(Video On-Demand, May 2017) on the one hand, hiring a big-name actor for a direct-to-video movie can ensure funding, attention and even quality for a low-budget project. On the other hand, what happens if the big-name actor shows up with his own incompatible idea of what the role is about? So it is that anyone can watch Arsenal, which is in many ways a prototypical low-budget crime movie, and wonder “What is Nicolas Cage doing in here?” Turning up with a seventies moustache and an eighties interpretation of a small-town mobster, Cage chows scenery and seems to exist in an entirely different film. Every scene with him creates more questions than answers, endangering the suspension of disbelief required for immersion. (There’s also a greasy performance here by John Cusack that adds almost nothing to the film, to the point where we’re left wondering what he’s doing there.) It really doesn’t help that the film’s execution seems at odds with its script: director Steven C. Miller relishes exploding sprays of blood far too much to do justice to the quiet nature of the story, and every shootout seems as if it was optimized for 3D. The result sits squarely in the realm of direct-to-video thrillers: rather dull with flourishes by big-name actors.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) I’ll give you two good reasons for watching this film: Nicolas Cage and Cher. Never mind that it’s a romantic comedy set against the Italian-American Brooklyn community. Or that it’s from acclaimed writer John Patrick Shanley and veteran director Norman Jewison. Or the unpredictable, gentle nature of the plot. The focus here is on Nicolas Cage’s energetic performance, and Cher’s terrific portrait of a woman contemplating middle age with doubts. Cher looks spectacular here, but so does Cage, and Olympia Dukakis has a strong supporting role. I’m not sure there’s a lot of substance in Moonstruck, but there’s a lot of sympathy and gentle humour—the way the film climaxes, with an unusually reasonable discussion around a dinner table, is the most unusual flourish on an improbable film. But it works, and it’s charming enough even a generation later.
(On DVD, February 2017) At its most basic level, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans shouldn’t be much more than a crooked-cop thriller. You know the drill: bad cop uses gun, authority, aggression to get drugs, sex and money. We’ve seen this film before. But there’s a few things that make this Bad Lieutenant stand apart. First up would be using post-Katrina New Orleans as a backdrop, with signs of catastrophe still corrupting the scenery. Second would be giving the film to veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog, and allowing him to run wild with shots of wildlife, oneiric sequences and just whatever passes his fancy. Capable actors in supporting roles also help; Eva Mendes hits strong dramatic notes as the protagonist’s girlfriend, while Jennifer Coolidge gets a striking dramatic turn. Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Fairuza Balk and Michael Shannon also all show up in minor roles. But Bad Lieutenant’s main asset remains Nicolas Cage, turning in a scenery-crunching performance as the unhinged titular cop, combining his dramatic chops with the grandiose operatic acting style he’s come famous for. Under Herzog’s direction and working from a decent script, Cage’s madness is harnessed to the needs of the film and seems even more remarkable as a result. (Witness the “His soul’s still dancing” sequence.) This is the kind of Cage performance that fans talk about when they celebrate his standing as an actor. I held off on seeing this film partially given my unfamiliarity about the original Bad Lieutenant, but it turns out that this is more a remake than a sequel, and it certainly stands alone. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans is a good example of how an actor with an oversize screen persona and a fearless director can elevate average material.
(On DVD, January 2017) I wasn’t expecting much from a medieval fantasy film starring almost-VOD-era Nicolas Cage, but it turns out that Season of the Witch, while formulaic and unambitious, does have a few redeeming moments. The generous-enough budget allows for a convincing recreation of plague-era Eastern Europe, while Cage and Ron Perlman each have the chance to shine as the main actors. (Cage even gets one of his patented overly dramatic speeches ranting against God itself.) Otherwise, well, the first half-hour is promising enough to create disappointment when it becomes obvious that the small group assembled in the first act is really there to be picked-off one by one in the following journey. We can gauge how close we are to the conclusion with counting the remaining characters, and the film’s two big third-act twists will be greeted as obvious by anyone paying even the slightest attention. It’s a fantasy film and generic one at that, but it’s not completely worthless. I don’t expect to remember much of Season of the Witch in a few weeks, but I haven’t wasted my time watching it. (Although, granted, I was washing dishes at the time.)
