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August Recess.

Hello all. No, GitM’s not dead. As per several Augusts past, I’ve spent the past few weeks on August recess, confining my thoughts on the various nightmares unfolding in Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq, etc. to 140 characters on Twitter and Facebook.

In the meantime, my girlfriend Amy and I have been getting in lots of travel this month — first a long weekend in New Orleans where, among other things, I for the first time took in the French quarter, Frenchman St., and the future final resting place of thespian and scholar Nicolas Cage.

A fortnight later, we were off to Iberia for a stretch, with four and a half days in Barcelona and Lisbon each (with a brief, three-hour layover tour through Brussels — alas, we didn’t have time to visit my old stomping grounds of Waterloo.)

August is probably not the best time to visit Barcelona — it was as crowded as Times Square at times, on much narrower streets. Still, it’s an amazing World City, and Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia is like nothing you’ll see anywhere else in this system. Very highly recommended (although, again, perhaps not in August.)

By comparison, Lisbon and its dozens of ancient churches was more of a sleepy European capital. But it too had its charms, not the least Sintra and its ninth century Moorish castle, only an hour or so away by train.

In any event, if you want to peruse some photos from the trip (and aren’t already a Facebook friend), I’ve put three dozen or so up in the long-neglected Flickr feed. Suffice to say, a grand time was had!

Fear and Loathing in New Orleans.

I was right in the middle of a f**king reptile zoo, and somebody was giving booze to these godd**n things!” For reasons that will be apparent if you see the movie, the memorable lizard sequence from both versions of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas comes to mind while watching Werner Herzog’s highly entertaining Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans last Friday. And for good reason — with both imaginary iguana and melancholy crocodile POV shots herein, not to mention sharks, dogs, fish, and sundry other of God’s creatures well-represented, the animals are basically running the compound in Herzog’s Big Easy. And the king of the animal kingdom here is a primal, animalistic, and drugged-out-of-his-gourd anti-hero, Nicholas Cage. Yes, folks, he’s been given a whole lot more than booze…Let the wild rumpus start!

Partly a Chandleresque crime movie in the key of Southern Gothic (it made for a great counterpoint to my weekend immersion into L4D2, which also takes place in the Quarter), and theoretically a remake of Abel Ferrara’s tortured Harvey Keitel vehicle of 1992, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a dark acidhead comedy that’s much more freewheeling and enjoyable than I expected going in. And, rather than get bogged down and belabored by the arch-Catholic, sin-and-redemption motifs of the Ferrara version, Herzog and Cage mostly just groove along here to a trippy gonzo beat. The good Doctor‘s soul is still dancing.

After a swimming snake sets the stage for the proceedings, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans begins with, and mostly centers around, the shady escapades of one Lt. Terence McDonagh (Cage, more on him in a bit.) Ostensibly some of the Big Easy’s, uh, finest, McDonagh and his partner (Val Kilmer, not given much to do) are surveying the mid-Katrina wreckage of their precinct when McDonagh figures out that someone is locked in the flooding underground jail. They go downstairs, find this poor, trapped prisoner, and proceed to heckle him and make sidebets on his unlikely survival. But, eventually — and for reasons that seem unclear even to himself — McDonagh jumps into the murky, fetid waters to save the guy. And since no good deed goes unpunished, he is repaid with a excruciatingly painful back injury that puts him on Vicodin for the rest of his life. Well, that and a promotion.

Cut to six months later, and now-Lieutenant McDonagh finds himself with a new lurch in his step, several high-maintenance addictions to feed, and a big case brewing — the execution-style murder of five Senegali immigrants, including two small children. The cops have a pretty good sense of who the prime suspect probably should be: the local drug kingpin, Big Fate (Xzibit). But they have nothing to pin on him, and neither his two lieutenants nor anybody else seem to be talking. And in fact, McDonagh doesn’t particularly seem to care about the case — he’s too busy with his extracurriculars, which include but are not limited to: garnering choice illegal drugs by means foul or fouler, getting in way too deep with his long-suffering bookie (Brad Dourif), and/or keeping his hooker girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes) in the style to which she’s accustomed. Still, amidst all the lines of coke and the freebasing, something’s nagging at him lately — is that a pang of conscience struggling to break free, or is he just fiending for another massive hit?

