftly introduced to his son Ryota who is travelling by bus with his new wife and stepson to visit his parents. In these early exchanges he seems uncaring towards his father and mother, expressing his wish to stay with them for as little time possible; in the meantime his own concerns have blinded him to the nervousness of his new bride at the prospect of meeting her in-laws for the first time.

Such a setup inevitably recalls Tokyo Story (1953), and the expectation is that the story will be about an uncaring son who is woefully neglecting his kindly parents, yet as soon as he arrives this is turned on its head. In truth, it is the father who is the transgressor, and greets his son with cold inhospitability; he holds lingering resentment that Ryota decided not to follow in the family tradition and become a doctor, and shows disdain for his chosen career as an art restorer. Toshiko is little kinder to her son, and confesses to daughter Chinami her disdain for his marrying a widow: after all, at least a divorcee might have chosen to leave her husband.

The film takes its time to reveal important pieces of information, and it is largely relayed through offhand remarks rather than expositionary dialogue. Slowly, we piece together that the family have gathered to mark the anniversary of the death of eldest son Junpei, the apple of his father’s eye who drowned many years ago in saving another man’s life. Kyohei clearly believes that Junpei would have become a doctor himself and carried on his work, and his resentment towards Ryota is based in a belief that the ‘wrong’ son died that day. The mother, too, is unable to let her son go. Later on, the man whom Junpei saved comes to pay his respects, a sweaty, obese, unkempt man who is both embarrassed and ashamed to be present in front of the family; Toshiko confesses that she insists that he return every year in order for him to suffer as she continues to her son’s death

Much of the subject matter makes the film sound depressing, and one suspects in the hands of a Western director such material would make for more of a melodrama, yet Still Walking, in the tradition of Ozu, is anything but morose. For long passages, the tone is light and playful, brightened by lively, colourful cinematography – the camera keen to linger on seemingly insignificant domestic details – a lilting acoustic guitar score, and the dialogue filled with the pleasantries and idioms with which the characters generally interact. Food is the major topic of conversation, and even the cold father softens and is lured out of his den when he smells frying tempura in the kitchen. Most of all, it is through the presence of the younger generation’s children of their own: while the adult dramas are playing out onscreen, there is frequently the accompanying sound of offscreen children at play, their lives so far mostly untouched by these frivolous grown-up concerns

Where Koreeda’s script and direction excel, though, is in how skilfully he manages to weave the tangled web of characters and their inter-relationships so that frequently within the same frame we can see a whole variety of emotions being experienced simultaneously by different characters, usually along generational lines. As well as dramatically underlining the gap between their attitudes, it also lends a huge sense of authenticity to this familial portrait: after all, how many family gatherings see all participants synchronised emotionally? More often the blinkers are on for the duration.

The shooting style – mostly carefully composed medium shots – might suggest observational distance rather than emotional intimacy, and yet film proves to be a bridge between the two; like Ozu’s films we feel like another visiting guest in the household, and when narrative resolution is achieved and the film closes there is a sense of emptiness in having to leave the world we have been living in for the previous two hours. The other director whose work springs to mind as a comparison piece is the late, great Edward Yang, another master of deep, subtle humanism. Koreeda’s beautiful, delicate film deserves such illustrious company.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009, USA)

The brevity of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are its story contained in only a few hundred words and a few dozen pages of illustrations – shows the other side of the coin of the problem of literary adaptation to, say, Watchmen (2009). Instead of what Zack Snyder had to do with that film, i.e. condense a large, sprawling work down to a coherent audience-friendly narrative, the job for director Spike Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers has been to conjure up a feature-length picture from the bare bones of a relatively sparse source.

In theory at least, this should be the easier task, and one which opens up the possibilities of exploring avenues of theme and character absent or not fully fleshed-out in the book. In fact Jonze and Eggers have gone one step further in overlaying broad new ideas over the story’s template. The approach has worked to a large extent; Where The Wild Things Are has benefited greatly from this room for manoeuvre which has allowed both of their distinct authorial voices clearly to emerge in its story. Yet the lack of narrative meat in the source material proves to be the root of film’s biggest weaknesses.

Sendak’s simple story centres on a young unruly boy named Max who one day travels by boat to an island populated by large hairy monsters; they duly appoint him king and he remains for a while as their monarch before returning home. The most immediate difference that Jonze and Eggers make is with Max himself, rounding out his personality and back-story by making him emotionally isolated – apparently friendless, his mother frequently busy with work or with her gentleman friend, his teenage sister hanging out with her friends – an isolation which causes or at least exacerbates his tendency for violent tantrums.

