Monday, December 28, 2009

Me and Orson Welles

By Elise Nakhnikian

Do you want to see a movie set in America’s Great Depression that makes the era feel as real, and the characters’ feelings as urgent, as your own heartbeat? Rent Public Enemies.

Me and Orson Welles is the kind of movie that’s shot in golden-brown sepia from the first frame to the last, lest we forget for a moment that our story takes place in The Past. It’s the kind of script in which a young woman gazing at a Grecian urn in a museum recites Ode on a Grecian Urn aloud – and then tells our hero what she’s quoting, just in case anyone missed the reference. Even the sets and hair and makeup are too carefully engineered, from the shiny cars lining the streets to the impeccably clothed extras crossing self-consciously in front of the camera.

Based on a novel of the same name, Me and Orson Welles is set in New York City in 1937. Still a wunderkind, Welles (Christian McKay) hasn’t yet made the leap to directing movies, but he’s already a star on radio. And he’s about to open the Mercury Theater, where he will burnish his reputation as a theatrical director and actor.

The movie ushers us backstage at the Mercury with Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), an enterprising local high school student who skips school to hang out at the Mercury. Good-looking and confident, he soon catches Welles’ eye and lands a minor role in the theater’s inaugural performance.

Me and Orson Welles is most alive when we’re inside the theater, watching the company bicker, rehearse, and then perform Welles’ inventive version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s interesting to see how Welles exploited, abused, and motivated his company, and often fun to watch the actors. Ben Chaplin is both laughable and touching as a high-strung, highly insecure actor. Eddie Marsan earns our respect as the long-suffering John Houseman, who managed the Mercury for the mercurial Welles. And every so often the whole ensemble clicks, making the cast’s neuroses, narcissism, and catty competition entertainingly believable.

But a few good scenes can’t carry a movie. My Favorite Year took another story of a high-maintenance theatrical genius as seen through the eyes of a starstruck young man and made it touching and funny, in part by playing the contrast between the dashing star and his young sidekick for laughs (who could forget Alan Swann’s dinner with Benjy’s family?) Me and Orson Welles falls into the same trap as Julie and Julia and The Devil Wears Prada, treating a callow sidekick as if he or she were as interesting as a savvy star, or more so.

Richard gets far more screen time than Welles, though the man is far more interesting than the boy can even dream of being. Outsized and outrageous, Welles attracts us in spite of ourselves, like iron filings to a magnet. McKay is too old for the part (he’s in his mid 30s, while Welles was just 21 in 1937), but he nails the actor-director’s resonant voice, penchant for bombast, and endless capacity to amuse himself, often at the expense of others. Most importantly, we see enough of the play he creates to know he’s the real thing, a genuine theatrical genius. That doesn’t excuse his boorish behavior, but it does make you wonder whether he, like the magazine editor in Prada, might have developed a monstrous carapace to protect a fragile creative ego.

Richard is just a kid, his ambitions too inchoate to be compelling. Welles tells him he’s “a God-created actor,” the kind you can’t help watching, but Efron doesn't earn that billing. The scenes of Richard at home or at school are uninteresting and unenlightening, telling us nothing we didn’t already know. And what a waste of potential to focus on his bland flirtation with the theater’s ambitious office manager, Sonja (Claire Danes) when we could be watching a world-class womanizer like Welles home in on his prey.

I might not have been so disappointed if I hadn’t expected so much more. Welles’ director, Richard Linklater, has a gift for making pungent slice-of-life movies – Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Tape, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset – whose characters seem to have wandered into his frame from the street.

I like Linklater’s genre movies too – how could you not like School of Rock? – but what impresses me most is how he can take movie that are all talk, like Waking Life and the bookends of Sunrise and Sunset, and make them shimmer with intensity. Like few other living American directors, Linklater can capture the dorm-room thrill of smart conversation.

A talky love letter to great theater and the characters who make it should have been right up his alley, but somewhere between the conception and the execution, the blood got drained out of Me and Orson Welles. It comes to us DOA, a wax museum tableau shot through a tea-stained scrim.

Monday, December 21, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

“The legendary floating mountains of Pandora – heard of them?” a jealous colleague needles Jake (Sam Worthington) in Avatar. Matter of fact, I have, and if you’re at all interested in movies, I’m sure you have too. Thanks to Avatar’s $150 million marketing budget, we’d heard a lot about Pandora’s floating mountains – and its exotic flora, ferocious fauna, and New Age-y blue-skinned giants – long before the movie opened last weekend.