Y’know, it’s easy to playa-hate on Nicholas Cage, and I’ve been known to indulge in it myself. And it’s true that, on account of his well-publicized money problems, the guy will appear in just about anything, from PG-ish family-fare (National Treasure, which I actually enjoyed) to slapdash genre pics (Knowing, Ghost Rider, Bangkok Dangerous) to out-and-out crap (LaBute’s Wicker Man travesty.) Still, his wild, weirdly hypnotic performance here in Bad Lieutenant reminds us that he’s also an exceedingly rare bird, and he’s given us more than his fair share of quality turns in the past, from Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart to Adaptation and Lord of War. (Not to mention his tour de force in Werewolf Women of the S.S.) Say what you will about the man, but from Vampire’s Kiss to Leaving Las Vegas to this flick, he’s not afraid to let it all hang out.

Of course, it helps to be aided and abetted in your crazy-man schtick by none other than Werner Herzog, who knows a thing or two about certifiably nutso leading men. (See also: Grizzly Man.) A lot of reviews seem to argue that this movie has absolutely nothing to do with Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, but that’s only half true — A lot of the plot points remain the same: the carnal appetites, the grotesque abuse of power for sexual ends, the losing gambling streak, the conscience-tugging case despite it all. Where the difference lies, and why the films seem completely distinct, is in the valence of the tale. Ferrara’s movie (and Keitel’s performance) is grim, haunted with Catholic remorse and self-loathing, and, frankly, not much fun at all. But Herzog’s film, even in the most decadent parts, abstains from judgment, or even seems vaguely bemused by all the sordidness. (Also, fwiw, Herzog has replaced all the Biblical allusions of Ferrara’s movie with Cajun voodoo and animal/nativist spirits.)

Simply put, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is clearly a film made by a man who’s comfortable with teh crazy. And, rather than condemn all the druggy depravities on display here, Herzog keeps a light touch, and usually just lets them unfold without much editorial comment. As our dear late Hunter Thompson put it on his own drug-inspired binge, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.

This ain’t Aruba either.

Detectives Bunk and Freamon, y’all’s transfer has come in: The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters will rejoin David Simon for his new NOLA show, Treme. “Pierce will play Antoine Batiste, an accomplished jazz trombonist who is now scratching for gigs, trying to support a live-in girlfriend and a new baby, while still carrying a torch for a failed marriage…Peters will play Albert Lambreaux, a big chief of the White Feather Nation trying to bring the tribe’s members home.

Two Years After Katrina.

A lot of people down here probably wondered whether or not those of us in the federal government not from Louisiana would pay attention to Louisiana or Mississippi…And I hope people understand we do. We’re still paying attention. We understand.” Dubya marks the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by mouthing platitudes in New Orleans, claiming “this town is better today than it was yesterday. And it’s going to be better tomorrow than it was today” (He might have more credibility on this if he hadn’t said the same thing about Iraq for four years and running.) Says TIME’s Michael Grunwald of Dubya’s claim: “Many of the same coastal scientists and engineers who sounded alarms about the vulnerability of New Orleans long before Katrina are warning that the Army Corps is poised to repeat its mistakes — and extend them along the entire Louisiana coast. If you liked Katrina, they say, you’ll love what’s coming next.” And see also Looka’s evaluation of how far we — haven’t — come in the two years since this man-made disaster. It’s shameful.

Enter Edwards.

If we actually want to change this country and we want to move America the way it needs to move, we’re going to have to do it, all of us, together.” As telegraphed by his official site a day early, the John Edwards train leaves the station from the Ninth District of New Orleans. I thought highly of Edwards last cycle — and voted for him in 2004 — so I for one am glad to see him back around for 2008. Right now, with Feingold out of the picture, it’s a two-man race right now between him and Obama for my primary vote.

Beast of Burden.

Unfortunately, the reviews of Stephen Zaillan’s All the King’s Men, the second half of my Friday morning double-feature, are basically correct. The film just doesn’t work…Indeed, it’s even a bit of a stinker. I’ve never seen the 1949 John Ireland/Broderick Crawford version, so I can’t tell you how it compares to that particular Oscar-winner. But, a few ghostly wisps of Penn Warren’s prose notwithstanding, this 2006 take on the novel is, as I feared in a post one year ago today, both hopelessly miscast and remarkably pedestrian. Straining mightily for solemnity throughout its run, this Men feels leaden from the start and fails to capture the sprawling grandeur of the novel (which, I guess, some literary critics hate. I for one love the book — it’s one of my all-time favorites, and not just for the failed historian digression.) If you’ve never read All the King’s Men, trust me — you’ll want to stay away from this flick. (If you have, well, you probably want to stay away too.)