(On TV, October 2016) I’m not a big fan of David Lynch’s film, and even my tepid linking for Wild at Heart shows why. In some ways one of the tamest, most accessible films in Lynch’s oeuvre, Wild at Heart often feels like a wild melodrama pushed to eleven, with graphic sex and violence far exceeding anything that could be considered reasonable. Nicolas Cage is in classic exuberant form as a small-time criminal eloping with his love and gradually being drawn back into a life of violence. Meanwhile, Laura Dern shows more of herself than ever before (repeatedly) as a young woman escaping from the clutches of her mother via a road trip with no clear end goal. Sex and crime figure heavily in the result, cranking the exploitation factor of the film but not exactly helping it being taken seriously. Wild at Heart now feels like a low-octane Natural Born Killers at time, like a softcore thriller at others. It is rarely boring, though but even though I feel as if the R-rated material should help raise my opinion of the film, Lynch’s gleefully obtuse direction doesn’t help. Wild at Heart is far tamer than some of his more outrageous film—still, I can’t help that providing just a bit more guidance to viewers would not be such a bad thing. And that, in a nutshell, is pretty much my reaction to Lynch’s oeuvre: would it kill him to be just a bit more understandable?
(On Cable TV, August 2016) While Nicolas Cage’s stature as a dramatic actor has fallen tremendously in the past few years, it’s useful to go back to Leaving Las Vegas to remind ourselves of how good he could be when provided with a good script, an attentive director and enough opportunities to show what he could do. Here, he plays a washed-up screenwriter whose alcohol problems have led to divorce, ostracism and, in the film’s first few minutes, a self-imposed exile to Las Vegas where he intends to drink himself to death. This, as the film quickly points out, is not a matter of hours but weeks. There’s one complication in his plan: the appearance of Elizabeth Shue as an escort who finds common ground with him. Their relationship evolves into a spectacularly dysfunctional mess of co-dependency, twisted affection, impossible rules and headlong rush to self-destruction. The ending is not uplifting, but it’s entirely appropriate. Writer/director Mike Figgis (working from a novel) shoots the film using low-grain super-16 stock, lending a muddy quality to the images that works in the film’s unpolished favour. Leaving Las Vegas, given its downbeat nature and harsh scenes of humiliation and pain, is not an easy movie to love—but it’s easy to respect and it plays well even twenty years later, especially as a reminder of Nicolas Cage at the height of his dramatic capabilities. Given his propensity to take up roles in direct-to-video thrillers and the disappearance of adult thrillers from the Hollywood landscape, I don’t think we’ll ever see anything quite like this from him ever again.
(In French, on Cable TV, July 2016) As an entry in Martin Scorsese’s filmography, Bringing Out the Dead is often forgotten alongside his classic movies. Which is weird, considering that it’s a drama featuring Nicolas Cage as a paramedic at the height of the New York City crime epidemic of the early nineties. Directed with some of Scorsese’s flamboyance, it portrays NYC nights as barely repressed war zones in which paramedics are helpless to help their dying charges. Crime, drugs, heart attacks and accidents kill scores of victims, while Cage’s character goes crazy knowing that he hasn’t saved anyone in ages. As a Cage performance, it’s a rare blend between his Oscar-winning dramatic intensity and his borderline-insane grandiosity. The overall nightmarish atmosphere of the film seems just as unhinged as its lead actor, with the film taking place nearly entirely at night, in-between a hospital where everybody’s is shouting and bleeding, and the streets where the only people they meet are doing badly. Cage’s paramedic colleagues (the pretty good trio of John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore) are even more screwed up than he is and what’s more, he can’t quit even when he asks. Stripped of its showy hallucinatory sequences (including a flipping ambulance that should have been held in reserve for later during the film) Bringing Out the Dead isn’t much more than the story of a protagonist undergoing a nervous breakdown and picking himself up thanks to romance and a few ironic epiphanies. Set to Scorsese’s own rhythm, it’s a bit more than that, even though the pacing of the story severely slows down at times. It’s worth noting that the film was written by Paul Schrader, and fits squarely in the rest of his filmography as well. Scorsese’s affection for his city is obvious even when he’s portraying it as its lowest (and who doesn’t have a soft spot for the hellish NYC of the 1970s?), and it’s that kind of pairing (alongside Scorsese/Cage and Cage-the-actor/Cage-the-scenery-chomper) that makes Bringing Out the Dead interesting to watch even fifteen years later, perhaps as a time capsule yet unseen by many.