So does it live up to the hype? Yes and no.

Writer-director James Cameron’s movies always aim for maximum impact. First they immerse you in an extreme, often imaginary environment that feels as real as the floor beneath your feet, whether it’s postapocalyptic Earth (the Terminator movies), a deadly space station (Aliens), the depths of the ocean (Titanic) or outer space and the sea combined (The Abyss.) Then they pile on the shock and awe, with the help of state-of-the-art special effects.

In Avatar, most of our time is spent inside the world of the Na’vi, the nine-foot-tall blue humanoids who people the fictional planet Pandora. Thanks to Cameron’s immersive use of 3D and the elaborately realistic look of the computer-generated landscape and creatures, you truly feel like you’re inside that world, and it’s an enthralling place to be for a while, with plants that snap shut and collapse when they’re touched and huge, pterodactyl-like birds that let the Na’vi ride on their backs.

The thrill of immersion in a wide-screen virtual reality experience is all the reason I need to see Cameron’s movies. Sometimes it’s all I get, too. The Abyss got bogged down in ditsy pseudo-spiritualism and a tedious subplot about a troubled marriage, and Titanic was nearly swamped by cardboard characters, laughable dialogue, and poor pacing that made it feel way too long.

Avatar is close to three hours long, but except during a couple of fight scenes, the special effects were special enough to keep me afloat. And, though Cameron hasn’t gotten any better at dialogue, that didn’t bother me much here. After all, the characters were often speaking a foreign language they weren’t fluent in, as English-speaking humans spoke the Na’vi’s language or vice versa.

The humans, who have made Earth uninhabitable, have come to Pandora in search of unobtainium, a potent source of energy. Jake, who is there to help a small group of scientists who are studying the planet, explores the planet through his avatar, a beautiful body as tall and blue as any Na’vi’s.

A paraplegic in real life, Jake experiences his avatar body as a release from the prison of his actual one. Exploring the beautiful, deep-hued planet in his powerful new body is a thrill – for us as well as for him – especially since the Na’vi chief’s beautiful daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), is showing him the ropes. One of the tough-girl characters Cameron loves to create, Neytiri looks something like a cross between Angelina Jolie in Beowulf and Rebecca Romijn in X-Men, and she’s so fierce she hisses when she first encounters Jake. Not that there’s never any doubt that she’ll wind up succumbing to his alpha-male charms.

The predictability of Cameron’s plot didn’t bother me much this time – at least, not until the end. The whole thing plays like a fairy tale, so you expect happy endings you can see coming a light year away. But some of his archetypes felt played-out and tiresome, and the characters were all mighty thin.

Cameron tries to play it both ways here, preaching nonviolence and ecological balance while lingering lovingly on gigantic choppers and guns and people clanking around in those metal exosuits combining armor with weaponry that Cameron introduced back in 1986 in Aliens. And in the end -- yawn -- the only way our Na’vi heroes can banish the human intruders is by beating them in a bloody battle.

To create the avatars and the Na’vi, Cameron covered his cast with motion sensors that converted their movements and expressions to digital form as they acted out the parts. Then a team of computer animators converted those streams of data into wasp-waisted, elegantly near-naked bipeds with tails, long braids, and cerulean skin. The process, which was used to create Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, creates characters that don’t exist yet look completely alive, their body language and expressions borrowed from the actors who played them.

Sam Worthington, who radiates an old-fashioned combination of modesty and machismo, makes Jake believable as a grunt with hidden resources who can rise to almost any occasion when challenged. And it’s nice to see Sigourney Weaver (as Jake’s no-nonsense scientist boss) and Michelle Rodriguez (as a soldier with a conscience) nailing two more of Cameron’s tough-chick roles.

But much as I enjoyed watching the avatars and the Na’vi, with their huge, expressive eyes and lithe bodies, I can’t say I really cared about any of them. Just as Star Wars and Tron were eye-popping in their day despite pretty minimal plots, Avatar is significant only for the way it bumps computer-generated imagery up to a whole new level.