Loosely based on the life of Louisiana’s Huey Long, All the King’s Men follows the trajectory of one Willie Stark (Sean Penn, way off), an earthy and ambitious backcountry politician with big city hungers and national dreams. (Consider him the Tommy Carcetti of his day.) In the midst of running a doomed gubernatorial campaign — designed by political insiders Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) and Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson) to split the hick vote and thus elect the favored candidate of the powers-that-be — Starr finds his populist voice and manages to capture the State House on a platform of less corporate graft and more roads, schools, and libraries for the people. But, once in office, the lure of power aggravates Stark’s more misanthropic tendencies, and (though this film barely explains how) the new governor begins to enact his redistributive policies with increasingly little regard for democratic niceties.

Along for the ride is our embittered narrator, Jack Burden (Jude Law, also way off but, surprisingly, closer to the mark than Penn). A slumming scion of Louisiana’s elite turned disaffected journalist (and functioning alcoholic), Burden, who relishes playing the world-weary observer, becomes Stark’s right-hand man despite himself. But, involvement, like, power, carries its own price. Soon, to accommodate Stark’s growing political appetites, Burden finds he must not only reenter but betray the past he thought he’d earlier burned away, whether it be by digging up dirt on his magisterial godfather, Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins, on autopilot), convincing his best friend (Mark Ruffalo, zombielike) to sign up under Stark’s employ, or allowing his youthful sweetheart (Kate Winslet, strangely bad) to herself come under Stark’s thrall.

To the film’s credit, the movie attempts to spend as much time on Burden’s arc as it does on Stark’s, as it should. But the two halves of the tale seem almost wholly separate here — Stark disappears for the middle third, when Burden’s backstory takes center stage. And that’s just the start of what’s wrong here — Simply put, everything just seems off. Penn is wholly unbelievable (and virtually inscrutable) as Stark, Law doesn’t serve much better as Burden. Other actors (Hopkins, Ruffalo) seem bored, others still (Gandolfini, Clarkson) are given too little to do. Accents are consistently mangled throughout. James Horner’s score is intrusive to say the least. Plot details are consistently elided over to the point of the story barely making sense (Why, for example, is Stark being impeached? One gets no clue in this version.) And Zaillan’s hamhanded directing stops the movie dead all too many times (the most egregious case being in the final moments, with the Louisiana seal — you’ll see what I mean.) Even the period is off: The novel takes place during the Depression, but for reasons that never become apparent we begin our tale here in 1954. If it ain’t broke, people…

The sole redeeming grace of this version of All the King’s Men are the occasional literary flourishes from the book, which are usually given by Jude Law in voiceover. Only in these brief moments, and only imperfectly, can we sense the endless jiggers of whiskey, the cedary scent of spanish moss, the lingering sweat and grinding despair that characterize Penn Warren’s novel. Whether it be Willie’s path to power or Jack’s remembrances, All the King’s Men is about more than just a political rise and fall. As befitting its author’s role in the southern agrarian literary movement, curdling at the novel’s heart is a lament for the days of yore and a futile raging against the inexorable indignities of time. The past passes: It marks us forever and can neither be escaped nor reclaimed as it was — it can only be confronted and accepted. “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.” Zaillan’s film version does make a meaningful attempt to capture these crucial elements of the book, but, alas, like Willie himself, its reach far exceeds its grasp.

Rising Tide.

“As the Hurricane Katrina anniversary coverage blows out to sea and New Orleans braces for another year of neglect, it’s worth pausing to consider the fallout from the disaster that was previously deemed the worst in U.S. history — the 1927 Mississippi flood.” Slate‘s David Greenberg takes a moment to remember the big 1927 flood, which significantly altered New Era attitudes about the appropriate duties of the federal government (and will also play a significant role in the latter half of my dissertation.)

Song for Bill.

“Seen the arrow on the doorpost saying, ‘This land is condemned, all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem.’ I traveled through East Texas where many martyrs fell, and I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” Or Kind Willie Clinton, for that matter…a belated happy birthday to our ex-president, who turned 60 yesterday.

Quake II.

“‘In 1906, San Francisco was the largest city west of the Rockies. We had 400,000 people in the city,’ Eisner said. ‘Today we have 7 million in the Bay Area. And the consequences of a disaster of this magnitude in an urban area are significant.’” On the eve of tomorrow’s centennial of the great San Francisco earthquake, a new study suggests another Big One would mean a Katrina-level disaster for the Bay Area. “Seismologists generally agree that a repeat of a 1906-size earthquake is inevitable, though when and where along the fault are unknown. In 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey reported a 62 percent chance of a magnitude-6.7 earthquake or greater hitting the Bay Area within 30 years.” And, in a related story, historians look for lessons for post-Katrina New Orleans amid the rubble of 1906.

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