(Video on Demand, May 2016) When Nicolas Cage started showing up in direct-to-video movies a few years ago, it felt odd but fun, as he was usually able to raise the level of a production just by showing up. But as he keeps working to (rumours say) pay off his tax debts, the charm of his regular appearances in non-theatrical movies is starting to wear thin. The Trust isn’t completely empty of fun, but it’s one more in an increasingly generic series of bland thriller that happens to feature an actor named Nicolas Cage without taking full advantage of his grandiose Caginess. Taking place in the low-budget areas of Las Vegas, The Trust features Cage as a forensic investigator who gets the urge to rob an illicit safe. Enlisting a younger partner (played by Elijah Wood, suitably nebbish), he sets up the heist … until everything goes wrong. While generally well executed, The Trust makes the mistake of going dark and gritty rather than cool and exhilarating like so many other heist movies. The ending couldn’t possibly be more downbeat, but it doesn’t come as a surprise after an increasingly grimmer series of events. Cage, as mentioned, delivers what’s expected of him but doesn’t do much more than that. Some of the film’s most intriguing plot threads are left unexplored, while it spends a considerable amount of time on far more familiar material. It’s easy to see why the result went straight to video—in an increasingly competitive theatrical environment, a Cage-neutered The Trust simply doesn’t have what it takes to warrant the trip out to the multiplex … but it may have just enough to justify picking it up at home for an evening’s entertainment.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) By now, a substantial number of critics have almost given up on Nicolas Cage: Despite a quasi-legendary filmography, Cage seems to have lately retreated in a succession of dull roles in low-budget exploitation films that don’t give him any chance to stretch as an actor. (His purported problems with the IRS may have something to do with this “grab any paycheck” phase.) Where is the formerly-great Cage? Fortunately, Joe may tide a few pundits for a while, given how it’s easily Cage’s best role in years. Fully bearded and dispensing with his usual nouveau-shamanic acting tics in favor of a much more restrained approach, Cage plays an ex-con with anger issues, making a meager living in a small Texas town where he has complicated relationships with the police, an ex-wife, old enemies and recurring flings. Joe’s life changes when he meets a teenager made wise beyond his years due to his father’s abuse. Becoming an unlikely role model to the young man, Joe has to choose how deeply he should involve himself in his affairs. But Cage isn’t the only one redeeming himself with Joe: Director David Gordon Green also goes back to more respectable roots after a detour in dumb comedies. Other good performances abound: Tye Sheridan is once again remarkable, while non-actor Gary Poulter gets a great role as an abusive father. The result is slow-paced, meditative, almost oppressive in its low-class small-town atmosphere, but it’s respectable and poignant, definitely the kind of movies that Cage should be doing more often.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2015) From afar, the premise of The Weather Man seems like the most generic drama possible: A middle-aged man has an existential crisis as he applies for a new job, realizes that he will never reunite with his ex-wife, has trouble relating to his kids and faces the imminent death of his father. The list of movies and novels covering more or less the same idea seems infinite. But what about the execution? This is where The Weather Man shines, because from the first few moments, the film is a sardonic, more-interesting-than-expected take on a familiar subject: Nicolas Cage distinguishes himself as the protagonist, and this despite not overusing the over-acting tricks he’s best known for. The script is relatively witty (the repeated motif of food being thrown at the protagonist becomes funnier and funnier), Gore Verbinski’s direction is assured and the film manages (not flawlessly) to navigate a tricky path between dark comedy and straight-up drama. It works, although I suspect that as I age I’m getting more and more sympathetic to mid-life-crisis movies. Regardless, I was surprised by The Weather Man and liked it rather more than I thought I would. Chalk one up for execution over premise, and Cage’s unpredictability in the roles he picks.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) Nicolas Cage plays in a lot of movies these days, but their quality and satisfaction aren’t always guaranteed. In Tokarev, the problem is as much conceptual as one of execution: For a film designed to question the idea and the easy thrill of pure vengeance, it’s handled in a fairly pedestrian manner, with a terrible event a few minute in that never allows the viewer to relax into even the superficial entertainment of a story well-told. The protagonist repeatedly ignores warnings sent his way to abandon his path of vengeance and the conclusion is merciless in showing the futility of his misguided quest. Unfortunately, what could have been a role ripe for the kind of Cage lunacy (or rather; Nouveau Shamanic) that we’ve come to enjoy from him even in terrible films turns into a sedate and restrained performance, but one that is in no means justified by the rather mediocre fil surrounding him. (Compare to The Frozen Ground or Dying of the Light, where the restraint actually meant something in-context.) Otherwise, there really isn’t much to say about Tokarev: it unspools, feels a bit lacking, does pack an unpleasant punch of a conclusion but it’s not really the kind of film to sit back and enjoy. It seems so determined to make a point that it doesn’t seem to be concerned about making the journey worth undertaking. While Tokarev may be a good counter-point to a lot of revenge-driven films, it’s not very well-served by its development. File this one on the bottom shelf of the Cage filmography.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) I may be overthinking this film, but there’s an element in The Family Man that pushes this so-called feel-good film straight into existential horror, and I can’t shake it off. This is, in simplest terms, a film about a successful businessman revisiting his life had things gone differently. So, rather than keep haunting the expensive apartments and boardrooms of Manhattan as a single man, he is magically spirited to an alternate suburban existence, with wife and kids and a somewhat dreary job as a tire salesman. He does, as expected, learn a powerful lesson in time for the end. Except that by that time, he has befriended a number of interesting people, including his adorable daughter who understands his parallel-life predicament and is delighted when her “daddy is back” late in the story. So far so-good so-expected so-enjoyable except for the ending, in which our businessman becomes again his businessman self and goes back to his ex-girlfriend to rekindle an old romance and… we realize that the adorable daughter (and siblings) has been erased from existence. Ugh. I don’t expect most people to have this gut-shot reaction: The Family Man is, after all, built as a solidly mainstream comedy, as predictable as it is safe. I don’t think that viewers are supposed to probe all that deeply into it, or do anything but laugh at Nicolas Cage’s antics as he fumbles around with Tea Leoni. Still… for a film that’s supposed to be unobjectionable Christmas family comedy, I do have a significant objection.
