(Google Play Streaming, December 2019) Even if Nicolas Cage has proven his capacity to turn in good dramatic performances, he is a megastar because of his uncanny ability to do justice to grander-than-life characters, chewing scenery like the best of them. There’s no doubt that his tax problems have led him to a spiral of smaller, duller roles in recent years, but occasionally, he gets projects like Mandy in which he can showcase the kind of typical performances that ensure his immortality. But Mandy isn’t your typical movie: Blending a revenge story with a highly stylized cinematography in which not a single frame has not been heavily colour-corrected, it’s a quasi-unique film in today’s landscape. Nodding to the 1980s almost as much as in his previous Beyond the Black Rainbow, writer-director Panos Cosmatos concocts a genre story with quasi-supernatural elements that unleash Cage. The story has something to do with a logger taking revenge on a hippie cult after they murder his wife (Andrea Riseborough as the titular Mandy), but the point is in the purpled-hued phantasmagoric imagery, the fantasy art featured in the film and the nightmarish odyssey that the main character takes to exact his revenge. Battling leather-clad demonic bikers, crafting a battle-axe and befriending a tiger, the protagonist reaches an apex of sort during a chainsaw duel featuring a ludicrous blade measurement contest. It ends, as it should, with him bathed in blood. There’s a cross-genre sensibility found in Mandy that brands it as a cult favourite in the making—time will tell if it has staying power, but this is probably the best Cage performance and his best movie in years.
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2019) There is a surprisingly robust subgenre of romantic time-travel movies out there, and Peggy Sue Got Married qualifies for inclusion even if it arguably hovers on the edge of it-was-all-a-dream justification. Here, no time-travel machine or magic potion: Our protagonist (played adequately by Kathleen Turner) faints at her high school reunion and wakes up in 1960 to relive her senior year. Much of Peggy Sue Got Married is a mixture of now-exasperating (because overdone) boomer nostalgia, with the expected comedy of a woman reliving her life with everything she’s learned over the next twenty-five years. Technology jokes, romantic do-overs and horrifying realizations about 1960 are all included. It feels very familiar (especially so close to the much more dynamic Back to the Future), but director Francis Ford Coppola keeps it together. For modern viewers, one of the best reasons to see Peggy Sue Got Married would be the grab-bag of before-they-were-famous actors, starting with Nicolas Cage but also including Joan Allen, Jim Carrey, Sofia Coppola and Helen Hunt. It works modestly, but it does work.
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2019) Considering that Valley Girl is a quasi-anthropologic study of life and love between Los Angeles neighbourhoods playing off the eponymous stereotype popularized by Frank Zappa, I clearly made a mistake by watching it in its French-Canadian dub: No amount of repetition of “… genre…” as an accurate translation of “… like…” is as charming as the stereotypical overuse of the word as punctuation in the original Valley dialect. At least the translation is on firmer footing when it comes to presenting a different-sides-of-the-track romance between a hippie Valley girl (Deborah Foreman) and a punk rockfish boy (Nicolas Cage) from Hollywood—the vaguely disreputable Hollywood as seen from another L.A. neighbourhood. Amusingly enough, Cage is here introduced by teenage girls squealing in admiration about his body, screaming, “He’s like a god!” One thing that doesn’t get lost in translation is the time-travelling aspect of going back to 1983 and taking a look at how teenagers (approximately) lived at the time, in between malls and music joints. (And that strange thing called sushi.) The soundtrack may not be to everyone’s liking, but it is certainly evocative of a time and place. Director Martha Coolidge wasn’t looking to make a document for the ages with this low-budget romance, but that’s roughly what happened—Valley Girl wasn’t just a sizable hit at the time, but it endures as a fond memory. Next time, I’ll watch the original dub.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) I’m game to give a chance to nearly all made-in-Canada Science Fiction movies, but my patience has its limits and those were exceeded by The Humanity Bureau, as dull a dystopian film as I can recall recently. Nicolas Cage (clearly still looking to pay his tax bill) stars as a Midwestern government official who assesses people for exile to a colony where (hang on to your hats, here, this is going to get wild) nobody has ever come back. Given that you have already guessed the film’s big twist, there isn’t much more to say … except that this government agent takes pity on a woman and her child and then flee north to Canada where, in the grand tradition of American dystopias, a state of peace, order and good government awaits. (Maple syrup rules force me to point out that this isn’t as much a well-worn trope as a statement of national pride.) This dull plot is executed in bland fashion with brown-black cinematography, predictable plot twists, a darker-than-expected conclusion and bog-standard dystopian clichés. Cage is very ordinary here, looking detached and unaffected by the entire production—there’s nothing of his exuberant acting style left. Exasperating to get through, The Humanity Bureau has little to say and goes at it badly. Considering that there’s a mini-flood of Canadian SF productions out there, it’s not special in any way and would be fated to quick oblivion if it wasn’t for it qualifying as CanCon fit to be played endlessly on Canadian TV channels.
(In French, On Cable TV, December 2018) There’s a whole slew of apolitical politics-adjacent American movies out there, and Guarding Tess has one of the strangest hooks of them all—Nicolas Cage as a Secret Service agent assigned to an exasperating detail as he’s in charge of protecting a widowed First Lady living in a small town. She (played by Shirley MacLaine) often considers her security detail undistinguishable from her serving staff. You can imagine the rest, including a third-act thriller that runs at odds with the generally comic tone of the film up to that point. Of course the secret agent and former first lady will make up and learn lessons about each other—that’s not the point of the film. What Guarding Tess has in abundance is Cage playing off MacLaine, pokes at the reality of a Secret Service team assigned to what they consider to be a dead-end posting, and the minutia of such an arrangement. There’s a real genre twist thirty minutes before the end of the movie as the former first lady is kidnapped, buried underground and then Nicolas Cage has to shoot a toe off a suspect for him to confess the crime. Somehow this ended up in a comedy, but it feels a bit more natural in the movie than described like this. (After all, what would be the point of a security detail if there wasn’t a threat to their client at some point?) I still liked it, but Guarding Tess is almost the very definition of a movie that you shouldn’t watch if there’s anything more pressing to do.
(In French, On TV, November 2018) Nicholas Cage and Las Vegas make for an interesting coupling ((he’s apparently now a resident of the city), especially given how each one of the movies in which they come together are so different. Leaving Las Vegas is a depressing tragedy, Con Air is a brash action spectacular, and Honeymoon in Vegas is an offbeat romantic comedy featuring no less than a troupe of parachuting Elvises (Elvii?) at the climax. Writer/director Andrew Bergman certainly seems to have fun in setting up the film’s premise, as a couple (Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker) travels to Vegas to be married, only to run into an Indecent Proposal-like situation in which a rich man (James Caan) offers to erase the protagonist’s gambling debts in exchange for a weekend with his soon-to-be wife. (Indecent Proposal was released in 1993, although the original novel predates Honeymoon in Vegas.) There’s some plot weirdness about Parker looking like the rich man’s dead wife, but never mind the justifications: Much of the film’s fun is in seeing Cage’s character chasing his wife, only to come back in style by jumping out of an airplane with a bunch of Elvis impersonators. As they say—what goes on in Vegas … warrants a movie. The result is a frothy funny film, not particularly deep at all, but offbeat and likable enough to be worth an unpresuming look. Cage is surprisingly fun as a romantic hero, and the Honeymoon in Vegas itself offers an interesting contrast to his other Vegas movies. Still, it may work best as a chaser for Leaving Las Vegas.
(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 and the visual style of director Dominic Sena allow 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.