(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.
(On Cable TV, April 2014) The usual trade-off when watching mediocre movies starring Nicolas Cage is that however dull the film can be, at least Cage will be there to indulge into one of his usual bout of theatrical overacting. Sadly, we get neither a good film nor a typically unhinged Cage in Seeking Justice, with results that feel far more disappointing that had it featured another lead actor. To be fair, the film offers an intriguing premise: A bookish husband is promised vengeance against the man who assaulted his wife in exchange for an unspecified favour sometime in the future. Six months later, the favour escalates all the way to murder, and our protagonist gets stuck between an eager police force and a mysterious conspiracy. So far so good: Seeking Justice is heavy on mysteries for its first half, and then just as heavy on chases in the second. But what’s missing is Cage’s usual persona: in his quest to play a different character, he seems to forget everything that makes Cage, well, Cage. In another context, it may have been forgivable (see his performance in The Frozen Ground, equally restrained as the thriller around him) but here it just feels like a waste as the rest of the film cries out for some wild acting to go along its preposterous premise. But it isn’t so, hence Seeking Justice ending up as nothing more than a middle-of-the-road thriller, the likes of which are quickly sent to the home video market these days. January Jones continues not to impress here as the protagonist’s wife –she doesn’t get asked for emotional range, and so doesn’t have to deliver. The power of wildness is more obvious with Guy Pearce, who gets to chew slightly more scenery as the shaved-head villain. (One starts to wonder if the fault isn’t to be addressed to director Roger Donaldson: was he screaming “more restraint!” on the set?) Thematically, there’s almost something interesting in the portrait of urban decay as pictured in New Orleans (Cage must feel like a honored guest given the number of films he has anchored there lately.) and four-decades-out-of-date criminal sociology. While Seeking Justice is competently-made enough to avoid most of the pitfalls of bad films, it doesn’t get to do much more than be a serviceable thriller, and that’s too bad.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) There isn’t much about The Frozen Ground’s script that’s in any way special. Based on the sordid story of Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen, this is a film that does the usual serial-killer thriller in more or less the expected fashion. Much of the execution is equally bland: Newcomer writer/director Scott Walker is entirely too fond of shaky camera tight close-ups and the result can be a bit annoying. But location and casting both manage to raise this B-grade thriller to a level that’s worth watching. Most noteworthy here is Nicolas Cage as the lead investigator: For once, he dispenses with the usual Cage histrionics in order to deliver a far more measured performance, and the result is an interesting throwback to early-era Cage, before he started playing a grander-than-life himself in every role. (Make no mistake: I love operatic “nouveau shamanic” Cage, but the occasional change of tone is nice.) It isn’t the only against-type casting coup of the film, as the repellant antagonist is played by John Cusack (far best known for smart good-guy roles) while Vanessa Hudgens, moving farther away from her earliest squeaky-clean roles, plays the vulnerable victim who is the key to breaking the antagonist’s secrets. The Frozen Ground’s other big asset is location: by setting itself in cold dreary Alaska, the film gains a distinctive visual atmosphere, and seems to crank up the tension of the events a notch further. The most satisfying scenes come late in the movie, as a subdued Cage and a wily Cusack face off against each other in an interrogation room. None of those strengths make The Frozen Ground any better than a run-of-the-mill thriller, but they help make the film more memorable than another cursory effort at the serial-killer sub-genre.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) As the frontier between small theatrical and big direct-to-video releases keeps blurring, it’s not much a surprise to find out that decent thrillers can pass almost unnoticed in theaters before making a bigger splash in as on-demand releases. So it is that we have Stolen, a meat-and-potato thriller directed by veteran Simon West (Con Air, Tomb Raider, Expendables 2, etc) featuring the ever-unhinged Nicholas Cage popping up without much theatrical fanfare in 144 theaters across North America before arriving on home video. While Stolen isn’t a great movie, it’s handled with some screenwriting finesse, directing energy and acting skill when compared to a lot of other theatrical releases (such as the similarly-themed