What will really be cool is when someone uses that technology to create a story that feels as engaging as it looks.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Best Films of 2009

Elise Nakhnikian

As always in recent years, I've heard a lot of buzz lately about how movies are going down the tubes. And as usual I don't agree, since I always find it hard to choose just 10 favorites from the films that first hit U.S. theaters this year. But I do wonder about American movies. Once again, only four of the movies on my year-end top 10 list are from the USA. The last time there were more than that was 2005.

I don't exactly feel deprived. Thanks to Netflix, movies on demand, film festivals, and the rich array always on tap in Manhattan theaters, there are always more movies I want to see than there is time to see them. But I worry about smart, gifted American filmmakers who have something to say. Is it getting so hard to finance anything other than a wannabe blockbuster that they're giving up and doing something easier? If so, that's everyone's loss, even if the online options jostling for our attention keep us from noticing right away.

Speaking of that list, I couldn’t narrow mine down to 10 this year, but we all know that number is arbitrary anyhow. So here are my 11 favorite movies of 2009, in no particular order.

The Maid. Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has been the live-in maid for an upper-middle-class Chilean family for her entire adult life. Despite all the talk about how they love one another, she’s really not part of their family – or of her own, after living apart for more than two decades. In fact, she has no intimate relationships at all. But her little room is the only home she knows, so when the mistress of the house announces that she’ll be hiring someone to “help” her, Raquel starts acting out in increasingly bizarre ways, until a new maid comes to the house and changes everything.

Writer-director Sebastián Silva lays out the nuances of the rickety relationships between Raquel and the family with sensitivity and sly humor. Saavedra is a revelation, using her thin lips and bruised-looking eyes to convey both the pain of the emotions roiling around in Raquel’s aching head and her grim attempts to quash them, and the rest of the cast is excellent too. This story feels so real you sometimes forget you’re not watching it through a security camera.

Goodbye, Solo. It’s a pleasure to spend two hours in the company of Goodbye Solo’s title character (played by the excellent Souleymane Sy Savane), a sunny Senegalese cab driver whose insistence on connecting with the people around him amounts to a form of grace. We meet him as he’s homing in on William (Red West), a cantankerous codger who would prefer to be left alone. But Solo just keeps planting himself in William’s way, armed with a smile and a story, winning his grudging friendship while trying to solve the mystery behind this toxically lonely man’s depression.

Based on a cabbie Ramin Bahrani met in his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Goodbye, Solo is the director’s third feature about immigrants struggling to survive in inhospitable American cities, and they just keep getting better. (The others were 2005’s Man Push Cart and 2007’s Chop Shop.) All three mix professional and non-professional actors and real locations to place a scripted story within an interesting subculture, which Bahrani films with a sensitivity that establishes him as one of America’s best living directors.

Bright Star. This deeply felt, exquisitely tender love story places us smack in the world of poet John Keats (a luminescent, gently charismatic Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the young woman he loved. Cinematographer Grieg Fraser captures an astonishingly gorgeous England, starkly beautiful in the winter and bursting with colors and life in the springtime and summer.

Writer-director Jane Campion revives the pressures and pleasures of early 19th-century English society, but this is no stilted costume drama. It’s the story of two vivid individuals whose feelings and motivations are as compelling as our own – if not more so. Keats is a born Romantic, full of feeling and fun, and Fanny is Campion’s most self-assured heroine yet, self-confident, forthright, competent and kind. And that pairing of lionhearted equals makes Bright Star a great romance.

Gomorrah. Gomorrah is a whole new kind of mafia movie. Compared to the goombahs of Gomorrah, even Tony Soprano looks tony, and the Godfather series look like a Cosa Nostra recruitment poster, with its movie-star Mafioso.

Writer Roberto Saviano, a native of Naples, based the screenplay on his own novel, which was in turn based on extensive research into the camorra, the criminal underground that maintains a chokehold on Naples and the surrounding countryside. Saviano exposes the hidden workings of the system by showing how it affects the lives of nearly everybody in its orbit, even infiltrating parts of the global economy.

Director Matteo Garrone, a painter as well as a filmmaker, artfully translates the novel’s grim intensity, creating an absorbing world as visceral as a kick in the gut and as claustrophobic as the tanning booths that cocoon a group of paunchy gangsters in the opening scene. There’s nothing noble or melancholy about the gangsters in Gomorrah; they’re just ugly brutes who cripple the world they rule.