Max is a creative child, a teller of fantastical stories, so when he eventually runs away from home to set sail for the imaginary island of monsters we can expect it to be a product of his imagination. Once on the island and acquainted with its inhabitants, what swiftly becomes apparent is that there is something deeper going on: again supplementing the original book, here in the film the monsters are all physical manifestations of the different sides of his personality: most immediately the short-fused Carol, quick to lose his cool and throw a wobbly, represents Max’s ill-temper, but so too the timid, seldom listened-to Alexander who personifies (or monsterifies?) his loneliness, and the elusive K.W. who appears to be a product of with his longing to be close to his sister.

It is a novel approach to interpreting and expanding on the book, and is particularly effective in developing the bildungsroman idea of maturity deriving from a loss of naïve innocence and the discovery and acceptance of both one’s own imperfections and those of others. The stories we tell, whether we are a child or a successful filmmaker, are in some way reflective of our own subconscious. As such, as Jonze has been keen to point out, this is an often melancholy film about childhood rather than for children, and a PG certificate and a frequent sense of fun should not be enough to dissuade otherwise.

This setup is very elegant, but such pop-psychology does not make for a good film in itself, and for all of its merits there is a feeling incompleteness to the film as a whole, a problem which seems to go back to the paucity of the Sendak source. The thinness of the plot renders large stretches of the film whimsical and at times, much worse, boring; it is the absence of what forms the basis of many classic films from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Labyrinth (1986) and beyond: a central quest or goal to sustain the film for its duration.

Max’s self-discovery comes as a character development but not a dramatic one; indeed his decision to return to reality comes late into the film and more as a product of fear of the island’s inhabitants rather than anything along the lines of a there’s-no-place-like-home feeling, by which time the inconsequentiality of the goings-on on the island have become more than a little tiresome. If Jonze’s previous feature films – Being John Malkovich (1999) and, ironically, Adaptation (2002) – have been narratively obtuse then it has been the sheer ingenuity of their Charlie Kaufman scripts which has kept them so watchable; here Eggers’ psychological insights come at the expense of a tight storyline.

It is a shame that Sendak’s wonderful book has not made for the great film that it perhaps could have done, but I suspect there may be something inherent in the simplicity of the story which prevents it from translating to the 90-minute-plus mark. A shame, because it proves to be a rich resource of visual imagery, the scale of which translates comfortably to the big screen; the island and its natives are delightfully brought to life through a winning combination of puppetry and CGI, giving them a tactility and warmth lacking in so many other purely-rendered fantasy realms. And a shame, since Jonze’s and Eggers’ vision of Where the Wild Things Are as a parable about innocence and maturity feels so very right.

Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte [The White Ribbon] (Michael Haneke, 2009, Austria / Germany / France / Italy)

The problem with the films of Michael Haneke is that it always seems that their aesthetic virtues must be considered separately from looking at the rights or wrongs of their political content. A case in point may be his much acclaimed 2005 film Caché [Hidden] (2005), praiseworthy for its meticulously constructed crescendoing sense of dread through minimalist means, but whose pretensions to commentary on post-colonial politics were naïve at best.

This duality becomes more prescient to me when considering those films of his I personally dislike – in particular La pianiste (2001) and Funny Games (1997) – films whose technical virtues are not able to overcome political peccadilloes I find more difficult to swallow. A viewing of his new film, The White Ribbon, serves only to reinforce this opinion of his work, for once again here is a film whose masterful realization is not fully reinforced by a coherent ideology; indeed Haneke’s mastery of tone, creating such a successfully ambiguous mysterious air, possibly has the detrimental effect of watering down the film’s political motives.

The film’s political cards appear to be lain face up on the table as the film opens, when we hear an as-yet unidentified narrator explain that the story we are about to be told comes from his memories of some strange events which happened many years before, and in some way explain what happened in his country later on. Though initially the mise en scene very deliberately offers little in the way of information as to geographical or historical setting, it becomes apparent that we are in a northern Lutheran German village close to the turn of the twentieth century, and that the older narrator who corresponds to a younger man in the story is talking with the hindsight of the experience of the rise of Nazism.

Before considering the film’s politics, it must first be emphasized what a brilliantly constructed film The White Ribbon is. As is typical of Haneke’s best work, there is a simmering sense of dread underlying almost every scene – even the film’s lighter moments, almost unheard of from this director, feel never too far from violent catastrophe – and the sense of peril, despite the relative lack of real on-screen drama, cumulatively makes for a nerve-wracking watch for most of its 144 minutes. As ever, this creeping tone is largely due to the director’s handling of violence, only selectively shown on-screen yet always threatening to surface at any given moment. When it does come, it is graphic but not sensational, all the more potent for being presented stark and unheralded.