(Video on Demand, February 2015) While forgettable, largely unseen film Dying of the Light does have a thing or two going for it. The first is right up there on the poster: a visibly older Nicolas Cage, graying temples and facial features highlighting his advancing age. This, after all, is a story about old people trying to come to grips with long-running trauma. If Dying of the Light had stuck to this theme, it may have been successful. Heck, had it ended ten minutes earlier, right after a meeting between two antagonists in which both measure the futility of revenge, the film would have been provocative and meditative. Instead, it keeps going, allows some out-of-place gory violence to stain the plot and ends on an intensely familiar note. Too bad, because for most of its duration, Dying of the Light is a meditative take on the modern espionage thriller, measuring the cost of the War on Terrorism and showing the toll that it takes on its combatants. The film isn’t particularly interesting as it moves through Europe and then Africa, but the film doesn’t try to be anything else but a quiet low-budget thriller. Cage, as a veteran CIA agent with a terminal illness, moves slower and with deliberation, while having two or three opportunities to indulge in his signature rants. If it hadn’t been for that dumb violent conventional ending, Dying of the Light could have been underperforming but interesting; with it, it just becomes a hum-drum spy thriller the likes of which we see too often. Veteran writer/director Paul Schraeder is on record as being disappointed in the final result (apparently completed without his input), but I’m not sure that post-production could have fixed the script’s basic issues.
(On DVD, February 2015) Dreamworks Animation has always been a bit of a hit-and-miss studio: some of their films are remarkable, while others are instantly forgettable. The Croods falls somewhere in the middle, its uneven humor bolstered by inspired moments of lunacy but dragged on by an over-eagerness to stuff sentimentalism in a film that doesn’t need it. As a premise, the idea of following a prehistoric family as their learn modernity and escape a continent crumbling into pieces isn’t too bad: the anachronisms are part of the fun, and the setting offers a lot of colorful possibilities. Nicolas Cage and Emma Stone deliver standout vocal performances, but it’s really the animation that’s worth seeing, with fantastical creatures and dynamic camera moves working to deliver something interesting. Some sequences work well, usually when the film stops worrying so much about sentiments and an overused plot structure: The Croods is best in absurdist humor and fast-paced montages. It’s when it keeps harping on its basic themes that the film slows down to a crawl and gets annoying. Still, the film does have themes and emotions, which is more than could be said of other films in the Dreamworks Animation filmography. The Croods is watchable enough, and works even better as a family film.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) This is actually the second time that the infamous 1995 novel Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins has been adapted as a movie, but what’s interesting here is that this second adaptation focuses on a fairly narrow portion of the original novel: what happens to passengers on a transatlantic flight after the Rapture whisks away the righteous, leaving the sinners to fend for themselves. Compared to the novel, Left Behind quickly dispenses with the wider end-time context to focus on the captain of the flight (a generally restrained performance by Nicolas Cage) as everyone, in the air or on the ground, loses their minds trying to figure out what happened. It turns into a surprisingly conventional airplane-thriller in time for the harsh-landing ending, leaving for a sequel any mentions of the antichrist and assorted tribulations. The result may not be entirely credible, but it’s intriguing enough to see such a religious premise being dealt with in almost pure thriller terms. Even more surprising is the portrait of believers in the film: Many of them are annoying in their righteousness and proselytizing, and once the true believers have been raptured away, those who remain are exposed as frauds or being of insufficient faith. In short; compared to everything you may have heard about the book, Left Behind isn’t quite your expected fire-breathing radical religious tract. On the other hand, Left Behind does remain part of the much-maligned Christian-movie subgenre, and no amount of “wow, that’s interesting” considerations can quite patch the actual problems of the film: It’s cheaply-made, poorly written, ridiculous in its plotting (especially as father and daughter collaborate to bring an airplane down on a highway), wastes Nicolas Cage and doesn’t compare favorably to recent examples of airplane thrillers such as Snakes on a Plane or Non-Stop. I may be fascinated because I have read the book and can see the differences, but I expect that viewers who come to this film cold may not be as interested.