Taken 2). There isn’t much to the “genius bank robber is forced back into action after his daughter is kidnapped by an ex-partner” plot, but West’s direction keeps things moving, the script has unexpected moments of cleverness, the New Orleans backdrop is colorful enough (especially when you compare it to other films such as Deja Vu, 12 Rounds or even Hard Target) and the film doesn’t waste a lot of time. Sure, it’s ludicrously-plotted, with enough contrivances, coincidences and conveniences to fill a duffel bag. The dialogue isn’t stellar. The characters are barely sketched. But it’s not difficult to watch, and there’s a rough narrative drive to it all. Nicolas Cage gets a few moments of typical freaking-out, and it’s always enjoyable to see a solid actor like Danny Huston get a few moments to himself. The point being: Stolen is better than Taken 2, and as good as a few films with much wider releases. It’s an acceptable way to spend a quiet evening, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) I’m intrigued by directing team Neveldine/Taylor’s high-energy, high-risk, quasi-experimental approach to their films. At their best, they can score big laughs and deliver memorable moments. At their worst, though… it’s all juvenile nonsense and headache-inducing jump-cuts for ninety straight minutes. While Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is noticeably more entertaining that the first limp 2008 incarnation of the character, it’s still not very good –although in a different way. There’s no doubt that Neveldine/Taylor are making an action film here, and that they have tried to re-tool the Ghost character in a far more dynamic fashion. The ever-entertaining Nicolas Cage seems game to play along, mugging for the camera even when CGIed to a flaming skull. Some of the action sequences have pep to them, although they remain best described than seen. It’s very cool to imagine Ghost Rider taking control of a massive excavator or fighting an opponent on top vehicles rushing down a deserted highway. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as cool to see the flurry of disconnected images that end up presenting the final events. Neverldine/Taylor have good visual imaginations and an amusing self-awareness, but they need to learn some discipline in order to make their better moments shine. As it is, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance feels like a barely-digested blend of good and bad. The humor works from time to time, some of the Romania/Turkey scenery is nice, the action beats have potential; the decaying villains are more interesting than usual… but it doesn’t work together nearly as well as it should. For all of the competent actors assembled here (Ciarán Hinds! Christopher Lambert! Idris Elba!) and the distinctiveness of Neveldine/Taylor’s direction, we’re left with a montage reel of interesting things rather than a movie worth watching from beginning to end.
(Video-on-Demand, December 2011) Once upon a time, maybe in the mid-nineties, a thriller directed by Joel Schumacher and featuring both Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman would have been a sure-fire box-office draw. But this is late 2011 and the most noteworthy thing about Trespass is how a very limited theatrical run was followed barely two weeks later by a wide DVD release. So does the film best compare to theatrical thrillers or direct-to-video efforts? From a visual perspective, it’s clear that this is an A-list effort: Shumacher’s direction is effective, the cinematography is striking and even as the film focuses on house-bound action from dusk till dawn, the filmmakers are able to get a lot of visual energy from limited locations. Much of Trespass, in fact, feels like a theatre production as a well-off family is threatened by a small gang of home invaders. But the criminals aren’t united, and everyone has secrets to hide: by the film’s twentieth-minute mark, they’re already shouting at each other in trying to figure out what’s happening. Nearly hidden behind over-sized glasses, Cage gets a typical “Cage flip-out moment” early on by trying to negotiate with people who aren’t expecting negotiations. The intensity of the psychological drama can’t be sustained over 90- minutes: by the third act, the action diffuses itself back to B-grade movie levels by going out of the house and a few repeated plot beats while we’re waiting for the various elements previously set up to be used in rapid succession. Once the shouting is over, it’s a bit easier to see the generic nature of the plot and the plot cheats used to constrain it. Still, Trespass is a clear notch above much of what’s meant to go quickly from theatres to video –more of a comment on the changing video landscape in the age of instant home video consumption than a particular reflection on the film itself. If nothing else, it’s an average thriller made by above-average filmmakers and stars.