The White Ribbon. While Gomorrah aims for reportorial realism, The White Ribbon is intentionally unreliable. Writer-director Michael Haneke refuses to wrap up his films too neatly on principle, often leaving key questions unanswered to prod us into doing our own thinking about what we’ve just seen. In The White Ribbon, he undermines his own narrative from the start by having the narrator inform us that he can’t trust his own memory and never did know all the facts.

At first, all seems well in this creamily photographed black-and-white tale of a farming community in Protestant northern Germany shortly before WWI. But little by little, Haneke reveals the authoritarian brutality so casually wielded by the sternly self-righteous men in charge. One father canes his children for imagined sins. Another has sex with his teenage daughter. A blithely entitled baron forces the sharecroppers to put up with daily humiliations and unsafe conditions and makes a virtual prisoner of his wife.

Meanwhile, seemingly random acts of cruelty or violence are occurring. Since we never learn who is doing them, they come to seem like an inevitable reaction to rampant oppression. Where your thoughts lead you from there – to the Nazi regime that the kids in this movie will vote in as adults? To someplace closer to home? – is up to you.

Where the Wild Things Are. Though it’s cowritten by Dave Eggers and closely based on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are is a classic Spike Jonze Joint: intelligently conceived, ingeniously crafted, and as steeped in humanity as a rum cake is in rum.

The opening and closing scenes economically convey the anger and angst that causes Max (Max Record) to run away and the love that pulls him back. His scenes with his mother (Catherine Keener) are particularly poignant, little cinematic bouillon cubes of concentrated tenderness, frustration, and unconditional love. And when he runs away, it’s to an exhilaratingly primal island peopled by wild things that are awesome in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Played by actors in giant puppet suits and voiced by a stellar cast, the wild things are vulnerable, tender, and occasionally terrifying.

Wild Things is refreshingly free of the pyrotechnics, paint-by-numbers peril, and preachy morals that gum up most children’s movies. There are things to be learned -- Max learns how to manage his own feelings and respect other people’s, and the wild things learn not to blindly follow a king. But those lessons emerge organically from a plot as impulsive and focused on fun as a child at play.

The Hurt Locker and In the Loop. Of all the movies I’ve seen so far about what we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and how we got there – and I’ve seen a lot – these two may be my favorites. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a visceral, clear-eyed look at the pull exerted by the war on Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), an adrenaline junkie who disarms bombs in Iraq. Bigelow knows how to maximize the suspense inherent in a violent confrontation or an armed bomb, but she’s also good at showing how men reveal themselves even when they’re trying to hide. We get to know the taciturn James and the other men in his squad well enough to share the hurt when the war warps their lives.

In the Loop, a mordantly funny British satire based on a BBC-TV series, is a fictionalized tale of how the Bush Administration engineered the occupation of Iraq, as seen through the eyes of Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), a British politician pulled into a “debate” on the topic by an American State Department official (a tart Mimi Kennedy). Too inept to know he’s being used, Foster happily bumbles into a world in which nearly everyone – himself included – is motivated by self-interest, more interested in salvaging or furthering their careers than in deciding whether their country should go to war. The barbs fly by like darts as the Brits use their best remaining weapon, erudite sarcasm, to bully and manipulate each other. It’s all very funny, yet it feels alarmingly plausible – office politics with a capital P.

A Serious Man. A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mid-century modern Job. He’s also a bit of a schnook, a nice guy who finishes dead last. His life could easily be played as a tragedy, but codirectors Joel and Ethan Coen – who also cowrote, coproduced and coedited, as usual – are after something more entertaining, more open-ended, and ultimately deeper.

The story takes place in a Jewish suburb of Minnesota in the late 1960s or early ‘70s, which the Coens recreate with their usual attention to detail. You can almost smell the pot the kids are smoking and feel the chilly disinterest of the aggressively unattractive secretaries. (Remember secretaries?) But there’s always just enough comic exaggeration to nudge us into the realm of fable and make us laugh. At their best, the Coens introduce us to ourselves, satirizing human weakness while celebrating human nature, and A Serious Man is one of their best.