It is one such violent act which opens the film: one afternoon, the village doctor is thrown from his horse by a carefully planted trip-wire, throwing the other villagers into shock and rumour as to who could have done such a beastly act in this seemingly placid rural idyll. That event then seems to be the trigger for a series of apparently unconnected incidents – escalating from an accident with farm machinery to blatant acts of vandalism and sadism which suggest sinister forces are at work. As seen before in Le corbeau (1943), it only takes very little for local civility to descend into suspicion and recrimination, and so we begin to see the murky underweave beneath the tranquil pastoral scene: key figures of this late-feudal society such as the pastor and the baron are shown to be corrupt pillars of a brutal patriarchical system who habitually inflict vengeful cruelty upon their wives and children.

While Clouzot’s film may be a more explicit narrative reference point, the overall feel of the film is as if Ingmar Bergman had directed Village of the Damned (1960). The cinematography readily recalls the formal – here eerily over-formal – compositions of Sven Nykvist, but the major debt to the Swede might be in the person of Burghart Klaußner playing the local pastor, physically a ringer for Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand but closer in character to the wicked Bishop Edvard Vergerus in Fanny and Alexander (1982), all bottled-up rage and repression and with ideals of purity for others severely lacking from his own soul. Observation of outwardly visible community rituals such as religious penance and harvest festivals only serve as the shop-front for the behind-closed-doors rituals of punishment and humiliation. Around this theatre of cruelty there swarms a strange group of children, seemingly always there or thereabouts when tragedy strikes, and at least in the eyes of the narrator are implicated in them.

The moral message of the story would appear to be quite apparent: this violent patriarchal society bred a generation of Germans who would grow up willing to follow a strong, cruel leader who conveniently offered them an easy scapegoat to victimise in the form of the Jewish people. Most obviously this manifests itself in the the titular ribbon which young transgressors are made to wear as a symbol of purity – a disturbing echo of the Jewish stars of Nazi Germany. Here, though, is where the film begins to run into some problems. This idea as a standalone thesis as to the roots of Nazism is clearly a reductive one, ignoring a whole historiography of economic and political factors; if a denunciation specifically of the cruelty of authoritarian Lutheranism then why did fascism not spread to, say, Sweden? How does the experience of one small rather backward village come to represent the urban proletariat who would vote Hitler into power some twenty years later? By disregarding the politics of post-Bismarck Germany, Austrian Haneke fails to deal with the very German-ness of the Nazis’ willing executioners.

That the film does not try to answer these questions is not a flaw in itself, since the lack of specificity in terms of the story’s pre-industrial setting gives the story a kind-of universality. Indeed, the director’s own statements in interviews describing his film as being about “the origins of every type of terrorism” illustrate that he is aiming more for a general comment on human nature rather than dealing with the specifics of twentieth century Germany. On this plane, the story as moral tale functions more satisfactorily, yet one cannot help but feel that in doing so it falls between two stools; on the one hand not convincing as a document of pre-war Germany and on the other offering the over-simplification that all so-called terrorism stems from patriarchy and childhood repression. By way of comparison, Amarcord (1973) made for a much more convincing argument as to the roots of Italian fascism by dealing with more broadly national and regional characteristics, The Conformist (1970) the roots within individual psychological dysfunction.

There is also the problematic issue of the framing device: the narrator, speaking many years after the events being shown, concedes that he has more than a degree of uncertainty over some of the details of the story. Indeed, given the film’s large cast of characters, how can such an apparently omniscient view of their private interactions be trusted, particularly given through distorting lens of memory? The narrator and the local girl he begins to court are presented as the only wholly sympathetic characters in the village, but can we trust this apparently one-sided account? In the hands of a less skilled director this could be seen as narrative carelessness, yet Haneke’s talent and reputation suggests something else; indeed, given his record of contemptuousness for his largely bourgeois audience, is there a certain degree of game playing going on here? Those fleeting moments of tenderness in the film are in this director’s hands disquieting enough as to ring alarm bells – by making the audience hope for a happy ending, is he tricking them into their assent to rewriting history? It is a narrative subtlety, but another item in the list of questions this ambiguous film seeks not to provide easy answers to.

It seems ironic, if not entirely surprising, that while The White Ribbon walked off with the top prize at Cannes this year Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) was roundly jeered by the same crowd, since the two directors are really not too dissimilar in their cinematic visions, and both films are fascinating extensions to their respective cinematic grammars. If there is a difference then the former is cerebral while the latter visceral, and those stalking the croisette undeniably prefer the first of these to the second; I might also suggest that the former has the type of sobriety which is screaming out for it to be labelled a ‘masterpiece’ much louder than Brad Pitt’s throwaway line at the end of Inglourious Basterds (2009). That is for others and posterity to decide, but while there is no denying Haneke’s fearsome talent, for this viewer he is still yet wholly to convice.