(On DVD, October 2011) A bizarre blend of awful ideas and hilarious execution, The Wicker Man is, remarkably enough, just as bad and funny as its reputation suggests. At times, it feels like the result of the fabled Hollywood idea-flattening process: Whatever creepy quality the premise might have held have been squashed by dumb artistic choices, glossy routine horror tropes and an increasingly unhinged script. Nicolas Cage truly stars as a policeman investigating a disappearance on an isolated island: his borderline-psychotic performance is uniquely his, and the only sustained pleasure that the film has to offer. The rest of the film is a mess of weak development, generic tropes, dumb character decisions and a drawn-out ending. (As with a bunch of by-the-number horror movies, it also fails to explain why the villains go to such extremes in their plans.) While I’m always happy to see Leelee Sobieski even in a small role, the rest of the film is dull except when it’s bad and intensely predictable throughout. Ten of the last fifteen minutes are demented enough to be enjoyable, as Cage goes around punching and kicking women (once in a bear suit –I’m not making this up), scaring kids and waving a gun like a crazy man. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the antagonists when the protagonist is so obviously unpleasant and unable to muster even the most basic sense of fitting-in. I’m not sure what writer/director Neil LaBute was thinking when he put together The Wicker Man, but the best thing about it may be the numerous YouTube videos lampooning the result. (I’m particularly fond of Best Scenes From “The Wicker Man” and The Comedy Trailer)
(In theatres, February 2011) I wish I liked this film a bit more. After all, what unholy union of escaped-from-Hell supernatural characters, muscle cars, evil cultists, William Fichtner and Nicolas Cage could fail to ignite the interest of any self-respecting geek? Yet Drive Angry feels a lot less interesting than it should: flat dialogue, familiar action scenes (Another mid-coitus shootout? Shoot’em Up did it better!), wasted actors, bland script, dull direction and unappealing cinematography all compete to undermine the potential of the film. While it’s always good to see William Fichtner on the big screen and Nicolas CageCage is always at least kind of cool to see, Fichtner isn’t given any kind of exceptional material and Cage tones down his performance a bit too much. The scripts and its associate mythology are both filled with holes and hazy rules: there’s little concision to the story, which hurts a lot given its self-professed intent to ape old-school exploitation pictures. The action scenes feel a lot more ordinary than they should (even the exploding tanker just doesn’t get the blood racing) and Drive Angry never completely clicks. The mixture of demonic characters, cult sacrifices and American muscle-cars never amounts to much more than a collection of buzzwords: A perfect example of how good B-movie are usually identified by pleased audiences, not deliberately put together by technicians.
(In theaters, July 2010) There’s a lot of generic familiarity in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but don’t despair yet: Under Jon Turteltaub’s sure-footed direction, genre-aware script and quirky performances, this fantasy film actually manages to save itself from embarrassment. Nicolas Cage fans won’t be disappointed by his portrayal of an eccentric sorcerer, while Jay Baruchel more than holds his own as a sympathetic science nerd turned magician. (Plus: Monica Bellucci, even in a too-brief role.) There is a lot of special-effects eye candy, and as many different magic tricks as the first four Harry Potter movies combined. New York locations are effectively exploited, whereas the editing finds a good pace. But never mind the technical credentials: The real charm of the film is to be found in the script, which correctly assumes that we’ve seen a lot of movies of this type: as a result, a significant portion of the required exposition is sarcastically telescoped. (The best instance of this happens during the obligatory but well-handled car chase, as Cage’s character quickly deals with his apprentice’s questions without even waiting for him to ask them.) The one sequence that really doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a too-goofy clean-up scene that pays homage to the Fantasia animated segment of the same title without bothering to rein in the CGI excesses. Both Baruchel and Cage are oddball enough that they can do justice to their respective characters and if their delivery could occasionally be improved, the net effect is a film-long smile. Baruchel, in particular, has an irresistible puppy-dog charm –especially when he comes to enjoy his magical talents. Frankly, it’s hard to resist a protagonist who charges into the final battle shouting something like “I came armed with SCIENCE!” For a film that could have been considerably dourer, there’s a refreshing competence at play in this latest Bruckheimer vehicle that is enough to make us forget about the familiarity of it all.