Anvil! The story of Anvil. It took me a few minutes to get past the similarities to This Is Spinal Tap and stop smirking at this oddly named documentary about a balding heavy metal band trying to regain its past glory, but once I did I was hooked. Anvil is really about drummer Robb Reiner (for real) and lead singer/songwriter Steve "Lips" Kudlow, and it turns out these two are very likeable guys.

Good friends and good family men who grew up together in Toronto, Reiner and Kudlow started jamming together at age 14, made it big for a bit at the start of the heavy metal movement in the ‘80s, and quickly lapsed back into obscurity. But they never stopped playing – or hoping to become professional musicians. Their journey, as documented by director Sacha Gervasi, raises some interesting questions for a culture that constantly tells us to follow our dreams while making most dreams almost impossible to achieve. Are these guys admirable for sticking with the music they love or self-indulgent for risking their families’ financial security? How you answer may tell you more about yourself than about Reiner and Kudlow.

Summer Hours. The plot of Summer Hours doesn’t sound very interesting: The adult children of an haute-bourgeois French clan converge on their lovely old family home to bury their mother and settle her estate. But this elegiac work of art captures the ebb and flow of family life across generations, the decommissioning of an aging empire’s ruling class, and how globalization is weakening ancient cultures.

Some of the best naturalistic actors working today, including Juliette Binoche and Jérémie Renier, make us believe in the jokes and shared memories that keep these siblings together, the differences in temperament that still grate, and the interests and obligations – including working abroad— that pull them apart. On one level, as the movie makes clear, the estate is just so much stuff. But it is part of the roots that have nurtured the family for generations, and they will be weaker without it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Road

By Elise Nakhnikian

With collapsing economies and intractable wars eroding our sense of security, no wonder there are so many movies about the apocalypse these days. 2012, Wall-E, I Am Legend, and all those zombie movies (to name just a few) offer a little catharsis. First they wipe out whole civilizations, then they show how a few hardy survivors cope with the consequences.

I can’t get enough of this stuff, the trashier the better: I’ll see anything with a zombie or a tidal wave in it. I can’t resist serious apocalypse movies either, but they’re more of a risk. A self-aware splatterfest like Zombieland aims to let a little air out of your sense of dread, but it wants to entertain you too. Earnest apocalypse movies just want to pump up the dread, challenging you to question your own assumptions or behavior.

Apocalypse stories don’t come much more serious than The Road, a bleak, Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy specializes in Old-Testament-style stories about old-fashioned good guys – taciturn hombres who know how to do things like forage for food or evade a homicidal killer – pitted against implacably evil foes in perilous landscapes.

As its title indicates, The Road is a road trip stripped down to its skivvies. A father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – identified only as “the man” and “the boy” – are making their way through a dead landscape a decade or so after an unspecified disaster. Virtually all animal and plant life has been decimated. The few human survivors are either refugees like the man and the boy, travelling on their own or in very small groups, or near-feral cannibals roving the countryside in bands.

As the Coen Brothers did in their 2007 adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, director John Hillcoat sticks like Velcro to the novel’s storyline, rarely embroidering the author’s spare but eloquent dialogue. That makes for an unusually austere apocalypse film: What interests McCarthy is what makes us human and what we will do to survive, so we don’t get the usual perverse thrill of seeing the world get destroyed.

We feel no glory or glee when people die, either: When someone pulls out a weapon in The Road, we feel the full and terrible weight of that act. But most of all, we feel the tenderness and ferocity with which the father protects his boy, nurturing his compassion, teaching him how to survive on his own, and trying to shield him from the worst of the horrors that surround them.

The trashed-looking sets and the grimly beautiful cinematography make a valiant attempt to communicate the melancholic beauty of McCarthy’s prose, but they don’t quite succeed. Maybe it’s just too much to ask any actual location to match the power of the impressions unleashed by a passage like: “The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.”

Visual clichés, like the golden sunlight that bathes the man’s flashbacks or the handsome Pendleton blanket he finds in time for a climactic scene, occasionally make the movie feel more Hollywood than holocaust. It doesn’t help that the main actors are so beautiful, either, giving their suffering the art-directed feel of Garbo’s death throes in Camille.

Mortensen pours his formidable soul into his role, suffusing the father with tenderness and vulnerability while looking entirely capable of extracting an arrowhead from his own calf. He can’t help it if starvation just makes him look better – he worked hard to get grungy for the role – but his picturesquely gaunt cheekbones and fashionably scruffy beard are as distractingly Hollywood as Smit-McPhee’s limpid blue eyes and improbably well-nourished cheeks. (In contrast, Robert Duvall and Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire’s Omar, look convincingly down and out in their standout cameos.)

Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penall also soften the book’s adamantine spine by giving us less of the man’s thoughts and fears and by toning down the boy’s terror and amping up his faith in human nature. They conjure up golden images of the man’s wife far too often, diminishing his grief for a lost world by roping it too tightly to that single cause. And where McCarthy follows his far from neatly resolved happy “ending” with a mournful final paragraph, the filmmakers end with happy talk, sold hard.

The movie was beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, and occasionally creepy, but it won’t haunt my dreams the way the book still does.

Does that come as something of a relief? Yeah, I guess so. But it’s more of a disappointment.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

By Elise Nakhnikian

The camera in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans keeps dropping down to slink along at eye level, often tracking some reptile – a snake, a gator, a pair of iguanas – as they take in the scene. Director Werner Herzog has a habit of inserting references to the malevolence of nature into his movies, but that’s not all he’s doing this time around. Those gator-cam shots help give Bad Lieutenant a trippy, Hunter Thompson-ish vibe. And when Herzog uses the same trick to film Nicholas Cage in the title role, you see his Terence McDonagh as another dangerous predator prowling the half-deserted streets of post-Katrina New Orleans.

We need that reminder. McDonagh, who starts off as a police lieutenant and winds up a captain, is such a charismatic kook – and so good at his job, except when he’s awful – that you sometimes start to forget what a nasty piece of work he can be. He’s both good cop and bad cop, single-mindedly and inventively tracking down the people responsible for killing a family in their home while raiding the evidence room for drugs he can inhale.

Drugs are McDonagh’s Achilles’ heel, though you get the feeling he’d be pretty messed up even without them. Cagey, reckless, and unpredictable, he’s prone to impulsive actions and violent extremes, so it doesn’t help that he’s strung out on Vicodin, which he supplements with coke, crack, and heroin.

Still, he’s good company. Cage gives McDonagh a manic energy that makes him hard to resist, whether he’s erupting in hysterical giggles over a drug-induced hallucination, roughing up a john who beat up his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), or nodding out on a couch with his father’s slovenly girlfriend (Jennifer Coolidge, proving that she can play it straight).

Just to give you an idea of how crazy Cage plays it, Val Kilmer is his partner and Brad Dourif is his bookie, and both actors feel tame next to Cage. His McDonagh even looks odd, between the hairline receded so far it looks like a yarmulke and the back injury that makes him lumber like Frankenstein’s monster.

Screenwriter William Finkelstein, who has written a lot of TV cop shows, leavens the gonzo stuff with plenty of realism. McDonagh plants evidence to convict the killer when he can’t nail him through legitimate channels, and the scenes where he and his partner interrogate people feel unsettlingly authentic. So does the bone-dry sense of humor that makes him snicker at a gangster’s lame street name or compliment someone he arrests for his family values. “You may be hiding in the armoire, but your child knows you’re here,” he tells him.

The movie shares a title -- or part of one—with Abel Ferrara’s 1992 New York City-based Bad Lieutenant, whose producers envisioned this as a very loose sequel. But aside from the fact that both are about police detectives who are addicted to Vicodin for back pain and who do some very good police work along with some very bad things, the two movies don’t have much in common. And that’s a good thing, since Harvey Keitel’s dour performance and the humorless, self-serious tone of the original made it a drag.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans may be a little uneven – an oddly happy near-ending followed by an inscrutable actual ending left me a unsatisfied – but it’s brimming with juice and always entertaining.

Faces are often half-hidden in the smudged darkness, shadows pooling in their eye sockets, to augment the sense that you never know what someone’s likely to do next – not to mention the murkiness of McDonagh’s morals. But there’s nothing indistinct about this movie. Herzog stuffs the frame with fascinating visuals and sound bites, from a throwaway shot of a dwarf crossing a bleak-looking street to the slot machines in Biloxi that constantly nag passersby to “Insert more coins!”

And just wait till you hear what McDonagh has to say to a dignified elderly woman and her even more dignified nursing assistant in an upscale assisted living facility. That scene alone was enough to earn him his title, if you ask me.