(In theaters, September 2008) It takes a lot of misguided skill to make a boring film about Nicolas Cage as a gifted assassin, but that’s exactly what this weakly-brewed action thriller ends up being. Cage looks asleep as a weary assassin coming to Thailand for one last series of jobs. Inexplicably, he lets down his usual safeguards, befriend a small-time hustler, romances a deaf local girl, botches his contracts and ends up hunted down by his own clients. There is one single flash of interest late in the film as he fends off killers while his date isn’t looking, but otherwise the film is one single monolith of exasperation. Hampered by cookie-cutter action scenes, trite dialog, glacial pacing and a complete lack of originality, Bangkok Dangerous fuses the worst of Asian and Western cinema to produce something that the whole world will unite to recognize as a bad film.
(On DVD, May 2008) Nicolas Cage is rarely dull even when he’s not very good, and Vampire’s Kiss is one of the first citations on the list of his oddball projects. While everything about the film suggests a supernatural connection between a man and the vampire seductress who bit him, the reality of the film is far more fascinating, portraying an unrepentant womanizer sinking deeper and deeper in madness after convincing himself he’s turning in a vampire. While it does have a number of darkly humorous moments, it’s one death too far to be a funny film. It’s not an entirely successful one either, as Cage overacts with a grossly annoying British accent in the middle of a script that’s not quite focused enough. Still, some of the scenes are showpieces (yes, this is the film in which Cage eats a live cockroach) and the unusual re-use of vampire mythology is enough to earn this film a dark little place in any horror fan’s heart. Special note much be made of the splendidly multicultural female casting in this film, from an early role for director Kasi Lemmons to Jennifer Beals (as the vampire) and Maria Conchita Alonso as Cage’s terrified office assistant. Plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle details hint at the film’s thematic ambitions, which may warrant a second viewing for viewers mystified by the entire experience. The DVD, fortunately, contains an enlightening commentary by Cage and the film’s director.
(In theaters, December 2007) It’s not high cinema, and it’s not even great genre entertainment, but National Treasure 2 manages to hit the same sweet spot than its predecessor in terms of contemporary adventure, historical lore, Nicolas Cage craziness and sarcastic quips. As this adventure trots around Washington, Paris, London and Montana, it’s hard to resist being swept up with this infectious brand of blockbuster slickness. There are a number of clunkers in the mix (Ed Harris sleepwalks through the film with a Southern accent; some of the early setup is laborious; Geek-boy isn’t as geeky, nor as amusing, as in the first film) and the action scenes don’t work as well as they should, but then there are a handful of scenes that redeem the entire thing: The “book of secrets” concept is rich in possibilities, the London car chase is fun and the series’ overall passion for history is a refreshing change of pace from the usual brand of mass-market anti-intellectualism. The biggest problem with the film is that it occasionally suggest how much better it could be with just a few tweaks: An action-minded director, a more memorable female lead and a screenwriter with more attention for coherence could have brought much more to the film. But while we’re waiting for National Treasure 3: Page 46, there’s still plenty to like here. It’s a perfect end-of-year chaser after so many self-important Oscar-bait motion pictures.
(In theaters, April 2007) Adaptations of Philip K. Dick stories are either SF classics or B-grade pap, and Next goes straight in the second category as a limp action film that never uses its premise to its fullest extent. Oh, Nicolas Cage is entertaining enough as a Las Vegas magician with a few special powers, but there’s little of note in the tedious film that surround him. The action scenes are by the numbers (all the best images are in the trailer), the special effects look substandard, and the ending takes back the entire third act. Boo! Though not quite egregiously offensive or awful, Next nonetheless leaves no lasting impression and will soon go languish in bargain bins all around the world, right next to Paycheck. Isn’t that just a waste?
(In theaters, April 2007) Let’s name names, shall we? Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, you are the one responsible for the insipid waste of time that is Ghost Rider. The failure isn’t all that surprising after the barely-better Daredevil: the only thing worth pondering is how Johnson was able to get another studio directing job after that train-wreck. Like its predecessor, Ghost Rider wastes every promising element it has, and compresses handily in a moderately interesting trailer that pretty much says everything worth knowing about the film. (The film itself is worse than anything you could imagine from the trailer.) Even the combined appeal of Nicolas Cage and the curvaceous Eva Mendes can’t rescue this turkey as it loses itself in a deeply predictable morass of clichés. The special effects are sub-standard, but it’s really the dull story that fails to engage. Save yourself the trouble: re-watch the trailer again and let this one go.